Title: In the Gloaming
Author: joanwilder aka RaeWhit
Team: Wartime so_teamwartime
Genres: Angst and Romance
Prompt: Draught of Living Death
Word Count: 40,200
A/N: Heartfelt gratitude to my beta and friend, jadzialove, as well as thanks to my teammates for encouragement along the way, especially meri_oddities, for the read-through, corrections and reassurance. And a special hug for all the mods—they're amazing folks, and all us Snarry shippers are fortunate to have such talented and devoted
Disclaimer: The Potter Universe is the sole property of J.K.Rowling, Bloomsbury and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros Inc. I make no money from writing fanfiction. It is my own private obsession.
Summary: Even in Wizardom, death is permanent…except when it's not.
In the Gloaming
To be trusted is a
greater compliment than to be loved.
The crescent moon of late May hung high in the sky, its scant light shrouded by wispy clouds and a low-lying mist. He made his way along the edge of the trees, then stepped out into the open only when it became absolutely necessary. It was well past midnight; he gazed up toward the castle where the students, he hoped, were tucked snug in their beds.
Striding across the last expanse of open ground, he came to a stop in front of the tomb. It was the first time he had seen it, and for a moment, he closed his eyes, reliving the memories of that night. When he opened them again, he stared down at the inscription, and was suddenly overcome with a surge of familiarity and comfort that came from being on the grounds again, Hogwarts having been his haven for so many years.
He sensed rather than heard the movement behind him, but before he could react, he heard the hoarse, "Stupefy!" He was aware of the rustling of cloaks as he fell forward toward the white stone of the monument. Unable to slow his momentum, his eyes were open as his head struck the unforgiving marble. He literally saw stars, then blackness took him.
His eyes were just beginning to focus, when he heard that same raucous voice utter, "Enervate." He could move now, but his first attempt to do so confirmed that he was bound, hand and foot, on the cot where he lay, his head and shoulders propped up by something scratchy. He could feel a warm trickle of fluid at his mouth. Blood, he surmised, given the throbbing in his temple.
Blinking several times, he focused on the figure standing at the end of the cot. He studied him for a moment, then stated simply, "Shacklebolt."
"Snape," the man said venomously. "I'm surprised. I told them you'd never be so foolish, but it appears I was wrong."
"You were wrong…." Snape licked his lips, pausing to buy himself time, trying to realign his muddled senses.
Shacklebolt made a harrumphing noise. "Returning to the scene of a crime on its anniversary. Didn't seem like something you'd do. I underestimated your ego, it seems."
"Ah. I've been found out," Snape replied dryly as he looked around at the squalor of the room. "So, it's time for the inquisitorial squad, I take it? By the way, I'm cold—may I point out you have a rather heavy cloak, and mine's been…mislaid."
The Auror eyed him suspiciously, then waved his wand as he muttered a warming spell. Leaning in over the cot, he almost snarled, "You'll be answering questions, yes. All of them, in fact."
Snape dissected the man with a piercing look, then the lines around his mouth relaxed. "I'll gladly answer, except those pertaining to one particular matter."
Shacklebolt's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You will?" he asked, his voice uncharacteristically bewildered. He seemed to think better of his tone, then commanded authoritatively, "You will!" Standing up straight, he glared down at his prisoner, his hands on his hips.
Snape pursed his lips, relishing what was to come. "I'll answer your questions, Miss Granger, although I doubt your capacity to believe, but isn't it Mr. Potter who has the questions? Why not forgo the intermediary? It would make things so much easier, don't you think?"
When the Auror's hand went to his mouth with a gasp, Snape ploughed on, "Even Polyjuice requires that you supply the proper mannerisms, silly girl. And Kingsley would've never accommodated me with a warming spell." He smiled as he watched the shock spread on his face. "Now, I'm going to close my eyes and take a nap while you inform Mr. Potter that I've agreed to answer his questions, in person."
Through his half-lowered lids, he watched as Shacklebolt took several steps backward, casting a nervous glance over his shoulder. Snape heard a low voice command, "Finite Incantatem," as a figure stepped out from the shadows of a corner of the room.
As the walls and furnishings seemed to reconfigure themselves, Harry Potter stood beside the bed, staring down at him. But Snape was looking around the room, and for the first time in the encounter felt a trace of fear. "Where are we?" he demanded, his eyes returning to rest on the man beside the bed.
Potter laughed without mirth. "I’m asking the questions, remember? I don't think you're in a position to demand anything," he commented. Snape heard something new in his voice, and decided it was confidence, perhaps a bit bitter and unwarranted, but confidence, nonetheless.
"You brought me to Grimmauld Place? Well, then, you'd better ask your questions quickly—this may soon be out of your hands entirely," Snape warned him.
Potter laughed. "Oh, I don't think so. Everyone's off somewhere for the weekend, so we won't be disturbed." He looked sideways at the mute Shacklebolt, then said more kindly, "It's all right, Hermione. We'll still get what we wanted." He pulled a chair over to the bed and straddled it, then addressed the still-bound man once again. "You're going to sing like a bird." He held up a small phial as he grinned, not nicely.
Snape raised an eyebrow. "Veritaserum, and from my own stores, by the looks of the bottle. How resourceful of you all." He lowered his voice and skewered Potter with a dark look. "But before you begin, I have a question for you, Potter."
Potter looked surprised. "I'm asking the questions," he reminded him, bristling.
Snape shrugged. "I'm willing to answer, and without the Veritaserum, which, as you know, limits how expansive my answers will be. In other words, you risk losing valuable information if you do not know the correct questions to ask. I'm offering to eliminate this hurdle. Make your choice, but you'll answer one question for me first, and honestly. I will know if you've lied," he cautioned. He watched as Potter chewed his lower lip, then observed as something, almost imperceptibly, in the man seemed to waver.
"One question," Potter said warily, still biting his lip.
Snape intentionally let a moment pass, then strategically asked, his voice soft, "Why did you capture me?"
Potter immediately opened his mouth, but seemed to reconsider when he saw the look on Snape's face. Snape felt relief course through him, as he suddenly knew that he'd been correct. "Although I asked one question, I realize there may be more than one answer," he pointed out soberly, holding Potter's eyes.
"I wanted revenge for the headmaster's death," Potter said, almost savagely.
Snape nodded. "So I surmised; yet here I am, bound to a bed in Grimmauld Place, with nary an Auror in sight. And alive still." He paused, then added, "There's more. What are the other reasons?"
Potter swallowed visibly. "I want to know why you did it, when the headmaster swore he trusted you." Snape waited, his eyes glittering, until Potter spoke again. "I've spent the past year doing what he told me to do, and now…" His eyes slid from Snape's face to his still-bound hands.
"You've found all the Horcruxes, and have come to an impasse," Snape said neutrally.
The green eyes snapped back to his face. "You'd know I was looking for them. Dumbledore would've told you what he was up to," he accused.
"The truth, Potter. Again, why am I here?" he insisted.
"I'm at am impasse," Potter echoed his words. "I need information."
Snape waited, determined not to prod him further.
"Why didn't you kill me, Snape? You had a chance, but all you said was that I wouldn't be casting any Unforgivables. Why did you say that? What did you mean?"
The waiting continued, as Snape held his tongue. A staring match ensued, which Snape won when Potter finally blurted, "How can I kill Voldemort? I don't even know where to begin." With the words out, Potter looked away quickly, studying his white-knuckled hands on the top of the chair.
Time to strike the bargain, Snape thought. "You're asking for my help?" he queried softly.
"No! I mean…" Potter shook his head. "I'm asking for information, that's all. I don't need your help!"
"Oh, but I think you do, Potter. What else could've reduced to you such a foolish caper? To apprehend a Death Eater with the aid of two seventh-years?"
Potter lifted his eyes defiantly. "Wasn't so foolish, was it, Snape? You're the one who's lying here, wandless."
For the first time in the whole affair, Snape smiled, obviously not a welcome sight, given the look of distress on Potter's face. "Do you actually believe that I'd sink to something as foolish as revisiting the scene of my crime, as Mr. Shacklebolt," he snidely emphasized the name, "so aptly put it?" He watched the dismay grow on Potter's face, then delivered the final blow. "I allowed myself to be captured, Potter, because I'm ready and willing to offer my assistance," he said stiffly.
Potter barked out a laugh. "Oh, right. You're mental, you know."
Snape didn't give him any time to regroup. "Perhaps, but you've admitted that this is precisely why you snared me, something I've suspected you would try to do, and why else would you so easily have me here? Ask yourself that question, and answer honestly."
"Harry," 'Shacklebolt' warned from the foot of the bed, to which Potter raised an impatient hand, as he still stared at Snape, then seemed to take a minute to think.
"How would this work, if I were to consider it?" Potter challenged, then was quick to add, "Not saying I am, but hypothetically speaking. How could you help?"
Snape tried not to let the relief show in his voice. "First, release me. You've my wand, and I give you my word not to do anything wandless." He ignored the muttering from the figure at the end of the bed. "The rest of it can only be discussed between you and me. Granger and Weasley are out from this point on." The muttering had morphed to protestation, but Snape barreled on, "And we must relocate to a more secure location. No doubt you will have reservations about trusting me to this extent."
Harry laughed out loud. "Yeah, you've got that right—I'm not going anywhere with you. Why would you even think I'd be so stupid?"
"You have the Veritaserum, so use it. Ask me anything you like, regarding my trustworthiness so far as your safety is concerned. However," he warned, steel in his voice, "you must give me your word that you'll restrict your questions to this matter, and ask no other extraneous ones, especially those you might be tempted to ask to satisfy your curiosity over the headmaster and my 'arrangements.'" He summoned his most severe and forbidding demeanor. "That is my offer, take it or leave it, but give me your word, Potter."
He held Potter's eyes, unflinching, then watched as the man stood and led the counterfeit Auror from the room. His head fell back on the pillow as exhaustion swept through him, mingled with a cautious optimism for the first time in a year. He'd taken a terrible risk, had made his case, and now all he could do was wait for the verdict of two wizards and a witch, all three of them still green behind the ears.
Hearing the creak of the door, he opened his eyes and watched as Potter, Weasley and 'Shacklebolt' filed in silently. The Boy Who Lived retook his seat at the head of the bed.
"All right, we've agreed," he said, then shot a glance at his cohorts, "sort of. We'll use the Veritaserum." He stared at Snape for a moment, his eyes narrowed. "I can't believe I'm doing this, but at this point…" Snape heard the misery and desperation in his voice as he said to himself, "I really don't have any other choice."
"Give me your word, Potter."
This earned Snape a roll of Potter's eyes. "You have my word—only questions about your intentions, so far as I'm concerned." With a last glance at his friends, Potter unstoppered the bottle, then grimaced when Snape willingly opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. Snape noticed that the hand shook slightly.
He felt the burn of the drops, and pulled his tongue in quickly, not trusting the trembling Potter to stop at the prescribed dose. A wave of serenity spread through him, but he had the presence of mind to hope that Potter's integrity had survived his year of being left to his own devices. His distraction was abruptly ended by the words spoken close to his face.
"Did you allow yourself to be captured?"
"Yes," he answered thickly.
"I knew you needed help."
Potter looked stunned. "How could you know that?"
Irritated that Potter was deviating from the agreed upon script, Snape growled, "Potter," but then had no choice but to answer. "I've been monitoring your progress for months," he unwillingly confessed, then ground out, "Keep your word, Potter!"
The man's mouth hung open for a moment, then he shook his head, and muttered, "All right. You're willing to help me now?"
"You want to help me figure out the rest of it, then? How I'm to kill Voldemort?"
"You don't have any plans or tricks up your sleeve, to turn me over to him?"
"You're not truly a Death Eater, and you've been working to defeat him." Potter seemed to realize that this wasn't a question, so hastily added, "Is that true?"
Potter looked at his two friends and shrugged. 'Shacklebolt' stepped forward to murmur something in his friend's ear.
"Do you have any intentions at all to harm me? Is it really necessary that I go with you?"
"Yes, and yes, and I'll remind you to ask one question at a time, Potter." He glared at the man.
Looking slightly defiant, Potter asked, "Will I be held at this place against my will?"
"And nothing will be done to me against my will." Potter was learning. "Will it?"
"Will I be able to communicate with Ron and Hermione?"
"I don't know. Perhaps at some point. Secrecy will be of paramount importance."
"Where is this place?" 'Shacklebolt' blurted out, unable to contain himself.
"Potter," Snape growled, "it's Unplottable and protected by a Fidelius Charm, and if you continue, I swear that—"
Potter waved his hand in dismissal. "No, I'm finished." He stood and conducted a whispered conference with his friends, then turned to face the bed again. "Evanesco," he murmured, and Snape felt the bonds holding him melt away. He sat up awkwardly, massaging his sore wrists, then brought a hand up to his temple, wincing slightly as he fingered the blood-encrusted lump there.
He looked up to see the three staring at him, somewhat fearfully. Making a noise of disgust, Snape waved them toward the door. "Say your goodbyes, and Miss Granger, would you be so good as to pack Potter's necessities in a bag and leave them at the door? His owl as well, if she's here." He sat on the edge of the bed, casting a baleful eye on the two friends as he delivered a parting warning. "I'm warning both of you—do not speak a word of this. You will endanger both our lives if you do. I suggest you concoct a convincing cover story for Potter's absence. Miss Granger, I believe you're quite capable of coming up with something?" At her quick nod in reply, he flicked his hand toward the door once again. "Go. Mr. Potter and I have some things to discuss, but will be on our way shortly."
Snape observed as Potter walked with his friends to the door, then waited until the man was about to turn back to murmur, "Finite Incantatem."
He watched with satisfaction as Potter's eyes went wide, then feared he might faint when the color drained completely from his face. Standing, he held out a hand and guided him to a chair, then Albus Dumbledore said kindly, "Hello, Harry."
Harry heard the concerned voice call his name again, and was vaguely aware of the same voice casting an Imperturbable. He shook himself slightly, then rubbed at his eyes before looking up. The old wizard was still there, leaning down to peer at him over the top of his spectacles.
"You…you…" His voice shook as he tried to speak.
Dumbledore patted him on the shoulder compassionately. "I know. Quite a shock, and you've no doubt questions, but now isn't the—"
Harry shook the arm off his shoulder. "Questions? Questions! You're damned right I have questions! And for starters, how do I even know who you are? You could be a Death Eater for all I know," he bit out sharply. "I may be young, but I'm not stupid." He glared at the man, whose blue eyes were piercing and clear, but not twinkling, he noted.
"Ah." The man sank to the side of the bed, stroking his beard, studying Harry closely. "Well done, Harry. Well done." He squinted as he seemed to ponder, then asked, "Do you remember that little visit I paid to Privet Drive when I came to collect you for your sixth-year? The Dursleys were not very impressed with Madam Rosmerta's oak-matured mead, were they?" Harry's mouth fell slightly open, which must've been encouraging, for Dumbledore moved immediately to the next proof. "Do you remember what happened when you tried to Summon the Horcrux in the cave?"
Harry felt his world begin to tilt precariously, but the caution he'd learnt over the past year was proved by his slightly suspicious question, "What did you tell me happened to your hand?"
Dumbledore's expression saddened, but he smiled as he replied, "Alas, I never got around to telling you that story, Harry."
Harry's face crumpled, then he sat forward, his face in his hands. "How could you? How could you?" He sobbed unreservedly, vaguely aware that Dumbledore had moved to his side once again. He felt a hand smoothing his hair, and the headmaster's comforting, familiar voice.
"I know, Harry, I know. But the time for stories is almost at hand. Just a little while longer."
Some minutes passed, Harry becoming quieter as the headmaster waiting patiently, until Harry looked up at him blearily, then matter-of-factly accepted the handkerchief that Dumbledore held out to him. "So, I'm going with you, then? Well, at least you're not Snape," he said irritably as he stood to his feet. He trudged to the door, opened it a crack, then after a cautious look into the hallway, pulled in his pack and Hedwig in her cage.
As he held out his arm, the headmaster gave him an appraising look, then said serenely, "Oh, Professor Snape is waiting for us."
Harry let out a loud sigh. "Of course he is. Just perfect."
They'd Apparated into what appeared to be a wilderness. The same moon hung above them, slightly relocated, but the sky here was star-studded and cloudless. Harry looked around him and saw only blackness, except for the lighting in the three-story structure in the garden in front of them.
"Where are we?" he asked as Dumbledore motioned him through the gate.
"The northern Highlands, Harry, about as far from London as one can be, and still be in the British Isles." He shut the gate behind them, then took Harry's arm and steered him up the path. "Nothing like the salt sea air and the smell of the moors to rejuvenate a soul," he confided, pulling a still slightly dazed Harry along as he walked.
Just at the doorstop, the headmaster turned to him and, although they were alone, he lowered his voice. "Harry, a word before we go in." Harry stopped short and looked up at his face. "You have every right to be angry… with me. Professor Snape was acting on my instructions, and although the two of you have always been at odds, now is the time to set your feelings aside and listen to the facts of what's occurred, and why. It's been a difficult year for both of you, I think you'll find. So, promise me that you'll listen to what we have to say before drawing any conclusions. That is all I ask."
Harry scrutinized the wizened old face in the moonlight, then shrugged. "All right, I'll listen."
Patting him on the arm, Dumbledore said approvingly, "Good."
Despite his disorientation, Harry registered the interior of the dwelling: high-vaulted ceiling, walls adorned with paintings, and a banistered loft that encircled the room from above. Two empty chairs were pulled up to a dying fire, a book lying face down on the cushion of one of them.
"Through here." Dumbledore's voice startled him. Harry followed down a short corridor into a kitchen, where he took a deep breath at just the sight of Snape sitting at a small wooden table. Three cups and a teapot stood ready, and Harry felt a surge of irritation; it was obvious they'd been confident of the evening's outcome.
"Well, well, Severus, here we are, safe and sound, and none the worse for wear." Dumbledore gingerly traced the wound at his temple.
Snape snorted. "You're fortunate that's all they did. I'd have thought I might've warranted more mistreatment."
"We didn't do that," Harry objected. "He fell when we stunned him." He glared at Snape. "And besides, you have no idea…no idea…" He fumbled with the words as he finally noticed Snape's physical state. He looks…terrible. "You…what have you…you don’t…."
Snape shot back at him, "What, Potter? Choking on your apology?" He held Harry's eye as he waved lazily at the teapot to start the pouring.
Harry was still flummoxed by Snape's appearance. Not any thinner, he supposed, but his cheeks were sunken in, accentuating the sharpness of his facial features; a scar, still red and angry, angled from behind an ear to just under his nose; but it was the dullness of his eyes that struck Harry most of all. It's been a difficult year for both of you, the headmaster had just told him. Then the meaning of Snape's words hit him full force.
"What? Apologize for what?" he demanded hotly.
"The final words out of your mouth, if you'll recall that last conversation," Snape told him just as intensely, his hand clenched on his cup.
Harry's mind raced. What did I say…what did I say…? "I told you to kill me," he said as he remembered how helpless he'd felt when he'd said it.
"You called me a coward!" Snape snapped at him.
"I…I …" Harry could hear his voice screaming it from across the months. But wait! Given what he'd known, he'd had every right to—
"Gentlemen." The edge in the headmaster's voice made the two of them look away from each other and focus their attention on the old man. He'd outstretched a hand to both of them, but his face was anything but grandfatherly.
"Severus, Harry's had a bit of a shock, as we discussed earlier. Perhaps we can postpone discussion of this misunderstanding?" Somehow, Harry knew this wasn't a suggestion, but a command.
"As for you, Harry, Severus has endured false accusation and exile willingly, not to mention Voldemort's displeasure. Your perception of his character will require some realignment, perhaps?" Again, no hint of mere suggestion in his voice.
There was a brief staring match between the chastised parties, and Harry was just about to acquiesce, when he remembered…who had just gently rebuked them both.
"Wait one damn minute!" he growled, pulling his arm out of Dumbledore's reach. "How could you? How could both of you? You let me believe you were dead! And you! I saw you kill him! How the fuck did you expect me to react?!"
The headmaster's hand shot out and pinned Harry's wrist to the table. Harry gasped as he realized that the hand was whole, since the last time he'd seen it… "Professor, your hand…it's…" He trailed off in wonder, then remembered that the man had promised him answers. He looked up from the hand, his eyes full of question.
Dumbledore did not release his hand, but squeezed it gently. "As I told you an hour ago, the time has come for you to hear the facts. Well, most of them." He released Harry's hand and flexed his fingers, admiring them as he wiggled them one by one. "A magical prosthesis, my boy. It serves its purpose—I can manage very well with it, but alas, there is no sensation." Harry stared at the fake hand, but for the life of him could not see any difference between it and the other.
"That's great, Professor, " Harry murmured, thinking to himself that this was at least a start. But there sure as hell better be more.
"The burning question, I believe, is my death, or should I say the fact that I'm alive." He glanced at Snape, then turned slightly in his chair. "If you think about it, Harry, I've no doubt you'll realize what a stroke of genius it was. Oh, we wouldn't have done it had there been any other way, I assure you. There are many details that I'll pass over for now. For instance, there was an Unbreakable Vow that Severus made."
"To protect Malfoy," Harry interjected, his bitterness apparent.
Snape's eyebrows lifted slightly. "You knew?" he asked, incredulous. "How could you know?" Harry felt a thrill, that he'd been able to put that expression on Snape's face.
"Severus." The headmaster stopped him with an upraised hand. "There'll be time enough for that later. For now, this is for Harry's instruction. Now, where was I? Ah yes, the benefits of my apparent death." He stopped and flicked a hand, then continued as the teapot made the rounds of their cups. "As you might've guessed, I was not well, given the considerable injury of my hand, a curse scar, in fact. Something of which we made certain Voldemort was well aware, the fact that I was ailing. While Severus was searching for a cure, you and I were moving along on our little journey through Tom Riddle's past, as I hoped to prepare you in the likelihood that you'd have to continue the quest on your own. A fortuitous decision, as it turned out."
He gave Snape a thoughtful look, then continued, "Severus and I both anticipated a scenario such as occurred on the Tower. That it happened on the very night you and I paid a visit to the cave was pure serendipity. From the time I saw the Dark Mark over the school, I knew how it would end. I suspected that young Mister Malfoy would fail in his quest, and I only needed to gently nudge Severus to follow through on what we'd discussed on numerous occasions. It was difficult for him, Harry."
"It didn't look like it," Harry muttered, almost shuddering as he remembered that night on the Tower.
"Oh, but it was—he knew he wasn't killing me, but he knew what his life was about to become," he disagreed. "It sealed his oath of fealty to Voldemort, in addition to sowing false seeds of security, with the belief that I am dead. Incidentally, it prevented Mister Malfoy from becoming a murderer."
"But I saw him, sir, the Killing Curse…and then when Hagrid and I found you…you were dead." Harry shook his head, staring at the evidence to the contrary sitting beside him.
"Yes, you heard the words, but it's not what he cast, Harry. Just a spell to send me over the parapet, then once at the bottom, I took the final step in our plan." He lowered his chin and looked at Harry from over the top of his spectacles.
"Draught of Living Death—enhanced and fortified by the best potions master Hogwarts has ever seen," Dumbledore said as he beamed at Snape.
Harry was incredulous. "Draught of Living Death? But the Ministry would've been able to detect it—surely they would've been able to tell," he protested feebly, his mind struggling to process the possibility.
The old man shook his head. "Not this formulation of it, and there was no need, as you witnessed the Unforgivable," he said gently, then added, "And Hagrid, I've always told everyone that I'd trust him with my life."
"Hagrid knew?" Harry asked, disbelieving, for some reason feeling even more betrayed.
