Written for Kai as part of the 2005 'Merry Smutmas' Secret Santa Exchange.|
Thanks so much to Gaeta and Luthien for betaing!
The Mark of Cain
A New Day Dawns
The last thing Harry wanted to do his first night back in England in almost five years was attend some boring function at the Ministry, but Ron said he had to attend ("You know how it is, don't you Harry?"), and he was so insistent that Harry come along that in the end, Harry finally agreed to go.
It didn't start out as badly as Harry thought it might. Ron wasn't the only one of Harry's old classmates working at the Ministry, and it was good getting a chance to talk to Seamus and Cho for the first time in years. He wasn't able to talk to them for long, however, since before they'd even finished their first complimentary drink, he and Ron were whisked away to seats at one of the head tables, while Seamus and Cho were left behind to find places at the back of the banquet hall.
From what Harry could see, as he squinted into the crowd, the people at the back of the room were the only ones having a good time.
"Don't tell me you actually like this sort of thing these days?" Harry asked, as he watched Ron tuck into his third helping of chicken.
"This? It's not so bad, really. It tastes like they used some kind of a pepper sauce that...."
"I don't mean the chicken," Harry said, rolling his eyes. "I mean this whole elbow-rubbing supper thing."
"Oh, that." Ron shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah, I know. This whole Ministry lark must seem kind of dull to you after what you've been doing in Romania, but it kind of grows on you after a while. Anyway, it's not like I had job offers being owled to me day and night like you did, and now that some people are actually starting to sit up and take notice of the work I'm doing, maybe I won't be buried in a dead-end department for half my life like Dad was in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office."
Privately, Harry thought it was a little unfair of Ron to bring up those job offers - again - since he knew bloody well Harry hadn't ended up taking any of them, but as long as Ron was happy with what he was doing, that's all that counted.
"So...how long do you think you'll need to stick around? I'm done in from all that travelling this afternoon. If it's okay with you, maybe I'll head back to the Burrow and..."
"No, you have to stay, Harry!" Ron said. "I mean, um...not that you have to stay or anything, not if you don't want to, but it'll be pudding soon, and then the Minister's giving his speech, and..."
"And you wouldn't want to miss that, would you, Mr Potter?" came the unmistakable voice of Dolores Umbridge. "Hello, Ronald. You're looking well this evening."
"Oh, er...thanks." Harry saw Ron look at Umbridge's pink and turquoise robes and watched as his friend forced a smile onto his face. "New robes? They're...uh...nice."
"This old thing?" Umbridge simpered. "No, they're not new, which I'm perfectly certain you already knew, you wicked boy, but it's kind of you to say so."
Harry was sure his jaw was about to drop to the floor, especially when Ron blushed at Umbridge's words. He watched Umbridge walk away in a cloud of chiffon before turning back to Ron, but before he could open his mouth to ask Ron what the hell was going on, he felt a shadow over his left shoulder and turned to see Minister Scrimgeour's broad hand come to rest on his back.
"Wonderful to see you, Mr. Potter. You know, your friend here is quite a clever lad," Scrimgeour said, placing his other hand on Ron's back. "We were lucky to get his services here at the Ministry."
Scrimgeour smiled at Harry, not blinking at the flash of a dozen cameras that had appeared suddenly from nowhere.
"Ah, I see the House-elves are about to serve profiteroles and coffee, and I certainly wouldn't want to keep you from enjoying your pudding. Welcome back to England, Mr. Potter."
Five minutes later, Harry's profiteroles were still sitting untouched on his plate.
"You going to eat those little cream puffs, mate?" asked Ron.
"What? Oh, no...go ahead. You can have them. Look, Ron, I think I'm really just going to take off."
"Not now," said Ron, clamping his hand down on Harry's forearm as all the lights in the room but those illuminating the centre of the head table were turned off. "Scrimgeour's just about to make his speech. Don't worry; he's usually finished pretty quickly."
Harry paid little attention to Scrimgeour's speech. As soon as he heard the words "funding for the Ministry's research and development program" and "evil-doers" and "punishment," he tuned Scrimgeour out completely. He hadn't trusted the Ministry to be in charge of routing out evil during the War with Voldemort, and he'd heard nothing in the last five years that would make him change his mind. As Scrimgeour droned on, Harry was in danger of actually falling asleep, right up until the moment he heard Scrimgeour's closing words.
"...and so, I'd like you all to give a hand to the young man who was the inspiration for the Harry Potter Foundation: Mr. Harry Potter himself."
It was all Harry could do to remain seated as the glare of a pair of spotlights shone on him. The applause was deafening, and now Harry really wanted to be anywhere but in that room. He turned to look at Ron, but as soon as he caught Ron's eye, his friend flushed and looked down at the table.
It had all been a set-up, Harry realized with a start. Scrimgeour and his lot had probably scheduled this whole event to coincide with his return to England, and Ron - Ron must have been given the task of making sure Harry actually showed up on the night. "It'll be a dead bore without you there, mate." That's what Ron had said this afternoon, but it looked like what he really meant was No way am I getting a promotion unless I bring you along, mate.
Harry stared at Ron, who was still averting his eyes. Yeah, he should be ashamed, Harry thought. What a prat! If Ron had just had the balls to actually say something to him, Harry would probably have come along anyway. He wouldn't have liked it - Ron knew he never liked being used that way by the Ministry, and especially not by Scrimgeour - but he would have done it anyway, for Ron. But for Ron to use him this way was just -
"I'll see you around," Harry said, standing up suddenly.
"Wait a minute, Harry," Ron said, looking up finally. "I'll just get my cloak and we can..."
"No," Harry said, shaking his head. "I'm not going back to the Burrow with you."
"But...Mum's expecting you."
"I don't give a damn if Albus Dumbledore is back from beyond the Veil to throw me a welcome home party," Harry hissed. "I'm not going anywhere with you - especially not to your family's house, and don't you dare pretend you don't know why."
Ron hung his head. "Yeah, I...god, Harry, I'm sorry. It's just..."
"I'm not interested n anything you have to say right now. I'll talk to you when I'm feeling less likely to hex your balls off."
It took very little time for Harry to collect his trunk from the porter and Apparate to the smallest in the row of small houses at the far end of Diagon Alley, but it took him quite a lot of time to decide whether he should go and knock on the door.
What were his alternatives? He could always get a room at the Leaky Cauldron, except...no, this afternoon when he arrived he'd told Tom that he was going to be staying at the Burrow, and for Harry to show up in the middle of the night looking for a room would almost guarantee he'd be on the gossip page of the Prophet his first full day back.
What he should have done was arrange for somewhere to stay before he returned to England. It wasn't as if he hadn't had plenty of time to let a flat or something, but staying at the Burrow with Ron and his folks had sounded like good fun, and...what a complete jerk! He kicked his trunk once, then once more for good measure.
He was still kicking his trunk and trying to figure out what to do an hour and a half later when Hermione Granger - wand in her hand, but wearing a nightgown and scrubbing the sleep out of her eyes - opened the front door.
"Harry? What in the world are you doing here?" she called. "I know you said you were going to pop by in the morning, but 1:00 a.m. seems a little early in the morning, even for you."
"Ron's a prat."
Hermione sighed. "I suppose this means you'll be spending the night. Come on in, but...just don't wake the children, all right? They were visiting Viktor this past week, and they're still a little over-excited."
Feeling a bit of a prat himself, Harry levitated his trunk and moved it inside.
Two cups of hot chocolate later, Harry was more himself. He'd told Hermione about the 'Foundation' and Ron's part in the subterfuge, and while he still didn't have any interest in talking to Ron, at least he wasn't feeling so much like killing him anymore.
Hermione sighed. "I never thought I'd be saying this, but I'm beginning to think it would have been better if he'd taken that equipment manager job with the Chudley Cannons. Ever since he started working at the Ministry, Ron's been..."
"Something like that. Listen, Harry - I've got to be up early and see to the twins before work tomorrow, and I really need to get some sleep. Would you like me to transfigure the couch into a bed before I turn in?"
"Don't bother," he said, flopping down and closing his eyes. "I'll probably be asleep before you..."
The last thing Harry felt was a quilt being laid over him before he drifted off to sleep.
Harry had been woken up many different ways in his life, but as far as he could remember, he had never been woken before by having his eyelids lifted by two slightly damp, very naked children.
"Hi!" said the boy.
"Hi hi!" said the girl.
"Mum said you're our Uncle Harry."
"She said that we aren't to a-sturb you."
"Until you're awake. Are you awake?"
Harry grinned and sat up on the couch. "I am most definitely awake."
"Sebastian and Viola Krum!" he heard Hermione call from the other room. "Get back into your bath this instant!"
"Okay, we have to go!" said Sebastian, giggling.
"See you later!" Viola said, waving to Harry.
Harry watched with amusement as Hermione's children ran down the hall towards their waiting bath, then stood up and, scrubbing his stubbled face with his hand, wandered off into the kitchen to see if Hermione had any coffee brewed.
He had just poured a cup when he heard a knock at the back door. He waited for a second to see if Hermione was going to come out, but the shrieks and giggles from down the hall told him that she must still be busy with the children. Making a vague attempt to tuck in the wrinkled t-shirt he'd slept in the night before, Harry walked over to the door, coffee cup in hand, and yawning widely, opened the door.
"Shall I return when you are no longer sleep walking, Mr. Potter?"
Harry blinked at the unforgettable sound of Severus Snape's voice.
He blinked again when he looked up at his former teacher and could barely distinguish the man's harsh features within the almost painfully bright aura that surrounded him.
Snape merely stared at Harry as if he were a rather unattractive insect. So...nothing had changed, then.
"What are you doing here?" Harry asked.
"Odd," Snape said, "I was just wondering the same thing about you, although you'll notice I wasn't so ill-mannered as to ask. Aren't you meant to be doing something peculiar with Dragons?"
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Is that the not so ill-mannered way of asking what I'm doing here? I'm visiting. And you?"
"I am here for them," he said, indicating Viola and Sebastian, who were peering through the doorway. "If you will excuse me?"
Harry stared after Snape as he stalked off down the hallway, the twins following in his wake, then sat back down to finish his coffee until Hermione arrived to join him.
