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Wearing Only a Sneer

Chapter Text

If Harry Potter’s first seven years after joining the wizarding world were characterized by betrayal, hardship, and suffering, her eighth year was surprisingly…sunny. Wholesome. Practically carefree.

It wasn’t that she didn’t still have nightmares and moments when she could barely breathe through the grief that clouded her thoughts. But the whole wizarding world was celebrating its freedom, and the rampant joy and giddiness were infectious. Besides which, Harry only had to glance around to see the fruition of everything that people like Fred and Remus and Tonks had given their lives to protect.

It had been a hard decision to return to school for a final year, but she’d been convinced by someone who'd become very important to her that going back to the only place she’d ever truly called home would be salutary for both her mental health and her overall base of knowledge. Therefore, Harry was spending the year sharing a room with Hermione and studying for her NEWTs, despite the fact that Kingsley Shacklebolt was gnawing at the bit to sign her up for the Auror training program.

Of course, even a year without basilisks, tournaments, or horcruxes was bound to have its hiccups. Such as the day in March that Harry accidentally walked into an empty classroom after Transfiguration to see Lavender Brown engaged in a steamy and thoroughly naked coupling (ahem, tripling) with a seventh year Hufflepuff and a sixth year Ravenclaw.

Harry froze, transfixed in place by the scene. She'd certainly never thought about using a desk that way.

“Sorry!” she blurted when the triad's heads whipped toward her, feeling blood rush to her cheeks. “I didn’t know this classroom was being used. Uh, I’ll just go.”

“It’s that or join in,” the Ravenclaw boy said lazily. Below him, Lavender rolled her eyes.

Harry blanched and fled.

Retreating to the closest girls’ lavatory, Harry secured one of the stalls and sat on the closed toilet lid, her knees drawn up to her chest. She thought about what she’d seen.

Harry and her friends had managed to save Lavender from being killed by Fenrir Greyback in the Final Battle, but not before he’d mauled and infected her.

Provided that she took Wolfsbane, she’d been allowed to return to Hogwarts to finish her NEWT studies, but her behavior had been volatile throughout the year as she adjusted to the change and to the realities of her new status as a second-class citizen.

Harry had tried to be supportive for the girl throughout the year, but it didn’t help that she’d never really liked her. This was their seventh year sharing a dorm, but Harry still felt like she barely knew Lavender, aside from the fact that she was boy-crazy and hated Hermione.

She felt remiss. She’d been busy this year making friends (or at least allies) with old enemies, but she’d never really reached out to the other Gryffindor. It was time to try to remedy that.

~

“Lavender, can I talk to you?” Harry asked tentatively that evening when she saw Lavender studying in a quiet corner of the eighth years’ common room.

The other girl had been running her fingers through her hair with a daydreamy expression on her face, but now she twisted in her chair to face Harry. “What?” she asked flatly.

Harry gathered her courage. She didn’t know why the prospect of this conversation was making her nervous when she'd recently fought a war and even died in it (albeit temporarily), but it was. “Um, I just wanted to apologize for barging in, earlier. And I wanted to make sure that you’re…you know, okay.” Oof, that sounded a lot stupider out loud than it had in Harry’s head.

“You think that seeing me naked means you can butt into my business?” Lavender demanded bluntly.

“We shared a dorm for six years,” Harry felt compelled to point out. “I’ve seen you naked plenty of times.” She took a deep breath, trying not to get distracted from the topic at hand. “But I’m not trying to interfere in your life—it’s just…there were two boys at once—and I’m not saying that’s wrong—but I wanted to make sure that you were taking the right, er, precautions.”

Lavender’s eyes widened. “Well, isn’t this precious?” she chirped. “Princess Potter is going to teach me all about the big bad world of sex.”

Harry frowned. Malfoy used to call her Princess Potter. He’d quit in sixth year for some reason, maybe because that was when life had stopped being a game for him. In any case, she’d always hated the nickname. Between the Dursleys and Voldemort, her life had been nothing like a princess’s. Hell, she hadn’t even worn girls’ clothes until she’d come to Hogwarts and started borrowing Hermione's.

But she couldn’t let the insult rile her temper. She was on a mission. “Lavender, you were having sex in a classroom and you didn't even lock the door," she pointed out in a remarkably even voice, hoping that the other girl might see why her behavior was slightly worrisome. "I just want you to know that I’m here if you ever want to talk—”

Lavender cut her off with a smirk. “Don’t act like you know anything about it," she taunted. "Everyone knows that perfect Potter the virgin thinks she’s too good to let anyone touch her.”

Harry reeled back slightly, blinking. For once, she didn’t have the faintest inkling of a retort.

“Have a lovely evening,” Lavender tossed over her shoulder just before she stood and flounced away.

~

Harry spent the rest of the day and the next night with Lavender’s mocking words ringing in her ears.

It had been such a strange encounter. She didn’t know what to make of it, really. Harry had been the recipient of far worse insults over the years, but this one sort of bothered her. It felt very invasive to have someone else commenting on her sex life (or lack thereof). Was it true that the wizarding world considered her a prude? And far more importantly, were they right?

Harry shook her head. The idea of sex was a bit alarming, but it wasn’t that she didn’t want to have it. At some point. In the future. She supposed that with the right person, it could be…nice. She hoped.

She’d just never had much time for romance or anything like that. Except for the last one, she’d spent every year since she was eleven (every year since she was born, to tell the truth) under threat from a megalomaniac and his followers. She wasn’t an idiot: if she’d been captured by the Death Eaters at any point, she’d fully expected to be raped as well as tortured. And if having that hanging over her head didn’t make a girl want to clap her legs shut and focus on other things, she didn’t know what would.

But now she didn’t have that excuse, she supposed. Voldemort was dead, dust on the wind. Those Death Eaters who’d survived the Final Battle had been rounded up and imprisoned, with a few notable exceptions like Malfoy, who'd been pardoned because he hadn't actually killed anyone and because he'd been underage when he took the Mark. She was eighteen, an adult by both wizarding and muggle standards, free of the Dursleys and financially independent. So what was holding Harry back from experiencing that aspect of life?

She didn’t want to wait so long that she got scared of sex and couldn’t do it when the time came. No, it would be better just to get her first time over with so that she could figure out how (and if) everything worked. If she even liked that sort of thing.

She bit her lower lip and scrubbed a hand through her eternally messy curls. It was after classes the day following the Lavender disaster (as she’d mentally termed it), and she’d been sitting and brooding about this for almost an hour in an alcove near the dungeons.

It would be pointless to wait to find true love or some rot like that before she had sex—but it would be equally pointless to throw herself at the first person she saw. She could end up getting hurt if she did that. No, she needed to be smart about this. If she was going to lose her virginity, she would have to do it on her own terms.

But she might need some help figuring out what her own terms were.

Finally resolved, Harry climbed to her feet and headed to the library to find her best friend.

Chapter Text

“The methodical way to approach this,” Hermione Granger said, tapping a quill against her lower lip, “would be to come up with a list of characteristics that attract you.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Harry agreed with a suitably serious expression.

When Harry had initially found Hermione in the library and explained the situation (under heavy silencing charms), the other girl had not exactly been on board with the plan. “Harry,” she’d said worriedly, “I know that virginity is a construct that we invest with entirely too much social significance—but I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret.”

“Do you regret having sex with Ron?” Harry had asked in return, lifting a judgmental eyebrow. Hermione’s relationship with Ron had been growing steadily since they’d finally acknowledged their feelings.

Her friend had flushed. “No, I like it. Quite a bit, actually. But I just don’t want to see you get hurt!”

“That’s why I’m asking for your help,” Harry had insisted patiently. She had to make Hermione see where she was coming from. “Why do you think I’m less likely to get hurt if I leave this up to chance?” She stuck out a surly lower lip. “I’m never going to be able to meet a random bloke and fall in love without him thinking of me as the bloody Girl Who Lived. He'll have this idea of me, but he won’t really know me.” She ducked her chin. "And there's even a chance he'd run to the Prophet afterwards."

Harry could tell by the newly pensive cast to Hermione’s expression that her friend was starting to cave. “I want to get it over with, Hermione,” she added softly. “Just once so it’s out of the way, and I won’t have my virginity as a barrier to doing what I want in the future. Think of it as a learning experience; you of all people ought to know that ignorance is dangerous.” She took a deep breath. “And if we pick the right person, they’ll understand where I’m coming from. It’ll all be fine.”

It had taken another hour of careful persuasion before Hermione had agreed to help—although the other witch had laid heavy emphasis on the fact she was only going along with the scheme in order to make sure Harry didn’t, to be blunt, “fuck everything up.”

The next day was Saturday, thankfully. Since all of the returning eighth years had been housed separately from the younger students and paired off for their sleeping arrangements in private rooms, the two witches convened in their shared bedroom after breakfast. Harry loved their room, although half of it was so full of towers of books that she was constantly leery of knocking one over on her way to the shower. She’d known for years that Hermione was as disorganized in her personal space as she was meticulous in her mental one. Harry’s half of the room, on the other hand, was fairly neat—although this was largely due to a general lack of possessions rather than a natural inclination toward orderliness.

Hermione had perched on the edge of the red duvet on her bed as they got settled, and Harry took the window seat. The eighth years’ dorm was no Gryffindor tower, but it did have a great view of the lake. She pressed her face against the glass that was warming with the morning sunlight and smiled out at a group of firsties standing on the lakeshore who shrieked at the sudden appearance of the Giant Squid.

As Hermione unrolled a long yellow parchment that was already demarcated by neat lines of notes, Harry could see that her friend’s misgivings were giving way to the delight of having a complex new project to tackle. She knew that she was right when Hermione looked up with a gleam in her eyes and asked, “Boy?”

Harry’s eyebrows flew upward. So they were jumping right into it, then. “Or man," she corrected. She tilted her head and swallowed a tad nervously. "I think so, anyway.”

Hermione put down her quill at that, a small line appearing between her eyebrows. “You’re not sure?”

Harry stared at her friend. “Er, no?” Should she be? As she'd explained to Hermione yesterday, she'd actively tried to avoid thinking about sex and romance during her adolescence. Was it really a surprise that she hadn’t fully explored her own preferences?

“That’s perfectly normal, Harry,” Hermione said in a soothing voice. “In fact, according to the Kinsey scale, the majority of people are bisexual to some degree. Have you noticed yourself being attracted to women?”

Harry scrubbed at the bridge of her nose, momentarily surprised not to find her glasses there. She'd gone to a Muggle optometrist in London to get contacts over the Christmas holiday, but the absence of her familiar round spectacles still took her off guard sometimes. “I like it when people are confident,” she explained eventually. “I don’t know if gender matters that much to me, all in all.”

Hermione made a note of “confident” on her parchment. “Well,” she said carefully, “if you’d rather it be a girl—or woman—you could always ask Ginny. She’s done her share of experimenting, and I’m sure she’d agree.” Her lips quirked into the tiniest of smirks. “She’s very confident.”

Harry let out a cough. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she answered dryly.

“Good.” Nothing if not efficient, Hermione glanced down at her parchment again and added, “So we now know that we don’t have to restrict you to one side of the spectrum, though we’ll stick primarily with males unless you decide otherwise. Does that sound acceptable?”

Harry nodded in relief. “Yeah. So what’s next?”

“Personality,” Hermione enunciated crisply, sitting up straighter.

“Well, I do want him to have one,” Harry deadpanned.

Hermione snorted. “Hush, you. I’ve prepared a list of forty questions to help you discover what personal qualities attract you. Are you ready to begin?”

Harry felt a wash of affection for her friend. This was the person she’d come to when she was thirteen and panicking about menstruating for the first time; instead of offering platitudes, Hermione had given her an instructive hour-long lecture on the mechanics of human reproduction.

Harry grinned, thinking that her friend showed affection in a very unique way. “Ask away.”

"Very well..." Hermione cleared her throat. “Would your ideal partner be more likely to attend a party or spend the night at home in private pursuits? And depending on your answer, why?”

~

After two hours of interrogation, Harry and Hermione were now sure of eleven attributes that she wanted the person with whom she lost her virginity to possess:

-Confidence
-A sense of humor, preferably sarcastic
-Intelligence
-Loyalty
-Passion for their chosen field
-Courage
-Personal grace
-Prior sexual experience (so that at least one of the pair would actually know what they were doing)
-Not being overly invested in the opinions of others or in the troll dung printed by the Daily Prophet
-As Hermione put it, “The ability to see the real, deeply flawed Harry Potter rather than the slayer of evil overlords”

And, most importantly,

-Someone who Harry trusted implicitly.

She’d also realized that, in terms of appearance, she’d prefer someone who was taller than her (which didn't do much to limit the pool of applicants, as almost everyone was taller than her), wasn't too muscly, and had longer hair. At least, she knew that when she was falling asleep, she sometimes imagined how nice it would feel to card her hands through soft, dark strands…

As Hermione wrote busily, the tip of her tongue stuck out of the side of her mouth. “Do you think that’s enough?” Harry wondered once the other witch’s hand finally slowed from its mad scribbling.

Hermione put the quill down and stretched her fingers out, probably to alleviate a cramp. “I think it’s enough to be going on with for now,” she agreed thoughtfully. “Let me know if you think of anything else, though. Now we just need to compare these attributes to a list of people we know.”

Harry gave a dramatic sigh. “Ah, how romantic.”

Hermione straightened her back primly. “This method is efficient and practically guaranteed to get the best results, Harry. I fail to see what isn’t romantic about that.”

Harry stretched her leg out across the distance between them to poke her friend with her toe. “You’re getting soft, Granger.”

Hermione rolled her eyes and unrolled a new parchment, this one appearing to contain a list of names. She scanned through them rapidly. “George Weasley,” she clipped out. "He's confident, smart, experienced, and practically overflowing with humor."

Harry didn't have to think about this decision. She shook her head. “I do like George, but it wouldn't feel right," she explained. The twins had always flirted with her shamelessly, but George was still grieving over Fred, and she didn't want to put an additional burden on his shoulders.

Hermione gave her a sharp look. “I’ll mark him as a negative. Neville?”

“Erm, no.”

“He’s been a lot more confident, lately,” Hermione pointed out. "And he's certainly passionate about plants."

“But it’s Neville,” Harry countered. Though she acknowledged that Neville had grown surprisingly handsome over the years, she would never be able to think of him as anything other than a friend. "Plus, isn't he dating Hannah Abbot?"

“Point," Hermione conceded. "All right, Charlie Weasley?”

Harry stared at her friend. “What is with you and Weasleys? Charlie, George, Ginny—since you’ve got your own, do you want me to have one too?”

Hermione looked very flustered at that. “No!" she protested. "It’s just that there are so many of them! And they were in the Order, so you know you can trust them…” She trailed off in embarrassment.

Harry stabbed a finger in her friend’s direction. “You'd better not try to set me up with Percy.”

Hermione blinked at her, then looked down and crossed a name off of her list.

“Dean.”

“No.”

“Seamus.”

No.

“Lee Jordan.”

“Negatory, mi capitan.”

And so it went.

“Well,” Hermione said, twelve names later, “that’s it for the obvious Gryffindors. I guess let’s move on to Ravenclaw?”

Harry tilted her head, suddenly feeling a bit dreamy. “Luna, maybe. She’s so loyal and brave.”

Hermione made a choking noise. “I’ll mark her down.”

~

“I assume that we can skip the Slytherins?”

Harry chewed her lower lip. They’d blown through Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff with lackluster results, but something was telling her not to discount the house of snakes entirely.

“Well, Malfoy’s been less of a git since the war…” she mused.

Hermione narrowed her eyes. “No. I unconditionally veto that train of thought, Harolda Lily Potter.”

Harry batted her eyelashes and rotated the ankle that was crossed over her left knee idly. “But ‘Mione, his hair looks so soft.”

The wrinkle between Hermione’s eyebrows deepened. They stared at each other.

Harry was the first to break, her face splitting into a toothy grin. Hermione snorted in relief, saying, “That wasn't funny, Harry. Let’s move on.”

~

Two hours later, the sun had sunk beyond the horizon outside and Hermione had reached her wit's end.

“I’m so sorry!" she sobbed. "I'm awful at this. We've barely found two people you've considered! Maybe I'm just too…too clinical in my approach. I want to help you, but you know that emotion and romance aren’t my forte…”

"I'm sorry too, ‘Mione," Harry soothed. She stood and took her friend’s hand, lacing their fingers together and tugging Hermione to her feet. "You’re doing a great job—you know I’d have bolloxed this whole thing up without you, right? Let’s just stop for now and go down to dinner, okay?”

“Okay,” the other witch sniffed.

The Great Hall was boisterous when they arrived, the evening meal already fully served. After they made their way to the Gryffindor table, Hermione slipped into an empty seat next to Ron while Harry took one across from them, next to Neville.

“Where’ve you girls been all day?” Ron wondered through a mouthful of mushy peas.

Harry said, “Project,” at the same time as Hermione sniffed, “Studying.” They shared a look.

“Hermione was helping me catch up on studying,” Harry amended. She didn’t want to lie to Ron, but now wasn’t the time or the place to tell him what they'd been doing. Especially since he’d probably think the whole thing was barmy. She turned to the young man beside her. “How’s it going, Nev?”

Neville lit up. "Great, Harry! Thanks for asking."

As Neville started chatting happily about his latest adventures in advanced Herbology, Harry made appropriate noises of amusement and interest, but found her attention wandering over her surroundings.

The Great Hall looked much as it had when she was younger, with brightly colored banners hanging over each House’s table, plates that magically and rapidly jockeyed for position, and even a few cavorting ghosts. From this vantage point, it might even have been impossible to tell that a horrible battle had been fought within these walls.

Harry had been occasionally struck by a sense of displacement throughout the year, sort of like the feeling of waking up in a familiar bedroom to see the furniture rearranged. Hogwarts was home and she loved it ferociously, but she'd fought and killed and died here; she'd witnessed the castle's familiar stones host a nightmare. She'd done terrible things. It made her stomach clench to think of it, and she would temporarily lose track of where she was--or, more accurately, who she was: the first-year wearing Dudley's hand-me-downs and feeling like she actually belonged somewhere for the first time? The fifth-year fighting fiercely against Umbridge and Occlumency? The seventeen-year-old watching the Weasleys close ranks around Fred's body?

And on top of that unsettling feeling of being unsure of her age and current spot in the timeline, it felt sort of weird to be sitting here in the middle of all of these gabbing people who she’d just been considering sleeping with. Harry shivered, glancing from face to face surreptitiously. As the exhaustive list that day had proved, she didn’t really want to have sex with any of her peers, even the ones who she considered close friends.

Huffing and shaking her head to clear it, Harry shot a stray glance toward the head table—only to encounter the scrutiny of a pair of black eyes. When she received a sardonic eyebrow lift for her attention, she gave a half-smile in return, feeling a bit better.

Hermione hadn’t talked to Harry at all during the meal, but as they were leaving the Great Hall, she brushed against Harry’s shoulder and murmured, “Maybe we just need to widen our search parameters.” She had a very strange expression on her face.

~

Harry was in Grimmauld Place. She knew it by the gloominess and the rows of heads mounted along the windowless walls. Only they weren’t the heads of deceased house elves, now; instead, the sightless eyes of everyone who’d died in the war stared down at her, their skin grey and waxen. Sirius. Her parents. Dumbledore. Cedric. Dobby. Fred. Hedwig. Mad-Eye Moody. Colin Creevy. Remus. Tonks. Bellatrix Lestrange. Voldemort himself.

Voldemort's head was the only one that wasn’t definitely dead. Leering at her with his cold and predatory eyes, the Dark Lord's head started to snake its way out of the wall, his shoulders and arms and torso appearing despite the mounting plate still around his neck. Harry had drawn her wand, but it was lifeless in her hand, no more use against an attack than a television remote. When Voldemort managed to slither down to the floor, she turned and ran, her breath scraping harshly from her lungs.

Not knowing where the hall led, she found herself darting around a maze of corners, the windowless walls of the Ancestral House of Black closing in, tightening around her, intent to swallow her alive. No wonder Sirius had only gone half-mad in Azkaban: he'd probably developed an immunity to it after living here as a child.

Just when she thought she should stop running and listen for pursuit, Harry felt strong arms catch her. She wrestled them off and spun around to see Lavender Brown grinning at her with a wolf-like dusting of silver hair over her features and a wooden mounting plate around her own neck. "It's all the fashion, Harry," she cooed, giving the wood a tug.

And then Voldemort exploded the wall next to them while hissing a spell in Parseltongue and brandishing the Elder Wand, and Harry had been flung to the relative safety of consciousness.

She lay in her bed for a number of minutes, gasping for breath and returning to herself.

It was just before daybreak, so at least she’d gotten most of a night’s rest. Swinging blearily to her feet, she stumbled into the small en-suite shower to wash off her drying sweat, scrubbing perhaps too viciously in an effort to ground herself in being here, at Hogwarts, alive when Voldemort was definitely dead. As were so many others, but she wouldn’t think about that right now. She hadn’t had a panic attack since the summer. She wasn’t going to have one hunched here at the bottom of her shower with hot water running in a curtain down her curved back.

Eventually, Harry was able to straighten and shut off the taps. She saw once she’d gotten dressed and drawn the bedroom curtain that the world outside was grey and colorless, suiting her mood.

Had the nightmare been brought on by the list she’d made with Hermione yesterday? She remembered the shiver of unease she’d felt in the Great Hall last night. All of the reasons she’d given Hermione for wanting to get the whole sex thing out of the way were still valid, but…maybe she was being rash. Impetuous. Arrogant, even, in her assumption that whoever she propositioned would willingly agree to the task.

Despite herself, one corner of Harry's mouth lifted. Gee, didn’t describing herself with that list of traits sound familiar? Three guesses as to who the voice in her head sounded like, and the second two didn't count.

Harry had gotten into the habit of rising early this year so that she could take a long shower, stretch, and maybe visit the kitchens before classes started if she didn’t want to have breakfast in the Great Hall. Since she was already awake, she figured that she might as well adhere to the last part of that routine. The elves always cheered her up, even though they inevitably reminded her of Dobby’s final resting place by the sea.

As she was making her way through the eighth years’ empty common room, however, Hermione barged through the portrait hole. “Harry! I need to talk to you,” she gasped.

Harry blinked muzzily at her friend’s wild hair and slightly red eyes. “Did you stay up all night?” she demanded. She’d noticed that Hermione wasn’t in bed that morning, but she’d thought that perhaps she'd just wanted to get an extra early start on studying. Attacking the NEWT curriculum was one of Hermione’s ways of coping with the psychological trauma of the tent and Horcrux hunting and being tortured last year.

Now, Hermione waved a hand dismissively. “I slept for two hours. That’s not important.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve found someone who meets your criteria.” She stared into Harry’s eyes as if trying to convey a coded message. “All of your criteria.”

Harry didn’t have the enthusiasm for this revelation this morning that she might have had last night, but her eyes still widened. “You have?”

Hermione gave a sharp nod. “But you might not like it,” she hedged, suddenly looking hesitant.

Harry testily scrubbed a hand through her hair. “Hermione, just tell me!”

Hermione exhaled loudly, her lips pressing into a thin line. “Severus Snape,” she said.

Chapter Text

“Severus Snape,” said Hermione.

Harry stared at her best friend. “Snape?” she repeated dumbly. “Snape?

Thoughts riding a surge of adrenaline, she pictured the list of attributes she found attractive, mentally tallying the items against the irascible Potions Master. Hermione was right: each one matched, almost as if the list had been tailor-made.

She felt herself growing pale. “Well, shit.”

“Right.” After giving Harry an assessing look, Hermione took her firmly by the shoulders. “I think you need some chocolate.”

Harry followed her friend in a kind of daze as she bustled through the mostly empty castle to the portrait outside the kitchen. After giving the pear a business-like tickle to open the entrance, Hermione greeted the house elves politely and requested two cups of hot cocoa, if it wasn’t too much trouble. In the distant, non-hazy part of her mind, Harry was rather touched by Hermione temporarily putting aside her dislike of the elves’ servitude in order to take care of her.

The elves, as always, were ecstatic to comply. In what seemed like no time at all (although Harry wasn’t exactly the best judge of that at the moment), Hermione was helping her sit at a table near the kitchen’s back wall and putting a steaming cup of cocoa with whipped cream in front of her. “Drink this,” she commanded gently.

After the first few sips, the mingled bitterness of the chocolate and the sweetness of the cream finally registered on Harry's tongue. Sitting across from her, Hermione had been nursing her own drink and watching Harry closely, likely realizing that anything she said while Harry was still in shock would be ignored. Harry put down her mug and took a deep breath of the warm, yeasty kitchen air. “Hermione, I—I can’t think of him like that,” she whispered.

But that wasn’t exactly true, was it? With a surge of something that felt sort of like heat, Harry fell into a rush of memories.

She remembered their first class together, how the reek of potions ingredients had both repelled and enticed her. She remembered watching him with suspicion throughout the year. She didn’t trust him didn’t trust him didn’t trust him.

She remembered Snape demanding that she be expelled after she crashed Mr. Weasley’s car into the Whomping Willow. She remembered her heart stuttering when he caught her in the dark with the Marauders’ Map. She remembered him jumping between her and a werewolf, his robes swirling outward like a dark shield, his black eyes radiating fury. She didn’t trust him. She didn’t. She didn’t trust him.

She remembered learning he’d been a spy for Dumbledore, ready (if not eager) to return to the duplicitous position after Voldemort’s return. She remembered finding a battered copy of the Muggle novel Jane Eyre under a loose floorboard in Grimmauld Place the summer before fifth year and having to stop reading when she found out that it was a romance between Jane (a black-haired and unwanted orphan who she’d naturally been picturing as herself) and Mr. Rochester (an intelligent, severe, arrestingly un-handsome gentleman who she’d just as naturally been picturing as Snape). (And then she'd taken it with her to school and finished reading it later, of course.) She remembered the cruelty of his attacks during Occlumency lessons, leaving her retching and shivering and still stubbornly unwilling to learn. She remembered the wave of remorse and mortification that she’d felt after invading his Pensieve.

She remembered the knowledgeable, sarcastic scrawl of the Half-Blood Prince, always exuding an alienation that echoed her own, the loneliness of bearing a burden she could never truly share. She remembered how, when she'd watched Snape lecture on the Dark Arts, sometimes everything on her body would tighten until her skin was a mess of goose pimples and she'd lost her breath. She remembered dreams that she’d almost managed to forget of a sallow and friendless fifteen-year-old boy. She didn’t didn’t didn’t trust him.

But then it had turned out that she had trusted him, because she’d felt such a wave of betrayal when he’d killed Dumbledore. She’d been incandescent with the rage of it.

She remembered feeling cold hate whenever she thought of him presiding over Hogwarts in the next year. She remembered how everything about her that year had been cold, how the chill and the locket and the exhaustion and the hunger had been interfering with the clarity of her thoughts. And then there’d been the silver doe. She remembered how tailing Snape’s Patronus (it was so beautiful, she’d have followed it as deep into the forest as it was willing to lead) had been the first time in months that she hadn’t felt hopeless and miserable.

She remembered seeing Snape bleeding to death and leaking memories on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. She remembered staring into unfocusing black eyes in response to a harshly whispered, “Look at me.” And that, she remembered, was when she’d been struck by a very strange realization: she’d known in her core that she had to save him. It was one of those convictions that came to her without the possibility of being explained or questioned. So she’d done it: greasy lying Death Eater that he was, she’d Apparated him to the Headmaster’s office (Voldemort’s wandwork had taken down the anti-Apparition wards) and used the potions stores she found on hand to staunch the flow of blood and counteract the venom. She'd learned a lot of what to do from the Half-Blood Prince, appropriately enough.

She remembered the wave of utter relief (sympathy, vindication) that she’d felt when she finally managed to stabilize him and took a break to look at his memories. When she’d learned where Snape’s loyalties truly lay, it was as if her heart, which had become a weak fluttering thing in her chest over the course of the year, had awakened and crowed back to life. It had felt as if something that had been terribly wrong with the world was suddenly right after all.

She remembered how that feeling of rightness had given her strength as she walked to her death.

And then, she remembered, had come that harsh summer after the war, when she’d been going mad (she was willing to admit it now) with guilt and grief and working herself ragged repairing Hogwarts, helping Andromeda Tonks take care of the newly orphaned Teddy Lupin, and launching a campaign to clear Snape’s name. She’d finally achieved the last by giving interviews exclusively to the Quibbler and other minor news outlets until the Prophet agreed to portray him as a hero. It was a gamble that could have backfired, but it didn’t. And then when Snape had been tried in absentee before the Wizengamot, she’d appeared as a witness and argued passionately and strategically for his innocence. She remembered that she'd felt more light-headed than triumphant when he’d finally been exonerated.