Snape finally spoke, impatiently. "No, of course he didn't. But Albus told him long ago about his wishes for interment."
Dumbledore nodded. "And he followed them to perfection. He never left my body unattended, and had the Ministry tried to interfere, they'd have had a fight on their hands. But predictably, that was not necessary."
Harry looked wildly from one to the other, both of whom were almost gleeful in their account of the whole affair. "But you were entombed," he said numbly, thinking back over how he'd felt that day…that month…how everyone still felt, in fact.
"Only until midnight of the day after the funeral," Dumbledore told him. "Then Severus and Fawkes paid me a visit." He waved a hand wearily. "You'll hear all the details of it, I promise, but for tonight, I think you've had rather a bit much to take in?"
"Everyone mourned for you," Harry said softly, then shook his head. "When this is all over, they'll be so happy to have you back." He could just picture their faces.
"Another conversation for another time, Harry," the old man replied, somewhat sadly. "But for now, it's long past my bedtime, and yours. In the morning, I'll want to hear all about the Horcruxes. Then it will be time to begin."
"Begin?" Harry asked, for some reason suspecting the answer he didn't want to contemplate…just yet.
The headmaster nodded sagely. "You and Severus have work to do. Now, off to bed with you."
Harry lay in a room of the loft, just on the verge of sleep, exhausted by the adrenalin rush and shock of the past several hours. It boggled his mind, that he was tucked into a bed with Dumbledore and Snape still talking in the room beneath him. As he began to drift off, he felt strangely conflicted. He should've still been outraged, but the sound of the voices below, and knowing to whom they belonged, had him feeling safe and secure for the first time…in a year. It's so much to take in…so much still to know…so many more questions...and I was wrong…so…wrong.
"Harry," Dumbledore admonished gently, "you posed these very questions last night, when you thought I was Professor Snape. I'm simply asking you to repeat them for his benefit."
"That was different, that was before I knew…." He gestured between Dumbledore and Snape. "…what you'd done."
"Ah." The headmaster sat back, stoking his chin thoughtfully. "So, what you now know has changed what you need?"
Harry sighed in exasperation. "No! No, that's not what I mean—you know it isn't," he accused. When neither man spoke, Harry became uncomfortable under their scrutiny. "All right. I need help. What do I do now? How do I even begin to think about what's next? We've spent the past year figuring out the Horcruxes, and now, even though I've been thinking about this all along, I don't know what to do. Just waiting for him to find me didn't seem like a good idea. So…."
I need all the help I can get…but oh god, from Snape? It seemed reasonable when the three of us thought this through…but now…sitting here across from him….
He paused, took a deep breath, and finally gave in. "I need help with the next part. What is it that I'm supposed to do? What's this power I have, because I haven't a clue. And when and how—I don't even know where to start. That's why I thought if we got Snape, he could answer some of those…." He felt the heat in his face as he finished. .
Snape's eyes dissected him. "You need my help," he said, his voice surprisingly free of the things that Harry expected to hear.
Harry held his eyes. "That was the plan, but now with the headmaster alive, I don't think I do," he said quietly.
He watched as the black eyes narrowed, then heard Dumbledore say, "Oh, believe me, Harry, you do. Severus and I have worked long and hard to arrive at a plan, and given that it is the two of you who will execute it, it only makes sense for him to be the one to assist you…train you, if you will."
"The two of us?" Harry asked suspiciously. "I thought the prophecy said that I'm the one."
The old man shook his head. "The prophecy only indicated that you have the power; it revealed nothing of how, or even with whom, you might wield it. Remember, you could choose to turn away altogether, but alas, I'm afraid that Voldemort will make certain that your paths cross."
Harry was still considering Snape's silence, then said to the headmaster, without looking at him, "The two of us how?"
The answer was immediate. "Power wedded to ability. Not that you are without ability, my boy, but I fear that we could never train you in time to stand on your own. No, you will need Severus' help, I'm convinced. Time is pressing, which you no doubt understand, as you were seeking Severus out."
"I've felt time pressing for the past year," Harry said slowly, his brain uncertain of how to react in the face of this information. "All I've done is work."
"You were not the only one," Snape finally spoke up, irritation in his tone.
"Really?" Harry shot back at him.
"I've continued my role as a Death Eater, Potter. Not an easy one, given circumstances of which you are so blissfully ignorant."
Harry swallowed hard, suddenly aware once again of the man's physical appearance and the scar that transected his face. He dropped his eyes, then looked up, relieved, at the headmaster's voice.
"Harry, what of the Horcruxes? I assume Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger assisted you?"
"Yeah, they did. Took us a year, but we found all four," he told him.
Dumbledore beamed. "Well done! The locket and the cup?" he asked eagerly.
Harry nodded. "As well as the Ravenclaw brooch that the Gray Lady had. The last one was the hardest. It took us almost six months to track it down. It was Hermione, really. Turned out it was a rosary, a relic that belonged to St. Godric. Found it at Finchale Priory in Durham, under a sacrarium. I knew it was there the minute I saw that—it reminded me of the stone basin in the cave—you remember, Professor?"
"Hmm, yes, how could I forget?" he murmured, then brightened. "I’m impressed that the three of you managed to destroy them on your own." He held up his prosthetic hand. "A testimony to my own difficulty."
Harry's eyes widened, then he started guiltily. "Er, we didn't. I mean…we didn't destroy them. That's part of what I needed help with," he explained, casting a pointed glance at the headmaster's new hand.
Dumbledore leant back with a knowing look, but Snape sat straight up in his chair as he slammed his cup down so forcefully that tea sloshed up over the edges.
"Potter," he growled. "Am I to understand that—"
The headmaster held up a hand. "Where are they, Harry?" he asked with a worried frown.
"They're safe! Give me some credit here. We had no idea how to even begin to—" He stopped at the thunderous look on Snape's face. "They're safe. I made sure of that," he finished defiantly.
"Harry, they can never be safe," Dumbledore cautioned.
"What have you done with them?" Snape asked in disgust.
When Harry hesitated, the headmaster gently reminded him, "We're on the same side here, Harry."
Letting out a pent-up breath, Harry said, "They're at Privet Drive. Hidden under the floor of my bedroom."
Snape stood and leant back against the sink. "Oh joy. Four pieces of the Dark Lord's soul lie exposed and unprotected amongst a gaggle of Muggles."
Harry gave him a murderous look. "Oh yeah? So where would you've put them, huh? I knew better than to try something I didn't have a clue about." He turned to the headmaster. "It made sense to me. I went on foot, and the only magic I ever used was to open the lock. It's my aunt's sewing room now, and they're hidden in the floor under a rug. And I've only been there the four times to put them there." He watched apprehensively as the old man considered this, then was startled by Snape's comment.
"Hmm, not the worst place they could be, Albus. Since Potter's come of age, the Dark Lord is aware that he no longer resides with his relatives. He'd have little reason to meddle with them."
Harry's mouth dropped open at this approbation from such an unlikely source.
Dumbledore nodded slowly. "Perhaps. But they'll have to be retrieved immediately. When are the Dursleys usually away, Harry?"
Harry shrugged. "I go on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons. Dudley doesn't live there anymore, and Aunt Petunia's garden club meets then. It's worked out well so far."
"Good. You'll go today, then. Severus will go along as well, I think."
Harry was about to object, then thought better of it. Instead he asked, "So…this training, when will it start?"
The headmaster gave him a smile. "It already has. You've just passed the night, asleep in an upstairs room, with the man you'd only hours before considered your sworn enemy sleeping just around the corner. Trust, Harry. That's the first lesson you must learn."
"Trust?" Harry asked uncertainly, eyeing the man still standing against the sink with his arms crossed in front of him. How can I ever trust you? You're a miserable berk who's made it your mission to make me just as miserable.
Dumbledore observed the fragile standoff, then prodded Harry gently, "Whom do you trust, Harry?"
Harry opened his mouth to answer, then closed it abruptly. He looked from the headmaster, to Snape, and then back again. He shook his head.
Dumbledore made a small sound of agreement. "Neither of us, I'm afraid, and for good reason, to your credit. What of your friends?" he asked.
Harry thought for a moment, then confessed, "I suppose I trust Ron and Hermione…for some things. But not everything…like what I'm going to have to do. I don't want to see them get hurt."
"Just as I thought. You trust no one, Harry, but that must change now. You will have to learn to trust Severus. Not an easy task, but I've every confidence that you'll succeed."
Considering them both warily, Harry asked, "What about him?" He gestured towards Snape. "He doesn't trust me either," he scoffed, challenge in his eyes.
Snape studied him for a moment, then said with surprising neutrality, "On the contrary, Potter. I trust you more than you know. My mistrust of you was founded on the belief that you are incompetent. With what you've accomplished in the past year, I must admit that you've shown yourself to be quite the opposite." When Harry struggled for a suitable reply, Snape finished, "Your mistrust of me, however, is based on the assumption that I am evil—a bit more difficult to overcome. I'd say that the learning of trust will be largely a lesson of your own, if you're up to it."
Harry stared at him, his heart pounding as he thought about what the man had just said. It was true; up until the night before, he'd thought Snape the epitome of evil. Even now, knowing the truth, his experience of the man still left a bitter taste in his mouth. But…he looked at the two of them, watching him expectantly.
"All right. I can try," he told them both. "But I'm not convinced there's enough time for this." He looked uncomfortably at his feet. "Sounds like something that might take a while." I can't imagine what would ever make me trust you.
"We have time," Dumbledore assured him as he stood. "Severus will explain things as you go along. There is a plan, Harry, and I'm asking you to trust me just for this, as you once did. I have every confidence in the both of you." With a pat to Severus' shoulder, the headmaster turned and left the room.
"So, what do I do now?" Harry asked, satisfied that he was the first to lay down the gauntlet.
Snape turned to go, but said over his shoulder, "Dishes."
Harry and Snape stood just outside the door of the Highlands hideaway. The old man hadn't been exaggerating—they were in the middle of nowhere. Not another soul or building in sight, as far as the eye could see. Harry turned to Snape.
"Look, I usually Apparate to the Leaky Cauldron, then take busses. It'll take us about an—"
"Not this time. We'll Apparate directly into the house. In and out. It will be your final excursion there, in any case." Before Harry could say another word, Snape sighed heavily and said, "Oh for pity's sake, Potter. You do know how to Side-Along someone. Give me your arm."
When Harry held out his forearm tentatively, Snape took hold and pulled him closer. "Concentrate—I've no desire to be splinched." When Harry hesitated, Snape almost hissed at him, "Now!"
They Apparated to just inside the Dursleys' front door. Harry held up a hand to signal Snape for silence; they stood there, unmoving, for at least a minute, until Harry said softly, "All right. Coast is clear." Without another word, he treaded stealthily up the stairs, and could sense but not hear Snape, following close behind him.
When they reached the doorway to his former room, Harry thought to himself that he was glad that his uncle had removed the exterior locks…not something he'd like to explain…. "Give me a hand with the rug," he instructed, and waited while Snape positioned himself on the other end, then the two of them rolled it back from the wall, until Harry sat back on his heels, saying, "That's it."
He pulled a small folding knife from his pocket, then worked it delicately into the slit between two indistinguishable floor boards, until one of them lifted slightly. He used his fingers to pry it the rest of the way, then heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of the plain brown sack crammed into the hollow of the floor. Pulling it out carefully, he undid the string at the top, peered down in at its contents, then retied it before looking up. Snape stood waiting, glancing from Harry to the door and back again. Harry realized that the man was on high alert, despite the fact that the house was empty. For some inexplicable reason, Harry felt suddenly grateful that Snape had come along.
When they'd replaced the rug, Harry shrugged, shifting the sack in his arm. "Let's go, then."
Snape, who'd been visually inspecting the room, swiveled his gaze back to Harry's face. Looking towards the bedroom door, he glanced back at Harry, then pursed his lips. "What time is your aunt due back?" he asked.
Harry frowned. "About half-past four. Why?"
Snape took a step towards the door as he said, "That's almost two hours. Come. I'd like to have a look around."
"Look around? Here? Why?" he asked, perplexed. But Snape was already on the stairs, so Harry had no choice but to follow.
He stood and watched from the hall as Snape examined the sitting room—picking up photos, fingering the drapes, bending down to inspect the telly. When he saw him go around the corner into the dining room, Harry sighed in resignation, and took the corridor to meet him in the kitchen. He'd just rounded the bend in the room, and almost ploughed straight into the man, who only raised an eyebrow.
"It's rather small for four people, isn't it?" Snape asked as his eyes traveled over the kitchen. When he stepped to look out the window at the back garden, Harry decided to answer. Anything to get us out of here.
"It was fine. Four bedrooms for four people is actually rather roomy," he replied, thinking of the Weasley Burrow.
Snape turned back to stare at him, then took his time to run a hand along the countertop; without commenting he stepped around Harry into the hall. When Harry saw where he stopped, however, he felt a growing dread in his heart, which was validated when Snape said sotto voce, without turning to look at him, "Very roomy, considering one of those four spent his nights in a cupboard." Now he did turn to look at Harry, a question in his eyes.
Harry didn't know how he knew, but he wasn't about to have Snape feeling sorry for him, as ludicrous a possibility as it was. "The room we were in upstairs was my bedroom," he countered, alarmed by the look of impatience on Snape's face.
"Ah. The one where the padlocks have been removed from the door? That room?" Snape asked, leaning against the wall opposite the cupboard under the stairs.
Harry felt the blood drain from his face. How…? Strengthening his resolve to act maturely, Harry shoved his hands in his pockets and slouched against the wall. "All right. So you know. So why're you even bringing it up? I survived, I'm over it, no one's business but my own." Especially yours, he held himself back from saying.
"But it is my business now," Snape surprised him by saying. "Here beginneth the lesson, Potter, so pay attention. Albus has told me everything. Do you understand? Everything. Because," he said slowly, stepping away from the wall to stand directly in front of Harry, only an arm's length away, "with knowledge comes understanding. And if I'm ever to succeed in teaching you to trust me, I must first understand you."
Harry pondered this for a moment, then conceded, "All right, then. But he should've asked me first." He found he had to look away from the intensity of the other man's eyes. I've never seen him look at me like this before. "I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me," he muttered.
"Potter, have you ever known me to have a sympathetic bone in my body?" Snape asked him.
Sliding his eyes back to look at him, Harry shook his head, wordless, mystified by the lack of rancor in the man's voice.
The black eyes seemed satisfied. "Well then, there'll be no pity from me, you can count on it."
Harry wondered then if the issue of trust would really be a two-way street. "Your childhood wasn't any bed of roses either, from what I've heard," he risked. He was rewarded by a spark in those eyes, then a small twitch at the side of a lip.
Harry gave him the slightest of begrudging smiles then. "No, sir, not a trace of it."
Snape scrutinized him for a moment, then took a step closer, so close that Harry could feel the breath of the man as he said, "Hold on tight."
By the beginning of the second week, Harry had become resigned to the fact that the timetable of future events was beyond his influence. At first he'd chafed at the quotidian activities…sharing the cooking tasks with a mostly taciturn Snape, reading alone in the loft study, lengthy afternoon discussions with the headmaster, and a game of chess with him in the evenings. Snape was there every day, but Harry noticed that he often was not there at breakfast in the mornings. Not that I really want to know where he is…or what he's up to.
He was mildly surprised, then, to find Snape in the kitchen the next morning, dishing scrambles onto three plates, listening to an animated Dumbledore.
Sliding into a chair, Harry slipped a, "Good morning, Professor," into a break in the conversation, then when they both paused to look at him, he looked from one to the other, swallowed, then amended, "Both of you, I mean."
Dumbledore only smiled, while Snape gave him a curt nod, then said, "We begin today, Potter."
After breakfast, and a direction from Snape to "wear old clothing," the two of them set off around to the back of the house, and headed in the direction of a lower-lying copse of trees. Snape explained as they walked.
"I've been entrusted with the care of Albus' extended family. It's a daily chore, one I'm quite willing to share with you—many hands make light work," he commented dryly as they cleared the tree and the outbuilding came into view
Harry slowed as he asked, "What is that? It looks like…" He frowned as he came to a halt.
Snape turned back to look at him, then waved him forward. "A stable. That's precisely what it is."
Mystified, Harry followed as he murmured, "The headmaster has horses?"
Snape nodded as the reached the exterior Dutch door. "Two—he's always had a passion for them, and now has no reason to deny himself. So…" He stood to the side and jerked his head for Harry to enter. "Merry and Pippin." He watched as Harry walked down the center aisle, stopping at the far end where the stalls were occupied.
"They're beautiful," Harry breathed as he moved from one stall to another. "A dapple mare and a bay gelding—they look like they're in terrific shape." He looked down the aisle to where Snape still stood, watching him. "Who rides them?"
Snape paced his way down the aisle, then came to a stop and stuck a hand over the top of the stall to rub the muzzle of the dapple, who responded by pushing her head against the slats. "Mostly myself. Albus does, from time to time." He stood in silence for a moment, and Harry watched the incongruous sight, Snape so obviously fond of an animal.
Pulling his hand away, Snape turned to him. "You seem to know something about horses—you're correct, a dapple and a bay."
Harry stuck a hand tentatively through the slats to stroke the cheek of the gelding. "Nah, I don't really. I've done some sketches of horses—they're such great subjects to draw, but I've never really been around any." He glanced at Snape. "So, how're they part of the training?"
Snape tossed him a broad flat shovel. "Physical conditioning, for starters. The stalls must be mucked out daily, the horses fed and watered, and at least every other day, they require exercising."
"I don't know how to ride," Harry admitted, a little sorrowfully, following Snape into the mare's stall. "But I've always wanted to learn."
Gesturing for Harry to begin in the opposite corner, Snape informed him as they began to work, "So you shall."
Harry felt a thrill of anticipation, an emotion he'd not felt in a long while, and for now, set off happily to work, momentarily forgetting who worked alongside him. It felt good, in fact, to tax the muscles of his arms and back, stressing himself to the point that he actually broke into a sweat. His preoccupation of the past year had been primarily cerebral, and he was soon appreciating his need for 'physical conditioning'.
After they'd finished cleaning the stalls, Snape led the horses into the aisle and tethered them to the wall rings. Tossing Harry a curry comb, he instructed tersely, "Watch and learn."
Harry observed closely as Snape brushed the dapple from cheek to shoulder, then withers to thigh. Taking up his own comb, he started in on the gelding, using long, sure strokes just as Snape had, murmuring calming words to the animal as he brushed. It was a soothing activity, running his free hand along the coarse hair, feeling the heat and smelling the scent of the horse as he worked.
He glanced up and caught Snape watching. "Am I doing it right?"
Snape nodded. "You've got it down. Talking to the horse…very good, Potter."
Wow, this has to be the first time he's ever told me I've done something right. Keeping his eye trained on the bay, Harry said what had been on his mind for days. "I'm relieved we're starting. I was getting a bit antsy, waiting…"
The sharpness in Snape's voice made him look up. "We were waiting for you, Potter. Not a criticism, you understand? I've had months to prepare, whereas you've had only days. Albus told me this morning you were ready to begin."
Harry hung the comb on the hook, then turned back to Snape as he wiped his hands on the front of his jeans. "I take it he tells you everything he and I talk about?" Snape didn't answer immediately; instead, he motioned with his head for Harry to un-tether the bay and lead him back to his stall. He was standing in the aisle, waiting, when Harry returned. Once again, Harry was struck anew by the change in the man.
Dressed in black, as usual, sans robes, the simple jumper seemed sizes too big; Harry noticed for the first time that his hair, still a dull blue-black, was showing just the first traces of silver threaded through it. The angry red of the scar had disappeared, but the line still marred the symmetry of his features; the eyes, however, seemed to have regained some of the spark that Harry remembered from his school years—a remembrance that made him shudder in spite of himself.
"He has told you everything we've talked about, then," Harry repeated flatly, feeling slightly betrayed.
Snape scrutinized him thoughtfully for a moment, then looked around them. He sat on a crate along the wall of the aisle and motioned Harry to the one across from him. "Sit."
Harry obeyed, suddenly uncomfortable, not knowing what to do with his hands. Snagging a piece of straw from the floor, he studiously began shredding it, until Snape's voice made him look up.
"No, I doubt he tells me everything. Only those things that concern the two of us." He watched as Harry digested this, then added more softly, "And I'm well aware of what he's told you about me. So…I imagine we're even on that account."
Harry dropped the straw and clasped his hands around one knee, as he stared at the man across from him. "I don't know that he's told me everything either, but he told me enough…. I've had a week to think about it as well. So…" What the headmaster's told me about him…it's true—knowing the truth about someone else's life can change how you see them. "It's made me think…that maybe not having any parents is better than having bad ones…."
Snape stiffened as he sat up straighter, his face remaining emotionless. "I wouldn't say they were bad ones, just not…good ones." He glanced to the side and flicked a piece of chaff from his sleeve, then looked back. "I loved my mother, and my father…well, let's just leave it that he was not a happy man."
Harry snorted. "That's no excuse."
Inclining his head slightly, Snape conceded, "Perhaps not. But he was a man who had hopes and dreams for his life, which ended in profound disappointment. He had his good moments, however." He shook his head, then continued, "As I've grown older, my bitterness over his treatment of my mother and me has been tempered by my own experience. I'm no stranger to the behavior of…being disappointed with one's life and choices, and making those around me…miserable because of it."
"With knowledge comes understanding," Harry ventured.
Snape nodded and looked away, then seemed mildly surprised at Harry's next question.
"Just so…I understand, Professor. What was your disappointment?" he asked, suddenly unafraid. "I'd really like to know. I can guess…but I'd like to hear it from you."
Snape looked uncertain for a moment, then his expression cleared at the same time as it hardened. "Consider your life, Mr. Potter. In spite of the considerable threat on your horizon, you've not compromised your integrity. You're almost eighteen, are you not?" When Harry nodded, Snape gave a grim smile. "By your age, I'd sold my soul to the devil, and within months of doing so, I regretted it." He stood wearily to his feet, then gestured to Harry to follow, so that Harry could not see his face as he finished, "And it's all been disappointment since then."
Later that afternoon, they sat in the loft study, a small wooden table between them. Snape began by placing his wand to one side, then said, "Yours as well, Potter." After Harry'd followed suit and placed his beside it, Snape nodded and explained, "It's a gesture of good faith between the two of us. Wands will not be needed, in any case, in what we're about to do."
When Harry gave him a nod in reply, Snape continued, "I'm wondering how much progress you've made since our last attempts at…you clearing your mind?"
Harry was tempted to groan, but suppressed it. "You mean this is going to be like Occlumency?"
"Regrettably for you, parts of it will be. But," he cautioned, "the purpose will be entirely different. You will need to be able to clear your mind completely, but instead of trying to block my intrusion into it, you must learn to willingly allow me in."
"Why?" was the instant word on Harry's lips. But before he could ask more, Snape held up a hand, his face disapproving.
"Do you recall what the headmaster said, that this will require the two of us working together?" He seemed to realize that his tone had been harsh, for he softened it slightly. "If I were to stand you in the midst of a desert, and tell you that you must walk a thousand miles, you might be daunted by that task, would you not?"
Harry answered warily, "I might."
Snape gave him an almost sneer. "Good, you're confident. But if I were to stand you in place and direct you to a visible point on the horizon each morning, and tell you that you only had to reach it by nightfall, I daresay the task would seem far easier." He stared at Harry for a long moment, then added, "The goal is not to hide the destination from you, but to forestall discouragement. Something that is a distinct possibility here, Potter, were I to lay it all out in detail at this moment, as you have not developed the requisite skills, nor do you trust me. Believe me, as soon as you're ready, you will know the truth of it. Something in which," he said dryly, "the headmaster is in complete agreement. So, if you cannot trust me at this point, can you find it in yourself to suspend judgment until you do? It sounds arse-backward, I know, but this is critical, Potter. Can you do it?" he asked, almost urgently. "One day at time, until you are ready?"