"What's Snape doing here?" he asked, before she'd taken her first sip of coffee.
"Teaching the children rudimentary potions, actually."
"You've got to be joking!"
"No. He's actually not bad with the little ones. They seem to like him well enough."
"How can they like him? He's...Snape!"
"Oh for heaven's sake, Harry," said Hermione, exasperation plain in her voice. "Grow up. What other alternative does he have, really, with that spelled aura surrounding him. Anyway, it's not like I'm the only one employing him as a tutor. Pansy Parkinson's niece is being instructed by him. And Neville - you know that Neville's cousin and her husband died last year, right? He said he was going to owl you - even he's hired Snape to tutor his cousin's daughter twice a week."
Hermione nodded. "It's the right thing to do, of course, but I suspect that Neville's getting a little thrill out of finally having the upper hand over Snape, not that I can really blame him. Anyway, Minerva would have hired him back at Hogwarts, but of course that's no longer possible, with that bloody aura around him."
"I was meaning to ask - what the hell is that thing?"
Hermione stared at him, her eyes widening.. "Honestly, Harry, don't you ever read the papers?"
"It's not as if I had a lot of free time over the past few years," he said a bit defensively. "What is it?"
"The MLE's idea of Justice Mixed with Compassion. It's what they finally came up with once all the rest of the former Death Eaters had been ...sorted out."
"What does that mean?"
"It means they were all executed, Harry," she said angrily. "Every last person who'd ever taken the Dark Mark except Snape. He was spared."
"Not that I want him dead or anything, but why wasn't he executed, too?"
"Nobody knows for certain. I mean, yes, he was exonerated for Dumbledore's murder, once the Aurors got hold of the Headmaster's Pensieve, but that didn't make the Mark magically disappear." Hermione sighed. "I've heard people say that Professor Dumbledore's portrait had something to do with it. A last request, as it were, but personally, I think an Unbreakable Vow's more likely."
Harry nodded. He knew exactly how likely it was that almost anyone at the Ministry would keep a promise just because it was the right thing to do.
"Anyway," Hermione said, "someone at the Ministry was able to dredge up an old spell that...well, you saw Professor Snape. It's impossible to know their reasoning, of course, but as a public relations ploy, it's rather brilliant, marking the last of the known Death Eaters like that. And of course, there are a lot of people who are never going to be able to forgive anyone who took the Dark Mark. - and the spell does guarantee that no one will be able to attack Snape, magically or physically."
Hermione nodded. "Isn't it, just? But of course, it also interferes with Professor Snape's use of magic."
"What - all of it?"
"No, he can still do low level charms, of course, but that's really about it. No transfigurations or serious spell work - too dangerous, they said. I don't know if he can even fly a broom, anymore. It does protect him from invasive Legilimency, but I have to assume that means he can't practice Legilimency or Occlumency either."
"What about Potions? I mean, that's not the same thing, is it?"
"You'd think so, wouldn't you? On the surface it doesn't seem to be any different from Muggle chemistry, but it is, Harry. I've been reading up on Potions theory, and it requires more magical force than almost any other field of magic."
"How can he teach potions then?"
"He can't. Not really. But he has a lifetime of knowledge and that's not lost, of course, so he's able to provide an excellent background to the children in potions theory, common ingredients, care of equipment - that sort of thing. Luckily my two are still young enough to think it's fun when he makes them scrub out a cauldron. He's even been able to oversee some little experiments, although he can't participate directly except by chopping up ingredients for the children who are too young to be trusted with a sharp knife, like Viola and Sebastian."
Harry still had more to ask, but Snape's entrance put a halt to that, at least temporarily. From the glare Harry was getting, it was clear that Snape could sense that his two former students had just spent the past hour gossiping about him; however, he said nothing - just returned the children into Hermione's care and kept his eyes completely averted from Harry's questioning gaze.
Hermione nodded. "Thank you, Professor."
Viola and Sebastian took this as their cue..
"Goodbye, Mr. Snape," they said in unison.
"Children," Snape replied formally, then turned to Harry.
After Snape walked out the door, and the children ran to the window in the front hall to wave after him, Harry shook his head. "He can't even Apparate anymore, can he?"
"No. And the floo is a bit hit or miss, as well. Even Muggles can use the floo - my parents have never had any trouble, at least - but that aura of Professor Snape's interferes with the ability of the floo system to pinpoint location. Lord knows where he might end up."
"You know, if I were him, I think I'd just tell the whole wizarding world to fuck off."
"I'm sure he'd like to, but he can't go live in the Muggle world either. Muggles can see the aura, too."
"Bloody hell. Snape's totally screwed, isn't he?"
"I don't know if I'd put it that way - especially not with my children in the next room, Harry."
Hermione gave him a wry look "I expect it will take some time to remember you're not out in the middle of a dragon preserve anymore. In any case, even if I wouldn't have phrased your assessment of Professor Snape's situation exactly the way you did, I agree with the sentiments."
Harry shook his head and sighed. "So...speaking of children in the next room, I don't suppose you know of anywhere I could stay for the time being where I wouldn't be getting in anyone's way."
Hermione wrinkled her brow. "Well, there's always that flat that Luna's been trying to let ever since we all left school. It's right behind the offices of the Quibbler, so the location's good, but as far as I know, nobody's ever actually taken her up on it. Of course, you know you're always welcome to stay here, don't you, Harry?"
"I appreciate the offer, Hermione, but it would be too much of an imposition. Not on you, maybe, but on your routine with your kids and all."
"I don't suppose you're likely to change your mind about staying at the Burrow?"
He shook his head. "I just can't. Not yet. The idea of being around Ron at the moment is. . . well...let's just say that it's going to take a while."
Seeing Luna again after so many years was something of a revelation for Harry. She didn't seem any less odd than she had when they were both at school, but there was an assurance beneath the distracted air that made Harry think of Albus Dumbledore, of all people.
"...and of course, all that talk about a Nargle infestation is entirely unfounded, but I'm certain this is why the flat has remained unoccupied all this time."
"Silly, isn't it? There's no mistletoe anywhere on the grounds, but what does that matter? The capacity for people to spread unwarranted rumours is almost endless, isn't it?"
Privately, Harry thought that only the imaginary people in Luna's brain were spreading rumours about Nagle infestations, but he wasn't about to argue the point. The flat looked great and the price was absolutely right. Almost too right, actually.
"Are you sure, Luna? I could pay more."
"Oh, I'm certain. It's exactly what Daddy paid when he first took over as editor of the Quibbler"
"But wasn't that fifty years ago or something?"
"Oh, don't worry Harry. The old place is still in good condition!"
"No, I meant...costs have gone up, haven't they?"
But she just looked at him and smiled in a dreamy way as if the whole question of inflation were beneath her notice, which maybe it was.
A bell rang in the distance, and Luna tilted her head.
"Ah! That's my reminder that I need to take a quick look at the afternoon edition before it gets sent out for distribution. Feel free to look around, Harry. I should be back soon."
Harry had just climbed up into the crawl space over the second bedroom, when he heard the door open again.
"Luna?" Harry said, climbing back down and trying to brush some too-intrepid spiders out of his hair. "It's great! When do you think I can...."
"What are you doing here, Potter?"
It was Snape - standing on the doorstep and glowering at Harry.
"Just looking for a place to let," he said, not really sure why he was bothering to answer. How was it any of Snape's business, anyway?
"I thought you were staying with the former Mrs. Krum."
"Hermione? No, that was just last night. I need a place of my own, now that I'm back in England for good."
"In that case, I won't trouble you any further."
"Hey wait...what are you doing here? Were you trying to let the flat, too? Hermione said you had rooms somewhere."
"Not that it's any of your business, Potter, but I find I'm no longer interested in keeping my present accommodations."
Harry took his first real look at Snape and frowned. Snape's physical appearance had never been anything to owl home about, and that much was still true, but his robes, at least, had always been impeccable. One glance at the robes Snape was wearing today was all it took for Harry to see that they were almost threadbare - rivaling Remus Lupin's robes at their worst - and Harry wondered if that meant that his former teacher needed to find something cheaper than wherever it was he was staying. If that was the case, Harry would stand aside. Galleons, he had, even if he didn't know what he was going to do with his time from now on.
"You can have the place if you want." Harry said, making a quick decision. "I can always kip on Hermione's sofa another night or two until I find somewhere else to stay."
If Harry had been expecting gratitude, he was quickly disabused of that notion. Snape glared. "If this is some manifestation of Gryffindor pity, let me assure you that pity is the last thing I want or need. Good day to you, Potter."
He turned and all at once, Harry decided he wasn't just going to sit back and let Snape stalk off, not like that. Harry moved forward and grabbed at the back of Snape's arm, suddenly needing to stop him before he walked out the door, but before his fingers even reached the corner of Snape's sleeve, the aura sparked and Harry was thrown across the room, landing on his arse in the corner of the living room.
When he looked up, Snape had turned and was watching him, his arms crossed over his narrow chest.
"Did you attempt to touch me?"
Harry pushed himself up to a sitting position, then rubbed his hand over his face. "I just wanted to stop you from leaving, and...what the hell was that?"
"You should read the Daily Prophet on occasion, Potter."
"Jesus. Everybody wants me to read the papers."
"If you had, you would be aware that you cannot touch me. It's for my...protection," he said with a sneer.
"Your pro...wait, you can't be touched at all?"
"Didn't I just say that?"
"But I thought this spell was to protect you from attacks. I wasn't trying to attack you."
Snape smiled bitterly. "Oh, the spell doesn't distinguish between attacks and any other kind of physical contact."
Harry thought about what that meant. Snape didn't have to worry about being assaulted, but - wait, he really couldn't be touched at all?
"What if you...need a Healer or something?"
"Do you not understand the meaning of 'no physical contact?'"
Harry was appalled. "That's horrible! How the hell long do you have to live like this?"
"There's no reversing the spell, or if there is, none of the people involved in the casting seems to remember how to do it. Rather like the Killing Curse, in that regard. I suppose I should feel special, Quite a large number of people had to act in concert in order to cast the spell. Needless to say, this is not a spell that is used often."