Snape, of course, had been in a coma throughout the process. She remembered visiting his room in St. Mungo’s every other day to watch for changes and badger him to wake up, something that he’d thankfully never shown any sign of recalling. She remembered how, when he’d finally awakened in mid-July, she’d kept visiting during his recovery. Most often, they sat in surly silence together, but it was so nice sometimes to stretch out on his window seat and finally sleep. She remembered how Snape had seemed surprised by her, whether it was by her changed appearance (she’d been starving for most of the previous year, after all) or her altered behavior toward him. He'd been deeply uncomfortable, wary, and short-tempered, but also sort of...careful with her. If she’d expected their relationship to suddenly be fluffy cakes and roses, she would have been sorely mistaken--but it wasn't the poison that it had been before the war ended. It was something new.

She remembered how, one day when he’d discovered that she was waffling about going back to Hogwarts to finish her schooling, he’d turned his head against the pillow and snapped, “Miss Potter, loath as I am to endure your asinine misadventures for another year...the familiar structure will do you good. Return.”

She remembered how this had filled her with warmth.

And she remembered how, once she’d gone back to school, she would meet Snape’s eyes as he scowled his way through the corridors and idly wonder how he’d react to seeing her without her glasses. And then she’d asked Hermione to look into the easiest way for her to get contact lenses…

She remembered his hands, their fingers so pale and stained and graceful. She remembered his beaky nose, as uncompromising as his sharp tongue. She remembered the calculated billows of his cloak around his slender form. She remembered the sheen of his hair, black as octopus ink. She remembered his sneer.

Oh Merlin, his sneer—

Unaware of Harry’s parade of earth-shattering revelations, Hermione had started to talk again.

“Oh, I knew you would feel that way," she was saying in answer to Harry's protest. "I’m sorry to have brought it up." She gave a slightly hysterical snort of laughter. "Even if Professor Snape does match your list, he has plenty of personality traits that would negate the ones you like—not to mention that he’s twenty years older than you, so that would certainly disqualify him. Plus you and he have such a history as enemies—really, now I realize how ridiculous it was to even mention—”

“I’ll do it,” Harry interrupted, putting down her mug.

“—him, seeing where it’s got us, so maybe we should pretend I didn’t even say it... Wait, what?”

“I’ll do it,” Harry repeated firmly. “Snape’s the one. I want him to take my virginity.”

Hermione let out a series of quasi-verbal squeaks, her brown eyes widening in consternation. “Harry! How can you—I mean, he’s…he’s such a…”

Harry nodded. “A bastard, yes, but he’s also the bravest man I’ve ever known.” She cocked her head. “And he’s passionate and intense and loyal and brilliant and sort of funny, if you look at it sideways.”

Letting go of her mug, Hermione smacked the table with one hand. “Your Headmaster! I was going to say he’s your Headmaster, Harry!”

“Only for another three months,” Harry protested. She didn’t know why, but she felt quite calm, all of a sudden. It was like how she’d felt when she'd found out Snape had been on her side all along--everything snapping into place.

Hermione grabbed a fistful of her bushy hair and yanked it, looking like she was ready to tear it out. “He was in love with your mother!” she hissed.

Harry stared at her friend, the sounds of the house elves' busy chatter finally coming to the forefront of her awareness again as a roaring in her ears. Right. Her mother. Right.

Now that Hermione had finally broken through Harry's bubble of certainty, there seemed to be no stopping her. “And do you think this would be fair to Professor Snape?" she asked in the voice she used when she was trying to be tactful but was actually steaming mad. "Aside from whatever he felt for your mother and the guilt from being partially responsible for her death, he’s known you since you were eleven. He probably doesn’t even see you as an adult yet! And I know he’s been protecting you all these years, but he never seemed to like you as a person—and don’t tell me it was all an act for his role as a spy, because I won’t believe you. But even besides that, Professor Snape would likely see this as taking advantage of you and violating his position, and he wouldn’t do that. He’s an honorable man.”

Harry took a deep breath and let it out steadily. “You’re right, Hermione,” she said. “Snape is an honorable man—and that’s why I want it to be him.” Harry stared down at the table, not really seeing it. “You’re probably right about everything,” she admitted quietly. “And maybe this isn’t fair to him—but I… It just feels right.” She looked up fiercely. “You know I’ve always trusted my instincts. It feels right, so I have to try.”

Still dismayed, Hermione stared at her. “Oh, Harry,” she finally said.

“I have to try,” Harry repeated, finishing the dregs of her chocolate, her fingers tight around the mug.

~

Of course, Harry’s calm had deserted her by the time she went to bed that night. What had she been thinking? Wanting to ask for that—with Snape—oh Merlin…

She'd been tossing and turning in bed for an hour, her breath short and her stomach feeling like it was full of wriggling maggots. Her thoughts were circling each other endlessly. What if he refused? Godric's tits, what if he accepted?

She could hear Hermione's gentle snores from the next bed over, but the sounds of another person sleeping nearby did nothing to comfort her tonight. God, she'd gotten herself in deep with this. Snape being Snape, she knew that the most likely outcome of her request was an absolute refusal, perhaps with a side of threatened expulsion (or worse, patronizing kindness that fit Snape as shoddily as a cheap Muggle suit). And why shouldn't he say no? Severus Snape was a grown man and a hero. He'd dedicated himself to the light, all the while expecting those he was fighting for to never see him as anything but evil. Snape had faced darkness every day and had the courage to take it into himself. He'd walked the razor’s edge and bore its scars.

Harry, meanwhile, was just...well, a teenage girl with a crush, it seemed. And it wasn’t as if she had any particular physical charms to counteract their poisonous history. She was scrawny, her hair was untamable, and her body would never really be feminine. Not like what she’d seen of her mother’s, or…or Narcissa Malfoy’s, or someone like that.

She wasn’t even particularly talented. Well, she was good at flying. And surviving. And defeating Dark Lords. Sort of. She’d gotten phenomenally lucky, and she’d had so many people’s grim and dauntless help along the way.

She knew that she would survive being rejected, but she didn't want to be. What had started out as a simple attempt to gain some knowledge had taken on its own life within her, catching fire. She pressed her thighs together and moaned into her pillow, glad that Hermione was still so exhausted from last night's research jag that she wouldn't wake at anything short of a scream.

Rolling onto her back again, Harry noticed that a stray strand of moonlight was illuminating the figurine that she'd hung on one of her bedposts. It was a talisman, a small, black carving of a raven that had been given to her by a young elf in gratitude for the part she'd played in the war. She thought it was beautiful, so she'd hung it on twine and wrapped that around her bedpost so that it could watch over her slumbers.

Standing up on the mattress to untwine it, she realized that, had she ever thought about it (which she hadn't), she would have expected Snape's Patronus to be a raven--intelligent, jeering, graceful, defensive, tricky. Loyal to the nest.

Clutching the raven figurine to her chest, she felt a sharp pain in her hand, but dismissed it. Falling back onto the sheets, she curled herself around the talisman and finally drifted to sleep.

She didn't realize that its beak had pricked her palm, a drop of blood welling against the skin.

Chapter Text

Harry had never been much of a one for planning. She could do it when she had to, but her real strength lay in thinking on her feet and adapting to shifting circumstances. That was why she’d been so lucky to become friends with Ron, who had a decent grasp of strategy, and Hermione, who was brilliant at sifting through piles of facts to find the important patterns.

Her two closest friends weren’t going to be able to help her with this particular problem, though. She hadn’t told Ron about the project to begin with (and she certainly wasn’t going to spill the beans now that she’d fixated on Snape), and Hermione was still trying to make Harry see reason and call the whole thing off.

Harry could see reason; she was just set on ignoring it.

There was one thing she did know instinctively, though: she couldn’t approach Snape while they were in the castle. At Hogwarts, he would never agree.

But it wasn’t like she could just invite the man for a weekend jaunt to Diagon Alley or some other neutral territory.

This whole thing was so thorny. Harry was determined to go through with her request, but she’d just have to be patient and wait for the right opportunity.

Which was almost unbearable, since she’d never been much of a one for patience, either.

~

Unexpectedly, the right opportunity appeared the following Friday after classes when she spotted Snape leaving the Entrance Hall with a basket slung over one arm.

“Collecting potions ingredients, Professor?” she called. Stumbling down the stairs to meet him from where she’d been following at a covert distance, she gave him what she hoped was a winning smile. “Can I help? You don’t even have to give me detention.”

Snape turned to her with a sour expression. “Shouldn’t you be studying, Miss Potter?” he asked silkily.

Harry bounced on her feet. “Oh, I’m ahead right now. I’ve really been applying myself this year.” Be convinced be convinced be convinced, she thought, trying to project innocent intentions.

Snape had rolled his eyes, but opened the door and gestured for her to precede him outside. Harry breathed a quiet sigh of relief, glad that they’d reached a truce this year that would let him accept her company.

They made their way to the Forbidden Forest in silence.

It was fair weather, for late March in Scotland. Still, Harry was glad that she’d worn her thicker cloak that morning. She was still pants at heating charms, and she’d be shivering without it. Snape, of course (she cast a glance at his profile out of the corner of her eye), looked like he’d be impervious to hail during a blizzard. She bit her lower lip, trying not to smile.

Once they were beneath the leafy canopy of the trees, Snape gave her a terse series of directions regarding what to look for and where to find it. Harry attempted to be a useful assistant, though Herbology had never been her best subject. However, she suspected that Snape actually enjoyed berating her for making mistakes like picking feverfew instead of white horehound—so that was all right. At some point, Harry realized, she’d started to find Snape’s insults oddly amusing. Maybe it was because she didn’t think they stemmed from a personal vendetta anymore so much as Snape’s ingrained perfectionism.

At least the exercise of bending and yanking out plants by their roots or clipping off their buds was clearing her head. She’d been jumpy all week, watching the Headmaster’s movements as closely as she could without arousing suspicion. The loamy smell of damp earth filling her nostrils and the sharp cold biting against her skin was settling her fears, and the same calm was starting to blanket her as she’d felt when she first made her decision.

When they’d been at it for an hour and the light was starting to go, Harry steeled herself to act. Snape would take them back to the castle, soon—so it was now or never.

Ignoring the pounding of her heart, she turned to face Snape’s bent back.

She needed to get his attention, but she suddenly felt flustered about what to call him. Sir just wasn’t on, and she didn’t want to call him Professor and remind him of their relative positions. His first name still felt absolutely forbidden, which left… “Er, Snape?” Hopefully he didn’t think she was being disrespectful.

The man straightened to stare at her, the light catching the faded scars on the right side of his neck and turning them the dusky color of wine.

When it became clear that he wasn’t going to speak, Harry licked her lips. “Um, I have something to ask you. A favor.” She swallowed.

Snape’s eyebrows drew down. “Does it have anything to do with the fact that you’ve been hounding my footsteps all week?” he drawled.

Harry met his eyes. “Oh. Yeah.” Of course he’d noticed her strange behavior. She couldn't even find it in herself to be very embarrassed by that. “It’s kind of big, though,” she clarified, still hesitant to get to the point.

“Again, note my utter lack of shock.” Snape’s tone was dry enough to spark kindling. “Well, Miss Potter? Contrary to what certain Gryffindors may believe, I don’t have all day.”

Harry took a deep breath. Into battle, then.

“I would like for you to have sex with me.”

Funny—Harry had never seen the Potions Master rendered speechless before. She tamped down on the sudden, giddy urge to laugh. Perhaps that meant they were off to a good start.

All thoughts to that end, of course, were dashed from her head when he grabbed her shoulder and aimed his wand at her chest. “Finite Incantatem,” the professor said tightly.

Harry shook her head, still filled with nervous amusement. “I’m not under a spell.”

The truth of her words was verified when nothing happened. Snape drew back slightly. “Stick out your tongue,” he commanded.

“It’s not a love potion, either,” she protested, fisting her hands on her hips.

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

Obliging him grudgingly, Harry opened her mouth to show him the muscle in question. She yanked it back and clamped her lips closed as soon as he started glaring at it.

Taking her arm in a tight grip, Snape began pulling her forward. She trotted along beside him, not asking whether they were going deeper into the forest or back to the castle. She didn’t care, as long as he’d stopped believing that her request was made under the influence of magic.

Their direction soon became clear when the trees thinned and Harry caught sight of Ravenclaw tower. Spotting it too, Snape let go just as suddenly as he’d grabbed her, dropping her arm as if it were infectious. “How could you possibly want to…want to…” he spluttered.

Feeling emboldened, Harry lifted an eyebrow. “Fuck you?” she finished.

Snape jerked back.

Erm. Perhaps being that coarse hadn’t been the best idea. Before she could do anything to temper her word choice, however, he was back, standing even closer this time and hissing, “Legilimens!” His wand was pointed at her temple, though she doubted he really needed it.

She let him in.

The first thing he found was her unpleasant encounter with Lavender. The other girl jeering, “Princess Potter...”

Then he brought her conversations with Hermione to the fore. The careful description of qualities she found attractive; the list of eligible suitors, for lack of a better term. Hermione’s early morning revelation. Harry’s instant decision.

Harry could feel the professor’s impatience and derision in her mind, and now he was moving on to something else—the night after she’d realized that it had to be Snape who took her virginity, when she’d lain in the dark thinking of him… How her skin had felt so fevered, uncomfortable and needy sensations pooling between her legs…

He lurched free from her thoughts.

Harry opened her eyes to see that the Potions Master was breathing hard and that his face was colorless, his pupils dilated with rage. “You’re demented,” he spat out.

She fidgeted. She’d been called worse—and by him, no less—but not in two years, and never in a situation like this.

“Well,” she said, “that’s your opinion, but I’ve got my reasons.”

“Reasons.” His face had become as immobile as stone.

“Yeah. You saw. I don’t want to be a virgin anymore, but I can’t—I don’t want my first time to be with just anyone, all right?” Now she was wishing that she had trouser pockets she could shove her hands into.

“No, not ‘all right,’ Miss Potter,” Snape snarled. “Do you even have any idea what you’re asking for, you short-sighted girl?”

She could have said a lot in response to that, but she settled on the most relevant truth. “No. But I trust you.”

He stared at her. “You shouldn’t, foolish child. I would not be gentle.”

She lifted her chin stubbornly. Snape didn’t scare her. “I’m not a child, and you wouldn’t need to be.”

Was it just her, or had all of the forest birds stopped twittering? And now Snape was gaping at her as if she’d suddenly become unrecognizable. Harry shifted uncomfortably. “But you have, um, been with someone before?” she wondered, just to fill the weighty silence.

“Yes, whores,” Snape answered dazedly.

Harry blinked, trying not to seem intimidated. “That’s a rather misogynist term.”

At that, Snape’s focus seemed to snap back into place. “It was their job description, Miss Potter. They took money in return for sexual services.”

“Well…” She chewed her lower lip. Merlin, this conversation was surreal. “The important thing is that you’re experienced.” She straightened her shoulders. “In the bedroom, I mean. You’d have to guide me. I wouldn’t know what I was doing, you see--which is the heart of the problem.”

Snape’s mouth opened and closed. Looking at his darkening expression, Harry felt an acute sense of foreboding.

Twigs snapped beneath his feet as he advanced on her. “Does your arrogance know no bounds?” he hissed. “The general masses are falling over themselves for the privilege of deflowering you. Fuck one of them. Fuck all of them.” He sneered. “Fuck a Weasley. I’m sure the remaining twin or the one who plays with dragons would be happy to oblige.”

Harry shouldn't have been surprised to hear her own vulgar word thrown back at her. “I’m not attracted to George or Charlie,” she replied hotly, standing her ground.

Snape’s eyes widened still further, glittering maniacally. “Oh, so we’re taking your desires into account, but not mine?” His voice lowered. “Haven’t I been used enough?”

Harry felt as if she’d been slapped. The tone of the final question had been utterly sincere, perhaps the most sincere that she’d ever heard from Snape’s lips. “It’s not like that…” she managed.

The professor drew himself up to his full height. “What would you call it, then?” he mocked. “Though I must say that it’s certainly not the most intellectually stimulating reward you could have demanded for saving my life.”

Harry gaped at him, shocked by the idea. “It’s not a trade-off!” she protested. “I would never do anything like that! I saved you because I didn't want you to die. It wasn't to get something!”

She felt hot tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. Despite her determination not to cry, Snape’s form was growing blurry as she blinked up at him.

She could tell that he could see what was happening by the way his eyes flicked over hers derisively. “Then I refuse your request,” he snarled. “How like a Gryffindor—you won’t even press an advantage.”

Turning her with a highly impersonal grip on her shoulders, he shoved her toward the castle. “Get out of my sight.”

Stumbling forward, Harry was only too happy to obey.

Chapter Text

Hermione found Harry curled up in her bed two hours later, her face buried in a pillow.

“Harry?” the other witch exclaimed in worry. “Is everything all right?”

“He said no,” Harry told her bluntly.

“Well, that’s…what you expected, yes?”

Harry grunted into her pillow, unwilling to turn around.

“Did he take it badly?”

“He thought it would be a prize for saving his life.” Her tone was colorless. “Spoils of war.”

She could practically hear the cogs of Hermione’s brain turning. “That’s not an unreasonable assumption,” she finally said, sounding hesitant. “Given the circumstances.”

Harry finally turned to face her. “It’s complete bollocks,” she growled. “I want him because he’s maddening and noble and just—just Snape. And I knew he might be mean about it, but he was acting like I threatened him—as if I wouldn’t be the one taking his cock up my twat!”

“Harry!” Hermione gasped.

“Too crude?” Harry sneered. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “Do you want me to be a lady about it and ignore what it is?”

Hermione’s eyes flashed. “Harry, I don’t care if you’re a lady or not! I just think that you need to calm down and act like the adult you claim to be.”

Harry blinked at her, half expecting her friend’s bushy hair to start standing on end with the power of her magic. This wasn’t the Hermione who obsessively worried about her grades and color-coded her reference sheets by date and subject—this was the Hermione who’d lured Umbridge into the Forbidden Forest, who’d cast a Stinging Hex on Harry’s face so that she wouldn’t be recognized at Malfoy Manor, who’d Polyjuiced herself as Bellatrix Lestrange and suggested riding the back of a dragon out of Gringotts. This Hermione was ruthless and adventurous and dangerous. Harry’s best friend was glorious when she got like this.

“All right,” Harry said meekly, sitting up.

Hermione’s nostrils flared. “Good. Thank you.” She frowned. “At least you didn’t get expelled.”

“Right.”

They were silent.

“But what am I going to do?” Harry finally asked.

Hermione didn’t have an answer for her, this time.

~

Severus was three sheets to the wind and had an insipid Irish drinking jig stuck in his head.

Oh whiskey, you're the devil, you're leadin' me astray
Over hills and mountains and to Americae
You're sweeter, stronger, decenter, you're spunkier than tea
O whiskey, you're my darlin' drunk or sober.

He didn’t know where he’d heard the damn thing. Certainly not in his childhood, northern as it had been. But he’d always had a highly precise (read: obsessive) memory of spoken and written words, whether that was a blessing or a curse.

He was safely ensconced in the Headmaster’s suite of rooms, though a large part of him wished that it was in the dungeons instead of some bloody lofty tower. For almost twenty years, the dungeons had been his sanctuary, his kingdom; more, if he counted his own years in school. He made a face and took another deep swig. No, he wouldn’t count those.

But it was too late to stop the familiar surge of bitterness from welling up like bile in his throat against the burn of the Firewhiskey.

Oh, he could Occlude against the memories, but what would be the point? His mind skipped back twenty, twenty-five years as easily as breathing. He thought of red hair and a smile that made him feel like the sun had broken through the haze spat out from the factories to shine on him alone.

For a pathetically short time in the scheme of his life, he’d held Lily’s trust. And then he’d lost it. Deservedly.

And now her daughter—her headstrong, lunatic daughter—had decided that she trusted him. More than that, that she wanted him to—to give her an introductory course in the pleasures of the flesh. To cleave her to himself until her skin was mottled and flushed with it and her eyes were pools of pupil with just the barest green ring glittering around their depths—

Severus threw his tumbler into the wall.

He was a man who prided himself entirely (and perhaps only) on his self-control. Salazar. He would kill the girl. He would kill the girl for putting these thoughts in his head.

He’d invested half of his life in protecting her. And she, in her depthless foolishness, had mistaken that for affection, or perhaps even desire.

He remembered Dumbledore saying that the girl had “a phenomenal capacity for love.” Snape gave a bitter chuckle. What would the old wizard think now? Twinkly and Machiavellian as he might have been, he couldn’t have foreseen this turn of the tide—and he certainly wouldn’t approve, anymore than Snape himself could approve of such a depraved union.

For all that he’d said about the girl over the years, he couldn’t bury the knowledge that Harry Potter was…good. She’d been raised in a bloody cupboard, for Christ’s sake, and still she’d gone to the house of noble idiots and proved herself to be the noblest idiot of them all.

And yes, he was a sorry, twisted bastard who’d often felt the urge to defile that goodness, to bring her down to his level in the muck—but not like this.

Never like this.

Severus sunk down onto the thin carpet and buried his head in his hands.

Chapter Text

She’d been an idiot.

Correction: She’d been a bloody buggering idiot.

And despite the fact that two weeks had passed, Harry still didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to do to fix anything.

Whenever she saw Snape now, his eyes skimmed over her without settling, his expression cold. And that hurt. It was making Harry feel rather desperate, actually. She hadn’t realized how much weight she’d been putting on her budding friendship with the man.

To make matters worse, she’d started having nightmares again, almost with the same regularity as before Snape woke up from his coma. She’d woken up Hermione by screaming more than once. Harry suspected that this was partly due to what had happened in the forest and partly because it was now mid-April, the one-year anniversary of the final battle fast approaching.

She wished she could just play a challenging game of Quidditch to clear her head—but she wasn’t on the team this year. The professors hadn’t thought it fair to give the eighth years the positions that rightfully belonged to the seventh years—so Harry had spent the year cheering for Gryffindor from the sidelines, and Head Girl had been offered (to Hermione’s endless irritation) to Luna Lovegood.

Luckily, Harry had other physical outlets for stress.

~

The girl’s curls hung damply against her neck, her fringe sticking to her forehead with sweat. She gasped.

“Flagging, Potter?” Draco Malfoy taunted. “I really thought you'd have more stamina than that.”

Potter rallied her posture into cleaner lines, not bothering to vocalize a response.

Metal flashed.

From the spot where he stood Disillusioned against the classroom wall, Severus ground his teeth and felt the burning desire to throttle something.

~

It had started in August toward the end of his stay in St. Mungo’s.

During one of her many visits to prepare for the new term, Minerva McGonagall had brought up the fact that she was worried about anti-Slytherin sentiment at Hogwarts in the coming year. A line had been drawn during the battle, and the Slytherins had been placed on the wrong side of it, whatever their actual allegiances—a circumstance for which Minerva felt personally guilty, Severus was sure. As the returning Headmaster, it would be Severus’s job to try to erase that divide before it escalated into further violence.

He'd agreed with Minerva, but he had no idea what he could do to bridge the chasm between his snakes and the rest of the school. Slytherin had always stood alone, and Severus’s policies as Head of House had emphasized that. He wasn’t a peacekeeper. And it was highly likely that the other students would see the Slytherins as convenient scapegoats for the misery that their parents and families had caused.

Severus was still mulling over the problem when Potter arrived an hour later and planted herself in the chair next to his bed. Because apparently he was feeling chatty that day, he’d explained the issue to the idiot child and even asked her opinion.

Looking inordinately pleased to be consulted, the girl had snapped her fingers and said, “Extracurriculars.”

When Severus had only stared at her, she’d pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “You know, extracurricular activities, like Muggle schools have. Clubs.”

“Clubs,” Severus had repeated tonelessly.

Potter didn’t seem to be dissuaded by his lack of enthusiasm. “Yeah, and not like the Slug Club, because that’s too exclusive—and sort of awful, to be frank. I’m thinking of clubs for people with similar interests that anyone can join.”

Severus twisted in bed to glare at her. “And you expect me to encourage students to leave their studies in order to participate in these…group activities?”

Potter’s forehead wrinkled. “Well, you could make a rule that the clubs need to have academic merit. But I think that just letting students have fun together when they’re not with their housemates will go a long way toward building common ground.”

“And how would you encourage participation?”

The girl tilted her head and rested her chin on one hand. “You could give House points for it.”

Unexpectedly, Severus fought back the urge to chuckle. Using the House system to undermine those very rivalries was practically Slytherin of her.

“Very well, Miss Potter,” he agreed. “I will…consider it.”

The girl’s face had started to light up, so he’d quickly added, “I make no promises. But the idea has certain merits, regardless of the source.”

“That’s decent of you to say, Professor,” she’d answered solemnly, the fact that she wanted to laugh only visible in the smallest twitch of her mouth.

Since he’d ultimately come up with no better plan to promote inter-House cooperation—and didn’t that rankle, that he wasn’t more creative than Harry bloody Potter—Severus had decided to endorse Potter’s “clubs.” With a few restrictions.

-Anyone could join, but a club had to be started and led by a sixth year or above.
-It could meet no more than twice a month.
-Its subject had to be approved by himself or the deputy Headmistress.

That was all, since he’d been forced to agree with Potter about letting the students choose their own areas of interest. And at this point in the year, even Severus would admit that the idea had been a success, with House rivalries remaining remarkably understated so far.

And although he’d originally doubted whether any students from the other houses would feel comfortable joining the Slytherins’ clubs or vice versa, he'd realized early on that Potter was making a concerted effort to use her influence to overcome this.

Which he appreciated. And perhaps she was even learning something from Theo Nott’s Debate Club. From what Severus had heard, she’d been roasted alive in the first few meetings—until she’d gotten the idea to drag Granger along for support. Unlike Potter, Granger had the ability to sink her teeth into a topic like a terrier with a rat.

But to join the Fencing Club and happily allow Draco Malfoy—the one person that she’d loathed in her younger years almost as much as she’d loathed Severus—to repeatedly poke her with a pointy stick?

It was fucking annoying, was what it was.

Draco was a much better swordsman than Potter, of course. He’d trained on the Continent most summers since he was twelve, since fencing was the one Muggle pastime that Lucius had deemed aristocratic enough for his progeny to indulge. Still, it was obvious to Severus that Potter was holding her own through a combination of being tenacious and light on her feet, a seeker’s darting movements keeping Draco from scoring many direct hits.

As Severus watched from his hidden position, she flashed up under Draco’s guard and tapped him with the tip of her foil, saying, “Point for me.”

Draco conceded, then retaliated by disarming Potter and making her lose her footing. Overbalancing, Potter tumbled to the floor. Severus snorted silently. At least Draco had had the forethought to lay down a cushioning charm.

“Match point!” Draco crowed. “You’re severely hampered by your shorter reach, Potter.”

“Fuck off, Malfoy,” the girl answered good-naturedly. “Let’s have another go.”

“Only if you want to end up on your back again,” Draco answered with a grin.

Potter climbed to her feet. “Put your sword where your mouth is,” she taunted, assuming the beginning stance.

Jesus fucking Christ. As much as he’d been pleasantly surprised by the way the young man had pulled himself together since the war, watching Draco and Potter spar (tease, flirt) was going to give Severus a coronary. Did the girl not realize the way their banter sounded?

Severus slammed his head back against the wall, knowing that the thud wouldn’t be heard over all the heavy breathing.

~

And that wasn’t even to mention the girl’s participation in the Fashion Club started by the unlikely duo of Pansy Parkinson and Ginevra Weasley (Salazar, if Severus had to hear another word debating the relative merits of stilettos versus platform heels, he might find a pistol and shoot himself) and Zabini and Longbottom’s little ballroom dancing group. Ballroom dancing! Watching Potter’s toes get trod on by imbeciles was excruciating.

At least Longbottom was a fairly competent lead. Potter looked happy and relaxed in the boy’s arms, smiling up at some doubtlessly gormless joke as they attempted the salsa. Why hadn’t the girl asked the handsome, mild-mannered, snake-beheading Longbottom to divest her of her much-touted virginity? What in fucking hell was wrong with her?

And why was he growling?

The problem was that Potter had never been so…so social before he’d allowed these little “extracurriculars” to flourish. In her former years at Hogwarts, she’d stuck to the company of a few close friends and treated the rest of the school with either apathy or hostility, depending on how it was treating her back. Severus hadn’t expected a change of this nature, anymore than he’d expected the little twit to fixate on him as a sexual partner.

And misjudging her so wildly was unacceptable.

