Actions

Work Header

No Place at All

Work Text:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot – Four Quarters: Little Gidding

 

The years after Britain were as endless as a dull travelogue; tarred or tiled rooftops, dirty alleys and abandoned buildings blurred together in Harry’s memory, as indistinct as if he’d seen them all from under his cloak. The night winds keened like lost souls in the guyropes of his tent; sun and dust bleached the colour from his backpack. Sometimes it felt as though he’d trudged alone down all the roads there ever were, carrying his whole world on his back: but not like Atlas, merely like the tramp he was.

Another sundown, another town left behind without recognition or regret. The suburbs faded into fields and farmlands as Harry followed the endless road up a long, slow incline fringed with waving stalks of wild grasses. As houses and humanity retreated, heaven and earth resumed their ancient dominance. The sunset-stained clouds hung gloomy and low. At the crest of the hill, where the road met the horizon, a flare of lightning cracked the sky, followed by a sullen grumble of thunder. The first fat raindrops splashed his face as he muttered “Impervius” and lengthened his stride, hoping against hope that there’d be something resembling shelter, warmth, maybe even company on the road ahead.

He reached the crest of the hill and paused, his thin, beaded braids whipped by the unobstructed stormwind. Below him, nestled in the lee of the hill, stood tents: so many of them they seemed a town in their own right. They were so unlike Harry’s tent that it hardly seemed right to call them the same word. His tent was compact enough to fit under even small trees; camouflaged by mottled stains and dirt, it hardly needed Disillusioning charms. But these tents were as brash as a brass band amid the quiet countryside: the colours of the largest tent were as defiant as laughter in the face of the oncoming storm. Smaller tents clustered around it like sailboats round a cruise liner.

The sight might as well have been a magnet to a needle. A feral grin split Harry’s face as he strode downhill: the incline gave wings to his feet until he was sprinting down the grassy slope. Fortunately it levelled out again before he reached the outlying tents, or he surely would’ve tripped over a rope and laid himself out flat.

Elated by speed and adrenaline, Harry ducked under the flap of the first tent he came to, inside and away from the rain.

The canvas flap came down, shutting Harry in out of the storm. All was dark within, and apart from the drum of raindrops on the tent, the silence was complete. Since it seemed as though no-one was around, Harry risked a “Lumos”. He startled as light exploded, dazzling his eyes, reflected on all sides by a multitude of full-length mirrors surrounding him. “Lumos Minimus,” Harry amended hastily, and squinted around himself. The mirrors were arranged in narrow pathways, forming a sort of maze. Or they would when the maze was finished; at the moment most of the centre of the tent was still clear.

The only other thing in the tent, apart from Harry himself, was a chest: ironbound, padlocked. Its wood was black with age; in fact, it looked as if it’d be more at home back in Hogwarts than in the middle of a tent in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere.

With the same sense of inevitability that had sent him racing downhill, Harry murmured “Alohomora”.

The lock sprang open and the gleams of the mirrors were snuffed out. In the sudden pitch blackness, Harry shuddered with a cold worse than any mere physical chill; his ears rang with his mother’s desperate screams. But with that sound came realisation, and then Harry moved and thought on instinct. As he raised his wand, he reached inside himself for images to shut out the memory of screaminggreenFEAR! With an effort, he remembered Hermione feeding Ron a slice of their wedding cake, caramel drizzled on white. The memory of that cake led to another: a psychedelic swirl of coloured icing and rainbow sprinkles topped by a single candle.

The dementor drew nearer: the cruel chill grew worse and now Harry could hear the awful slimy gurgle of its suctioning breath. He reached for another memory, and Teddy Lupin’s first birthday cake shifted to a bird’s eye view of the green of Hogwarts’ Quidditch pitch, ringed with the coloured sprinkle of Gryffindor and Slytherin banners: their gold and silver was less bright than the gleam of the snitch fluttering against his palm.

“Expecto Patronum!” Harry’s patronus leapt from his wand, and bounded from mirror to mirror. Dozens of reflections dazzled him, until it seemed as though a flock of patronuses were herding a stormcloud of dementors. A trap? Harry wondered: lost among the whirling throng, seeing his own unshaven, frantic face flickering in and out of mirrors all around him, there for an instant and gone. It was dizzying, overwhelming: impossible to tell whether his patronus – patronuses? – or the dementors were winning.

All at once, silent figures shambled out of the darkness. An Inferius, another, others still, closed in on him from all directions. Harry drew breath for an Incendio, but it was too late: two Inferi seized his arms, interrupting the sweep of his wand, trapping him in their inhumanly strong grip. He retched at their weird, chemical reek, unable to draw a full breath for a wandless incantation.

“Riddikulus!” a cracked voice shrilled – not an Inferius, they couldn’t speak – and the dementor deflated, folding in on itself like a black curtain collapsing onto a stage performer. A grumbling monkey with pigeon wings emerged from under the remains of the black curtain and scampered back into its chest, dragging the tatty black remnants after it. The lid of the chest promptly snapped shut, leaving Harry alone. Unless you counted the Inferi.

“Hello? Help!” Harry shouted past the oddly docile Inferi toward the human voice. The knot of Inferi around Harry turned stiffly as a stranger waddled up: a short, wizened woman. Her hair was a puff of mould-thin, mould-grey strands, and every inch of her wrinkled skin was crawling with a riot of tattoos.

“Yer a Brit then? And a wizard.” She hmphed and scratched her inked scalp. “Fancy that. Flavius, Nero: let ‘im go already.” The grip on Harry’s wrists loosened. “Oughtta brush up on yer defence, Mister Wizard. Now g’wan, get outta here before I hex ya for trespassin’. Luscus, pet, show our ‘guest’ the way out.”

A one-eyed Inferius towering behind the tattooed woman waved one huge hand toward the tent flap, as the crone jerked the strings of a puppet with only one ink-drawn eye. Other puppets – one with yellow wool for hair and another with black – seemed to represent the two Inferi who had held Harry: they, and a sheaf of others, hung from the tattooed woman’s belt.

“Come back tomorrow night, my poppet,” the woman gave Harry a gap-toothed grin, “Show’s not till then.”

Harry gulped and took a step away from that grin. Show? What show? “What is this place?”

“The Worldwide Travelling Circus, of course. Where’ve you been, wanderin’ like a little boy lost? We’ve had posters all over town for a week.”

A gaunt Inferius shouldered the one-eyed guardian away and stepped up to his mistress’ side. Scars marred the new arrival’s long neck. Worse still, the Dark Mark stained his forearm, bared as casually as if the skull-and-serpent symbol was meaningless, just a bit of ink far smaller and less gaudy than the puppeteer’s. But even that wasn’t what shocked Harry into stunned silence. The Inferius’ face was beaky and thin, with sharply arched eyebrows. Its eyes were fixed on Harry with the same formidable, black stare that had haunted him for years: he’d watched it, watching him, during countless pensieve dives. That scrutiny still felt the same; it still had the power to make Harry feel hopelessly at sea in the strangeness of the wizarding world, helplessly overawed by the Potions Master: a looming icon of doom and gloom.

Severus Snape.

For better or for worse, that name was carved in Harry’s memory; and as a result, it was also carved on a black granite tombstone at Hogwarts’ lakeshore. But unlike Dumbledore’s tomb, Snape’s grave was empty: the memorial headstone was a twisted consolation prize Harry had won from the Ministry with his tireless campaigning to restore Snape’s reputation. Harry never did find out who’d taken Snape’s body from the Shack: Death Eaters, someone else with a grudge, it could’ve been anyone.

Except now a sick pang ran through Harry as he realised exactly where that body had ended up. He could feel the cold sweat on his skin as he stared, aghast, at Snape. Or rather, at Snape’s corpse: just one more Inferius among the rest.

Snape turned away from Harry and placed a hand on the tattooed woman’s hunched shoulder, nudging her impatiently. The row of puppets on her belt jostled with a rustle of her skirts, and a resulting tremor went through the Inferi waiting listlessly all around them. Snape was still.

Maybe it wasn’t him! His clothing – grimy jeans, workboots and a faded navy singlet – could hardly have been less like the Professor’s formal draperies. His skin was tanned, not sallow, and his arms and shoulders had the wiry muscle that only comes from manual labour. No Inferius – even with greasy hair and a huge hooked nose – had any right to look that good, but apparently death had been kind to him. Probably the only thing in Snape’s world that ever had been kind.

Harry’s patronus chose that moment to leap free from the mirror maze and pick its way delicately through the crowd of Inferi: as it paced toward Snape, the stately way it moved reminded Harry with a pang of the silver doe’s grace. The antlered head bowed, and the slim muzzle stirred the lank strands of hair, as if the patronus was whispering in Snape’s ear. Harry could only guess which messages it was passing on: which ones out of the hundreds of messages he’d wanted to give Snape over the years. It could’ve been anything from ‘Why didn’t you tell me, you bastard?’ ‘I hate you for not telling me sooner,’ to ‘I’m so sorry for everything,’ ‘Wish you were here,’: all the desperate words Harry had cried to his messenger long ago without hope of them ever being heard, since his patronus stood as much chance as his dead owl of delivering a message beyond the grave.

Except his patronus hadn’t had to go anywhere after all to deliver those messages. Either that or Harry was dead wrong. The stag’s light washed the tan from Snape’s skin, returned some of the old dungeon pallor to his face, but his stare seemed as piercing as ever, unlike the glazed, empty eyes of the Inferi. After a scrutinising look, Snape nodded sternly and beckoned to Harry.

“Got yerself an admirer, eh, Prince?” the tattooed woman leered as Harry carefully slid past her and the Inferi. “How’d ya manage that? The show hasn’t even run once round here. Well, just keep ‘im away from my boys.” She ran a soothing hand along the heads of the dangling line of puppets, and a ripple of nods and twitches passed through all the Inferi in the tent.

But for all the attention Harry was paying her, she and all her Inferi may as well have ceased to exist. All Harry could do was stare at the man standing before him.

Harry thought he’d had so many surprises right now that he was beyond surprise. Then he saw the huge python poking its head under the tent wall and slithering straight toward Snape. And he saw Snape let it.

That added shock was the absolute last straw. Harry couldn’t stop himself from reaching out and grabbing Snape by the shoulders, yanking him forward and into a spontaneous hug. He needed to confirm the sheer physical fact of him, the living warmth of muscle and skin. He had to know Snape wasn’t an illusion or an Inferius.

Snape gasped at the contact, but at least he didn’t shove Harry away. Perhaps he was frozen with surprise.

“You – you! You’re alive! How?” A tiny rational remnant of Harry’s brain told him he was making an utter twit of himself. Not that that was anything new, not around Snape anyway.

As Harry eased the hug – he’d clutched so hard he’d had trouble breathing – he tripped over the huge snake. Its coils felt like a tangle of the Dursleys’ garden hose, or the Devil’s Snare at Hogwarts. Harry floundered for footing, just like he was floundering for words, for a grasp on something resembling reality. But despite Harry’s stumbling, the snake didn’t attack, and it didn’t get out of the way either. It was almost as odd as the fact that Snape hadn’t berated or hexed him yet for touching him. Instead, Snape seized him by the arm as he flailed for balance, and hauled him back to his feet. Snape’s hand was narrow and bony; it looked too skeletal for real strength, but his grip felt hard as an iron hook – worlds away from the last time he’d laid a hand on Harry: wet with his own blood, weak with shock, shaking in pain.

Snape turned and strode out of the tent, taking Harry with him. The python slithered along placidly on Snape’s other side, and Snape seemed to accept its company, like a man walking his dog. Harry felt as dazed as though he was walking through a dream, light-headed with the sheer surrealism of the moment. But Snape’s stride was brisk and businesslike as he threaded his way through a warren of smaller tents, away from the light and activity of the largest tent. Away from any onlookers.

As Snape headed for the very last tent in the row, Harry saw a pale spark appear between the tent flaps. On the tent’s side, the words ‘Museum of Oddities’ curled in faded paint, scrawled over in whitewash with a hasty ‘closed for repairs’ sign. Even with the light on, the tent had a solitary, abandoned look. Snape sidled inside, leaving a pallid ray spearing out into the night like an accusing glare. Harry paused for a second, before closing the distance and ducking in.

Harry had a vague sense of cramped shabbiness: tall bookshelves crowded the edges of his vision, but he didn’t spare his surroundings a single glance. Harry’s attention was fixed on Snape as the man glided over to the bed, silent as smoke. The python followed Snape and curled up in a mound of patterned coils beside the bed. In a flash of wild speculation Harry glanced at the huge snake – Nagini? If Snape came back, why not? – but the slim wedge of the snake’s head was normal for a python: nothing like Nagini’s unnatural, venom-gland swollen skull.

Instantly, all thought of Inferius-Horcrux-mutants was crowded out by years’ worth of anger, grief, loss, regret. “You, um.” Harry’s voice cracked: it felt physically stuck in his throat. He swallowed around the lump, the sore and spiky logjam of everything he’d wanted to say for so long, then burst out, “What’re you doing here? Er. I mean. You died!” Ghastly uncertainty gripped him, “You are alive, right? I, we, er. We all thought you were dead! But here you are. With a snake of all things! Nagini’s not-so-evil twin?” It was all Harry could do not to physically bite his tongue: anything to still the flood of babbling. Why, WHY do I always turn into a raving nutter around him?

Harry braced himself for a blast of withering sarcasm, but the only answer Snape bothered to give him was a derisive hiss through bared teeth and the arch of a single eyebrow. It was a measure of how badly Harry was rattled that his mind immediately jumped to another truly hideous thought: maybe Snape wasn’t an Inferius, maybe he was something even worse. Maybe he was an empty shell, a corpse-cocoon for a snake, like Bathilda Bagshot. But there was nothing empty or dead about those familiar dark eyes: they fixed Harry with an unnerving intensity.

Harry stared at Snape, aghast, torn between terrors. “Answer me!” Harry whispered, mouth gone dry at the awful tangle of his suspicions. He backed away from Snape, and stumbled on an uneven patch of the dirt floor.

Snape startled to his feet, surprised when Harry stumbled, though he voiced that surprise only with a sharp hiss.

“TALK! Say something!” Harry howled, sick with fear. Please no No NO not like that, not HIM… The only answer to Harry’s cry was a dreadful chorus of hissing, from everywhere around him, as if Harry was surrounded by snakes.

That black gaze caught him and Harry’s head reeled from the impact of a Legilimentic probe. He was flung backward off his feet by the sheer stunning force of it, just as he had been in Snape’s office all those years ago. As he fell, the back of his head hit something hard and his skull seemed to burst with a dizzying splash of pain. The room spun as he collapsed; by the time Snape’s gaze went from searching to worried, the world had already gone black.

*

When Harry first imagined talking to a dead man, he had one burning question: “Why did you want me to look at you?”

He’d fantasised so many different replies, but couldn’t decide which one Snape would give, so Harry went with the moment. He waited, and somehow he felt almost as much suspense as if Snape was still alive and was really with him.

One long arm extended toward Harry; the glasses were plucked from his face with a delicacy of touch that wouldn’t have broken a soap bubble. The same featherlight touch traced the tender skin around Harry’s now-naked eye; all the while Snape’s stare carried the intensity of Legilimency, but the silence in Harry’s mind remained unbroken. Only at the last, when that hand was withdrawn, came the faintest possible mental whisper, Is it so hard to believe: that on the brink of death, even I might reach out for just one moment of contact?

Harry had forgotten how to breathe. If anyone had walked in on him at that moment, they would’ve seen him huddled in the armchair in Snape’s Hogwarts quarters, with his eyes closed and the most reverent expression on his face. Only, no one was there but memories, and one living person whose mind was miles away.

“You reckon Legilimency counts as ‘contact’?” Harry thought back on all the times in Snape’s office, when he’d cursed Legilimency for even existing. He tilted his head toward the withdrawn hand, feeling braver than he would’ve ever allowed himself to feel with the real Snape. “What’s a touch then?” He demonstrated by reaching out toward the man. When his hand wasn’t batted away, he rested it gently on Snape’s shoulder.

Snape let Harry’s hand stay; his skin was taut over angular bone, and there was a resigned sombreness to his expression that brought out the ravages of hard years in his face. A sidelong glance through hanging hair, and a mental murmur: A touch can be many things. A means to lull a victim before the curses begin. An attempt to turn desire against self-preservation. People lie with touch, just like they lie with words. By ‘contact’, I meant recognition. I’d lived my entire life masked. For just one moment, I wanted to be seen for everything I really was. Snape shook his head impatiently; thin lips curved into a bitter grin. A ridiculous wish, for a master spy.

“No,” Harry breathed, “It’s not. Not for someone who’s dying.”

Harry’s eyes stung, his throat seized, and all of a sudden he found himself in the empty room. Alone, as he had been all along. Two hot, wet tracks spilled down his face. In Snape’s abandoned quarters, after a conversation that never was, the realization hit Harry with its finality. He’s really dead. Gone. Forever.

After that, every time he summoned the ghostly memory for another imaginary conversation, it was threaded with the same anguish, regret, and loneliness as that day.

*

Harry woke in a strange bed. He blinked with sleepiness and surprise. It’d been years since he’d spent the entire night in anyone else’s bed. How could he trust any of his one-night-stands enough to fall asleep beside them? He’d always abandoned them sooner or later in the night, for the privacy of his own tent.

But even though he’d been out like a light, this was not his tent, and it was definitely not his bed. His bed didn’t have the shed skin of an enormous snake at the foot, where normal beds would’ve had a folded blanket. His bed wasn’t this narrow, and it didn’t have this stack of books propped up beside it like a makeshift table, and it certainly didn’t have this weird contraption – sort of like a dreamcatcher, but with added chimes, broken mirrors, a hawk skull and crow feathers – hanging over it. Besides, I use a damn sight more cushioning charms than this!