"When's the last time anyone did use it? I don't remember hearing anything about this when I was in school."
"Nor would you have. Knowledge of the very existence of the spell had been all but lost for almost a century, or so my former colleague Dolores Umbridge informed me when I was brought in"
Harry stood up, and brushed off his robes. "People like Umbridge are still running around free and you're...this is disgusting! Somebody needs to talk to Scrimgeour about this."
"Do you really think a punishment like this was meted out without the Minister of Magic approving of it?" Snape said with a sneer. "Don't be a fool, Potter."
"He might listen to me."
"Why would you want to bother?"
Harry's jaw dropped. "Are you nuts? Do you want to live like this?"
"That's neither here nor there."
"But...it's not fair."
Snape laughed, but the sound he made was anything but happy.
"Look," Harry said, speaking quickly before he could talk himself out of what he was about to say. "This place is really big enough for two. There are two bedrooms, and there's enough storage, and..."
"Excuse me," Snape said, his eyes widening with surprise - or perhaps horror. "Are you suggesting that we share this abode?"
"You and I?"
"Together? Have you taken leave of your senses?"
"You really are an arse, aren't you?" Harry said, narrowing his eyes and glaring at Snape. "I was here first, if you somehow missed that fact, and out of the goodness of my - "
"Always the grand gesture. Isn't that right, Potter?"
"- I offer to share this place with you, but if you're going to - "
"Oh good!" Luna said, as she walked into the flat. "I was hoping you'd both be here when I came back."
Harry stopped mid-rant, and stared at Luna. How could she have hoped the two of them would be together in the flat when she returned? She hadn't even known he was coming, and it didn't sound like Snape had set up an appointment either."
"What do you think of it, Professor Snape?"
"It seems...passable, Miss Lovegood."
"Oh, that doesn't sound too enthusiastic, does it? As I was saying to Harry earlier, there's really no truth to the rumours about the Nargle infestation, but...I know! How about if I reduce the rent to twelve Galleons? You can't say fairer than that."
You couldn't say more insane than that, Harry thought. He could see Snape practically salivating at the low price, but he'd be damned if he was going to just turn around and give the place to that...no way. If Snape was going to stay here, so was he!
"So...Luna, what are the chances that Snape...that Professor Snape and I could...that we...."
Luna smiled, and reached into the fuschia knit bag she had slung over one shoulder, and pulled out a piece of parchment with both their names on it.
"Does anybody have a quill?"
Finding a place to live had been far easier than Harry had expected, and convincing Snape to stay hadn't actually been any trouble either. When Harry finally took a moment to consider how easy the latter task had been, he worried that one or both of them might have been placed under a spell of some kind, but then he remembered that Snape, at least, couldn't be placed under a spell. And as for himself, he was pretty sure that if Luna had done something to make him lose his mind and think that sharing a place with Snape would be a good idea (and really, she was the most likely suspect), well...he hadn't ended up in St. Mungo's yet, and since even Hermione seemed to think it was a good solution, Harry just decided to accept the situation.
However, while it had been mystifyingly easy for the two of them to make the decision to share, it turned out that actually living in the same flat was not quite as simple. There weren't really any conflicts about furnishings, as such (the flat had two beds, a sofa, a table, and some chairs, which was all either of them really cared about) or decorating (since neither of them had the least interest in that subject). And it wasn't as if there wasn't enough storage room to go around (Harry had never had many personal items, and if Snape had ever had much in the way of possessions - which he might have done, Harry thought, remembering something about a family house somewhere up north - there was no sign of them at the moment).
No, what friction there was - apart from the not unexpected personality clashes - stemmed primarily from the division of labour. Truth be told, Harry didn't really care one way or another what Snape did around the flat - or whether he did anything at all. Harry had grown accustomed to performing all the household tasks as a child, and those chores had usually been accomplished with his Uncle screaming at him - and always without the use of magic. As a fully qualified Wizard, it never took more than a swish and a flick to tidy a room or wash the supper dishes. For Harry.
For Snape, of course, it was another matter entirely. With the aura blocking his ability to perform all but the most minor magic, almost everything Snape had to do around the flat had to be done the Muggle way, and while Harry wouldn't have found that too onerous, Snape had yet to grow used to it.
It was odd seeing just how much Snape seemed to resent having to resort to Muggle methods, Harry thought, considering that Snape was a Half-Blood himself. Then again, Tom Riddle had hated his Muggle heritage enough to dedicate decades to discovering how he could wipe all the Muggles from the face of the earth, so maybe Snape's hatred of peeling potatoes the Muggle way wasn't entirely impossible to understand. And maybe, as Hermione had suggested, it had nothing to do with reminding him that he was part Muggle and everything to do with the fact that he was no longer entirely able to think of himself as a Wizard.
Harry tried to be sympathetic and do more than his share of the work around the flat, but all his good intentions were thrown back in his face. Apparently Snape hated being in anybody's debt even more than he hated having to peel potatoes.
It finally came to a head the night Harry came home early from Dean Thomas's place. He'd accepted an invitation to a poker game. Neither he nor Dean - nor any of Dean's other friends, apparently - had ever played before, but Wizard's Quarterly had run a story in the current issue about the most popular Muggle pastimes in America, and they decided it might be fun. And it was, right up until the moment that Ron walked in the door of Dean's flat.
Harry told himself that he was going to just ignore Ron and act like an adult, but his vow lasted less than ten minutes. At the end of the third hand, Harry invented a reason why he had to leave that had nothing to do with Ron on the surface, and everything to do with Ron in reality.
By the time Harry walked halfway down Diagon Alley, around to the back of the Quibbler offices, and into the flat, he was in a foul mood. He had told Snape he wouldn't be back until midnight, at least, but it wasn't even nine, and he was already home, not quite sure whom he should blame for the way his evening had been ruined, but really wanting to blame somebody.
His bad mood might have lasted all night, but when he walked into the kitchen to get some juice, he was greeted by the sight of Snape down on his knees, a scrub brush in his hand and his robes hiked up and tucked into a belt tied around his waist. Harry tried to bite back the laugh that bubbled to the surface, but it was impossible. Snape's legs were so...white. So bony. And seeing him down there, in the middle of a pool of soapy water was so far from the imposing image of Snape that Harry still carried with him from his days at Hogwarts, that he just couldn't help it
At his first chuckle, however, Snape whipped his head around, and the expression on his face was absolutely enraged.
"Sorry," Harry said, holding his hands up in front of him, palms out toward Snape. "Really, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...look, do you want me to help you out with this, or...."
"No, I do not want you to help me out with this," Snape snarled, pushing himself up from the floor. His robes were still caught up in the belt wrapped around his waist, but Harry didn't dare laugh again.
"Do you need something to do? Something to fix?" Snape continued, his voice rising and becoming more shrill with each word he spoke.
"Perhaps this will keep you entertained," he shouted, grabbing a tea cup from the counter and smashing it against the wall. Harry watched as Snape picked up a coffee mug. "Or this!"
The mug suffered the same fate as the tea cup, and Harry could tell that the only thing keeping Snape from reaching for something else to throw was the fact that all the rest of the cups and glasses were safely put away in the cupboards. Harry bit his bottom lip, torn between wishing there were some way to cast a binding spell on Snape until he calmed down and wondering how Snape had gone so long under the yoke of the aura without having a meltdown before this. Before Harry had reached any conclusions, Snape swept out of the room, knocking over the bucket of dirty water as he went.
Harry heard Snape's bedroom door slam behind him, and he sighed. He cast Reparo on the broken cups, followed quickly by a Drought Charm to dry up the water from the floor. Funny how rarely he noticed how easy everything was to do when you were allowed to use your magic.
When Harry returned home the following night, he honestly wasn't expecting to see any sign of Snape. For one thing, his former teacher had left the flat long before Harry woke up in the morning, and by the time Harry was ready to leave for his weekly juniors Quidditch coaching session, there was still no sign of him. For another, well...this was Snape; if there had been Chocolate Frog cards for Wizarding Expertise in the Art of the Snit, Snape would probably have been featured on the very first one. However, when a very tired and sweaty Harry walked in the door at the end of the day, Snape was in the kitchen again, and this time, he was cooking.
"Get washed, Potter" Snape snapped, without turning around. "If you want to eat, that is."
The words 'Who the hell do you think you're talking to?' did come immediately to Harry's mind, of course, but the smells coming from the kitchen were fantastic. Maybe he'd save the inevitable fight until after dinner.
The fight never came. Supper was, not unsurprisingly, a fairly quiet affair, with Snape more interested in pushing things around on his plate than in eating what he'd prepared, but Harry more than made up for Snape's lack of interest in the food. One thing Harry could say for Snape: he was a damned good cook, even if he rarely shared his culinary talents. Hardly ever, in fact, and all of a sudden, Harry realized that this meal must have been a kind of peace offering for the scene in the kitchen the previous evening.
"I'm sure you understand that I wasn't myself last night," Snape muttered, in an odd echo of Harry's own thoughts.
The fact that all that screaming really had been Severus Snape acting recognizably like himself was pretty irrelevant, thought Harry. The man had just apologized for something he'd done - or at least he'd tried to apologize for something - and in honour of what might have been a first for Snape, Harry decided he could be enough of a man to just let it go.
Snape's apology, half-hearted though it might have been, had a secondary result that had nothing to do with avoiding a fight: there was a shift in the way Harry felt about Snape after that night. Harry wasn't quite sure if he could put into words exactly what the difference was, but he knew that something had changed, and sooner or later, he was going to figure out what it was, even if that meant he had to spend most of his free time watching Snape.
Two weeks later - two weeks during which Harry had spent the majority of his free time watching Snape, yet had come no closer to figuring out what had changed - Harry came home from paying a visit to Remus, only to find Snape already in the living room. He was sitting at the table, back to the door, trying to massage his neck and shoulders with his own hands. Watching Snape twisting uncomfortably in his chair, it didn't look like he'd been having much luck at releasing the tension, and all at once, Harry couldn't think of anything he wanted more than to be able to massage Severus Snape's neck himself. Ignoring the warning of the glaringly bright aura surrounding the man in front of him, Harry came up behind Snape, reached out...and was instantly thrown across the room, where he landed in an ungraceful heap beside the sofa.