Severus did feel a modicum of guilt for spying on Potter, of course, but he ignored it with practiced ease. She had acted in a confounding and volatile manner; she needed to be watched.

And it wasn’t as if Dumbledore had never spied on the students in disguise.

~

Severus was interested to see that the one club Potter hadn’t attempted to join was Lavender Brown’s Acting Club, for all that it didn’t have enough members to put on any popular wizarding plays.

Given what he’d witnessed in Potter’s memories of the recent antagonism between the two witches, Severus couldn’t say he was surprised. And speaking of which, he needed to deal with Brown rather than just focusing on Famous Harry Potter, no matter how much bloody space she seemed to take up despite being so undersized. If Brown had had what amounted to a menage a trois in an empty classroom…

Well, there were several layers to the problem. Yes, she’d flagrantly violated school rules, although Severus had been relieved to see in Potter’s mind that neither of her companions had been a minor. Aside from any forthcoming punishments, however, Brown’s emotional stability needed to be considered. She’d lost a significant portion of her humanity in the battle. She was behind in her schoolwork because of the toll taken by her monthly transformations, and her family, from what Severus understood, hadn’t been entirely supportive of her changed circumstances.

Perhaps he ought to consult with Minerva. Brown had been in her House, after all, and the old tabby never did stop worrying about her little lion cubs.

~

Severus didn’t know why he’d gone to Minerva’s office instead of summoning her to his own. Perhaps because summoning people to the Headmaster’s tower always reminded him of administering the Dark Lord’s commands.

Unfortunately, a visit to Minerva’s office came with obligatory tea. It wasn’t bad stuff, really—a strong English breakfast blend, by the taste—but Severus had never liked fussing with teacups and saucers.

At least they didn’t have illustrations of cats on the sides. That would have smacked far too much of Dolores Umbridge for his comfort.

“You and I both know that the world outside of Hogwarts will not be as tolerant as within these walls, Severus,” Minerva was saying passionately. “Lavender will face bigotry on a regular basis and perhaps even have difficulty finding a reliable source of Wolfsbane. Not to mention the discrimination she’ll encounter when she attempts to begin a career! And those bloody idiots she calls parents had to cast her off, just for having the courage to stay and fight!”

The area around Minerva’s lips had gone pale, a vein in her temple throbbing. Even more telling, her Scottish brogue had thickened, something that only happened when she was upset. “Do you know what they told her, Severus?” she demanded. “They said that she should have known that she had no place in a battle, so it was her own fault she got bitten!”

Apparently, Lavender Brown’s situation was a sore spot with the Head of Gryffindor—understandable, when Brown’s own parents had belittled the only courageous thing that the witch had managed to do in her life.

“Well, what would you have me do?” Severus asked, setting his teacup and saucer on Minerva’s desk and spreading his hands. “I can’t brew a lifetime’s supply of Wolfsbane, and my influence ends remarkably short of bringing equality legislation before the Wizengamot.” He wrinkled his nose. “Should I invest resources in nurturing Miss Granger’s political ambitions?”

Minerva looked shocked—until she slowly began to smile. “Why, Severus,” she drawled, “I think that was the nicest thing you’ve ever said about a student from my House.”

Severus rolled his eyes. “I won’t ignore the ability to be effective, even when it comes in a package of insufferability.”

Minerva was still smiling at him. Severus put down his teacup with a pronounced rattle. “Miss Potter, on the other hand…”

Dammit! Why had he brought up that blasted girl when they’d been talking comfortably of other things?

“Harry is doing quite well this year,” the Head of Gryffindor responded sharply. “She’s taking all five advanced subjects required for admission to Auror training, and it appears likely that she’ll get an O in Defense and pass the rest.”

Severus gritted his teeth. “You needn’t leap to her defense, Minerva. I was merely going to say that she seems to have become more focused on expanding her social network than on academics.” His nostrils flared. “However much her classwork has improved.”

Minerva’s expression softened slightly. “She has turned into a bit of a social butterfly, hasn’t she? I suspect this is the first time in her life that she’s really had the chance to explore what she likes.”

Severus didn’t suspect this: he knew it to be true. Potter’s childhood had been circumscribed first by her abusive adoptive family, then by Voldemort’s wrath and Dumbledore’s expectations.

He wasn’t about to admit that to Minerva, though.

Before he could decide on an appropriately disinterested response, the stern witch’s expression had thawed still further. “And don’t think I haven’t realized that you’re partially to thank for that. Oh, don’t bother protesting, my boy.” The Scotswoman’s eyes twinkled. “It will get you absolutely nowhere.”

Severus choked wordlessly. Whenever Minerva started ‘my boy’-ing him, he knew he was in deep shit. “Minerva—” he tried to forestall.

“You’ve been such a solid support for Harry, this year,” the Head of Gryffindor continued regardless of interruptions. “I think we both know how badly she needed it. I don’t mind telling you how worried I was about Harry last summer, Severus. She looked as if the hounds of hell were nipping at her heels.” She took a deep breath. “But she’s grown much more stable and, dare I say, happy this year. And that’s at least partly due to the kindness you’ve shown. I can see that she admires you fiercely, Severus. It warms my heart to think of the bridges you’ve mended with the girl.”

“Are you done?” Severus asked, since it seemed that the witch had finally finished her cooing.

Minerva regarded him cannily. “I suppose so.”

Severus cast a wordless cleaning charm over his cup and saucer. “You give me far too much credit,” he said, looking down. Composing his expression, he rose to his feet. “But thank you. I must go, but I’ll be in touch again about future actions regarding Miss Brown.”

“Very well, Severus,” Minerva answered agreeably.

~

Most of what Minerva had said was easily dismissed as the ramblings of an interfering old woman. He’d done little for the girl besides convince her to go back to school and exchange the occasional tart word with her in the halls. If Minerva had the slightest inkling of what Potter had asked of him, of the shape that her ‘fierce admiration’ had recently taken, her gratitude would turn to dismay quickly enough.

However, Minerva had been right about one thing: Potter had looked like shit last summer.

As he dressed for bed that evening, Severus thought of the first time he’d seen her after the Battle: when she’d slipped into his hospital room the night after he woke up despite the fact that visiting hours were clearly over.

His first impression was that she’d been too thin, with no visible weight gain since the Forest of Dean. He’d been able to count her ribs despite the coverage of her shirt. Also, there where dark shadows under her eyes, and her hair was oily and lank, as if it hadn’t been washed in days. And there’d been smudges of grime on her trousers and a patch of what looked like dried spit-up on her shoulder. (Had she been taking care of a baby?) Even more telling, she’d swayed where she’d stood in his doorway, her eyes too wide, too green.

With the moon shining on the girl through the skylight window, Severus had suddenly remembered Muggle stories of faery changelings that he’d heard in his youth, tales of how the Fey would take a child down into their realm and replace it with one of their own—because aside from looking like shit, Potter looked ethereal, otherworldly. Staring at her, Severus had had to fight the giddy urge to say, “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.”

Instead, he’d forced himself to ask, “Miss Potter, are you well?”

“You’re awake. You’re really awake,” the ridiculous girl had gasped instead of answering.

He’d briefly feared that she was going to start sobbing—or worse, throw her arms around him. But that wasn’t Harry Potter’s way, thank god. Instead, she’d started babbling about how his name had been cleared and he’d done such a service for the Light and Voldemort was really dead this time and Hogwarts was being rebuilt and the Ministry was protecting his house at Spinner’s End from vandals…

Severus knew most of this already. He’d had a visit from acting Minister Kingsley Shacklebolt that afternoon, apparently the first person that the Medi-wizards had notified once he awoke.

As much as the information was redundant, however, he didn’t call a halt to Potter’s rambling. Instead, he devoured the sight of her. He couldn’t have looked away if he’d tried.

He hadn’t exactly been in his right mind at the time, Severus thought irritably as he yanked his striped nightshirt over his head. Even without the potions in his bloodstream, he’d been…unmoored. That would perhaps be the best way to put it. He’d woken up in a brave new world to learn that the war was finally over—but after a brief surge of relief, his thoughts had barely been coherent. He'd felt a deep sense of loss, and he hadn't known why. When he tried to hunt down its source, all he could think of was the word 'sacrifice' and Albus wearing an expression of deep regret.

He’d assumed that this confusion was an effect of being in a coma for two and a half months, until Harry Potter had interrupted herself to say, “Oh! I brought these back for you.” Reaching into an inside pocket of her denim jacket, she’d extracted a vial full of a cloudy substance that was neither liquid nor gas.

Of course, Severus had realized stupidly, staring at it. It all came back to him then, nauseatingly vivid: the Dark Lord’s summons, Nagini’s strike, how Severus had been sure he’d failed and would die without telling Harry Potter what she needed to know; how she’d appeared above him out of nowhere and he’d thought that maybe she was a desperate hallucination—but no, he could grip her wrist, his fingernails digging into the flesh. How he’d stared into her eyes and released the story that he’d held at his core for so long, the story of his life's turning points, his reasons. He'd known at that point that he had no choice but to give the story away. He’d known that Potter wouldn’t believe his information unless he bared his soul to her like he’d so often bared his teeth.

Severus fought against the urge to vomit.

Why hadn’t he realized that he was missing vital pieces of himself? He hadn’t been able to give Potter copies of his memories when he was dying; those were the originals in her hand. Without them, there were gaps in his recollections that he could only see by the shapes they left behind.

“I had to show some of them to the Wizengamot,” the girl was saying. “But they’re all still here.” She approached his bedside cautiously. “So you can have them back now, if you want.”

If?

He had a choice?

Reaching up, he took the vial from Potter’s hand shakily. Bringing it to his face, he stared into its milky, shifting depths.

“I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want them back,” the girl said after a minute of silence.

He doubted that anyone else would have offered him an option. The fact that Potter had realized that he’d be of two minds, Severus thought now as he climbed into bed, had been fairly wondrous. It showed both subtlety and compassion. And he suddenly understood why moments like this made him so uncomfortable: it was because they seemed like flashes of the woman that Potter would become once she finished growing up.

Back in the hospital, Severus had taken his time deciding. He didn’t know exactly what these memories contained, but he knew that they were the most important ones he’d had. He didn't think that he would still be Severus Snape without them, precisely.

The question was, did he want to continue being Severus Snape? Could he bear it?

The girl was still watching him, chewing her lower lip and waiting. Familiar eyes were looking at him, for the first time that he could remember, with something akin to (all right, Minerva) admiration.

“Thank you, Miss Potter,” Severus had finally croaked. “But I believe that I wouldn’t trust these anywhere but in my own head.”

He’d leaned forward and inhaled the memories through his nose.

It had hit him all at once, after that: Lily. Snivelus. Mudblood. Prophecy. Disgust. Vows. The inevitability of Potter’s death.

Coming back to awareness, Severus had looked at the girl standing next to him—the girl who definitely wasn't supposed to be alive—with new eyes.

He’d narrowed them.

She’d held his gaze and offered a tentative smile. “There you are,” she'd said.

~

Severus twisted in bed restlessly. After that, he hadn’t been able to muster up a decent level of resentment against Potter for restoring his life and freedom to him.

Until now, when the brat had asked for something that he couldn’t—wouldn’t—give.

Severus had a feeling that it would be a long time before he slept, that night.

Chapter Text

“Miss Potter, what do you think you’re doing?”

Harry glanced around at the empty hallway outside of the Transfigurations classroom. “Must be late for class,” she said sardonically. “Listen, Snape, I wanted to—”

“Detention. Friday night.” His lips curled. “You’ll be serving it with Filch.”

Harry gaped at the man’s retreating back.

This was getting absurd.

~

If this was what happened every time Harry asked a man to sleep with her, she might as well give up on the whole thing for life.

She’d tried everything to get Snape's attention—or at least everything that would leave them both with their dignity intact. And as distracting as all of her classes and club meetings were, they weren’t fixing the problem of a Potions Master who wouldn’t even grant Harry the opportunity to bloody apologize.

She’d even approached him once while he was talking to Flitwick to ask if they could speak privately, thinking that the Charms professor’s presence might force Snape’s hand. However, Snape had merely told her to visit his office if she had any grievances to air, after which Harry had stomped to the office in question—only to find that the gargoyle was adamant that the Headmaster wasn’t receiving visitors. She’d tried at least twenty passwords, but the bastard was far too sneaky to make it anything obvious.

Should she fly outside of Snape’s quarters on her broomstick and throw pebbles at his window? Or maybe send him a barrel of flobberworm mucous that she’d extracted by hand?

It was time for breakfast in the Great Hall, and Harry scowled down at her eggs and toast. Why did Snape have to be such a…a git about all of this? Yes, she’d stepped out of line, and obviously the idea of having sex with her had been utterly repellent to him—a thought that only made Harry’s scowl deepen—but he was the one who kept misjudging Harry’s character and intentions. And she was fucking tired of it. As sorry as Snape might be that she wasn’t her mother, she also wasn’t her father. She hadn’t wanted to bully or belittle or hurt him, and it was killing her that he wasn’t giving her the chance to set the record straight.

“You okay there, Harry?” Ginny asked from the next plate over, glancing down at where Harry’s fist had just collided with the table.

“Yeah, fine,” Harry said shortly. “My fork slipped.”

It was a stupid excuse, but Ginny had enough tact to merely raise her eyebrows and turn back to her conversation with Dean. Harry subsided, still seething but trying to get a grip on herself. Merlin knew that sulking about this hadn't got her anywhere so far.

As she glanced sullenly toward the Head Table, Harry’s gaze caught on the precise movements of Snape’s long fingers as he cut up a plum. That was one thing she’d observed: he never ate food directly with his hands when in public. Instead, he would use a fork and knife to reduce his meals to the smallest possible increments that could still be called bites. She sort of suspected that he didn’t want to be visibly seen to chew.

That rigid control had loosened when he was at the hospital, though. Contrary to what she’d expected, Snape had seemed to relish all food when he was in St. Mungo’s—but especially the desserts. She had a vivid memory of the man’s gaze fixed with pleasure on a cupcake.

Suddenly, she knew what to do.

~

“Is Miss Harry wanting a treat?” Winky asked slyly. They were in the kitchens among a melee of house elves preparing the evening meal, standing next to the only empty oven station that Harry had been able to spot.

She flushed. “No, I was hoping to make something for the Headmaster. Um, to thank him for all of his…Headmastering.”

Instead of looking suspicious, Winky’s eyes widened in excitement. “Oh, the Headmaster never eats enough!” she exclaimed, starting to hop from foot to foot. “Winky tells him and tells him, but does he listen to Winky? No.” She nodded with conviction. “Harry Potter will make him listen.”

Harry was touched by both Winky’s faith in her and her devotion to Snape. “Well, erm, I’ll certainly try.” Scrabbling in her shoulder bag, she pulled out the one useful tome on cooking that she’d managed to find in the library during her free period that afternoon—a book with the unfortunate title of Wandering Wendell’s Wecipes for Witches—and opened it to the illustration of a Victoria sponge cake, which she’d picked because she’d seen one in Tesco before.

“I want to try making this—except maybe with strawberries on top?”

House elves didn’t often smile, but now Winky gave a wide one. “The Headmaster is loving strawberries,” the elf said confidently. She scanned the page, then snapped her fingers. All of the ingredients—eggs, sugar, flour, baking powder, butter, cream, and a bushel of berries—appeared neatly on the counter in front of them.

“Wow. That’s perfect,” Harry said, trying not to feel daunted.

She’d always liked baking while she lived with the Dursleys. They hadn’t meant to starve her (except, perhaps, of affection), but they hadn’t had the best gauge of how much food a girl needed to survive. Baked goods would last a week in her cupboard before spoiling, so Harry could eat them whenever the Dursleys locked her in.

But truth be told, she’d never baked anything more complicated than a loaf of bread or biscuits for Dudley. She didn’t even know how to whip cream.

She took a deep breath and Scourgified her hands. Snape wasn’t going to forgive her if she never managed to find a way past his defenses, and she wasn’t a Gryffindor for nothing. It was time to get to work.

~

Later that evening, Harry put the last strawberry slice on the last dollop of cream, then stepped back and grinned. Though slightly crooked, the cake had turned out far better than she’d expected and had been done in half the amount of time, thanks to the fact that the Hogwarts ovens ran on magic instead of gas or electricity. It wasn’t even after curfew yet, so she wouldn’t need to wear her invisibility cloak on the way back to the dorms.

“Is Miss Harry finished?” Winky asked from beside her elbow. She and the other elves looked much less frantic now that the evening meal had passed, many of them popping out of the kitchen to take care of domestic tasks in other parts of the castle.

“I am.” Harry cast a quick preserving charm on her creation. “Do you think you could deliver this to the Headmaster’s rooms for me?” She pulled out a piece of parchment to scribble a quick note, biting her lip and ultimately deciding to leave it at only a few lines. Snape would appreciate brevity.

“And this too?”

“Of course, Miss Harry,” Winky agreed, starting to hop from foot to foot again. Between one hop and the next, she snapped her fingers—and cake, note, and elf all disappeared.

Casting a few cleaning charms on her station, Harry tried not to second-guess herself or worry about taking even more liberties with Snape than she’d already claimed. Best case scenario, his sweet tooth would overcome the fact that he was obviously still furious with her. She repacked the Wecipes of Wandering Wendell in her shoulder bag and made her way out into the hall.

As she entered the eighth-years’ dorms, however, she noticed that her yearmates were clustered in knots in the common room, talking in fierce whispers. They all glanced at the portrait hole as Harry entered, but went right back to their conversations as soon as they saw who it was. Harry’s eyebrows rose. Apparently, she wasn’t the headliner in school gossip for once.

Spotting Ron playing wizard’s chess by himself near the fire, Harry made a beeline for his table. “What’s going on?” she asked as soon as she sat down.

Ron looked up at her assessingly, but he didn’t bring up the fact that she’d skipped dinner. Maybe he assumed that she’d been studying. Hermione certainly had: Ever since realizing that the N.E.W.T.s were now only a month away, the other girl had disappeared into a tornado of textbooks and class notes, emerging only at lunch for sandwiches.

“It’s Lavender,” Ron explained bluntly. “She left.”

“Left?” Harry repeated in confusion.

“Hogwarts,” he clarified. He turned his chess board so that he could make the next move for black. “She’s not coming back.”

About to blurt out something about how she'd seemed happy enough the last time they'd spoken, Harry thought better of it. Ron didn’t need to know about Lavender’s latest sexual exploits.

“It was this huge scene,” he continued dryly. “She yelled at everybody, called the whole school pathetic, said that it had tried to steal her dreams and never—” He cleared his throat and made air quotes. “—nourished her talents.”

Harry’s forehead wrinkled. “What does that mean?”

“Dunno—I guess she was talking about wanting to be an actress? She was always going on about being famous and starring in plays when we dated.” He glanced away, as if he hadn’t wanted to allude to that ill-advised period in his life.

Harry shook her head. “Whether she has the talent or not, that will be a lot harder now that she’s a werewolf.”

Her friend nodded. “I think that might be why she lost the plot—she’d just come out of some type of meeting with Snape and McGonagall. Maybe they told her to be more realistic.” Turning the board again, he captured white’s last remaining bishop with black’s queen. “They got it the worst—especially old Snape. She kept yelling that he was a Death Eater who ought to be sentenced to the Kiss rather than put in charge of a school.”

Harry’s fingernails dug into her palms, her line of sight momentarily clouding over with a vision of wringing Lavender’s neck. “She had no right,” she finally managed after a few harsh breaths.

“Hey, you won’t get any argument from me.” Ron spread his hands. “He’s still a git, but even I can see that we would have lost without him.”

His expression grew more turbulent, and Harry had a premonition about what topic was coming next. Her instincts proved to be right when he asked, “Are you going to give a speech at the memorial?”

The first anniversary of the war’s end was not going to pass unremarked. In fact, the Ministry and the press were planning to flood the school (or at least its lawns) for a grand ceremony on the afternoon of May 2nd.

Harry shook her head. “Kingsley asked me to, but I said no.” She scuffed the side of her shoe against the carpet. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”

Ron nodded in understanding. “Yeah, I don’t think I would, either.”

After that, they sat for a bit in silence before he added, "Mum and Dad are coming, and George, obviously. Percy. Bill and Fleur. Charlie can’t leave the preserve right now, what with the baby dragons hatching.”

Harry watched the black pieces celebrate as they finally captured white’s king. “It’ll be really nice to see everyone,” she answered, feeling a familiar tightening sensation in her chest.

Ron swallowed. “Yeah. I just wish it were for a different occasion, you know? Something happier. When everyone’s together, it’s a lot easier to think about what’s missing.”

Harry knew precisely what he meant. That was why she’d ended up staying with Andromeda Tonks during the summer instead of at the Burrow: the Weasleys' grief had been too present, too real and demanding and loud, and it had made her feel like she couldn't breathe—especially since she considered herself at least partially responsible for Fred’s death.

“Hey.” She dragged a smile out of somewhere and gestured at the chess board. “Since you’ve trounced yourself, how about a game of Exploding Snap?”

Ron gave a crooked smile in return. “Sure.”

When they started playing and Seamus and Dean came to join them, Harry finally let herself relax, temporarily forgetting her worries about the looming memorial and whether Snape would like her cake and whatever had happened with Lavender.

Though she’d enjoyed the challenge of befriending students from the other Houses this year, she had to admit that there was something nice about just basking in the familiarity of Gryffindors—a group who always, for better or worse, wore their hearts on their sleeves.

~

By the time the emergency staff meeting following Brown’s departure was finished, it was only Severus’s years as a spy that were keeping him from slumping in his chair. As he trudged back up to the Headmaster’s tower, he could still hear Minerva trumpeting, “Severus said nothing untoward; Miss Brown was simply more sensitive than we credited!” in response to the accusations (from Pomona, Filius, Poppy, and Slughorn) that he’d mishandled her.

As staunch as Minerva’s defense had been, Severus couldn’t help but think that maybe the others were right: he'd been blunter with Brown than necessary because the world was going to be blunt with her, and Brown needed to get used to it. But she'd taken his chastisements in the worst possible way and left on a fool’s errand, foregoing her education and safe harbor in favor of following a pipe dream. She’d be without a support network, likely without connections who could even offer her a place to stay; and this all would have been avoided if Severus had simply stopped and remembered that he was utter shit at handling teenage Gryffindor girls.

Ignoring the latest batch of paperwork piled up on his desk and the way the portraits whispered as he passed, Severus flung open the door to his private quarters and dragged himself inside, wondering if he should break out the Firewhiskey for the second time in less than three weeks.

Before his thoughts could go any farther down that path, however, he was arrested by the utterly incongruous sight of a cake sitting on the short table between his settee and his fireplace.

Why the hell was there a cake in his rooms?

Severus drew his wand and shot off a ream of detection spells, but the cake continued being just that—a yellow spongy thing with two layers, strawberries and cream in the middle, and even more strawberries piled on top. A napkin, fork, and extra plate were sitting next to it.

When Severus stalked to the table and snatched up the note that was lying on the plate, he read, I made this for you. It’s not poisoned or anything. I’m sorry for ruining our friendship. —HP

Severus collapsed on his settee, dropping his head back against the cushions and groaning. Of course it was from Potter. The impertinent brat just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could she? Was she actually trying to drive him insane?

He hadn’t expected an apology—though he supposed that was better than any of the alternatives. She’d been ridiculously obvious in her efforts to make contact over the last fortnight, and the most spiteful part of him had delighted in thwarting her. But what the fuck had inspired the girl to make her latest salvo in the form of dessert? And how had she managed to get the house elves on her side?

No, there was no need to answer that. These days, everyone was on Harry Potter’s side.

Still staring tiredly at Potter’s creation, Severus was struck by the realization that no one had ever made him a cake before. Not even Lily.

His mother had once taken him to a Muggle teahouse while his father was sleeping off a drunken stupor, though. They’d shared sugary confections on fine china, sneakily licking cream off the edges of their fingers. It had been in celebration of Severus receiving his Hogwarts letter, which his father hadn't seen yet.

Shaking his head at his own folly, Severus hefted the fork, cut a slice, and took a tart and creamy bite.

Chapter Text

The morning of the second of May was cold, but not wet. The sky was blanketed in high white clouds, but Harry didn't think it would rain. She’d gotten fairly decent at reading the weather while on the run last year.

The students had been given the full day off from classes thanks to the memorial for the Battle that was going to start at noon, so she’d woken up a bit later than normal. She felt apprehensive but actually sort of well-rested, for once. Her nightmares had calmed down over the previous week, and the only dream she could remember from the night before was a small thing where her mother had been brushing her hair.

From her bedroom window, she couldn’t see where the ceremonies were going to be held—but it would've been impossible to escape the knowledge, considering the uproar that the preparations had thrown the castle into for the last few days. A stage had been erected on the flat lawn where Hooch taught flying lessons, and there would be at least fifty rows of chairs facing it. Harry was surprised that the event planners hadn’t just commandeered the Quidditch stadium—but maybe that was too festive for what they had in mind.

Bending over her school trunk, Harry rifled through it for what she wanted: clothes that would be comfy and warm.

Just as she was yanking on her last trouser leg, the door opened to reveal Hermione, dressed in lovely light brown robes that brought out the amber in her eyes.

Eyes which widened when they saw Harry’s garb. “You’re wearing that?” she demanded.

Harry shrugged and bit off a hangnail. “I want to feel like myself. You know I don’t have political aspirations, so it’s not like I’ve got people to impress.”

Hermione still looked worried. “But the reporters—”

“You look beautiful, ‘Mione,” Harry interrupted. And she did: Harry might have been biased, but she thought that her best friend had grown uncommonly pretty in the last few years, and the care she’d taken with her appearance today—subtle makeup on her face and Sleek-Eazy in her hair—had only accentuated that.

The other witch flushed. “Thank you. And you look nice, too." She smiled wryly. "Though not exactly because you tried.”

Harry snickered at the truth of that, and Hermione joined her with a giggle, though it tapered off quickly as she bit her lower lip. “I think Ron’s family has arrived, and so have a lot of other guests. We should probably get a quick bite and then head out. Are you ready?”

Snorting, Harry sent a prayer to any deities who were listening that the sense of foreboding in her gut was just paranoia. It was time to face the music—or, more accurately, the Ministry.

“As I’ll ever be.”

~

“We are gathered here on this beautiful afternoon to commemorate a great victory. The events that took place on these grounds a year ago today weave a story of courage and sacrifice, of loyalty and tragedy, of true glory. It was one year ago that a Battle was fought to reclaim the wizarding world from the clutches of sinister forces and to usher in a newfound era of prosperity…”

—Excerpt from the opening speech given at the First Grand Memorial for the Battle of Hogwarts, May 2nd, 1999.

~

“Thank you very much for your attention. It has been my great pleasure and honor to open this historical event." The President of the Hogwarts Board of Governors smiled charmingly at the assembled crowd. "The next speaker will be the Headmaster of Hogwarts, Severus Snape.” He stepped down from the stage.

Severus rose.

Taking his place at the lectern, he gazed out at the audience, who looked back at him with the expected mix of neutral and hostile expressions. The faces that he recognized seemed to belong to an equal proportion of politicians, reporters, Hogwarts students, and their families—although there were discrepancies in how they'd arranged themselves. The Slytherins, for example, had opted to sit in the back, and very few members of their families were present. The exception to this was Narcissa Malfoy, who was squeezing Draco’s hand tightly.

Potter was in the front row, of course, looking solemn and good-humored and disheveled. Severus had to suppress a snort when he saw that she'd marked the occasion by wearing Muggle denims and a faded light pink sweatshirt, of all things.

Ridiculous. She was lucky she was the Girl-Who-Lived. Anyone else would have been turned away for being so improperly attired.

And if Severus found her disregard for decorum much more amusing than aggravating on occasion, he certainly wasn't going to show it.

He hadn't expected her to be balancing a baby on her lap. That's right—it must be the Lupin child, Potter's godson. There was a petite older woman who Severus recognized as Andromeda Tonks on the girl's right, while her left was claimed by Granger and her back was guarded by rows of Weasleys, every man-jack of them ready to leap to her defense against callous Potions Masters should the occasion call for it, no doubt.

Severus fought the urge to sneer.

Potter wasn't even looking at him, surprisingly, instead focusing downward as Teddy Lupin put one of the drawstings of her hoodie in his mouth. She smiled at the boy and bounced him twice on her legs, and he grinned up at her in perfect, toothless joy.

Severus cleared his throat—he didn't know why it suddenly felt tight—cast Sonorus, and began to speak.

Short as his speech was, he was lucky, he was aware, that he’d been granted leeway to write it himself. Whereas Albus could have gotten away with spouting out a train of nonsense words, Severus had barely avoided having a script foisted on him by Ministry toadies.