Ugh, what time is it? His head throbbed with his own heartbeat. Light streamed through the roof of the tent, mercifully muted by the layer of canvas. Did I get drunk? How long was I out for? Memories of last night rose slowly to the surface of Harry’s murky mind, like Inferi in the Horcrux lake. Harry scrubbed his crusty eyes – grateful for the fact that he’d had his sight corrected before walking away from the wizarding world – and blinked blearily around him. The tent looked like the bastard child of an antique shop, a taxidermist’s and a medical museum. The splashes of bright colour amid the shabby disarray, and the bizarre, unidentifiable bits and bobs reminded him of the development lab at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes.

For a wizarding tent it was pretty small, though it wasn’t as small as Harry’s own, and at least it was warm. Tall bookshelves chock-full of scrolls, bottles, cauldrons and other odds and ends, lined every wall of the tent, except for the flap. The crammed shelves reminded Harry of Snape’s office: if anything, there were even more jars full of unidentifiable horrors here than there had been back at Hogwarts. But instead of chilly flagstones underfoot, there was only earth. An extremely battered table and a single wooden chair took up the centre of the tent, and dividing the space between that and the narrow bed shoved in a corner, was a neat row of open cardboard boxes, though they seemed to hold nothing more interesting than sand, dry leaves and bark.

A few cages – rabbits, rats and mice – stood by the tent flap, along with a stack of old newspapers and a bucket of water. Harry startled a bit at the sound of a chimera’s strange, bleating roar coming from somewhere outside. It was loud enough that it had to be close by. That explained the faint reek of goats, or at least Harry hoped it did.

Though he wasn’t so sure, as he examined the contents of the shelves. A jar of pickled, tiny hearts – still beating – stood next to a stuffed two-headed kitten. Below it was a mummified monkey with pigeon wings, four drumsticks in each hand and foot, and a plaque: Ralph. On another shelf, amid piles of parchment scrolls and books, was another fanged, smiling preserved creature. It had a miniature lion’s head and front paws, and a suggestively positioned bare arse which looked human but was no larger than a doxy’s. There was a note impaled on one of the creature’s fangs; an unfamiliar handwriting ordered: Sphinx is backwards! Fix by Friday! In the layer of dust on the sphinx’s mounting board, an irreverent finger had traced: ROWR! Harry reckoned the less he thought about sphinxes from now on, the better. 

Shaking his head, he turned away from the shelves. On the central table there was a teapot, decorated with a… no, not a decoration, but a snake, curled tight around the ceramic for warmth, like a detailed carving. He glanced around belatedly, finding at least three more pairs of beady reptilian eyes tracking him unblinkingly from various corners.

He took a step back.

The snakes didn’t move, although there was something insistent, something waiting in their focused stares.

“Morning?” he mumbled, feeling obscurely as if he should say something. The snakes’ gazes were just as unreadable as Snape’s. All this concentrated staring’s enough to make a bloke’s eyes water. Beside the teapot and its motionless occupant, the only other things on the table were a tiny phial, and a rectangle of brightly coloured cardboard which Harry picked up. ‘Worldwide Travelling Circus! Admit One.’ Huh. Harry blinked. A circus ticket. As if that realisation had been a cue, a marching band suddenly started up outside with a deafening crash of cymbals and drums and an earsplitting blare of brass. Harry winced and rubbed his throbbing forehead. On the back of the ticket there was a note, in an angular script he thought he’d never see again: Take the analgesic draught on the table, unless you’ve developed a kink for pain.

Harry squinted at the writing. Either I trust him, or I don’t. He shrugged and downed the contents of the phial in a single swallow. “Bleah!” He stuck his tongue out, then snorted when the snake on the teapot mimicked the gesture. Tastes as bad as Snape’s potions always used to do. At least it also worked as well as Snape’s potions always worked: Harry’s headache disappeared, as easily as that tiny sip of potion had done.

Harry stumbled outside and froze, overwhelmed. The gloomy tent town he’d been dragged through last night was transformed by the light of day into a carnival: a world of colour and noise, alive with the happy anticipatory buzz of the crowd that had gathered downhill. 

Barnum and Bailey-ish signs rattled like autumn leaves, their yellow curly letters gleaming against bright scarlet. Peeling gilt covered the baroque curlicues on the merry-go-round; its ponies were so realistically carved and painted they seemed alive. Music came from it and after a while Harry found the source of it, the instruments charmed to play on the very top: flutes, cymbals, xylophones and more, all tied with a ribbon in a swaying, twirling circle around the merry-go-round roof. There were acrobats and jugglers performing beside it, presumably to distract attention from the self-playing instruments. And distract they did, with feathered costumes, bright curling ribbons, and spinning fire torches. The music sang of magic and mystery, and for a moment Harry was reminded of another place he left behind, in Britain. Diagon Alley: overwhelming with life and enchantments, making Harry wonder which wall would lead him back to reality if needed.

Muggle and wizard crowds surrounded him, and – Harry blinked – was that a half-goblin in the crowd or merely a mask? It was hard to tell one from the other behind the bright circus costumes, so bizarre that anyone wearing them would be a misfit any place else. But here they were right at home, amid the tents that glowed with phosphorescent paint and the banners that glittered with sequins like the tattooed woman’s skirts. The tent town that in last night’s empty silence had seemed a nightmare was now merely grotesque; his memories of terror amid Inferi and dementors shrank like a laughter-banished boggart, dwindled into a carnival House of Horror with its mirrors, mazes and manageable scares. Everywhere he looked were eager faces, young and old, light and colour and excitement. He heard someone speaking Italian to the right of him. Ahead, he heard French. But no matter how hard he looked, he didn’t see Snape anywhere.

He browsed through the booth that sold carnival trinkets: masks and light-up wands, and – hidden under a pile of Muggle disposable cameras – some omnioculars. Harry bought one. A skinny bloke with a painted face and a pair of cat ears on his head handed him his purchase. Then he stuck out his hand. “Tiger.”

“Harry,” Harry shook his hand and tried not to be caught ogling his arse to see if he had a tail. “Nice – um, whiskers.”

Tiger beamed, revealing razor-sharp canines, and stepped out from behind the counter. “I get that a lot.” He did have a tail, which twitched, catlike, in rhythm with his ears. “Would you like to touch them? They’re real, I assure you.”

“Um. Thanks. For the… ” Harry could feel himself blushing; he waved his newly purchased omnioculars and backed away, losing himself in the crowd with ease.

Even though he was looking for Snape, there was plenty of other things to look at too. He’d never seen a circus before, wizarding or not. This circus was neither; it didn’t really seem to fit into either the wizarding and Muggle worlds, but fell into a shadowland between.

Harry peered into the booth of a Fortune teller: a goblin girl surrounded by Foe-glasses stared at him though a large crystal ball. The dragon’s eye in the centre rotated like Moody’s. Snape wasn’t in the booth, and Harry could see no hint of him in any of the foe glasses, so he left to continue his search. He spotted an unmarked tent in the distance which faced away from the public. He headed for it because it seemed like the sort of place Snape would be, but no: several younger goblins were playing gobstones. The shortest one was cheating, trying to levitate the gobstone closer to the target. Harry left the tent and kept on walking, on the lookout for a thin, dark figure. A house elf shouldered his knee as he walked briskly past. He had a clown’s wig on and his long nosed face was painted white. He led a team of leprechauns carrying staves down the street; they ducked underneath the hem of a tent and disappeared from view. 

Past the tent of a Strong Man (Harry peered in and saw a grinning half-giant about his age) was a poster board. ‘Chimera to the left’ one of the posters said. Others bore the names and pictures of a mermaid, a ‘true’ dragon egg, a centaur. The sign over the next tent announced a bearded lady. Harry passed close, hearing a hag’s muttering. In the booth across from it was the tattooed crone Harry had already met yesterday: salamander tattoos raced across her bared back and breathed red lines of fire.

Harry was just about to get her attention when someone bumped into him and Harry saw his own wand being handed back to him – he blinked and stared, then checked his side – “No working wands in reach of Muggles unless you’re dressed as a magician.” A boy gave him a glare with a brief flash of a werewolf’s tawny eyes. 

“Wait a minute,” Harry waved him over. “Do you know where Snape is?”

The boy stared. “Who?”

“Severus Snape! You must know him, he’s got a tent here. Sour sod, wears black.”

The boy grinned and pointed behind Harry. Harry glanced – the poster board was behind him. Only when the boy disappeared into a lively group of Muggles did Harry notice he was missing his pocket change. “Oi!”

‘Maze of Destiny’ one of the posters said and Harry followed the direction indicated, which led him to the tent where he’d run into the Inferi yesterday. Shrunken heads hung at the entrance. A black-hooded vampire sat outside collecting admission fares. A hand of glory guarded his money box. The vampire’s face was rather sour. He was also not Snape.

Harry paid and walked into the tent (much more composed this time), just ‘cause it seemed an obvious place to keep looking. Inside, the mirror maze was finished. Candles floating at the ceiling gave a low flickering light. In that light his distorted reflections seemed like a crowd of strangers, with a different life per each mirror. One mirror with a strange silvery glow showed him especially young: years younger, as if he was still in England, his face unaffected by sun and rough winds.

Any time now Ginny would flounce in, wearing her favourite crimson robes: “Hurry up, hero! You can’t be late for your own Order of Merlin ceremony.” 

If there was one thing Ginny knew how to do, it was to put on a mask for the crowd and set their personal troubles aside for public appearances. It didn’t matter that they hadn’t seen each other for weeks, that the last time they’d parted she’d been hurling a hex at him. She was the youngest chaser for the Harpies, engaged to the wizarding world’s greatest war hero and they were expected to act a certain way. Except Harry couldn’t just turn a blind eye like Ginny and act as if nothing was wrong. There was plenty wrong, but what could he say? ‘I don’t deserve it. I’m a killer.’ Yeah, he could just see the reporters swooping down like a pack of vultures at that: Skeeter first, her quick-quotes quill gleefully scribbling words like post-traumatic shock, attention seeking, stress.

It had nothing to do with Voldemort. It had everything to do with the person Harry had become: someone so different from the young man who’d once defeated a monster, that he might as well have been an entirely different man.

Harry turned away from that mirror and went forward to another. It reflected dozens of his own faces, a crowd looking back. The faces that were closer were slightly recognisable; but farther away, the figures were faceless, as if they weren’t his reflections at all but someone else’s.

“When can we expect the lovebirds to make an announcement?” 

Chill seemed to take over Harry’s chest and travel upwards, freezing his voice into a barely audible croak. Dozens of expectant eyes fixed on Harry, Skeeter’s most expectant at all. “Tsk. Or is there trouble in paradise?”

Another mirror, a single reflection this time, was bathed in golden glow like sunset. It turned his hair red and cast warm brown hues on his face. 

“Harry, she had no way of knowing.”

“Forget it, Gin.”

“Come on, it’ll all work out. You’ll see. You’ve got your order of Merlin now, and who knows, maybe the Harpies’ll lose and I won’t have to tour all summer. We’ll have more time together. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“It wouldn’t help. I’m sorry.” Those were the last words they said to each other before Harry disapparated out of the Burrow, and out of Britain, for good.

Harry followed the lights, away from the empty corner of the maze where mirrors tried to show him the past. He hurried away toward the crowds, where the music and the laughter drowned out the memories. The show was about to begin, so he made his way toward the coloured dome of the big top. Toward the signs.

‘SEE The Prince of Serpents!’ one said, ‘Commands killer snakes in their own tongue!’ ‘The Worldwide Travelling Circus – the experience of a lifetime!’ proclaimed another, ‘Live the magic!’

It was a sign of how quickly time had passed, and how far from home Harry was. After the war, no one would dare to mention killer snakes around Harry without changing the topic quickly: always to Neville, never Snape.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the audience. Next to Harry, a bratty boy waved a bright red lollipop. The lights dimmed and the music crashed over them like wave, primal and strong. Dancers filled the ring, figures swaying in the firelight of carried torches, muscled bodies gleaming. The torches seemed to multiply in their hands, tossed over their heads in whirling midair exchanges. One of the dancers drank something from a phial fastened at his waist and breathed a fiery red explosion over the torch. With that the tempo changed to a seductive, rhythmic beat and the thrown torches were exchanged for flung knives. Harry squinted. The slender, graceful dancer – swaying amid the acrobats staging a glorious fight – couldn’t have been anything other than veela. She circled closer and closer to the public, owning their attention in a way the acrobats did not.

Harry sat stunned, not just by the veela, but by everything: the sounds and the sights and the excitement. It’s like seeing the Quidditch Cup for the first time. Like a whole new world of magic! I always wanted to see the Circus as a boy, but I never had the chance.

The kid sitting next to Harry yawned and kicked the seat in front of him. Harry was tempted to kick the brat right back.

He stared throughout the next number: crups and kneazles climbing ladders and jumping through hoops, and then gathering together to teach a clown basic multiplication. The clown didn’t want to learn: he was happier pulling rabbits out of his tall, striped wizard’s hat and letting a flock of pigeons out of his coat pockets, one by one.

The kneazles weren’t about to put up with that, so a pair of them dragged an actual magician into the ring by the tails of his swallowtail coat.

He cracked his knuckles, flicked a very fake white wand the size of a pencil, pulled a scarf out of nowhere, draped it over the clown and made the clown ‘disappear’. Harry could’ve sworn that the resounding pop was a well-timed disapparation. He’d almost convinced himself that the magician was a squib or a Muggle, until the bloke performed a halfway decent levitating charm on a sleeping kneazle, and then did the same on the reappeared clown.

The boy stared suspiciously as the clown floated, flailing, through the magician’s hoop. “Yeah right!” he mumbled with a yawn. “He’s hanging from the ceiling by invisible wires.” He turned away. “Mum. Muuum! Where are the lions? Are we still gonna go to the zoo tomorrow?”

Harry tried to ignore him. The boy was about eleven, just the age Harry was when he entered Diagon Alley for the first time, swept away on a wave of excitement and magic. Doesn’t he see how brilliant it all is? When I was eleven I wasn’t tired of amazing new things like this. It mustn’t be his first time at the circus. Or else he’s a spoilt little bugger like Dudley was.

Oh well, I suppose there’s one in every crowd, he shrugged mentally, thinking back to a group of Muggles he’d passed in the ‘Mystical Menagerie’ on his way here. They’d exchanged bored stares with the chimera, and then talked loudly about animatronics and how much better Disneyworld was. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that magic bores people. Maybe some people are doomed to be bored. Or boring.

Lost in thought, Harry almost missed the beginning of the next act. “The Prince of Serpents,” the ringmaster announced as if welcoming true royalty: “The last survivor of an ancient cult of snake-speakers. Commands deadly serpents in their own tongue!” Only then Harry thought back to the sign, to the snakes he had seen in Snape’s tent. Surely Snape’s not performing! Harry still had a hard time believing that Snape would set foot anywhere near a circus. Maybe he’s hired help, caring for circus animals and brewing potions on the side. I could see him doing that.

And then the lights dimmed and a man strode into the ring, clad only in black boots and trousers. A gleaming layer of oil made the most of the lean sinews of his bare chest, arms and back. He raked the tent with a lordly stare and the crowd fell silent under the weight of a presence as arrogant as his stage-name. The tattoo on his left forearm was in plain view: a skull and serpent, still deep black but at least now the sigil was inert. Harry’s jaw dropped. Even without the Dark Mark, there was no mistaking Snape who stood in the center of the ring, a tall formidable figure bathed in a sharp spotlight. All eyes in the tent were fixed on him.

Then with a sting of music the python flowed into the cone of light around him; the open area of the ring made the sheer size of the snake all the more obvious. The giant python reared menacingly, and in a blur of speed it flung itself at Snape, looped itself around his waist and hoisted him clean off his feet, engulfing him in its coils. The massive size of the snake still reminded Harry uncomfortably of Nagini, but instead of crushing Snape or biting him, it lifted him high in the air as if showing him off triumphantly, set him carefully back on his feet, then formed its coils into a chair for its master. Harry snorted at that: it seemed such a showy gesture, but as the show went on the smirk ebbed away from his face, replaced by an unabashed stare. Snape took his seat on his bizarre throne, his manner as relaxed and stately as any king. Harry knew from his own difficulties in speaking Parseltongue to Malfoy’s Serpensortia-conjured snake, that such command couldn’t be faked. You either had it or you didn’t, and Snape certainly had that command, in spades. As he reclined at ease on his makeshift throne, two smaller snakes twisted around each other, forming a belt around his waist. Another two draped themselves around his shoulders and upper chest in a broad circular collar, and finally a cobra coiled around his head, rearing to spread its hood over his brow, like the snake on a Pharaoh’s crown. Its gaping jaws displayed needle-sharp fangs that glistened wetly in the lights of the show ring.

If Harry leaned all the way forward and listened closely enough, he could just make out Snape’s abruptly hissed commands. Harry had never dreamed Parseltongue could sound so wicked; probably because he’d never had the chance to hear the actual sound before. But now that he could hear it, it sent shivers down his spine. The whole thing was terribly unfair; Harry had prided himself on keeping his collection of fetishes snake-(and Slytherin)-free up till now, but Snape seemed determined to grow and nurture a hundred new ones in Harry’s head. Harry’s other head had a mind of its own, and perked up quite a bit at the sinful sound of snaketongue.

It was also fascinating to see a Parselmouth out in the open, taking such pride in his ability. Harry had thought that particular talent would’ve made him more of a freak in both the wizarding and Muggle worlds, someone to be feared and shunned. But here, basking in the spotlight, with a team of menacing snakes at his command, Snape was the star of the show. His glare commanded the crowd with the practised ease of a Professor dominating his students, and with the predatory menace of a cobra mesmerising its pray.

While Harry gaped at Snape, there was a commotion at the very edge of the ring. 

“They’re all fangless foreign fakes!” a teenager shouted over the barrier, “Charm this one, old man!” On the boy’s shoulder was a sack on the end of a long stick, like a runaway’s bundle. Suddenly, he swung the stick, using it to throw the sack far into the ring. 