Harry hid his surprise at the tone of Snape's voice, but he gazed at his face and took in the weariness of the eyes, and the careworn lines around his mouth.
He's been an enemy for so long…but now…now… He so changed, and the things I've learned about him from the headmaster…and look at how differently he talks to me…and treats me. All of it, it's telling me to give him a chance. Besides, we're on the same side now….
"All right. One day at a time, for now," Harry agreed. "Where do we start?"
Something flashed in Snape's eyes, something that Harry couldn't identify, but then he sat back and crossed his arms. "Close your eyes and clear your mind."
Harry did as he was told, but murmured, "I've practiced this since then, you know. I can do this." It was true, he had got better at this; he wasn't too certain about his ability to keep it up with Snape trying to intrude, though.
"Good," Snape told him. "Now, when you've cleared your mind, I want you to choose a color—and fill your mind with it. Take a moment and think before you choose. It should be something you find pleasant and calming, and can easily summon to mind."
Harry rolled his head on his shoulders as he made an effort to relax; this was easy. After a minute, he said softly, "I've got it."
Snape said nothing for a moment, then warned him, "You're going to feel me just at the edge of your mind. Remember, this is not Occlumency, so no throwing up of a shield to keep me out. You'll feel just a slight sensation, because I'm only interested in seeing what you've chosen. Are you ready?" he asked, his voice dream-like to Harry.
"Hum, yeah, go ahead." For a moment, Harry felt nothing, then saw a small rippling in the color. "Okay, that's you, isn't it?"
Harry heard the sharp intake of Snape's breath, then his voice, seeming surprised, asked him, "Green, Potter? And such a brilliant one…textured, almost alive…. Might I ask your inspiration? Because this seems to be more than just a color…."
Harry smiled as he sensed another ripple. "A meadow…an endless meadow…. I can just imagine what it'd feel like to lie down and fall asleep in it, can't you?" He heard Snape make a commiserative noise, then watched as the rippling of the meadow ceased and the green was completely undisturbed once again. "You're gone, I can feel it."
"Open your eyes now." When Harry slowly did just that, he found Snape staring at him, a slightly bemused expression on his face. "You've been using this for some time, haven't you? It was almost effortless on your part," he stated, almost reluctantly.
Harry shrugged. "I've had time on my hands this past year, and it always seemed like a good idea, even though I didn't do it…when you tried to teach me. Something I regret…" he said, then lowered his eyes. "Maybe things would've turned out different if I had."
"Perhaps, perhaps not, who can say? But that's water long under the bridge," Snape told him frankly, then added after a slight hesitation, "Perhaps, had I been more patient…" He didn't finish, but only shook his head. "No matter. Suffice it to say we'll be able to move more quickly, as you've already mastered something I thought would take us days. A pleasant surprise."
"What will we do next? I mean, I understand about the journey of a thousand miles thing…but emptying my mind, why?"
Snape gave him a measuring look. "To fill it with something, why else?"
"Oh, of course," Harry said sarcastically, then once again found that he was unsettled by the lack of a reaction from Snape.
Taking up his wand, Snape gestured for Harry to do the same. "That's all for today. Continue to practice; we'll take it up again tomorrow, and move on to the next step."
Harry stood and slipped his wand in its slot, then was about to turn to leave, when Snape's voice stopped him.
"One more thing," Snape said.
Uh-oh, here it comes, but hmmm, what could make him seem so…well, awkward?
"Given what we're doing, Albus has suggested, and I'm in agreement, that it's at cross purposes for us to address each other as formally as we do." When Harry gave him a blank look, he said, a bit impatiently, "First names."
"Oh," Harry said as realization dawned. "That'll be…odd." He enjoyed the look of discomfiture on Snape's face, and so felt a slight thrill as he tried it out. "Severus." The discomfiture morphed to resignation, so Harry added easily, "Sounds like a snake." When Snape's mouth dropped open, Harry prodded him, "Your turn—say mine, then." Severus.
"Harry," Snape said without hesitation. "Makes me wonder if you are." When Harry stared at him dumbly for an instant, Snape smiled thinly, then waved him out of the room. "Go."
The next morning, Harry arrived in the kitchen, and greeted the men already seated at the table. "Good morning Professor Dumbledore, Severus."
Dumbledore gave him a gleeful look and slapped the table with his palm. "Ah, progress, I see!
When Harry rolled his eyes in response and looked at Snape, he found the man doing the same. Unable to stop himself, he grinned, then was surprised when Snape gave him a small smile in return. "Yeah, I guess you could call it that," Harry admitted.
This is beyond believable—in the space of weeks, my world has been turned upside down. For the first time since Dumbledore died…well, didn't die…I feel half a hope. I think maybe it's because I know I'm not on my own anymore. It was a good feeling, he decided, but where it would lead…he hadn’t a clue.
Not too many days after, Harry had grown tired of reading on his own, and, incredibly, found himself wondering where his teacher had got to. Many nights he was gone by now, but for some reason, Harry didn't think he was this time. I'm looking for him on my own…a measure of how far gone I am, I suppose, that I'd rather talk to him now than the headmaster. He found him sitting at the bottom of the garden, perched on the bench that overlooked the small lake bordered by wild cherries and birches.
The sun had just set, but the light from beyond the horizon still lit the sky. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" Harry asked, as he fell to the ground near his feet.
"Hmm, yes, it is. The gloaming is my favorite time. All the mistakes of one day gone, and the new ones yet to be written. An in between time…twilight. A clean slate," he remarked, glancing down at Harry.
Harry cocked his head. "You're usually gone by now," he observed, then asked bravely, "Where do you go?"
Severus considered him, then looked out over the lake. "I have a home of my own, although not much of one. I go there because my associates," he drawled, almost sneering the word, "expect me to be there. In fact, I have a house guest, at least part of the time. "
"Oh, I see." Harry frowned. "Death Eaters, you mean?" When Severus nodded absently, Harry asked him, "Who in particular? I mean, I guess I should've figured you'd have a place like that…."
"Peter Pettigrew, for one," Severus said matter-of-factly. At the look on Harry's face, he commented wryly, "The Dark Lord's afflicted me with the man's presence for some time. Not to worry, he's an idiot and a sycophant, easily handled."
They sat and watched as the last of the daylight fled; the new moon of July soon spilled a cooler, paler light over the landscape below. I can't imagine how he holds this all together—being up here with the headmaster and me, but having to put on that damn mask and play Death Eater too.
"Such a difference between being here and being in London," Harry said. Severus didn't comment right away, so the two of them sat in silence, until Harry ventured, "It's so peaceful here—no one around, you can almost make yourself believe…."
"Believe what?" Severus asked him when he didn't finish.
"Oh, I don't know, that none of it exists, that it's another world in another time." He squinted up at Severus, unable to see his eyes in the low light. "Did you ever think about…just staying here? Not going back? Leaving it all to sort itself out? You have to admit it's tempting." When Severus didn't speak, Harry continued, "I've thought about it, and it seems like it's what the headmaster's done."
Severus shifted so that Harry could see his face, and the emotion in his voice was unmistakable. "You're completely off the mark. He's done what he believes will serve all of wizardom best." He frowned, then said more gently, "Albus regrets every single student lost, each one that's gone astray. It's his mission to see the world set aright. Surely you know this," he chided.
"I was just thinking out loud; I didn't really think it through," Harry protested.
"You weren't that far afield. I've certainly considered it, but not in earnest," he admitted with a sardonic twist of his mouth. "I take my responsibility seriously, and I long ago committed myself to see this done, so I will." He surprised Harry by reaching out and flicking him on the cheek with a finger. "As will you. Am I wrong?"
What in god's name was that? He's never touched me before, except when absolutely necessary. "No, you're not. But it's a…tempting thing to think about." He flushed as he remembered. Yeah, I've thought about it—seriously too—for an entire night, and then I couldn't sleep because of it. "I'd never be able to live with myself. I have to do it," he said grimly, then amended, "We have to do it."
He could see Severus' eyes glittering as he replied, "We will. But dreaming about an alternate universe never hurt anyone; in fact, it's normal and healthy, as long as one doesn't linger too long." Standing, he nodded towards the house, "Back to reality?"
Harry sighed as he stood. "Yeah, nothing like reality," he groused insincerely.
Harry looked at Severus' outstretched hands, palms up on the table. "All right, I'm game." Closing his eyes, he reached out tentatively and felt for the hands with his own, then opened his eyes in surprise when Severus made a small sound of disgust.
"You're sweating. Why? I've explained exactly what we're to do."
Harry narrowed his eyes, then objected, "I'm adjusting, all right? Give me a minute here." Training is one thing, but holding hands is so…personal.
They'd spent the last month much as they had that first session: Harry clearing his mind, filling it with his 'meadow', becoming increasingly comfortable with Severus at the edges of it, prodding his consciousness, gently at first, then more boldly, until the meadow veritably rippled with the man's presence. Now, they were moving on to something altogether different: Severus actually pushing in and taking up temporary residence.
Severus began patiently again. "You'll sense me there, just as you have all along. Only this time, you must let go of the crutch. Let the meadow go. You're accustomed to my presence at the periphery, so this should not be difficult."
Harry swallowed, wiped his hands on his jeans, then closed his eyes and reached out again. "All right, I'm ready." The green of the meadow shimmered and vibrated as Severus pushed at it insistently. Then Harry felt the sensation of other as it invaded, and the green began to bleed at the edges, rapidly falling away as a memory flitted across his consciousness. Ahhhhhh, shite! No! He jerked at the hands, but they held him fast.
"No! Harry, concentrate. Let me in, and keep your mind clear." Harry was lulled by the voice, and slowly, slowly, he let the green of his mind go, adjusting to the feeling of Severus, as his presence grew almost palpably in his mind. The green was now just an oval patch of color, growing ever smaller, until, once again, the memory flashed, this time lasting longer, and uncomfortably identifiable.
"Harry, let it go. It will pass, don't…" Severus stopped suddenly as Harry wrenched his hands away.
"I…it's not something I…" Harry shook his head, then looked at Severus, who was watching him with a frown.
"What is it? It's just this one memory…." Severus raised an eyebrow in question.
"It's not something I want you to see," Harry said stiffly.
Severus leant forward. "So I guessed. Listen to me well. The more you make a focus of my not seeing it, the more likely it is that I will. Do you understand this?" He studied Harry for a moment, then offered, "I have no desire to see what is in your mind at all. It's none of my concern, you and this person. I don't care."
Harry mumbled, not looking at him, "It's personal."
"So I gathered," Severus said, his lips pursed, then sat back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "The difficulty is, if you're determined that I not see this, then you've already made a mountain out of a molehill." When Harry gave him a quizzical look, Severus rolled his eyes. "Your choice. We can spend precious days working on your ability to suppress this so I do not see it, or we can save valuable time and move on—allow me to see it, diffuse this irrational focus, and move on," he stressed again. "You have nothing to fear from me," he reassured him, "no comments, not a one. Now, which shall it be?" He sat up straight and placed his hands on the table as he waited.
"When you put it like that, what choice do I have?" Harry grumbled, stretching his hands out, but Severus batted them away, for the first time since they'd started, displaying anger in a session.
"No! Wholeheartedly or not at all," he gritted through his teeth. "You remember that trust is part of what we're building here? Not just this exercise of mind-sharing," he reminded him snidely.
Harry gaped at him, shocked, then felt the flush creeping up his neck into his face. He's right, Harry, you know he is. Think of how often you've tried to push this down, to keep it from playing over and over in your head…and all that did was make it worse. "Sorry," he said contritely. "You're right, of course." He stretched out his hands and gave Severus an imploring look. "Let's get on with it."
When he felt Severus give that telltale, gentle push, he acquiesced, and watched as the green receded to a small patch in the center of his mind's eye. He sensed the memory threatening at the edges, but this time, instead of focusing on pushing it down, he relaxed, and let it float lazily from the edges of his awareness to dead center. He sighed and felt Severus' hands grasp his more tightly.
The two of them were stretched out on the bed in Harry's flat, their bodies sweaty in the dim light. They writhed against each other, sensuously sliding, Harry pinned to the sheets as Ethan rutted into him, Harry's legs thrown atop his shoulders, Ethan's arms locked behind Harry's head as he pulled upwards with each thrust inward. There were moans and rasping breath, as they came within moments of each other, then Ethan fell to the bed, draping an arm across Harry's chest. Harry lifted the man's hand and placed a kiss on the palm of it. In reply, Ethan nuzzled his face in against Harry's neck. They lay still, and within moments, both fell into a sex-induced sleep.
Harry didn't know how long the memory had lasted, but with it played out, it was suddenly just…gone. Just as Severus had said it would be. He felt exhausted, but at the same time, strangely peaceful. And then he sensed it…a warmth spread through him at the same time as a glowing copper light filled his mind. "Severus?" he whispered.
"I'm here. Well done."
They'd finished the session, and Harry was now standing, pocketing his wand as usual. Well, this is awkward. I can't even look him in the eye. I know he said he didn't care, but how do I know for sure he won't—
"Look at me," he commanded. When Harry looked up, Severus nodded. "Nothing's changed, except I gave you my word, and you chose to believe me."
Harry shrugged, then smiled, a little sadly. "Progress."
"Harry." He was startled by the note of exasperation in Severus voice. "Progress is a good thing—you sound as if it were a death sentence instead."
Slumping back down into his chair, Harry eyed Severus warily, then decided, Oh, what the hell. "Just so you don't overreact…you have to admit you're a bit strange. There was a time…knowing something like this about me…. Not that I'm complaining now. But I've got to tell you, the first few weeks I was here I kept waiting for you to…" He stopped as he nervously chewed at his finger, eyeing Severus, then said, "…you know, a day like today, I half expect…for you to go back to how you were."
Something akin to comprehension seemed to dawn on Severus' face. "Ah. I see. You mean regress to the way I treated you before?"
Harry nodded. "I don't worry about it now so much, but I did at the beginning. You don't seem like the Snape I used to know at all. Almost like you've gone soft or something."
Severus leant forward in his chair, his eyes intense, and for just a fraction of a second, Harry feared he'd gone too far. "You recall what I said when you first arrived—how I've had a year to…think about you and me?"
"Yeah, I remember, but still…." Harry was startled when Severus reached out suddenly and pinned his wrist to the table.
"Don't believe that I've not been tempted at times. My natural bent towards the sarcastic has been sorely tried on occasion. But," he emphasized, "I knew from the beginning what you thought of me, and indeed, what you would expect from me. Had I fulfilled those expectations, our work here would've been undermined, so I've…restrained some of my natural urges." He released Harry's hand, then sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm still the same person, I assure you, and although it's true that I've treated you differently, I submit that part of the difference you detect is because your own perceptions of me have changed as well." He watched Harry, his eyes calculating.
Harry thought for a moment, frowning as he concentrated, then looked up to say, "Oh, I see what you're saying. Because I understand some things about you, I see you differently."
Severus cocked his head to the side. "Yes, that's part of it, I'm certain. Along with my longsuffering patience," he added, and this time Harry definitely caught the sarcasm.
"Right. I'm such a trying child," Harry snorted.
Giving him a slow smile, Severus pointed out, "Your words, not mine." He sobered suddenly, the smile fading. "But no longer a child."
Just before Harry's birthday, the three of them made a trip in to the local village. It was a strange outing, Harry posing as Albus' grandson, only one of several surreal facets of the trip. The headmaster seemed to know everyone, and chatted easily with the locals, with Harry and Severus in tow behind him. They perused the market for hay for the horses, and purchased sundry foodstuffs, which Severus discreetly shrunk for both of them to carry. The hay, however, had Harry stumped.
"How on earth is it delivered to someplace Unplottable and under Fidelius?" he asked as they walked through the press of people in the outdoor market.
Severus leant over to examine a spread of filberts, then straightened. "Oh, he has an arrangement for it to be delivered to a wayside box not too far from the house. The two of us go down and transport it up to the stables. He's concocted some story for why, and since they're well paid, they don't really care what he does from there."
They ate street food, Albus gallantly paying with Muggle money for spit-roasted meat and oak-cured ale. Harry and Severus were sitting on a bench in the square, waiting while the headmaster haggled over hay prices. Harry reveled in the normalcy of it, and for a moment was reminded of that conversation he and Severus had had, in the gloaming. We really are straddling two worlds. I wish…oh god how I wish that some day we won't have to do this anymore…pretend in one world while hiding from the other one.
"This feels good," Harry confided as he sipped at his ale, stretching out his long legs.
Severus cast him an amused sideways glance. "How so?"
"I like it, sitting here with no worries that someone will know who we are." We…feels odd, thinking of him and me as a 'we'.
"Ah. So you're telling me that celebrity is overrated, then?"
Harry gave him a baleful look. "It wasn't all good celebrity, you remember. It all depended on which way the wind was blowing, metaphorically speaking."
"So it did." Severus sighed, and turned to him. "We've both had our fair share of libel and slander, I seem to recall."
Harry snorted. "Yeah, that's the truth. They called me mentally unbalanced, spoiled, and spurned by the woman I loved." He let out a laugh.
"And I," Snape took up the thread, "am a double-spy who hoodwinked the Order." He stopped, then said, "Well that part may be true, but I'm also a cold-blooded murderer, who will no doubt bypass the trial process and be kissed on sight by a dementor."
Harry sobered suddenly as he listened. "That's not funny, you know; it's exactly what could happen."
Severus shook his head and laughed softly, an unconvincing sound. "True, but considering what might happen if the other side finds me out, it'd be a mercy, believe me." He stood and waved Harry onward, as the headmaster was making his way toward them, a bright smile on his face.
It's not funny at all. He's really in danger, and could be caught at any time. I hope he's careful…I don't want anything to happen to him. Wait…when did I start to think of him this way…worrying over what he does when he's away? Ah, shite. Well, he just better be the best little Death Eater he knows how to be…because if something were to happen to him, I'd…I'd…I'd what? Oh, come off of it, you know exactly what. .
It was natural now, sitting forward in his chair, to slide his dry hands into the firm and strong ones of his teacher. They'd progressed, under Severus' tutelage, to Harry imaging an object in his mind: it was green, like his meadow, but took the shape of a sphere, and it represented Harry's embodiment of his magic. Represented, being the key word, Harry thought, not for the first time wondering where this all was leading, but he'd long ago decided to accept Severus' assurances that there was some point to what they were doing.
Today, they moved on to something they'd not done before, when Severus directed, "I'm entering your mind again." Harry watched as the copper glow flooded into the space, pulsing as it bathed his consciousness. As usual, he had a familiar feeling of warmth again.
"Why does it feel warm?" he asked, curious.
There was silence for a moment, then Severus' voice, strangely different, asked, "You experience warmth when I enter?"
Harry nodded. "Yeah, I do, but it's not new. I feel it every time."
"Good. Very good. It's as it should be. Now, I want you to picture yourself, standing in front of the sphere, wand out."
Harry screwed up his face in concentration. "Okay, got it."
"Now, this is not just a visual exercise, Harry. It will begin as one, but it's something you're actually going to do. Do you understand?"
"All right, I think," he said doubtfully.
"You're going to raise your wand and point it at the sphere." He waited, then when Harry was poised as he'd directed, he said, "Now cast a spell. It doesn't matter which—try something innocuous, like a 'Lumos'."
Harry was about to open his mouth, when Severus corrected, "No, not out loud; remember, this is an interior exercise. Completely non-verbal."
Harry, in his mind, opened his mouth and cast the spell, "Lumos." Severus held onto his hands when Harry's body jerked backward, as a streak of light issued from his wand and made contact with the sphere, which seemed to pull the thread of magic into itself.
"Good," Severus murmured. "Now, choose something stronger, and be certain to pull back just a bit at the end—don't break the thread, Harry." Harry tried again, choosing to cast a "Riddikulus." The corresponding light burned a little brighter, and this time Harry hesitated slightly at the end of it, keeping the thread from his wand intact.
They repeated this several more times, each time Harry using a spell of increasing difficulty and magical magnitude. I don't know why, but I'm starting to feel really tired. I'm just sitting here, so I can't imagine why, but I guess I should tell him.
"Listen well. What you've done is place a portion of your magical core within your sphere. It's not gone anywhere, Harry, as it remains inside of yourself. Do you understand?" Harry nodded in reply, then gasped at the next sensation.
"What was that?" he managed to stammer. What in the world? I'm hot… buzzed, and it's an incredible feeling.
"Me, touching the sphere," Severus informed him.
Harry was puzzled. "You've touched it before and it never felt like this," he said trying to pinpoint what was familiar about the sensation.
"Yes, I have, but only when the sphere was empty. It now contains a portion of your magical core, so, in a sense, I'm touching you. A very personal and usually unavailable part of yourself, except to you." There was a long pause, as Severus pushed again. Harry felt the heat streak through him, from the top of head to the tips of his toes.
"Oh." he gasped. Personal's a bit mild, don't you think?
"Don't resist," Severus cautioned, then asked softly with curiosity, "How does it feel?"
Harry knew he had to tell him exactly how it felt. "Uh, I'm not certain, because it's in my head, but it's…well…it's arousing…you know, arousing…sexually," he finished, embarrassed.
"Not surprising, that. As I said, it's a very personal part of you to share…to allow to be touched." Harry was about reply with a sarcastic rejoinder, when Severus began to speak. "Now, a simple spell to bring it back. Concentrate. The incantation is, 'Retirates.' Think the thread backwards, and enunciate the incantation clearly."
"Retirates," Harry said obediently in his mind, and his inner vision of himself was almost knocked off his feet by the pulse of light from the sphere, backward through his wand. He held on for dear life, until the thread became pale and wisp-like, then vanished completely. Whoa, what a rush! All of the sudden, bam! It's like a super jolt of caffeine.
"Very good, for a first attempt," Severus said, as Harry watched the copper glow fade from his mind, leaving only his softly pulsing sphere at the center of it. "Shut it down now, then when you're ready, open your eyes."
Harry relaxed and bid the sphere to vanish, and when he felt the darkness gathering, he slowly opened his eyes. Severus sat watching him, as he usually was. Harry was just about to open his mouth with a question, when he felt it: the unmistakable throbbing of a sizeable erection. Glancing down, he felt his cheeks flood in embarrassment.
"Oh god, it wasn't just in my mind, was it?" he asked, chagrined as tried to let go of Severus' hands so he could rearrange himself, but Severus was having none of it.
"It's a natural reaction. We're both men—we understand that what's in the mind can dictate reflexive reactions to the body. There's no shame in that." He released Harry's hands, then when Harry stood, Severus seemed to school his features to impassivity. "Ah, I see. You may go—it seems you have something that requires attention." Harry gave him a withering look, but was gratified to see nary a trace of a smirk.
Grabbing his wand from the table, Harry fled to his room.
I don't know which is worse—that he saw it or that he knows what I'm about to do. Ah hell, like he said, we're both men…and it wasn't anything personal. But still…me and Severus and an erection. He let out a snicker as he closed the door to his room. There's a first time for everything, I 'spose. Can it get any weirder than this? Hmm, I should know better by now, than to ask such a question.
Dumbledore made a gesture of appeal with his hands. "I don't see how any harm can come of it, Severus. Harry's correct; his friends will be wondering. It's been more than two months, after all."
Harry watched Severus over the top of his cup, then breathed out a soundless sigh of relief when the man gave him a curt nod. "All right. I'll send it from Spinner's End."
