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I Met A Man Who Wasn't There

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Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.

 

Severus glanced through the shop, making sure everything was in its place. He turned off the lights, set the 'closed' sign, and stepped out in Hartshorn Alley.

The door locked its Muggle lock behind him, a surreptitious flick of his wand set the wards.

It wasn't late, but Severus didn't see anyone else in the alley, although 'alley' was too grand a word for the small cul-de-sac. Hartshorn held only a handful of shops in addition to his -- a florist, two different types of Healers, a Muggle herbalist, a European gourmet food shop, a shabby second hand book store, and a bakery on the corner. The lane dead-ended one shop past Severus'.

Not seeing anyone didn't mean that Severus didn't feel someone there. Someone watching his every move.

Severus flicked his wand and what looked like his Patronus appeared in front of him. The image stood in front of him, as if receiving a message, and then left to deliver it. Anyone watching would think Severus had sent a message for someone waiting for him.

The feeling of being watched diminished, not following him as he walked to the nearest Tube station for the ride home. He caught a glimpse of a hooded figure as he entered the station but, when he turned back to look, there was no one there.

The train ride and the rest of the night was uneventful.

The next morning, Severus looked around the Tube station carefully. It was the same station he had been through regularly for the past five years, since he had opened the shop. Ordinary people -- mostly Muggles but a few wizards and witches -- walked through the station, ignoring Severus as he lingered at the top of the stairs.

The day flew by, between customers and the work Severus did in the back room. He only brewed relatively simple potions on site, leaving more complex potions to his home lab.

That day, Severus left while it was still daylight. He put his "closed early, back tomorrow" sign on the door as he closed up. His regulars wouldn't be surprised, since they were aware that he often would close the shop early to brew at home. His Wizarding customers could send an owl in an emergency, and his Muggle customers could seek out another pharmacy.

There wasn't anything unusual at the Tube station and he was soon home.

A bedraggled black and white cat sat on his stoop.

"Picking fights you cannot win is not a good plan," Severus said to the cat. The cat sauntered inside as Severus opened the door, but not before Severus saw the blood in its fur.

The cat had appeared one day, bloodied and scarred. It had sat on Severus' doorstep, defiant and hopeful at the same time. Severus had sighed and allowed it into his home.

The cat -- which Severus unimaginatively called "Cat" -- had earned his keep by chasing rodents in the basement and the yard. Rodent parts were useful in a small handful of potions.

Severus placed a basin of warm water on the floor and eased himself down.

"Come here," he said conversationally to the cat. "You know you need to be cleaned up."

The cat hesitated, but this was a dance they had done before. Severus waited patiently and the cat finally deigned to come closer.

Severus placed the cat in the basin and gently washed the blood out of the fur. The cuts were shallow and should heal on their own. Severus ran a towel over the cat to take most of the moisture out.

"Dinner?" Severus asked.

The cat gave a stare that Severus took as of course.

Severus opened a tin of tuna -- not that he bought it just for the cat -- and placed it on a dish on the floor.

"Don't gulp your food," Severus felt obligated to say.

Severus prepared and ate his own dinner. He worked on one of the potions he had brewing in his lab. At this stage, it only needed to be stirred one time a day, so he went through his inventory to prepare for potions he would need for the shop.

The cat left the house as Severus went off to the shop the next morning.

"Don't pick any fights," Severus said as Cat disappeared into a hedge. The cat flicked an ear to indicate he heard.

 

He wasn't there again today,
I wish, I wish he'd go away...

 

Severus felt eyes on him as he unlocked the shop door. He looked into his shop window and caught a glimpse of a dark haired man moving away.

"Professor!"

Severus turned to see Annabell Strangewood, a former student and regular patron of his shop. Severus looked up and the man was already gone.

"Yes, Miss Strangewood?" Severus turned to face her.

"I was hoping you'd have some Fever Reducing Draught," she begged. "My Austin has been sick for the past three days and the medi-witch I took him to recommended it."

"Certainly," Severus said. "Give me a moment."

It wasn't until after he and Cat had both had dinner that evening that Severus had a chance to consider what he thought he had seen.

After Voldemort was defeated, Potter had been everywhere. The Ministry paraded him about for a while, until Potter publicly announced that, unless they elected someone sensible like Amelia Bones or Kingsley Shacklebolt as Minister, he was done with anything to do with the Ministry.