Everything happened in slow motion. Mid-flight, the sack opened to reveal a viper, angered by its rough handling. In the ring, Snape rose to his feet and whirled like a gymnast to face the flung viper. He whipped out an arm, to knock the thrown snake away? No. He caught it. Its fangs were bared and ready to strike.

All the while Snape hissed through bared teeth, a low and soothing sound. It was almost drowned out by the screams of shock and dismay from the crowd, but it was soft, hypnotic, a lullaby for snakes. It was working too. The caught snake coiled around his arm, dark against all that bare, defenceless skin – Harry cringed at the thought of seeing Snape bitten all over again – but the snake simply stayed there, as calm as all the others. Its head rested just above the tattoo on Snape’s wiry arm. 

“It’s under his spell, frozen by his command!” the ringmaster bellowed. “BEHOLD, the power of the Prince of Serpents!”

There was a long, indrawn breath from all around, an awed silence, then the audience went wild. Snape bowed to the roaring crowd – the movement a graceful performance in itsself – as the other performers grabbed the young idiot and hustled him out. When Snape straightened up out of the bow, flicking long hair out of his face with an arrogant toss of his head, the scars on his throat stood out, as livid as brands.

The boy in the next seat crunched his lollipop. “My cousin’s friend got a crocodile at home,” he informed Harry. “Much more dangerous than any ol’ snake. I’d like to see him try and hiss a crocodile to sleep.”

But for Harry, the show ended right there. He made his way through the wildly cheering crowd and slipped out as soon as he could after Snape. As he escaped, he could hear music inside, signalling the beginning of the next act. Distracted by trying to spot Snape in the gloom outside the brightly-lit tent, he almost walked right into a pair of animagi – the bloke who’d sold Harry the omnioculars and a woman. Concealed in the shadows, they were mid-transformation into a tiger and a lioness. Dodging their roars at the interruption, he darted into the darkness, making for the tent Snape had dragged him to last night.

*

Snape had beaten Harry back to the tent: the light burned within. By the time Harry ducked under the flap, the python was already sprawled over the bed, as if it was prey. As Harry entered, the python lifted its head; its forked tongue flickered out to sample his scent.

Snape – still wearing the living ornamentation of the act just concluded – turned from the shelves, glanced from Harry to the python, and hissed something, terse as a command without sounding actually irritable. In response, the python lowered itself heavily off the bed and formed a lazy mound of scales on the floor, leaving the bed clear. But Harry didn’t take a seat; excitement and uncertainty kept him standing.

It’s just Snape, remember, the greasy git, robes or no robes, even with snakes for jewellery, Harry told himself firmly. I suppose once you get over the shock, it’s pretty ironic.

“Er, hello.” Harry felt like an idiot when all the snake eyes in the room turned to him, cold and curious. He wished he could still speak Parseltongue. “Well, I’m not gonna bite,” he added lamely; he didn’t need the snakes’ blank stares to confirm that the words had come out in plain English.

Meanwhile, Snape let the carried viper pour itself down his arm and onto the table; it slid into an empty cauldron at once as if desperate for a place to hide, while Snape retrieved a phial from a high shelf. He fed an eyedropper full of the potion to the viper, hissing and rasping softly under his breath to it all the while, and as the potion took effect the snake curled into a tight ball, evidently sound asleep.

Harry peered at the sleeping viper. “You gonna keep it?” he asked quietly.

Snape nodded; he was still looking at the newest addition to his private menagerie. The other snakes slithered off Snape’s body and onto the table. They peered over the lip of the cauldron at the stranger, their tongues flickering, tasting the air in obvious curiosity. But the snakes’ heads were turned Harry’s way as often as toward the viper; he wasn’t sure which of them was being sized up the more intently.

The exchange of hisses, splutters and rasps that followed only intensified Harry’s impression that there was something of a ‘family conference’ going on. Never before had he wished that he hadn’t lost all traces of Voldemort’s influence.

“What’re they saying?” he asked, but the maddening git just shrugged. Harry tried not to let himself get distracted by candlelight gleaming on taut, oiled skin and wiry sinews.

He had many more questions, but could only manage to choke out the most pressing. “Is… is someone keeping you here? Making you work for them?” The tattooed puppeteer came to mind. Even though Snape certainly didn’t look or act like an ordinary Inferius, there were probably other ways to magically enslave someone; maybe even if that someone was a powerful wizard.

Snape fixed Harry with a long stare. If he was using Legilimency, he was doing it so subtly Harry couldn’t sense it. Instead, Snape stretched leisurely, then lay down on the bed, lacing his hands behind his head and reclining with all the arrogant poise of a sultan on a bed of down pillows. Every line of his posture carried the ease of a man who was his own master. Beholden to none.

“OK, then,” Harry stammered, “Maybe they, er, whoever, didn’t force you. But why?” Harry couldn’t help glancing at the scars on Snape’s throat, “…after everything. Nagini and um. I never thought you’d be… . I did think you mightn’t have died – completely – after we couldn’t find your body. I even looked for you. Everywhere, for ages! And when I couldn’t find you and… You’ve got no idea how bloody hard it was to convince the Ministry to pardon you posthumously, let alone give you that Order of Merlin. And while wizarding Britain thinks you’re a hero, here you are, hiding away in a circus. Not even a normal circus, some sort of magical freak show.”

At the ‘freak show’ remark, Snape gave a snort of ironic amusement; angular shoulders lifted in a ‘same old, same old’ shrug.

Bloody hell, I sound like Aunt Petunia. Maybe I overdid it, just a bit. But it was a lot to have to understand; when Harry was seven he’d dreamed about running away and joining the circus, and here Snape of all people was actually living Harry’s childhood dream, long after Harry himself had abandoned it as not being practical after all. And it’s not! It’s one thing to play royalty for the crowd, with a serpent crown on your head. But it’s another thing to walk down a dirt track to go home every night, past a tentful of Inferi and a whiffy chimera’s cage. Living in a tent can’t be as easy as he makes out with that Princely act of his, and I hate it when people pretend to be something they’re not.

The irritating sod couldn’t be more confusing! He’s never been the most social type, but would it kill him to talk to me without shrugging me off or showing off with his mind-reading stares? His ‘fame’ must’ve already gone to his head. If he wasn’t so rude I’d help him out. I’ve still got friends in Britain; I can find him a place to stay that’s better than this tent. And there’s got to be a mediwizard somewhere who can do something about those scars. “I didn’t mean it like that! I mean… these Muggles: they laugh at clowns and they stare at you. I know you’re a great wizard, but they’re too damn blind to notice real spells right in front of their noses; they think it’s all a trick, like some Muggle ‘magician’ they’ve seen on telly. Anything’s better than…” he gestured around.

That lifted the defiant satisfaction from Snape’s gaunt face; his head snapped up and he impaled Harry with a glare fit to incinerate him on the spot. Suddenly, Harry was pelted with a hailstorm of mental images: A werewolf attack being laughed off, Azkaban, lynch mobs, Dementors being staved off only by Dumbledore’s testimony. Dumbledore, falling. Then the final image, fiercest of all: the memory of coming a fangsbreadth away from dying. And, at last, Snape’s black glare and a final burst of feeling drove the point home better than any words: Nothing is ‘better than’ survival. Harry could almost hear Snape speaking those words aloud, right down to the coldly lecturing tone he’d use.

“Call this a living?” Harry protested, “You survive by talking these things out of finishing what Nagini started! I know how hard it is to reason with a snake; I’ve done it. And the Muggles think it’s just an act! Innit a bit…” suicidal, insane, maybe even brilliant, “…weird?” Harry frowned. Something else didn’t seem right. “Anyway, why would Voldemort take the trouble to teach you Parseltongue?” He took a step forward, advancing abruptly on Snape.

Snape heaved a put-upon, sibilant sigh. Behind Harry, the cobra slid silently down the table leg and onto the floor, where it made a beeline for the opening at the cuff of Harry’s jeans.

Harry froze and his eyes went wide at the dry feel of coils winding around his ankle. “Snape! Call off your pet!” He winced as the coiling sensation moved higher up his leg. “Er, I mean. Not your pet? Your minion? Friend? Please?

Snape gave Harry a sharp and superior smirk, before finally taking some sort of mercy. “Khash!” he rasped; apparently it was a summons, as a moment later, the cobra’s inquisitive nudging ceased and the agile body turned with a swirl of scales against Harry’s inner thigh, before slipping down his leg and out of his jeans. It coiled itself by Snape’s feet and eyed Harry. Its face was as expressionless as any snake’s, but there was something indefinably amused about the flicker of its tongue.

“Thanks,” Harry breathed. “For calling off um, whaddayoucallhim. Her?” he amended in a hurry, for the fear that the cobra might take offence and decide to explore his other leg.

“Ssah-thiss,” Snape replied, as if speaking more for the snake’s benefit than for Harry’s, but then that amused stare was directed at him, and a subtle Legilimentic link simultaneously nudged him with a nagging, searching feeling: Curiosity, Harry guessed. “Sahthiss?” Perhaps reacting to the sound of its name, the cobra lifted its head and glanced from Snape to Harry.

Harry had to admit he was curious as well. He wanted to know more: of things he didn’t have a clue how to ask about. After years of meeting people every day and never seeing them again, Snape – after all the years Harry had known him – almost seemed like family. Seeing him again was like seeing a long-lost family member and marvelling at how much they’d changed. 

“I s’pose I can see the attraction in snake-charming after all…” Harry nodded, thinking back to the show. “How’d you start doing this, anyway? Where’d you find all these snakes… wait, never mind the snakes, how’d you join up with this circus? Are they all wizards? … Well? Say something!”

Snape simply stared at Harry. And in the answering silence, Harry remembered abruptly that in all this time Snape hadn’t said one single word of English. There was Parseltongue, and there were memories and feelings flung directly into his mind, but Harry had never yet heard him speak. “Hang about… ” he stammered. Even in the low lighting of the tent the terrible scarring of Snape’s throat was all too visible, ridged and dark against his skin. Revelation hit, a day too late. “You can’t speak. Can you.” It wasn’t really a question, not now.

Suddenly, the snakes, the fact that Snape kept them so close, all made perfect sense. Those scars… Nagini’s fangs, or poison, damaged his throat somehow. Or cursed it…

Snape’s lip curled in a mocking sneer, and bony hands lifted to give Harry a slow and scathing golf-clap, so different from the rapturous applause that had followed Snape out of the ring.

Harry was fuming; for the first time in ages he was reminded of what a bastard Snape could be, mute or no.

While he seethed, Snape rolled up off the bed to his feet in a single smooth movement, and sauntered past him in a showy, silent exit.

Git.

*

The tattooed crone’s name was Lydia. She was every bit as strange when Harry got her to talk, but just like the circus, it had dwindled to a manageable level of carnival creepiness. They shared a bottle of wine, while watching Luscus tapdance on top of a barrel, Lydia’s one-eyed puppet of him in his own flailing grasp. Its cloth limbs twitched uncontrollably and forced Luscus’ larger body into the same madly thrashing dance, until it wasn’t clear which was directing which. Luscus grinned wildly as he danced to the beat of his own drumming feet in the flickering light of the fire burning in front of Lydia’s tent.

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll hurt himself?” Harry asked, watching this strange spectacle dubiously. 

“Nah, does ‘im good to work off some steam,” Lydia waved off Harry’s concern, “Inferi stiffen up if they don’t.”

“So,” Harry gave up looking for a graceful way to nudge the conversation where he wanted it to go, and just ploughed ahead. “Your ‘Prince of Serpents’ act. How long has he been with your circus?”

“Six, seven years now. Quite the hero. Took over the snakes since we found their old owner dead in the python’s cage. We weren’t sure if it was the old man’s doing or the snake’s.”

“What do you mean?”

“The python had coiled round ‘im, squeezed the life right outta ‘im. There was talk at first: some wanted to kill ‘er, even though she was valuable, and caged. Not safe to have ‘er round and so on.”

Harry blinked. “How do you know she didn’t…”

“Ah, that’s where our Prince comes in. He questioned ‘er. Turned out, the old man ordered ‘er to do what he was too much of a coward to do ‘imself. Imperius, y’see: perfectly legal against animals.”

“I see,” Harry nodded, even though all he could think of was fake Mad-Eye’s twitching spider and Neville’s pale face. “So you believed the snake’s side of the story and let her out of her cage afterwards.”

Lydia shook her head and finished off the bottle. “Nah, not quite. But I did believe our Prince. Trusted ‘im for years, to brew potions for what ails me, and so has the whole rest of the circus. Sirena would’ve died of fin-rot without ’im, and the chimaera used to suffer from the snorgles something dreadful before his potions. And then there’s the Wolfsbane for young Eddie, and the salve that keeps my boys perky and well-preserved. … Trust ‘im?” Lydia snorted at Harry, blowing rings of purple smoke from the pipe clenched in her teeth, “Boy, I reckon I’d trust Toby Prince with my puppets’ strings.” She nodded in the direction of Snape’s tent. “And ever since he let the snakes outta their cages – it’s a real shame how they used to live – and took ‘em in to live with ‘im, we’ve never had a moment’s trouble with any of ‘em.”

“Do you know how he became a Parselmouth?”

Lydia shrugged. “Same as with any of our ‘kinks’, I s’pose. We’re either born with ‘em or we’re forced into ‘em. Why, d’ya wanna hear what snakes’ve got to say? I dunno if Parseltongue can even be taught, but he’d know; you go right ahead and ask ‘im.” She fired a challenging grin at Harry round the stem of her pipe.

Well, that explained absolutely nothing. How the hell was Harry supposed to talk with someone who didn’t – couldn’t – talk back? Not that he didn’t want to hear what Snape had to say: he was dying to get just one straight answer out of the man. But even before whatever Nagini had done to his voice, Snape had always been an enigma, a mystery. One of those circus magician’s top hats, that might contain a rabbit or a dove or a bunch of flowers, but you never knew when it’d spit out a firecracker instead.

After taking his leave of Lydia, Harry unfolded his tent like an umbrella next to Snape’s. Harry’s tent was much smaller, and its round shape and faded colours made it look a bit like a toadstool growing against a tree stump. He figured that neither Snape nor the python would appreciate having their bed taken away from them for more than one night. In fact he doubted Snape would appreciate his presence at all. But he didn’t want to move too far away from the shelter and comforting proximity of the larger tent: who knew how friendly (maybe too friendly) those lion and tiger animagi were, and whether they roamed the night, hunting in their animal forms.

*

Despite Lydia’s teasing, Harry knew better than to ask Snape how he’d learned Parseltongue. What if he hadn’t even learned it at all: maybe it was a side-effect of almost dying from the snake-Horcrux’s venom. After all, Harry had come by his own instinct for Parseltongue after a similar brush with death. I’d probably have more luck asking the snakes than Snape. And it wasn’t as though Lydia had been any more informative.

After he’d finished setting up his tent, Harry poked his head inside Snape’s. Snape still hadn’t returned from wherever he’d swanned off to. Harry shrugged to himself and, for lack of anything better to do, he waited inside for the surly sod to return. After a few minutes he found himself gravitating to the bits and pieces crammed on every shelf and in every corner: he poked around cautiously, pretending not to notice the snakes watching him, while they pretended not to watch. 

What Harry thought were parchment rolls in the corner turned out to be yellowed circus posters. He unrolled one and glanced at it. 

There were snakes in heavy iron cages all over the poster. The snakes were all twisted into unnatural shapes: triangles, squares, coiled into links of a chain. Snape’s python was curled in a circle, biting its own tail with a shower of painted blood. But instead of Snape the poster featured an old man Harry had never seen. ‘William Zamboozi, the Hero of Darkest Uncharted Africa!’ the poster’s headline declared, ‘Deadly Monster Snake! Terror of Helpless Villagers! Captured and Commanded by Sheer Strength of Will!’ 

Harry peered dubiously at the man: Will Zamboozi had a jowly, drooping face and a dispirited look. Even in the poster, he didn’t look like much of a hero. 

He turned to the next poster. From the page, a horribly emaciated, beaky man glared at him. Greasy hanks of hair hung limply, not hiding the skeletal mask of his face. Every bone and tendon stood out with shocking clarity; made still more obvious by the tattered loincloth which was his only article of clothing. Only the black eyes, sunk deep in hollow eyesockets, seemed alive. ‘Toby the Bony, the Human Skeleton!’ the page said, along with ‘Only 39 kilos!’

The poster slid from Harry’s hands, which were shaking in physical reaction to the image. It was too much like seeing Snape’s withered corpse. Even the loincloth looked like the mouldered remains of a burial shroud. He shuddered and shoved the rolled-up poster away, reaching for another in a desperate attempt to banish that memory.

The third poster shocked him in an entirely different way. Snape was reclining on a chaise-lounge. He wore a hybrid between a men’s toga and a short dress, joined down the centre line. Far more startling than this odd attire was the way that the gender mismatch was echoed in the body beneath. The limbs on one side were sleek, hairless, in sharp contrast to the bony, hairy arm and leg on the other side. One hip was softly rounded, one angular and thin. The difference was most noticeable in the contrast between the flat pectoral muscle on one side, and the cloth-draped breast on the other. Harry gulped and pulled his gaze upward, almost as embarrassed as if he’d been ogling Snape in person. Half of Snape’s face was unfamiliar: skin smoother and free of five o’clock shadow. The softer, less gaunt look to that side of Snape’s face made it seem younger than the familiar, male half. The eye on the female side was fringed with thick eyelashes, and the cheekbone showed a delicate tint of blush. Comparing both sides, only the eyes seemed the same: beyond trimmings such as eyelashes and makeup, they were as darkly vivid as ever, gleaming with expressiveness. Neither side of the face was conventionally attractive, but the image was a striking one all the same.