"Great. I'll have it for you tonight," Harry told him gratefully.
"Make certain to tell them not to reply," Severus told him as he stood and pushed in his chair. "When you're finished, I'll be in the loft."
For some inexplicable reason, Harry felt the heat flame in his face. Oh god, what is this? Just the thought of sitting across from him and taking his hands…. He ducked his head and stared at his plate, then looked up to find the headmaster studying him.
"Anything you'd like to talk about, my boy?"
Harry shook his head, "No, just cabin fever, I guess." And having to toss off every time Severus touches me…well, not me, per se, but my sphere.
"Ah, I see." Dumbledore's expression brightened as he added, "You'll be pleased to know that Voldemort now possesses only a single soul." He nodded at the look on Harry's face. "Yes, the Horcruxes have been destroyed. Even an old man such as I can learn from his mistakes."
They'd been at it a week, when Harry's notion that he could keep his 'natural' reactions in check through sheer effort came to a shattering end.
The session started like all the others, wands to the side, Harry reaching across the table to take hold of Severus' hands. This time, though, as he felt the slide of the sure grip taking hold of him, the unthinkable happened. Just the touch and the warmth of his skin, and Harry felt the arousal begin inside him. He jerked back as if he'd been burned, so forcefully that his chair rocked on its legs.
Wide-eyed, Severus stared at him. "What?"
Harry was mortified. "I…we're not even…and I…." He leant forward, elbows on the tabletop, and buried his face in his hands. Oh god, I can't control it. What will he think? When he looked up, Severus was still staring at him, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"You're aroused," he simply stated.
Harry nodded miserably. "Why? Just touching you…. I can't do this."
Severus sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. "Yes you can. Remember what I told you about making a focus of something unimportant?" When Harry shrugged, he pursed his lips and said, "Well? That memory? What's become of it?"
"Nothing," Harry replied unconvincingly. Nothing that I know of…but I don't really know what's become of it, so far as you're concerned.
"But what does this mean? I can't control it, it just happens! It's…it's wrong."
Severus shook his head. "It doesn't mean anything. Touch is a powerful sense that connects your body and your mind, and your body is anticipating what your mind is about to experience, that's all." At the look on Harry's face, he amended, "Perhaps 'anticipating' is a poor choice of words. We must do with this as we did with that memory of yours—acknowledge it and move on."
Harry gave him disgusted look. "Move on, huh? Just ignore it? Easy for you to say," he muttered under his breath. "You're not the one who has to slink off to your room to 'take care of it'."
"If it were Albus in my place, you'd be having the same difficulty. It has nothing to do with me. Is that what concerns you?"
The look of disgust changed to disbelief. "You're serious. It doesn't bother you at all?"
"Why should it? It's a non-specific reaction," Severus confirmed. "Acknowledging doesn't necessarily mean you can ignore it, however. I'm aware that it creates a problem afterward, but as for it meaning anything personal… No, Harry."
Harry chewed at his lower lip as he considered Severus' inscrutable face, then came to a decision. He's serious. Nothing personal, so if it doesn't bother him, why should I let it get to me—I can't control it, after all. "Great, so I just…let it happen, don't worry about it. And toss off afterward," he added sarcastically, his voice tinged with relief.
Severus smiled for the first time. "You've figured that part out, I'm sure."
Sighing exaggeratedly, Harry pulled his chair in, laid his hands out on the table, then gave Severus a look full of challenge. "All right. More progress, I suppose."
This time when he slid his hands into Severus', there was no pulling back. Bring on the boner; I can handle it. Ha…handle it…Harry, concentrate!
Harry found that Severus had been right—acknowledging his predicament allowed him to dispense with the preoccupation and move on. The very real occasion of arousal presented itself, day after day, with every single session, but didn't impede progress, as Severus had predicted, now that Harry had accepted what would happen each time.
With every day that passed, Harry poured more and more of his magical self into the visualized sphere, accustoming himself at the same time to Severus' probing and prodding of it with his own mind. What had at first been a begrudging permission to 'touch' him in this way, had now become a comfortable familiarity. The arousal continued, of course, but Harry had come to accept this reaction as something beyond his control.
He did wonder, however, about the other times…times that he knew were well within in ability to his control. It was almost as if he couldn't help himself; he watched Severus when the man was unaware of his scrutiny.
Look how the lines in his face relax when he curries Pippin….
I'll wager he doesn't realize it, but he strokes the side of his jaw with his thumb, over and over, when he's reading….
I can tell how tired he must be; he slumps his shoulders just a bit, not that anyone who didn't know him would notice….
See what he does when he tries not to laugh or smile, but he really wants to—he crinkles the skin around his eyes….
Harry thought it understandable, though, that what he most watched and noticed were Severus' hands. After all, I touch this part of him every day. He considered them now…one of them drumming out a rhythm on the tabletop in a perfect cadence, the other poised just above a pawn, the index finger and thumb suspended, motionless, as Severus hesitated over his decision.
The digits came together, pincer-like, and plucked the pawn from the board. Harry watched, fascinated, as the long, slender, perfectly formed fingers flicked the chess piece to the side, then moved an opposing piece to the square. I know what those hands feel like…the warmth of them…the strength of them…the comfort of them….
"Harry…" The voice broke into his thoughts. "Sometime tonight, it's your move, unless you're sufficiently cowed that you'd like to forfeit?"
Not looking up, Harry murmured, "Nice try."
But that night, for the very first time, and not the last, Harry dreamt of Severus' hands. Hmmm, what a dream, he thought, when he awakened and was stretching. Strange that I'd dream of him…Severus. But hey, there're only hands, after all….
"You seriously think I'm ready?" Harry asked doubtfully.
"I do. I wouldn't allow it if I didn't think you were," Severus affirmed.
Harry relaxed, enjoying the feel of the warm body beneath him. "All right. What do I do?"
Severus, seated on the bay, pulled abreast of Harry's dapple. "Cantering, unlike learning to post, is just something you do. You'll see. Concentrate on the motion of the horse and merge into it—grip with your knees, lean forward a bit more, and let Merry teach you the rest. It's a rocking rhythm, not a full gallop, mind you," he warned. "And keep a loose hold on the reins, otherwise she'll think you're signaling her to stop."
Adjusting the straps in his hands, Harry nodded. "Grip with my knees, lean forward, rocking, loose hold." He glanced at Severus and grinned. "Got it."
Giving him a measuring look, Severus' lips twitched slightly. "Follow me, then. She'll break into a canter when Pippin does. Far side of the lake," he directed, as he gave a nudge with his thigh and a cluck of his tongue.
Before they'd cleared the small foraging area, both horses had broken out into a trot, then, after a coaxing from Severus, Pippin broke stride and pulled ahead. Harry felt the horse beneath him stretch her legs out, then felt the shift to the three-beat gait of the canter as she picked up speed. For a moment he struggled to hold his seat, then, remembering Severus' instructions, he leant forward, closed his eyes, and concentrated on the rhythm of the mare; Severus is right—it does feel like a rocking horse. He rolled his shoulders forward and allowed the gentle motion of the dapple to slide him back, then forward, then back again. Harry opened his eyes, amazed at how easy it had been. It was a much more natural gait than trotting, he found, and it seemed to him that the horse found it so as well.
Throwing his head back, Harry laughed out loud, savoring the feel of the breeze blowing through his hair, the smooth locomotion of his body against the one beneath him, a fluid syncopation that he found exhilarating. He was barely aware of Severus in front of him, enjoying this sensation of being one with the horse, until it was suddenly all too soon over. Pulling up on the reins, he brought Merry to a stop beside the duo waiting for them at the head of a stream that emptied into the lake.
They let the horses wander, bridle-less, to drink from the small brook, while Harry and Severus sat on the grass at the edge of the water. Harry had rolled up his trousers to soak his feet, but Severus had shaken his head, and now sat cross-legged beside him.
"So, that was the exercise, huh?" Harry asked, jerking his head in the direction of the horses.
"No, that was because you were ready, as I said. Wait a little while," Severus said quietly as he reached forward to snag a piece of wild grass.
They sat comfortably for a few moments. Okay, I've been wanting to ask him about this, so now's as good a time as any.
Intentionally not looking at him, Harry asked, "What happened to Malfoy?" When there was a lengthy pause, he did look then. Severus was gazing out over the lake, still wrapping the length of grass around his finger. He finally angled his head to meet Harry's eyes. Instead of the rebuff he'd half-expected, Harry was surprised by the reply.
"Strange that you would ask this now," Severus commented. "He's been on my mind all week, in fact."
Malfoy's been on your mind? Why? Harry felt a pulse of irrational…what is this? he wondered, then ignored it to go on. "Do you know where he is?"
Severus gave him a wry smile. "He's got what he was after—service to the Dark Lord, although he's had cause to regret that decision." He nodded as Harry's eyes widened. "One does not incur the Dark Lord's displeasure without consequence. His memory is long and sadistic." He paused then dropped the blade of grass to turn to Harry. "Draco spends most of his time with him, in fact. The remainder he spends with me."
"With you—why?" Harry asked, perplexed. "You're not there, half the time."
"Oh, Pettigrew manages to keep him occupied," Severus said dryly. "Being at Spinner's End is a relief, I'd imagine, since the Dark Lord is still enraged by Narcissa's disappearance."
"His mother is gone?" Harry gasped. "She left him there, after all she did to make sure he'd be protected? Where?"
Severus shrugged. "To the Continent, I suppose." He narrowed his eyes as he studied Harry. "I'd not be too concerned for his welfare. I believe he'll eventually have his chance to leave, if he chooses to do so."
"You'd let him go?" Harry asked, amazed.
"Let him go? No, not directly, but Pettigrew may perhaps be less vigilant that he ought to be…with a bit of help from myself," he added darkly.
Harry was scandalized. "After all he's done, all the people who've suffered because of him, he's just going to go free?" he asked, disgusted.
Scowling at him, Severus replied just as disgustedly, "No, not free. He'll never be free—except in the sense that you mean. But he'll have a second chance. Not the same thing."
Still outraged, Harry swallowed and looked down at his hands, thinking of what he was about to reveal. I have to say it, now that I know. Isn't this what we both promised to do—be frank with each other, especially about important things…things that will help the other to understand? He took a few moments longer to summon his courage, then said softly, "You remember my memory?" He glanced up to see Severus' eyes dilate slightly at his words.
"I recall the gist of it. Harry," he added in warning.
Harry only shook his head and plunged forward. "No, it's my memory, and if I want to tell you, then it's up to me to decide." He paused. "Unless you don't want to know for some reason."
"I don't care one way or the other. As you said, it's yours to tell or not. I'm just wondering why…now?"
Ignoring the question for the moment, Harry forged ahead, not looking at Severus. "His name was Ethan—Shacklebolt introduced us when the three of us were making inquiries about curse-breaking—back when we were still thinking we could destroy the Horcruxes." He pulled his feet out of the water and turned on the grass to fully face Severus. "He was funny and kind, so willing to help us out, but in the end, he was the one who told us we were in over our heads. He didn't know what they were, mind you. He just looked at them for us."
He swallowed, took a deep breath and continued, "Hermione and Ron, they're a couple, you know. So, I had free time on my hands, and Ethan and I…" He blushed despites his best effort not to. "We became lovers. That's what you saw…the last time we were together." He ran his fingers through his hair, then said quietly, "He was killed, not long after. His Auror squad was ambushed on a raid. Shacklebolt came to tell me himself. He knew we'd been…close." When he finally looked up, he saw that Severus had cocked his head and wore a grim expression on his face.
"I'm sorry," was all he said, quietly.
"Pity, Severus?" Harry asked bitterly.
"Never," was the immediate reply. "But I understand…some things now."
Harry opened his mouth to retort a caustic question, then stopped himself. Wait, this is why you told him, remember? "Then you understand why I find it so sickening. That Malfoy gets a second chance, but Ethan's dead. It's not fair," he said stiffly.
Severus scrutinized him for a long moment, then agreed, "No, life's not fair."
Right in one, Severus. Not something I didn't already know, but I'm glad I told you…it feels good that you know…and somehow I knew you'd understand.
Harry'd forgotten that they were actually there for a reason, until Severus directed him to bridle and tether the horses to a tree. Once he'd done so, Severus motioned with his hand for Harry to follow, and they took a path along the stream, meandering in a downward direction, until they came to a small ravine. The brook fell off at their feet into the chasm, while a large, twisted tree spanned the short distance from their side of the ravine to the other, the trail taking up again on the other side.
Harry gave Severus a questioning look, then glanced back up at the path behind them.
"We are crossing here," Severus told him soberly. Harry looked at the tree again; twisted was too mild a word, he decided. It was broken in places, jutting right and then left, in sections held together by only a slim shaft of wood and bark.
"It won't hold us," Harry said, half to himself as he eyed it critically.
"A chance we will take. That will be my concern, in any case." Severus stepped to the end of the log wedged into their side of the ravine, then held out his hand. "You first. I'll be directly behind you."
Harry gaped at him. "Both of us at once? And why me first? I think it'll only support—"
"Stop. This is a training exercise. Now, stand in front of me and close your eyes," Severus said as he motioned him to the front, impatiently.
"Close my eyes? Are you out of your—"
Severus rolled his eyes as he interrupted him. "You'll not be doing this on your own. Step up and stand still. I'll be guiding each of your steps." He waggled the fingers of both hands in a beckoning motion. "Need I spell it out for you? This is a lesson, Harry."
"Oh," Harry said, as he finally took Severus hand, then stepped in front of him, trying not to look down into the ravine. It wasn't a long way down, but far enough that it made Harry's head spin. "The tree does a right angle turn, right in the middle of—"
"Oh, for pity's sake, close your eyes and be still," said Severus' voice at his ear, at the same time that Harry felt the man's hands rest lightly on his hips. Oh, his hands there are …warm…firm…slow down your breathing, Harry…concentrate on the hands…you can do this…listen to his voice, right there at your ear.
"First step with your right foot, slightly to the left, and up about ten degrees." Harry took the first step, then was relieved when his foot found solid tree beneath it. He waited while Severus moved into position behind him again, never releasing his fragile hold of Harry's waist.
"Next step with your left foot, just drag it up behind the right one. Steady, yes, that's it." Harry obeyed, fighting the urge to open his eyes when he felt the groan of the timber beneath them. Severus, however, cinched his waist more securely when he heard the sound, and Harry couldn't help the streak of heat that he felt as the hands gripped him tighter.
Slowly, painstakingly, they made their way along the tree, Severus murmuring podiatric coordinates, gently steering Harry with his hands when he needed a course correction. After several minutes of the half-blinded two-step, Harry gave up and gave in; I'm completely helpless here, without him. He let himself go, almost an automation that obeyed as each switch was flipped, as over and over he slid his feet forward, adjusting as Severus murmured in the hair at his ear or exerted a subtle pressure on his hip, to move further forward or more or less to the right or left.
It's a relief, in a way, to give him control, to surrender myself, to trust, even if it's only log-walking. He relaxed back into the sensation of it, Severus' words at his ear becoming muted and fuzzy, as he contemplated…how would it feel, to lean back and melt into your arms holding me, to turn my head and lay it on your shoulder, to trust you beyond just this exerci—
"Potter!" the voice startled him, even as he felt his feet slip from the log. His eyes shot open as he brought his arms up to grab onto something, only there was nothing but empty air. He felt himself falling, then the hands caught him by the arms. As he was unceremoniously dragged upward, Severus chastised him.
"Imbecile! You weren't listening, were you? I'm supposed to be guiding you, not supporting your weight like a rag doll, or pulling puppet strings when you forget to make your feet move!"
"Sorry," Harry mumbled, trying to slow the racing of his heart. Yikes, so much for total abandon…close your eyes…concentrate….
They continued on to the far edge of the ravine without incident. When they finally stepped onto the rock-steady ground, Harry took a deep breath when he felt Severus let go of him. Turning, he saw that Severus didn't look irritated at all. Still, Harry apologized again.
"Sorry about back there. I…got distracted," he confessed.
"You had your eyes closed and were perched twenty feet above a rock-filled ravine, depending on me to get you across. What on earth could've distracted you?" Severus asked him, sounding slightly exasperated, but not angry.
Harry darted his eyes away, then looked back. "For a moment there, I was just thinking…actually enjoying the feeling of…trusting someone besides myself. Stupid thing to do, but…" He squared his shoulders. "I knew you wouldn't let me fall."
I'd never tell you the rest of it, though, how wonderful it felt to have your hands on me, to feel the tickle of your hair on my ear, how I wanted…oh god, I wanted….
Severus eyes brightened momentarily, then he reached out and flicked Harry's cheek with a finger. "There endeth the lesson, Harry. Not entirely how I intended to teach it, but you learned, nonetheless."
"Ouch," Harry said in reply, but Severus had already turned back to the log. "Oh great, we're going back the same way."
Severus was already halfway across. "Of course, but you're on your own this time, so keep your eyes open—it's a long way down," he called over his shoulder.
"Open your eyes," Severus commanded.
Harry obeyed, and for a moment sat there, blinking against the brightness of the room. He sighed. "It's easy now—hard to believe how long this used to take." He realized he was still holding onto Severus' hands, so slowly withdrew them. "We're down to…what? About a minute or two?"
Severus nodded. "A minute. We're near the end now. You'll need one more spell to effectively empty your magical core," he said guardedly, watching Harry.
"I know—a Patronus," Harry said slowly.
"Albus believes that is where your true power lies. Your Patronus, because of what you are, is the embodiment of love, not just a sum of happy memories," he hastened to add.
Chewing on the end of a fingernail, Harry thought for a moment, then asked, "Severus, what's the Dark Lord's Patronus?"
Giving him an appraising look, Severus told him soberly, "I wouldn't know, but I don't believe he has one, not that I've ever seen nor heard. Not surprising, if you think about it."
"Hmm, guess not," Harry agreed, then asked, "So, I'll add my Patronus next time?"
Shaking his head, Severus answered, "No, not yet. First we'll work on speed. What we're aiming for is near instantaneous imaging." At the look on Harry's face, he waved him out of the room, saying, "The hardest part is done; we're in the home stretch now."
Harry's fascination with Severus' hands continued throughout the summer, but near the end of it, he realized that in his mind and, yes, dreams, he'd moved on to Severus the man, intact.
What can all this mean? I feel comfortable with him, and I actually prefer spending my evenings with him instead of the headmaster. And when he's pleased with how training's gone, I'm happy for the rest of the day. Hell, what am I worrying about? This is what I'm supposed to be doing, isn't it, get comfortable enough with him to trust him? It feels like it's more than comfort, though. But all of this makes me wonder—what in hell are we going to do that makes all of this necessary? Why will I have to trust him so completely? It must be something huge…. In the meantime, all I know is that these are the best days I've ever spent learning something…funny, that it would be with him.
More than a month later, Autumn had come early to the Highlands. Leaves covered the garden and the lake, and now there were fires in the rooms of the house, all day long. Harry looked around and noted that there wasn't one in this room, however. It was the first time, in fact, that he'd been in here, as Severus rarely spent much time in his potions lab.
"You don't brew here, do you?" he asked, curiously, noting the obvious lack of a cauldron, except for the small dust-covered copper one on the bottom of the shelves.
Severus shook his head. "No, not much at all. I do most of it at Spinner's End. From time to time, I do some curative draughts here for Albus, but not since you've been here. Look at these," he directed as he held out a tin with a tightly fitted lid.
Harry took it and opened the hinged lid. Inside sat six round balls, barely larger than a child's marble. Reaching in to touch one, he asked, "What are they?" Lifting one out, he found it was nearly weightless, soft and pliable in his hands.
"You asked Albus about the Draught of Living Death last night. How I modified it," he reminded Harry.
"Oh, right, he said you changed the standard formulation a bit—more cloaking ingredients and something to extend how long it'd last and what it'd take to reverse it." He rolled the ball in between his fingers, discovering, when he gave it a gentle squeeze, that it appeared to be hollow. He looked up at Severus in surprise. "This is the delivery vehicle, isn't it?"
"It is. It's a pliable yet hollow skin that will hold about five milliliters of the Draught. Once sealed, it's pocket-sized and durable." He took the ball from Harry's hand, then held it up to eye-level between them. "Then, when the time is right, you just pop it in your mouth and bite down hard. It releases the Draught instantly, and then dissolves itself in a matter of seconds. Traceless," he said, his eyes gleaming as he caught Harry's, then before Harry could react, Severus slipped the capsule into his mouth and made a display of biting down.
"Holy shite! You didn't just—"
Severus shook his head and opened his mouth; Harry understood the genius of the method, as Severus' mouth was completely empty. He gave vent to his irritation, though, by landing a punch on the man's shoulder. "Show-off," he accused, then frowned as he thought. "So, that's how he did it, then. After he did the header off the Tower?"
When Severus nodded, Harry closed the lid on the tin and handed the box back to him. "Brilliant, but still…." He shook his head, then shuddered. Even so, it took bollocks for them to do what they did…so many things could've gone wrong… And where would I be now…without the headmaster…without Severus?
"I'll take that as a compliment, I think," Severus said, amused.
Harry watched as Severus carefully replaced the tin on the shelf, after all this time still bewildered that such a small thing could achieve the appearance of death. He remembered, then, something he'd been meaning to ask.
"There's something I still don't understand," Harry said as Severus turned back to him.
When Severus graced him with a questioning look, Harry finished, "The Unbreakable Vow."
Severus perched on the edge of his stool, and gave Harry an appraising look. "Ah. I thought you'd never ask." When Harry shot him a disgusted look, he held up his hand. "I wasn't certain you understood what the Vow entailed."
Harry shrugged. "I know what I heard, and then after what happened on the Tower, I figured the rest of it out myself…well, Hermione helped a bit." He knew the confusion showed on his face. "So how did you manage to break it?"
"Oh, I didn't break it," Severus told him firmly. "I watched over Draco and protected him the best I could, so that part was fulfilled. The last, carrying out his mission for the Dark Lord, was never really a concern, as there was another Vow in place that superseded that one."
"Another Vow? Superseded how?"
"A vow between myself and Albus, taken a decade before you came to Hogwarts." At the stunned look on Harry's face, he added, "Albus and I made a Reciprocal Vow, one that constrained us to protect each other, to a bitter end, if necessary. In the hierarchy of vows, it naturally took precedence over any vow that would come afterward. It is deeper magic, Harry, that nullified my so-called promise to act if Draco failed."
Harry stood, deep in thought, then looked up to ask, "So, Malfoy's mother didn't know?"
Severus shook his head. "No, she didn't, but Bellatrix was suspicious at first. Fortunately she did not think to question it, given what she'd seen and heard. My good fortune," he commented dryly.
Harry stared at him, once again astounded by the risks Severus had taken. "Yeah, lucky you."
One more proof of how lucky I am to have you here. Lucky to have you here…yeah, a while ago that would've seemed like an outrageous thing to think, but not now. I need you…we need each other…and besides, I'm getting attached, in a way. Oh god, I'm off the deep end, aren't I? But given an Unbreakable Vow, a dead man who isn't, and my git of a Potions master being my constant companion, why shouldn't I be? Strange, I won't complain about any of it…in fact, I'm lucky. Yeah, we both are.
There was something wrong, Harry just knew it. He'd known it all day; training had been a disaster—Severus had been short with him and dismissed him, telling him he needed to focus. They'd eaten a nearly wordless supper, Harry catching the meaningful glances between Severus and the headmaster. He'd not commented then, but now, Dumbledore had just committed a foolish error at the chessboard, and Severus was prowling the bookshelves, dropping volumes and muttering curses under his breath. Even Fawkes on his perch seemed out of sorts, from time to time emitting mournful squawks, even though he was nowhere near a Burning Day.