Potter had used all of his public relations clout to ensure that Severus and Draco Malfoy were cleared of all charges related to the War. Because of Potter's vigorous defense of Draco, Narcissa and Lucius were given a slap on the wrist; Lucius was reluctantly allowed to take Narcissa and depart to France. Draco had taken over as Lord Malfoy, married Astoria Greengrass, and settled into faint obscurity.

Once Severus was cleared, and the elder Malfoys had left Britain, Potter simply disappeared. He left a letter that Granger and Weasley gave to the Quibbler that essentially said he had done what he was supposed to, and that the rest of the British Wizarding World could sod off.

There were theories, of course, none of which had any facts to support them. Neither Granger nor Weasley would talk -- and Severus suspected that they couldn't talk, simply to protect themselves. He wouldn't put it past Potter to put himself under Fidelus with someone no one would suspect as his Secret Keeper.

"It's not important, is it?" Severus said to Cat. "Coming?"

He went off to bed.

 

When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn't see him there at all!

 

Severus had spycraft beat into him -- literally and figuratively -- and much of it was second nature by this time in his life. He knew someone was watching, he'd just have to work harder to catch whomever it was.

He took his regular train toward work but got off at a different station. The walk wasn't that much further but it allowed him to approach from a different direction. Hartshorn itself didn't give him too many options, since it was a dead end alley, so any frontal approach always ended there.

There was a back door to his shop but it went into a minuscule space in back of the building and he'd have to scale a waist high fence to get to the next street. It certainly was an option in an emergency, and, if his life was threatened, he would not hesitate to use it.

Since he was more curious than feeling threatened, approaching Hartshorn from a different direction was his best option.

Severus did fuss around the shop, moving things around enough that setting a mirror up in the window so that he could see down the street wasn't obvious. He put a Notice-Me-Not charm on the mirror so that anyone walking up the alley would not notice their own reflection.

He even went as far as to purchase both the Prophet and The Quibbler to see if there was any mention of Potter in either paper. He doubted it, but one looked for information where one could find it.

There was nothing in the mirror that first day, but the second day brought a flicker of shadow where a shadow shouldn't be. Severus mostly ignored it and went about his business.

Cat didn't come by that evening, either.

Then for two days straight, the shadow was at the end of the alley, about the same time of day. Severus knew he had a chance to find his person now.

 

Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door...

 

"Potter! You can come out now," Severus called.

A swirl of that bloody invisibility cloak, and Potter appeared before him.

Potter grinned. "Good work, there! No one else has seen me yet!" He draped the cloak over his arm.

Severus growled. "I would not be alive if I had been as shoddy as you have been!"

Potter shrugged. "I will admit that if my life depended on it, I most likely would not have been here at all."

"True," Severus agreed. "And, exactly why are you here?" And why have you been stalking me for most of a week?

Potter shuffled his feet. "Mostly just checking in," he admitted softly. "Been away long enough that, well, thought I'd see how everyone was doing."

"I assume you are not officially here," Severus replied. "Otherwise, I have missed the parade and ball that would be held in your honor."

"Got it in one!" Potter smiled. He shivered. "I'd appreciate it if you would be discreet."

Severus shrugged. "I have no one to tell."

"Umm... alright," Potter frowned.

The frown made Severus realize how... sad that had sounded.

"If you do not want to be seen, you might as well come in," Severus reluctantly invited Potter inside.

"Brilliant!" Potter smiled.

Potter looked around the shop as Severus hung up his own cloak, studying the young man in front of him. Potter had been newly turned eighteen when he left Britain, and the twenty-eight year old man in front of him bore only a superficial resemblance to the teenager Severus had known. Potter had grown a few more inches, and filled out nicely. He still carried himself gracefully, like the athlete he always was. And the hair was still deplorably messy, although Severus suspected it was more artfully done.

"This is how I imagined it," Potter announced.

"You've been watching me?" Severus was startled.

A blush. Interesting.

"No, no! Nothing that creepy." Potter admitted. "I've just been in contact with Hermione and Ron while I was away. Hermione told me you had opened a shop."

"I do not recall Miss Granger stopping in," Severus replied.

"No, but she has friends who have been here," Harry admitted. "I know she recommends you, especially to her friends."

"She does not need to do that!" Severus protested.

"I wasn't here. Not that I could stop her," Harry pointed out.

"True," Severus admitted.