‘Henrietta Henry the Hermaphrodite! The Male-Female Medical Marvel!’ the poster declared.

It’s a pretty old poster. Must’ve been an act he abandoned for his current one. Who’d want to stay in a sideshow tent if they could draw the crowds in the big top?

As Harry put the rolled posters back in the corner, he thought that Snape must have used some really complicated potions or transfigurations for the Hermaphrodite act. Harry desperately hoped he’d done the same for his Human Skeleton act: it was too painful to think of him starving himself down to skin and bone.

In the hope of finding some evidence of such potions or spells, he turned to the bookshelves, skimming over the printed titles, looking for… there. A shelf filled with notebooks, parchment scrolls, sheaves of paper, all covered with that cramped, angular script he’d grown up seeing in red ink all over his essays.

He grabbed a random notebook off the shelf. As he reached for it, he dislodged a small scroll, but managed to catch it before it hit the dirt floor of the tent. Probably another poster. More pretending for the crowd. After all this I wouldn’t be surprised to see him breathing fire, or rope-walking. He set the notebook down on the table and unrolled the scroll. It wasn’t a poster at all, but a drawing in coloured inks: various dilutions had been used to achieve a delicate effect like watercolours. But it wasn’t the technique that captured Harry’s attention, it was the subject. His mum’s eyes, seen very close up. The vivid green of the irises had been captured in painstaking detail. The overall effect was strikingly, photographically realistic, more of a study of anatomy than a mere drawing, except for one thing. The expression in those eyes was anguished, pained: nothing that would grace a normal textbook or scientific notes.

Harry re-rolled the scroll and placed it back on the shelf with care. Taking refuge from the confused whirl of his thoughts, he turned to the notebook he’d left on the table, and started looking through it. The entries dated a bit over five years ago. One of the earliest ones was titled Atrophic Draught, followed by an ingredients list, a preparation formula, and dosage calculations. 1 drop per 10 kg removed. Apparently its effects lasted an hour, like Polyjuice. Harry guessed this was what he must’ve used for that human skeleton act. With a grimace he turned the page and kept reading. 

1: Python reticulatus – Adult female, 10.5 m! ~70 cm circumference! Fortunately at that size, remarkably placid given past treatment. Tail has healed well from scarring sustained during the ouroboros part of Zamboozi’s act.

2: Crotalus adamanteus – Adult female, 2.1 m, well developed rattle (hasn’t been treated roughly enough to break it), uses rattle frequently, even when not alarmed.

3: Naja naja – Adult male, 1.9 m, active, inquisitive.

4: Agkistrodon contortrix – Adult female, 1.1 m, not particularly active, very attracted to heat sources.

5: Crotalus cerastes – Adult male, 0.8 m, unusually pale overall, with dark, sharply pointed supraocular ridges. Rattle smallish for overall size (perhaps broken previously).

6: Bothrops atrox – Sub-adult female, 0.7 m, active, pronounced appetite, both probably resulting from comparative youth.

Something about the list reminded Harry of a class roster. ‘Potter, Harry – doesn’t quite measure up to Acceptable, hasn’t shown interest’. Just the same dry list of facts about something Snape didn’t particularly care for, as if he was forced to write it. It was quite different from how Harry had seen him behave, letting the python take over his bed and follow him around like a pet. 

Harry flipped the pages to see what else they held. The first page he came to was blotted, hastily written, the page gouged by the sharp point of Snape’s quill.

15 August 1999

No matter how I rack my brains and my – now-slightly patchy – memories, I have no way of knowing what interaction of factors is responsible for my current state. My self-inoculation with antivenins against both neurotoxic and haemotoxic snake venoms was obviously at least partially successful, as was the ground bezoar in my food, and my vaccines against Dark poisons: as many of them as I could take without being discovered. Miniaturised phials of blood-replenishing and healing potions were precautions anyone with a knowledge of potions should take in times of war; not even the Death Eaters could have complained, had they discovered them.

But no matter how I tried, I was never in Riddle’s confidence enough to know what he’d done to Nagini. As if the Horcrux wasn’t enough, what with his sick idea of mediwizardry and the unnatural way he warped her right down to her genes, the bitch really was his pet project.

I’ve swallowed an ocean of healing draughts, cast enough mediwizarding spells to wear down my wand and my patience. The closest I’ve come to an effect was last night, when I (fortunately temporarily) became completely mute. Evidently my last attempt came close to ‘healing’ me of the ability to speak Parseltongue.

Perhaps I should stop railing against my fate. It’s never done me any good in the past.

Riddle was the only remaining descendant of Slytherin; as far as I can tell, I’m the last Parselmouth alive. Perhaps it’s time I started thinking of myself as gifted.

Better that than crippled.

30 May 2002

The python has now reached 10.6 m. She has finally finished shedding her skin, and it was well worth the wait: perfect condition, literally worth an arm and a leg at any apothecary in Knockturn. Needless to say, Zamboozi hasn’t a clue as to its worth, more fool him. He was even relieved to let me have it, as if I was taking out his rubbish for him.

I suppose I’ll have to keep the cobra overnight. The wretch gets into everything; even a broken tail doesn’t seem to stifle that bloody annoying curiosity of his. I’m going to have to ward all my shelves to stop him from nosing through my supplies. The moment the modified Skele-gro finishes working, he’s going back to Zamboozi.

I believe I shall express my opinions on the matter when I return the cobra. The old man ought to be a damn sight more careful during performances.

25 October 2002

The python is now 10.7 m. She spoke to me today for the first time. As is only natural given her size, she is the leader of their mismatched pack. At any rate, she is very protective of her kind. Apparently ‘Humans aren’t to be trusted’.

I could only congratulate her on her perceptiveness.

It seems the rattlesnake has a hobby: giving me a headache in the shortest possible time. Quite apart from her inordinate pride in the sound of her own rattle, I haven’t been subjected to this much gossip since the last time I heard Flitwick holding court in Hogwarts’ staff room.

The fer-de-lance has a distinct South American accent. She was born in the wild, remembers going hungry prior to capture, and as a result is obsessed with hunting. I have had to ward the rodent cages against her persistent attempts to strike at them through the bars.

5 November 2002

They found Zamboozi dead this morning, in the python’s cage. Chest constriction/strangulation. They’re saying the python tried to eat him, but that’s absurd. For one thing, there are no fang marks on the body. Furthermore, the python’s never been starved, and large though she is, she’s not Nagini; her head and throat just aren’t wide enough to let her swallow a grown man.

I’m not going to stand back and let them put her down as a maneater.

6 November 2002

I wrote a note to Lydia offering my services as an interrogator, and then I asked the python what happened that night. The coward cast Imperius on her, forced her to constrict him. Too spineless to kill himself. He probably wanted to take his own life in a way that’d make sure she’d be killed as well, while keeping his own hands clean. Greedy old bastard. He always hated the fact that there’s a Parselmouth in the circus now; couldn’t stand the thought that I’d – or anyone else would – take over his act and outdo him.

He’s lucky he was just competent enough to suicide successfully.

7 November 2002

They’ve decided. They’ll let her live, as long as I agree to keep her – and the rest of them – under control. I agreed, on one condition: that I train and keep them as I see fit.

I think I’ll enjoy letting them out of those damn cages of his, for the very last time.

Harry kept flipping through pages, expecting more, but none followed. Snape’s entries grew sparser after that. Sometimes he didn’t add an entry for weeks, and when he did they were mostly mundane, as if he didn’t have time to bother with notes any longer:

1st December 2002

python – adult rabbit every 8 days

rattlesnake – young rabbit or adult rat every 3 weeks

cobra – young rabbit or adult rat every 3 weeks

copperhead – young rabbit or adult rat every 3 weeks

sidewinder – young rabbit or adult rat every 3 weeks

fer-de-lance – young rat or adult mouse weekly

(I’m lucky the prey animals all eat table scraps; I’d go broke if they didn’t.)

Amid the lists of feeding times and random notes, Harry found another entry:

15 June 2003

I slipped up today and started to tell Lydia to brew her own damn salve. She gave me an impatient glare and I stopped before she began thinking I was swearing at her in Parseltongue. It’s been years, but there are still times I forget and try to speak. Noisy said she didn’t know what the problem was, but then she tries to talk to everyone in sight. The way she sees it, if they want to hear what she has to say, they’ll learn somehow. That only proves my point: even to people who’ve barely heard of Voldemort, Parseltongue is just as disturbing as a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Mother – adult rabbit weekly

Noisy – young rabbit or adult rat every 3 weeks

Curious – young rabbit or adult rat every 3 weeks

Curly – young rabbit or adult rat every 3 weeks

Crooked – young rabbit or adult rat every 3 weeks

Hungry – young rat or adult mouse weekly

Supervised foraging during my ingredient-gathering forays has been a definite success. Not only do they find the change of scenery and the exercise enjoyable, they’re supplementing their diet with fresh-caught lizards, frogs and insects.

Harry eyed the python, loosely coiled around a table leg and currently sizing up Harry’s leg. She didn’t seem so menacing now, he supposed: for a creature just a bit smaller than Nagini. 

“You must be Mother. Sorry, I can’t remember how to say it in Parseltongue,” Harry murmured to her. “And you probably won’t understand English.”

At the soft tap on his shoulder, Harry jumped, nearly dropping the notebook. He hadn’t even heard Snape come in. “I didn’t mean to spy, I swear,” he muttered, embarrassed, gesturing at the notes. “It’s just, it was there and… ”

Snape gave a wry smirk and waved away his apologies. He gave a deliberate snort, or no, it was more of an openmouthed breath of air: ‘fhah’. 

“What?” Harry frowned.

Snape glanced at him and nodded toward the python, as he repeated the simple, breathy sound.

“Ohhh.” Harry saw belatedly that Snape was saying her name in Parseltongue.

And then Harry really did see; their gazes met, and a memory surfaced in Harry’s mind: the dour-faced woman who’d seen Snape’s younger self onto the Hogwarts Express. 

“You named her ‘cause she reminds you of your mum?”

Snape casually snagged the python and lifted her head so that it faced Harry, beside Snape’s own, as if inviting Harry to see a resemblance between the two. Only the hint of a smirk lingering about Snape’s thin mouth suggested that he was hardly serious. The python and Snape exchanged a look, then she leaned forward and stuck out her long tongue to brush against the tip of Snape’s nose.

“Now that’s a picture worth a thousand words.” Harry dug through his backpack, rattling what sounded like a kitchenful of pots and pans until he pulled out the omnioculars he’d bought. He waved them triumphantly. “Why do I feel like a Creevey? Though it’s good to be on the other side of the camera for a change.” He grinned, before adding in a chirpy falsetto, “Ooo can I have your photograph Mister Parseltongue Prince Sir?”

Snape’s smirk sharpened into a wicked grin, very much a return-of-fire reaction to Harry’s teasing. He hissed something quiet to the python, who curled her neck sinuously around his torso, the thick coil arranging itself artistically, framing his bare chest.

Now that’s not a bit funny. Pretentious, yeah, just as showy as that pharaoh act, but sort of ironic too. And it’s… Harry gulped, …hot. He tried to think of something else, anything else, to distract himself before Snape started charming Harry’s own personal snake. Maybe pretending’s not so bad when people know that’s what you’re doing. ‘Cause then you’re not really deceiving anyone; it’s more like playing a game of make-believe. Which I suppose is what the circus is all about.

The python’s head stilled and her tongue flickered along the line of black hair that led down from Snape’s navel to disappear in the band of his low-slung trousers. Harry’s heart thudded and he almost dropped the omnioculars. A daring, shameless part of him contemplated beating the python in the race to that particular goal. He swallowed again. His face was warm. After a few seconds he realised he probably should do something, like raise the omnioculars to his eyes and look through… No, don’t point them there! No use; he’d already done just that. All he could hope was that the barrier between their stares would hide how inventively low in the gutter his mind had gone. He couldn’t resist being drawn closer then, under the excuse of imprinting a more detailed vision onto a picture. A picture of Snape looking at him: right here, alive and close. Of the python’s coil loosening, sliding slowly down his body and spilling on the ground. The scene kept replaying itself in his mind, as if he’d set the omnioculars on repeat. 

Harry felt daring behind the lenses, impulsive and naughty, yet somehow so good.

Oh hell, what’s the worst he can do to me? Harry thought about it and winced. Actually, his worst’d be pretty damn bad. But is it worth the risk?

Within the omnioculars, both Snape and the python exchanged soft hisses and eyed him with a predatory, expectant glare. Waiting to see what he’d do next.

Ohyeah! Definitely worth it!

Harry lowered the omnioculars. “Well, I reckon s’time for bed. Sleep I mean,” he corrected himself. He stepped closer, not breaking eye contact till the last possible second as he leaned in and slid his arms around Snape’s narrow waist, gathering him into a hug: a moment of closeness and warmth, not at all like the frantic bearhug of their first meeting, and not quite a return of the other man’s sensual teasing.

“Night,” Harry breathed. He made a quick getaway before Snape came to his senses and hexed him, or worse.

*

Snape rubbed his temples. He hadn’t been able to concentrate all evening for the chatter; the snakes were so excited that the whole damn lot of them were as bad as Noisy. He hoped that the newest addition wouldn’t pick up their bad habits, like pestering their human nest-mate.

“A mate?!” asked Hungry, as if hearing and echoing his thoughts. “A mate! A mate, a mate!” She bobbed her head up and down until it seemed an auburn blur. In the cage beneath her, a terrified rat hid deeper under the newspapers on the cage floor.

“Yes. And it’s about time, too!” Crooked cocked a scaly eyebrow at Snape.

“I don’t see why you’d care,” Snape grumbled, matching Crooked’s glare with his own arched eyebrow. “None of you lot can possibly crossbreed with a common viper.”

That prompted a muffled chuckle inside the teapot – Curly – and a guffaw and rattle from the cardboard box where Noisy was supposed to be resting. Even Curious snorted, widening his hood just for a moment.

“Not us. You.” scolded Mother, laughing with the others.

“ME?”

“I don’t see why not,” Curly chimed in, her tongue flickering out of the teapot’s spout, “He’s young and ready. Good choice!”

“Nice tight mating ball,” Crooked leered appreciatively, “Much close twining of coils from that one,” he added, probably trying to get even for the eyebrow.

For the first time in his life, Snape found himself at a loss for words. In Parseltongue. 

“If I were you, I’d glide into his nest and coil with him right now!” Hungry declared. “I can smell that you want to.”

“That’s a damn tasteless thing to say!”

“Tasteless? Phff. Around the pair of you, the pheromones are thick enough to taste,” Mother commented matter-of-factly.

“And no wonder. His snake reared into a mating dance ever since he first laid eyes on you.” Noisy declared in the sort of stage whisper that practically rattled the tent. “What do you call them? The one-eyed kind.”

The viper, the newest addition, giggled helplessly from his hiding place inside a cauldron; it was the first sound he’d made. “Shy,” Snape decided on the spur of the moment, “That’s as good a name as any.” Names were a human habit he couldn’t get away from, and the snakes humoured him, even though they wondered why he persisted in referring to them by the same descriptor, even after they’d shed many skins.

“Is he the kind of human with eggs? I say you need to trap him in your nest and make him carry your eggs when it’s time!” Hungry continued, encouraged because she hadn’t yet got whacked by Mother’s tailtip.

“None of the humans lay eggs, silly,” Curious informed her from his favourite spot, dangling from the tent flap along with a string of drying toadstools and a cobweb.

“Oh,” Hungry deflated.

Crooked nodded sagely, as if he’d known it all along.

Snape scowled in disgust at the lot of them.

“Ew!” the teapot said. Its lid rattled as Curly disappeared fully inside. A chorus of warning “Shhhh!”s sounded a second too late.

“QUIET!” Snape hissed at the lot of them. “There will be no eggs! Ugh!” Though I wouldn’t mind a ‘nice, tight mating ball’.

“Oh, dear. Not even if he… ”

Snape glared at Mother. “Don’t. Start!”

“Not even if he has them?” Hungry persisted, her eyes shiny from just being licked clean.

“Hmph. Careful,” Crooked warned Snape gleefully, “or the young one will find someone else to lay for him. And then where would you be?”

“That’s none of your concern.” Snape matched their glares one by one until complete silence settled in the tent. “And just so you know, we have names,” he informed the rambunctious lot. “His is Harry. I’d like you to remember that.”

As he spoke, the instinct that made it possible for him to derive words from the subtle, shifting sibilances of snake speech, picked out a word in Parseltongue and matched it to Harry’s name. It was a word the snakes used to describe birds of prey that harried them, harassed them. Like harriers, he mused, except the snakes would never have thought to use the description as a consistent name.

It was odd, but Harry without his name was more himself than ever. A grin. Impossible hair, braided or un-. And of course, those utterly unforgettable eyes. He was all impulsiveness and open intentions. Open arms as well. Snape caught himself smiling at the ghost-feeling of the imp’s arms snaking around him and squeezing, strong and steady and warm.

*

It started raining as soon as Harry crawled into his tent to sleep. By ten it’d turned into a downpour. Harry wasn’t about to give up; he’d braved entire winters in his tent before. With lots of Impervius and warming charms and usually with the tent set up on dry ground, not in a water-collecting hollow. It was a stark reminder of why he usually chose trees or bridges for cover. Finally, right after a particularly mad crack of thunder, he heard someone knocking on his ceiling. He peeked outside. Snape stood there, huddled under a black umbrella and looking like a wet crow. A thick-bodied, coppery-gold snake was draped around his shoulders like a Gryffindor scarf. Snape motioned Harry in toward the tent entrance. 

“M’fine here.”

Snape tilted his head dubiously and arched a pointed black eyebrow at him. A thin, ash-pale snake coiled round his arm did the same.

“Really, I am!” Harry insisted through chattering teeth as he reached for his wand to cast a warming charm.

Snape loomed above him, not budging, and clearly not buying it for a second.