"I thought the three of us were in this together," Harry said quietly. When the old man looked up at him, he said louder so that Severus could hear, "That means information sharing. A part of trusting," he said without turning to look at Severus. He heard a loud sigh and the thud of a book as it was slid back on the shelf. He did turn when he heard Severus sink into the chair beside him. "What's happened," he asked, looking from one to the other.
When the headmaster made a gesture for Severus to speak, he complied. "Nothing's happened, well, at least not yet. The fact of the matter is…" He paused and raised his eyes to Harry's. "Draco's gone missing. He was at Spinner's End with Pettigrew. I learnt of it last evening. He'd been gone for three days, and Pettigrew had only just alerted the Inner Circle. So, I'm expecting…" His voice became flat. "…to be summoned very soon. An accounting will be due," he said, his voice hard.
Harry sat up straight in his chair. "But if he was with Pettigrew, then…"
Severus waved dismissively at him. "The Dark Lord does not know that."
"But you'll tell him! He'll be furious as hell—he might even kill Pettigrew!"
Severus gave him a thin smile. "Yes, now that's a pleasant possibility, but, I’m afraid, a wasteful one." He glanced at the headmaster, then said to Harry with finality, "Time will tell, and very soon, I expect."
An hour later, Harry and Dumbledore looked up from their chess game. Severus stood stiffly, his face a rictus of displeasure. "I've been summoned."
He didn't return that evening, or the next day either. Harry was almost wild with apprehension, then finally admitted to himself, fear.
What will we do if Severus doesn't come back? What will happen to me and the headmaster? How can we go on? Especially since I have no clear idea of what we're planning to do in the end. But even if I don't know what, whatever it is, I can't even begin to think about doing it without Severus.
Harry brooded in the agony of waiting. It's much more than that now—how had the headmaster said it?—power wedded to ability. No, not just my power, but my confidence for any success is tied to Severus. I'm not certain this is what Severus intended at all—the goal has been for me to trust him, but here I am…paralyzed at the thought of going on without him…of losing him.
"There's nothing we can do but wait," Dumbledore told him firmly, not for the first time. "He may be at Spinner's End, that's true. But he may not be. In any case, it's not safe for either of us to go blindly searching for him." He gave Harry a sympathetic pat on the arm. "I'm heartened to see the depth of your concern for him, Harry. You've come a long way, as has Severus." He pushed Harry's half-eaten dinner plate a little closer. "I wouldn't give up on him just yet—he's been in worse spots, believe me. Besides, this was not an entirely unforeseen set of circumstances," he added, cryptically.
Harry stared at him, then breathed out, "He intended for something to happen—I remember now. So, there's a plan?" he asked hopefully.
The headmaster smiled. "Severus always has a plan."
Harry awoke to the sound of murmuring voices from across the loft. In a heartbeat, he was on his feet, pulling on his jumper as he ran. Ironic, that I've kept vigil for two days without shutting an eye, then the first time I drift off to sleep, I miss him coming back. Rounding the doorway, he stopped short at the sight before him. The headmaster was sitting on the edge of the bed, and at the sound of Harry's footsteps, turned to greet him.
"Ah, Harry. Look who's come home, safe and sound," he said, as he turned back to the man stretched out beneath the coverlet.
Harry walked to stand at the end of the bed. "Doesn't look too sound to me," he said uncertainly, his planned speech dying in his throat as he took in Severus' injuries. Oh god, Severus…god. "You're a mess," he said shakily, then walked to stand at the other side of the bed.
"Not as much of a mess as I was—Pettigrew healed me as best he could," Severus said hoarsely, managing a weary scowl.
"Pettigrew? Pettigrew! I don't understand—why was he… Wait…wait…" Harry stumbled on the words. "You let Voldemort think it was you? Why? You said it was him…oh…" he finished lamely, as he finally understood. Of course, this was part of the plan. But look at you…look at what they've done to you. He stared at the man's face, the purplish bruises on his cheeks, the lip that had been split, but was already beginning to heal. Sinking down onto the bed, Harry felt all the air go out of him. "He got completely off, didn't he?"
Severus nodded, then winced as the old man poked at his ribs with his wand. "Yes, but that's exactly how we wanted it to turn out." He gave Dumbledore a dark look. "Easy, if you please." He grimaced as the headmaster murmured a spell, his wand tip at Severus' flank. "Actually, we've nicked two birds with one stone. Draco is out of harm's way, and Pettigrew is in my debt. Exactly where we want him to be."
"It's not right," Harry muttered as he watched. "He could've killed you!" he exclaimed hotly. "Then where would we be?" He glared at the surprise on Severus' face.
"Oh, you and Albus would've figured out something, I'm certain," he complained, then sighed in relief as the headmaster put away his wand. "Albus, between you and Pettigrew, I think the Dark Lord's touch was gentle in comparison."
Dumbledore beamed. "He'll be right as rain in a few days. No permanent damage," he pronounced. "I'll just collect some potions and salves from your stores, and be back shortly. Harry, don't allow him to get up." With a glance over the top of his spectacles at both of them, he turned and Disapparated.
The two of them continued their glaring match, until Harry was the first to relent. "I was worried sick," he said softly. "And not just because of what we're doing. I…" He swallowed and felt himself flush. "I…I'd miss you. You're the closest thing I've had to a friend…." He stopped at the look of incredulity on Severus' face. "In a long while." Whoa, where'd that come from? Not what I meant to say, but still, it's true—let him deal with it. He looked away, playing with a tie on the coverlet, until Severus' voice made him look up again.
"You think of me as a friend?" Severus asked, his voice still hoarse, but the disbelief bled through the roughness.
Harry realized he'd made a mistake, so replied, miserable, "Never mind, I shouldn't have said it." But it was the truth…and you've said that's what you've wanted, so now you've got it.
Severus was shaking his head adamantly. "No, no, that's not it at all. I'm a bit…surprised." He ducked his head to catch Harry's eyes. "I'd not realized we'd come that far." When Harry looked dubious, he gently clarified, "Normally, I'd not have tried to get back so soon, in such an injured state, but…I knew you would worry, and so…" He fell silent, studying Harry for a moment before adding, "But if you think of me as a friend, then I'd say we're ready for the final stage of our training."
Dumbledore returned with the needed supplies, then after a quick tutorial on how to administer and use them, he left the two men alone again. After healing and sedative potions, Harry was awkwardly applying salve to Severus' face, when the eyes opened suddenly. Though slurred by drugs and a swollen lip, Severus' words were clear.
Ah. Maybe not a mistake, after all…
Harry felt Severus squeeze his hands gently as he instructed, "Cast when you're ready."
"Hmmm," Harry managed, trying to keep his feet on the floor, buoyed as they seemed to be by the floating sphere and the fragile beam of light that connected them. It had only taken him seconds to arrive at this juncture, and it was time now to cast what was left of his magical core. I wonder, if in my mind…in such a small space…if I'll actually see the stag?
With only a negligible movement of his wand, he mentally cast the words, "Expecto Patronum." He felt a strange tightening in his chest, then watched as the thin thread of light thickened and undulated like a whip. Harry knew by now that this was the most dangerous part of the exercise: keeping the magical filament intact, at the same time holding himself back, infinitesimally, at the end of the spell. As the motion of the rope-like conduit quieted, Harry noted with satisfaction that the sphere was considerably larger, and pulsed a brighter, deeper green. No stag. As always at this point of things, Harry experienced an almost overwhelming wave of exhaustion.
"It's done," Harry said dreamily. It's like watching my own heart beat outside of my chest.
"I'm here, and I see it. Well done." Harry watched as the copper color suffused the space in his mind, surrounding and bathing the sphere with its comforting presence. "Same as before," Harry heard Severus say, as he felt hands smoothing over the surface, gently pushing in…. Harry felt his body growing hot and hard as he responded to this intimacy, but it'd been months since he'd paid any mind to this involuntary reaction.
Severus was manipulating the sphere up and down, almost like a large balloon bobbing on its string. Next was side-to-side movement. Harry adjusted mentally, mimicking the motion so the connection between himself and the sphere was maintained.
"Something new," Severus told him, wordlessly. "Move with me, as far as you're able."
"All right. Move where?" he asked, taking a step forward as the sphere began to drift.
The sphere seemed to grow slightly smaller, then Harry realized that it had strayed several feet away from him, the tether between them now tight. What the hell? Frowning, he stepped closer, but as he did so, the sphere seemed to advance even further away. Keeping his eye on the magical thread, he followed as Severus pulled the sphere closer and closer to the edges of Harry's consciousness. "You'll hit the wall soon," Harry warned. There was no reply, but then something happened that had never happened before.
The edges of one side of the sphere became blurred and indefinite, and as Harry tried to understand what was happening, he felt a gentle tug on the connecting conduit. Frowning, he looked down to discover that the line was taut. But what he saw when he looked up again had him ready to cry out a word of warning. Before he could do so, however, he felt a viselike grip of pain around his heart. "Severus," he managed to gasp out. He watched in horror as the far edge of the sphere slipped into blackness, as it met and then breached the edge of his mind. His wand arm was trembling from the effort of sustaining the connection, and, frantic, he knew that the line was about to snap. Wait! Something's wrong! I can't hold on…I can't keep it together, Severus!
"Retirates," Harry finally mumbled, mentally propping his arm up and maintaining the connection until it self-extinguished, the signal that he'd regained his magical core. He felt the flash of warmth as his magic returned in a burning flood, and cried out once, as he twitched in his chair. He laid his cheek on the rough, wooden desk, his chest heaving as he tried to regain his breath. Severus was silent through it all, and when Harry finally lifted his face to look at him, he saw that the man's face was a mixture of satisfaction and wariness.
Pushing himself up into a sitting position, Harry accused, "What was that? Do you know what you almost did? I was this close to losing my connection! I think it's high time I knew what—"
"What we're up to," the headmaster finished from behind him as he placed his hand on Harry's shoulder. "Yes, I think he's right, Severus. It's time."
Harry took a sip of his drink, then gave the two of them a grudging look. They'd relocated to the kitchen table, where Dumbledore had poured them all a round of brandy. "It must be bad," Harry said sarcastically. "You've never plied me with alcohol before."
"Fortifying, not plying, Harry," the headmaster corrected him. "And I see it as a celebration, hence sharing my private stock." When Harry still did not look convinced, he sighed, and nodded at Severus. "Shall I?"
Severus motioned with his glass. "Oh, by all means, be my guest," he said. "It'd best come from you, I think."
Uh-oh, I can already tell it's going to be bad; they're hedging over who's going to be the one to tell me… not a good sign, that.
Dumbledore placed the flat of his hands on the table and seemed to be gathering his thoughts. Harry took the moment to shoot Severus a stare full of question.
"Harry," the old man began, "you'll recall that I told you at the outset that what you and Severus would be doing would be a cooperative effort. Using your magical power and Severus' abilities, Voldemort will be defeated."
"Yeah, I remember that part, sir, and I've figured it out—you're training me to focus my magical core, so I can cast the Killing Curse." He watched as the old man and Severus exchanged a glance. "What? That's it, isn't it? Why else would we be…." He trailed off as he looked from one to the other, then the color drained slowly from his face. "Wait…wait…." Oh…they can't mean…but then…I think they might…oh fuck.
He put his head in his hands as he thought, then looked up at them both. "My power…focused in a sphere." He looked at Severus and frowned. "All that practice…allowing you to touch it…move it…" He stared at Severus for a moment longer, and now his mouth dropped open. "What you just did…moving the sphere like you were going to…take it out of my mind." He sat heavily back in his chair, then said softly, yet flatly, "That's the plan, then. You're going to use my magical core, and cast the Killing Curse yourself, aren't you?"
"That's the general idea," Severus confirmed, looking uncomfortable.
"But then you really don't need me at all!" Harry accused. "I won't even need to be there, will I?"
Dumbledore rapped sharply on the table. "Listen well, Harry. Voldemort cannot be killed by just any Killing Curse—it must be yours. This is the part of the prophecy that is important. It's your power that will undo him, not necessarily you yourself." He stopped to take time to refill their glasses, then sat back in his chair.
"Severus and I have worked at this for a year. If there were any other way, we would have considered it. You are young, and largely untrained—it would take far too much time to teach you the skills needed to face the man alone, and even then…the possibility of failure is too high. Too much is at stake, not to mention your life."
He hesitated, then reached out and covered Harry's hand with one of his own. "And I daresay that casting an Unforgivable would be a tall order for you, my boy." His voice hardened and his eyes flashed steely blue. "Your magic, however, is unparalleled, even by Tom's own. And as I've mentioned to you before, I believe it is the love you bear for others—that love that powers your Patronus—that will prove lethal in this confrontation. And the best part," he added softly as he leant in towards Harry, "is that Tom is completely unaware of what in you will prove to be his downfall." He sat back once again, his eyes glowing with satisfaction.
"Magic is a living, breathing entity." Harry was startled by the voice on his left, and turned to meet Severus' eyes. "Impossible to remove it and carry it about as if it were a…power source. No, it will require that the two of us go together. All the practicing, all the imaging, all the trust will be necessary for us to face him and destroy him."
With a thud in his chest, Harry finally understood, and found he had to close his eyes. It's downright scary, what they're expecting me to do…if I'm right about this, and I think I am. What else could it possibly be? Heaving a sigh, he opened his eyes, and looked at them both, waiting expectantly for his reaction. "What we just did tonight…. I'm going to have to break the thread and let you…borrow the sphere, aren't I?"
"Yes," Severus said simply, then was quick to add. "In reality, it will only be a matter of seconds, from the time your connection is broken, to my 'appropriating' your magical embodiment to cast the Curse, to my replacing it within your mind. Fifteen seconds, perhaps a few more." He looked at Dumbledore and gave him a curt nod.
"Harry, can you understand why we've not told you this until now? It's a frightening proposition—you've experienced today just how very painful this will be. Not just physical pain, but existential pain, as a wizard is not meant to survive the loss of his magical core. That is why you've been taught to pull back at the end of each casting—to preserve a very small bit of magic in reserve. This will keep you alive, and enable you to cast the reversing spell, once Voldemort is dead."
Harry stared straight ahead, considering what he'd just been told. It'll be me who kills Voldemort, in a sense, but in a way, I won't be. That'll be Severus' part.
Trust, he thought to himself in wonder.
Severus was right about the trip of a thousand miles…. If I'd known all this at the beginning, that I was going to allow the man to suck out my magical soul…. Well, now I understand. But…do I trust enough? Do I? Because once it's out of there, I'll be…powerless, literally…and if Severus proves to be untrustworthy…powerless will swiftly move to…dead.
Ignoring the headmaster for now, Harry turned to Severus. "All these months, all these lessons…everything we've talked about…everything we've done together…all the time spent at different things…all the understanding each other…all of it…it was all for this, wasn't it? Trust."
Severus considered him for a moment, and just for an instant, Harry thought he saw indecision in his eyes, but instead of answering, Severus asked a question of his own. "After today, what we just did, you understand why that's been the key issue, do you not?"
Harry nodded. "You were right—both of you. I'd never have believed it in the beginning. But now…" He gave Severus a rueful smile. "I'll have to think about it some…give me a day or two to get used to the idea." He shook his head, then added, "Wow." Wow is right. But this is what all the training's been for—setting my sights on one goal at a time. And now we're to the hardest part, but I think…yeah, I think we might just do it…it could all be over soon…and then…. He sat, lost in his thoughts, vaguely aware that Dumbledore and Severus were talking, when he sat bolt upright in his chair as the thought occurred to him.
"Severus!" he said, jerking both men's attention to him. "After this, especially when it gets out how you trained me, and how we actually, er, if we actually do kill him—you'll be cleared! Everyone will know. Everything. About the headmaster, and how he didn't really die, and you'll be a hero! You'll probably get an Order of…" He stopped suddenly, as both men were shaking their heads. "What?" he asked, perplexed.
"Firstly, Harry, I have no intention of 'returning' from beyond the grave." Dumbledore put up a hand to extend Harry's silence. "I have very good reasons for not doing so. And if Severus had any desire whatsoever to return and clear his name, I'd do it post-haste, my boy. But…." The old man gestured at Severus to continue.
Severus seemed momentarily flustered, and Harry understood that he'd not anticipated this part of the conversation. "Albus, perhaps now is not the time. He's had quite a bit to take in this evening, and this would be best…." He caught the look on Harry's face and stopped.
"No. Now, Severus," Harry commanded, shaking his head at the headmaster when he tried to refill his glass. "Let's get all of it out on the table now. It's been five fucking months, and I'm ready now, and you sure as hell should be!" he declared hotly. "So, trust me that I'll be man enough to hear what you have to say. I don't think I've given you any reason to believe that I'm not." He paused, then when Severus still hesitated, Harry implored, "Severus, please?"
Severus looked suddenly weary and, strangely for him, apprehensive. He began quietly, "You and I will deliver the final blow—we'll be working that out in great detail in the weeks to come. As for myself, however, there will be no accolades or Orders of Merlin." He brought his eyes up from the tabletop where they'd been focused, and now met Harry's straight on. "I will die during that encounter, or so the world will think. Albus' death will remain my handiwork, as you'll honor his request, Harry, to remain…dead. There will be a carefully concocted story for you to tell—how events unfolded. We'll make certain that these 'facts' are supported by the evidence at hand—Priori Incantatem, in particular. Unfortunately, or fortunately for many, Severus Snape will not survive that final encounter, and you, Harry, will corroborate the facts as we've chosen to manipulate them."
Harry's face had gone pale again. "Die? But the whole point of it has been for us both to survive, hasn't it? And why would I need to manipulate the facts, when telling the truth would show them all…." He closed his mouth suddenly, as his mind sped ahead of his words.
Oh, he can't mean…wait…look at their faces…look at Severus' face…he's known all along…this was planned…and he didn't tell me.
"You…you…." He took a breath and ran both hands through his hair, then looked back up to say quietly, "The Draught. That's it, isn't it? You're going to take the Draught." He reached over and surprised them both when he caught Severus by the arm. "That's what you're planning to do, isn't it? Take the headmaster's way out," he finished bitterly. "Of all the selfish, conniving…." He stopped when Severus wrenched his arm away and stood.
"Albus, would you mind? I'd like to speak to Harry alone," Severus asked the old man.
Dumbledore looked from one to the other, then rested his gaze on Severus' face. It softened as he replied, "Of course." Then, turning to Harry, he patted him on the shoulder as he passed him by. "It will take some getting used to, Harry, but I think you'll understand why this is best for all of us."
Best for all of us…best for you two, you mean.
Harry was vaguely aware of Severus moving behind him, the sound of water and china, then saw a steaming cup pushed in front of him as Severus took the seat beside him.
"Harry, look at me." Harry raised his head, and for the first time noticed that his vision was blurred by tears. He brushed at his face, mortified, but not before Severus had seen. Taking in Harry's distress, his expression softened as his eyes shimmered.
"It must seem terribly selfish, I know. But consider what my life will be like. I'd remain Albus' murderer, no matter what transpires; although even that could be sorted out, if I had any inclination to return. But, I don't. There is nothing for me there—no family nor friends who care about me. I'd be forever regarded with suspicion, no matter what you might say. No return to Hogwarts for me, not that I'd want to return. I'd be a marked man for the rest of my days. I have a life here, albeit a lonely one, but once this is done…who knows?" He gave Harry a weak smile.
"Do you remember our conversation, months ago, in the gloaming?" he asked gently. When Harry nodded, he reminded him, "You asked me if I'd ever thought about just leaving it all behind. I wasn't entirely honest with you then, I'm afraid. But you couldn't have understood then what I believe you can now. Remember, you yourself admitted it was a tempting possibility—a clean slate with which to begin again—no mistakes, no past, only the future."
"But you do have people who care about you," Harry protested feebly.
I care about you, I really do, and I've known it for a while. But I didn't know how much until now. But knowing I care would never be enough, would it?
"Ah," Severus said as he smiled, then shocked Harry by reaching to brush the hair from his face and trailing a finger down the side of his cheek. "Yes, I'd have a friend in you. Not something I'd ever expected, nor did you, I imagine." He sobered suddenly and withdrew his hand. "You have your whole life ahead of you—friends, a de facto family in the Weasleys. You'll live a full and satisfying existence. I'd be just one of your many acquaintances, and not one who'd be meant to be a part of that life. Surely you know this."
Harry looked at him mournfully. "And I'm just supposed to go on, knowing the two of you are up here, and not say a word."
Severus considered his words, then inclined his head. "You're not the only one who has learned to trust."
No, I suppose I'm not. You know me well enough to know I'd never give either of you away. It'll be a bitter thing, though, to have to keep such a secret. Who would've thought, a year ago, that I'd have such a problem on my plate? We've come so far, you and I.
Harry said pensively, "You know, I had my doubts in the beginning, about you being able to teach me anything….
Severus waited, his head cocked to the side.
"You're good at it…teaching," Harry told him.
The black eyes were slightly surprised. "Thank you."
As Harry made his way back to his room, he wondered why Severus had been able to teach him, when he'd failed miserably at it for so many years.
But now, I have admit to myself that part of it had to have been my own fault; what's different now is that I respect him…immensely. What else could account for the fact that I want to please him so much? And why's that even become important? Understanding, he finally decided. But it's more than that, Harry, and you know it.
"Harry…" Severus voice cut into his consciousness. "Pay attention to your thread—it's weakening."
Harry opened his eyes and stared into Severus'. "Sorry. I lost it there for a moment. Let's try again."
Severus released his hands as he shook his head. "No, not today. You're too preoccupied. Not a criticism, you understand. You've had a shock, so I believe we'll set this aside for today. Perhaps something to distract you a bit? As we said last evening, we have time…."
"A distraction?" Harry asked, interested.
Severus pointed. "There's your bench."
Harry laughed. "My bench?"
"Yes, well, you seemed to enjoy sitting here in the past," Severus observed.
"Yeah, I do. Don't you like to people-watch?"
"I do," Severus confirmed as they took a seat, then settled in to sit in silence and watch the business of the street market. It was a crisp, cool afternoon, the blue of the sky unmarred by clouds, the oranges and reds of the trees along the avenue vibrant with the change of the season.
"It's funny, but I think you and I sitting here…every week…. Well, this is where we've really got to know each other." Harry looked at Severus shyly. "Sort of like a confessional…not that I know what that's like," he finished lamely.
Severus sat forward, his elbows on his knees, then said, "There's something disarming about a bench in a busy street—safety in numbers, I suppose. Easier to speak of things that would be more difficult to talk about in private."
"Did you like to sit here, you know, before I came?" Harry asked after they'd sat for a while.
Severus gave him an amused sideways glance. "Yes, before it was your bench, it was my bench. I'm always ready to leave long before Albus is."
"He fits right in here, doesn't he?" Harry pondered aloud.
"It's part of his overbearing charm, fitting in," Severus commiserated, and they both snickered softly.
Without warning, Harry asked, "What will you do afterward? Stay with the headmaster?"
Severus made a sound of assent, then added, "For the most part, I believe I will. But there are other places I'd like to see—perhaps spend part of my time there."
Harry turned to him. "What places?"
"Warm ones. Oh, I've several in mind. Perhaps the Mediterranean. Some place warm, by the sea."
"Mexico," Harry murmured. "You should see Mexico—so much culture, it's exotic, and it's warm."
"Flies," Severus muttered in reply.
Harry gave him a look of disbelief. "Flies?'
"Flies, and it's very humid there. Almost oppressively so."
"Not by the sea," Harry argued, then sat back, and had begun to watch the passersby when Severus muttered at his shoulder.
Harry smiled. "Mexico."