Which was just one of the many elements reminding him that he had no real power, here. This memorial event wasn’t, to be colloquial, his song and dance. In fact, he’d fought tooth and nail against having it at Hogwarts at all, since he didn’t believe that the dead deserved the inevitable triteness of what would be said or the fact that the majority of whoever spoke would be leveraging their audience’s grief for their own benefit—but his objections had been soundly overruled.

He'd written five lines, more or less: Welcome to Hogwarts. We’re here on the anniversary of the last day of the war. The deaths caused by this war were undeserved, but courageous. Hogwarts will make sure that those who died are not forgotten. Kindly find a designated escort if you plan to enter the castle, and please stay out of the Forbidden Forest.

As he was about to close his speech and step down from the lectern, however, his eyes latched onto Harry Potter’s again, and he faltered.

She was looking at him with so much faith and trust. He wanted, he realized, to deserve it.

“Hogwarts isn’t just an institute that preserves our culture and knowledge,” Severus added, impromptu. “Hogwarts is a haven for the hopeless, a sanctuary for the wretched. Hogwarts is a gateway to the larger magical world, but more than that, it’s a meeting ground and a home.” It had certainly been the only true home that Severus had ever known.

“The magic of Hogwarts is more than a single individual,” he continued, “more than a government, even.” He shot a pointed look toward the nearest cluster of politicians. “Many of you will agree with me that Hogwarts is worth dying to protect. Many have already agreed and paid the ultimate price. We are here today to thank them, but thanks expressed in words will always be insufficient for what they’ve given us. The truth is that their generosity of spirit has allowed our sanctuary to endure.”

Finally tearing himself away from Potter’s gaze, he turned and stepped down from the stage.

And if the applause that followed was rather thin, that was balanced by the roaring in his ears.

~

“Let it be known here today that the New Ministry is dedicated to preserving both a deep respect for traditional wizarding culture and a spirit of cooperation and enterprise…”

“…I am beyond proud to present a monument that has been commissioned by the Ministry of Magic to depict the Chosen One, her wand held triumphantly aloft as she vanquished the ultimate foe. Cast in stone, it shall sit in the atrium of the Ministry of Magic for years to come to remind every wizard of that fateful day when tyranny was laid to rest…”

“…We cannot and never shall forget the sacrifices made in vanquishing evil. However, while continuing to remember and honor the past, we must now turn our eyes and wands toward the future...”

—Excerpts from the fifth, eleventh, and twenty-third speeches given at the First Grand Memorial for the Battle of Hogwarts, May 2nd, 1999.

~

Well, that had been grueling.

Nearly four hours after the ceremonies began, the guests had finally been released to mingle.

The first thing Harry had done was head for the banquet table, since the porridge that she’d forced down her throat that morning on Hermione’s orders hadn’t prepared her for hours of sitting and trying to keep a one-year-old entertained while politicians droned on and on and bloody on.

Of course, her progress toward the banquet table had almost immediately been halted by a swarm of eager fans. Hermione was able to field some of the ones who just wanted to thank her, but that still left the reporters with intrusive questions (“Are you excited about becoming an Auror, Harry?” “What do you think of Minister Shacklebolt’s proposed reforms, Harry?” “Got any sweethearts, Harry?”) and the politicos who wanted to have their pictures taken while shaking her hand.

Catching her breath during a rare lull, Harry mused on how pointless this all seemed. She didn’t know why she’d had higher expectations for the day, but she had to admit that she was really disappointed. True, Kingsley’s closing speech had been sincere and mercifully short, but she’d grown cynical enough in the last few years to see that this whole event wasn’t about the past, no matter what all the politicians kept saying—it was about jockeying for power.

And Godric’s tits, couldn’t they have actually asked her if she wanted to be made into a fucking statue? She would have told them how wrong it was to honor her alone when so many others had paid for Voldemort’s demise with their lives. Eyes narrowing, she directed her gaze toward where the monstrosity held court on the edge of the field and glared furiously.

“Cheer up, Potter. It doesn’t even look like you.”

She swung around to see Draco Malfoy, holding a plate of canapes and other hors d’oeuvres. He gestured with his pointy chin toward the statue, smirking. "Too chesty," he finished.

Harry rolled her eyes and stole an olive from his plate. “Fuck off, Malfoy,” she said affably.

“Manners,” he replied in the same tone, his gaze flicking over her shoulder. “Mother’s coming.”

Harry turned to see Narcissa Malfoy wending her way through the milling crowd, looking just as elegant as she remembered from before the war. Harry gave her a polite nod when she reached them. “Mrs. Malfoy.”

“Miss Potter,” Narcissa said softly, taking Harry's hand, “I want to thank you for everything you've done for Draco this year.”

Harry blinked. “I—haven’t really—”

“She means endorsing the Slytherins,” her son interrupted in a drawl. “Being seen with us regularly." He flicked his fingers expressively. "Joining Fencing Club.”

“Well, I don’t think that any benefit would have been gained from divisive house politics,” Harry recovered, giving Narcissa’s hand a squeeze. “And I’ve learned a lot from M—Draco. He’s a very good fencer.”

“He is, isn’t he?” A small wrinkle appeared between Narcissa’s brows. “Though I wasn’t sure what pleasure a young lady would find in the activity, I’m glad that you and Draco have become friends.”

That was a bit of an overestimate of their relationship, though Harry had enough tact not to say so. Over his mother’s head, the young man met her eyes and shrugged, looking faintly embarrassed. Just go with it, he mouthed.

Harry bit back a smirk. Anything that made Malfoy uncomfortable was all right, in her books.

The conversation turned to Mrs. Malfoy’s attempt to find a townhouse for herself and her son in a fashionable part of London, since the Manor was too large for just the two of them now that Lucius was in Azkaban. Harry offered some suggestions, though she could tell by Malfoy’s glare that he knew they were completely inappropriate. To make it up to him (because Malfoy hadn’t been a total git this year, after all), she grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously just as the closest camera flashed.

Looking bemused but pleased, Mrs. Malfoy said a polite farewell soon after and took herself off into the crowd again to speak to a group of cabinet members. Malfoy followed, though not before muttering a reluctant, “My thanks, Potter,” under his breath.

“Ta, yourself,” she said, stealing another olive before his plate was out of reach.

It was a sad reality, she mused sometime later, that her interaction with Draco Malfoy had been her favorite of the afternoon. Oh, her friends were here—Ron and Bill were talking to Hagrid, Luna was playing a jumping game with Teddy and some first years, and Neville was gallantly shielding Fleur while she nursed her newborn baby Victoire, just to name a few—but they could spread out and do what they wanted, not being constantly swarmed by aficionados and having slightly too much ingrained politeness to tell them to bugger off.

Not surprisingly, in retrospect, it was a reporter who finally broke Harry’s endurance.

She was a neatly coiffed woman whose neck was long enough to remind Harry of Aunt Petunia's. “Gabriella Eastwhistle with the Daily Prophet,” she purred upon approaching. “I was wondering if you might answer a few questions for my dear readers on this momentous day, Miss Potter.”

It was never a good idea to give a reporter an opening, but at least she’d asked politely. “Just a few,” Harry agreed stiffly.

“Excellent!” The woman smiled, a pad appearing in her hands with a Quick-Quotes Quill floating over it. “First, I must congratulate you on defeating You-Know-Who single-handedly last year.”

Harry winced. “It wasn’t single-handed,” she interrupted, trying to keep herself from glaring. “In fact, that’s the whole reason we’re here today, having a memorial.

“Of course.” The reporter’s expression shifted to convey tremendous gravity. “It must be a very trying day for you.”

Harry grunted in reply.

Gabriella Eastwhistle tutted sympathetically, apparently undisturbed by Harry’s reticence. “And your year can’t have been made any easier by having a former Death Eater as Headmaster,” she said compassionately.

Harry’s attention, which had been wandering, snapped back to the reporter instantly. “Severus Snape is a hero,” she said, drawing herself up to her full height. “He saved my life many times, and he gave more to defeat Voldemort than anyone who’s still living. Referring to him as a Death Eater is both offensive and inaccurate.”

The reporter’s smile only widened, her display of teeth reminding Harry uncannily of a shark. “Oh, my readers beg to differ,” she corrected gently. “A man who bears the Dark Mark on his arm is certainly a former Death Eater. And haven’t you noticed unease among the students this year at having such a man hold the highest rank in the school?”

Harry gritted her teeth. “I haven't.”

“Really?” The reporter gave a little tut. “Because my sources say that a young witch by the name of Lavender Brown recently left Hogwarts for the exact reason of feeling uncomfortable with having Severus Snape as Headmaster.”

Harry stared at the woman, whose head tilted courteously to the side once again to await her response. “Lavender didn’t leave because she was uncomfortable with Professor Snape,” she finally managed.

“Ah!” Gabriella Eastwhistle’s eyes lit up. “Then perhaps it was because she was too comfortable. Were they lovers?”

“Enough.” Harry stepped back, distancing herself from the reporter before she did something immeasurably stupid like hex her. “This interview is finished.”

Leaving the woman in her wake, she spun on one heel and left her longstanding position near the buffet table, searching for a place away from the press of people. The practice fields were still full, unfortunately, though it looked like certain groups were branching off into different areas of the grounds.

She finally settled on leaning against one of the supports of the Quidditch stands, shadowed by the structure and slightly out of view. Her luck held, as she wasn’t followed and no one nearby seemed interested in her. Taking a minute to attempt to clear the red edges from her vision, Harry’s thoughts whirled.

Was that reporter just a heinous bitch, or was she indication that public opinion was turning against Snape again? To libel him in one breath and insinuate that he and Lavender—Lavender!—might have been lovers in the next…

Harry’s fingernails dug deep half-moons into her palms.

It was a ridiculous thought. Farcical. Because…because Snape was a gentleman, and he took his position as an authority figure very seriously, and he’d never do anything like that. Because he hadn’t, had he, even when Harry had thrown herself at him.

But then again, Snape didn’t have the awful history with Lavender that he did with Harry… And he’d never been in love with Lavender’s mother… And Lavender was actually somewhat attractive, if you could tolerate her personality…

No. Harry shook her head at herself firmly. The idea that the Potions Master would bed Lavender Brown was utterly ludicrous. Only a dunderhead would come up with it, to use one of Snape’s own favored words.

Then why was she still feeling like she’d been punched in the stomach?

And where was the impossible man, anyway?

Thinking back, Harry realized that she hadn’t seen him since just after the speeches closed, when he’d still been directing the house elves as they finished setting up the banquet. Disappearing at an event like this was odd behavior for a Headmaster, but this was Snape, so who knew what to expect?

Had he gone back into the castle?

Abandoning the Quidditch stands, Harry made her way over to Hogwarts’ front entrance, which was being watched by a small elf named Nibby. “Do you know if the Headmaster has passed through here, Nibby?” Harry wondered.

Nibby perked up at being consulted. “No, Miss Harry!” she denied. “Not since the long talking, when the Headmaster is telling Nibby to stay here and make sure wizards don’t come in unchaperoned.”

So Snape was probably still outside somewhere. Thanking the elf, Harry shoved her hands into her front sweatshirt pocket and considered.

She’d really liked his speech, actually. It had been terse, but it was also the only one of the bunch that had felt…real. Snape had been talking from his heart, something he usually hid behind a thick layer of sarcasm and vitriol. Which meant that he might be feeling vulnerable now, wherever he was, though she wouldn’t go so far as to say lonely.

But still, she ought to find him and check up on him, yeah?

Harry’s resolve quickened her steps. Yes.

Chapter Text

Fireworks lit up the sky over Hogwarts. They crackled and whizzed and exploded in bright starfish of color, and the figures of the dead moved among them, larger than life: Mad-Eye Moody brandishing his wand, Remus and Tonks attempting a foxtrot, Colin Creevey grinning behind his Muggle camera, and of course Fred Weasley, who darted between them all on a broomstick, knocking them end over end and causing gleeful mayhem across the night.

With a series of explosions that could probably be heard in France, those who’d died for the cause took a last bow. Finally, the words “Weasleys Wizard Wheezes Forever” stretched across the sky.

“Expecto Patronum!” yelled Harry Potter, who was standing on a rock at the edge of the Black Lake. A bright stag erupted from the tip of her wand to prance through the lingering sparks in the blackness, soon to be joined by the patronuses of other onlookers who circled the water: Ginevra Weasley’s horse, Luna Lovegood’s hare, even Shacklebolt’s leopard.

As the silver-white beasts cavorted overhead, Potter gave a breathy whoop and leapt down from her boulder, sheathing her wand in the back pocket of her jeans. “I liked that a lot,” she said as she approached. “It was loads better than what the Ministry did.”

Leaning against the tomb of Albus Dumbledore, Severus crossed his arms. “Mr. Weasley is just lucky he didn’t set the grounds afire,” he sniped. While he was impressed by George Weasley's ability to hold up two fingers to the Ministry's solemn pageantry, he was still highly annoyed that the unauthorized fireworks had been deployed over school grounds.

“True.” Stopping in front of him, the girl made a grab for the flask of Firewhiskey in his hand.

Severus held it out of her reach. “You’ve had more than enough.”

Potter blinked at him slowly. “Maybe you’re right,” she finally answered. Then, she apparently thought that the correct course of action was to turn her back to him and lean her head against his shoulder. “Sorry,” she murmured. “You’re really warm.”

Not for the first time that evening, Severus wondered how the hell he’d gotten himself into this mess.

~

Two hours earlier…

Albus Dumbledore's tomb rested near an inlet on the shore of the lake, separated from the water by a narrow strip of grass and rocks. It was a quiet place that felt insulated from the rest of Hogwarts, and Harry visited it on occasion, if only to think about one of the men who had dictated the course of her life.

Today, this strip of sheltered shoreline was where she finally discovered Snape.

Even though she’d been searching for the better part of an hour already (and Merlin, was she regretting not just sneaking back into the castle for the Marauders’ Map), she doubted that she would have uncovered the man's hiding place if she hadn’t paused in her wanderings to say hello to the tomb.

Laying her palm against the cool white marble, she expected to feel the surge of recognition that always came from one of the objects inside. Instead, she got a shock.

Oh, she could sense magic, all right—but this was something foreign to the kind of power she'd been expecting, something sly and strong and silky, like a snare. Harry shuddered, her heart speeding up and her mouth growing dry. The magic felt dark, but not Dark dark, as in something to defend against. It was more like black coffee or rich chocolate.

She also felt a brief itching sensation across her skin, but dismissed it as unimportant. Still trailing her fingers along the marble, she rounded the corner of the tomb.

Snape was sitting on the grassy ground that faced the lake with his legs folded in front of him and his back to the marble. His eyes were closed, his palms cupping his knees, his mouth a flat line. His cloak was folded up neatly beside him, and the wind caught the edges of his hair.

If he was aware of her presence (and she highly doubted that he wasn’t) he gave no sign. Didn’t want to be disturbed, then. Would probably take an unprecedented number of House points if she interrupted him, as a matter of fact. Silently, Harry made her way to a nearby boulder at the water’s edge and sat, studying her former Potions Professor.

His features weren’t exactly relaxed, but the usual scowl lines in his face had lightened. That and the sunlight made him look younger, more like a regular man than the villain of her childhood. Because he was just a man, wasn’t he? And not a handsome one, she supposed, with his Roman nose and his stained fingers and the scar on his neck and the hair that gleamed in the sunlight like an oil slick—but when Harry looked at Snape, everything about him made something deep inside of her just want to say Yes.

Harry shook herself out of her reverie. Knowing that it would be rude to stare for too long, she lay back across the boulder and looked instead at the sky. It was whitening with twilight, and a half moon was ascending above the edges of the mountains.

Harry laced her fingers together on top of her stomach and spread her legs more to get comfortable, doubly glad that she’d decided just to wear jeans and her favorite natty old hoodie today. The rock wasn't soft, but at least it didn't have springs in the middle like the old mattress she'd slept on at the Dursleys'. And even if he didn’t acknowledge her, Snape’s presence was helping her to relax a bit. It was nice to be near him, especially after the way he'd been avoiding her for the last month.

Her life ought to have more of this in it, she decided—just lying down under the open sky. It had been a difficult and exhausting day, for all that they'd been celebrating peace and a victory against bigotry and aggression. And then there'd been that reporter, saying those ridiculous things about Snape and Lavender... Maybe she ought to just close her eyes for a minute to rest.

Harry's breathing steadied and deepened.

“How did you get past my wards?"

Jolted from the nap that she certainly hadn’t meant to take, Harry relaxed the fingers that had automatically closed around the handle of her wand. “Wards?” she mumbled, sitting up. She rubbed her eyes, which were dry and itchy from falling asleep with her contacts still in, and saw the looming figure of the Headmaster standing a few paces away.

“Wards, Miss Potter,” he enunciated acidly, his arms crossed over his chest. “The magical barriers that I created to keep Gryffindors from destroying my solitude.”

“Oh.” Harry flushed. So that’s what that itching sensation had been when she’d first spotted him, not to mention that sly, seductive magic. She took a deep breath. “Um, I must have just…gone through them."

Predictably, Snape did not look appeased by this answer. “You’re lying. People don’t just ‘go through’ my wards,” he said coldly.

Harry rubbed a hand over her face, looking around to see if anything had changed since she’d fallen asleep. Not much—the sky was a bit darker, the moon a bit higher, but she could hear from the sounds that made their way past the barrier of the tomb that the festivities, as it were, were still in full swing.

“M’not lying,” she protested. “It’s just…it was the Elder Wand, all right? It likes me. When I’m nearby, it sort of…helps me do tricky things.” Knowing that her cheeks were getting red, she kicked at one of the pebbles on the ground. “Sorry—I didn’t even realize you had wards up.”

When she looked up again, Snape was still staring at her. All of the color that had been in his sallow cheeks had drained away. His blank expression made her want to shiver.

“It’s in Dumbledore’s tomb,” Harry clarified. She realized that she’d never told him this part of the story, though she'd related the whole King's Cross Station episode while he was in St. Mungo's. Fuck—the Elder Wand was what had almost led to Snape’s death, hadn't it? “I put it back there after the Battle and sealed it up again.” She paused. "You couldn't have thought I kept it?"

“I was under the impression that it was destroyed in your confrontation with the Dark Lord,” he accused softly, his face still void of expression.

“Oh. No, it’s perfectly fine. Unlike Mr. Riddle himself.”

Snape considered her for a few seconds longer, but she didn’t feel the probe of Legilimency. If he was looking into her thoughts, he was being remarkably subtle about it.

"If you are the master of this artifact," he finally told her, "you could attain a level of power of which the Dark Lord only dreamed."

Harry frowned. “And you think that would make me happy?”

Snape shifted his gaze to the expanse of lakewater behind her. “Perhaps that depends on what you used it for,” he said with a faint sardonic edge to his voice. "Power is nothing if not wielded for a specific purpose."

The wind from off of the water whipped at the black strands of his hair, and the first of the evening's crickets began to chirp.

Harry squinted at the man. He might have a point, but if he believed that she was going to let the wielding of power determine the course of her life, he didn't know her very well. She wasn't Dumbledore. “You know I only ever wanted to be normal, right?" she asked. "Not some sort of hero or political figure or whatever. Being normal and uninteresting would’ve suited me down to the ground.”

Finally exhaling, Snape retreated back to the edge of the white edifice. “Miss Potter, however 'uninteresting' you managed to be, I cannot imagine a universe where you wouldn’t have driven me mad,” he muttered.

Harry smiled, feeling the tension seep out of her shoulders as obviously as it had seeped out of Snape's. She knew his glares, and the one that he was currently leveling at her was more show than substance. In combination with his words, in fact, it felt almost as if he was teasing her.

Well, two could play at that game. "Did you like my cake?" she asked, stretching lazily.

He stiffened. "No."

She widened her eyes with false innocence. "But Winky said you ate the whole thing."

She could practically hear him grinding his teeth. "I have a well-documented propensity for self-sacrifice."

Well, that was certainly true. Letting her smile fade, Harry drew her knees up to her chest and gathered her courage. “I am sorry for upsetting you a month ago,” she offered. “When I asked for you to teach me about—you know. It was just something I wanted to try, but it’s not that important. Your friendship means more to me than any of the rest.” God, she wished she could explain herself better than that, but she didn’t want to bring up the word "sex" when they’d been practically getting along.

Rather than answering right away, the Potions Master gave her an inscrutable look. “That's the second time you've used that word in regards to myself," he finally said.

She blinked. "Which word?"

Snape's nostrils flared. "Friendship. I believe that you've severely misjudged the parameters of our relationship. I’ve barely mastered the urge not to hex you on sight.”

Harry tilted her head. "What do you think friendship is all about, then?" It was probably a cynical thought, but there were times when even her closest friends—and especially her closest friends—drove her barmy. And she and Malfoy were apparently friends now, so why couldn't she apply the term to Snape, who she trusted with her life?

She shifted on her perch. “You have mine, anyway. And my gratitude, for protecting me and for what you sacrificed in the war.”

Snape's eyes narrowed. "Miss Potter..."

Oh, was he going to take offense at that? Of course he was. The man was more prickly than a hedgehog. “And don’t bite off my head for saying so,” she added primly. “It’s the anniversary of the day I died.”

Pushing off of the wall of the tomb, the man prowled toward her. The corner of his lips lifted. "Should I also refrain from deducting fifty House points for the smuggled alcohol in your front pocket?” he asked silkily.

For the second time since they'd begun talking, Harry flushed. She pulled out the small metallic flask whose shape he must have seen outlined against her stomach. She’d forgotten that it was even there. “It’s not mine," she protested. She'd gotten it from Ginny Weasley, who seemed to think that Harry might enjoy that sort of thing.

“So you’re a thief and a lush,” Snape purred, his eyes glittering.

Harry huffed. “I can assure you, its acquisition was entirely meritorious.” There—he ought to appreciate the use of a five-syllable word. “And I’ve never had alcohol before, other than butterbeer.”

"Poor Miss Potter," Snape murmured, looking at her with the same inscrutable expression that he'd worn when she'd mentioned friendship. He lifted a single eyebrow. "It would seem that there are many things that you haven't done."

Harry exhaled sharply. Glaring up at him, she unscrewed the flask’s cap with abrupt gestures and raised it to her lips to swallow.

A good deal of sputtering and choking later, Harry was shocked by hearing a deep, rich laugh sound above her. At the same time, a hand came down to steady one of her shoulders. “Breathe,” Snape instructed while he wordlessly conjured a glass, filled it with an Aguamenti, and pressed it into her hands. “And drink that, slowly.”

“Thanks,” she managed, caught between embarrassment and something else—a fluttering in her stomach that probably had more to do with hearing Snape laugh for the first time than with the descending burn of the Firewhiskey. Getting her breath back, she glanced up to meet dark eyes.

The lingering amusement that she saw there, not particularly well-shielded for once, made a giggle bubble up in her throat. “I’m a twat, aren’t I?” she asked ruefully.

Her companion's snort in response didn’t sound at all like disagreement.

“Well, you have some, then,” she said, holding the flask up toward him with an expression of challenge.

Snape rolled his eyes, but closed his hand around the offering. Sniffing the contents, he took a small sip.

“Oh,” he breathed, his eyes flickering closed.

Harry watched his face in fascination. “It’s good?”

“It’s excellent, you ignorant girl.” Snape’s long fingers had closed around the flask proprietarily.

Harry's eyebrows rose. Apparently, Ginny had managed to develop sophisticated tastes in Firewhiskey during her short but adventurous life. “Well, let me have another go then,” Harry demanded. "I don't think I really appreciated it the first time."

Snape handed the flask back. “It will taste better if the majority doesn’t end up coming out of your nose,” he agreed snidely.

Harry hid her smile against the brim, feeling, oddly enough, like she’d just caught the Snitch.

Bastard.

~

How he got to this point, Severus decided as the edges of Potter's curls feathered against the fabric over his collarbone, was immaterial. Harry Potter, ridiculous creature that she was, was something that seemed to just happen.

Though in this case, it appeared that Potter had been allowed to just happen because of the fucking Elder Wand. Because she was still the Master of Death, of bloody course.

If she weren’t Harry Potter, she might be a danger to the world. As it was, raised by the Dursleys and Dumbledore to be utterly without ambition, she was merely a danger to herself, her enemies, and his sanity.

He'd retreated to this quiet spot to get away from her presumptions and the way she looked at him, after all. He ought to have spent the evening overseeing the rest of the memorial, then helping the teachers and prefects shepherd the younger students back into the castle. But no, Potter had decided to waltz past his protections and take advantage of the situation by falling asleep. On a rock.

Utterly ridiculous.

He could smell her, he realized—shampoo and Teddy Lupin's baby powder over a complex bouquet that must be her natural scent. Drawing it in through his nostrils deeply, he was able to identify notes of cinnamon, wet ferns, butter, and dragon smoke.

The girl had always worn her hair short, and the curls were currently shorn just at the tip of her chin. In the darkness, her neck was bare and pale. Severus dipped his head slightly so that he could take a last whiff of the scent along the creamy expanse.

Lily had smelled a bit like this.

Potter, Severus reminded himself harshly. This was Potter. Not Lily. Gods above, he couldn’t afford not to keep that clear in his mind. Raising the flask to his lips again, he drained the rest of the whiskey in a single swallow and tossed it on the ground.

And then, of their own volition, his arms came up to circle Potter’s waist.

“Oh,” she sighed, melting backwards into his embrace. Severus’s arms tightened, and he could hear his breathing beginning to go ragged.

A shiver worked its way through the girl’s shoulders.

“Miss Potter,” he said lowly into her ear, “while I appreciate your apology and your previous efforts to bolster my—” His nostrils flared. “—reputation, do not make the error of imagining me to be the man that you obviously want me to be. I am not some kind of spotless paragon of the Light. I am not a good man. When I was seventeen, I was inducted into the Death Eaters and reveled in the power I’d been granted. Reveled, girl. I was no unwilling conscript.” He took a breath that hissed between his crooked teeth. “I was eager to learn new ways to cause pain—and I did. During the course of my adult life, I have tortured and murdered innocents and allowed desperate, pleading allies to be killed in front of my eyes.”

He let her go.

To his shock, however, Potter's only reaction was to spin to face him. “You think I don’t know all that already?” she asked, laying a hand across his heart.

Severus blinked. Of all the stubborn— “You’re missing the point,” he told her in annoyance.

Potter’s features were indistinct in the darkness, but he could still see the lift of her chin. “No, I’m really not,” she answered hotly. “Why do you think that heroism is all about keeping your hands from getting dirty? Why do you insist on thinking less of yourself because you were the only person who could do what needed to be done?”

Salazar, it was just his luck that she'd be an articulate drunk. And why did Potter, for all that she’d killed the Dark Lord, have to be so bloody innocent and pure and sincere all the time?

It hurt, the way he suspected she was looking at him. Feeling as if his world were tilting, Severus leaned forward until he could make out the pleading in her face, the tautness of her body as she prepared to argue some more, the tremble in her damnably full lower lip—

“Miss Potter,” he made himself say, voice hoarse, “go back to the castle. It's almost curfew. I won't be lenient simply because you brought me Ogden's Finest.”

The girl wet her lips, studying him. He wondered what she saw.

“Okay,” she finally answered. "Goodnight, Snape."

Spinning on one heel, she left him in the darkness without looking back.

Chapter Text

After stalking the halls for three hours to smoke out any students ignoring curfew, Severus returned to the Headmaster’s quarters to get ready for bed. He was thinking of nothing.

He undressed, folded and hung his clothes, relieved himself, cleaned his teeth, pulled his nightshirt over his head, Noxed the light, and continued thinking of nothing.

He was very good at it, after all.

~

Harry, on the other hand, was not thinking of nothing. She was thinking of Severus Snape, and her level of concentration was impressive, considering the fact that she was still (she suspected) a bit drunk.

When she’d stumbled into the eighth years’ common room after Snape sent her away, her vision was swimming, her head was pleasantly fogged, and her pulse was throbbing in her ears. She felt as if the darkness outside was still in her veins. The whiskey had been, at the very least.

Luckily, no one had tried to talk to her and noticed anything amiss between the time that she left the Potions Master and the moment she collapsed into bed. She was alone for the night, since Hermione had scrawled a note that she would be bunking with Ron. Far from begrudging her friends the comfort they would draw from being together (although she did wince a bit on behalf of Neville, Ron's roommate), Harry was glad to be by herself. She wasn't ready to explain what had happened to Hermione, dearly as she loved her best friend. She felt sort of…possessive of the knowledge. In any case, she didn't want to pin it all down yet with caveats and description.