"Fuck!" he said.
Snape didn't even turn around.
"You'll have to get up by yourself," Snape said flatly. "If I try to assist you, you'll probably end up being thrown out into the back garden."
There had to be a way to fix this.
Although Harry had never developed any real skill as an Occlumens, he had learned how to distinguish between the normal dreams that come to everybody each night and the more dangerous dreams that had always seemed to be directed at him alone - and more importantly, he had learned how to block them.
He didn't know what to make of the dreams he'd been having recently. They weren't exactly normal (or at least the subject of his dreams wasn't, which amounted to the same thing), but were they actually dangerous? He wasn't really sure, although he was pretty certain that if he'd had those dreams back when he was a student at Hogwarts, he would have been absolutely terrified.
The only thing he was absolutely sure of was that he was completely unable to block these dreams from his sleeping thoughts.
The dreams had started innocently enough: a shared pot of tea in the middle of the night; walking together along the shore of the lake at Hogwarts; playing a game of Exploding Snap (and yes, Harry knew just how likely that last would be to ever happen). In fact, the only thing these dreams had in common, apart from the fact that each one featured Severus Snape, was that they offered scenarios which Harry's waking self had considered pretty tame even when he was little more than a boy.
But lately they'd been turning... not darker, precisely, but certainly less tame. Less innocent. In fact, they were so much less innocent that Harry had started to wake up each night from even the deepest sleep, only to find himself sitting up in bed gasping for breath and very aroused.
Odd, to say the least, that he'd be having dreams about Snape, but it was probably just a phase - a strange quirk of his subconscious brought on by proximity, and in any case, it wasn't like anyone was going to find out about it, least of all Snape. It wasn't like he had anyone else to...okay, why was he trying to justify this to himself? Wanking was completely natural; Harry had been doing it his whole life, and...anyway, the dreams would stop soon and that would be that.
Or that would have been that, if Harry hadn't fallen asleep on the living room sofa one evening.
He woke up in the middle of the night, as he'd done so often over the past few weeks. His pants were already pushed down over his hips, and his right hand was wrapped around his cock. He wasn't completely hard yet, but...just a little pressure right there and...release. Oh, yeah. He tightened his grip again, then released again. Twice more, and now his cock was starting to stand up and take notice.
As was Snape.
Wanking in front of Snape, thought Harry, panic beginning to set in. How in the world could he have been so incredibly stupid as to...this wasn't even his bedroom!
Harry grabbed one of the sofa pillows and pulled it over himself, probably too late, but...what the hell was Snape doing, watching him like that? What had he been thinking?
"Perhaps it's time that I offered you a hand, Potter."
Snape's voice was low and quiet, and Harry could only watch, slack-jawed, as Snape drew closer and pushed at Harry's shoulder with one long finger until Harry was lying on his back, one foot planted on the floor and the other propped up against the sofa's arm. Snape's finger trailed down the length of Harry's torso, its untrimmed nail leaving a faint mark on Harry's skin.
Harry's hand was still draped over his own cock, but Snape lifted Harry's hand and pushed it out of the way, then replaced it with his own. Harry's breath caught at the feel of Snape's hand, its long firm stokes, up and down along the length of his cock, each stroke drawing an unwilling moan from Harry.
Snape's thumb slid up over the tip of Harry's cock, ghosting across its head until Harry began to tremble. He looked at Snape's face, surprised at what he saw there. Snape's face was shadowed, but his expression was unmistakably eager and -
Shadowed? Impossible, thought Harry, with the corner of his brain that wasn't focused entirely on his growing arousal. It was impossible that Snape's face could be shadowed; the aura was too bright to allow for that...oh, but the feeling of Snape's hand on his cock was so bloody good that he...
...opened his eyes in his own bedroom, his hand wrapped around his own cock, stroking with a rhythm borrowed from his dream - and when he came, it was with the image of Severus Snape clear in his mind.
If Harry's nights were becoming more interesting, his days had settled into what he had to admit was a pretty dull routine.
This wasn't really a problem. Close to five years working with Dragons could make anybody long for a little less excitement, and Harry was no exception. He hadn't found a job yet - honestly, he hadn't even started looking for one, in part because after the whole 'Harry Potter Foundation' fiasco, he was even less interested in working with the Ministry than he had been before he left England in the first place - but it wasn't like he was hurting for Galleons yet. He could afford to take the time he needed to figure out what he really wanted to do, and so he spent his days catching up with his old friends (Ron excepted), giving a little Quidditch instruction to some kids who lived near Hogsmeade, and...child-minding.
That last wasn't something Harry would have done for just anybody, but Hermione was one of his best friends. There were some days when the organizational work she was doing for Charles Wen's fledgling publishing company just couldn't be done at home, and Viktor, though brimming with good intentions about the kind of father he wanted to be in the wake of the divorce, always seemed to have practice or an interview or something else he just couldn't get out of on those days that Hermione needed to be away from home. Besides, Harry thought, Viola and Sebastian were nice enough kids, even if they did have a weird fascination with potions.
As Harry let himself in through Hermione's front door, he noticed right away that neither of the twins ran out to greet him, which meant that they were probably still finishing up their lesson with Snape. Harry wandered down the hall, and stopped a few feet shy of the door, figuring there wouldn't be any harm in spying on the class for a little while.
He took a look at the ingredients listed on the board at the end of the table. Rabbit whiskers, flea beetles, carpels containing moth larvae...that bastard! Couldn't Snape have had the children make a hopping potion on a day Harry wasn't going to be watching them?
"...then take the sliced flea beetle that has been placed on your workbench and add it to the cauldron."
Sebastian did as Snape instructed, and began stirring the viscous blue substance with a long-handled wooden spoon, but Viola pushed her half of the sliced beetle under a piece of paper, and reached into the pocket of her robe to extract a much more interesting looking, but totally different kind of beetle.
Harry glanced over at Snape, who was squinting through the light of the aura in Viola's direction.
"Miss Krum, that is not the beetle I prepared for you earlier."
"But I like it," Viola said, her bottom lip beginning to quiver. "It's purple."
"Its colour is irrelevant. What is important when preparing a potion is that - "
"This potion's stupid," she said, and threw the purple beetle into the cauldron.
Harry's eyes widened as the beetle sank beneath the blue surface, and a glance at Snape told him that this was not good. He reached for his wand at the exact same moment Snape reached for his, both automatic responses, but Harry realized a split-second before Snape that the dampening effect of the aura wasn't going to let Snape do what he needed to do to protect the children.
"Get down on the floor!" Snape screamed.
Sebastian obeyed Snape immediately, as he had done before with the directions for the potion, but Viola was just standing in place, tears streaming down her face, and Harry could see the thick liquid in the cauldron had started to bubble and steam. Without waiting another moment, Harry cast a spell for a containment field, and at that precise instant, the potion exploded with a deafening roar inside the field.
Harry moved around to the other side of the worktable and the children threw themselves into his arms.
"Are they all right?" he heard Snape ask, over the sound of the children's sobs.
"Yeah," Harry said, holding the twins tightly. "Just a little shaken up, I think."
He watched as Snape closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall, before sinking to the floor and putting his head in his hands. For a moment, nobody moved, then Sebastian pulled away from Harry's embrace and went to stand in front of Snape.
"Are you sad?" he asked. "When we're sad, mummy kisses us and makes it better."
Snape didn't look up, and Harry decided he'd better take the children out of the room.
Harry saw to it that the twins washed up, then he prepared them a lunch of fish fingers and chips. Hermione had left some Brussels sprouts for the children as well, but Harry thought Viola and Sebastian had been through a bad enough day already, and with a quick Evanesco, the Brussels sprouts were no more. He sat at the kitchen table with them and listened as they told jokes - all thoughts of what had just happened seemingly forgotten by the twins - and nodded when they talked about the crup their dad had promised he'd buy for them on their next birthday.
For a long time, Harry heard not a sound from the other room, but then he could hear the sound of cabinets opening and closing, followed by the sound of the front door opening and slamming shut.
Snape was gone.
When Harry walked into their flat that evening, the second thing he noticed was that none of the lamps had been lit. The first thing he noticed, though, was that Snape was sitting alone in the living room, with a tumbler of whiskey in his hand.
"Stand back, Potter. You never know when someone in my vicinity is going to have a near-death experience."
"I'll risk it."
Harry stood beside Snape, then sat down as close as he could, without touching him. "The children are fine, in case you were about to ask," he said. "Hermione read your note. She says she understands, and she's not accepting your resignation."
Snape whipped his head around. "She understands? How in the name of Merlin could she possibly understand?" he shouted. "She shouldn't understand! She should be standing here threatening my life for putting her children's lives in jeopardy, not that she'd be able to take my bloody useless life anyway!"
"You were there, Potter. I was absolutely useless."
"What could you have..."
"I don't know what I could have done. Thrown myself on top of the cauldron, if nothing else, but no...I drew my wand, as if I were still a Wizard and not some pathetic creature barely a step up from a Squib. And your friend says she understands? How in the name of all that's holy could she possibly understand?"
"Hermione's upset. Of course she is. But Viola and Sebastian are okay, and...she just doesn't blame you, that's all."
"Because she understands that what was done to you was unfair."
"Gryffindors." Snape spat.
Harry threw up his hands in exasperation. "What kind of an idiot are you that you still think in terms of House allegiances. Did you know that bitch Umbridge was a Gryffindor when she was at school? What does she know about fairness? And what about Pansy Parkinson and Neville Longbottom? They both hired you for their own reasons, but Parkinson's the one who hired you because it was the fair thing to do, and she's no Gryffindor. Isn't it about time you stopped living in the past?"
"I have no future, Potter." Snape said, his voice barely audible.
"Then we're going to have to do something to make sure you get one. We're going to have to break that spell."
As was true of so many of the things Harry had vowed to accomplish in his life, breaking a hundred year old spell that had taken the collective power of a half dozen people to cast was easier said than done.