"And you've worked with Neville, asking him to grow plants for you," Potter went on.

"You've kept in touch with Mr. Longbottom," Severus replied.

"On occasion," Potter agreed.

"Anyone else?" Severus asked.

"Not really," Potter replied. "Professor McGonagall has passed messages through Hermione, and I've been working with the American branch of Gringotts, so any official contacts have been handled by the Horde."

"America?" Severus asked.

Potter shrugged. "Figured going to the States would be a good option," he said. "It was actually one of the Goblins who suggested that. They have multiple branches in the States and helped me get into an American university."

"What did you study?" Severus asked.

"A lot of Muggle things that I missed while taking classes at Hogwarts," Potter answered. "Literature, mathematics, technology, science... lots of things. Finally finished a degree in Chemical Engineering and now I'm working on a Master's degree. But some magical studies, too."

"Technology?" Severus asked.

Potter nodded. "The Wizarding world in England is really fallen behind," he observed. "There's going to be a day soon that the Muggles stumble across us. I'm really surprised they haven't already."

"I have heard that," Severus agreed.

"Oh, well," Potter said. "I've worked out a place to go to in America, in case that ever happens."

"You would leave Britain?" Severus asked.

"In a heartbeat," Potter replied firmly. "There's not a lot here for me and, well, I like it there." He grinned. "I'm just Harry and no one cares about anything else."

Severus understood the appeal of that. Being just Severus is something he has never had. He envied Potter his freedom.

"Anyway, I've finished school for the summer and thought I'd come back and visit," Potter went on. "Turns out there's not a lot of people I'm interested in seeing."

"But I am one of them?" Severus asked, puzzled.

Potter grinned. "Yes. I've been staying with Neville, but he and Hannah have a new baby and Augusta is helping more than she should. So I got them a House Elf and figured that should help."

"That's extremely generous of you," Severus replied.

Potter shrugged. "The House Elves have always followed me around, ever since Dobby..." He paused for a moment, then continued. "My asking one to help a friend makes them happy."

"Ron and Hermione are in an 'off again' stage," he continued. "It's been on again/off again since I left. So I've spent time with each of them, and heaven only knows if they'll ever really get together."

"And Miss Weasley?" Severus asked, trying to be nonchalant.

"Ginny?" Potter laughed. "She flounced off when I told her I played for the other team, such as it were. Molly keeps me informed of what she's doing, along with the others, but I'd rather date Charlie than Ginny."

An interesting fact, Severus realized.

"I have several customers coming in this afternoon," Severus found himself saying. "What are you doing for dinner?"

Over Shepherd's Pie and pints, Potter somehow turned into Harry and a part of Severus' life. Harry would come by the shop almost daily, spend an hour or two talking and bringing Severus up to date on what was going on with both Harry's classmates as well as some of the events in other parts of the world.

Severus found himself having dinner with Minerva, Filius and Harry one night.

"And what about your magical learning?" Filius asked. "I hope you didn't abandon that at your American university."

"Actually, the Goblins were helpful there, too," Harry admitted. "They point me at Harvard University, which has both a Muggle and Wizarding side. The Wizards there worked hard to integrate what they can and anyone with the ability can take classes on both sides. I've earned the American equivalent of a Mastery in both Arithmancy and Charms already, and I'm working on Defense of the Dark Arts at the moment."

Severus was amazed. "I wasn't sure you were that serious of a student," he admitted. Exactly what Harry had been studying hadn't been part of their daily conversations. Severus made a mental note to change that.

Harry grinned. "Once I didn't have an army of crazies following me around, I enjoyed school. And I could do this on my own, without Hermione hounding me. I love her dearly, but I learned new ways of studying that made me a better student."

"Mastery in more than one field is a major undertaking," Minerva put in. "Why did you do that?"

Harry shrugged. "Mostly because I could," he replied. "It was fun, working with other Witches and Wizards, learning more about magic in general. Heck, even the History or Magic turned out to be interesting!"

Everyone laughed.

"With the demise of Voldemort, and the work we had to do to rebuild Hogwarts, I was able to persuade Binns to take on only advanced students," Minerva said. "History of Magic has become a much more popular course at this point."

Severus was fascinated at the changes to the curriculum at Hogwarts.

"You haven't had any problems with the Ministry?" Severus asked.

"I just threaten them with Harry," Minerva laughed. "Works like a charm."