In recollecting what had happened, however, her wandering thoughts did snag on two things:

One, that if Snape thought he could scare her away by telling her about the mistakes he’d made in his youth and how he’d atoned for them, he was an idiot of the highest order. And also, Dumbledore had treated him abominably by encouraging him to value himself at so low a price.

And two, that she was immensely glad that she’d had the chance to apologize in person for that whole virginity mess. She still thought his initial rejection of her proposal had been an overreaction, but she hadn’t been lying about valuing the reality of their friendship more than anything that could happen in his bed.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long before her whiskey-addled ruminations gave way to the advances of sleep. The last thing she thought of before surrendering awareness was the ghostly memory of breath tickling her neck…

…and a rumbling voice whispering in her ear…

…and strong arms wrapped around her midsection, so wiry and warm…

And then, of course, she’d dreamed.

She'd dreamed that she and Snape were dancing at a ball, but she was wearing the wrong clothes and couldn’t keep in step.

She'd dreamed that she was back in the Forest of Dean, following a shining white doe to a frozen pool. Leaning over it, she saw that Snape was at the bottom instead of the Sword of Gryffindor, caught in a spelled sleep like the hostages during the Second Task. She had to get to him before he froze, so she jumped in, but there was a horcrux 'round her neck and she was going to drown—

She dreamed that she was captured by Death Eaters, but Snape smuggled her away by hiding her in his cloak. Except that the chest under his cloak was covered in black feathers, and she couldn’t help but pluck them out one by one, and then he collapsed on the ground and bled from the punctured flesh until there was nothing but a patchy-feathered raven where he’d once stood…

She dreamed that she was in his dungeon office, trying to learn Occlumency again. Failing abysmally, of course. “You’ll never learn,” he sneered, holding his wand to her forehead as Harry braced her back against the stone wall.

“Maybe you just haven’t found the right way to teach me,” she said, chest heaving, daring to push herself up against the heat of his body and reaching forward to grab at his rows and rows of buttons. She began to undo them.

“Is this what you demand in return for saving my life?” he asked in shock. But he didn’t back away.

She might have been speaking Parseltongue, her answer came out as such a hiss. “Yes," she answered.

She lifted her mouth for the first kiss—oh, how she wanted him—and his chin was dipping in turn—"Then on your own head so be it," he growled—but she never got to taste it, because she was suddenly whisked away to another scene, another piece of a dream that was going to show her something about herself, as revealing but distorted as if she’d broken the mirror of Erised and now had to search for her heart’s desire in the shards.

~

After waking again, Harry lay in bed at what she guessed was just after midnight and dragged heaving gulps of air into her lungs, desperately trying to ignore the hardness of her nipples and the wetness between her legs and the fact that, although the fog in her head was finally clearing, her senses were absolutely aflame.

He’d hugged her. No, more than that: Snape had fucking cuddled her.

Did friends cuddle each other platonically? Well, yes. She and Hermione had spent the night after visiting Godric’s Hollow last year tangled together in Hermione’s sweaty cot—but that had been about convincing each other that they'd actually survived (and feeling totally freaked out at the idea of a giant snake stealing a human’s body to wear as a skin). And Ginny always latched onto Harry’s arm while snoring whenever Harry shared a bed with her at the Burrow.

But Snape had embraced her, held her tight against his body, spoken into her ear until she swore that she could feel that sly baritone in her bones. Of course, there had been nothing soft or caring about the words themselves—except that they were a warning, because he was still (always) trying to protect her, even from himself.

He was such a jumble of contradictions. Sneer at her, shield her; pull her close, push her away.

Did he actually want her, in some small measure, despite his insistence to the contrary? Might he be attracted to her without knowing it himself, for example? Did spies lie to themselves, or just to other people? Harry was awful at mind magic; how was she to know what sort of mental gymnastics would allow someone to excel at it? But there was obviously so much going on with Snape below the surface. Was it hidden from his own view, as it was hidden from hers? Or was Snape’s mind like a well-oiled machine, with himself as both the mechanic and the inventor?

Was she just kidding herself? Would it be better if she'd never asked these questions at all?

Despite the conflicting messages of her dreams, she knew deep inside that all she really wanted was for the Potions Master to be able to see his own worth. To recognize the value of his intelligence and discretion and courage and snarky wit and unfailing loyalty.

Harry's last dream before waking had been a bit clearer than the rest. She’d dreamed that she was back by the tomb with Snape, the power of the Elder Wand singing in her blood. She spun to face him, defending him to himself, and Snape looked at her in the dream as he’d done in real life—with a freezing and a widening of eyes, a tilting forward, an exhale. Stubborn as always, Harry waited him out.

This time, he didn’t tell her to return to the castle. “What can I have?” he asked instead, his dark eyes catching the moonlight as he lifted a hand that hovered over her cheek.

“From me?” Harry looked at him. To her dream self, the answer was obvious.

“Anything," she replied. "Anything at all.”

And it was true, because that was what she would offer him—if only she could figure out what he needed her to give.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time (when he was seven), Severus had found a book of Muggle fairytales in a neighborhood skip among the cigarette butts and soiled nappies and banana peels.

It had beautiful illustrations, although various babies appeared to have ejected the contents of their stomachs onto them at various points in time.

The stories in it were utter shite in terms of actual information about magic, of course—but Severus still found them exciting. And although he savored the ones with daring adventures and heroes who outwitted their betters through cunning, his favorite (which he had never admitted to anyone, even Lily) was the one about the mermaid who fell in love with a prince from the land and ended up transforming into sea foam when he couldn’t return her feelings.

He never knew whether he considered himself more similar to the mermaid or the prince in the story, although the events of his life had certainly underscored one option more than the other.

~

It was approximately two weeks after the memorial that Severus found himself sitting across from Minerva McGonagall in the Headmaster’s office, saying, “You know why I decided to return.”

When she had visited him in St. Mungo's the previous July, they'd had lengthy discussions about whether he would be taking up the position of Headmaster for a second year.

Despite having deep reservations about his suitability for the role in peacetime, Severus had been swayed by two facts. First, he would be able to protect his Slytherins by returning as Headmaster, however much they might begrudge him that particular honor. And second, he didn’t want to be seen as retreating from the public eye with his tail between his legs. What better way to declare that he had, in fact, been on the winning side of the war than to return as the head of the most beloved wizarding institution in Britain?

Severus couldn’t suppress a small smirk when he thought of the expressions on Board of Governors’ faces when they’d been informed of his plans. That had almost been reason enough to return in itself.

Now, however, Minerva interrupted his musings by saying tartly, “Yes, of course I remember. But I didn’t ask about your reasons for staying, Severus Snape. I asked about your reasons for leaving.”

Ah. Severus exhaled. Those would be considerably trickier to explain.

~

They were related, obviously, to what had happened when he’d finally been forced to stop thinking of nothing after the events of the one-year memorial.

Thinking of nothing was a useful skill that Severus had developed over the years as an Occlumens and a spy. It was also a testament to his self-discipline, since being empty-headed didn’t come as naturally to him as to so many of the little imbeciles he’d taught over the years.

The ability to think of nothing was essential when he needed to commit himself to a course of action and let everything else fall away. It kept the twin buzzards of shame and fear from circling. He’d spent much of his first year as Headmaster, for example, thinking of nothing beyond day-to-day necessities like keeping the Carrows from killing Longbottom.

But it wasn’t sustainable as a long-term state of consciousness. Even in that wretched final year of the war, he’d needed to breathe shallowly in the middle of the night and bring his true motivations to the fore on occasion. Otherwise, the Sword of Gryffindor would never have let him carry it to Potter's winter hideout.

And now, when he was thinking of nothing in order to avoid thinking of a precise something that had dawned on him on the night of the memorial, when he’d stood so close to Potter in the darkness and his world had felt as if it was tilting, tipping him towards her...

Now, he was able to maintain his calm for approximately five days before the dam burst and his thoughts came flooding in.

~

Many of the loudest ones were only half-articulated. Like:

A girl half his age, and the bloody saviour of the wizarding world, to boot. Lily’s daughter. How could he possibly…?

He could still picture her at age eleven, age twelve, age thirteen. And now, he wanted to—

Had he really sunk so—

If he’d asked her to come back to his quarters that night, what would she have—

But why would he even want that? She was just so…Potter-ish. Petulant, reckless, willfully idealistic…

Cheeky, brave, compassionate…

But what about Lily? Did what he’d seen, when his world had tilted in the darkness and he’d had a clear view of his core, his roots, his bare and base desires, negate his undying love for Lily?

Certainly not.

And yes, he was aware that part of the reason that his love for Lily was so very undying was because he’d needed it to be in order to have the willpower to succeed as a double agent. But that didn’t change how often he’d dreamed of making love to her when he was a teenager, of sliding his hands up the smooth skin under her dress and catching kisses at her mouth ecstatically, the bedsheets always snowy white.

~

Looking across the desk at his colleague of almost twenty years, Severus made the decision to be honest. “Minerva,” he said bluntly, “I’m a shit headmaster.”

As the watching portraits erupted into a mixture of titters and indignant huffs, the Head of Gryffindor, to her credit, looked no more ruffled than ever. “I won't say that you're popular, but none of the students have been remotely endangered this year," she countered, taking a sip of the dark Indian tea he’d served. “Which certainly wasn't true under Albus’s watch.”

On reflex, Severus glanced toward the man’s portrait. The splotches of turpentine representing the former headmaster and Supreme Mugwump had spent most of the year snoozing, and this afternoon was no different. Perhaps the old coot had finally given up his need to meddle, what with the war being over and won and all.

Right.

Glancing back at his companion, Severus inclined his head. He, of everyone, had been close enough to Dumbledore to see his flaws, the greatest of which, Severus had long believed, was a marked dependence on luck. A dependence that certain students had paid for with their lives, when it finally ran out.

But he wasn’t here to talk about the sins of Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore was dead. Severus had killed him.

“Be that as it may…” He paused to consider his next words carefully. Did he really want to reveal so much of himself to his companion?

But given her blasted Gryffindor tenacity, did he actually have a choice?

Standing abruptly, he strode in a swish of robes to the hidden door from the Headmaster’s office to his personal quarters.

When he emerged two minutes later, he was cradling an object against his chest. He set it down on the desk in front of Minerva carefully.

“This was given to me when I was a teenager,” he explained in a voice that was deliberately free of emotional inflections. It had been a gift from Lily when they were thirteen—“So that you can plan where you’ll go,” she’d said. He’d just told her about his ambition to become a traveling researcher in order to investigate how the non-Western world used magic, something that he’d realized was a huge blind spot among the self-isolated wizards of Europe.

The object in question was a small globe of the Earth, heavy, but no bigger than one of his hands. The rod that it rotated around was gold, but the globe itself was entirely white, from its oceans to its mountains to its continental divides—all except the island of Great Britain, which shone in a muted green.

He spun the globe gently and traced the outlines of the continents with a single light fingertip. “Regions of the world are enchanted to fill in with color once I’ve been there.”

“So you’ll always know where the blank spots on your map still are,” Lily had explained, always practical, always kind.

Glancing up at his companion again, he saw that Minerva was watching him with the light of understanding in her eyes, but thankfully no trace of pity. Stopping the white globe's whirl abruptly, Severus laced his fingers together behind his back. “I’ve spent almost three-fourths of my life attached to this institution, Minerva,” he finally said. “I played the part I was given to the best of my abilities, but I can't say that I expected to survive it. Since I apparently have, against all odds—” He swallowed dryly. “I seem to be…leaning toward being selfish. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t actually think that there’s nothing more to the world than Slytherins and Gryffindors.” For appearance’s sake, he mustered a sneer.

Severus looked out the stained glass window at the bright springtime light, noticing idly that the portraits had hushed their inane chatter to listen to his monologue. Dumbledore’s eyes were open.

“I believe that the world is much larger than our mindset usually allows, and I’d like to…I intend to see some of it, now that I finally can."

After a pause that seemed interminable, his companion cleared her throat. “Given those reasons, Severus, I fully support your resignation," she said, her voice strong and bracing despite the suspiciously wet-looking gleam in her eyes. "I am more than willing to take up the mantle of Headmistress come year’s end."

Thank god for Scottish brusqueness. Severus barely stopped himself from sagging in relief. “Thank you,” he told her simply—because often the simplest expression of gratitude was the most sincere. He’d never expected Minerva to make this so easy for him.

The woman offered him a thin smile. “We’ll have to call a staff meeting to discuss the change in administration, obviously. And we must find replacements for the Gryffindor Head of House and Transfigurations professor.”

“Of course,” Severus agreed, though he winced internally at the thought of the fodder for gossip that his resignation would provide for his colleagues and the school at large. “Do you have suggestions?”

They spent the next half hour discussing logistics and having another round of tea. The time was refreshingly productive and free of sentimental outbursts—a trend that continued until Minerva took her leave.

Setting her teacup back in its saucer with a rattle, the Scotswoman stood briskly and said, “Severus,” waiting for him to look up from the list of potential staffing changes and give her his full attention.

When she had it, she fixed him with an expression that was eerily similar to the one she used on students who were tardy to class. “I am highly invested in knowing what you do with yourself in the upcoming years, my lad. I expect to be kept informed.”

Severus opened and closed his mouth. “You have my word.”

“Good." A small smirk ghosted across Minerva's face. "You should know that I’ve considered it an honor to work with you—and perhaps, on occasion, a pleasure. I do hope you don’t break too many hearts on your adventures.”

And with that, she disappeared down the stairs.

Since he had far more self-control than to sputter, Severus’s reaction was confined to an eye roll. Him, some type of heartbreaker, Don Juan, Lothario? Who the hell did she think he was? He was no Potter, with her crooked smile and perpetual bedhead and long, dark eyela—

He cut off the thought before it came to completion.

He was also unsurprised, upon looking up, to see that Albus’s portrait was still regarding him with curiosity. “Yes, Headmaster?” he asked. The thing was a poor simulation of the man, but he’d long ago learned that there was no joy to be gained from being rude to it.

“That was wonderful news, my boy. Wonderful news!”

Severus hummed noncommittally. Case in point: in life, Albus had never sounded like Cornelius Fudge. He waited for the other shoe to drop.

“But I don’t believe you’ve been planning this for long. From what I've understood all year, you intended to remain at Hogwarts indefinitely. Might I ask what has caused such a change of heart?”

Severus regarded his former mentor levelly. “I’ve recently been informed that I might be…underestimating my own worth. I’d like to find out if that’s true.”

Suddenly fed up with the conversation, Severus gathered up his globe under one arm and retreated to his quarters once again.

~

That evening, he sat in front of his fireplace with a brandy (he’d had more than enough Firewhiskey, of late) and watched the white globe with its single splotch of green spin.

It was his most precious possession, and he’d kept it hidden for so many years from the Dark Lord and Albus alike. To the Dark Lord, what was important was Severus’s desire for power, status, respect, a more orderly world. To Albus, what was useful was his longing to absolve himself of his mistakes, to avenge Lily’s murder, and, at the end of it all, to die and be at peace—if peace was what awaited a man like him.

Neither of them would have appreciated the fact that he’d once wanted to travel, to explore.

But once upon a time he’d had desires—no, dreams—that had nothing to do with the war. And for some reason, his sudden, forced reassessment of his feelings toward Harry Potter had incited a reawakening of many of the thoughts that he’d suppressed during his years as a spy. They’d badgered him throughout the last week, all of these bits and pieces of himself that had been buried for so long, that had been utterly extraneous to the snarky bat of the dungeons, the cruel bastard, the Dark Lord’s right hand.

But honestly, thinking about them had been a welcome relief from thinking about Potter herself.

Severus took a fortifying pull of his drink and transferred his gaze to the hearth’s flames.

So he’d developed a certain…susceptibility to the girl.

It wasn’t as if he couldn’t have seen this coming. It had been a long time since he’d viewed her as a miniature, genderless duplicate of her father, after all. And hadn’t he found her increasingly distracting physically in recent years, with her sleek athleticism and her Lily's eyes?

But they weren’t really Lily’s eyes, were they? Oh, Albus and Lupin and the girl's mangy dog-father had always nattered on about the resemblance, but Severus had known Lily’s eyes better than they had, thank you very much. They were close, and a man could be forgiven for substituting one for the other while dying—but while Lily’s eyes had been warm and flecked with hazel, Potter’s were as dark as the deepest part of the forest.

Closing his own eyes, Severus watched the shapes of the flames flicker against his dark lids and felt it all course through him. Potter sinking to the ground and clutching her head during Occlumency lessons; Potter glaring at him in DADA; Potter stripping down to her underwear in the middle of winter and diving into a fucking frozen pool, just because she couldn't help but be heroic when someone dangled a feat of valor in front of her face.

Potter bathed in moonlight as she returned his memories; Potter perching on the edge of his hospital bed and trying to goad him into solving a crossword puzzle; Potter saying, “I’m a twat, aren’t I?” as she grinned up at him, still catching her breath from swallowing the whiskey wrong.

Fucking hell, she was just so young.

In many ways, the girl was much older than her years. In modern times, not many eighteen-year-olds had already faced their own deaths—and even fewer had carried an entire society’s hopes and fears on their shoulders.

But there were other ways in which she was a very young eighteen. And he couldn’t take advantage of that. He would never be able to see to her—his nostrils flared—erotic education, as she'd asked. Almost any paramour would be better for the child than himself—Longbottom, a Weasley, even Draco sodding Malfoy, when it came down to it.

Potter deserved to have her first time be with someone who still had a shred of innocence to lose.

He could easily see the girl’s life stretching out ahead of her: a career as the Ministry’s darling, a loving spouse and family once she settled down, a parade of accolades and affection and success. And at the end of it all, she’d be the matriarch of a clan of Gryffindors who would sit at her feet and demand to hear more stories of catching the Snitch and riding on dragonback and defeating one of the most fearsome Dark Wizards who ever lived.

Severus knew that he had no place in that future.

And that was just as it should be.

Shaking his head to dispel such useless thoughts, he summoned an atlas from his shelf and began to turn the pages, taking detailed notes.

Chapter Text

The month of May passed on a wave of seemingly endless studying, and Harry let it carry her along with it.

She wanted to pass all of her NEWTs, after all—or better yet, ace them. And the only way to do that, as Hermione had been telling her for years, was to sit down and get to work.

Still, despite the sanity-defying study schedule that Hermione had gleefully rigged up for her two best friends, Harry still found time to attend the end-of-year meetings of her favorite clubs. She had her arse handed to her for the last time by Malfoy in Fencing, did surprisingly well against Daphne Greengrass at the last Debate Club match, and learned a dance that she privately called “the repressed pureblood fandango” with Blaise Zabini at the final Ballroom Dance session.

Not for the first time in recent memory, Harry reflected on the fact that her social life had become shockingly full of Slytherins.

Despite that, however, she didn’t spend too much time that month thinking about Snape.

It wasn’t that her questions from the night of the memorial weren’t still relevant. When she closed her eyes, she could still feel the heat of his body behind hers, matched only by the heat of her indignation at learning how low an opinion he truly held of himself. But she’d been quite drunk at the time, and he’d been at least a bit drunk, and things had looked different in the light of day on the morning of May 3rd. Snape was still unapologetically Snape, and she wasn’t going to unravel the complexities of his motives and psyche just by wishing that she could. For now, all she could do was continue to interact with him on instinct, as she’d been doing all year—except perhaps with a bit more caution.

She still wanted to give him what he needed—but nothing as of yet had told her what that was.

Snape himself rendered it surprisingly easy to avoid thinking about him overmuch, since he made no effort to speak with her either privately or publicly in the month following the anniversary of the Final Battle. It was fairly clear that he was avoiding her. The only “interaction” they had in that time—if it could even be called that—was during the Quidditch championship match.

Despite Ginny’s captaincy of the Gryffindor team, it was Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff that had secured the top two spots for the year. Harry had come out to cheer for the game, if not for either of the teams in particular. It was a beautiful day with only a few puffy clouds scudding across the sky, and the players were all in top form, the Chasers sending volley after volley toward the goal hoops which the two Keepers deftly blocked. When the Ravenclaw Seeker went into a spectacular dive at the two hour mark and came back up triumphantly holding the snitch, Harry couldn’t help leaping to her feet to whoop along with three-fourths of the rest of the crowd.

It was at that moment that the wind caught the edge of her Gryffindor scarf, directing her attention with its flapping toward the teachers’ box.

As befitted the Headmaster, Snape had taken his place in the center of the box for the match, his dark robes making him stand out among the other faculty like a mourner at a picnic or a crow among squirrels. For an instant, their gazes met across the distance between them.

And Harry lost her breath.

She had a strong inkling that she’d never be a talented Legilimens, but she felt at that moment as if she were staring straight into the thorny heart of Severus Snape and being shown something very important, something that felt lush, fierce, molten—except that it was so sorrowful, so steeped in regret.

And then Snape’s Occlumency shields slammed into place, and his eyes were just eyes, the vulnerable expression that she thought she'd caught on his face disappearing as if it had never existed. Lowering her arms, Harry sat shakily back down, suddenly intensely grateful for the bench's support. Snape, meanwhile, turned his gaze to where the Ravenclaw players had landed and hoisted their grinning Seeker on their shoulders. He rose to clap perfunctorily as the team's victory was announced.

Harry was left wondering if what she’d seen had been real, but there was no way to answer that question. It could only be added to her legion of other unanswered questions about the man.

~

While Harry was happy not to spend the last month of regular classes in her eighth year obsessing about a certain dark and surly Potions Master, she did take some time in that period to reconsider her quest to lose her virginity.

When this whole thing had started, she’d wanted to get it over with as soon as possible, ticking off one aspect of adult life on her to-do list. Erasing what she saw as a vulnerability, then moving on.

But maybe, even with Hermione’s guidance, she’d been too hasty. Subsequent events had made her see that this wasn’t a battle she could just charge into, counting on dumb luck and the sword of Gryffindor to save her again. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be a battle at all.

On the other hand, nothing had changed the fact that she was woefully behind many of her peers and even her two best friends in terms of any sex-related experience, and she’d like to remedy that. To some extent.

This was the mindset that Harry arrived at a few days after the memorial. Unbeknownst to her, however, two events would occur in the following weeks that would shift her perspective slightly on the matter.

The first of these happened when she entered the final meeting of Fashion Club to see Pansy Parkinson staring at her with an expression that was eerily similar to the way a crocodile watches an injured wildebeest at the water's edge.

Fashion Club had been held all year in a vacant classroom that the club members had filled with transfigured couches, dressmakers’ models, pin-up fashion plates of both the muggle and wizarding variety, and mirrors. Today, the couches were arranged in a circle around an empty space, the girls strangely quiet as they lounged.

The classroom door swung shut behind Harry with an ominous thud.

Spotting Ginny arranging fabrics on a long table behind the circle, Harry called, “What’s going on, Gin?” to her friend suspiciously.

Pansy, however, was the one who answered first. “Practical application, Potter,” she purred, stretching back in her seat in a way that made her crossed legs look two miles long.

Harry switched to staring at the other club founder. “Practical application?” she repeated. Her voice absolutely did not squeak.

“Putting our talents to the test,” the Slytherin confirmed, still looking at Harry as if she were a perfect slice of cherry pie.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” Ginny called, tossing her red hair over her shoulder with her own toothy grin. “Pans and I just that we thought we’d do something special today, since it’s our last meeting of the year and all. We want to…challenge ourselves.”

Pansy rose to her feet with what Harry could only describe as smug grace. “And what we’ve decided,” she took up in a calculated drawl, “is that, of all our delightful club members, giving you a makeover would present the greatest challenge.”

“No offense,” Ginny added belatedly.

Harry looked around in alarm, but the other girls were just leaning forward in their seats and whispering to each other excitedly. Hannah Abbot was the only one who looked vaguely sympathetic, and she had her hand over her mouth to cover her smile.

Harry straightened her shoulders. “Er, I don’t think—” she began.

“Then don’t speak,” Pansy interrupted, drawing her wand as she approached with clipped steps. “You’re my model today, Potter. All that’s required is that you stand still.”

~

While Harry would never say that she appreciated being ambushed in this manner, she did have to admit an hour later that the results were impressive.

In fact, she was standing frozen, regarding the creature in the mirror in utter shock.

“Close your mouth or you’ll ruin the line,” Pansy admonished near her left ear.

Harry closed her mouth.

She was wearing a form-fitting gown in forest green, a slit up one side displaying a hint of bare calf. The sleeves were tight and lacy, the neckline open in a surplice above the swells of her breasts. She didn’t have pierced ears, but Ginny had known a spell for the occasion, so small silver hoops now dangled from her earlobes to match the silver chain looped around her neck. Her short curls had been rendered artful rather than untamed, and there was mascara on her eyelashes and a rhubarb-red tint on her lips.

“Elegant,” Pansy had called the ensemble.

“Hot,” Ginny had contradicted.

Harry had to admit, she looked rather…svelte. All chest and legs and eyes, if she was cataloging. She continued staring at herself, then twisted slightly. And was that actually her arse?

She’d never known that she could look so…well, feminine. Oh, she’d always known that she was a girl—it would’ve been hard to miss, considering that “Girl” was all the Dursleys had called her, most of the time—but she’d always worn Dudley’s hand-me-downs to school. She'd never looked like the other girls...even after her third year at Hogwarts, when she’d gotten the idea to transfigure Dudley's castoffs into bright colors like purple and orange and pink.

Harry had a flash of remembering how jealous she’d been of the other girl children in her muggle classes when she was younger, with their pretty dresses and close friendships, the fact that they didn’t wear taped glasses or have burns on their fingers from cooking breakfast every day. The fact that they could sit next to each other and slip easily into whispers and giggles, hushing only when the teachers turned their way.

The teachers had never noticed Harry. She was quiet and sat by herself at the back of every classroom. There had been one unusually shrewd woman, she remembered all of a sudden—the school librarian, who’d been a different sort of librarian entirely from Madame Pince—who’d sat her down one day and asked a few gentle, pointed questions, such as if anyone at home had touched her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable.

But Harry had just shaken her head, because the Dursleys never touched her at all if they could help it.

A throat was cleared behind her, and Harry realized that the girls in Fashion Club were still waiting for her to respond to their finished product. “This is amazing, ladies,” she finally settled for saying. “I…had no idea I could look like this.”

She certainly hadn’t looked like this during the Yule Ball or Bill’s wedding, the last two times she’d worn a gown. She scrutinized herself again, deciding that she looked like she could seduce someone, if she learned how.

Seeing herself this way was startling. Foreign. Disconcerting.

But useful, perhaps. She’d keep it in mind.

Ginny huffed, but before she could speak, Harry met Pansy Parkinson’s gaze in the mirror and added, “Though it’s a bit too green and silver for my taste.”

Pansy gave a disdainful snort. “It’s to match the color of your eyes, not proclaim House loyalty. We all know that Fashion—” She said the word with enough relish that Harry could hear the capital F. “—transcends petty divisions of politics.”

Harry bit her lower lip to hide a smile. “You’re a right inspiration for us all, Parkinson,” she teased.

~

The second thing that affected Harry’s perspective on herself, sex, and the idea of herself having sex happened on a Tuesday morning three weeks after the memorial.

It began with a dream, though this one was far different from both her recurring nightmares about the war and the sort that she’d had about Snape on the night after the Firewhisky.

In this dream, she was swimming in what must have been the ocean, although it was warmer than any ocean water she’d encountered in her admittedly limited experience. She also didn’t seem to be suffocating, despite being underwater. Harry lifted a hand to her throat and felt sharp ridges that exhaled bubbles. She must have used gillyweed.

There was a forest of kelp around her, and she was gliding and twirling through it as easily as an otter. Small, colorful fish darted away from her movements in flurries. A curious eel wound around her legs. She was naked, she realized, but that didn’t bother her. So was everything else in the sea.

Coming to the edge of the kelp forest abruptly, Harry saw a stretch of cool, shadowy sand ahead on the seafloor. She sank down to sit cross-legged on the sandy bottom, looking up at where sunlight pierced the taut surface of the ocean high above and feeling the way the small hairs on her bare skin shifted with the currents, the turn of the tide.

Giving a powerful kick, she shot upwards until she crested the surface and breathed deeply. The feel of the air was sharp and sunny against her damp face and shoulders. The waves were mild, and there was no land in sight.

Stretching her body out like a flower, Harry floated on her back on the swells until she woke up.

Though the details of the dream quickly slipped away from her conscious mind, Harry still felt indolent and relaxed as she made her way to the bathroom to shower. Hermione was still curled up and asleep for once, even though the sun had already broken over the ridges of the mountains outside. Harry tapped her friend’s foot as she passed, which gave a little kick in protest as the other girl mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like an advanced arithmantic formula into her pillow.