The first thing he did was enlist Hermione's help. If this had been a Curse, he would have contacted Bill Weasley, but Snape assured him it didn't feel like a Curse, and Harry had to take his word for it. Spell history wasn't Hermione's field, of course, but she was still the best researcher Harry knew, and even Snape agreed (begrudgingly, of course) that her research skills were second to none.
Superior research abilities, however, didn't seem to be enough to come up with an answer. After weeks of putting her own work aside and looking in hundreds of books, Hermione had come up with exactly nothing that would be of any use. She had found references to spells that created protective auras, but nothing at all that mirrored the magic-blocking effects of the particular spell that had been used on Snape.
There were one or two references to spells that seemed familiar, but Hermione wasn't able to come up with any real information about how spells of that class worked or - more importantly - how to reverse them, especially if you couldn't count on any assistance from the people who had cast the spell in the first place.
The days passed, and they came no closer to a solution.
And as for the nights, well...Harry hadn't stopped dreaming.
"This is getting ridiculous," Harry said, extending one hand and moving it towards the edge of the magical field. "There has to be some way to break through this!"
Snape sat back in his chair and gazed at him "You seem to be taking this far more personally than even I am, Potter. Why is that?"
Harry dropped his hand to his side and shook his head. "You know, I don't have any idea. Maybe it's just that I never learned to take no for an answer when it was getting in the way of something I really wanted."
"Ah," Snape said, raising one eyebrow. "And what would it be, precisely, that you really want in this particular instance?"
The smile left Harry's face, and he tilted his head to one side. Once again, he extended his arm, slowly enough this time so that he was not thrown back, but steadily until he could actually feel the magical field of the aura surrounding Snape pressing against the palm of his hand.
"Stand up," Harry said all at once, his voice barely more than a whisper.
For a moment, it looked as if Snape was going to ignore Harry's request. His eyes narrowed suspiciously and his mouth tightened into a thin line.
But Harry just stood there. "Please," he breathed, a plea in his voice, and ever so slowly, Snape pushed himself up out of his chair to stand before the young man.
Harry reached out again, and with infinite care, extended his fingertips once again until he could feel the very edge of the aura. He moved his hand along the magical field, up one arm, around the angular shoulder, then up over Snape's head and down the other side, trying to see if there was anything like a gap, a weak point in the field, anything to give him a way in - but there was nothing, just the steady pressure of magic in a perfect outline around Snape's body.
It was almost like touching Snape, Harry thought suddenly - as close as he could get to laying his hands on Snape's body outside of his dreams.
Dreams were no longer enough.
"I wonder if..."
"What is it?" Snape said, his voice oddly raspy.
Harry licked his suddenly dry lips "I was wondering if the aura would feel different if I were trying this when...if you had no robes on."
Snape's eyes darted down and then back up again to meet Harry's steady gaze. There was no way he could have failed to notice the erection currently tenting Harry's trousers.
"Is this something you've thought about often?" Snape said quietly.
Not taking his eyes away from the man standing before him, Harry began to undo the top buttons of his shirt. "Surprisingly often," he said, sliding his hand into the gap, and starting to rub his chest lightly. "Almost all the time, these days."
"And...what else have you been thinking?" Snape asked, reaching up slowly to unfasten the top buttons of his robes.
"I've been wondering," Harry said quietly, "what it would feel like to touch you. What you'd look like with my hands on your skin."
Snape's breath caught in his throat, but the expression on his face didn't waver. "Tell me what you want," he said, his voice uneven.
Harry nodded. He finished unbuttoning his shirt, then unzipped the Muggle jeans he'd been wearing. "I'd start," he whispered, "by placing my hand on your chest."
He watched as Snape's fisted hand travelled upward and rested against his breastbone.
"My palm would be flat," Harry said, waiting until he could see Snape's fingers start to uncurl before laying his own hand flat against his ribs. "I'd want to feel your heartbeat."
It was odd, Harry thought, feeling the beat of his own heart beneath his palm and watching Snape's hand on his own chest. Almost...dreamlike, but this was no dream. It was real. Snape was real, with his greasy hair and his uneven teeth and - damn it! Harry wanted to touch him, but he knew it wasn't possible, not yet, but...
Snape frowned and glanced down at his hand, then looked back at Harry and raised one eyebrow.
"Sorry," Harry said, shaking his head. "It's just...I want to watch you touch yourself."
"And are you prepared to reciprocate, Potter?"
Harry swallowed, then slipped his shirt off completely and dropped it on the floor.
Snape nodded once, then undid the rest of the buttons on his robe. The two sides hung loosely from his narrow shoulders.
"Do you want to, um...sit down or something?"
One corner of Snape's mouth curled up just the slightest bit, but he pulled one of the easy chairs around so that it faced Harry, then sat in it.
Harry watched with interest as Snape slouched down lower in the seat and let his legs fall open wide, sliding one hand up over his hip until it came to rest hanging loosely between his thighs. Harry didn't know what he had been expecting, but it hadn't been this, with Snape so relaxed and so comfortable with his body. He'd never seemed anything like this in school, Harry thought, and then immediately bit back a laugh at his own idiocy. Of course Snape couldn't have seemed like this when he was teaching. "...now add the aconite to the potion, and unbutton your trousers, so that I can hold your balls in my hands."
"Do you find something amusing, Potter," Snape said, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
"No, just...unbutton your trousers, okay?"
Snape huffed impatiently. "Surely you can see that I'm not wearing any."
"Yeah, sorry," Harry said, wishing - and not for the first time - that he were more accustomed to thinking before he spoke. "Curl your hand a little...yeah, like that." Harry sat down in the chair across from Snape and he, too, slid down in his chair, mirroring the movements Snape was making with his own hands.
"Cup your balls in your h-hand," Harry said. He was almost surprised when Snape did so without a murmur. "Move your fingers a little, and then...move your thumb. Slide it along the base of your...oh, yeah. Just like that."
Harry slowly rubbed his thumb along the soft skin of his own cock, watching as Snape did the same. He didn't want to take his eyes off Snape - not ever - but the light of the aura was finally too bright. Harry had to look away, just for a moment. Just long enough to blink and wipe his eyes.
When he turned back, Snape was no longer waiting to follow Harry's directions.
He had slouched even lower in his chair and had both hands between his legs, one hand still cupping his heavy balls and the other stroking the length of his erection. Snape's lips were parted slightly, and Harry could hear his breath shudder with each pull on his cock.
"Where's that...much vaunted Gryffindor 'fairness' now, Potter?" Snape said, his voice deep and hoarse. "You promised reciprocity, didn't you?"
Harry nodded, then curled his fingers around his own cock, pushing his hips forward so that Snape could watch as he stroked himself, slowly at first, then more quickly, in synch with the movements of Snape's hand. He watched as Snape closed his eyes and tilted his head back, and Harry could feel the sudden pressure, the tightness in his balls that told him that he was about to come. One last squeeze, and, oh...yes, that was -
"Yesssss!" Harry hissed, his own eyes squeezed tight, then he pulled one last time, his hand already slippery with come.
When he finally opened his eyes, he could see that Snape, too, had reached completion, his fingers tracing a pattern in the come that coated his stomach. Harry waited, wanting to share at least a smile - some acknowledgement that they had just shared something - but Snape refused to meet his gaze. Eventually Snape let his hands come to rest on the arms of his chair, and Harry cast a Cleaning Charm over himself.
"Do you want...a towel or something?" he asked.
"I want nothing."
He shook his head as he set his wand back on the table beside his chair. It should have been good. It had been good...mostly.
But as the two men sat silently in the dark room, with only the glow of the aura as light, Harry thought that it never would be good enough - it would never be right - for either of them as long as they were unable to touch each other.
That's what Harry thought. What Snape thought was impossible to tell. Harry was no Legilimens, and even if he had been, he didn't think he would have been able to find a way into the mind of the silent man who sat opposite him.
The following morning, it was as if there had been an agreement not to discuss what had happened the night before. Harry shrugged. If that's how Snape wanted to play it, then that's what they'd do, at least for now, but only because Harry was absolutely sure that things were going to change - and soon.
In the afternoon, Snape had his weekly appointment with Iris Parkinson, so Harry settled down in the living room, vowing to spend the next four hours looking through books they'd already read a half dozen times, hoping that this time, he might see something new. He became so engrossed in his task that he almost jumped out of his chair when Hermione's head appeared in the fireplace beside him, asking if he had time to pop over that afternoon and take a look at something.
"Do you want me to wait until Severus has come back?" he asked
"No," she said quickly, tilting her head a bit at Harry's uncharacteristic use of Snape's first name. "In fact, I think it would actually be better if you were alone. Do you think you could come 'round now?"
Harry pushed his notes to the side and stepped through the fire. When he arrived at Hermione's - almost falling on his arse as he often did when he used the floo - he took the hand reaching out to help steady him and discovered it was Ron's. Harry's instinctive response was to simply Disapparate away, but before he could do it, Hermione tugged on his arm.
"Please stay, Harry."
"Don't go, Harry," Ron's voice echoed. "Please? I'm sorry about what I did, mate. I was just so...they'd been talking about my future and I figured it wasn't that big a deal, bringing you along. They'd said it was all for a good cause, the Foundation, you know? And...I was a bloody idiot."
Harry finally turned around and looked at Ron. His eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, but he had a hopeful expression on his face.
"Say you'll forgive me, Harry," Ron said, his voice shaky. "Please?"
Harry took a deep breath, then nodded, and the next thing he knew, Ron was thumping Harry on the back and the two of them were grinning at each other.
"Oh! It's just like fourth year," Hermione cried, bursting into tears.
Harry shared a look with Ron - one that said "she's still barking mad, isn't she?" - then pulled both Hermione and Ron into a quick three-way embrace.
"So...we're good then?" Ron asked, after he'd cleared his throat and taken a step backwards.
"Yeah, we're good," said Harry, still grinning.
"Okay, great...because I have something that I think you're going to be interested in."
Harry waited while Ron spelled closed all the window curtains and cast a silencing spell around the room.
"Sorry for all this cloak and dagger stuff, as Dad calls it, but I'm still hoping to keep my job," Ron said as he pulled an old piece of parchment out of a cloth pouch and handed it over to Harry.