As a compromise, Harry set up his dripping tent in the middle of Snape’s floor and slept inside it.

His sleep with two roofs over his head was restless. He dreamed he heard Snape sneaking out of the tent in the middle of the night. Of course, he followed him. In the night outside the tent, roots were coiling in a slow, sinuous dance, rising like snakes from the rain-wet earth. Snape took no notice of Harry; he strode away from him into the night, heading straight for the forest. His spindly silhouette blended into the trees as if the forest welcomed him into itself: dark into darkness. Harry couldn’t help thinking it was a bloody peculiar time to be ingredient hunting. As he followed Snape into the forest, stars flickered overhead, like glow-worms netted by the black web of branches. Their light was as blue and brilliant if the sky had been rinsed clean by the rain. The rich, living scent of wet loam filled Harry’s senses. The starlight grew brighter ahead, obscuring Snape’s silhouette. Then the starlight took on a definite form. Harry’s patronus was following Snape, its silvery-blue antlers a reverse image of the shadowed trees. Harry broke into a run. He had to stop his patronus from delivering any more messages. Had to. It was vitally important to stop it.

Or maybe what was important to Harry was that he made it to Snape first. So he could tell him everything he wanted to say: in person, face to face.

*

“Apparate!” Harry said. The Burrow and Ginny faded from his sight, to be replaced by the sombre vista of Hogwarts’ clouded lake.

Perhaps it wasn’t healthy to fantasise about talking with a dead man. But once Harry had begun, right after the war ended, he soon found he couldn’t stop. It wasn’t fair that Snape was gone, erased from the world: nothing but a memory of a sneer. This way, Harry’s imagination made the world just a little bit more fair. It was a memorial of sorts. Or perhaps an unfulfilled wish to have just one honest conversation.

But then one conversation led to another and another, growing from an occasional indulgence to a habit to a necessity. Harry hardly took anything with him when he left Britain, but this… this he couldn’t abandon, any more than he could abandon himself. Imagining Snape standing behind him and looking over his shoulder was getting easier every day.

“I never should’ve accepted that Order of Merlin,” Harry sighed. “Or the Auror’s badge for that matter. Should’ve known better. Nobody gave a damn that I never studied seventh year; of course Ron and Hermione didn’t study it either at the time, only Hermione went back to school afterwards. She said honorary qualifications didn’t count. I thought about it, for a while. But hell, even I’m not crazy enough to actually want to sit the N.E.W.T.s.”

Snape hmphed disdainfully, and gave him a look as heavy as Harry’s conscience.

“You never realise how wonderful something is, till it’s gone. When you can’t walk down the street without every head turning your way, and all you want to do is hide in the nearest dark corner. When people expect something, it stops you from doing anything good. How can you ever be good enough for them? No matter what you do, you’ll never measure up to that picture they’ve got in their heads, flawless and shiny and so damn different from who you really are. If they could only see, but they never will, ‘cause they look up to you and expect you to be perfect in every way. A hero. A poster boy for their causes. I didn’t want to be something I’m not!”

Snape was silent, only a nod indicated that he’d heard Harry’s words.

“Everyone wanted something. A hero. A marriage. An interview. Do you think it’s cowardly, running away? Hiding from it all?” Harry folded the shimmering fabric on his lap and stared at the Hogwarts lakeshore, Dumbledore’s tomb and Snape’s headstone, at the resignation letter to the MLE in his hand. “Ignotus hid from death, all his life. I’m hiding from the world. What’s the difference?”

That depends. No amount of running or hiding will take you away from yourself, his imaginary companion said softly. Are you brave enough to live with that?

Harry scuffed the patch of sand at his feet, to erase the triangle bisected by a vertical line that he’d just drawn with one toe. “I s’pose if anyone knows about hiding, it’s a spy,” he murmured to his shadow, stretched toward the open, beckoning road. “Did you ever get tired of it? All the hiding?”

I’m not hiding now. I’ve simply… moved on. And so will you.

Even imaginary, Snape was unpredictable. Those black eyes had the same intensity in which Harry could almost drown.

Stop looking so damned grief-stricken. Leaving’s not like dying, Snape grumbled, I should know.

Harry’s gaze followed the open road and when he apparated, following that road to the furthest remembered turn, his mind was clear and unworried. He’d come to a decision at last.

After a few months on the open road – apparating where he could, and walking to discover the places he couldn’t apparate just yet – Harry’d found out Snape was right. Although he’d left a part of himself behind, travelling was about the birth of a new Harry Potter: a more wary man perhaps, but more daring in a different way. The daring, not of The Hero Of The Wizarding World, but of a man willing to leave that person behind. A free spirit, a wanderer with a grown-out mop of hair twined into fine braids and strung with brightly gleaming beads: one for each country whose soil he’d slept on. And in his travels and his solitude Harry began to realise that he wasn’t hiding from the world, he was discovering it instead: bright and new, one road, one day at a time.

He discovered himself as well, and learned to be at peace with the man he found. To the point when, standing on the edge of a dusk-lit cliff, he summoned his patronus and gave it a message: something he needed to finally get off his chest. He knew the message would never be delivered, because it was intended for a dead man, a man whose ghost haunted Harry’s thoughts and dreams.

“I respect you, and I’m grateful for all that you did, and I care about you.” Harry murmured, as he gazed out to the horizon and the endless roads still ahead. “I thought you should know. My life was so fucked up for so long, I made the mistake of not telling you when it would’ve mattered. I know saying it now doesn’t make up for that, but it’s the best I can do. I just wish I’d told you when you were alive. I’m sorry you’re gone. I miss you.”

*

Harry awoke to a nuzzling and a feather light tongue caressing the tip of his nose. There was a heavy weight on his chest. He opened his eyes to find himself nose-to-nose with a giant snake.

As he blinked startlement and sleep out of his eyes there was a sharp knock against the roof of his tent. Harry poked his head out and saw Snape’s scuffed workboots. He peered up and saw the rest of the man: jeans, T-shirt, a shabby dark overcoat. A snake around his wrist. Snape hissed and glanced pointedly at the tent flap.

“All right all right,” Harry mumbled. “M’up. Time’s it?” He wriggled and kicked his way into his clothes and was just about to crawl out of his tent when the python beat him out, blocking the entrance completely. By the time Harry made it out, Snape had already left.

“Oi, wait for me!” Harry shouted. Only then he realised that Snape’s hissed summons had probably been meant for the snake, not him. And here I went to all this trouble, even put my good shirt on. Harry yawned, glaring outside at the faint light of dawn. I should go back to sleep, really, and leave the stuffy git alone. A warm soft bed sounds really nice right now.

*

“The young one is fit and eager,” said Mother, gliding around the puddles, her scales gleaming with morning dew. “He’ll keep our home warm.”

Snape glared. “Don’t make any plans to take over his bed just yet. One more wake-up call like that and you’ll send him running.”

“Oh, nonsense, he didn’t even squeak. And put your fur on properly! Just because you’re warm-blooded doesn’t mean you can’t get cold.”

“Yes, Mother.” Snape rolled his eyes and began buttoning up his coat. He fiddled with the collar, tugging it away from his throat. Even the slightest contact with the hypersensitive scar tissue was maddening.

“Well,” she lifted her head and peered backward, “Aren’t we waiting for him?”

“Absolutely not!” Snape hmphed, appalled at the idea. “He’ll slow us down.”

*

Lydia was outside and Harry waved at her. “Do you think, um… ” he sidestepped past what appeared to be a group hug of Inferi in front of her tent, “… I can maybe help out? Around the circus? I’m pretty good at magic and I’m not afraid of hard work and… What are they doing?”

“Restin’,” she said serenely, gesturing at the pile of puppets on her bed, visible through the tent’s flaps. “They need their beauty sleep.”

In her hand was a jam jar filled with a strange glowing substance, bluish and bright. 

“What’s that?” Harry peered at it.

“For my lads,” she grinned. “Excellent salve. Keeps ‘em supple’n’spry.” She sniffed at the jar as if it was her morning cuppa and positively purred. “Still wanna help?”

“Er,” Harry stepped back and gave a tentative head shake that could’ve meant a yes if it really, really had to. “Where exactly does it go?”

She unscrewed the lid with gnarled, inked fingers. “Anywhere ya want it to, poppet.” She dipped a fingertip into the salve, and dabbed it around her eyes and nose, smoothing out the wrinkles. 

“Um,” Harry blinked. “Are you supposed to be doing that?” He never would’ve dared to experiment with any of Snape’s potions. Hell, he’d only drink them if the grumpy sod told him to personally. And here Lydia was mucking about with something brewed for corpses!

She only shrugged. “Just a dab, they won’t miss it. First for me, then for you,” she pinched the nearest waking Inferius’ cheek, before turning back to Harry. “If ya think about it,” she gestured at herself, “this is just another dried up animated corpse that needs a bit o’ lookin’ after. Right?”

Harry chuckled, then gulped.

Behind her, like a demon rising from her shadow, stood Snape: glaring at the flagrant misuse of his salve, as if his eyes were about to start shooting lightning bolts.

Lydia glanced over her shoulder. “Oh… Well, good mornin’ to you too, sunshine!” She flashed him a cheeky grin and walked around him. “Don’t mind Mister Doom’n’Gloom,” she stage-whispered teasingly to Harry. “You’d never know it from the look on his face, but in the early days, he even tweaked the formula for me, after I showed ‘im how the earlier muck erased my tattoos.” She gave Snape a fondly reminiscent look. “Had to re-ink ‘em ‘imself, and served ‘im right, too! As if I’d let anything that’d do that to my tattoos, touch my lovely lads.”

Snape stared, formidable and disapproving. He seemed to be waiting for something, tapping his foot impatiently and glaring pointedly at Harry and then toward the forest.

What? What’d that mean? Snape had seemed just as impatient back in the tent. ‘Wait for me,’ Harry had called out after him. He couldn’t be waiting for the python, it’s right there. And it’s me he’s staring at. Does that mean that he’s… really waiting for me this time?

Harry beamed and crossed the short distance between them so fast he nearly tripped over the coiled python on the way.

“Your Royal Highness,” he smirked, mock-bowing at Snape to lead the way. “How many palace uprisings besides this one have you had?”

Snape just hmphed and started walking.

*

Winter’s close. Harry could smell it on the wind; he could almost see its breath in the icy clouds. Every year at this time he followed the migrating flocks to warmer lands, until spring. But not this year.

This year Snape stood a step behind him, at his shoulder, as if monitoring Harry at his boiling cauldron in class. And the best part was that this time he wasn’t a figment of imagination and grief; this time he was flesh and blood, alive and real. Harry beamed at him, then looked out toward the distant tree tops, where another blast of wind gathered and grew strong. Harry drew a deep lungful of the cool morning air and released it in a happy sigh. Just when he thought he was being ignored, Snape gave him a small nod, before turning and looking in the same direction as Harry had done. Snape faced into the breeze; it raked his hair back off his craggy face and sent it streaming behind him like a ragged black cloak.

It was frustrating trying to decipher Snape when he didn’t speak a word, but on the other hand, it had been every bit as frustrating trying to decipher Snape when he did speak. Hell with it, Harry thought. From now on I’ll be talking for the two of us, and if he doesn’t like it, well, he’ll just have to find a way to tell me about it.

“D’you like to travel? I reckon travelling is bloody brilliant,” Harry said, slipping into his old habit of conversations with the dead Snape. As the questioning eyebrow rose, he shrugged and waved emphatically at the road ahead. “I can turn left or right or run in circles all day if I want, and nobody can stop me.”

Snape stared at him, wary as a hedgehog. A fly agaric mushroom that he’d just collected was the only bright thing about him. 

Harry gave him a rakish grin. Rambling on, and knowing it was getting to the grumpy sod, was fun. So he kept up the casual banter. “I’ve gotten good at fixing up junked bicycles: enough Reparos to get me from town to town. They’re easy to fix: almost as if they’re glad to escape from the tip and get back on the road again. On those quiet country lanes you can just spread your arms, pedal really fast, and then cast a levitating charm when you’re about to go downhill.” He beamed at the memory. “S’like a broom, only loads better. Cause even though it’s something old and awkward and Muggle, it can still fly.”

Snape snorted and rolled his eyes: his expression was mocking, but somehow it lacked all the meanness Harry remembered from class.

“You ought to try it,” Harry told him. “What’ve you got to lose? Well, besides your dark, dangerous, and deadly reputation. But look at me, I could do it and I’ve got enough skeletons in my closet too. Don’t think I don’t.” Harry swallowed, and when he resumed, his voice was low and as rough as tree bark. “My first field assignment, I had to kill someone.”

Harry turned away from Snape: if he had to look at the man his throat would close completely. “It was that or stand back and let him kill another Auror. I thought Avada’d be hard to cast, but it wasn’t, any more than Imperius or Cruciatus was. Just another day at work.” Harry took a deep, unsteady breath. “I didn’t want to kill for a living. So I quit.” Suddenly it was very important to let Snape hear that; important enough to make Harry face him again, to make sure he understood. “Ever since then… I’ve got my tent and my wand and that’s how I like it. I haven’t depended on anyone, and no one’s depended on me. I used to think it’d be tough for a wizard to survive in the Muggle world, but it’s so bloody easy. A spell or two is all I need. And the brilliant thing is, I’m nobody to them, just another bloke: one of them.”

Which I’m not. I’ve killed, and it was easy; I’ve enslaved without even thinking about it; I’ve tortured, and it felt good. No matter how far I travel, I still have to pretend. Harry drew breath to say more, spit more bitterness into the autumn breeze, but Snape raised his hand, gesturing him to halt; he emphasised it a moment later by gently pressing the very tips of his fingers to Harry’s lips.

Harry smiled against the warm and ticklish touch. You’re right, he thought as he returned Snape’s steady, accepting gaze, Maybe words are overrated. How could words describe the feeling of hearing the morning breeze pick up in the nearby aspens: just a whisper, then a closer wave, and finally a blast of stormy air, sound and scent and tingle of the crisp autumn wind.

It must’ve been early Quidditch games out on the pitch, or the locked doors and cupboard of his childhood, that had given Harry his love of open spaces. Sun and sky and all those roads leading past the horizon. He’d taken it for granted at Hogwarts, but the Auror offices packed underground made him feel as if he was buried in a giant tomb, no matter how many fake-window charms were on the walls.

A sparrow chirped into the silence between them as it rode a nodding grass stem, and crows by the hundreds spiralled up from the field nearby, cawing and gurgling to each other as they flapped away from the two human interlopers. Harry watched them soar, dark against the sky, its cool blue netted in branches dappled with the last poplar leaves about to take flight. Harry jumped and tugged on the lowest hanging branch, chasing the last bunch of dried leaves into the air like spooked canaries, smaller and brighter than any crow.

They stopped by a large rock, its sides green with lichen. Rainwater already warm from the sun was pooled in a hollow on top, with grass seeds and dead leaves soaking in it: nature’s potion two days away from rotting. Snape’s expression was alight with calm interest as he bent his head over the little pool, sampling its scent and taste; when he pulled an empty phial out of his sleeve, it was done with an instinctive, conjuror’s flourish. Bronzed leaves rustled and flittered across the field like moths, borne on the wind. The same wind ruffled Harry’s mane and parted Snape’s hanging strands, baring the the back of his neck: vulnerable white skin over hard sinew and bone. He finished filling the phial and lifted his head, meeting Harry’s gaze. He didn’t quite smile; not with his lips anyway, but the gleam in dark eyes was unmistakeable.

The sparrow took off with a squeak of alarm; a wave in the grass turned out to be the python, sporting a new, hare-sized lump in her stomach. She eyed her human hunting partners and hissed; Snape replied and held up the phial and his collection sack, now full of toadstools and other choice odds and ends. She turned like a slow, scaled tide and slithered downhill, starting unhurriedly for home.

Snape shouldered the bag and turned to Harry, who grinned widely and scooped up a handful of dry leaves. Snape gave Harry an inquiring look, and by way of reply, Harry dumped the leaves over Snape’s head.

Snape snorted, an indelicate, equine sound that owed nothing to Parseltongue and everything to amusement. He lifted The Nose haughtily, and without so much as a twitch of an eyelid, every leaf levitated, moving in a brief midair ballet that intertwined them into a classical laurel wreath on Snape’s brows. His arrogant expression shifted into a ‘so there’ smirk.

Winner, eh? Riiight! Harry grinned and reached out, plucking a leaf out of the wreath so it unravelled like knitting. Separate leaves showered Snape’s shoulders and chest like confetti, gold against his black coat, shining in the sun like amber against the rough bark of a tree.

Snape shook the last few leaf bits out of his hair and “Hmph!”ed again, but a smile continued to lurk about the corners of that thin mouth; amusement glinted in dark eyes as he reached out and ruffled Harry’s hair in turn, long fingers snaking among the braids to give one a teasing tug.

Sharing a laugh, each in their own way – outwardly and inwardly – the two of them returned from the forest together. In the lee of the hill, the bright canvas of the circus tents curved like a whole fleet’s sails amid a green sea of grass.

*

“Aren’t you worried about revealing magic to Muggles?” Harry asked Lydia later, amid the frantic commotion: it wasn’t even noon but everyone seemed to be getting ready for the evening’s show.

“Poppet,” she sighed, “it’s not about magic. Wizards come and go, Muggles stay, but Circus: Circus is timeless.”

“Timeless?” Harry snorted at the way she said it, with an odd reverence.

“Of course! Nothing’s more timeless than a freak show.” 

Harry blinked, surprised at the blunt word. But she carried on, hardly even noticing his reaction.

“All these shocking oddities, mysteries and curiosities. We cause fascination, fear, arousal, awe: all the things that make humans human. That’s why people remember us when we’re long gone, years and years after the show’s left their town behind. Muggles don’t care if it’s voodoo or robots when they come to see my dead lads dance, and wizards don’t care if it’s Dark Magic or puppetry when they fill the seats to see me control the largest remaining collection of Inferi in the world.” A wicked gleam shone in her eye. “And I don’t care if it’s a galleon or Muggle paper money in my pocket.” She thought for a moment. “Though coins don’t tear.”