After ensconcing herself in the washroom, stripping, and stepping into the hot cascade, Harry lathered soap on her hands and began to clean herself languidly. The water of the shower felt so nice, just like the seawater had in her dream. Her thoughts drifted hazily without settling.

Until the accidental brush of one of her thumbs against a nipple sent a spark of hot pleasure through her body.

Groaning quietly, Harry pressed herself back against the cool tiles of the shower wall, shivering at the contrast of sensations between them and the nearly scalding water. She cupped her breasts in her hands and tilted her head back with her eyes closed as she stroked them softly. It felt good; no, it felt better than good. It felt almost as exhilerating—one side of her mouth quirked—as flying.

Without conscious thought, her pelvis thrust needily against the air. She slipped a hand down and ground her palm against her clitoris, hard. As her free hand jerked up to her mouth to stifle a whimper, she nudged a finger between the folds of her labia and stroked the wetness she found there before going deeper inside.

She didn’t usually do this.

Correction: she almost never did this. It wasn’t that she had anything against masturbation—it was just that a part of her had always felt like it wasn’t allowed for her to be so intimate with her own body, to experience these kinds of sensations. Aunt Petunia had hinted often enough over the years that girls who did things like this would come to (and deserve) nasty ends, after all. And Harry could still recall how her aunt had once hissed (after drinking too much cherry kirsch while making Dudley a black forest cake) that Harry's mother would still be alive if she hadn't taken to spreading her legs for freaks like Harry's father.

And the last time Harry had wanted to touch herself (the morning after the memorial), it had been because she was thinking of the tight grip of Snape’s hands on her waist and the smokiness of his voice in her ear. Indulging herself then would’ve just been wrong, when he’d told her to go away. He was a person who was all about boundaries, and yet hardly anybody had ever respected his over the course of his life. Harry didn't want to count herself among their number anymore.

Now, however, her mind was empty but for the sensations her hands were creating, the hot shower water, the cool tiles at her back, and what memories lingered from her dream, voluptuous and soft. When she closed her eyes, she could see murky blueness and the bright streaks of fish and the emerald green of kelp and sunlight shining through the translucent barrier above. When she quickened her pace, now breaching herself with multiple fingers while her other hand returned to her breasts, she felt the rhythm of the waves in her body, her blood. She swayed against the wall as if she were a strand of kelp herself.

Everything in the dream had been so warm, she remembered. She’d felt cold for so long, she realized suddenly—cold in her cupboard at the Dursleys’, cold in the tent last year, cold with Voldemort always lurking and raging in her head, cold after sitting through the funerals of so many of her friends… But now, she felt only warmth, and safety, and as if all of the names that various factions of the world had called her over the years—from Freak to Chosen One, Girl to Girl Who Lived—had already been stripped away like an old snakeskin, an outgrown mollusk shell, leaving nothing behind but Harry herself.

The waves that were pounding inside of her crashed and broke.

Afterwards, Harry turned off the water, sank down into a cross-legged position on the floor of the tub, and laughed. She hadn’t known that anything as simple as a little rubbing and stroking could feel like that, and she’d done it herself--all herself. She hadn’t needed to ask anyone to help after all.

She had a sudden vision of telling Snape what had happened, what she’d just managed to do. Oh god. She buried her flushing face in her hands, helpless not to start snickering again.

Finally standing, Harry wrapped a towel around her body and shook her head ruefully. No, she wouldn’t bother the man with further evidence of herself as a sexual being. He hadn’t taken it so well the first time, had he?

And whatever was going on between them, she reminded herself again that she couldn’t do anything but follow her gut—and her gut was telling her that it was up to him to make the next move.

~

As a matter of fact, Snape did make the next move.

It wasn’t one that Harry had predicted.

It happened at dinner in the Great Hall in late May, when he stood up and announced that he was resigning from the position of Headmaster at the end of the year and leaving Hogwarts forever.

Chapter Text

Getting pissed on school grounds, Severus reflected as he wove his way through the darkened castle corridors, was becoming entirely too much of a habit.

At least this time, it had been because of—his lower lip curled—a planned social occasion. Minerva had gotten it into her catnip-addled brain that he deserved a retirement party, which the staff surprised him with the evening after he announced his resignation to the students. Severus suspected it was a sort of revenge for twenty years of rivalry, or perhaps for sticking her with the position of Headmistress at the eleventh hour. The witch knew he hated parties.

As a stray strand of green and silver tinsel on his sleeve glimmered in the candlelight spilling from a nearby portrait, Severus’s glower intensified. His House colors were not supposed to sparkle.

Of course, he had to admit that Minerva’s Slytherin-themed decorations had been rather gratifying. Not to mention the dry humor of a cake whose frosting alternated between saying “Bon Voyage!” and “Good Riddance!”

Albus, Severus couldn’t help thinking, would have enjoyed the gathering immensely.

Faced with a choice of two staircases for ascending to the proper floor, Severus paused to collect his bearings. He was not lost. He hadn’t gotten lost in Hogwarts since second year. He merely wished his head would stop spinning like the branches of the Whomping Willow when it sensed fear.

The strangest part of the party by far (and the part that had seen Severus sticking too close to the pretentious plonk supplied by Slughorn for the occasion) had been the fact that the regret his colleagues expressed over his departure was real. Filch’s attitude of sorrow he understood, since the number of students serving detentions would probably drop dramatically with Severus’s absence, but there was no reason for Pomona or Filius or Poppy or any of the others to tell him they were sorry to see him go. He was a cruel, sullen bastard; they’d all known that for years. Yet at some point recently when he hadn’t been paying attention, they'd apparently decided that his virtues—whatever they might be—outweighed his abundant flaws.

Hagrid seemed to summarize the communal sentiment when he patted Severus gravely on the shoulder and said, “I didn’t like yeh for a bit there, Professor, but yeh turned out all right in the end.”

Several members of the faculty had also decided to give him going-away gifts to thank him for his service to the school. He’d received a new set of glass stirring rods from Minerva, a miniature cauldron-shaped paperweight inscribed with his initials from Filius, and a gilded spyglass from the Bloody Baron and the other ghosts, who seemed to think he was leaving to become some type of pirate.

The most mystifying gift, however, had been from the flying instructor. “Condoms, Rolanda?” he’d been drunk enough to wonder aloud after unwrapping the snitch-covered paper. Had Minerva’s daft notion that he was leaving on a trip to fuck his way around the world caught on?

“Well, it’s no good just letting it brood between your legs, m’boy,” Hooch had answered with her typical bluntness. She scratched her nose, then lowered her voice and leaned close enough that he could smell the whiskey on her breath. “Might drop off.”

The other men within listening range all shifted uncomfortably. Even Firenze looked a little green around the gills.

Severus burst into laughter.

At which point, the entire room had dropped into shocked silence. He’d summoned his best sneer. “What?” he demanded, crossing his arms. “You lot didn’t think I knew how?”

It was Poppy Pomfrey who answered. “Well…no, dear. I can’t say we did. But it’s a very nice sound to hear.”

After that, Minerva had gotten an unholy gleam in her eyes and proposed a toast in his honor, which had transformed into a rousing and off-key chorus of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,’ which had transformed into a contest to see who could remember the most lyrics of the greatest hits of Celestina Warbeck.

Severus had managed not to vomit, but only just.

And apparently, the jury was still out on that. When he’d left the party, several of the teachers had asked if he needed an escort back to his quarters. Now, Severus wondered if he ought to have swallowed his pride rather than the bile that was rising in his throat and accepted. He’d ridden the correct staircase up and was on level stone again, but apparently his body was still metabolizing the alcohol, because the walls had suddenly gone quite slanty.

He paused.

His instincts for treachery had been finely honed by his years as a spy, and something was stirring the hairs at the back of his neck.

Bracing himself against the wall, he spun and leveled his wand at the corridor behind him.

It was empty.

And yet—

“Give me one reason not to hex you where you stand, you brainless urchin,” he hissed. Severus’s last few weeks had been refreshingly Potter-free; he should have known his luck wouldn’t hold.

When the girl slid the invisibility cloak off her shoulders, Severus felt a surge of satisfaction that his wandpoint had unerringly found her chest.

“Seven years spent protecting me?” the brat offered with a thin smile.

“Or perhaps you’d prefer to be expelled,” he snarled, before he did something appalling like smile back.

Green eyes flicked over him assessingly. “You’re going the wrong way, Snape.” Before Severus could protest, Potter had ducked against him and hoisted him back upright from where he’d apparently been listing to the side, leaving his arm looped over her shoulders.

“Must’ve been some party,” she huffed as she towed him forward.

Severus allowed himself to be manhandled—Potter-handled—in this way because he suspected that the alternative involved the headmaster of Hogwarts curled on the stone floor and retching up a mass of half-digested cake. “Students weren’t invited for a reason,” he answered waspishly. “Slughorn brought a great deal of a rare vintage of goblin wine.”

Potter peeked up at him from under his arm. “Why don’t you call him Horace?”

He stared at her, aghast. “Would you?”

She ducked her chin in obvious amusement. “Point.”

The gargoyle came swimming into view; it appeared that they had successfully found his office. “Eglantine,” he muttered before the notoriously nosy enchantment could comment.

Potter looked at him with curiosity. “It was the name of my maternal grandmother,” Severus heard himself explaining without being asked.

The door swung open, and they shuffled onto the staircase together. Once they’d ridden it to his office, he shook Potter off, slumped against the wall, and gestured toward the rows of cabinets on either side of Albus’s pensieve. “Third cabinet on the right, sixth vial," he croaked.

His companion bent to retrieve the object in question. “What is it?” she wondered, holding the vial up to squint at the murky liquid. There was more illumination in his office than there had been in the hall, but it wouldn’t be enough for her to read the label.

“Sober up potion.”

“Right.”

Potter straightened and handed it to him; Severus swallowed the viscous liquid, then winced and gritted out, “Second cabinet on the right, third vial.”

“What’s that one, then?”

“Hangover cure.”

The girl rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. “Will it work taking them back-to-back like that?”

Severus covered his face with one hand against the throbbing in his temples. “Which of us is the fucking Potions master?” he demanded.

“Well, I’m certainly not fucking the Potions master," she answered with a smirk.

Severus glared. Had the girl grown even more impertinent since the last time they'd spoken?

“Right. Not funny.” Potter snickered. “Well, it sort of was, but—Right.”

Potter bent again, treating him once more to the sight of her absolutely perfect derriere and the accompanying wave of mingled lust and mortification that surged through him. Severus covered his eyes again, forcibly reminded that he’d been avoiding her for a very good reason.

Gentle fingertips touched his shoulder.

When Severus had finished swallowing the hangover cure, the headache searing through his frontal lobes had not entirely disappeared. Damn the witch, she’d been right about the efficacy being lowered. Still, the potion dampened the pain enough that his shoulders slumped in relief.

“Feeling better, sir?”

Potter’s tone was entirely too innocent. “Don’t call me that,” Severus snapped, making his way toward his desk, which was a mess with end-of-year paperwork. “You only call me that when you’re trying to wind me up. Why are you here, girl?”

She didn’t answer. He looked up.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?” she burst out.

He stared at her.

Potter, apparently, didn’t require a response to continue working herself into a temper. “Malfoy and the Slytherins knew, Luna and the Prefects all knew. Why am I the only one who finds out in front of the whole bloody school?”

Severus shook his head slowly from side to side. “I’m leaving,” he deadpanned. “Consider yourself informed.”

If Helen of Troy had the face that launched a thousand ships, Potter’s glare could have made them turn around, head home, and wait to wage war until the womenfolk were more suitably impressed by it.

Severus sighed and sank down into his chair. “Sit,” he told her irately, gesturing across the desk.

Potter did so, but in a manner that made it clear that no part of her actions were motivated by pleasure in doing as he asked. He’d never seen someone sit so aggressively before, even among the cronies of the Dark Lord.

With a flick of his wand, Severus ignited the braziers that lined the top of the wall. Meeting with Potter alone was dangerous, but even more so in the dark.

Potter winced, and she wasn't the only one: several of the dozing headmasters and mistresses awoke with the light. A hubbub of shocked voices rose.

“A student, at this hour!” gasped a particularly starchy matron who’d been headmistress sometime during the Napoleonic wars. “I’ve never seen anything so improper! Young lady, you ought to be ashamed of—”

“Oh, sod off, Mrs. Giddleston,” Severus heard himself barking.

Silence reigned.

“Well, I never—”

Severus cast a sound-dampening spell over the entire wall.

Potter seemed surprised by his vehemence, but still unimpressed. Severus looked away from that piercing gaze and twisted a quill in his hands. This: this was why it would have been better for all involved if he and the witch had continued not crossing paths for the rest of the year. Since when did he feel the need to keep his hands occupied?

“It was an impromptu decision,” he finally said. He mustered a sneer. “And it’s hardly my fault no one wants to corrupt your innocent ears with gossip.”

“Oh, they’ve gossiped all right.” She looked at him darkly. “Tell me you’re not really going to start some kind of sex dungeon franchise in Eastern Europe.”

He gaped at her. “Oh, use your brain!” he exploded.

The girl had the grace to look chagrined. “Well, I did think Seamus was taking the piss.”

She settled back, chewing her full lower lip. Severus watched her closely as the silence stretched between them. He’d seen Potter’s anger plenty of times before (first year, eying him with suspicion as he swept by in the hall; third year, glaring at him defiantly over an exploded cauldron; fifth year, kneeling on the floor of his office, calling him the worst words she knew in her mind; sixth year, chasing him from the Astronomy Tower, fists clenched, hair wild, shoulders square, the magic rippling off of her skin with a smell like kerosene. It had always struck him how fury could so utterly transform such a relatively innocuous child).

But he realized suddenly that he’d never seen this: the moment when her fury dissolved.

“Where are you going, then?” she eventually asked, scrubbing a hand through untidy black curls.

Severus snapped himself back to the present. “The Yucatan, first.”

“Central America?”

“First,” he repeated, biting back a sarcastic comment on her knowledge of basic geography.

She glanced around, as if she could gather clues about his intentions from the surroundings. “On…a research expedition?” she hazarded.

“Yes. I also intend to spend time in India and Australia. Africa. Perhaps Greenland. Russia. The Pacific.”

Potter blinked, slowly. “That’s…a lot.”

Severus scowled. “I have twenty years of being trapped in an unwanted career to make up for.”

His companion looked pensive at that. “Yeah, all right." She took a quiet breath. "Are you coming back?”

The answer to this mattered to her, he could see.

Severus had the strange feeling that a bell was ringing somewhere in his heart.

“I…don’t know,” he finally answered.

A variety of emotions played across Potter’s face, too intermingled for Severus to name. “All right,” she repeated more softly.

"Miss Potter..." he began, then discovered that he had absolutely no idea what to say. He could feel his vest constricting his sides with each of his harsh, silent breaths, and the bell ringing in his heart had turned into a flock of squawking pigeons. Something, it seemed, was determined to get his attention.

The girl glanced up to meet his eyes again. “I mean, it's bloody brilliant, in a way. I'm glad you're doing what you want." She scuffed the toe of one of her trainers against the chair leg. "I'll miss you, but there's letters, I suppose.”

Severus's eyebrows drew down. “I…doubt I’ll often be in a position to be easily found by owl.”

Her shoulders deflated. “Oh.” That delectable lower lip protruded in a small, boyish pout, which quickly disappeared as she blinked rapidly and got a grip on herself.

For fuck’s sake. Severus stood, coming to a decision that he didn't need Divination to foretell regretting later. Potter shouldn't be encouraged in whatever ill-conceived attachment she'd formed to him. She should be getting on with her life.

But Lily, Severus rationalized, would have approved of what he was about to do.

“Wait here,” he said stiffly.

It was the work of less than a minute for him to duck into his quarters and find what he was looking for. When he returned, the girl was standing and investigating the portrait of Albus, who was either shamming or actually asleep, thank Merlin. Severus cleared his throat. "Here," he said, holding out the white globe.

Potter blinked at him, then accepted it gingerly, tilting it from side to side and giving it a cautious spin. “Thanks, I think,” she finally answered, slightly wary. “What is it?”

"It’s—” Severus found that he couldn’t quite meet Potter’s eyes, so he fixated on the bookcase over her left shoulder with a sour expression. “It was enchanted by your mother. If you pay attention to what changes, it will show you where I am."

Eyes widening, his young companion looked down at the object in her hands once more. “That’s—” She gave a strangled laugh. “Shit, Snape. No one’s ever given me anything of my mother’s before.”

Severus was feeling distinctly uncomfortable. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I do not require thanks, you wretched pest. Simply keep it safe.”

She bit her lower lip. “I promise,” she agreed solemnly.

“And yourself as well,” some instinct made him add.

The girl’s eyes gleamed, somberness dissolving behind her natural impishness. “Maybe.”

“Brat,” he murmured. Severus found that his hand was rising, hovering near her cheek. She tilted her face toward it, lashes fluttering and eyes started to close.

He aborted the motion and instead ran a thumb down the lapel of her cloak. “Put this deplorable garment back on,” he ordered. “Since you were so kind as to aid me in my…incapacitation, I will escort you back to your dorm.”

She blinked, seeming to rouse herself. “Don’t trust me not to wander the castle till morning, do you?” she finally teased.

One corner of Severus’s mouth lifted. “It is my castle, if only for a few more weeks.”

Their passage through the hallways was silent, for which Severus was grateful. Potter had vanished utterly beneath her father’s cloak; her grip on his forearm tightened and loosened with her steps, and he could sometimes hear her light footfalls, but other than that it was as if he were alone. If anyone had come upon them, it would have merely seemed as if Severus was holding his arm at an awkward angle.

When they reached the portrait guarding the eighth-years’ common room, he felt her hand leave his elbow. He waited for the portrait to open.

It didn’t.

“Miss Potter,” he began in annoyance, “what are you—”

Arms snaked around his waist, the warmth of a chest pressed against his own from sternum to hips.

And then there was pressure against his lips, soft and tentative. Heat and sensation seemed to radiate outward through him from that point of contact. Severus didn’t know if he could call it a kiss; it was by far the gentlest one of its kind he’d ever received.

The harsh rasp of an indrawn breath: his own. An exhale (hers) stirring the pocket of air between them.

Then the portrait creaked open and slid shut, and he had to take it on faith that she was gone.

Chapter Text

The eighth years’ common room was dark and empty, the other students gone to bed and the fire in the hearth banked by the house elves for the night.

Sinking to the floor with her back to the portrait hole, Harry brought her fingers to her lips.

That had been… Had she really just...

"Fuck," she said aloud.

~

She hadn’t meant to kiss him. She hadn’t planned it.

It had just been the way the man looked in the dim light, all oily dark and hook-nosed and courteous and irritated, and then a clenching in her abdomen and a now or never, damn the torpedoes sort of feeling.

She couldn’t bring herself to regret it.

Harry closed her eyes and thunked her head back against the wood of the portrait door. Maybe, she thought with a strangled laugh, he’d mistake it for a gesture of gratitude.

~

When Harry finally made it up to her room, she saw that Hermione, bless her industrious heart, had fallen asleep on top of her duvet again with another heavy tome splayed open on her face. As Harry carefully deposited Snape’s gift on her nightstand and took off her cloak, the other girl stirred and lifted one of the book’s flaps.

“Harry?” she murmured, squinting blearily and rubbing a bit of drool from one corner of her mouth. “Are you just getting in?”

Harry nodded, though she didn’t know if Hermione could see her.

"What are you—Oh." Suddenly finding herself with a best friend sprawled across the coverlet next to her, Hermione pushed her bedtime reading away toward the headboard. “Take your shoes off, at least," she huffed.

Not looking up from the pillow, Harry toed off her trainers and let them fall from the edge of the bed with a clunk.

Hermione wriggled in Harry’s loose embrace, then took the hand that was draped over her side and wound their fingers together. Their breathing synced, bushy hair tickling Harry’s forehead softly with each of her friend’s exhales.

“You went to see Professor Snape, didn’t you?” Hermione finally asked. She wasn’t the cleverest witch of their age for nothing.

Harry nodded again, trusting that her friend could feel it this time against her shoulder. She prepared herself for an onslaught of questions at the admission. Hermione was nothing if not nosy, and Harry’s business had been her business for eight years.

Instead, Hermione twisted around to peer at her, then proved her incalculable worth by only asking, "Are you all right?”

Harry blinked.

Was she?

The answer wasn’t simple. There were a number of factors to consider, as Hermione herself would put it. For one, she’d just had her first kiss (except for that time Zacharias Smith had mashed his face into hers at the Yule Ball, which was best left forgotten). And yes, she'd stolen that kiss by wearing an invisibility cloak so Snape couldn't see her coming—but when she closed her eyes, her lips tingled again with the feathery heat of it, and her heart thundered, and the blood sang through her veins. In her opinion, therefore, it had been a very good sort of kiss.

On the other hand, Snape was leaving Hogwarts and Wizarding Britain, and she might never see him again.

So…the results were mixed.

“I…”

She hadn’t lied. She was happy for him. Snape had been just as adrift after the war as herself, she suspected. She was glad that he’d found his own path forward into growth and discovery.

And it wasn’t as if she had any hold over the man. Not really. Not in the light of day.

She hoped that she hadn't just cocked everything up between them. Yes, there had been that moment in his office when she'd thought he was going to stroke her cheek, but kissing him had been born out of nothing more than pure want and Gryffindor nerve. She didn't know how Snape was going to react, but she was sure that there would be some sort of consequences to face for her rashness.

Bringing herself back to the present with a small shake, she buried her head against the other girl's shoulder again. “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning,” she finally said.

~

She did tell Hermione the whole story the next morning before class—or most of it, anyway. She explained the Firewhisky at the memorial and how she’d followed Snape to his office the previous night.

She didn’t mention the kiss.

And she didn’t say anything about what had happened while she was sitting in the common room after the kiss, trying to calm herself down.

Her thoughts had been ricocheting around in her head like Bludgers, bouncing from the heated memory of pressing against Snape to the beautiful gift he'd given her to sorrow that he was leaving so soon. When the invisibility cloak slipped from her shoulders, she barely noticed.

To ground herself, she pulled the globe from the side pocket of her robes and held it up. It glimmered like a pearl in the low light. Even with just a cursory examination, she could see that the spellwork on it was exquisite—far more delicate than anything Harry herself could manage, even now. With the familiar ache that came from thinking of her mother, Harry realized that this artifact was breathtakingly lovely, just as Lily must have been.

“Potter? Are you—are you crying?”

Oh no—of all the people to find her like this… Jerking her hands from her hot face, Harry looked up at her ex-nemesis with vision that had—yes—gone a bit watery and blurred.

“Fuck off, Malfoy,” she enunciated clearly.

The blond Slytherin stared down at her. “No-o,” he said slowly, drawing the word out into at least two syllables. “I don’t think I will.”

Of course not. Nothing in their peace accord called for blanket cooperation.

Harry took a breath. “What are you even doing down here?” she snapped.

“I fell asleep while studying." Malfoy's eyebrows rose. "I’d say that your presence is far more suspicious than mine at the moment.” He shook his head as he continued peering down at her, apparently bewildered. “You never cry.”

He was right: if she’d ever had the knack, she’d lost it when she lived with the Dursleys. The fact that Malfoy knew this about her, however, was sort of unsettling. Harry swiped at her eyes again. “I cry all the time,” she sniffled, just to be contrary. “Loads.”

The blond rolled his eyes, apparently deciding that responding directly to such a juvenile lie was beneath him. “Can you stand?” he asked, holding out a hand.

“Of course I can stand.” Ignoring his offer, she hoisted herself up under her own power. This wasn’t fencing practice, where she’d accept a lift up because Malfoy had been responsible for knocking her on her arse to begin with.

Unfortunately, the black spots that suddenly swam across Harry’s vision gave the lie to her confidence.

Shit, she thought distantly as she started to pitch forward, her breathing going ragged and the dark spots growing into wriggling eels.

“Shit,” she heard Malfoy echo. “Potter—Harry—just, calm down, okay? Breathe when I count, all right?”

When Harry came back to full awareness, the crown of her head was pressed into a slender chest, one of her hands clenched around a pale wrist, the nails digging in and leaving red crescents.

"Eighteen," he said. "Nineteen." He stopped.

She could feel the Slytherin’s pulse against the pad of her thumb. It began to slow down, matching her own.

Well, this was...weird. What she'd just experienced had been closer to a faint than a panic attack, likely brought about by the night's emotional stress on top of having barely picked at her dinner as she stewed about Snape's announcement. Still, she'd never have expected to be talked through an episode like this by Draco Malfoy.

“You’re so bony,” she finally mumbled. “Do you even eat?”

That surprised a laugh out of him. “You’re one to talk,” he answered, voice slightly hoarse and only colored with a hint of its usual derision. “What are you, three feet tall?”

“Five two and a half,” she corrected.

The silence settled around them again.

Releasing his wrist and pulling herself upright, Harry looked up at her companion. “Malfoy—” She shook her head, having no clue what happened next. This was new territory for them. “That was really decent of you,” she eventually said. "Is this where I say that I'll hex you if you tell anyone?"

“You don’t need to threaten me. I’m not…” Malfoy trailed off and frowned, apparently unsure of what, precisely, he was not. He crossed his arms over his chest. “My mother gets like that sometimes,” he explained.

He’d probably never heard of Muggle terms like PTSD, she realized. She chewed her lower lip. Maybe Hermione would agree to find him some books. They might not precisely cover the type of trauma associated with having a megalomaniac wizard live in your house for three years, but they’d be a place to start.

The pause had gone on long enough that Malfoy was starting to look very uncomfortable. “Well, I always thought there was no honor among Slytherins, but I guess I was wrong,” she said, offering a smile.

That earned an eye roll, as she’d known it would. “Don’t be stupider than usual, Potter,” the blond told her, his pointy chin lifting as he relaxed slightly. “I simply didn’t want you to spew your lunch all over my shoes. These cost more than the Weasleys make in a month.”

“Ah." Her smile became a small smirk. "My mistake.”

Surreptitiously sniffing from the buildup of mucous in her nose, she stepped back and gestured toward the stairs to the girls’ bedrooms. “As fun as this has been, I'm going to bed. It's been a long day.” She looked at him again for acknowledgement, then started up.

She’d made it to the fifth step before he said, “Potter.”

She turned back.

Face tilted up toward her, Malfoy's eyebrows drew down in an expression that could almost pass for disgust, but not quite. “Look.” He shifted. “Whatever it is can’t be that bad.”

“Yeah.” She met his eyes and nodded, once. “Thanks.”

~

That interlude with Malfoy had been strange, but not particularly relevant, Harry reflected the next day as they made their way to class.

While Hermione had tried to be sympathetic after Harry had finished talking, she'd unfortunately gotten stuck harping on Harry's lack of sense again. Sometimes Harry wished that her best friend was a girl like Lavender or Parvati who thought that romantic entanglements were fodder for bonding and giggles rather than a subject for serious, logical concern.

“And ignoring the damage it could cause to Professor Snape's reputation, you have to remember that any hint of a teacher-student relationship would jeopardize your degree—” Hermione continued to rant quietly as they passed through the third-floor Charms corridor.

Harry felt as if they'd had this exact conversation before. She sighed, then shot a hand out to grip her friend's arm. "'Mione, hush," she whispered.

Luckily, that was all it took for the other girl to catch sight of what Harry had already spotted: the subject of their discussion himself striding down the corridor toward them with his black robes billowing and the buttons on his chest gleaming in perfect rows, every student in his way scampering aside.

When Snape noticed them, his scowl twitched and smoothed itself into a blank mask. “Miss Granger,” he said as he approached. “Miss Potter.”

He looked tired despite the blankness, the haggard lines drawn more deeply into his face and his hair even lanker than usual.

“Headmaster Snape,” Harry answered, trying not to get distracted by the depth of his eyes or how much she wanted to rub that strand of greasy hair off his cheek. She lifted her chin and waited to see how the axe would fall.

His mouth opened and closed. “I trust that you are both well enough that your way to class hasn’t entirely escaped your recollection,” he finally said. He looked at her closely, almost as if he were trying to convey a different message entirely beneath the surface of his words.

Something slotted into place in Harry’s mind.

He was—he was concerned about her.

“No, we’re perfectly fine,” she assured him, bobbing on the balls of her feet and unable to stop a smile from spreading across her face.

Nodding with a shuttered look, the man swept past them and continued on his way.

When Harry’s eyes finally drifted away from his receding form and back to her friend, Hermione was staring at her with an odd expression, as if she'd been confronted with a new and completely unresearched subject in class.