"Suit yourself…" Then just when Harry thought he'd given in, he heard it from under his breath. "Mediterranean."
They'd not trained in several days, after another aborted attempt in which Harry once again had been unable to focus.
"Look," he tried to explain, exasperated. "It's not that I can't or I won't, it's just I need a bit more time."
Severus seemed worried, but not overly so, as he said, "All right for now. But we'll have to be on it next week. Do you think you'll be up to it then?"
"Sure, I'll be fine," Harry assured him, but not meeting his eyes.
The fact of the matter was that it wasn't an issue of trust at all. Harry knew he could do what was required, but as for wanting to do it, well….
The problem is that once we've done this final step, then we'll be ready. Ready to end it all. I really do want to see it all end…the Voldemort part, of course.
It was the 'other' ending that was his problem. It was true; he had friends and people who cared about him, who'd be waiting with open arms to welcome him home. Ron and Hermione were his friends, and he loved and missed them both. But in the past almost six months, I've got attached to these two friends I live, eat and sleep with, and I doubt I'll ever have friends like these again.
At that happy moment when Voldemort would take his last breath, so too, in a sense, would these two men he'd grown to…grown to what? I'm certainly fond of both of them, but Severus…I'll miss him the most. And missing him just doesn't seem to cover it. Wow, that messes with my mind
And so, Harry stalled, knowing that time, already short, was growing even shorter. How could he even contemplate the loss of this man, who'd become not just a mentor, but a trusted and valued friend? It didn't escape his notice, either, that he missed neither Ron nor Hermione the way he suspected he'd miss Severus. It was all so very confusing, but whatever the facts, whichever the emotions, Harry mourned in advance.
The sessions began in earnest once again. They practiced the final move, over and over, each time with Harry making progress in allowing Severus to pull the sphere to the edge of his mind. After one such practice, Harry asked him for the specifics of how it would be done.
"So, you'll just slip it out of my mind, and the connection will break?" Harry asked.
"No, you must sever the connection yourself," Severus replied, then added, "Willingly, taking care to pull back as we've practiced. This cannot be forced at all to be successful." His dark eyes flashed. "If it's done correctly, there'll be no lasting harm to either of us."
"And if it's not…done correctly?" Harry asked.
"You would risk not recovering all that belongs to you. But…" He paused as he fixed Harry with a stare. "I will not allow that to happen. Understood?"
Harry shrugged. "Not a problem. That's the point of all this…all this practice. I'll be fine," he reassured Severus with a small smile.
In the week that followed, the three of them discussed in great detail the logistics of what was about to transpire. Harry wasn't surprised to discover that many of these details had been thought through and planned for long before his arrival, even down to making certain that Hedwig had accompanied Harry and been confined to Albus' owlery, as she too would have a part to play on that final night.
Harry and Severus were discussing one of the other players in the drama that afternoon, as Harry watched Severus working in his potions lab.
"He's the only one who knows exactly where the Dark Lord is, at any given moment. When we are ready, it will be a matter of choosing a night when he is not surrounded by my colleagues—certainly not a night of summoning. Pettigrew will know this, and I have only to ask," Severus informed him as he measured the golden liquid in a thin, graduated cylinder.
"And he'll just tell you? Just like that, no questions asked?" Harry queried, for not the first time in the past week. "Aren't you worried he'll betray you somehow? It seems like something he'd do," Harry said worriedly.
Severus fixed a small funnel to the side of one of the small, soft globes that were to contain the Draught. Carefully, he began pouring the contents of the cylinder into the mouth of the funnel.
"At this point, no, I’m not worried." He shot Harry a brief glance over the top of the funnel, then looked quickly back to his work. "I've only told him that I require a private audience—a surprise that will serve to put both him and me in better standing with the Dark Lord. You remember, Pettigrew lives in fear that I'll reveal his part in Draco's disappearance, so he is doubly motivated to help me in this." He finished by removing the funnel and raising his wand to murmur an incantation to seal the small hole in the orb. He rolled it in between his fingers, held it up critically to the light, then tossed it to Harry.
Harry held it on his palm and traced over the surface of the marble-sized object. "It's perfect. No hint of what it is…what it can do," he finished darkly, shooting Severus a morose look. The man had moved on to the next one.
"How many are you doing, then? You only need one, don't you?"
Severus didn't look away from his work to reply, "I've enough Draught for five, and exactly the same number of receptacles, so it'd be wasteful not to do them all. It's always good planning to have a spare or two."
"Hmmm, 'spose so," Harry agreed, watching the painstaking work with interest. "It's such a simple thing…pop one in your mouth, bite down, and play dead."
Severus glanced up. "You'd best put that in the tin—just the heat and humidity from your hand could be enough to cause it to begin to react," he warned.
Harry started, then stared down at the capsule in his hand. "Oh, right," he replied as he placed it carefully in the tin.
"You're correct, that's the simplest part," Severus took up where Harry'd left off. "The most difficult part is making the decision to take it in the first place. Not something to be done without weighing all the consequences." He finished sealing the last one and gently laid it beside the other four. Closing the tin, he placed it on the shelf, then turned to Harry.
"You're ready for tomorrow, then? The final session?" The concern in his voice was unveiled as he scrutinized Harry's face.
Harry dropped his eyes. "As ready as I'll ever be. I'm anxious to do it, in fact. The longer I put it off, the more I worry about it," he confessed.
"You'll be fine—Albus will sit in on this one. In case his assistance is required. Not that I think it will be, but he thinks it a good idea, and so do I. You have no objections?"
Harry smiled tremulously. "No, why would I?"
Time to quit stalling. It has to end sometime…Voldemort's long overdue. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can get back to our lives. Not that I have much of one to go back to…. Damn it…what will I do?
One thing's for certain, I'm gonna be lonely. No more days of training…trail rides on Merry…playing chess with the headmaster…no more Severus. It's not fair. But like Severus says, why should I expect it to be?
Harry had several objections, in fact, but none of them had to do with the headmaster's presence the next day. None of his worries even had to do with the supposedly abrupt and traumatic experience of briefly losing touch with his magical core. No, to be honest, all his anxieties and fears, all his reservations and regrets, had to do with the aftermath—of the course that both the headmaster and Severus had chosen—to leave him alone with a victory that really belonged to the three of them. Yet even that was not his chief concern.
Harry lay in the loft, listening to the silence of the house. The headmaster had retired early, and Severus was off somewhere, first to the stables, then on to Spinner's End for the night.
In the darkness of his room, Harry stared up at the ceiling, the outline of it dimly etched by the moonlight from the skylight window. Severus was his chief objection. I don't know how it happened….I can't even recall when it began… I suppose trusting him the way I do, and all the things that got me here is why I'm feeling the way I am now. He thought of how almost all of his waking moments were spent with the man: whether doing household tasks during the day; training in the study loft; talking in the evenings as they read or played chess, or just haggled over some imaginary point in a pleasurable battle of wills.
It was Severus who had transformed him from an uncertain wizard with Horcruxes in a sack to the man he now was…waiting in the wings, fully equipped to finally stand, face to face, to meet his nemesis head on, with help, of course, to complete his so-called destiny.
It was Severus who had led him, day by day, taking him by the hands, teaching him how…. Severus' hands had focused and grounded him, and it would be Severus' hand, not his, that would, in the end, cast that timely curse…. Severus' hands….
Harry was caught up in the remembrance of those hands. He smiled as he recalled how uncomfortable it had been for him at first, then grinned outright as he remembered how he'd actually begun to anticipate their sessions. He closed his eyes and relaxed, and let the memory of those hands grasping his comfort him, and felt his objections melt away.
He did something else, though, something that he'd never allowed himself to do before—it wouldn't have been safe to do it before, he thought. Severus might've seen…might've known, especially if I'd made a focus of what I'm about to imagine. But there's only one more session, so what'll be the harm in finally giving in…finally allowing myself the fantasy…of those hands, and what they could do, what they could make me feel…?
He let out a long sigh, then undid the placket of his trousers. He was already hard, just thinking about Severus' hands…hell, in the past he hadn't even had to think about them to become hard—he'd just had to touch them to have it happen.
He gripped himself with his hand, thumbing over the head of his cock, then arched up slightly as he made one slow downward pull, then another upward one, with just the right amount of pressure and friction. Just thinking about Severus' hands had already put him well on the road to arousal; imagining those hands on him now, instead of his own, sparked a fire in his groin. He groaned aloud as he pumped faster, seeing himself in his mind's eye, trapped by Severus' arms around him at the waist, pinned as the man stroked him….harder…faster….
Harry let his legs fall open while he continued to work his cock with one hand, slipping the other up under his jumper to pinch at a nipple. "Severus," he moaned as he lifted off the bed at the sensation, as the object of his fantasy leant in to whisper his name at his ear.
This was what I've wanted to do all along…all those times I wanked after sessions, I wouldn't let myself, but now…no longer any reason to hold back…to keep my inhibitions intact. It'll all be over soon, and I'll never see him again.
He was gasping with pleasure, thrusting his hips up into his hand, mumbling words of encouragement as he felt himself about to peak. "Ahhh, god, Severus…Severus…please, please, don't stop…Severus," he worshipped, he cajoled, he begged. Suddenly, in a wave of pleasure that didn't recede, Harry came, drawing his knees together as he continued to work his hand, expertly stroking until he finally felt himself begin to come down again. He released one final word—one of satiation, one of gratitude, one of farewell, "Severus…."
When his heart had stopped pounding, Harry opened his eyes and considered the wooden beams of the ceiling. I probably shouldn't have done it; maybe it'll be a problem tomorrow, when I take hold of his hands, but somehow I don't think it will, and funny thing, I don't really care. Let him see it. Small payment for what I've had to control, all these months. But even as he thought it, he knew he was being false. It's not just Severus' hands that have got under my skin…it's Severus himself.
He murmured a Cleansing Spell, then turned to his side, reaching down to put himself back in his trousers, then froze in place when he saw him.
Severus was standing in the doorway. Harry could just make out his face. Struggling to his feet, he bent his head to hide the flaming of his cheeks, even though he knew that Severus couldn't see. He finally managed to get his cock buttoned back up in his trousers, then looked up. "How long have you standing there?" he asked flatly.
Moving toward the doorway, Harry paused just beside him. "You heard me, didn't you?" When Severus didn't move or speak, Harry pushed past him, taking the steps from the loft two at a time. He was snagging his cloak from the peg by the door when he heard the footfalls on the steps from the loft. Streaking out the door, Harry swirled his cloak around his shoulders, then, once in the garden, Disapparated.
Harry'd been sitting by the lake for some time. It'd been only natural that he'd ended up here, having Apparated to outside the gates so many times in the year that he'd been gone, when Ron and Hermione had still been here. He knew how to carefully breach the wards, thanks to Hermione, and now sat in his favorite spot, not too far from where they'd surprised 'Snape' on that night six months ago.
He buried his face in his hands for what had to be the hundredth time. The humiliation of what he'd been caught at still burned in his mind; I can't even begin to imagine what he thinks of me…catching me like that. Worse than that, though, is how in the world I'm going to get back. He'd Disapparated in a frenzy of emotion, forgetting that he'd have no way of returning to his Unplottable location, protected as it was by a Fidelius Charm, the key to which he'd not been made privy.
He flushed again as he thought of what Severus and the headmaster might even now be discussing: where Harry had gone, how they could retrieve him. How stupid of me, the wanking not the worst of it. Now one of them will have to put himself in danger to come after me.
Shivering, he pulled his cloak closer around him. Although, he had to admit that it seemed strange that neither one of them had appeared yet. Wait a minute…maybe they went to Grimmauld Place. But no…they wouldn't. That location in particular would be dangerous ground for both of them, and they'd know that Harry wouldn't wait for them there. Hogwarts was the only other reasonable place where he could imagine that they'd think to look for him.
But wait…hold on…. There's one other place…one that Severus might remember…one where we spent a great deal of time. Will he think of it?
He waited another half-hour, by the looks of the sky, then made his decision. Standing, he gave the tomb a respectful but jaundiced bow, then stealthily crossed the grounds, slipped through the gates and Disapparated.
It was near midnight, and the village square was deserted, just as Harry'd expected it would be. He walked down the empty avenue to the roundabout, spying the bench under the large birch where he and Severus had sat so many times…where they'd opined over celebrity, eaten street-roasted filberts, and perversely tendered their respective opinions on the Mediterranean and Mexico.
Taking a seat on the bench, Harry settled in to wait. Now that I'm here, for some strange reason I just know that Severus'll show. It makes perfect sense that this would be the place, and I know he'll know it too. And inexplicably, with the certain knowledge that Severus would know where to find him, Harry was filled with another certitude. It had been there all along, but now he felt it for the first time: he trusted Severus completely.
Considering all that they'd accomplished over the months, remembering all the memories and confidences they'd shared, looking forward to what he would have to entrust to him and what Severus would have to do with it, Harry had no doubts at all. I trust him—he'll be here.
It's odd, Harry thought to himself, as he watched Severus step out from the shadow of the hay barn, that an evening that began with me embarrassing myself could end with something as valuable as absolute trust.
Severus stopped in front of him, his arms hanging limply at his sides. "I've been waiting for you," he simply stated.
"I know—I was at Hogwarts—took me a bit longer to figure it out," Harry told him soberly, turning as Severus dropped to sit next to him.
Severus reached out and gently lifted his chin, examining Harry for a moment, before he softly said, "I owe you an apology. I should've made my presence known."
"Yeah, you should've. But it's all right. I found something else along the way," he said cryptically, then gave the man a small smile. "I'll miss you, more than you know." Harry found he wanted to lean into the warmth of that hand at his face.
The dark eyes widened, then seemed to delve into Harry's very soul. Harry sat, motionless, returning the look, feeling not a trace of fear or self-consciousness under the unveiled and almost ruthless inspection.
Standing abruptly, Severus held out his hand and waited, wordlessly, until Harry grabbed ahold and Severus pulled him up, so that they were standing face to face.
Severus asked him in a low voice, "Do you trust me?"
Harry didn't even have to think. "Yes. I'm ready for tomorrow now. I thought I was ready before, but now I really know I am." He was perplexed when Severus shook his head.
"No, not for that, although I'm glad to hear it. No, what I mean is do you trust me, Harry. This isn't part of the agenda; I've nothing to teach you tonight. I'm a man, just as you are. So…will you trust me tonight, just as a man?" Severus moved his hand up to the back of Harry's neck and tilted it, so that he could see what was in his face by the light of the streetlamp.
Harry's breath caught in his chest, so it was with difficulty that he murmured the words, "Yes, I trust you." In a flash, Severus' arms were around his waist, and Harry held on tight as he was Side-Alonged away.
Harry had his face buried in Severus' cloak when they reached their destination. With the first breath he took, Harry knew instantly where they were. Lifting his head, he looked around in the low light of the stable, comfortably warm, considering the last few hours of chill he'd inflicted on himself. The next thing he noticed, however, was that Severus still held him snugly at the waist.
Harry reached behind him and gently disengaged the hands and drew them to the front to look down at them. "Your hands…it's always been your hands that I've thought about…." Well, that's not entirely true…and he knows it…yeah, considering what he saw and heard tonight….
Severus stood stock still for a moment, looking down as Harry caressed his fingers, one by one. "You know…our sessions…I was not entirely unaffected either," he confessed in a low, gravelly tone that Harry'd never heard before.
Harry looked up at him in surprise, as Severus took his hand and led him to a stall at the end of the aisle. "You never let on," Harry chided, not in earnest, his heart beginning to beat unnaturally in his chest, as he watched Severus remove his cloak and spread it on the clean hay on the floor of the stall.
What does that mean, 'not entirely unaffected'? Oh god oh god, I was wondering, ahhhhh, get real, Harry. All right, I was hoping…but I never, ever thought that he'd…. So, I was wrong about him…again.
Severus didn't comment, only reached out a hand, waiting for Harry's cloak, which he spread on top of his own. When he was done, he stepped in front of Harry, and said, "Your jumper."
Harry pulled it up over his head, then tossed it to the side as he watched Severus do the same with his own. They stood just inches apart, their faces so close together that Harry could feel the man's breath at his lips. He closed his eyes and leant forward, bringing his hands up to Severus' shoulders.
Severus' mouth was warm, eager as he drew Harry in, trailing a tongue tantalizingly over the crevice of Harry's lips, tracing the line of them before he pushed in with his tongue. Harry moaned into his mouth, fighting to keep his feet, as his knees seemed to lose their strength. He kissed back, mouthing over the lips, meeting the tongue, twisting and licking along as it explored him, slowly at first, then almost urgently.
Harry's head was fixed in place as Severus plundered, his hands twisted in Harry's hair as he angled his head, first to one side, then to the other. Harry gasped as the mouth moved to his throat, and threw his head back in invitation. He looked down, then, and watched as those hands, those beautiful hands… undid the buttons of his shirt, then the placket of his trousers.
Severus looked up then, his eyes smoldering, as he shed his own clothes, then pushed Harry roughly to the cloaks spread out on the ground. Coming up on his elbows, Harry watched as Severus lowered himself, straddling Harry at the hips. He groaned outright when he realized what Severus was about to do. Working his way down Harry's chest with his mouth, he lingered to suck and tease his nipples first, then moved along the planes of his belly into the thatch of dark hair at his groin.
Harry lay back, then, and closed his eyes, giving himself over to the waves of sensation produced by the hands of his fantasy and the wickedly talented mouth. Oh god, yes…yes…I know what you're about to do…do it do it do it…. Harry was using his own hands to direct that mouth to exactly where he wanted it to be, when Severus startled him.
"I intend to give you the best head of your young life, but try not to scare the horses, hmmm?" Harry laughed weakly, then realized why the caution had been necessary, as he stifled the scream that came instantaneously, when Severus seemed to swallow him whole. He bucked up into the warmth, but then his hips were pinned forcefully to the ground as Severus began to move, sucking up slowly, sliding down over him with just a trace of teeth. Harry gave up and grabbed, alternately, at the straw of the floor and the full head of hair that bobbed above his cock.
He was breathing nosily through his mouth, panting out obscenities, then pleading in the next breath, as he felt the storm of arousal and passion overtake his brain and fill every single one of his senses. His world became his cock…and the mouth torturing it, his hips jerking up to meet it on its perigee, falling back to assist its retreat—two sets of skin set against each other, one a sensory organ, the other its natural habitat.
Harry couldn't hold it back; he screamed from the back of his throat, a long, anguished cry, as he felt his hands caught by Severus', holding them both in place as he came, as he filled, as he found the release of months of sublimated lust and want. It was an epiphany that he'd refused to acknowledge before, but now he did: oh how I've wanted you.
Still regaining his breath, Severus was up at his side, smoothing the hair from Harry's face, leaning in to kiss him as he murmured in accusation, "You screamed."
Catching the face between his hands, Harry brought their foreheads together. "Months and months worth. Let's see if you do any better," he challenged, pushing Severus away, causing him to sit back on his heels. Spreading his legs wide in invitation, Harry murmured, "Well?"
Severus' took only a moment to read the look in Harry's eyes, then was on him in an instant. Lifting Harry's legs to slide them up over his shoulders, he paused only once to murmur a lubrication spell as he positioned himself.
Harry was impatient, needing Severus inside him. Now, Severus, now." Locking his arms around Severus' neck, Harry pulled himself up at the precise moment that Severus thrust in, causing them both to cry out. "Shhh," Harry teased as Severus stopped to pant at his neck, then he was wordless again, as Severus withdrew and thrust suddenly again…and again…and again.
Harry held on and closed his eyes, reveling in this feeling of being rutted in the hay, smelling the chaff, as their pounding against each other lifted it into the air. He smiled as he let his head fall back, his body limp but receptive, his fingers twisting the hair at the back of Severus' neck, inhaling the sweaty scent of their efforts mingled with the earthy smell of the stable.
Severus had found his rhythm, and Harry melted into it, pushing and pulling back when Severus did, finding himself folded almost in half, then unfolded, biting his tongue in concentration as he poured himself into the frenzy and heady sensation of it all. I want more…I need more…more of him, so he squeezed as hard as he could around Severus' cock, arching his back to maximize contact, and was rewarded by Severus' gasp as he cried out, "Harry!" Not quite a scream, but it'll do.
He'd pushed Severus to his limit, though, so Harry held on and rode it out, as Severus grunted and groaned through the last several, markedly uncoordinated thrusts, emptying himself into a satisfied and sated Harry, who squeezed around him again, earning himself a hoarse but colorful expletive.
They lay, side by side in the hay, covered in straw and sweat and semen, their cloaks now somehow bunched up under their necks. Harry was the first to roll to his side, watching the rise and fall of Severus' strangely hairless chest as he recovered. In time, he, too, rolled to his side to face Harry.
Severus reached up lazily and plucked a piece of straw from Harry's hair. "You're a mess," he said softly, then traced Harry's lips with his fingers.
"You should see yourself, then," Harry said, returning the favor of picking out straw. He moved closer, and threw his arm across Severus, who responded by nudging his thigh in between Harry's legs. They lay for a moment, content in this refractory period, for the moment not thinking beyond the here and now of the stable.
"We didn't really scare the horses, did we?" Harry asked softly.
They'd dressed, and were standing just outside the stable, Harry having been reassured that the horses would suffer no permanent damage.
"I didn't thank you," Harry said quietly.
Severus turned to him and raised an eyebrow. "It was as much my pleasure as it was yours. At least I hope it was." At the look on Harry's face, Severus rolled his eyes. "Ah. For the rescue from the point of no return. No thanks is necessary, as it was partially my fault that you ran."
Harry looked at him solemnly. "I meant what I said, Severus. I trust you—on both counts."
Severus gave him a shrewd look. "Nothing will change, so far as what's to come. However," he cautioned as he pulled Harry close, "there's no putting the genie back in the bottle once it's out. But it must not become a distraction. Understood?"
Harry pulled back and gave him a disgusted look. "I'm an adult, Severus. Understood?"
Pulling him in snugly, Severus said at his ear, "Time to face the music, then." With the ease of Severus' soundless Apparation skills, they disappeared from sight.
They Apparated into the kitchen, their arms still around each other, to find the headmaster sitting at the table. His eyes lit up, then Harry saw just the faintest glimmer of something in his gaze, almost imperceptible, but Harry caught it.
"Ah, everything all sorted out, then?" he asked as he stood and pushed in his chair.
Harry and Severus stepped away from each other, and Harry was dismayed to see that Severus still had straw in his hair. At the look on Severus' face, Harry suspected that he did as well.
"All sorted out," Severus confirmed casually. Pulling Harry by the hand, he led him firmly from the kitchen, calling over his shoulder as he went, "Good night, Albus."
"Good night, Professor," Harry added feebly as they went, then said to Severus as they climbed the stairs to the loft, "That went well."
Severus flicked him on the cheek, leant in to briefly kiss him on the lips, then said, "He's seen worse. Good night, Harry."
Hand at his cheek, Harry called after the retreating figure, "Good night."
For the second time that night, Harry stared up at the bare beams of the ceiling, remembering that first night he'd lain there, confused yet comforted by the sounds of the voices from below. He experienced a similar comfort tonight, but this time, he thought to himself, there could be no waffling as to why. For the first time in his life, he truly trusted someone, the most unlikely of persons, to be sure. And he wondered, too, about which was supposed to come first: love or trust. Not that there was love…but he imagined there could be.
"Ten seconds at most to image and cast into the sphere, then on my command, you will disconnect. After that, you will obey me instantly. Do you understand?" Severus asked him seriously.
Harry felt a frisson of fear at the tone of Severus' voice, but agreed, "Image, cast, obey. I've got it," he said calmly, his voice belying the dread that was beginning to gather in his chest. Focus, Harry, focus. You can do this, you know you can, and Severus is here; you're not alone, and you can trust him.