"What's this then?"
"Something that...Hermione's been telling me what you've been trying to do for Snape, and so I thought maybe I could do a little snooping, check out a few Ministry offices. I, um, sort of forgot to return your invisibility cloak before you left for Romania," he said, handing the cloak over to Harry. "It's been dead useful, though."
Harry shot a quick look at Hermione, trying to figure out whether he should be angry that she'd been talking about his private business while he and Ron were at odds, but he decided it wasn't important. She'd always been better at knowing who could be trusted, even if the person in question had been acting like a prat.
He unrolled the parchment and - casting a quick translation spell over the text - started to read. Less than a minute later, he looked up from the parchment and stared at Ron.
"It's the spell, isn't it? This...Mark of Cain or whatever it's called...this is the spell they used on Snape."
"Where did you find it?"
"Umbridge's office. I sort of...got myself invited over for tea, and when she was getting the biscuits ready, well...all it took was a quick wordless, Accio Spell Used On the Greasy Git. I left a copy of the parchment in her office, but this is the real thing."
"I don't suppose there was an E-Zee Cast Counter-Spell sitting next to it," Harry asked.
"Sorry, mate. This was the best I could do," Ron said with a grin. "And now that things are back to normal - or whatever passes for normal between us - it's time for me to head home. Bill and Fleur just arrived with the kids this morning, and Mum told me I wasn't allowed to skive off tonight."
Harry nodded. "Have fun - and Ron? This...what you did: it's absolutely brilliant."
"It wasn't much," Ron mumbled, his face red with embarrassment.
"It was!" Hermione said. "There may not be any counters written down for this class of spells, but the first step in learning how to reverse something is knowing how it was cast in the first place."
"Yes, Professor Granger-Krum-Granger," Ron said in a sing-songy voice as he slipped his traveling cloak on. "So, Harry...Mum said to make sure and tell you there's still a bedroom with your name on it at the Burrow."
Harry shook his head. "I'm good with where I'm living, Ron."
"But...with Snape?" Ron said, frowning. "You know, you've always been a little strange, Harry, but wanting to live with Snape is strange even by your standards."
Knowing he couldn't really argue with that, Harry just smiled and waved goodbye to his friend.
After Ron went back to the Burrow, Harry left the 'borrowed' parchment with Hermione and started walking towards Flourish and Blotts. There wasn't really any reason to leave so early - Snape wasn't going to finish with Pansy's niece for another half hour, and besides, Harry could get there much more quickly by Apparating - but that afternoon, seeing Ron again and getting the parchment that might be the key to breaking the spell, had given him a lot of excess nervous energy to work off.
Even though he was barely strolling, Harry thought he was going to be early to meet with Snape, but as he neared the intersection between Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley, he saw Snape sitting in a tiny cafe, drinking a cup of coffee. He went inside, and Snape looked up when Harry neared, his expression unreadable.
"Hey, you finished early," Harry said, hoping that Snape was going to volunteer some information, but he didn't say a word, just continued to drink his coffee.
"Um...are you planning on telling me what's going on sometime today, or do you want to play Twenty Questions? Because I can...."
"Is it absolutely necessary you know everything to do with my existence, Potter?" Snape said with a hint of a snarl. "I was unaware that I had signed on for a keeper when I moved into Miss Lovegood's flat."
Once upon a time, Harry would have let himself be goaded into an argument, but no longer. He sat down across from Snape and raised his eyebrows, and just...waited.
"Oh for God's sake," Snape said, looking down at the table. "It isn't a matter of earth-shattering importance that I'm no longer tutoring Miss Iris Parkinson."
"You're not? When did that happen? Why not?"
"Because Pansy Parkinson has decided it is in her best interests to retain what was left of her family name after her Death Eater parents were publically executed by the Ministry."
Snape huffed with exasperation. "Surely even you understand that the mere fact that I'm alive has little or nothing to do with the way the Wizarding public views me. All those who have hired me, regardless of how quiet they have attempted to keep the contract, have done so at great risk to their reputations, and Pansy has recently found herself the subject of...scrutiny."
"Tell me you weren't just about to say that's not fair, Potter."
Harry scowled. "Well, it's not."
"Not what?" Snape said, a small smile crooking up the corner of his mouth.
Harry shook his head, then smiled back.
"It's not fair," he said.
"You're so predictable."
Harry grinned. "That's what you think. I know something you'd never have been able to predict."
"What is it?"
"Nope. I'm not telling you what it is. I have to show you."
Snape glared at Harry. "I am in no mood to play games at the moment, and if you think that..."
"No, I have to show you," Harry said, serious now. "And I can't discuss it with you here. We have to go back to Hermione's."
When they walked into the house, Hermione was waiting for them at the kitchen table, the parchment unfurled and waiting to be studied. All three leaned over the spell and started to look at it, but after no more than twenty seconds, Snape walked away and stared out the back window.
Harry glanced at Hermione, then got up and went to stand beside Snape.
"What's the matter?"
"You might have noticed that a translation charm is necessary if one wishes to read what is on this parchment," Snape said waspishly, "and that is no longer a skill that I am able to utilize."
"Then why not just ask one of us to translate?" Harry asked, his voice betraying his impatience.
"Have you ever considered that I might be sick to death of asking everyone to do things for me that I was able to do for myself by the time I was twelve?"
"Look, I know it's frustrating," said Harry, "but we're doing this so that...."
"Enough," Hermione interjected. "Professor, here's a copy of the translated spell so you can stop whinging. Harry, sit down and start reading."
"Bossy," Harry and Snape both muttered under their breaths.
An hour later, the three of them were no further along in understanding the spell than they had been when they first sat down, and tempers were running high.
"Perhaps if somebody had an adequate translation spell, we might be making more progress."
Hermione glared across the table. "There's nothing wrong with my translation spells, Severus Snape, and you know it."
"There are at least seven words that refuse to stabilize on my copy of the spell. If that's not indicative of a weak translation, I don't know what is."
"Stop having a go at Hermione. Words are changing on the original, too, and I was the one that did the translation on that one."
Snape sat back in his chair and sneered. "So all Gryffindors are prone to the same ineptitude in this area? I can't say I'm terribly surprised.."
"You're really an arse, you know that? If we hadn't...."
"Wait a minute, Harry. Did you say you're seeing fluctuations in your translation as well?"
Harry nodded. "Yeah, why? Do you think that means something?"
"It might mean that there aren't any accurate translations for the words being used in the spell.
"But wouldn't that mean that the people who cast the spell at the Ministry didn't actually know what it was they were saying?"
Snape leaned forward and took another look at the parchment lying before him, then shook his head..
"I, for one, wouldn't be particularly surprised to discover the Ministry didn't have a clue about what they were doing," he said. "Which words appear to be unstable on your copies?"
Hermione squinted at the spell in front of her. "The last word in each of the first three lines, and then the fourth and fifth words in the eighth line."
Harry nodded. "Same here, except my last line's a bit of a mess as well."
"What last line?" Hermione asked. "The last line's fine, but this disclaimer is...oh! This isn't a disclaimer, is it?"
"No, it's not," Harry said, pointing at the tiny text down at the bottom of the page. "Or at least, I don't think so. Look where it says something like Finishes Ends Want It Wants Needs The End. I don't have a clue what that means."
Snape looked at his own copy and frowned. "It appears that I, too, ignored those words, since the spell had clearly ended further up the page. But now I see it's much like you said, except where you read "Want it Wants," my version is unreadable. There seem to be at least...five different words there, but they're transforming too quickly to read. Perhaps one of you would be so good as to slow down the rate of translation?"
Hermione took Snape's parchment from his hand and waved her wand over it, but it didn't seem to make a noticeable difference.
"I see something with a 'D"...'Desire', maybe?" she said. "No, that's just another way of saying 'Want', really."
"It ends when it...when you...want?"
"What are you muttering about, Potter?"
"Nothing, just...it seems to be saying something like the spell ends when it wants or when you want or something, but that doesn't make any sense."
"No," Snape said. "That doesn't make any sense. Nor does any of this make any sense."
Snape tossed the parchment to the side and rubbed the bridge of his nose, then pushed his chair back away from the table and stood up.
"You may stay if you like, Potter, but I'm going to go home."
"No," Harry said. "I'll go with you. Hermione, I'll see you tomorrow, okay? Thanks for everything."
"You're welcome...Harry" she said archly.
If Snape noticed Hermione's pointed mention of Harry's name only, he gave no sign, just swept out the door, leaving Harry to follow in his wake.
Neither man spoke a word as they walked towards the flat, both caught up in their own thoughts as they were, but once they'd brewed a cup of tea and sat down together in the living room, Harry brought up the subject of the translation again, and to his surprise, Snape now seemed willing to talk about it. Regardless of how willing either of them might have been, however, two hours of discussion passed without Snape or Harry coming up with anything that might prove useful. In fact, all Snape seemed to get out of the discussion was a stiff neck, which he was currently engaged in trying to massage.
As Harry had done once before, he reached out without thinking to rub Snape's neck for him, focusing on nothing but how much he wanted to touch him. He was stopped by the aura, of course, but this time, he was not thrown across the room.
Stubbornly, he pushed harder, and instead of meeting more resistance, he met less.
Something was different, Harry thought to himself. Something had changed! But what was it?
"Potter," Snape said, "what are you doing back there?"
"I'm...okay, look," Harry said, coming around to stand in front of Snape. "What was the word that Hermione saw on your copy of the spell after she slowed down the translation? Not 'Want' or 'Wants it' or whatever, but 'Desire', right?"
"Yes, but I don't see what...."
"I was this close to touching you just now, I swear. You have to go and lie down."
"Excuse me? Have you lost the last vestiges of what passes for your mind?"
"No, seriously. I've had an idea, and...just lie down here on the sofa or on your bed or something. Trust me, Snape....Severus. Please."
It might have been Snape remembering that in the end, Harry had defeated Voldemort by sheer instinct alone, or perhaps it was the use of his first name (something Snape heard all too infrequently these days), or maybe it was the earnest way that Harry said 'Please" - but whatever it was, Snape finally stood up from the table, and without saying another word, walked slowly into his bedroom and lay down.