The blush of embarrassment on Harry's face was charming, Severus decided.

Severus found the days went slowly when Harry wasn't able to stop by the shop to visit.

"I need to be going back, soon," Harry announced one day as they ate the sandwiches he had brought for lunch.

"Oh. Soon?" Severus asked, trying to hide his dismay.

"Next week," Harry said. "School starts up in two weeks and I have to get back."

"Are you near to finishing?" Severus asked.

"Another semester, actually," Harry replied. "Then I have to decide what to do next."

"Being useful is important," Severus replied, with a small frown.

Harry shrugged. "I guess I'll have to find something to do."

After Harry left for school, Severus found himself watching for Harry to stop into the shop and had to stop himself from... was he pining? He shook himself and went back to work.

Somehow, it was no longer the same.

 

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish.....

 

Four months later, Harry was sitting on the stoop in front of his house when Severus came home. Harry was apparently attempting to make friends with Cat, who was sitting on the other end of the stoop and mostly ignoring him.

"He is not friendly," Severus warned.

Harry held up his scratched and bleeding hand. "I figured that part out," he admitted. "Is he yours?"

"We... keep each other company," Severus replied. "I feed him and let him stay inside at night, but he has to earn his own keep."

"Ah! That makes sense," Harry admitted. He stood and brushed himself off.

"I suppose you'd like to come in," Severus half-invited as he unlocked the door. Cat walked in as they stood there.

"Only if you'd like me to," Harry replied carefully. He held up a bag. "I brought dinner, even if it's just take-away."

"That is useful," Severus answered solemnly.

"I can earn my own keep," Harry offered, as he placed the bag on the kitchen table.

After placing Cat's tuna on a plate, Severus busied himself with the accoutrements of eating dinner for a moment as Harry cleaned up his hand. The silence was not uncomfortable, he decided.

"Are you finished?" Severus asked as they settled at the kitchen table to eat. "With your Defense Mastery?

"I am," Harry confirmed. "This looks like a nice place to live."

"It is more than adequate for what I need," Severus replied. "I have a lab where I can do most of my work, and the rest is comfortable."

"Good neighborhood?" Harry asked.

"I do not really know any of the neighbors except in passing. They do not bother me, which is what I prefer, and it is relatively quiet," Severus admitted. "Are you looking for a place to settle?"

"Not yet," Harry temporized. "Soon." A deeper breath. "Have you ever thought about living elsewhere?"

"I have lived in three places in my life," Severus recounted. "I grew up at Spinner's End, spent the largest portion of my life at Hogwarts as both a student and a Professor, and, now, here."

"Would you be open to living anywhere else?" Harry asked, studying the meal on his plate carefully.

"I had not considered the idea," Severus replied.

"Oh," Harry replied, shoulders slumping slightly.

"I am not opposed," Severus went on. "Just that I had not considered it."

Harry sat up, looking Severus in the eye. "I have an offer of a position at Harvard, as a junior professor in Charms. And the medical school has a position open for a consulting Potions Master."

"I am not interested in teaching," Severus shot back.

"It's not as much teaching as supervising a Potions lab, and it's working with Healers and the occasional medi-witch who is looking to run their own lab," Harry countered. "No children anywhere in sight."

"You seem to have looked into a lot of things," Severus replied with a frown.

Harry held up his free hand in protest. "No! Sorry... I'm..." he stuttered. "Bloody hell, I'm going about this all wrong." He put his dinner aside and turned to face Severus.

"I had hoped that, maybe, you'd like to come to America, with me," Harry blurted. "I missed you... while I was gone."

"You must have friends..." Severus started.

Harry shook his head. "Acquaintances," he elaborated. "After... after Voldemort, it's hard to make friends when they don't understand what I've been through." He took a breath. "They feel so much younger than I am."

"And I am so much older than you are," Severus felt obligated to say.

Harry sighed and poked a fork into his dinner before setting it down.

"I'd like you to come with me," Harry declared. "You can see what it's like, talk to the Healers at the Medical School and, well, if you don't like it, then you don't like it and we can talk then about what to do next."

"We?" Severus said softly.

Harry blushed. "Yes, we."

Severus took a bite of dinner he did not taste and swallowed. He carefully put down his fork.

"You'll have to convince Cat to get into a carrier of some sort for travel," Severus declared.

Harry's smile was brilliant.