Whatever Hermione had just realized, it could wait. Taking her friend’s arm, Harry began tugging her forward, her steps considerably lighter than they’d been just a moment before.

"C'mon," she said. "He's right—we're going to be late."

Chapter Text

“Forgotten me already, Sev?” Lily asked in a plaintive tone as they walked by the sea together.

“No!” Severus protested vehemently. “Never! I—”

“You have,” she accused with a sob, dissolving into wet clumps of sand.

He awoke with a gasp. He was drenched in sweat, and at first he didn't recognize his surroundings. This wasn't the dungeons.

A few harsh breaths and some mental reordering later, Severus cast a Tempus with the wand that was already in his hand. Three o'clock in the morning.

He stared unseeingly up at the stonework of his ceiling. This was his third night of broken slumber. He’d endured far worse, of course, but not since the war.

Scrubbing his face with one hand, he rose shakily to his feet. Experience told him that he wouldn’t be able to sleep again before dawn. Under the circumstances, he might as well do something useful and start to pack.

~

Four days after Snape’s going-away bash, McGonagall called Harry to the front as Transfigurations was ending and asked if she had a moment to spare.

For an instant, Harry experienced a flare of worry that Snape had decided to delegate the task of punishing her for kissing him; but no, it seemed that her Head of House just wanted to discuss her career plans.

“I’m going to be an Auror, professor,” Harry said in bemusement. She’d thought that everyone knew that. Much to her chagrin, the Prophet mentioned it constantly. And hadn’t she discussed her aspirations with McGonagall back in fifth year?

The older woman nodded. “Yes, and I remember that this has been your intention for a number of years. I simply wanted to check if you’ve had second thoughts.”

“Second thoughts?” Harry repeated cautiously.

McGonagall gestured for her to take a seat at one of the front row desks, closing the classroom door with a wave of her wand and settling herself in another. “Much has changed in the last few years, Harry,” she said gently. “The world has changed, and so have you.”

Harry scratched her nose. She’d always respected her strict and upright Head of House, and she appreciated the older woman’s obvious concern for her welfare—but she didn’t quite understand what McGonagall was getting at. “I don’t think I’ve changed that much," she protested.

The Scotswoman raised an eyebrow. “Would the Harry Potter of three years ago have developed feelings for Severus Snape?”

Harry managed to keep from choking, but she could tell by the twitch of the professor's mouth that she’d totally failed to control her expression. “You know about that?” she asked weakly, giving subterfuge up as a lost cause.

If anything, the starchy professor seemed amused. “While the portraits in Professor Snape’s office are loyal to Hogwarts and therefore to its headmaster, that doesn’t mean that they won’t carry information to others who have the school’s best interests at heart,” she explained.

McGonagall had been spying on Snape? That seemed surprisingly underhanded for a Gryffindor...but Harry had learned by now not to expect people to behave like the stereotypes of their Houses.

"He’s been a perfect gentleman,” she muttered in embarrassment.

“If I had thought otherwise, we would be having a very different discussion at the moment.” Traces of amusement were still visible in the professor’s expression, but it was becoming much more business-like. “Come graduation, your relationship with Professor Snape is your own personal concern," she added briskly. "That’s not actually what we’re here to discuss.”

Harry shifted, suspecting that her cheeks were still flaming. “Right. You wanted to talk about me becoming an Auror.”

“I’d like to hear your reasons, yes.”

“I’ve promised Kingsley…”

McGonagall sat up straighter, which was quite a feat for a woman whose spine was already as stiff as whalebone. “Minister Shacklebolt should have known better than to extract a promise like that from a young woman who was still in school," she admonished. "He would have no ability to hold you to it if you changed your mind.”

“Right. Um…” Slightly taken aback by the professor's vehemence, Harry paused and gathered her thoughts. “But I think I’d be good at it,” she countered. “I…have experience, after all.”

Letting out a puff of air, the older woman reached out and patted her hand. “I’m sure you would, my dear—but that’s a qualification, not a reason.”

“Oh.” Harry was feeling a bit foolish for being so unprepared for this conversation. “To tell the truth, professor,” she explained, “I really didn’t expect to live this long.”

McGonagall sat back, the lines on her face deepening with compassion. “And yet here you are, my dear,” she said after a moment.

“Here I am,” Harry repeated slowly.

She bit her lip, attempting to sort her thoughts. Whenever she pictured the future, it was blurry. The idea of becoming an Auror had given it the definition it lacked. She supposed that there were plenty of other career paths that she could take, though: Quidditch player; teacher; philanthropist; something she hadn't even thought of yet. Hell, she could even become a professional baker, if the wizarding world had such a thing.

She didn't really know what she wanted, but she knew what felt right. “I'm still going to enter Auror training,” she finally said, looking at her Head of House's weathered and caring face. “I at least have to try it. I’d feel like I was letting everyone down if I didn’t.”

Seeing a protest forming on the professor’s lips, she held up a hand. “And I would feel like I was letting myself down.”

After a silence, McGonagall met her eyes and nodded. “I’ll trust you to know your own mind on the matter, then."

“Thank you.”

“And I believe you’re due for Herbology.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Harry confirmed, gathering her books and bag.

She was almost out the door when the professor called, “And Harry—good luck in your other endeavor as well.”

Her meaning was unmistakable. Surprised, Harry turned back.

“It’s been a difficult campaign,” she said carefully.

“I have no doubt.” McGonagall’s tone was exceedingly dry. She seemed to hold an internal debate, then added, “You might consider altering your strategy. I understand that engaging the enemy in a chase can be effective under certain conditions.”

Suspecting that the tips of her ears were turning red, Harry saluted and left.

~

“This is a difficult path, Draco. You would need to be certain.”

“I think I am.”

Severus raised an eyebrow.

“I am.”

“Your mother hoped that you would become a barrister,” Severus pointed out.

Draco shrugged, attempting an air of nonchalance as he glanced around the Headmaster's office, from the bookshelves to the portraits to the fire crackling in the hearth. “A Slytherin is nothing if not ambitious. Isn’t that right, sir?”

Severus maintained his mild expression and waited.

His patience quickly bore fruit. Gray eyes regarding him levelly, Draco took a breath and leaned forward. “I’m not like you, Professor,” he admitted, his pretense of carelessness dropping. “There’s no question about what side I was on during the war. I want—as much as possible—to be accepted in our society on my own merits. I can’t go through the rest of my life being defined by what’s on my arm.”

Severus understood this desire on a visceral level. In many ways, Draco reminded him of himself when he was younger—after he’d delivered the Prophecy and regretted it, but before Lily had died and he’d lost hope of ever atoning for his mistakes.

In good conscience, however, he couldn’t let Draco embark on this particular course without making sure that he’d considered all of the ramifications. “You are aware that your mother is beginning negotiations for you to marry one of the Greengrass daughters? What does your intended think of your…intentions?”

Draco snorted. “If Astoria agrees to the marriage, she’d have to put up with far more from me than late nights at work.”

Severus wasn't certain what the young man meant, but it wouldn’t do to pry deeply when there was another important point to bring up. “And then there’s the matter of whether the Aurors will even consider accepting an ex-Death Eater in their ranks.”

Draco raised his chin. “I’ve spoken to Shacklebolt. He said that he might have use for me after a probationary period. I’m valuable because of my family connections and my…specific subsets of knowledge. And…”

The blond hesitated, looking for the first time in the conversation like the teenager he was.

“…and Potter might vouch for me.”

“How beneficial then, that you’ve discovered the ability to endure her company,” Severus said smoothly after recovering from an involuntary pause.

Draco frowned. “It’s not like that."

Severus summoned an incredulous expression.

“She’s much more tolerable than I used to think,” Draco explained, his nose wrinkling. “I mean, yes, she’s still annoying—but she killed the Dark Lord, didn’t she?” He sat back and folded his hands in his lap. “So maybe I’m grateful.”

Though the tone was flippant, Severus suspected that he was speaking the truth. “Gratitude that works to your advantage,” he pointed out, glad his voice remained dispassionate. It wouldn't do for Draco to hear either approval or disapproval in his words.

The young man snorted again. “Hardly. So Potter lets her picture get taken with me. You should have seen the ruckus she made about you while you were in St. Mungo’s.”

Feeling that the conversation was taking a dangerous turn, Severus steered it to safer topics. Draco was willing to be led, thank Salazar.

Narcissa would no doubt be furious to know that Severus had no intention to dissuade her progeny from his chosen course, merely offer pragmatic advice. Her owl had arrived that morning with a desperate letter pleading with Severus to talk with her son and intervene before he made the dreadful mistake of entering a career in law enforcement.

Severus was honestly impressed with how far Draco had come since the war. He was a long way from the supercilious, spoiled child he’d once been, and also from the trembling shadow of his former self that had haunted Malfoy Manor during Severus’s first year as Headmaster. It seemed that Draco had decided, at some point, to become a man. A thoughtful man. Purposeful.

The thought was disconcerting, giving Severus a feeling like vertigo.

He remembered Albus saying that Draco’s soul was something worth saving. It appeared that the old meddler had been right in that, if not in everything else.

~

After Draco left a half hour later, Severus stood at his window, his hands clasped behind his back. Despite the fact that it was early June, the Hogwarts grounds were barely visible, shrouded in a white fog that left a patina of moisture on the other side of the glass. He watched two tiny drops coalesce and gain enough weight to drip down.

In many ways, his mental state resembled the world outside. For the past few days—to be specific, ever since the night of his good riddance party, as he privately liked to call it—he’d felt as if his brain was filled with a thick white mist. The only exception to this were his dreams, which occurred in vivid color. When he dreamed of Lily, her hair was as red as a flame. Albus's robes were bright yellow, his hand a sickening black. The Dark Lord cast bright green waves of Avada Kedavras that always hit their marks.

And the major players of his life seemed to have all decided to join in the fun. Lily, his mother and father, Albus and the Dark Lord. He’d even had to face a Wizengamot trial led by Sirius Black, James Potter, and Remus Lupin for crimes of perversion. Lovely, that. His subconscious didn’t seem to have heard the news that they were all dead.

And all because the girl had been preposterous once again.

Severus stifled the urge to raise a hand to his lips.

He knew he should have been outraged at Potter. For whatever reason, though—whether it was the fog in his head or the fact that thinking of the kiss made him feel as if the air had been sucked from his lungs—the anger just wouldn’t come. All he’d been able to think, the night after she waylaid him in her invisibility cloak, was that she would surely regret it come morning.

She hadn't, it seemed. But that was only because she was unfathomable.

At least now he knew that his irritation at Draco’s newfound camaraderie with Potter was jealousy, of a sort. Thankfully, it was nothing like the blinding rage he’d felt when he'd first heard that Lily was dating James Potter. His composure might be in tatters, but at least the tatters were still there.

Giving himself a shake, Severus turned away from the window and back to his desk. There were many tasks to complete before day's end, and Potter had no place in them. He'd dwelt on the exasperating brat long enough.

~

Perhaps, he realized later, he’d spoken too soon.

Severus was in the library that evening, returning a pile of tomes that he’d requisitioned over the years and rediscovered when he was cleaning his quarters, when a female voice asked, "Professor?" behind him.

For a wild second, he thought that he was being hailed by a particular (insufferable, beguiling, maddening) student. But no, the pitch was all wrong, the enunciation too precise, the accent more London than Surrey.

He twisted to see Hermione Granger leaning on the bookcase next to him. Her eyes flickered to his, then back to a book she was extracting from the shelf. “I’ve been speaking to Harry,” she said softly.

He didn't have to see the subtle movement of her wand to feel her put up a proximity ward. Severus’s pulse sped up.

He should have expected this. With Sirius Black dead, Granger was the most protective figure in Potter’s life aside from Molly Weasley. And unlike the Weasley matriarch, odds were high that Granger knew exactly what Potter had been getting up to regarding himself in recent months.

Severus squashed his sudden sense of unease. Though he still considered her an interfering know-it-all, he and Granger were essentially on the same side: Harry Potter’s side. Whatever reckoning he was about to face, he’d have to see it through.

Still, there was no reason to be pleasant to her. “Does the threat of point deductions hold no terror for you anymore, Miss Granger?” he wondered acidly.

Granger turned to face him fully at that, cradling the tome she'd grabbed under one arm. “It really doesn’t," she replied, offering him the ghost of a smile. “I’ve come quite a long way."

Severus wondered when he’d so utterly lost the ability to intimidate teenage girls.

"Are you in love with Harry?" the teenager in question asked in a deceptively casual tone, entirely derailing his thoughts.

Severus’s throat worked soundlessly. "Is that what you think?" he finally hissed, anger singing through his blood. Granger might have the right to be reassured that he wasn’t about to bend her friend over the nearest piece of furniture, but she had no right to analyze and put labels on his emotions when he barely wanted to look at them himself.

"I didn't, until recently," she answered, giving him a contemplative look, the fact that she remained undaunted by his wrath reminding him of why she’d been sorted Gryffindor. "But now I'm not sure."

Severus unclenched his right hand. "I have no intentions regarding Miss Potter whatsoever," he managed, his ire starting to dissipate.

It wasn’t a direct answer, and they both knew it. Granger gave a small huff and extracted a second book from the shelf behind him.

“You needn’t concern yourself that I might defile your friend,” Severus added in a more measured tone, suddenly too tired to continue the dance of evasions. As Granger reached for a third text, this one on the highest shelf, he assisted her by handing it down in the slim hope that it would make her go away faster.

When he met her eyes again, however, the young woman was blinking rapidly, tendrils of her overlarge hair bobbing as she shook her head. “You misunderstand me, Professor. That’s not what I’m concerned about at all.”

Severus frowned.

A line appeared between Granger’s eyebrows. “I mean, yes, I’m worried that Harry’s going to get hurt. But I think she’d rather get hurt in the way that she chooses than not have a choice at all, don’t you?”

“Miss Granger,” Severus answered slowly, “I don't have a single bloody clue what you’re talking about.”

Granger exhaled again in apparent frustration, then seemed to focus on the motes of dust dancing through the library's stuffy air. “It was my idea originally, you know,” she finally said, obviously choosing her words carefully. “That Harry ask you to—” A blush rose in her cheeks. “—sleep with her. She was determined to ask someone, and you seemed to fit her requirements best, despite the obvious impropriety of a teacher-student liaison.”

Severus did have a vague recollection of seeing Potter discussing himself with Granger in her memories when he’d used Legilimency on the girl. He’d been too incensed at the time to take in the details.

“Requirements?” he repeated, despite the fact that common sense was screaming for him to end the conversation immediately.

Granger nodded. Bobbing on her feet as if she’d been called upon in class, she held up a hand to count off on her fingers. “A person who understood what we went through in the war. A person who would see her as who she was instead of a flawless hero. A person who was confident and experienced. A person who wouldn’t run to the Prophet with the story. A person who would protect her best interests throughout the experience.” Her head tilted. “Or was I wrong?”

Salazar save him from Gryffindor shortsightedness. “Miss Potter has her whole life ahead of her,” he clipped out. “She’d be far better off fixating on someone else. Almost anyone else.”

“Maybe,” Granger agreed softly after a pause. She was looking at him with sympathy now. “But she wouldn’t thank you for making that decision for her.”

He didn’t want Granger to look at him with sympathy, as if he hadn’t been venomous and nasty to her for years. "Miss Granger—" Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. "What is it that you’re hoping to achieve here?"

The young woman bit her lower lip. "Nothing, I suppose. I mean, it should be obvious that I want Harry to get what she wants. Within reason, of course."

“Of course,” he repeated faintly.

“I just wanted to clarify the situation.” Taking a step back, Granger nodded with finality. “So thank you for speaking with me. Good evening, Professor.” There was a barely discernible motion of her wrist, and he could feel her wards rippling away like water.

“You’ve mis-shelved that one," she apparently couldn’t resist adding, jutting her chin toward the cracked spine of one of his books as she left.

~

That night, Severus found himself thinking of a memory that he hadn't revisited in a long time.

He’d been seventeen, less than two months away from taking the Dark Mark. As a surprise sponsored by Voldemort, Lucius Malfoy had taken him and three other aspiring Death Eaters—Nott, Crabbe, Regulus Black—to a brothel that catered to wealthy purebloods.

The girl that Lucius had chosen for him had been lovely, but obviously afraid of Severus and his companions. Her name, he remembered, was Emmeline—or so she'd said. She’d been older than him, but not by much, and he saw bruises littering her skin whenever her glamour slipped.

Severus had considered not fucking her at all and telling Lucius he did, but the truth would get back to the Dark Lord. He couldn’t get caught in a lie, and there was no good reason to refuse.

Emmeline had initially been passive, no doubt trained to lie back and let him take his pleasure. He'd made her come twice despite this, first with his fingers and then with his mouth. Severus was an observant and fast learner, and he'd worked hard to break the woman’s composure. He knew he wasn't handsome or seductive, but he couldn't stand the idea that he was merely being tolerated, that his partner was only pretending to enjoy the experience and playing him for a fool. And if he couldn't have Lily, he'd decided, he wanted a woman who would curse and shiver and scream.

Severus exhaled. Though he’d sought out the services of prostitutes (always muggle) at odd intervals throughout his twenties and thirties, he hadn’t thought about his first time in years. With what had come after—everything he’d done for the Death Eaters, and then Lily’s death, and then everything he’d done for Albus—the significance of how he’d lost his virginity had paled.

But Granger had made it clear that what Potter had been asking for, those months ago in the forest, had been the opposite of his own experience: trust; safety; control. And he could give that to her, couldn't he? If nothing else. If only because he knew what it was like not to have it.

Fuck, he thought, realizing suddenly and with startling clarity, as if the fog was finally lifting from his mind—

—that if the girl made her request a second time—

He would say yes.

Chapter Text

Three days after Harry's thought-provoking conversation with McGonagall, officials from the Ministry arrived to begin conducting the OWLs and NEWTs.

Though her focus in the last few months had been on the enigma of a certain Potions master, it hadn’t escaped Harry’s notice that she was finally turning the corner to the end of the year, the absolute finish to her days at Hogwarts.

She hadn't expected to feel such a sense of loss at the thought. She'd left the school once without intending to return, after all—and even after the war, she'd only been stopped from immediately entering the Auror program by Snape's timely advice. This entire year had been nothing but a bonus, a windfall.

And her childhood had ended the night Dumbledore died, in her opinion. So why did it feel, as the days continued to lengthen with the honey-amber of June sunlight, as if something important and innocent was drawing to a close?

She needed, she realized, to find a way to say goodbye.

But how did one say goodbye to a school?

She started by visiting Hagrid, spending a Saturday afternoon petting Fang, pretending to eat the half-giant's beloved rock cakes, and gossiping about the latest developments in his long courtship with Madame Maxime. He’d been her first friend, the first wizard she'd met, the first adult to take her side against the Dursleys.

When she tried to thank him for this, Hagrid just chuckled and waved her off. “A wee chit like you were, not even knowin’ the names of yer parents?" he said gently. "‘Course I was going to look out fer you.”

Next, she visited the elves in the kitchen, eating far too much treacle tart and trying to thank them for their help despite their dramatic protests of unworthiness. Then, on a much more somber errand, she visited the places where people she loved had died—Fred, Remus, Tonks—and ended the journey with Dumbledore’s tomb. The Elder Wand greeted her with a surge of power, as it always did. Harry ignored it beyond laying her hand against the tomb in a brief acknowledgement, as she always did.

In perhaps the most mystifying of her goodbyes to the castle, she was on the seventh floor one evening making her way to the library when her eye caught on the portrait of Barnabas the Barmy. Her steps slowed. Beginning to pace back and forth, she thought, I’d like to say goodbye, if you don’t mind.

She hadn’t needed the Room of Requirement this year, although she understood that the elves had managed to salvage it from the worst of the Fiendfyre damage during the summer reconstruction. Before she slipped through the door, however, she felt a wave of fear that it would smell of acrid smoke and burnt flesh.

It didn’t.

Instead, the Room had rearranged itself into a bedchamber, a large black four-poster with a cream-colored duvet on one wall, a cozy fire burning in a grate opposite for illumination. Two nightstands flanked the bed, and a small table with a vase full of tall grass sat between two armchairs by the hearth. There were even some bookcases of knickknacks and novels on the wall.

The scene looked very homey and comfortable. Harry blinked in surprise. “No, I don’t need a nap, thank you,” she said politely. She was quite tired, what with the whirlwind exam schedule and stealing time to spend on her personal project. The Room had probably just picked up on that.

She slipped back out and let the door disappear into the stonework. I just want to say goodbye, as I’m graduating, she explained again, pacing in front of the portrait three more times.

Despite this clarification, the bed was still there when Harry re-entered. The only change, as far as she could see, was that its wooden headboard was now shaped like a heart.

“Ah.” Harry had finally gotten the point. She shook her head in embarrassed amusement. First McGonagall, now the Room?

“Don’t get your hopes up,” she informed her surroundings. “It’s lovely, but I suspect it will go to waste.”

The bed did look soft and inviting. The sheets were silky, the duvet satin. Really, it was everything a blushing virgin might want.

She let herself fall backwards onto the mattress, spread her arms, and gave a small bounce with her hips.

“But I appreciate the thought.”

~

One afternoon, Harry and Ron dragged Hermione away from the library for a walk around the lake, since they suspected that the studious witch hadn’t gotten any sunlight since May. It was a gorgeous day outside, the breeze fresh and playful, puffy white clouds drifting like roaming herds of erumpents across the sky.

Turning to walk backwards and face the castle, Harry let out a gust of air. “I can’t believe we’re finally leaving," she murmured. "It's actually all over."

“I know what you mean," Hermione agreed. She turned to contemplate the castle as well. "It feels like the end of an era." She snorted. "A surprisingly violent one, since we're talking about our school days—but still."

“It’s a grand old place, innit?” said Ron. He shoved his hands in his pockets and kicked a pebble. “And we had some good times along with the bad.” He turned to Harry. “Remember that time we enchanted all of the mirrors in the third floor loos to tell Filch he was a handsome devil?”

Hermione gasped. “Ronald, you did not!”

Harry covered her mouth with her hand to hide her laughter as Ron scratched his head. “Er, guess we never told you about that one, love.”

Hermione tossed a clump of hair over one shoulder and crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, I just hoped the two of you managed to actually learn something in the midst of it all,” she sniffed.

Harry and Ron looked at each other. “If we did, it’s all thanks to you, dearest,” Ron said with a crooked smile.

“It’s true, ‘Mione,” Harry agreed, linking her arm with the other witch’s and resting her head on Hermione’s shoulder. “Nobody else could’ve managed to get half as much into our thick skulls.”

Hermione sniffed again, but she seemed mostly placated. “It’s certainly been an adventure,” she said, turning back to look across the green Hogwarts' grounds and sparkling lake with a wistful smile. "And it makes sense that it would be hard to leave, even though we’ll be back to visit. This is where we grew up. It’s what we fought for, really.”

Over Hermione’s shoulder, Harry and Ron shared a speaking glance.

Harry took one of her friend’s hands as Ron took the other, and they stood like that together in the bright sunlight for quite some time.

~

The NEWTs were just as nastily exhausting as their name implied, of course. The Charms and Transfigurations tests were mentally and magically draining, Herbology got Harry covered in dirt and nearly eaten by foliage, and Potions—a comprehensive written exam followed by five brews in four hours—made her brain feel like an old tomato. Or perhaps a squishy hunk of cheese.

But next to, say, destroying a horcrux, they were a walk in the park.

Oddly enough, one of the biggest issues she ran into was in Defense.

“What’s this? Miss Potter doesn’t need to demonstrate her practical knowledge of DADA." The Ministry representative laughed in a way that made it clear that he expected others to join in. "The defeat of You-Know-Who was demonstration enough, I should think.”

Standing with the rest of her peers to begin the dueling portion of the exam, Harry shifted awkwardly. “I’d rather take the test, sir.”

The official, a portly wizard who had given one of the many forgettable speeches at the memorial, rubbed his hands together. “Nonsense. Consider it a gesture of thanks from your friends at the New Ministry.”

Glancing past the other students, who were wearing either noncommittal or annoyed expressions, Harry met a dark gaze at the back of the room with a pleading look.

“How fascinating, to see the desire for an early lunch masquerading as courtesy,” Snape interjected smoothly.

The Ministry representative gaped at him.

“Hogwarts will not support blatant partiality," the Potions master continued, "even for everyone’s favorite celebrity." His words dripped with disdain. "Much as Miss Potter might enjoy making a spectacle of herself yet again.”

“Now, don’t be absurd, man—” the official began to bluster, his complexion reddening.

“Most of the students here fought in the Battle," Harry interrupted. "Ginny and Luna dueled Bellatrix Lestrange. Neville beheaded Nagini. Are you going to exempt them, too?”

“Well, I—" Seemingly at a loss for words, the man turned to his assistant. "Weasley, back me up here.”

Percy Weasley looked up from his clipboard, gaze flicking toward Harry with faint amusement before smoothing into studied neutrality. “With all due respect, sir, we should stop delaying and begin if we’re going to have any time for lunch at all.”

It seemed that Percy had learned tact in recent years. With as much grace as he could muster, the Ministry official conceded the point and gestured for the students to get into position.

As the rest of the class was organizing itself, Harry slipped back toward the far wall. “Thank you, Professor," she murmured.

One side of Snape's mouth twitched. “Ridiculous twit," he answered lowly, still facing forward. "Don’t complain to me if you get less than an O.”

“I won’t. Get less than an O, I mean.”

She shot him a smirk over her shoulder before joining her partner and raising her defensive shields.

~

That was the only time they spoke in the last two weeks of school.

~

She did see the man frequently, however. It was easy to spot him at the head table at meals, or in the back of the classrooms during the tests, or in the hall giving a blistering lecture to a group of students who’d decided to release their stress by hexing each other.

She often felt him watching her.

It was mutual. She really couldn’t help it.

Every morning, she spent a few minutes looking at the globe he'd given her, feeling out the intricate spellwork and thinking of her mother, and Snape, and Snape and her mother.

And she dreamed that they spoke.

“You accosted me, you wretched whelp,” he hissed.

“Sorry," she murmured, not sounding very contrite at all.

Snape's face was a mask. Dark eyes seemed to devour her. “I could make you sorrier," he said in a tone of feigned coldness.

“I wish you would,” she breathed out, and woke up.

She had a fantasy of slipping into his office now that she knew the password (provided the paranoid git hadn’t already changed it) and asking if she could sit in front of his fire while she studied. After that, the details got hazy—but maybe she’d get overheated and need to strip down, and he’d be boiling with either lust or indignation at the sight of her bare skin.

Probably indignation.

They were just dreams, just vague schoolgirl fantasies. She wasn’t going to act on them. She’d pushed her luck far enough.

Snape was leaving; it was a hard fact. There was nothing for it but to focus on the tests and the imminent beginning of the rest of her life.

~

The night air smelled like damp earth and growing things and a hint of the sea. A full moon was arching high across the inky sky, the cold wind raking through Harry’s hair as she looped above the castle.

She’d been studying in the eighth years’ dorm, watching Hermione reading a book with her head in Ron's lap, when she’d suddenly felt the urgent need to get out, to get her feet off the ground.

Though she didn’t have a broom with her at school this year, it had been easy enough to break into the shed where Hooch kept the Quidditch gear. Up, she’d thought silently to one of the newer models, half-wondering if it would obey and feeling a sweet thrill of power when it did.

Hogwarts was a beautiful sight spread out below her, all lit up like an enchanted castle (which it was). Rolling through the lowest drifts of the misty clouds, Harry remembered the first time she’d seen it, from a boat on the lake as a first year. At the time, Hogwarts had promised a new beginning, home, adventure. Magic. Everything Harry had always wanted as a neglected and imaginative child, but hadn’t quite believed could be real.

As she left the sky above the castle proper and circled over the Forbidden Forest, Harry’s memories turned darker. She was diving down through the trees before she made a conscious choice.

Reckless girl, a voice in her mind whispered as she landed in a particular clearing.

Her mental Snape was right: how many times had she faced danger in the forest at night? But she wasn’t defenseless. Quickly, she cast spells to obscure her presence and ward herself against attack, only taking in her surroundings once she’d finished.

Unlike when she’d last been in the forest with Snape, when the tree limbs and the ground had been bare and twiggy with the final winter frosts, Harry could see even in the moonlight that the greenery around her was lush with early summer.

She shivered, pulling the edges of her denim jacket tighter around herself, then reached out and grazed the bark of a tree with her fingertips. It came back to her, then, all of a sudden: Voldemort’s noseless face and red eyes and triumphant, almost giddy laugh… His cruel voice hissing The girl who lived, come to die…

She clenched her fists and bared her teeth. The fucker hadn’t even been good at wordplay.