“So when it comes down to it, all this, is for the money?”

“Money!” Lydia rolled her eyes. “Have you got a family, poppet?”

Family? Harry thought of Ginny, of might-have-beens between them. Of Ron and Hermione, a family now that always welcomed him with open arms. Of Teddy. Of Rose and Hugo. Before he answered, Lydia gestured at the shambling Inferi, ran her gnarled finger over the ropes of the tent as tenderly as if it was one of her lads’ puppet strings.

“This is my family: the one I was born into, and the one I chose, and the only family I’d ever want. The Circus is always on the move; it’s the one place in the world that’s no place at all. And ‘no place at all’ is the only place where the freaks, the weirdos, the queers and outcasts will ever really be at home. It’s where people like me belong.” A canny glance, “People like you.”

“I’m not… ” Harry faltered. Not what? Which one do I deny first?

Lydia let out a crow-like caw of a laugh. “Oh yes, poppet, we certainly are. You are. We’re all freaks here, son. That’s what the Circus is for. In this place, normality’s worthless. If you don’t stand out somehow, you’re no one. Nothing. When the show starts, you might as well stay in a seat instead of standing in the spotlight.” She tilted her head and stared shrewdly at Harry. “Somethin’ tells me you won’t stay in the shadows for long.”

*

Unless you were Voldemort or a container for his unofficial horcrux, Parseltongue was an incredibly difficult language to master. Which was why Harry felt especially inspired to re-learn it now; that and possibly because it also meant learning Snape: the strange sounds from his lips, the intonation of his infrequent hisses.

Sounds like ‘Fhah’ and ‘Sahthiss’ were directed toward the python and the cobra: names, as Snape confirmed. So then, by the same analogy the noisy rattlesnake’s name was ‘Szesh’ and the twisting pale one with Snape’s eyebrows was ‘Tsisshah’. Snape used ‘Hessth’ for the brown-and-gold snake that usually occupied the teapot, and the hungry bright one that had her permanent place on top of the cage watching the rats was probably ‘Shask’. 

He spent awhile, facing the teapot, the empty cage, the cobra’s tent rope, and the bed, running the sounds through his head, matching them up to English letters. Hessth, Shask, Sahthiss, Fhah, Tsisshah, Szesh. It didn’t seem like much of a start on learning – or re-learning – a whole language. But I’ve got to start somewhere.

Afterwards Harry wandered to the main tent, which was closed to the public at this early hour. The dirt floor was littered with tickets and wrappers. Snape was inside, re-tightening the fastenings on the collapsible bleachers: after the shaking given to them by yesterday’s uproarious crowd, they needed checking before tonight’s performance.

“Hi,” Harry said.

Snape arched an eyebrow at him, then nodded pointedly at the littered ground ringside. Message loud and clear: Make yourself useful!

So Harry Evanescoed the floor. It felt a bit like detention, only the dungeons were never cauldron-shaped and the serpents stayed on the doorknobs and banners, where they belonged.

As he worked, he watched the ring from the corner of his eye as some of the acts practised for tonight’s performance. A girl of twelve or thirteen in a bright pink body suit tied her body into knots until Harry was certain her arms and legs joined into one long elaborate loop and she didn’t have any elbows or knees at all. Next to her, a bald man shook off his hand and dropped it on the ground, as if it was a boneless prop. The hand moved on its own, then regrew back on a stump of a limb as the performer lowered his arm toward it. He then took off his ears like taking off earrings, then popped out one eye, which rotated and stared at the empty seats and its own empty eye socket. 

Harry boggled and reached into his backpack for the omnioculars. Was that magic? Skill? Illusion? Wizarding technique or Muggle? Something they were born with or something they’d learned? Or something unique. Harry couldn’t tell, but that was OK, because not knowing didn’t make the acts any less fascinating, any less memorable.

Then Snape and his serpents took over the ring and Harry forgot all about cleaning.

“I know how you feel,” he told the viper, which had been left with Snape’s coat at the edge of the ring. The snake had curled into a ball in Snape’s coat pocket, only his head peering over the edge. He seemed to be sulking, or possibly tired out after trying to learn the new territory and its inhabitants: trying to fit in amid the act and figure out his place among the other snakes. “I’m still learning too.”

Harry closed his eyes. It was easier when Snape was only a calm, dark voice in his head, a voice of … reason, or conscience, or loneliness, answering Harry’s questions. After many such imagined conversations, the memory of Severus’ voice was as familiar to him as his own.

“Why are you here?” Harry would ask.

And Snape would answer, Because you wanted me here.

But now it was all different, because the Snape Harry used to know gradually became a man in work clothes instead of teaching robes; and even imaginary, Snape spread his arms wide in a disclaiming almost-shrug. My spying days are long gone. I am as you see me: I live in a tent, I collect snakes, I use them to support myself… a glance at the python, curled into a chair-sized lump, …in some cases, literally. I brew what’s needed for my fellow-travellers, and they know better than to rob me or to cross me. It’s a living.

“As ‘Prince of Serpents’?”

I suppose I could wish for better lab facilities. The chance to accumulate more of a library. But it has its benefits. The show’s usually on the outskirts of towns, so less pollution. And the new scenery’s generally interesting. And I’m my own master, at long last. You might say I’ve finally found a mask that fits. A life that fits.

Harry nodded, and did not look away. “I think I might’ve too,” he confessed softly. “I hope I have.”

Snape didn’t answer.

When Harry opened his eyes and looked, the real Snape was in the middle of the ring with the python and a couple of other snakes. Maybe all the hissing meant they were discussing a new act. The imaginary voice in his mind faded into an awareness of the real man’s presence.

*

After the show was over, Harry waited inside the big top until everyone else had left – even Snape – and the tent was quiet. Out of recent memory came Lydia’s brassy laugh, ‘Somethin’ tells me you won’t stay in the shadows for long.’

The vast round enclosure, ringed with tall bleachers, felt like a Quidditch pitch: something he hadn’t seen in years, but still remembered so well. He inhaled the smell of sawdust and canvas, burning torches and dust. If Quidditch was played in the dungeons, this’d be how the pitch for it would look: even the first player was there. Harry wanted to stay in this odd yet familiar place and discover more of its secrets – Snape’s secrets – because Harry still had so much to learn. But he didn’t want to stay on the sidelines, a spectator. He wanted in. He wanted to be a part of this life: part of Snape’s life.

Harry took off his cap, shook his head, and let his thin, braided dreads fall loose. He dug through his pockets and threaded all his brightest beads on their ends. He stripped off his plain grey T-shirt and left his chest bare, like Snape had done during his performance. He toed out of his trainers and strode barefoot into the ring, letting his jeans hang low on his hips. If he could manage to keep the attention of the entire wizarding world for years, he saw no reason to fail with a mere two hundred. Yes, he didn’t have any tattoos like Lydia, or Snape. He wasn’t a Parselmouth any more. Apart from his magic – and at least half of the people round here were wizards of one sort or another – the only thing extraordinary about him was his braided hair, his faded scar, and the fact that like a cat he could cling tenaciously to anything – a branch, a broom, a last chance, life – and never fall. Harry looked up. That, and he’d always wanted to fly: playing Quidditch at Hogwarts, and later sending repaired bicycles soaring over country roads, and setting up his tent on the very edge of city rooftops.

Harry Accioed a broom out from under the bleachers. He’d ignored the broom this morning and used Evanesco to get rid of the rubbish, because it was an ordinary Muggle broom, good for nothing but sweeping. Worlds away from an enchanted Quidditch broom. He ran his hand over the broom’s handle all the same. If I tried, I could make you soar, he thought. Like the bicycles. Because everyone deserves to fly.

There was a rustle and a cool night breeze rippling through the torches. Harry turned, and saw that Snape had returned to the tent: he was standing in the shadows outside the ring, watching him.

Feeling spontaneous and wild, Harry beamed and spun the broom, waving it in the air. “Slayer of dusty stairways and Dark Lords, champion of might and magic, Seeker of the Century, heeeeeeere’s Harry!” he cried in an imitation of the ringmaster’s Sonorus-enhanced voice. He topped it off with an attempt at an elaborate bow, one of the ones he’d seen Snape do, for the crowd. “See?” he told his audience of one, “I can do this circus thing.”

Were those voiceless huffs really laughter? They are. Wow! A wry hint of a grin touched Snape’s lips, and this time it reached all the way up to those dark eyes.

“Teach me to fly,” Harry tossed the broom away as Snape entered the ring and sauntered toward him. “Real flying. I know you don’t need a broom to fly. I saw you. Just a glimpse, but you were bloody amazing.” Harry smiled. “Show me.”

Snape snorted.

“C’mon!” Harry persisted. He knew how to persist rather well, by leaning against the tall contraption the lion and the tiger Animagi used for rope walking. He jumped and pulled himself up, grabbing the taut rope, and swung upside down, hair and grin wild, stretching like a cat all the while. He faced Snape, nose to nose, then shifting higher, eye to eye, and it was rather pleasing to see the grumpy sod lose concentration and let his gaze sweep up Harry’s body. 

“Teach me,” Harry husked. “It’ll be fun.”

He was answered by a slow, lopsided smile, nearly hidden beneath that dark curtain of hair. Hands reached out for him, rested on his shoulders. As you wish, Harry heard, or perhaps saw: it wasn’t words, nor Parseltongue, but he understood it just the same. And then, Snape floated upward, light as a windborne leaf, pulling Harry up with him. Flying, without broom, word or wand. Harry’s deepest dream of free, unfettered flight, offered in a twist of a smile and the gleam of promises in the depths of dark eyes.

“Yeah,” Harry beamed. “Like that. Brilliant!”

*

At half past midnight Harry stumbled down the narrow tent-town alleys, giddy with delight. Snape followed, as close as a shadow and as silent, but for once not as sombre. A hint of a smile lingered on his face.

“Did you see me? You saw me, right?” Harry beamed, grabbing Snape’s sleeve for attention and tugging. “It wasn’t just a jump. I was flying!” Now if only I knew what I did, so I could do it again and again!

Snape nodded and soared a metre away from the ground, as easily as walking. It made Harry’s earlier attempt at a leap pretty damn pathetic. “Oi. Show-off.”

Snape smirked and slowly lowered himself next to Harry.

“Git,” Harry mock-punched him on the shoulder. He ducked under a tent flap and between the bookshelves as a shortcut into Snape’s tent, before Snape could get through.

Upon entering, Snape hung up his coat and waved the candles brighter. He coaxed a sleepily coiled snake out of her teapot shell and into a cardboard box of dry leaves. While he did that, Harry circled around the shelves, coming closer all the while. It’s not fair, he pouted. Is it just me? We’re sharing a tent – sort of, with mine inside his and all – but I’m not seeing any benefits of tent-sharing yet.

Inside, their tent looked like a shaman’s hut, with flickering candles and drying herbs and toadstools hanging from the ceiling. Warmth gathered all around them. Harry’s backpack was sprawled casually in one corner, like a relaxed, resting creature that had finally found a home. All was quiet. The night breeze carried the distant sounds of the chimaera’s bleating and splashing from the mermaid’s tank, but otherwise, it was as if the carnival had vanished like a dream, and the tent had been set up in an empty field.

Harry toed the ground and addressed Snape’s back cautiously. “Funny how things turn out… I hated you for years and then I thought you were dead for just about as long. And then I find you in a circus and you’re charming – snakes, I mean. Snakecharming!” he added hastily. 

Snape gave a dry snort and an eyeroll that was eloquent enough.

“And you’re brilliant at it. Look at you. I used to think your robes were wicked, but without them – wow! You’re wicked without them! I mean, not completely without – in Muggle clothes, and um, with snakes all over.” Harry stammered, gulped, and tried desperately not to look like he was either blushing or ogling. 

Snape was staring at him now, an intent, searching look. Harry sighed. His plan – do anything to avoid sleeping in his own tent tonight – wasn’t going so well. “S’different,” he assured Snape, “I like it! Never thought I would before but I do now and you’re really, really…” 

Snape crossed the tent in a few strides, hands coming down on Harry’s shoulders to pin him against the nearest shelf. He placed a single fingertip on Harry’s mouth, and just when Harry thought his heart was about to jump out of his chest, Snape replaced the fingertip with a flicker of a tonguetip, too teasingly light to be called a real kiss. When the contact broke, Harry forgot what he was saying, so he just gave Snape a ‘what did you STOP for?’ stare. Snape’s mouth curled into a ‘so there’ smirk.

“Oh,” Harry breathed; maybe the air rushing into his lungs again was what made him feel lightheaded. Maybe. “Or this. This is good too.” As he stepped closer to Snape, he caught his toe, and had to grab onto a shelf to keep his balance. He tried to pass it off as something he’d meant to do, but he didn’t think he’d had much luck. What with all these tree roots and grass and things to trip over, it’s a wonder a bloke doesn’t break his neck, what was Snape thinking, pitching his tent here? Thoughts of pitching tents made Harry grin wildly and he moved to fumble at Snape’s belt – something he really had ‘meant to do’ – and suddenly Snape laughed: those voiceless huffs that wouldn’t’ve been laughter from anyone else.

Snape was quite an armful: there was still a fine layer of oil on his skin from tonight’s performance, and it added a sheen of definition to the taut, wiry muscles that slid under Harry’s hands as Snape adjusted his stance. He may have been silent, but it said a lot that he didn’t avoid Harry’s touch. Snape tilted his head, the movement sending a hank of hair – lank as ever – sliding over one cheekbone. An eyebrow arched in the old, cool way, but the hint of smoulder in dark eyes was new.

New and different. That called for exploration. Harry did just that, gliding his hands up the sinewy arms and shoulders, up to stroke the hair back from the gaunt cheeks. This Snape didn’t spew insults, he stayed still, accessible, cloakless. And that was possibly why Harry couldn’t keep his hands to himself, running them over Snape’s skin, enjoying the sleekness of the oil over the hard sinews beneath. The movement suddenly reminded him of the admiring way he used to run his hands over a never-before-ridden broom, feeling the slick of wood oil under his palms. That must’ve been why Harry couldn’t get Snape out of his mind, felt pulled toward him like a magnet. Novelty. That must be it.

Maybe that thought had occurred to Snape, or maybe he’d read it in Harry’s eyes. He didn’t move away from Harry, but all of a sudden there was something shuttered in his expression, something impersonal in the arrogant tilt of his head. Like he was still in front of an audience, performing. Leading a show that must go on: ‘Come one, come all! Step right up! SEE the Prince of Serpents’ princely serpent!’ Snape gave a jerk of his head toward the bed; the movement dislodged that stray strand of hair again. One hand moved to Harry’s chest; deft fingers found a nipple unerringly, tweaked it to a hard nub.

Harry winced at the twisting jolt of sensation, almost in annoyance. How could he have looked more open this morning – bundled up in an overcoat, huddled over a rock, collecting ingredients – than he does now, with hardly any clothes on at all? Is he that used to acting, from all those years as a spy? Or has the circus made him into a bit of an exhibitionist: standing in front of crowds most days wearing nothing above the waist but snakes and oil? He couldn’t tell which was the case, but he found Snape’s sudden burst of brazenness disconcerting, awkward. Despite his own embarrassment, he couldn’t help noticing that Snape’s hands were very warm. It meant strong magic, but it was also simply heat. Life. In his travels, Harry had grown to seek warmth wherever he could find it. 

From where Harry was standing, he could see the bed behind Snape. A moment ago he hadn’t really noticed it, but then he saw the pillow twitch. Even in his current aroused, embarrased, downright confused state, Harry was quite sure that pillows really shouldn’t move like that.

It startled Harry enough that the words were out faster than thought: “Is that a snake in your bed?” Or are you just pleased to see me? Mad mirth fought apprehension and won; Harry spluttered back a laugh.

Apparently Snape thought it was a fair enough question; instead of taking offence, Harry’s stifled laughter brought out an amused glint in dark eyes. He turned and glanced offhandedly at the bed. “Shethssff?” There was a rustle, and the coppery-tawny snake snuck out from under the pillow and back into the box he’d put her in before. “Shethssffahssh!” he added in a ‘This-means-you!’ tone, and a moment later the bright auburn one slunk guiltily out from under the covers, followed by the sidling pale one. When they’d curled up out of the way, Snape extended his arm toward the bed in an ‘after you’ gesture of ironic invitation.

“They better all be gone.” Harry stared at Snape’s extended arm for a second, “Hah!”ed, and lunged for the bed, bouncing on it with all the energy of an acrobat on a trampoline but none of the grace. He wriggled out of his shirt, tossed it at Snape, and stretched out, trying to imitate Snape’s lordly lounging of the other night. The snakeskin at the foot of the bed rustled crisply with his movements; in contrast, the threadbare blanket under Harry’s hands had been worn to peachfuzz softness. “What’d you say to them?” he asked, partly just to break the tension of the moment, partly out of frustration that he couldn’t remember anything of a language that used to be instinctive.

“Shethssff? Shethssffahssh!” Snape repeated in a parody of patience. 

“Not a whole lot of help, that.” Harry swiped his hair off his brow, baring the mostly scar-free skin of his forehead to underline his point.

Snape derailed Harry’s complaints by the simple expedient of sitting down and undoing his boots, kicking out of them and his socks as matter-of-factly as though he were entirely alone. But his movements were less businesslike when his hands found his belt buckle; he lowered the tab of his flies with teasing slowness. The V of denim framed a sizeable bulge – even the dull cotton underpants couldn’t detract from that luscious more-than-a-mouthful – and he closed the distance on the bed, and Harry, in a prowl. Harry’s earlier question was finally answered: along with an instant of eye contact came an amused drawl in that inimitable mental voice, completely understandable this time: And here I thought you wanted to learn other things than Parseltongue…

Harry gave him an openly appreciative look, as he struggled out of his own boots and socks. “Depends. Will it still include tongues?”