Harry crawled onto the edge of Snape's bed and sat back on his ankles, just watching Snape for a moment. The man was lying on his back, but his eyes were closed, and Harry could see the way his eyes were moving restlessly beneath the thin pale skin of his eyelids, how Snape's hands twitched almost imperceptibly against the rumpled bedcovers. He looked almost vulnerable lying there, in a way Harry had never seen him look, and Harry took a deep breath, letting all the feelings of want and desire that had been building within him for this man rise up to the surface.
When Snape's eyes fluttered open, Harry leaned forward, wanting more than anything to touch Snape, and for the first time, when he ghosted his hands along the edge of the aura, he felt heat against his palms, an echo of the heat of his own growing arousal.
Want. Need. Desire.
Harry felt those three things and something...more, something which he couldn't name. He reached his hands out again, pushing against the magical force of the near-blinding aura, pushed again and yet again until finally, almost unbelievably, his fingertips came to rest upon Snape's chest.
The stoic expression on Snape's face was belied by the rapid beating of his heart beneath Harry's trembling hands, and...God, he was actually touching Snape. So many months of wanting him, so many nights of dreaming about him, and to finally be able to touch him like this was so miraculous that Harry could hardly believe it was true. Had simple desire been enough?
And then Harry frowned. The light of the aura was no longer between them - and for the first time since he was in school, Harry could see clearly every scar, every mark, all the tiny imperfections of the man lying before him on the bed, and Harry smiled to himself for a moment at the welcome realization that he was finally seeing the real Severus Snape - but the aura, no...the aura wasn't gone. The light in the bedroom was as strong as it had been moments ago. Not removing his hand, Harry turned first to the left and then to the right and saw the glare of the aura still there, as bright as it had ever been, but no longer just around Snape. It had...expanded somehow, and...oh hell, Harry was inside it.
How had this happened, he thought, trying to quell his suddenly rising panic..
"Are you ever going to move that hand, Potter?" Snape asked shakily, and Harry could hear the fear beneath Snape's words, a fear that sounded reassuringly identical to his own.
"I'm afraid to," Harry said, not taking his eyes away from Snape's face. "What if I'm never able to do this again? What if we're never able to do this again?"
Snape took a deep breath, and both men watched in wonder at the simple sight of Harry's hands rising and falling on Snape's narrow chest.
"Divestio" Harry whispered, and he leaned in to kiss Snape for the first time. Before he took his next breath, Snape reached up to place his hands on top of Harry's hands, his fingers clawed and rigid, ragged nails cutting into the skin on the back of Harry's hands as Snape tightened his grip. Harry felt a short, sharp pain as Snape's nails dug more deeply into the already scarred skin of his hands, and he thought that if this pain was the price he had to pay for knowing that he could touch Snape and Snape could touch him, it was worth it.
Harry leaned sideways and reached one arm down to where his clothes lay in a heap on the floor beside the bed, his other hand still held in Snape's grasp. He stretched his fingertips out, trying to feel for his wand, but before he could find it, he was pulled back forcefully against Snape.
"Trying to slip away so soon?" Snape asked, expressionless except for the quirk of a single eyebrow.
Harry smiled and shook his head. "I was, um....going to summon some lube, actually."
"Not everything is easier with magic, Potter," he said before rolling onto his side and taking a small jar of lubricant out from the drawer of his bedside table. "It's a good thing that I had the foresight to imbue this particular potion with a preservation charm, isn't it?"
Harry nodded, then took the jar from Snape's hand and drew out the stopper. "Do you want me to prepare myself or...did you want to do it for me?"
"But I thought..."
"I want you to fuck me."
Harry sat up in bed and looked at the jar in his hand, then at Snape. He had been so certain that if they were ever given the opportunity to do anything like this, Snape would never have wanted to bottom, but Harry couldn't mistake the hunger he saw in Snape's expression, despite the familiarly autocratic tone of voice.
By the time Snape rolled over onto his side, both Harry's cock and his fingers were coated with the lubricant, and the jar had been set down on the floor.
"Come on, Potter." Snape said impatiently
"Pushy bottom," Harry muttered, and he thought about how the git had waited five years to be fucked and how he could damn well wait another few minutes. Then Harry thought about how maybe he didn't want to wait any longer, and so he reached out, swearing to himself that he'd take as long as Snape needed, but no sooner had he started to slide his fingertips gently around the rim of Snape's arse, than Snape pushed backward.
"Make me feel it, Potter," he rasped. "I want to feel you!"
Harry got up on his knees, and - holding Snape's sharp-boned hips in his hands - pushed, slow and hard. He heard Snape grunt as he entered him, and for a moment, he wondered if he should have followed his instincts and taken more time with the preparations, but then Snape's grunt turned into a groan, and the groan turned into a moan of pleasure, and when Harry touched his forehead to Snape's shoulder, Snape tilted his own head to the side so that their temples touched.
"Harry," Snape whispered, so quietly that Harry wasn't sure he'd actually heard his name, but he swallowed hard at the thought that maybe he had, that maybe this wasn't about just anybody touching Snape, that Snape really cared that it was him. He wrapped one arm around Snape's chest, holding him tightly as he slid further in, and licked at the salt sweat taste of Snape's neck. When Snape tightened around him, Harry gasped.
Further in he pushed, before pulling almost all the way out, then pushing in again. He and Snape were both panting now, sweat pooling where their skin touched . Balancing his upper body on one elbow, Harry reached down and took Snape's cock in his free hand, his still-lubed fingers just meeting as he slid his hand up and down the length of Snape's shaft, the force of his own orgasm growing, and soon - all too soon - he and Snape both found their release.
When the two men rolled apart, both automatically avoiding the wet spot on the bed, there was a sudden ripple of light, and Harry knew immediately that they had made a mistake. He tried to touch Snape, but it was impossible. The aura, which had been wrapped around both of them just moments ago, once again surrounded Snape only, and Harry - who had never really understood when his friends talked about the pain of separation and had always thought the phrase was nothing but a metaphor - felt a sudden, fierce aching in his chest.
"We only kissed once," he said finally. "We should have kissed more than once."
"Yes," Snape said quietly, turning his face to the wall. "We should have done."
Weeks passed, and not only was there no further progress being made on the spell reversal front, but Harry and Snape were also having no success at replicating the conditions under which they had been able to touch each other.
Snape in particular was growing increasingly frustrated. Harry knew that if there was one thing with which Snape had experience, it was in putting up with things he couldn't change, no matter how odious, yet as far as Harry could tell, it had taken more than four years for Snape to achieve even the slightest degree of acceptance about his be-spelled situation, and now that he'd been given a glimpse at a future in which a change in his condition seemed possible, to have it taken away must have seemed like an even greater punishment than having it imposed in the first place.
Harry understood Snape's frustration, but what was most frustrating for Harry was that Snape refused to even discuss the situation any longer. Not with him, not with Hermione - not with anybody.
"What point is there in pursuing this?" Snape said flatly a day after Harry had tried to get him to go to the bedroom and try once more. "That was an aberration, a freak occurrence. It's clearly never going to happen again. Let it go, Potter. Just let it go."
Harry could not let it go.
"I can't understand why he seems to just be giving up, Hermione. I thought this was as important to him as it was to me."
Hermione finished putting away the toys the twins had left on the living room floor before they went off to bed, then went to sit next to Harry on the sofa.
"Do you ever actually listen to yourself, Harry? How can you think this is less important to Professor Snape than it is to you?"
Harry could feel his face flushing. "That's not what I meant. I mean, obviously it's important to him, but...why has he stopped trying?"
"Because he's afraid?" she said. "Because he's tired? Because he thinks you're just interested in this whole thing as part of some kind of experiment? Because...."
"What?" Harry said indignantly. "How could he possibly think that? It's not about that. He knows how I feel."
"Are you sure he does, Harry? I was talking to Neville the other day, and he said the thing that finally let him get past his fear of Professor Snape was when he realized that Professor Snape might be even more insecure than he was."
"Yeah, but what does that have to do with..."
"A twenty-three year old man wanting to have sex with someone doesn't necessarily imply any deeper feelings, and certainly not when that someone is somebody that twenty-three year old man despised for years. And if he likes you, Harry, then...."
Harry frowned. "But...he hasn't said anything."
"Men!" Hermione said, rolling her eyes. "Of course he hasn't said anything. And of course you haven't. You're all idiots."
"Except for Sebastian. He's perfect," Hermione said primly. "Go home, Harry."
Harry kissed Hermione goodbye, and Apparated back to the flat, confident that as soon as he told Snape how he felt, Snape would be willing to start working on the spell again.
It wasn't that simple.
"...no, that's not what I meant, but Neville said...."
"Neville? Neville Longbottom!"
Harry frowned. "Well, yeah...we don't know anyone else named Neville, do we?"
"If you think I'm going to allow you to discuss my love-life with all and sundry, you're a bigger fool than I ever suspected! Of all the asinine...Ronald Weasley was bad enough, but Neville Longbottom, of all people! How dare you do such a thing without consulting me first, you..."
"What did you say?"
"Don't pretend you didn't hear me! I will not have my sex-life be the subject of ..."
"No, before...what did you just say?"
"Don't change the subject!" Snape shouted.
"I'm not changing the subject," Harry yelled back. "First of all, I didn't tell Neville anything, and neither did Hermione, by the way. But you didn't say 'sex life' - you said love life."
"A slip of the tongue, I assure you."
Harry snorted. "You must be forgetting that I've already had a close encounter with your slippery tongue, and it was...Severus, do you love me?"
For a long moment, Snape said nothing, then looked up and glared at Harry.
"And if my answer were yes?"
"Then I'd tell you that I feel the same way," Harry said simply. "And I'd tell you that I think I've figured out how to break the spell."
As with the last time they had been able to touch each other, Harry could feel desire and want and longing and need, but this time he was finally able to put a name to that other emotion he felt for Snape.
Harry leaned forward, and pressed his lips against Snape's mouth, tasting bitter tea and almond biscuits and the almost imperceptible tang of salt from tears too long swallowed down, and for what seemed like hours, Harry and Snape traded kisses and breath, neither willing to pull away.