Hands together, Harry closed his eyes, then did just as Severus had instructed. Within moments he stood in his mind, the sphere full and pulsing, filled to the brim with his magical core. When he heard Severus' gentle command, Harry took a breath and murmured inwardly, "Abruptio."
He wasn't certain if the sound actually occurred or only took place in his mind. With a crack, the connection was severed, and the pulse of a shockwave threw him backwards. The light in his mind receded until there was only darkness, as he heard Severus begin the countdown.
Harry shuddered as he began to feel ice seep through his veins, at the same time as he experienced an eerie but profound despair of loss: it was agony, such as he had never known before….
It's over, he thought, I'm doomed….hopeless…bereft…abandoned. He threw his arms out, wildly trying to clutch at the sides of the enclosure. There was nothing but space…he felt his body cartwheeling in the vacuum….
Opening his mouth, he let out a wail of distress, calling for someone to help him…anyone…but there's no one…I'm alone…I'll always be alone…there's no one who can help me now….
His stomach lurched, as he was overcome by nausea…. There's no going back…I'm going to die…alone… He choked on the bile in his throat…throwing his head back…gasping for air…blinking wildly sightless eyes….
I've always known it would end this way…I'm going to die…alone…no one can help me now…no one cares…no one has ever cared….
He was sobbing…thrashing as he railed against the injustice of it all. After all I've suffered…. His lips were like ice…numb…I'm cold…so cold…death will be a relief….
He heard the voice on the fringes of his consciousness, just as the faintest glimmer of light reappeared in his peripheral vision: a sphere. He felt strong arms supporting him from behind.
Harry…cast your Lumos now… Harry! Cast it now!
Although he felt as if his limbs were frozen, Harry slowly lifted his arm and mouthed the word, uncertain if there was any sound to it: Lumos.
Harry watched, eerily detached, as a faint line of light streaked towards the sphere, affixing itself to its surface. Too late…too late…too late….
Severus's voice was louder now, coaxing him…Retirates, Harry….Retirates… Harry, Retirates!
His mind wrapped itself around the word for a moment, then after one more urgent command from Severus, Harry, almost drained by the effort, soundlessly spoke the word, "Retirates."
He was overtaken by an explosion of light and filled with a searing sensation of heat, as the re-infusion from the sphere knocked him to his knees, the magic coursing painfully into his fingertips, up through his chest to his head, before shooting straight through his rigid legs to his toes. He was certain he was being consumed by fire, burning from the inside out.
But suddenly, mercifully, it was over. He felt himself cradled in arms that then lowered him to the floor, registered soothing voices that called to him over the noise of the pounding of his heart, then was comforted by gentle hands that he recognized smoothing his face. He lay limp, supported from behind, listening as the words became distinguishable, gradually aware that he was wet with sweat, his arms and legs still trembling.
"Harry?" He heard Dumbledore call him. Oh, I'd forgotten he was here. "Harry?"
It took an unusual effort for him to open his eyes, but when he did, he saw the old man kneeling on the floor in front of him. He was greeted by an immediate smile. "Harry." The voice was relieved, but Harry could hear something else there as well: pride.
"Professor," Harry replied weakly. "Did it work?" he asked, turning his head, looking for Severus. He felt himself jostled as he was pushed into a sitting position. Then Severus' face came into view from the side.
"Fifteen seconds will be more than enough. Can you do it again?" Severus asked as he moved to kneel beside the headmaster.
Harry stared at the two of them, then gave them a weary smile. "As long as it's not tonight."
After a short debriefing in the study, during which Harry was once again favored with Dumbledore's 'private stock', the headmaster bid them a good night, leaving Harry and Severus sitting at the small wooden table. So much has happened here, over the past six months, things I could've never imagined…with a person I'd never have believed.
"So, this will work?" Harry asked, not entirely certain why he needed reassurance again.
Not looking at him, Severus confirmed, "It will work."
"That's good, then," Harry said, frowning, wondering why Severus would not meet his eyes.
"You must be tired. Do you need assistance…?"
Harry shook his head as he slowly stood. "No, I'm fine." He waited, then when Severus had nothing more to add, Harry said slowly, "Good night, then."
Harry slept fitfully, for the first time in a long while his dreams the stuff of nightmares—a nondescript blackness that threatened to engulf him as he fled. He awoke with a start, his heart beating a frantic tattoo in his chest, then, as it slowed, he was startled to see a figure sitting on the edge of his bed. Struggling up on his elbows, he peered at him in the darkness.
"Severus? Criminy, you scared the shite out of me! What's wrong? What're you doing here?" he asked as he slumped back down on the bed.
There was a long pause, then Severus said, "I couldn't sleep."
"Oh. So…you decided to watch someone who could," Harry jested, not in earnest, but regretted it immediately when Severus stood. "No…don't go—" Stay…I know it's crazy, but it'd be so nice if—
He stopped when he saw the man slide his robe from his shoulders and step to the edge of the bed. "May I?"
Throwing the coverlet aside, Harry moved over. "Sure."
Severus slid between the sheets, pulled the coverlet up, then settled beside him, pulling Harry into his arms.
Relaxing into the warmth of him, Harry sighed. "Thanks. I needed this.
Tucking Harry's head under his chin, Severus whispered, "So did I."
They lay still for a moment, and Harry was about to drift off to sleep, when he heard Severus say, "You did very well this evening."
"Hmmm, I wasn't sure what you thought…you were strange…." Harry yawned.
Severus sighed. "I was a bit…surprised at how…vulnerable you were." Harry read the subtext; Severus had felt a bit vulnerable too, not that you'd be able to tell me that…directly.
"I told you I trusted you," Harry reminded him, barely able to keep his eyes open, but he heard Severus' reply.
"It's easy to say that you trust someone; the actual measure of that confidence is in what you do." He paused, then murmured, close to Harry's ear, "You passed with flying colors."
Although there were no further dress rehearsals, there was extensive discussion on Severus and Harry's performance. Harry tried, as best he could, to describe how that brief but intense loss of his magical core had affected him, both physically and mentally.
"I wish there were another way," Severus commented, and Harry could see the worry in his eyes.
Harry cocked his head, then reached out to touch him. "If there were, you and the headmaster would've found it." He shook his head, giving Severus a wry smile. "I'll survive. Look, here I am, with all my body parts." Let's not talk about the more psychical parts…like my sanity.
"Hmmm, barely." Squeezing Harry's hand almost painfully, he reached over and caught Harry's chin with his free hand. "But you must listen for my voice, and do exactly what I say, when I say it. You took far too long to react," he said, concern etched on his face. "Promise me," he demanded, his eyes almost forbidding.
Harry couldn't help the tease. "Aww, I think you care, Severus."
Severus stared at him and released his hand. "Oh, I care. But if something goes wrong because you do not listen, you'll pay. I swear it, Potter."
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Harry replied, "I promise. I'll listen."
He said it…he cares. I knew he did, but it's nice to hear him say it.
The next several weeks passed by, an infuriating mixture of days that seemed to stretch on without end, and nights that were over all too quickly. And although there was sex most nights, one of them traipsing across the loft to slip into bed with the other, some nights there was just sleeping, talking softly about everything and nothing before falling off to sleep, comforted by just having someone to share the solitude and waiting.
The headmaster had said nothing, but Harry could tell by the set of his face at breakfasts that he knew. Harry was grateful for the non-confrontation—he didn't relish the prospect of disagreeing with the old man at this point, and besides, Severus and I are adults, and what we're doing is none of his business…or so Harry told himself, when he caught Dumbledore staring at him sadly over the top of his teacup.
It turned out that the discussion was fated to occur; however, when it did, it was Harry himself who provoked it, unintentionally, of course. They were sitting in the kitchen, reviewing several potential dates that Pettigrew had recently provided, as possible nights when the Dark Lord would be secluded and fairly unattended by his customary entourage.
Harry would later think to himself that it was this topic, the inevitability of what they were about to do, that spurred him on to bring up to the two of them something that had, in fact, been on his mind for weeks.
"I have something I want to say," Harry announced as they were about to leave the table.
Dumbledore looked mildly surprised, Severus wary. The headmaster slid his cup to the side, crossed his hands on the table, then prompted him, "Go on, Harry." Harry wondered why the old man would look so resigned, then shook it off and forged on.
Taking a deep breath, Harry said calmly, "I've been thinking about this for a good while. I know how you'll both react, but you owe it to me to listen, and consider what I have to say." He watched as Severus set down his cup, pulled the chair out and retook his seat opposite him, his expression curiously hard.
"Go on," Severus said quietly. "We're listening."
Looking from one to the other, Harry gave them the punch line first, thinking that he'd add the supportive arguments afterward. "I have just as much right to decide my future as the two of you. I want to take the Draught of Living Death too. I've thought about how—"
It was as far as he got—in fact, as far as he was going to get. "No!" the two men chorused together, Dumbledore emphasizing his response with a slap to the table, Severus sitting up straight, his eyes wide with horror.
"What would even make you think such a thing?" Severus bit out. "It's not a topic for discussion. Not now. Not ever. Do you understand?"
Dumbledore addressed his first words, strangely, not to Harry, but to Severus. "You understand my objection now? This was bound to happen. He's been locked up here with us for over six months, and now, you've put it into his mind to…."
Harry was outraged. "What're you talking about? Severus has nothing to do with this! This is my own idea!"
Severus pursed his lips and inclined his head towards the headmaster. "Albus believes that our…physical intimacy is responsible for your…own idea. He's spoken to me of his reservations on more than one occasion." He gave Harry a shrewd look that made him feel uncomfortable. "That a growing attachment between the two of us would make it difficult…to say goodbye."
Harry shook his head, nonplussed. "You're wrong. It' would've been hard, no matter what. And not just Severus, sir. You, too." He held out his hands in a gesture of pleading. "At least won't you listen to my reasons? It's only fair."
The headmaster shook his head, then Harry looked to Severus, who lowered his eyes as Dumbledore went on. "No, Harry. No. It will not be discussed nor entertained at all." His expression softened as he considered Harry's crestfallen face. "My boy, you're on the cusp of experiencing peacetime wizardom—what a privilege, what possibilities. The stars will be your limit—it will be life as you've never known it before, and you're meant to experience all of it. Not wither away, closeted with two old cranky curmudgeons." He glanced at Severus and raised an eyebrow.
"Albus and I are not always in agreement, but on this, Harry, I must take his side. The answer is an emphatic no."
Harry didn't know which to express first: disappointment or indignation. But as he looked at their faces, he saw their determination, and yes, sadness as well. It was the latter, more than anything, that made him ultimately concede. "Isn't there some way, any way, that I could see you both? Not very often, but once in a while?" He rubbed his hands in the hair at his temple. "I'm not handling it very well…that I'll not see either of you again. I've gotten…attached."
Dumbledore smiled, then reached over to take Harry's hand between his gnarled ones. Rubbing the back of it, he told him affectionately, "No, it's best for all of us that we say adieu—remember, six months ago you were doing admirably without either one of us. You'll soon move on; you have your friends, Harry, and no doubt, all the opportunity that any wizard could hope for. And fond memories of Severus and me as well, I hope." Patting his hand, the headmaster signaled that the conversation was over, the matter resolved, with no redress for Harry.
Harry sat, toying with his cup, then was aware that he and Severus were alone. "You couldn't have helped me out there?" he accused without venom.
"No, I'm afraid that this time…much as I've thought of the possibility myself," Severus said softly, causing Harry to look up in surprise, "I believe that Albus is wise."
So, he admits that he's thought of this as well. That makes it a bit less painful. But not by much…. To be honest, I figured they'd react this way, but I had to try. I could have a life here, I think…but it seems I'm outnumbered…but not by much…two against one, but considering who the two of them are…well, that's it. Fuck.
Supper that evening was an unusually silent affair, at least so far as Harry and Severus were concerned. The headmaster seemed entirely unaffected by their earlier disagreement, chatting about the horses, the weather, the vintage that was part of their repast. Or so Harry thought he was, until he caught the blue eyes studying him somberly, when he looked at Dumbledore over the top of his wine glass. But try as Harry might, even the weight of his silence and the sullenness of his glare couldn't entice Severus to look at him.
He knows how bothered I am. Well, good. I hope he worries a bit. But they both just want what's best for me…but damn it! Shouldn't I have a say in what that might be? Still, it's the headmaster…it's how he's always treated me, and Severus…I imagine he's not had any more success at resisting him, once he's made his mind up, than I've ever had.
That evening, Harry politely declined the customary eventide game of chess, choosing instead a tome from a shelf, then buried himself in the armchair by the fire. He flipped distractedly through the pages, looking up, from time to time, to find that his companions seemed to be having a similar difficulty with concentration. There was a tension in the air that seemed to dare one of them to be the first to speak, but Harry was determined it wouldn't be him. After all, he'd wanted to speak, and had been denied….
Finally tired of the stand-off, Harry bid them both an early goodnight. He lay on his back, staring at the beams on the ceiling, the patterns of which he'd memorized long ago, and it was now part of his nighttime ritual to follow the lines and angles of them as he relaxed and waited for sleep. He noted, as he became drowsy and was just about to drift off, that the comforting murmur of voices was wafting up from the room below. Get a grip, Harry, this doesn't change anything—you still have a job to do, so get over it and get on with it. Besides, what's the use in sulking? Time is short.
When Harry awakened in the night, the house was silent. As he lay, in a half-stupor, he became aware of a low light in the loft. His last thought before falling asleep returned in a rush…time is short. All the resentment of the evening seemed suddenly so childish and unimportant in the face of the stark reality of…time is short.
Clad only in his y-fronts, Harry padded along the curved corridor, then halted at the door. Leaning casually against the door jamb, he waited for Severus to look up from the chair where he sat, reading a parchment.
"What time is it?" Harry asked, crossing the room to stand in front of him.
Severus watched him approach, then tilted his head back, his eyes warm but with a question in them. "Late. Well past three. You couldn't sleep?" The lines around his mouth relaxed, when Harry sank to his knees in front of him. "You're finished sulking, then?" His voice was soft, but entirely devoid of teasing.
Harry slid his arms along the tops of Severus' thighs, then matter-of-factly began to undo the buttons of his trousers as he lifted his eyes to Severus' face. "Not really sulking. More like…disappointed." He didn't look down as he insinuated his hand into the warmth of Severus' boxers. "Time's short. So…we'll not be wasting…any of it," he said emphatically as he took hold of Severus' already half-hard cock.
Drawing in a sudden breath, Severus surprised Harry with how quickly he reacted. Catching Harry's face between both hands, he leant forward and angled his head to find Harry's mouth—not a tender kiss, but an urgent, almost violent groping of lips, then an insistent thrust of his tongue as he slid his hands from Harry's face to the back of his head, fixing him firmly in place as he plundered…sucked…licked…coaxed, until Harry felt himself falling forward into Severus' lap as he moaned into his mouth.
When Severus moved to his ear, then began a slow, torturous mapping of his throat, Harry pulled away abruptly, but still kept his hand on Severus' fully-hardened cock. "Since time is short, we're going to make the most of it. Five times a day," he said, his voice low and sultry, his eyes dancing, watching the slow smile spread on Severus' face.
"Four, at most," Severus countered, his face now free of its careworn lines.
"Three," Harry quickly challenged, then stopped short when he realized he'd been had.
Severus let out a soft laugh. "Done. Three."
Harry gave him a wry smile, still working his hand inside Severus' trousers. "Three will do, my sore arse be damned."
Pushing Harry away, Severus stood and casually began divesting himself of his trousers and shoes. "Oh, I think we can remedy that." Stepping to the bed, he sat and swung his legs up, then surprised Harry when he rolled to his stomach. Looking backward, his chin on his shoulder, Severus said seductively, "Well, as time is short, what are you waiting for?" When Harry stood, mouth gaping, Severus sighed, but murmured with a smile, "Fuck me, Harry." His eyes held Harry's and watched as realization dawned.
"Really?" Harry breathed out as he stepped to the bed, already shucking his shoes off, pushing his y-fronts down.
"Really, that is if you're up to it," Severus needled him, not in earnest, as he hiked up his behind suggestively.
Grinning, Harry knelt beside him, then whispered, "I'm up to it. Accio lube."
The eyes flew open, then softened. "Hmm, I thought you were asleep." His hand renewed its caressing of Harry's cheek.
Harry captured the hand, and sucked the tip of a finger, watching the arousal spark in Severus' eyes as they lost their drowsy look, to be replaced by a smolder. Moving on to the next finger, Harry said, in between sucks, "You really…" He pulled the entire finger into his mouth this time, watching Severus' face go slack. "…meant what you said…" He slipped the finger out, making an audible popping noise at the end of it. "…that you thought of it too…?" He'd moved on to the thumb, smiling around his mouthful as Severus groaned and pressed his new arousal against Harry's thigh. "About me staying?" He finished by planting a kiss on each fingertip, then folded them down, making a fist of Severus' hand, which he covered with his own.
"I did," Severus admitted, gazing at their clasped hands between them. Looking up, he added, "More than once. I'm not good at sentimental confessions, but I…shall miss you, more than you know." He eyes clouded slightly. "But that changes nothing." He stared at Harry for a long moment, then came up on an elbow to give Harry a gentle nudge with his hand and an insistent nudge of his thigh. "Roll over."
As he obeyed, Harry let out a sigh of contentment, then laughed into the pillow when he heard Severus' next words.
"My turn. This is two, I believe. We wouldn't want to fall behind," the warm breath said at his ear as Harry felt Severus coax his legs apart.
"Four," Harry mumbled into the cushion.
"Three, or you'll be the death of us both," Severus replied, as Harry felt the warm lube dripping down into the crack of his arse.
"Hmm, might be a better way to go out…in a blaze of fucking," Harry sighed, as he felt Severus begin to stretch him with his fingers.
"At my age, a distinct possibility," Severus told him sarcastically.
Harry's glib retort died with an, "Ummpff," as Severus' timely thrust took his breath away.
"Wands?" Harry asked.
The headmaster nodded. "Yes, because Priori Incantatem will most certainly be performed."
"Oh, right," Harry agreed slowly, then looked up at Severus, who was leaning against the sink.
"I'll need to have your wand for the Killing Curse, but not before. That way, when they're tried, Priori will show that I…" He trailed off, then made a dismissive gesture. "The most important detail will be that you cast the curse."
Harry stared at him, thinking over his words. "What will Priori show that you did?" he asked quietly.
Severus returned the look, unflinching. "It will show that I killed Pettigrew. It's best that you know—no surprises, although I can't imagine why you would object. He would make an attempt to stop us, I'm certain, and that would prove disastrous."
"I hadn't thought of that, but I suppose you're right." He chewed at his lower lip. "I saved his life once, but now…." He shook his head. "No, no objection," he said softly.
"After Voldemort is dead, you and Severus will switch wands again," Dumbledore continued. "And, Severus will destroy Voldemort's wand—a bit of insurance that will lend credence to your account. If Priori were to be performed on that wand, there might be questions as to why he didn't manage to get off a single curse. Besides, it's not an artifact that should be allowed to survive—best to destroy it, once and for all."
Harry nodded. "I've got that part—after the Killing Curse, I notice that Severus is down and that the other Death Eater in the room is missing. Or should I mention that I've seen him take Voldemort's wand?"
"I don't believe that's necessary," the headmaster advised him. "Keep it simple. With your account and Priori, they'll accept your word, I'm certain. They'll be all too happy with the outcome not to be. They will not labor over who killed Severus—a Death Eater or Voldemort." He gave Severus a sad smile.
Harry had an ever-increasing sense of time running out; Severus now spent every night at Spinner's End, waiting for Pettigrew to present their 'opportunity'. Harry felt Severus' absence acutely, and found the headmaster a poor substitute for Severus' company, especially after they'd retired, when he lay and stared at the ceiling, knowing that he was doomed to spend the entire night alone.
After so many months of waiting for the end to come…I wish it could be put off somehow, that there could be a suspension of time…that I could have more time…that we could have more time. I know it's a selfish wish, and not one I'd ever tell either Severus or Dumbledore; it's irrational, for sure, but it's how I feel, damn it.
It was well into December when Severus Apparated suddenly into the kitchen one morning, interrupting Harry and the headmaster's breakfast preparation. Harry knew by the look on Severus' face, before he even had a chance to open his mouth.
"Tonight," Severus simply said, giving Dumbledore a satisfied nod of his head.
"Excellent," the headmaster replied, then raised the kettle. "Breakfast?"
Time seemed to crawl, but at the same time, it seemed to pass with mind-defying speed. There were no last-minute preparations, no final practices or reminders, no rehearsal of what they were to do, no recitation of facts and circumstances that they all knew like the backs of their hands.
No, the day was spent much like the ones before, except for a late afternoon detour spent in Severus' lab. Harry watched as Severus took down the tin and removed one of the Draught devices, then placed it in the inside pocket of the cloak he was to wear.
"You're not taking a spare?" Harry asked, perched on the edge of the desk.
"Of course not. It wouldn't be prudent to have such a thing found on my person…afterward," Severus replied, matter-of-factly.
Harry wouldn't meet his eyes as he tried to ask casually, "What about…afterward, you know, your arrangements?"
Severus replaced the tin, then came to stand by him at the desk. "There'll be no memorial or funeral. Just a simple burial. Nothing with which you need to concern yourself." He looked at Harry more closely. "You need not be part of that at all."
Harry finally looked at him to say, "I'm not sure I'd know how to act…knowing you aren't really dead. Wouldn't want to give it away, so you're right. I'll stay away."
He seemed lost in his thoughts for a moment, tugging at his lower lip, then told Severus soberly, "I've made arrangements as well…just in case. Wrote it out for Mr. Weasley when I was there for Christmas."
Severus' expression darkened. "Good that you thought of it—you have a fortune and a house, after all. But," he pointed out, "I'm confident that it will remain exactly what it is—a precaution."
Harry couldn't help himself, then, and leant in and slid his arms around Severus' waist. "I wish we had a night left," he said mournfully.
Smiling at him, Severus pulled him close, and said at his ear, "Who needs a night?" then Disapparated them away.
They had one last lark on Merry and Pippin, a wild ride round the far side of the lake, a pace that left the horses steaming on their return. After a quick rubdown and an ample measure of oats for both of them, there was nothing left now to be done, except what Harry had wanted all day.
In an eerily familiar fashion, Severus led them both into the stall at the end of the aisle. Silently, they removed their clothing, then Severus held Harry at arm's length, and studied him, from top to bottom, until Harry felt himself flush, and pushed him backwards into the hay.
Unlike that first time, their actions and movements were slow and unhurried, ones of softness and consideration, practiced yet still full of wonder, familiar but not taken for granted. Harry set himself the task of memorizing Severus' body, not that he didn't already know it very well by now. But today, it seemed suddenly important to pay attention to every last bit of him: the contour of his skin, the angles where sinew and muscle formed joints, the texture of his hair where it curled slightly at the nape of his neck, the taste of salt sweatiness on his chest, the scent of sex after he'd come.
And although Harry experienced pleasure too, because Severus was certainly attentive to make certain that he felt it, for Harry it wasn't at all about need and want and release. He was making an imprint on his memory that, he knew, would have to last him for a lifetime. When he had all these things stored deep inside him, he gave himself over to making it a memorable last occasion for Severus as well.
They took care to take time, desire building slowly as they went, orgasm finally breaking like the cresting of a gentle wave, washing over the two of them, dragging them both under briefly, then leaving them gasping for air by the end of it.