It did. 

A feathery touch flickered against Harry’s wrist; he “Ack!”ed and scrambled to sit up. He saw the pale snake, the sidewinder, was back on the bed and tasting his skin. Apparently it liked Harry-flavour, because it wound itself at once around his wrist and forearm: at least it wasn’t slimy, just dry and scratchy and wriggly. For some weird reason it seemed restless, twining and rubbing its head against Harry’s skin, in constant motion. Harry held out his arm, trying to put as much distance between the snake and himself as he could manage, without actually getting it mad by pulling at it. But the sidewinder was having none of it, and invaded as much of Harry’s personal space as its head, tail and all its coils could manage. Harry tried shaking his arm a bit, but the snake just tightened its grip, and shaking harder was probably a bad idea, so Harry gave in and asked for help. “Er, can you call it off? Like the cobra. Please?”

Snape grinned at Harry and gave a half-amused, half-derisive hiss that shifted almost imperceptibly into a comment; the sidewinder replied, terse and preoccupied. When it lifted its head briefly from the incessant rubbing, a layer of dull, dry scales on its snout had started to peel back, revealing glossy new skin. Snape shrugged, unconcerned, and extended a hand to the snake’s head, gently rolling back the scales a little more. When he released it, it went right back to its persistent rubbing against Harry’s arm.

Judging by Snape’s relaxed attitude, the snake was far too obsessed with getting rid of its old skin to be bothered with biting Harry. And Harry was damned if he was going to act scared of Snape’s friends. “Just startled me a bit,” he muttered. “Sudden.”

Despite the disclaimer, Snape was still giving him a smugly disbelieving look. Harry couldn’t let that go on, so he kissed the smirk right off the git’s lips. As they kissed, Harry slid his hands around Severus’ shoulders and let the sidewinder migrate from one of his wrists to another, across the back of Severus’ neck. See how you like it, Harry thought. But Severus paid it absolutely no mind; and even Harry hardly noticed when the snake started to rub its way up his other arm: he was too absorbed in surprise at just how arousing a simple kiss could be.

When Harry moved from kissing to nuzzling, Severus took advantage, using the point of his nose to burrow into the forest of braided strands until he found the sensitive shell of Harry’s ear, which he lavished with teasing tongueflicks. That felt a lot better than the first tongue action Harry’d had this evening, and he told Severus so; not in so many words, but right now moans seemed a pretty good way of expressing enthusiasm.

Severus was already shirtless, and Harry was hot and bothered and definitely wanted to feel all that skin against his own. He flailed and wriggled, trying awkwardly to get out of his shirt without separating from Severus. The sidewinder corkscrewed up Harry’s arm and onto his shoulder, then it stuck its head down the back of Harry’s collar and settled into its own little orgy of rubbing, working its way steadily down the notch of Harry’s spine. Harry couldn’t help a ticklish chuckle into Severus’ mouth, though the snake’s descending body did help push Harry’s shirt down off his shoulders. A random flash of thought struck Harry: You scratch my back, I scratch yours: I help you shed your skin, you help me shed mine. Then he realised that the best idea right now was to slither out of his jeans before the sidewinder got far enough down his back to slither in. Yeah, Harry sighed happily at the hungry look in dark eyes as he stripped off the last of his clothes, Best idea ever. Bed. Now.

The sheets and pillows smelled of Severus’ hair, and Harry rubbed against them rather like the snake had been rubbing against him. As Harry stretched out on the bed, the snake wisely decided to slip off and continue its own rubbing somewhere else, where it wouldn’t be rolled on by heavy humans. At last Harry’s plan to get out of his own tent and bed and into Severus’ was paying off, and right now Harry felt like it’d been worth every second of planning, and all the wasted years that’d gone before. Slow and steady as a snake slithering in the grass, Severus’ tongue traced coiling patterns down Harry’s body, and his pleas of “Now! More! Faster!” were absolutely no use. Patient hands held him down, just enough to prevent him from arching higher. Harry shivered with pleasure. A jar of oil that Severus must’ve used for performances rolled and dropped on the floor, but it was mostly empty by now. Its slick contents were warming Harry’s skin and – along with Severus’ patient hands – warding off the chill of the autumn air.

Severus grinned at him, leaning down – to bite? – but only a teasing flicker of tongue followed, and Harry had to show him what he thought of the torturous wait then. Harry twisted, moved and caught Severus’ mouth with his own, following up with his own share of teasing. He gripped Severus’ shoulders and hauled him down so that at last they were body to body, skin to skin, all over, flushed with arousal and slick with sweat and with the layer of oil lingering on Severus’ torso and freshly applied to Harry’s.

Then hard arms were around him and a hot cock was rubbing along his and it was all so wicked, so brilliant, ohh sogoodYes! Harry breathed the candle smoke and the rich scent of his own precome and bit the corner of the pillow, to stop himself from shouting too loudly. With Severus in his arms – warm skin, wandering hands – he wasn’t quite sure who’d caught who, but Harry wrapped around him like a snake, one knot of human bodies. As their movements sped and deepened, sliding and rocking toward the peak, the python skin fell to the floor with a rustle, but for once Severus was far too caught up in sinuous, slithering sensuality to give a damn about his precious Potions ingredients.

And then, Harry stopped noticing that, or anything else, as the heat that had built between them burst into white-hot, blinding bliss.

When his senses had returned to him from the heights, Harry thought hazily, Whew, our tent is still standing. Good. And then what he’d just thought struck him: Our tent. Besides the intense, purely physical pleasure, it felt like a deep ache had finally been satisfied. It wasn’t just coming. It was coming home.

As their breathing slowed, Harry found he was still curled around Severus like a snake around prey, though his intent was as far from a predator as it got. He tightened his arm around Severus’ chest, and threw a leg over his thigh. He searched by feel, by taste, until his head emerged somewhere below Severus’ left armpit, between arm and body, and came to rest against his ribs, his spilled braids a soft rattling hail of wooden beads.

“M’staying here,” he informed Severus after a long delay of counting Severus’ ribs with the tip of his tongue, somewhat getting distracted by cleaning the come off his fingertips in between. “OK?” He decided that he liked this bed. Hard and narrow as it was, it had a human pillow that was rather comfortable. Not to mention that this pillow held him just as close as he held it. Definitely staying.

Harry’s murmured words were met with a breathless pant of a laugh, and a squeeze from sweaty, shaking arms. And a nod. The ‘pillow’ beneath Harry’s head subsided, melting into the bed with a soft, sated murmur. Under Harry’s cheek, Severus’ heartbeat thudded, easing down from its former gallop. The lean chest moved in a slow sigh, and the dark eyes were dazed with afterglow.

Yes, it looked like he was definitely staying.

“Good,” Harry beamed, murmuring against warm skin slick with sweat. Then he pulled the sheet on top of them and settled in for the night. “Since I’ll already be here, let’s do this again in the morning.” Soonish. Three AM perhaps? I can wait till then. I think. Or is it already three? Who knows. He yawned. OK, till three thirty. Or whenever. Just a bit of kip first…

In the darkness, there were gentle hands, one stroking down Harry’s back, one resting on the back of his head. And there was a body, curled around Harry; the soft sound of breathing and the reassuring drum of a beating heart, steady as the earth. And warmth, so much living warmth.

*

Sometime in the night – whether it was three AM was anyone’s guess – Severus woke to the feeling of Harry’s head pillowed on his shoulder and a sprinkling of beads and braided hair over his chest. The imp was clearly awake: he shifted against Severus, poked him purposefully in the side with a half-interested cock, and shook his mane, also definitely on purpose, so the hard beads bounced against Severus’ chin.

Severus caught one bead in his teeth and gave Harry a ‘gotcha’ grin around it; then he yanked smugly on the sort-of-leash.

Harry cried “Oi, mine!” just before diving in and tongue-hunting for it.

“A mating ball!” Hungry cheered.

“Again? I wonder which will carry the eggs?” replied Mother, with a teasing tongueflick at the teapot where Curly hid. 

“Quiet, you lot!” Severus hissed distractedly against Harry’s lips as the brat took his bead back.

“Ohh yeah!” Harry groaned. Suddenly the cock pressed into Severus’ side was quite a bit harder than it had been a few moments ago.

“Are they mating yet?” Curious joined the chorus from his surveillance point at the top of the tent. “I’ve always wondered how humans… Oh,” he said. “Ohhh. Poor things! Only one penis each? Is that normal?”

Severus lifted his head just long enough to throw a glare at the cobra and hissnarl “SHUT UP!”

“Yesss! Again!” Harry tightened his hold on Severus and ground urgently against him.

“What?” Severus was startled enough at Harry’s sudden intensity to ask it aloud.

Harry moaned and buried his face in Severus’ shoulder; a demanding thrust followed.

Severus leered at Harry’s reaction. This ought to be good… For the first time in years, he deliberately spoke aloud to a human: “Maddening brat.”

Harry gasped and arched his neck, offering it for kisses.

Severus obliged. “Bane of my existence,” he said softly, as if confessing a well-kept secret.

“God yeah!” Harry’s eyes rolled up; heavy eyelids fell shut. His grip on Severus’ shoulders tightened to a possessive clutch as he ground his urgently hard erection against Severus’ body.

Obviously it was turning out to be rather good, for them both. “Waste of perfectly usable potions ingredients,” Severus added, leaning closer until his lips were pressed to the curve of Harry’s ear..

“YESSS!”

As Harry shuddered and pulsed against him, Severus breathed “Harry…” aloud for the first time. He wondered how it sounded to Harry and whether he could even recognize his own name in Parseltongue. “Mine.”

Harry’s flushed skin glowed in the moonlight, his eyes were so wide, dark with arousal and bright with happiness as he beamed up at Severus. There were so few things in this world that had ever been Severus’ own; there had never truly been a person. Not till now. And never, never had he felt more alive than in this moment, with this impossible, irritating, irresistible young man.

*

A couple of hours closer to noon, Harry left the bed and stumbled toward his tent. He crawled out a few minutes later, in the middle of a yawn, with an enchanted moving toothbrush in his mouth. “Mornin’,” he mumbled, stretching and pulling on a fresh shirt.

Severus gave a sarcastic snort and a pointed nod toward the broad daylight streaming in through the tent flaps, though his gruff greeting was softened by an appreciative glance at Harry’s abdomen. Severus was standing at the table, where a cauldron was just coming to a boil over a hovering bluebell flame. He took the cauldron off the fire and poured the contents into two mugs, adding generous pinches of something that was hopefully tea leaves.

At the sight of the steaming mugs Harry’s wariness turned into a grin. “I was just about to ask!” He ambled over and nicked the mug closest to his corner of the table. “Thanks!”

Severus glared at the snap of Harry’s beaded braids against his shoulder.

Harry beamed and kept his chin against Severus’ shoulder for just one more second before pulling back. It helped, he decided.

Severus nodded and took a long swig from his own steaming mug, giving a sigh of contentment. His hand slithered its way among Harry’s braids with a rustle and rattle of beads, and then it drew Harry in for a lingering, luxurious kiss.

Mmm, this is a brilliant way to say ‘Good morning’! Harry thought. And it is a good morning! Better than good!

He smiled and nuzzled the stray strands at Severus’ temple, nipped at the scratchy skin of Severus’ throat. This not talking thing was amazingly uncomplicated sometimes, a thousand times better than acidic insults or sarcasm.

Though Severus’ mouth still wasn’t entirely without wickedness; even as Harry deepened the kisses, Severus replied with teasing nips, dragging Harry’s lip softly through sharp, uneven teeth. They spun around, stumbled until Harry was backed against a bookshelf.

His elbow caught a stack of scrolls on the shelf. He grabbed them before they had a chance to fall, but in the scuffle one parchment unrolled, revealing the already familiar drawing of green eyes.

Severus stilled.

“Oops,” Harry breathed. “Sorry. Whew. I’d’ve hated to get that wrinkled. It’s a really good drawing of her.”

Severus didn’t move, just arched a quizzical eyebrow.

“S’ok.” Harry said. “I know you loved Mum. I understand.” He chuckled. “I reckon I’m as close of a substitute as it gets.”

Severus frowned intensely and hissed something strange: the intonation was familiar, scolding and irritable, but it lacked the shifting, subtle sibilances of Parseltongue. “Ssahp-sst-ch’t?” Harry blinked, then all at once realisation hit: Severus was trying – with a lot of effort judging by the look on his face – to mimic Harry’s own word back at him. Substitute?

“Yeah,” Harry said, taken aback. Why else would he have wanted me round in the first place? He even let himself laugh with me, as if I was an old friend. That never would’ve happened if it wasn’t for Mum being his friend. But no matter what the reason is, I’m glad to have him. He nodded at the drawing. “I remind you of her. That’s why you let me stay. It’s all right. I don’t mind.”

Severus’ scowl somehow managed to deepen: he hadn’t looked this harsh even in the bad old days at Hogwarts, when Harry’d messed up a potion in a particularly spectacular way. Severus’ glare was fierce and sharp and pinning Harry down like a black needle, trapping him like rope, mentally tying Harry into a front row centre seat for a loud and clear legilimentic rant. Harry, you stupid, self-sacrificing sod, listen to me for once! The silken baritone was low and intense and absolutely impossible to ignore. You’re not a ‘replacement’ for her, any more than she was a ‘replacement’ for you! This is what I want you for…

His hands squeezed roughly at Harry’s sides, held him back against the shelves as Severus leaned in, silencing anything Harry might’ve responded with with a deliberate, demanding kiss. And this… his dark eyes conveyed. Harry’s shirt rose under deft fingers, and then Severus slid down his body to kneel at his feet, and skittering fingertips were replaced by a tongue licking down Harry’s treasure trail. His mouth closed round Harry’s cock, his head bobbed in time with Harry’s thrusts. Harry shook gasping, wide-eyed, staring at those intent dark eyes – And absolutely, definitely this! – as Severus swallowed around Harry’s cock and sucked him dry; and all the while, even through the rising tide of orgasm Severus’ mental shout resounded through Harry’s being: I want you, you heroism-addled idiot! YOU!

The world exploded. Perfection. Bliss.

Hair ruffled, knees weak, Harry collapsed against the shelves, sweaty and gasping and shaking. Harry waited for his breathing to slow down and his mind to come back so he could say something semi-coherent. But what could he add to this? Harry’s body draped along Severus’, weak-limbed in post-orgasmic haze. Finally he murmured “Incredible!”

Severus’ lips twitched smugly.

“Yeah, that too,” Harry grinned, “But that’s the most you’ve said to me! Er. Thought to me?”

Severus glared at him with his classroom-patented ‘And don’t make me repeat myself!’ look.

Harry beamed, “I don’t mind! You can do that again anytime!” As long as he does it like that!

One of those dry, husky laughs ruffled the sleek strands falling over his cheek.

Severus’ arms were strong and tight as he led Harry over to the bed. Harry didn’t remember much afterwards for a while.

When he woke up again, Severus was sitting on the bed next to him; he had the drawing and a simple Muggle pen in one hand.  With his head against Severus’ shoulder, Harry watched as Severus began adding detail over the existing drawing, with precise, pecking strokes: Harry’s dark, painfully drawn up eyebrows. A gash of a scar, nearly concealed by his long fringe. Then there was no doubt, no way to interpret the subject of the portrait as anything other than who it was.

Oh. Wow.  Did I really have that blank, bewildered, lost look in my eyes, at that awful moment?

Severus had drawn the memory that had come so hideously close to being his last: a moment of connection so haunting that it had to be captured on paper.

When that realisation hit, Harry had to hold him. Had to hold him so close and so hard and tell him everything, but the missed you want you love you that ran like a heartbeat through him, body and brain, was too huge to be confined in words. So Harry had to show him instead.

It was wonderful to explore the wary sod’s responses and learn him, body, flesh, and skin: Harry the adventurer mapped out every inch, and in Severus’ case there were quite a few lusty, lickable inches to learn. He threw himself joyfully into this new journey: exploring the uncharted territory of sinew and skin, travelling along the branching blue roads of veins and mapping the curves and hollows of limbs spread right in front of him. It was brilliant to hear Severus speaking a language even older than Parseltongue: the language of arousal, gasps and panting breaths. It was fantastic to feel the tightening of his fingers round Harry’s shoulders, and to see the need in the depths of those black eyes.

Long, sinuous limbs wrapped around Harry’s body as he kissed his way downwards; that cock reared high, head broad and rounded like a cobra, and Harry had to meet it and give it a kiss of welcome. So he followed the path that the python had, not so long ago: licking down the dark line of hair, taking his time, tasting every inch of skin and feeling the heat of it and the texture beneath his lips and fingertips.

Harry decided that Severus looked even more powerful now – spread out on his pillows, stripped of his clothes and his reserve, radiating heat and desire – than he had as a Prince, ruling over venomous serpents and cheering crowds.

It was impossible to believe it’d only been two days. Harry felt like he’d been around forever. Or maybe it was all the years Harry had spent with this man in dreams that made it seem so natural, so right to be with him now.

“God, I wish I’d found you sooner.” Harry breathed, just before he put his mouth to better use than speech. All this time on the road, he’d been wandering, lost, without aim or purpose: and without fully realising it, until now. Now, in this circus tent and in this narrow bed – at the end of the road – Harry had found something: he didn’t know exactly what it was yet, but he knew it was worth every second of wasted time. Severus was worth it. And Harry wasn’t lost any more.

A low hum of agreement, or of pleasure answered his words. As Severus thrust up into Harry’s mouth again and again, the quiet gasps and sighs built, and then choked off in silence as the lean body in Harry’s arms arched and spasmed. When Severus sank back into the bed Harry drew back, delicately kissing away the last slow seep from the very tip of his cock. A gentle hand sifted through Harry’s braids, trailing round to cup his cheekbone, in a gesture both possessive and achingly tender.