Instead, they moved closer, and closer still, their clothes an unwelcome barrier until Harry's silent "Divestio" left both men naked and thrusting up against each other, first one on top, then the other, and finally both lying on their sides, arms wrapped tightly around each other. Harry pressed against Snape, slid his hot, hard cock along the length of Snape's cock, up and down, over and over again. Harry clenched his eyes tight, almost crying out with the building heat, savouring the feel of the glorious friction, and then he and Snape did cry out as their orgasms hit, one after the other.
Before the pounding of their hearts had slowed, Harry and Snape reached toward each other almost desperately - both unwilling to risk losing contact the way they had the last time they made love. They plundered each other's mouths, dragged their hands through each other's hair, the intensity greater even than the force of their shared orgasm had been moments before.
"I don't want you to let me go," Snape whispered, a hint of something that almost sounded like desperation in his voice.
For a moment, Harry was stunned by the emotion he heard in Snape's voice, but he asked himself why he'd been surprised by an emotion that echoed his own.
"I won't!" he said, tightening his embrace. "I love you. I won't let you go."
They held each other unshakeably as the aura pulsed around them, no longer stark white but alive with a rainbow of colors that expanded as it grew into an explosion of swirling light. Both men automatically tucked their heads into each other's shoulders, shielding their eyes from the burst of light.
When they finally opened their eyes, the light was gone.
The aura which had surrounded Severus Snape for so many years had disappeared entirely.
Harry woke up in the morning in a tangle of limbs and bed sheets. It had been common gossip among the members of the Order of the Phoenix that Snape's life as a spy meant that he was constantly alert to any sounds or movements, even in his sleep; however, this seemed not to be the case. Harry smiled as he reached out and rubbed his palm against Snape's stubbled chin, marveling a little at the whimpering noises his touch had elicited. Harry had woken to the sight of quite a few lovely men - and one or two lovely women - in his time, but nothing had ever made him as happy as the sight of this singularly un-lovely man in his bed.
When Snape finally opened his eyes, Harry could see that they were slightly puffy, almost as if he had been...crying? Harry knew that Hermione would probably say that they should talk about this, but Hermione didn't know everything.
"Do you want a cuppa?"
"I do," Snape said, sitting up in bed and looking extremely grateful that Harry hadn't asked anything more serious than whether he wanted some tea. "Do we still have some of those Muggle biscuits? The ones with the chocolate?"
They put on their dressing gowns, and went into the kitchen. As they waited for the water to boil, there was a knock at the door.
"Come in," Harry called. "It's unlocked!"
The door swung open, and Luna, wearing a polka-dot set of robes and a striped hat, stepped into the kitchen.
"Did you see it? It's so exciting!"
"Did we see what?"
"The Baby Aurora Borealis, of course! I'm going to run a special edition of the Quibbler this evening, which I'm sure will be an exclusive, but..."
"Uh, Luna?" Harry said. "What's a Baby Aurora Borealis?"
"Oh, it's a very rare natural phenomenon only visible to Wizarding folk. They travel, of course, but they're almost never seen. According to my records, it's been over a century since one was sighted in Diagon Alley, and it always signaled a great change. I can't believe I just happened to be looking out my office window when it appeared last night!"
For Harry, the thought that Luna had seen what was, to all intents and purposes, the after-effects of their orgasm was unnerving, but Snape just smirked. Clearly nothing could upset him this morning.
"Would you like a cup of tea, Miss Lovegood?" he asked
"Oh no, it's far too early in the day for that. I just wanted to see whether I should place an announcement that the flat would be available today or whether you needed more time to pack and decide where you were going."
Both Harry and Snape looked at Luna with confusion.
"The Baby Aurora did touch down here, didn't it? I was certain that meant that you would both be going on a journey." She frowned, then flipped her long blonde hair over her shoulders and smiled at the two men. "I'm sorry that this was so short a visit, but I think I need to visit the library at Hogwarts. They're bound to have something about the childhood habits of the Aurora Borealis," she said, before stepping through the door and Disapparating.
"She was right about one thing," Snape said quietly. "I'm going to have to leave. You know, Harry, I was resigned to a lifetime trapped within the restrictions of that spell, but now that it seems to have been broken, I find myself unwilling to return to that state once again, which would surely be my fate if I were to remain here."
"Luna usually knows more than people give her credit for, one way or another," Harry said. "Of course, she said we would both be going on a journey."
Snape looked up sharply, then looked back down into his cup of tea. "There's no reason for you to abandon your life, just because I can no longer remain here."
"Don't try to convince me I am mistaken in this. The longer I remain here, the more likely it is that I will be subject to a recasting of the spell - and once the Ministry knows the spell isn't unbreakable, I suspect they won't give me as much freedom as they did the first time." He looked down at his hands and shrugged. "With the aura gone, I will no longer draw attention in the Muggle world, so that's where I must go. It may be possible to visit Wizarding cities in other countries from time to time - eventually - but the Muggle world will be a far safer place to live."
"I told you last night that I love you."
"Yes, you did, didn't you?" Snape said, still looking anywhere but at Harry. "And I told you that I love you, but it's because I do that I cannot allow you to abandon your life."
"Severus, you are my life. And yes, I know that sounds completely soppy, but...don't you know that's what last night meant?"
For a moment, Snape remained silent, then he said, "I'm sure you realize that this is the second time that you broke an incredibly powerful spell with the force of love. Aren't you afraid you're going to become a cliche?"
Harry smiled. "I'll risk it,"
"You'll come with me, even if it means giving up everything you've come to know? Even if it means leaving your magic behind?"
"If that's what it takes," he replied.
"You're mad, you know," Snape muttered under his breath.
They sat in silence for a moment, while Harry thought about the long arm of the Ministry and about how mad the whole world was - that in order to make sure Snape didn't lose access to his magic again, both he and Harry might both have to live like Muggles forever. And he thought about the possibility of maybe never seeing his friends again or playing Quidditch again.
And then he thought about a world without Snape in it.
Harry looked up, and Snape was watching him, and when they reached out to embrace each other, Harry didn't know how he could ever have thought this wasn't a simple decision to make.
There wasn't time to brew anything so complicated as Polyjuice, of course, but Harry had a fair knowledge of masking charms, from back when he thought he might want to become an Auror. Between those and his old invisibility cloak, he was sure he and Snape would be able to keep all eyes off them as they traveled through the dark, twisty streets of Diagon Alley for what might be the last time.
They both gave a tip of the head to Tom at the Leaky Cauldron as they passed through - although not long enough for him to recognize either of them - and that, they suspected, had been their farewell to the Wizarding World.
No more than five minutes into Muggle London, however, and both men realized that they were being followed. Harry nudged Snape with his elbow, and the two of them ducked into the nearest alley, planning to Apparate as soon as they were positive they wouldn't be seen by any Muggles, but the sound of two people clearing their throats behind them made them turn around.
There, smiling sheepishly, stood Ron and Hermione, with Pansy and Neville close behind.
"How did you know where to find us?" Harry said, frowning.
Hermione smiled. "Luna, of course."
Snape snorted. "She told you something about an aurora borealis with wanderlust, and naturally you interpreted that to mean that you'd be able to locate us outside of..." He looked up at the shop sign above him. "...Marks and Spencer?"
"No," Ron said. "Actually, she flooed us this morning and told us she'd had a premonition that you two were going to do a runner, and if we wanted to say goodbye, we'd have to get a move on."
"And you believed her?" Harry asked, with a frown.
"Of course I believed her," Ron said. "Haven't you been reading Luna's predictions column in the Quibbler? It's scary how accurate she's been."
Harry sighed. He really had to start reading the newspapers.
Pansy stepped forward. "Oddly enough, Luna didn't bother mentioning you when she flooed me, Potter, but she did say where Professor Snape would be going, and...honestly, just the thought of him cast adrift in the Muggle world was almost more than I could bear!" Pansy gave a delicate sniff, then reached into her bag and withdrew a rather large package.
"Here, Sir. I came across this years ago in one of the rooms my father...well, you know the rooms I'm talking about, I'm sure. In any case, I'm sure you'll find it useful, where you're going."
Snape frowned, and opened the package. Inside were stacks and stacks of 20 and 50 pound notes.
"Where did your father get this?" Hermione asked indignantly.
"It isn't any of your business, Granger...Krum...whatever you're calling yourself these days, and in any case, I'm certain you wouldn't be happy with the answer."
"But whoever's money this was...."
"Is no longer in any state to miss it. Look at it this way: this ridiculous paper money is finally going to be going back to the Muggle world where it belongs. There's a nice sort of balance there, don't you think?"
Pansy smiled smugly as she handed the package over to Snape, who shrank it to a less conspicuous size and secreted it in one of his cloak pockets.
Harry wasn't at all sure that this was the kind of money he and Snape should be using to start their new life together, but when he glanced at Snape, the look he got back was, "Surely you don't think I'd be so ill-mannered to throw Miss Parkinson's good intentions back in her face, particularly in front of so many Gryffindors, do you? We shall discuss this matter at another time, when we do not have an audience."
Or maybe Snape's look just meant, "Bloody hell! We're rich!" but in either case, Harry resigned himself to waiting until later to find out which it was.
After Pansy had said her goodbyes to her former Head of House (and refrained from insulting Harry, which under the circumstances, was about as much as he could hope for), Neville stepped forward and reached into the folds of his robe, from which he withdrew two unfamiliar wands.
"The Ministry would always be able to track you if you used your own wands, but...these belonged to my parents. Gran told me that these were their spare wands, from back when they were Aurors. Unregistered, of course," Neville said with a smile. "They've never worked for me, but I thought maybe you might have better luck."
Snape took the closest of the two wands, did a quick swish and flick, and in the next moment, Neville was rising slightly off the ground.
"Five points to Gryffindor, Longbottom," Snape said, with a satisfied look on his face, then reached out and shook Neville's hand for the first - and quite likely, the last - time. "Mr. Potter? I think it's time we were off, don't you?"
With a final nod of farewell, Harry and Snape Disapparated - hand in hand.
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