They rested back in the straw, and lay for a while, not speaking, listening to the sound of the horses nickering softly nearby. When Severus finally stood and reached a hand down to Harry, they stood crushed together, as they kissed, long and leisurely.
When they finally did speak, Severus brushed Harry's cheek with the back of his hand. "No goodbyes."
Harry shook his head and swallowed. "No, no goodbyes."
The only detail that had required precise timing had been sending Hedwig on her way, early in the afternoon. Harry had penned the note to Kingsley Shacklebolt, alerting him to their location and mission, imploring him to appear on scene at precisely nine that night.
It was quarter past eight when the three of them gathered in the sitting room to raise a final glass for success and, Harry supposed, farewell.
"All set?" the headmaster asked the two of them.
"All set," Harry replied, while Severus only nodded.
"Godspeed both of you—Severus, I'll see you shortly." Turning to Harry, Dumbledore pulled him into a firm embrace. "I'm so very proud of you, my boy. It gave me a bit of a thrill, claiming you as my grandson on occasion. I couldn't have chosen any better," he said at Harry's ear. Pulling away, he studied Harry for a moment, and Harry was wondering if those were really tears in the old man's eyes, when the headmaster asked, "You have your Invisibility Cloak—just as a precaution?"
"Shite, no," Harry murmured, shooting Severus an apologetic glance. "Hold on," he instructed, then Apparated up to his room, where all of his belongings were piled on the bed, ready to be 'delivered' after the fact to Grimmauld Place. Rummaging through the items, Harry located the cloak, then tucked it in behind his belt beneath his cloak. He was about to Apparate back, when he stopped, and walked slowly to the door.
Looking out at the circular loft, he was filled with a sudden longing and unexpected flash of grief. Stepping out into the corridor, he briefly closed his eyes, remembering all that had happened in this loft; he opened his eyes then and looked sadly at the doorways to the rooms, walking the crescent-shaped hallway, considering where he'd spent so much of the past six months: his room, where he'd lain at night and listened to the comforting sound of their voices below; the study where they'd trained, where the trust that he now felt for the man had borne its first fruits; Severus' room, which he'd only come to visit as of late, but it was there that his mind stalled for a moment; finally, the potions lab, where he'd learnt how Severus' skill had perfected the Draught and its delivery….
He'd started as a reluctant lodger, but now, now…he felt the lump in his throat as he realized… I'll not be back again, and this is a permanent goodbye to the only place besides Hogwarts that's ever felt like home.
When he reappeared below and gave the two of them a nod, Severus stepped in and pulled him close.
"Ready," Harry whispered.
The first thing Harry noticed was that their destination was considerably warmer than their departure point. Severus still held him tight against his chest as he stepped them into the shadows of the trees, then took the time to scan their environs. Seemingly satisfied, he turned Harry by the shoulders and pointed into the distance.
"There," he said quietly. "We're at the back of the estate. Pettigrew will be waiting just outside the east gate. We'll need him long enough to get through the wards, then you know what must be done," he finished grimly. When Harry nodded mutely, Severus reached out and disheveled Harry's hair with a hand, then muttered an incoherent spell as he drew his wand tip across Harry's cheek, raising an angry red welt that made Harry's eyes water. "Make it convincing," Severus murmured, just before he Apparated them to the pillars of the gate.
As soon as they touched the ground, Severus stepped away and shook him roughly by the arm, his wand pointed at his throat. "Careful, Potter. I wouldn't want to spoil your pretty appearance any more than necessary. The Dark Lord wants you 'unspoilt'. Not that you'll remain that way for very long…." He finished with a malicious sneer, then looked around them, and raised his voice slightly, "Pettigrew—you'd better be here, or you're late. Show yourself."
For a moment they waited, Harry holding his breath. If Pettigrew isn't here… But then a figure seemed to detach itself from the far end of the gatepost. Indistinguishable at first, it waddled closer, till Harry could make out the unmistakable groveling posture of the man.
"Severus," he wheezed, his eyes wide as he took in Harry. "Harry Potter?" he squeaked in surprise.
Giving Harry a vicious jerk that made him gasp, Severus replied, "So you see. A gift for our Lord—one that will be certain to make him look kindly on us both, wouldn't you say, Pettigrew?" He punctuated the question with a poke at Harry's neck with his wand. Harry's eyes widened in not altogether fabricated fear. He felt a sudden involuntary shiver of dread. God, Severus….
A slow smile spread across Pettigrew's face, then he clapped his hands once in glee. "Oh, well done, Severus. Well done! But how?"
Severus motioned him towards the gate. "Our Boy Wonder and his friends became careless. I've known where they were for weeks. All that was needed was your help to arrange a delivery. Shall we present our prize, then?" Severus asked, his eyes glittering in response to the bright green ones, now wide with terror.
Pettigrew hurried forward, murmured an incoherent word, and the lock of the gate clicked and fell loose on its hinge. Pushing it open, Pettigrew stepped aside and motioned with his head for Severus to pass. Once through, he secured it again, then waved an arm as he led them across the lawn towards the large dwelling.
Harry half stumbled, was half dragged along by Severus' grip on his arm. And although it wasn't part of their scripted plan, Harry couldn't help himself. He spat out at Pettigrew's back as they walked, "You're pathetic. You traitorous little worm, my parents trusted you! And look at you now, you piece of filth! I should've let Sirius kill you—I saved your life!" he spat out.
Pettigrew didn't reply until they reached the door. Unspelling the wards, he then turned back to the two of them. "Just like your father—you trust too much, Potter." At his words, Harry felt Severus' hand tighten on his arm. "Look where your trust has brought you now." Hmm, yeah, you're about to find out just where it's brought me, you little fucker.
Severus pushed the door open a crack, then turned back to Pettigrew. "How many are inside? I don't want them stealing our prize out from under us."
Pettigrew's face darkened. "There are only two outside of the sitting room, but they wouldn't dare. I'm a favorite of the Dark Lord's, as you will be when…" His voice froze, as he watched Severus rotate his wand from Harry's neck to point directly at him. "Severus?"
"You're absolutely correct about trust, Wormtail. Trusting me has been Harry's greatest challenge, but alas, your downfall." Before the man had the chance to answer or react, Severus flicked his wand once. "Avada Kedavra," he said, in a barely audible voice.
Harry stiffened as he closed his eyes, sensing the green flash through his eyelids, as the spell hit Pettigrew full in the face. When he opened them again, the man was lying, face-up, in the verge to the side of the door.
Harry was forced to look away as Severus jerked him inside the door, then soundlessly closed it behind them. They were in a large entranceway that led to a hallway, at the end of which was a set of double doors. Harry guessed that this was where they would find their prey, as two unmasked men in Death Eater robes lay sprawled in chairs at either side of them. Severus pulled him along the way, their footsteps hidden by thick carpeting and stealth. Halfway down the hallway, Severus pulled Harry into a sheltering alcove.
Placing a finger on Harry's lips, Severus searched his eyes. Severus' own were completely black, dilated by adrenalin, no doubt, Harry thought to himself. Pulling Harry close, he murmured at his ear, "This is it. Remember, when you hear me say your name, Harry Potter, you must shut your eyes and begin, no matter what is occurring. Trust me, Harry, and listen for my instructions to pull you back." He gripped Harry tightly by the shoulders. "Understood?"
Harry leant his full weight against him, pressing his face in against his neck. His heart was pounding wildly in his chest. "Understood." Just as Severus was about to pull away, Harry whispered, "Thanks, Severus, for everything." I wish I had more time to say what I want to say, but you wouldn't let me, even if I did.
He felt the man hesitate, then the words, "Don't thank me yet."
He pulled Harry free of the alcove, and this time, he marched him down the center of the hallway, making no attempt to hide their advance. His grip on Harry was once again harsh, his wand once more pressed in against Harry's neck. They were almost to the door before one of the Death Eater's looked up sleepily.
"Bloody hell! What are you—" There was a deadly flash of green that cut his words short. The second Death Eater managed to make it out of his chair, and even draw his wand, before Severus dispatched him in the same manner.
Kicking his body away from the door, Severus held out his wand to Harry. "Time for the first switch." Taking Severus' wand and handing over his own, Harry pocketed it as planned, squared his shoulders, then gave Severus a curt nod.
"Let's do it." Let's do it. Years of dread, months of training, weeks of waiting, and it comes down to three little words.
Severus took him by the arm again, took a deep breath, then threw open the double doors and dragged Harry in, his wand carefully trained on him.
Harry stumbled as he walked, trying to take in the room and its occupants. It was a study of sorts; he had the vague impression of bookcases and tapestries along the walls, but what riveted his attention were the blazing fire and the chair pulled up to one side of it. As they approached, the tall, frail figure seemed to drift up out of it, the familiar glow of the red eyes fixed on him as they approached. A thin, cruel voice ordered them to halt where they were. The man had his wand drawn.
"Severus. I wasn't expecting you…nor our esteemed guest," Voldemort said almost casually as he stepped away from the fireplace. He took a step closer and stopped. "You can appreciate my…caution, of course. Severus, explain, if you please." He had circled around and was now standing with his back to the door, his wand now fully raised, his sharp, malignant eyes almost mesmerizing.
Severus pushed Harry so violently that he fell to his knees with a cry. He stayed where he was, not looking up at either of them, poised as he was in the small distance between the two of them. Focus, Harry, focus. Just listen for the cue words….
"Pettigrew and I suspected we knew where the boy was, my Lord. I wasn't certain until tonight. We surprised Potter and his two accomplices not far from Godric's Hollow. His little friends were easily dispatched; the prize of Harry Potter himself, I knew would belong to only you. Pettigrew arranged for our passage here."
He's said it, Harry thought to himself. He let himself slump back on his heels, his head down, keeping his eyes closed as he imaged the sphere. As he rapidly filled it, he was aware of the words being exchanged between the two of them.
Ah, a worthy gift, Severus. Perhaps I've misjudged you.
My desire has always and only been to serve, my Lord.
Hmmm, yes, and now…here he is…so helpless…so defenseless.
I tried not to damage him….
This is not how I envisioned his end, I must admit. His wand, Severus?
Here, my Lord.
Harry had already murmured his inward, "Abruptio," and with Severus last words, he felt the sphere suddenly vanish from his mind. He was once again overtaken by a keen and painful sense of loss, the shattering knowledge that he would never know happiness again; his body fought with the wave of nausea that hit it like a wall. As Harry struggled to keep his conscious thought, he heard it, almost dreamlike.
Harry squinted against the brightness of the light, even though his eyes were firmly closed. He sensed the fall of a body near him. He was torn…torn between the need to fold in on himself to shut out the unbearable pain of emptiness, but at the same time, something whispered in his mind, No, remember what you have to do. Fight it, Harry. It all depends on what you do now. Don't give in. Fight it, Harry. Fight for what you want. Fight for what you know is the right thing to do.
Still sitting back on his heels, Harry slowly opened his eyes. He watched hazily through a blur of pain as Severus snapped a wand in two, then murmured an, "Incendio." He vaguely registered Severus placing a wand in his hand, and pulling his own from Harry's cloak. Harry could hear Severus speaking now.
"Harry, Harry, close your eyes! We've got to finish this. The Order must be on the grounds by now! Harry!"
But instead of obeying, Harry shook his head and gave Severus a dreamy look. With what felt like a superhuman effort, he reached inside his cloak, fumbled in the small pocket, then withdrew his hand. He saw the flash of shock in Severus' eyes, and knew that he must act quickly. Wetting his lips with his tongue, he slurred out the words.
"Remember…I trust you…" Then with what he hoped was a smile, Harry popped the capsule into his mouth and bit down hard.
There was a streak of heat, and then ice, as he felt himself falling forward. He heard Severus' initial reaction, though. No! Harry! Your magical…must…back…survive…
Harry's hearing was gone then, as was his sight. The last living sensation he felt, though, were strong arms that cradled him.
Harry's first realization was that he was cold: a bone-chilling, mind-numbing, limb-shaking cold. But before he could even begin to process why or how or where, his lungs constricted with his first involuntary, gasping intake of breath, and the burning and knife-like pain that this produced drove the sensation of cold out of his consciousness.
He was doomed to repeat this wracking maneuver over and over, drawing in air in huge gulps, his throat swollen and feeling as if it were on fire, a throbbing in his head that made him sightless, but underneath the maelstrom of sensation, he was aware of voices murmuring, felt himself being gently handled, being wrapped in something restrictive but comfortingly secure, then when he felt the familiar compression of Apparation, he lost consciousness once again.
He awoke to a buzzing in his ears, then realized that it was a voice calling his name, over and over. Severus. Now that his mind was awake, he was suddenly overcome by a delayed sense of loss, of certain defeat, and agonizing hopelessness. It wasn't nearly as overwhelming as he remembered it, and he was just beginning to wonder why, when it all came back to him: Voldemort, the Draught, Severus… my magical core. Heaving a sigh, he struggled to open his eyes, but it was a futile effort. He could now make out Severus' words.
"Potter, wake up. This instant, now! The longer we delay, the worse this will turn out. Potter! Harry!" Harry felt the arms shake him by the shoulders, then Severus said, "Albus, he's coming out of it. Look at his eyelids."
Encouraged, Harry made the effort again, this time successfully managing to open his eyes to narrow slits. The wavy outlines of two faces swam into his field of vision.
"All right, Harry. You're back. Now, clear your mind and establish the connection with the sphere."
"No! No!" Harry wailed, striking out with his arms and kicking his feet, then felt himself pinioned by someone stronger than he. The voice sounded perplexed but still insistent. Severus, Severus, you have to listen this time….
"Stop it, stop it now! Harry, you must do as I—"
Harry shook his head violently as he tried to articulate what he wanted to say. "No…no…not that. Promise me," he gasped out, then felt the arms fix his head in place, a hand smoothing the hair away from his face.
"Promise you what, Harry?" Severus asked him.
"Won't Obliviate me…send me back. Promise…promise me," he almost sobbed.
The arms pulled him close, a hand rubbing at his back, as the voice murmured at his ear, "I promise. No Obliviation. Now, do as I say, Harry. Clear your mind so I can put you to rights."
Harry let his head drop to Severus' shoulder, but obeyed. He felt his mind invaded by the warmth of copper, then watched as the glowing green sphere drifted into view. Harry mentally cast his Lumos, then once the thread surged between his wand and the pulsing shape, he breathed out, "Retirates." The strobe of heat and light drove away the residual of the chill he still felt, but left him unconscious once again.
Harry opened his eyes cautiously, without difficulty this time. Light was pouring into the room from the skylight, and for a moment he blinked as he tried to focus on his surroundings. He moved his arms and flexed his fingers, then bent his knees as he wriggled his toes. Stretching out, he flexed his neck and rolled his head on his shoulders. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he looked around the room.
Severus sat in the chair by the bed, watching him. "Back from the dead, are we?" he asked dryly, his sarcasm belied by the look of pure relief on his face.
Falling back to the pillow, Harry didn't apologize. "Yeah, guess I am." He took another glance around the room and was startled to find the headmaster seated in the chair on the other side of the bed. "Oh, hello, sir." That's good, we're all here…all here…Severus, me and the headmaster…all here…all here!
Struggling to sit up, he demanded, "Well, it worked? Voldemort's dead, I remember that part. You pulled it off, the Draught?" he directed at Severus, who had stood and was now seating himself at the foot of the bed.
Dumbledore answered instead, "Yes, he pulled it off, despite your little caper, Harry." When Harry looked at him guiltily, the old man nodded, a forbidding frown on his face. "You do realize that until I retrieved Severus, I thought you'd been killed, young man?" he lectured sternly. When Harry's eyes widened, he went on, "Imagine my relief—three days of wondering what had happened amiss, mourning your loss…even doubting that Severus had managed to take the Draught at all, given what must've gone wrong."
Harry gave him a grim smile. "Now you know what it felt like, Headmaster. And you…you only had to wait, what? Three days?" Wow, you've got bollocks, saying that now…before things are decided…but it felt good to say it.
Dumbledore stared at him for a long moment, then inclined his head. "A very uncomfortable three days, I'll confess." He glanced at Severus. "I brought Severus back last night, and only learned then what you'd done. Very foolish, Harry. Considering the state you were in. The Draught could've proven fatal in light of your tenuous magical state."
Harry waved his remonstration away. "Well, I'm fine now, and it was the only thing I knew to do…since neither of you would listen to me." He turned his attention back to the other side of the bed. "Besides, I trusted Severus…." Criminy, I didn't think of that at all…but then I didn't think of any of it ahead of time, so….
Severus interrupted, his irritation flaring. "It was foolish trust. Taking the Draught like you did…with your magical core not restored…you might've killed yourself! Did you even stop to consider this?" he demanded, his lips a thin line.
Harry refused to be cowed, but gracefully showed the first traces of chagrin. "No…no, I didn't think about the timing at all. I didn't plan it, you know—it just occurred to me when I went up for the cloak." He flushed under Severus' glare, then added defiantly, "I'm sorry…but I don't regret it. If you would've listened to me, I wouldn't have had to do it at all," he finished hotly.
Severus' eyes became strangely still, and Harry was considering this change, when the man said to him quietly, "All right. I'm listening now. Tell me why you'd risk your life on such a stunt."
Harry looked to the headmaster and saw that he'd leant in and was listening intently. Taking a deep breath, Harry studied his hands, gathering his thoughts before he began. I have every reason to believe that my status here isn't a permanent one…yet. So I have to make every word count.
He directed his words at Severus. "All the reasons that you gave for disappearing, I could claim as my own. I know you don't see how it's the same thing, but it is. What will my life be like, now that it's over? Remember that talk we had about celebrity? Well I meant it—I don't want any part of it," he said, his voice low and intense. "I'll have to live a lie, too. Do you know how hard that would be for me? To pretend that none of this happened? Especially you, sir," he said as he glanced at the headmaster.
He shook his head as he pointed at Severus. "I've two friends that I'll miss—Ron and Hermione, but now that the war's over, they'll be moving on with their lives. Hell, I was already feeling like a third wheel by the time we started this." He swallowed visibly. "As uncertain as the past six months have been, for some reason they've been the best of my life." He squinted at Severus. "Why d'you think that is? What would make me want to stay here?" It was a rhetorical question, so Harry moved on.
"I'll tell you what it is, since you seem to need to have it spelled out for you. You're my friend first. And that should count for something. But…" He paused, trying to read Severus' unreadable expression. "More than that, I love you," he finished quietly. "I'm an adult; I know what I want, and it's a life here, with you." He glanced at Dumbledore. "And you as well, sir. I think I've earned it…the right to retire, just as much as the two of you." When there was no reaction from either of them, except for Severus sitting up straighter as he stared at him, Harry delivered his final plea.
"Severus, remember I said this a long time ago. That evening at the beginning, when we talked about how tempting it was…to live in the gloaming…in that place where there were no mistakes to regret, no one's expectations to meet, just a future…." He ducked his head and caught Severus' eyes, now wide with recollection. Harry nodded. "It's what I want," he said gently. "A future with you in it, that's all I ask. The prospect of going back, you not being there…." He shook his head. "No appeal at all. Trusting you has spoilt me," he chided.
Harry lay back on the bed and closed his eyes, exhausted. He heard the rustling of robes at his side as the headmaster stood, then the soft words, "Well, well, an interesting development. Your call, Severus," before he left the room. Harry felt the dip in the bed as Severus moved closer.
"Open your eyes and look at me," Severus commanded.
Warily, Harry cracked one open. Severus made a face, then said more gently, "Both of them, if you please." When Harry obeyed, Severus pursed his lips.
"I'm irascible and disagreeable, set in my ways, perverse and self-centered, prone to fits of self-isolation and moodiness. I've made a career of terrorizing small children. Although I understand your reasons for wanting to avoid the wizarding world, I can't for the life of me comprehend what in my character might recommend myself to anyone. But, given the lengths to which you've gone to leave that world and inflict both of us with no doubt considerable anguish, far be it from me to be the one to stand in the way of your professed devotion, not that it's at all misunderstood or unrequited." He finished, gazing at Harry solemnly, only his restless hands on the coverlet betraying any emotion behind his words.
Harry cocked his head. "So…you're saying I can stay, then?"
Severus gave him the barest of smiles. "In short, yes. But be fair-warned, there'll be no one to complain to when you find me difficult."
Harry moved forward in the bed, into the arms that were outstretched. "I thrive on difficult."
A week later, Harry grimly folded the Prophet and set it aside, then glanced up at Severus. "Well, it's a mess; that's for certain. Mostly my fault, but I wouldn't change a thing," he added unapologetically.
Severus shrugged. "I didn't expect that you would. They know the most important parts, due to Priori. But as there was no eyewitness, they will never know what exactly happened to you and me. Whether it was the Dark Lord or a fourth person present." He paused as he watched Harry's face. "They will not let it go anytime soon. The death of the Boy Who Lived was a momentous event," he added dryly. "And the fact that the Dark Lord's wand is missing…they will search for an unaccounted-for Death Eater. Let them," he finished.
Harry snagged the paper back and stared at the front page again. "I know it can't be, but I wish Ron and Hermione could at least know the truth. Look at them," he said softly, gazing at the animated picture of the grieving couple. He sighed, then pushed it away once again. "But they have each other—they'll be fine." Severus, however, had not missed the hitch in Harry's voice.
"Perhaps…one day, it may be safe to tip your hand just to them," he said hesitantly, "but not for a long while. It would be noticed if they suddenly ceased grieving."
"I hope they'll forgive me for that," Harry opined wistfully.
"Oh, I think they will. They're loyal friends, and no matter what, they'll be grateful that you've secured their future…kept them out of harm's way."
Harry stared off into the distance, a wan smile on his face. "Maybe, but like I said, they'll be fine, they have each other. That's what's important."
He caught Severus' eye, then reached across to lace his fingers through Severus'. "And I have you," he said softly.
Severus reached with his other hand to gently brush along the side of Harry's cheek, then asked him soberly, "But will I be enough?"
Harry caught the hand and smiled. "Oh yes. More than enough."
A month later, Harry's mouth hung open, while Severus and Dumbledore smiled with satisfaction as they watched Harry open the door to the stall.
"My own horse," he muttered in amazement, then moved in, crooning soft words as he approached the black-as coal-creature. "What is he?" Harry asked as he moved his hands in a caress along his sides.
"An Arabian," the headmaster told him. "From the best of blood lines. He has a fine temperament, and is already broken in. He needs a name, however."
Harry caught the old man's eye, then smiled in returned. "Frodo, of course."
"Frodo?" Severus frowned, looking from the old man to Harry as they shared a laugh.
"Yes, Frodo. Heroic names for all three of them, in fact," he informed Severus with a wink for the headmaster, who bid them both a pleasant ride before he Apparated back to the house.
Harry and Severus sat, side-by-side, mounted on their heroes' steeds, watching as the sun dropped low in the horizon, behind the trees at the far side of the lake.
"Severus, the gloaming…" Harry said softly.
"Hmmm, yes, it is," came the reply as Severus nudged his mare gently forward.
They meandered along the trail: the only sound the creaking of leather, the plod of hooves on the earth, the exhalation of the horses as they moved beside each other. At the turnaround point, they paused to watch the moonlight spilling out in a trail over the ripples of the lake.
"Severus," Harry prompted as he leant over to meet him halfway.
It was a brief but intimate kiss, a promise of what the night still held in store. Harry felt a thrill as Severus trailed a hand through his hair as he pulled away, and couldn't suppress a shiver of anticipation.
"Not at all. But now that you mention it, a vacation would be nice…."
As they started back, Harry heard Severus murmur, "Mediterranean."
Harry smiled as he pulled alongside, then slyly countered, "Mexico."
Mediterranean, definitely Mediterranean.
~ ~FIN~ ~