Harry basked in that tenderness. He pressed his forehead against Severus’ forearm – his lightning-bolt scar faded, Severus’ tattoo inactive and still – and kissed the pulse at Severus’ wrist, loving the sheer physical fact that this man was alive. There was no need of words between them now: the understanding between them ran deeper than speech. Harry sighed with satisfaction at the memory of his lover’s pleasure: judging by the slow writhes, the ecstatic gasps, the sly and sensual sibilances, Harry was well on the way to learning Severus’ sensitive spots. “I’d’ve been a better student than Hermione, if lessons were this much fun,” he murmured idly, just to hear the snort and see the look of amused disbelief that he knew Severus would give him.

Though it looked like the learning was definitely a two-way street. Even though Harry hadn’t made a move and was content for now to rest on his laurels, Severus had already noticed the renewed interest in Harry’s cock. It’d been amazingly arousing, to be able to break through Severus’ control, to make him want and to see that he was satisfied. Now, though Severus had barely got his breath back, he rolled up to his hands and knees. The look he fired Harry’s way beneath the hanging curtain of hair was intent, intense, demanding; and there was no way Harry could misunderstand what he was demanding.

Harry knelt beside him, running his hands all over the long, gaunt body, still flushed from climax. Severus sighed at the slow, soothing touches, and lowered his head, baring the nape of his neck. The sight of that vulnerable skin had haunted Harry ever since he’d caught a glimpse of it in the forest. And now he could finally touch it, kiss it, taste it. Right there, where the fine, tender skin was bared by the curtain of dark hair. His lips trailed lower, down the side of Severus’ throat. Lost in the warm scent of the heavy skeins of hair, he felt ridged tissue under lips… then Severus went absolutely wild at the first touch to the scars on his throat, every bit as wild as he had when Harry had finally stopped teasing him and given his cock that very first lick. It was as if Harry was still a Parselmouth himself: Severus’ sharp hiss was as good as a scream of Now Now Now!

Teasing’s fun! Harry decided. He kissed Severus’ shoulder, his adam’s apple, and finally the scars again: Severus gave another of those urgent, urging hisses and seized Harry’s cock with all the arrogant decisiveness of a prince seizing his sceptre; he used it like a leash to pull Harry round behind him.

Harry bucked into that grip, “Nopleasegodtoomuch!” When he was released, he had to pause, to pant, to bring himself back from the brink. Just the thought of fucking Severus was dangerously exciting: exciting enough to finish him before it’d even begun. It took a moment before he’d gathered his wits enough to summon the jar of oil; he slicked his cock, touching it as little as he could. Harry knelt between Severus’ legs and planted his palms on each arse cheek, spreading them, then he ran oiled thumbs down the crack, stroking slickness over Severus’ hole.

Severus ground backwards, in a ‘get on with it’ manner, as imperious as his hand on Harry’s cock had been.

Right. Harry centred himself, held his breath, and leaned in. Pressure built round the head of his cock, yielding, opening, widening, then with a sudden slide he was in, the head engulfed in slick heat. Every nerve howled at him to thrust, to bury himself balls-deep, but with a shuddering gasp, somehow he managed to stop.

Severus looked over his shoulder when Harry continued to hold still: the teasing smirk he fired back at Harry seemed coolly nonchalant, but Harry couldn’t believe it, not with the way the sweat was starting to gather between Severus’ shoulderblades.

All that liquid shine looked tasty, so Harry bent forward and licked slowly down Severus’ spine, then murmured warmth onto his back. “Did you need something?”

At the licking, Severus gasped and his head jolted up. He released his breath in a low rasp and replied with a slow, hard, and definitely deliberate, clench of internal muscles.

You bastard. Pacing yourself didn’t work well at all, as the best of intentions often did, or so Harry found out in the grip of all that slickness. The sensation flooded all thought out of his mind – Fuckyeahmore! – so he answered that the only way he could. By slamming deeper, faster, nownowNOW! in a wild burst of thrusts. His hand squeezed Severus’ cock: it was nothing so deliberate or calculating as timing his lover’s climax, it was simply something to hold onto. His other arm tightened around Severus’ waist, his face pressed just between the shoulder blades, muffling a howl. It was good that the tent walls weren’t hard, since the headboard shook more than the rattlesnake’s rattle, as Harry’s sweaty, shaking limbs wrapped around Severus for as much contact as he could get, as much as he craved and was allowed to have at last – to keep and never let go – forever, for tonight.

Severus’ slow, measured writhe was gone, escalating to a wild thrashing, lunging back and up, jolting against Harry’s thrusts, working with Harry to get him as deep, get them as hot and as tight and as close to each other as they could come. Gasps, hisses, low breathless moans, raw in the evening hush; all of them said more than words. But none of them spoke as vividly of acceptance and of need, of love, as the immediate, instinctive responsiveness of the body beneath Harry’s; the possessive clasp of tight heat, the throb and pulse of pleasure rocking through his body and pouring from his hard cock into Harry’s hand.

In that moment Harry knew that eye contact wasn’t always essential in Legilimency. Perhaps it was their shared desire, their already joined bodies moving as one, the proximity of Harry’s head pressing into the nape of Severus’ neck, so close, so deep, that helped their thoughts to merge.

Harry saw the memory of that image again: Harry’s own eyes, gazing down at him, just as they’d been captured in that drawing. But what Harry could see now was that the memory went on for much longer than any single drawing could show.

It only started with his eyes. It continued with his smile, and his parted lips, and his ruffled hair: black and cropped, certainly not his mum’s. His hands were there too, in his old Quidditch gloves, grasping a broom handle. His forearms, muscled and smooth; the bare skin of his shoulder, back, thigh. The warmth of his breath, exhaled into kisses. The firmness of his grip, milking liquid bliss from Severus’ cock. The searing ecstasy of his cock, pushing deep into Severus’ body. The sheer breathless need in his cry as he came. As Harry was drawn deeper and deeper inside Severus’ most sacred thoughts, he knew one thing with absolute certainty: Yes, it only started with his eyes.

*

The prettily-patterned red snake looked friendly, sunbathing in the ray of light coming through the gap in the tent flaps. Harry grinned at it. “Shask, right?” he said. “Well, either that or ‘shask’ is food and Severus was talking about feeding time.” He nodded at the rat cage that the shiny snake was spread out over, then glanced at the pale one as it wriggled sideways from under the bed, its ruff of half-shed skin rustling in the dawn hush.

“Morning, Sisha… no, Tsisshah!”

The snake stopped in its sideways tracks and peered up at him, with a blank stare and a Snapeishly pointed eyebrow.

Harry sighed. “I used to be much better at this, believe it or not.”

A short hiss, almost a snort. Harry looked around. The black cobra, sleeping coiled around the tent rope above their heads, looked about as lively as a thick, dark shoestring; it dangled there without even twitching. Not that one then. But Harry could’ve sworn the hiss came from the inside of a teapot on the table, where Harry knew the thick copper-and-gold one one usually hid.

Another hissing snort came from behind him, like a breath muffled in a pillow.

Harry twisted around. Severus’ breathing evened out and he remained perfectly still.

“I know you’re awake!” Harry grinned. “Git. Stop pretending.”

*

“Er, why did the young one – my apologies, Harry – just ask me if my leg is squeaking?” Crooked glanced around questioningly.

“Dunno,” said Hungry, eyeing the caged rat beneath her. “He’s the hot-blooded sunstruck type. They’re sometimes cracked in the shell.”

“But he coils like a cyclone!” Noisy leered and rattled rhythmically.

“Mmm, true. And you know what else?”

“I heard that!” Severus interrupted before their speculations went too far.

“I knew you weren’t sleeping!” Harry declared gleefully. “For one thing, that’s the worst fake snore I’ve ever heard.”

Severus would have hissed at him, but knowing the brat, he’d just use it to further argue his point.

*

Harry strode into the tent and blinked at Severus, “Aren’t you gonna pack?” Harry stared around in disbelief at the shelves, which were as crammed as ever, just with new anti-spill wards over their fronts. “She said we’re leaving at dusk!” He stuck his head out the tent flap. “Fuck, it is dusk! We’ll never get this lot packed in time!”

A loud flapping of canvas from outside caught his attention. The big top was shaking as if it was in the eye of a whirlwind. Lydia’s Inferi were holding onto the ropes all around it as if holding it to the ground, but the roof rippled like white sails. Lydia herself was climbing to the very top of the tent, on the hanging ladder over the tent’s entrance, her skirts blowing in the wind. Before Harry could call out and ask what the crazy crone was up to, she yelled “Anti-Muggle wards are up! Let’s go!”

The big top swayed and billowed even worse than before, even though there was no wind that Harry could feel. Inside, past the lifted entrance flaps, Harry could see a crowd of performers, with all their animals and belongings, and the smaller tents like Harry’s folded away like umbrellas. Suddenly, the big top’s flaps lifted like sails, and the ground underneath it rippled like water then reared up like a wave. With a low tearing sound of thousands of tiny roots, a layer of grass and dirt large enough to support the entire big top peeled away from the earth like a shed snakeskin. The green layer under the big top rippled again, like a restless sea, and rose in the air: a makeshift flying carpet, carrying the entire tent with it.

Harry stood in the doorway of Severus’ tent and gaped, fighting the urge to pinch himself, as the huge tent slowly lifted from the ground: as silent as a cloud, as unlikely as the Durmstrang sailship surfacing in Hogwarts’ lake. Trailing tentpegs and guyropes like a jellyfish’s stingers, the tent lifted higher, wafting like a balloon. The Inferi were still gripping the guyropes, though now they were hanging in midair; dwarfed by distance, they dangled round the skirts of the tent, just like the string of puppets always dangled at Lydia’s skirts.

The other tents, like Severus’, all stayed behind, waiting until the big top was aloft. As Harry watched, one tent then another rose as lazily as soap bubbles, following in the wake of the big top like sailboats after a schooner. Inside their tent the strange contraption of feathers, chimes, mirrors, and a hawk skull (Harry had never guessed the thing’s purpose) began to spin. But no matter which way it turned, the skull faced steadily into the setting sun.

Then Harry felt a firm hand pulling him away from the entrance. The ground under his feet quivered, the chimes on the contraption rang wildly, and a pins-and-needles tingle of magic raced from his feet up through his body. Then their tent lifted off as easily as if it was weightless, buoyed on its own flimsy net of grass and earth and magic.

”Wow!” Harry turned for the tent flap, which was rippling in the breeze as they began to climb. He was determined he was going to see more of this incredible sight: not so much the view from high altitude; he’d seen that before thanks to his Firebolt. But it wasn’t every day, even in the wizarding world, when a bloke could watch a whole armada of flying circus tents.

But Severus didn’t relax that grip on his arm. “Don’t worry.” Harry said gently. “I won’t fall. I’ll just poke my head out.” Severus’ scathing look made him smile, so he added, “I know, I know. I’m still pants at your flying spell, but hey.” His hand rested on Severus’ where it curled round Harry’s arm. “You invented it. So I’m not worried, not even if the tent tips on its side and tries to shake me out. I’ll live. ‘Cause you’re that good at making sure I do.”

Afterwards, they would lie with their heads out over the edge, hair flying and mingling in the breeze, and watch their old landing place dwindle beneath them, marked not by the mundane tracks of trampling feet, but by the cabalistic rings Muggles called ‘crop circles’. Afterwards, they would lie side by side on rippling earth amid a bright canvas flotilla, and watch the shadows of the hills stretch across the green patchwork landscape far below. Afterwards.

For all the flying tents in the world, Harry couldn’t rush to look at them after all, not right away. Not while he could bask in the answering warmth in those depthless eyes.

*

That night, when the gentle sway of their airborne tent began to feel as familiar as the roll of the sea beneath a ship’s keel, as the rhythmic clench of Severus’ fingers in his hair, Harry sat up with a grin and reached into the back pocket of his discarded jeans. He pulled out a Wiz Army pocketknife and flicked it open. A thin blade flickered, catching the moonlight filtering through the canvas of their tent.

Severus watched curiously, as Harry pulled forward at a particularly long braid over his left ear. One slice of the knife and it fell free: a black comet-tail of hair, trailing after a gold bead that gleamed like a snitch. With the casualness only Gryffindors manage to achieve during impulsive gift-giving, Harry pressed it into Severus’ hand. “There,” he announced, “Just ’cause you seem to like it.” He added with a teasing nudge, “Might come in handy if you ever need Polyjuice.”

It startled a bark of a laugh from Severus, but then his face turned contemplative, the dark eyes downcast, fixed on the glossy strands as he twined Harry’s slim serpentine braid around pale fingers. He glanced up, with a slow, wondering headshake.

Harry shrugged. “You liked yanking on it.”

Severus snorted dryly and held out the hand not holding Harry’s gift in a mutely summoning gesture. One of his notebooks flew into that hand and fluttered itself open to a particular page. Severus held the notebook out to Harry, who saw a potion formula in Severus’ familiar angular script: Chamaeleoprevens Concoction. Among the ingredients were the oil of olives grown on the peak of Mt. Olympus, and saffron filaments: a potent colouring agent. The purpose of the potion was to prevent one’s tissue – hair, bodily fluids, even skin flakes – from being useful in Polyjuice.

“Paranoid git. You actually used this one, didn’t you? Probably bathed in it.” Harry snorted as realisation hit. “Hang about, y’mean you were greasy for a reason?”

Bony shoulders lifted in a silent shrug. Severus took Harry’s hand and lifted it to his head: Harry could feel that his hair was oily enough on its own, without needing any applications of potions to add to the grease.

Severus stood on the bed and lifted his hands – one with Harry’s braid in it – and reached for the strange jumble of chimes and bits and pieces hanging over their heads. When Severus touched the contraption, it stopped spinning, and slowly their tent came to a halt as well.

“What’re you doing?” Harry watched him curiously: when Severus had stopped the mysterious contraption Harry had worried a bit about the tent losing altitude, but now it seemed stable enough.

Severus’ fingers moved deftly as he wove Harry’s braid among the crow feathers and chimes and broken mirrors: the gold bead and the curl at the end he arranged like a crown around the hawk skull. As Harry watched Severus’ spidery fingers at work, he noticed that the entire structure was woven together with a web of dark, thin strands: human hair, Severus’ hair, Harry belatedly realised. When Severus was finished, Harry’s braid circled the entire structure, framing it like an ouroboros: an integral part of a greater whole. Severus stood back, studying the entire charm-web narrowly, and then he gave it a tentative spin.

The tent bounced in midair like a balloon with its string yanked: the movement was so abrupt that it made Harry clutch onto Severus out of ingrained broom-rider’s instinct. Afterwards, however, their tent’s movements had lost their former slow, sea-surge: now, the tent soared as lightly as a snitch hovering, as if the thread connecting it to the earth had finally been cut, letting it fly freely at last.

*

‘The Fearless Fliers!’ proclaimed the freshly printed poster, ‘The Greatest Aerialists On Earth And Above It!’ In the picture two dark-haired men soared, the gleaming bar of the trapeze secondary and irrelevant.

Harry hung a copy above their bed. Cheesy as the title sounded, he couldn’t bear to part with it. There was something about their hands reaching toward each other, and their joined gazes, that rang true.

Their opening night was the first time since the end of the war that he’d been greeted with a standing ovation. He was stunned by the audience’s adoring response to such a simple thing. He didn’t even manage it right; he lost concentration during the act, and almost fell. But Severus reached for Harry and grabbed his wrist before he even began to falter: of course Severus wouldn’t let him fall. That was when the gasps and the cries and finally the applause exploded. When Harry’s feet first touched the ground, he stood in the middle of the ring: a bit lost, dazzled by the lights and deafened by the applause, but then Severus’ hand found his. The touch grounded Harry, and he remembered that he probably needed to bow. The crowd was ecstatic, though he wasn’t quite sure why. He supposed he could understand the novelty of it: wizards knew it was impossible to fly without a broom, and Muggles knew it was impossible to fly at all, but never in a million years would he have expected such a reaction.

Perhaps it was more than novelty, more than the magic that wizards commanded every day. It was pure wonder: childhood dreams of flight. It was the joy of seeing people breaking free of gravity’s chains. They watched Harry soar, and they loved him for it. Him, not The Boy Who Lived, but the man they saw flying. Him, and the man he loved: the inventor of the spell, the source of Harry’s own joy. It was as if Harry’s own delight in flight, in life, in love, resonated with everyone in the audience, and they echoed it back in their applause, and it felt brilliant. That joy was part of their legacy now, and Harry reckoned that was what the very best legacies were all about, in the Worldwide Travelling Circus of life.


Inspirations

Snakeling’s prompt: I’d like it if Snape had long-term consequences to his health from his run-in with Nagini.

“CIRCUS, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.” – Ambrose Bierce

“Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” was sung by Groucho Marx in the 1939 movie “At The Circus”.

Contents of Snape’s shelves:

http://www.customcreaturetaxidermy.com/specimens/specimens.html

http://www.customcreaturetaxidermy.com/cryptic/cryptic.html

http://www.customcreaturetaxidermy.com/fantasy/fantasy.html

Circus Acts:

Osca, The Snake Fiend

Hermaphrodites

Human Skeletons

In fact pretty much everything on http://www.showhistory.com was relevant.

The neurosurgeon from Angel, Season 1 Episode 4: “I Fall To Pieces”

http://www.munkyhaus.com/gal_strangegirls.html

Snakes:

Python: “Fhah” – ‘Mother’

 

Cobra: “Sahthiss” – ‘Curious’

 

Rattlesnake: “Szesh” – ‘Noisy’

 

Copperhead: “Hessth” – ‘Curly’

 

Sidewinder: “Tsisshah” – ‘Crooked’

 

Fer-de-lance: “Shask” – ‘Hungry’

 

Common Viper: (picked up from the confrontation) – “Sussith” – ‘Shy’