Pacing a small, jerky circle, she touched other tree trunks, the ground, the leaves of bushes. She didn’t really know what she was doing. But the past wouldn’t be erased, no matter what she did. It was all a part of her now. The awful heat and chaos of the battle. The dead laid out in the Great Hall, their skin slowly turning gray. The joyless progression of funerals. Hagrid holding Dumbledore’s broken body and weeping. The flicker of a second when she'd seen her death coming before the green light had swallowed her whole.

Sirius flying triumphantly away on Buckbeak in third year. Dobby’s pride in the mismatched socks he gave her every Christmas. The tender look on Remus Lupin’s face as he showed Harry his newborn son. Hermione’s tenacity and wit; Ron’s courage and loyalty. The warmth and bustle of the Burrow. Fred and George whooping together right before the Battle because it was time to fight at last.

She remembered burying her face into Hedwig’s downy feathers, then launching her into the night sky.

The moral of the story, Harry decided as she took a few more deep breaths of the forest air, was that the world was both wonderful and terrible, magical and cruel.

And life went on.

She accio’d her broomstick, mounted it, and kicked upward toward the moon.

~

On Harry's last morning at Hogwarts, she woke in the quiet darkness before dawn.

She was alone in her room, as Hermione and Ron had used their eighth-year privileges to go to Hogsmeade directly after the Leaving Feast the night before and Apparate away. Hermione’s parents were celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary the next day, and Hermione and Ron would need the morning to take a series of international Portkeys to Australia in order to get to the party on time.

Harry wasn’t particularly upset that they’d had to leave early: she’d see her friends again in two weeks when they returned for Ron to join Harry in Auror training and Hermione to start her internship with Kingsley. It did feel strange, however, to see Hermione’s bed made neatly and no clutter spread across the other half of the room.

Now, Harry rolled over in her sheets, fumbled for where she’d left the Marauders’ Map on her nightstand, and pulled her wand from underneath her pillow to solemnly swear it to life. As the ink filled in, she scanned the castle for one name in particular.

When she spotted it, her breath caught.

The DADA practical was the only time that she and Snape had spoken in the two weeks of the testing, but not the only time they'd communicated. After lying in the bed provided by the Room of Requirement and staring up at the ceiling for twenty minutes, turning certain truths over in her mind, Harry had made a vow to herself: she wasn't going to let the bastard go without saying a proper goodbye to him as well.

What with the many eyes that were always watching, it had seemed easiest to send him a letter. She'd written it out and crumpled up the parchment four times before sticking with:

Astronomy tower. Last morning of term.

Please?

If he didn't understand, he'd doubtless be quick to scathingly point out her lack of clarity in a reply.

Instead, she'd gotten no answer at all. Except now, there the name was, in exactly the place she'd requested at exactly the right time.

Scrambling upright, Harry dressed quickly in the Muggle jumper and denims she’d left out when packing her trunk the previous day, then slipped from her dormitory and began jogging down the hall. There was no way she was going to make him wait.

Chapter Text

When Harry reached the top of the Astronomy Tower, she saw Snape standing near the edge, his black robes snapping in the wind as he stared out toward Hogsmeade. Above him, the sky was just beginning to lighten with dawn.

Her breaths quickening, Harry approached slowly. Even though he hadn't acknowledged her, he had to know she was there.

"Hullo, Professor," she finally said, keeping her voice soft.

"Miss Potter." He stepped back from the edge and turned partially to face her. He sounded resigned.

Shoving her cold hands into the pockets of her jeans, she offered him a tentative smile. "Thanks for meeting me."

He inclined his head, then glanced at their surroundings with a raised brow.

Harry winced. "Should I have picked somewhere else?" It was just that the Astronomy Tower was the last important place in the castle that she hadn't revisited yet. Also, putting aside how Dumbledore had died, the setting seemed to suit Snape, with all the bluster of the wind covering the vista spread out around them.

The adam's apple in the man's long throat bobbed once as he turned back to the view. "No," he answered after a pause. "It will be...pleasant...to watch the sun rise."

Letting out a sigh of relief, Harry settled into the silence that spread between them, content for now just to soak in the man's presence by her side.

She took the opportunity to study him surreptitiously. He still looked fatigued, but something that she couldn't quite define seemed different about him. Perhaps it was that he was well-groomed this morning, his hair tied back at the nape of his neck. And the lines in his face were considerably lighter than they'd been just two weeks prior, although that might have been thanks to the white half-light of dawn. She shivered, remembering how much younger he had looked in full sunlight.

"When do you leave on your trip?" she eventually asked, scuffing a foot against the stones.

"Wednesday." Snape clasped his hands behind his back. "After the staff goes home for the year."

"Auror training starts in two weeks."

"I'm sure the criminals of wizarding Britain are quivering with fear." The man looked pointedly at the front of her jumper with a faint curl to his lips. "You cut such an imposing figure, after all."

Remembering that she was wearing one of her Christmas jumpers from Mrs. Weasley (the one with the H on the front made out of small broomsticks), Harry flushed. "Ha bloody ha," she muttered, although she never really minded when he goaded her.

She shifted, gazing out over the lightening landscape to where the sun was just cresting over the mountaintops.

"I always liked it up here," she murmured after a moment. "Still do. Standing here in the wind always feels a bit like flying."

Snape made a small humming sound that was neither denial nor agreement. "I detest flying," he said abruptly.

Harry blinked. "Even on a broom?"

He dipped his chin in a small nod, his expression remaining neutral. "I find it sickening."

"That's..." She stopped, not sure how to continue. Snape wasn't the type to lightly reveal anything that might be perceived as a weakness. The fact that he'd just done so meant a great deal to her. She ought to share something equally personal to even the score, Harry decided.

"I hate peas," she said, since it was the first thing that came to mind.

The man's expression vividly conveyed his diminishing confidence in her sanity.

He’d just have to hear her out. "Dudley—my cousin—hated them first," she explained. "He'd scream bloody murder if Aunt Petunia tried to make him eat them. But they were cheap, so she'd buy frozen peas to feed to me. I think I ate nothing but peas and some scraps I stole for a week straight, once."

Snape regarded her quietly, a line forming between his eyebrows. "Petunia always was a malicious bitch," he finally replied.

Harry ducked her chin to hide her smile. "Yeah."

Silence spread between them again.

Leaning forward, Harry caught the edge of his black sleeve. "Snape, I just wanted to ask—are you all right?"

The man's mouth opened and closed. "That’s why you brought me here?"

She tilted her head. "Well, yeah. And to say goodbye."

He huffed out a breath. "You may rest assured that I continue to find my existence perfectly tolerable, you ridiculous girl."

Harry frowned. She liked that he was feeling lively enough to insult her again, but that answer was troubling. "I hope you do more than tolerate it."

Snape gave a faint eye roll, which Harry decided to take as reassurance. The man hated platitudes even more than she did, after all.

"And yourself?" he asked with obvious reluctance after a minute. "You are...well?"

That startled a laugh out of her. "No, don't start being nice to me now," she protested gently. "I don't think I could bear it."

Snape looked nonplussed at this answer, his nose wrinkling in a way that she couldn’t help finding adorable. "You are a very strange young woman," he eventually replied.

Harry shrugged. She was who she was.

Her heart hammered as she gathered her courage. "It was a good kiss, wasn't it?" she asked, if only because she’d been dying to know what he thought about it for three weeks.

Snape's eyes narrowed, his hackles visibly rising. "Certainly," he snapped. "I do so enjoy being assaulted by students in invisibility cloaks."

Harry winced, remembering her dream. She'd known he would be mad.

But she wasn't going to apologize for what she’d done when she wasn't really all that sorry. "I thought it was a good kiss," she said hopefully.

Snape swore under his breath, then turned to face her fully. "Miss Potter, as I have told you multiple times, I am not an appropriate object for romantic fixation. Aside from the age difference, I am a cruel and bitter man. Whatever...inclination you feel for me is both ill-advised and inevitably transient. There is no place for me in your future."

Harry frowned. That had almost had the feel of a rehearsed speech. "Got it all planned out for me?" she demanded, fisting her hands on her hips. "My future?"

She could practically hear Snape's teeth grinding. "You are intelligent, attractive, and adored by the public, you insufferable minx. All paths are open before you. Not just—" He stopped himself, obviously attempting to get a hold on his temper.

Harry's jaw had dropped at the list of praises. He'd never even told her that he so much as enjoyed her company before.

She took a step closer. "You think I'm attractive?" she wondered, her voice squeaking slightly.

Two splotches of color appeared on Snape's cheeks.

He was breathing hard. She liked watching the way his thin chest rose and fell so rapidly. She realized that she had reached out and anchored herself with a fistful of his robes.

Something reckless and bold was rising within her. "You know, Snape, you're always telling me what a bad, wicked man you are," she said solemnly, flicking her eyes up to his.

He glared down his nose at her.

Harry smiled. There was no backing down now. "So why don't you do something to prove it?"

Snape closed his eyes and opened them again slowly. "And what proof would you require, you aggravating child?"

"You could kiss me back," she offered quietly.

The words came out sounding much more hesitant than she'd intended, and Snape was staring at her now. She kept her shoulders straight. If he was going to mock her, she’d have her answer, wouldn’t she? She’d know that she’d gone as far as down this path as she could possibly go.

His breath hissed out through his teeth, and he took a step forward. His hands rose to cup her cheeks.

Oh, Harry thought rather wildly. I didn't think he'd actually do i—

For all that Snape's lips were sensuous and commanding against hers, the kiss that he gave her was as light as a cloud.

When he released her some time later, his breaths were even harsher than before, one of his hands carding through her unruly curls as if it were helpless to do anything else. “Well?” he asked, dark eyes considering her somberly.

Harry blinked the world back into focus, finding that her own hands had laced themselves into the hair at the back of his neck (which turned out to only be slightly greasy).

“Mmm." She felt a laugh of pure joy bubbling up inside her chest. "Exceeds Expectations,” she decided.

Her companion looked significantly affronted at this.

"Try it again and I might give twenty points to Slytherin," she told him coyly.

The hand that was on her left shoulder tightened as Snape dipped to speak directly into her ear. "You, Miss Potter, are an unrelenting tease," he growled.

Oh, that was a new one. "Am I really?" Harry asked, panting slightly.

"It's enough to drive a man mad," he confirmed, taking the tip of one of her earlobes between his teeth.

She gasped. Who knew that earlobes were so sensitive? "You're the one who's—ah—teasing!" she managed to object weakly.

Snape pulled back. "Am I really?" he parroted, his eyes glittering.

She stood on her toes to kiss him again, if only to wipe the smirk off his face.

Harry couldn't help moaning into it this time, which in turn made Snape release a groan that sounded almost involuntarily. His lips were soft and hot against hers, his hands clamped around her waist like a vise. A full-body shiver coursed through her. Oh, she thought, and I hadn't realized, and Yesyesyes.

"You—you should call me Harry," she gasped when they finally broke for air.

She felt the wheeze-rumble of Snape's laugh shaking his chest before she heard it. Well, she supposed her timing was a bit funny.

Snape dipped to recapture her lips rather than comment, and for a while after that everything was sweetness and heat once more. Snape seemed surprisingly fixated on suckling her lower lip until it protruded in a wet pout. Her own favorite activity, Harry decided, was darting the tip of her tongue over the edges of his crooked teeth. She noted absently that the sun had finally cleared the mountaintops and was bathing them in its long yellow rays.

All too soon, however, he was releasing her, pulling away. "Satisfied, Harry?" he asked, his tone both a taunt and a temptation.

Everything in her rebelled at the separation. Her hopes, which had been soaring for the last few minutes, abruptly plummeted back to earth. She should have known he was just indulging her, maybe just proving a point.

She buried her face in his chest, shaking her head and mashing her nose into those damn buttons. She wasn’t going to cry.

Snape stroked her back. “Hush,” he whispered hoarsely.

There was no way he could kiss her like that and feel nothing for her, no attraction or affection. She lifted her head.

"Please, Severus," she entreated. If ever there was a time to use his first name, it was now. "You can't leave me like this without taking me to bed. Please."

Snape was silent. The wind and Harry’s unsteady breathing were the only sounds.

He swore.

He cast a Tempus.

"It is half five in the morning,” he said tightly. “The train leaves at precisely a quarter to ten." He met her eyes. "You will be on it."

Harry stared up at him. "Four hours?" she asked, her lips parted.

"Four hours," Snape confirmed. "That is my offer." His voice darkened. "It is the only one I will make."

Harry bit her lower lip, then nodded firmly, her decision already made. Four hours wasn't everything she wanted from him—not by a long shot—but it was far more than she’d expected to be given.

"I accept," she answered.

It would have to be enough.

Chapter Text

Four hours.

Relative to the length of Harry Potter’s life, it was almost nothing; compared to Severus's own, it was even less.

But the girl seemed happy with the offer. Giddy, even. “I accept,” she’d said, as solemn as a vow—and then when Severus took her face in his hands and asked, “Where?”, she fluttered her lashes against the growing sunlight and breathed out, “Anywhere.”

A ridiculous answer. “Greenhouse Number Two?” he suggested tartly.

The maddening child only smiled. “Yes."

Severus felt his eyebrows draw together. “The kitchen floor?”

Green eyes glittered with pure mischief, the arms that were around his neck tightening. “Yes."

In the distance, he could hear birds starting to chirp. “The Hufflepuff common room?” he demanded, if only to get a rise out of her.

“I did say anywhere,” she confirmed with a lopsided grin.

He supposed that backing down from a challenge wasn’t in Potter’s modus operandi. "Ridiculous brat," he told her after a pause. “Lucky for you, ‘taking you to bed’ requires a bed.”

“I suppose,” she answered with mock melancholy. She chewed her lower lip, her eyes flicking back up to his. “And my dormitory and your quarters are right out?”

Fuck, it was difficult to think when she sucked her lip between her teeth like that—especially now that he knew exactly what she was tasting. “Students and portraits,” he managed to counter, his voice only slightly hoarse.

She nodded in acknowledgement, then leaned forward to rest her head against his chest again, closing her eyes as she thought.

Salazar. If this was some obscure form of punishment from the universe, he knew what he’d done to deserve it—but if it was a reward, he hadn’t a clue.

Before he could do anything absurd like voice this thought aloud, the girl’s eyes flew open. "Oh!" she gasped, and Severus found himself being tugged by the hand toward the stairs.

He let himself be led.

He’d been foolish to allow it come to this, of course. He’d been foolish to meet her atop the tower, foolish to be goaded into kissing her, and far beyond foolish to agree to her plea for more.

He'd been so foolish that morning, Severus reflected as he followed the head of riotous curls through the dark castle, that he might as well just accept the inevitable and admit he was a fool.

~

Four hours.

Eleven minutes into it, Harry paced in front of Barnabas the Barmy and thought Please don't do the heart this time.

When the door appeared in the stones, she opened it silently and gestured her companion in.

The Room had arranged itself just as Harry remembered, complete with the cream-colored bedspread and the cheerful embers in the hearth. “I was not aware that this enchantment catered to this particular…activity,” Snape muttered as he paused on the threshold, his eyes darting over the domestic scene. He cast a particularly neutral look at the Muggle novels on the shelves, then the vase of grass on the table between the two armchairs.

Not knowing quite what to do with herself, Harry sat on the edge of the bed and slipped off her shoes. “I didn't ask for this, originally," she felt compelled to explain. "I was visiting a while ago, and the Room just...offered."

"Of course it did."

Harry cleared her throat. "I'm always getting special treatment, I know." She tried for levity. "If you hate it, there's still the Hufflepuff common room."

Snape gave a small snort, but made no other reply. He was still standing with his back to the doorway, his sharp cheekbones cast in shadow, his arms crossed lightly over his chest, his hair and neat rows of black buttons gleaming like octopus ink.

With a sinking feeling, Harry realized that she had no idea what to do next.

Despite what had happened on the tower not twenty minutes prior, the man looked immaculate. Greasy, yes, but an elegant sort of greasy, a Renaissance sculpture sort of greasy. He looked, Harry admitted to herself, like a character from the past—teacher, villain, spy—rather than the person she'd become friends with, the one she'd just enthusiastically snogged.

He looked as if he'd never been touched.

Harry cast a dark glance at her surroundings from under her fringe. And the Room. When it had shown her this little boudoir two weeks ago, she'd thought that it was sweet and cozy. Now, it just felt confining. She hadn't forgotten that this was where Crabbe had burned to death. And Snape deserved so much more than just some dingy bed in the Room of Requirement. He deserved beauty, drama. Landscape—the thrum of the sea, the curl of the wind on his skin, the sweep of the stars across the night sky.

Everything had seemed so simple, when they'd been on the tower. But now that they were actually here, it wasn't right, and the clock was ticking, and she wanted so badly not to bollocks this up—

And now Snape was peering at her intently, starting to frown. “Miss Potter,” he began slowly, "if you've changed your mind..."

Fuck. Harry suddenly felt as if the walls were closing in around her. “I haven't,” she rushed to say. “It’s just—I have no idea where to start. I'm new at this. I never kissed anyone like that before this morning. I’ve never even been on a proper date.”

As explanations went, even she could tell that it was horribly muddled. Merlin, it had been such a delicate negotiation, getting him here. Where had her powers of persuasion gone?

Snape's frown was only deepening. “I was under the impression that you understood at least the rudiments of sexual intercourse,” he snapped, looking as if he wanted to swear again.

"Of course I do!" Miserable, Harry buried her head in her hands. What the hell was wrong with her? She wanted him so much, and they had so little time. Why in Godric's name was she standing in her own way?

"Miss Potter." The man's voice was a lot closer this time.

She looked up to see that he was holding out a glass of water for her, just as he had at the memorial after she’d tried the firewhiskey. "Drink," he said softly.

She accepted the glass and took a sip, then focused on getting her breathing under control. "I'm sorry," she finally said, lifting her chin to peer up at him. "I would understand if you want to back out." One of his primary objections to bedding her had been that she was so young and inexperienced, after all—and she wasn't exactly proving him wrong.

Snape raised his eyes to the ceiling. “No,” he answered tersely.

Harry's doubts must have shown on her face.

"You may trust that I am here of my own volition," he growled, obviously at the limits of his patience.

Harry was actually relieved to see him look irritated. At least something in this situation was familiar. “Okay,” she agreed after a pause. “I’ll…take your word for it, I suppose.”

"Please do," he answered waspishly, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

Stepping back, the man paced to the small table and tapped it twice. "If this were a date—" Based on the way his nostrils flared, the word obviously wasn't a typical part of his vocabulary. "—there would be a meal first. Would you like me to request breakfast from the kitchens?"

Harry appreciated the offer, but she felt more queasy than hungry at the moment. “Thanks, but I don't think I could stomach it."

"Then perhaps you should lie down." Snape's tone was sharp, commanding; his expression was an inscrutable mask.

Harry dipped her head in submission, finishing her water and putting her glass on the floor. Retreating backwards onto the mattress, she curled up on her side.

A minute passed, and then she heard the man's feet padding across the floor. She looked up, and he was standing at the foot of the bed, watching her.

She rolled onto her back and returned the favor.

"You must tell me what you want," he said, grave and low.

She wanted a lot of things. More time, mostly. To rediscover the closeness that they'd found when they'd snogged on the tower, second of all.

But she doubted that explaining this would help. "You would take me out to dinner? If we were on a date?" she asked in return.

One black eyebrow lifted. "If the circumstances arose, yes."

"Where would we go?"

"Wherever you like." His eyes narrowed slightly. "Not the Three Broomsticks."

Raising a mild brow in return, Harry sat up on one elbow. "I was about to say Thai."

That earned her a twitch of the man's lips. He leaned against one of the bedposts and looked at her sidelong, his arms crossed. "That would be acceptable."

"And...would you pull out my chair?" Harry licked her lips.

"Certainly."

"And order wine?"

"If it was an appropriate addition to the flavors of the meal."

That answer was so quintessentially Snape that Harry had to huff. He was probably as finicky about food as he was about potions ingredients.

She looked at him from under her lashes. "Would you pour for me?"

His gaze was fixed on her face. "Of course," he answered, low and warm and amused.

"Um," Harry said, because all of the hairs on her body and just decided to stand up. Casting about for her next question, she came up with, "And if you gave me a compliment, what would it be?"

That made him frown again, which hadn't been her intention at all. "Miss Potter—"

"Harry," she interrupted. "You said you'd call me Harry."

He hadn't, actually. He'd laughed. But that laugh had been agreement, hadn't it?

The man looked as if he wanted to grind his teeth. "You must know that I would not have agreed to this absurd venture—" He gestured at their surroundings. "—if I did not find you..." He paused, obviously considering and discarding ways to end the sentence. "...sorely tempting."

Harry tilted her head, starting to smile. “I don’t know," she finally said. "You are very self-sacrificing."

He rolled his eyes. “Yes. And I make it my mission to succumb to every Gryffindor who propositions me."

She sat up on both elbows this time, her brow furrowing. “There have been others?"

He sneered. “I was a teacher for two decades, and Gryffindors are notoriously impetuous. What do you think?"

She fell back down onto the mattress with a bounce. “Hmph.”

Sensation along the arch of her left foot surprised her. He was stroking a single finger over it, back and forth, back and forth.

“Most of them were in my early years, and usually in jest," he explained quietly, his voice as light and toying as the caress.

Something in Harry felt like it was catching flame. She turned her face into the duvet. “The ninnies,” she managed, her foot curling with the touch.

"Hm. My thoughts precisely." Snape transferred his attentions to the other foot, trailing what felt like a rune along the sensitive underside with two idle fingers.

"What would you compliment?" she asked again, staring up at him. "My eyes?" They were her mother’s, after all. He’d wanted to look at them while he died.

Snape looked away from her. "Your kindness," he muttered, and Harry suddenly realized that he wasn't toying with her at all.

Drawing her feet back, Harry sat up. Legs dangling off the bed, she wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his stomach, rubbing her cheek against the silky fabric of his waistcoat and inhaling deeply. It felt like coming home.

"...And then what would happen? At the end of the date?"

Snape's hands had come up to card through her curls, trace the shell of an ear softly. "That would be up to you."

She tilted her chin up toward him again. He looked even more severe than normal from this angle, all nose and thin lips. "Then I would go home with you, obviously."

"In that case, I might be considered a lucky man."

She closed her eyes and nuzzled into him again, listening for his heartbeat. It was gratifyingly unsteady.

"Would you make the first move?"

"I imagine...that I would be concerned about taking advantage of you." Though his expression as he looked down at her was solemn, she noticed a faint quirk to his lips. "You would need to press your suit."

She ducked her chin, smiling again. He could be so Victorian sometimes. Thinking, she rubbed her lips in a smooth slide against one of his lower buttons. "I would take off my clothes," she decided.

Snape looked like he wanted to laugh. "Is that your idea of seduction?" he wondered incredulously.

He sounded rather breathless. Pulling back, Harry gave him her cheekiest smile. "Depends. Would it work?"

He swallowed.

It was time, she decided, to take a risk. Faint heart never won fair Slytherin, after all.

Scooting back from the edge of the bed, she pulled her jumper, shirt, and bra over her head in one go.

Next came her jeans, peeling one leg off at a time and dropping them unceremoniously on the floor. Her wand went on the nightstand. When she rolled back to face Snape again, the only clothing remaining on her body were her pants, which were yellow, because she liked yellow.

Snape was completely frozen—except for his eyes, which raked over her body with what seemed like a mixture, in Harry's opinion, of panic and greed.

Wordlessly, she held open her arms.

As on the tower right before he kissed her, she saw a flicker of indecision cross his face. Then he began carefully undoing, untying, disrobing. He was as graceful in this as in everything else, revealing a thin but muscular chest with a triangle of coarse dark hair in the center and particularly sharp shoulder blades. Leaving only his trousers on, he climbed atop the bed to meet her.

Wrapping her arms around the man, Harry fell backwards until his forearms were on either side of her head, caging her.

“Frightened?” he asked, looking down at her somberly.

Harry shook her head against the pillow. “Still nervous, though. It’s just—what if I’m awful at this?”

The backs of two fingers stroked her left cheekbone. “Foolish girl. Then you will practice with other partners until you are not.”

She tightened her arms until all she could feel was the heated press of him on top of her. “Don’t want other partners,” she said into the groove of his neck, just below Nagini's scar. “Just you.”

"Hm."

It was obvious that he didn't believe her. Before Harry could emphasize her point, though, Snape leaned down, pushed her hair out of the way with his nose, and started to suckle her earlobe gently—which was extremely distracting, to say the least.

"You must tell me what you want," he said again, trailing kisses up and down her neck.

A ball of heat and need was starting to squirm for attention below her abdomen. "Anything."

"We'll see," he muttered, and then his leg hooked behind her foot, and he was rolling so that she was on top of him, her legs automatically straddling his waist.

Disgruntled, Harry straightened to stare down at her companion. His lips were curled in the faintest of smirks, his long hair was in slight disarray against the pillow, and his gaze on her face was intense enough that she almost wondered if he was performing Legilimency.

"Warn me next time," she muttered—and then she scooted back and buried her nose in the triangle of black hair between his pectorals, just because she could.

He smelled so good here, all male animal musk and Snape Snape Snape. Oddly enough, she also detected a whiff of daisies. "You smell like flowers," she told him, nuzzling deeper.

Snape let out his wheeze of a laugh at this, ropily muscled arms encircling her so that his large hands could smooth from her shoulders to the small of her back. "It's my soap," he explained.

Of course it was.

She was about to tell him that she planned to steal some before she left the castle, but then his right hand paused beside of her left breast. "May I?" he asked.

Her nipples tightened under his gaze. Harry ducked her chin, feeling herself blush. "Mm-hm."

Eyes fixed on her face, Snape cupped the mound and swiped his thumb across the peak in the center, then leaned forward and captured it between his lips.

Oh. Oh. Biting back a whimper, Harry arched into the sensation. That was…a considerably better feeling than she’d thought it would be.

Snape transferred to the other nipple, closing his eyes and laving it with his tongue, then latching properly to a soundtrack of small wet sucking noises.

Merlin’s balls. Perhaps she’d overestimated her ability to survive this.

Pulling off her right nipple with a pop and resting his forehead against her sternum, Snape smoothed a hand down the center of her stomach until it was lightly cupping her pubic mound over her underwear. “Do you touch yourself here?” he asked, his voice a throaty rumble.

Harry licked her lips. Her mouth had gone very, very dry. “Sometimes,” she admitted. “Not often.”

He slid his hand down until the heel rested against her mons, fingertips moving in the barest hint of teasing circles.

“Shall I do it for you, then?”

The words wouldn’t come, so she met his eyes and nodded.

He didn’t question it; instead, he pushed aside the fabric and delved underneath with his customary precision, nudging a finger into her slick canal and rubbing it back and forth gently.

Harry gripped his shoulders, her knees and thighs clenching against his sides.

He pushed the finger inside of her.

Her lips parted in a silent gasp.

When he maneuvered a second digit in to join the first, her eyes closed at the strange sensation. Snape’s fingers were, rougher, longer, and somehow warmer than her own, but they touched her with delicacy, exploring her depths before beginning to thrust in and out of her in a steady rhythm, pausing every few seconds for the heel of his hand to grind against her clitoris.

Harry couldn’t help moaning, bucking against him and feeling as if she was balancing on the knife’s edge between too much stimulation and too little. “Is there—ahh—something that I should be doing for you?” she managed to ask, surprised by the cracked sound of her voice.

If anything, Snape seemed amused by this question. “And what would you do, little minx?” he asked in her ear, beginning to mouth at her neck again in a way that seemed calculated to drive her spare. “Would you fellate me?”

She’d never heard that word before. “What—mhh!—does that mean?”

“It means, silly girl, would you put my cock in your mouth and suck it?”

Harry squeezed her eyes shut tight, a full-body shiver coursing through her. Leaning down, she licked at the sweat that was gathering along the line of his jaw.

Snape turned his face and kissed her on the mouth.

It was the first time they’d kissed properly since the tower—and even then, none of those kisses had been this messy or needy. At the same time, he increased the tempo of his fingers, adding a third and twisting them with each slick slide inside. Harry clung to him as to a spar of driftwood in a stormy sea, and their teeth clashed, and Snape's normally pallid face was flushed with exertion, his breath ragged, his tongue in her mouth, and she'd always thought that she would hate that—but she didn't at all, and she pulled away to gasp, "Severus—oh god—I—I can't—"

"Harry," he answered softly against her cheek, his voice guttural and transformed.

Biting her lip, Harry tasted salt and copper in a sudden flood against her tongue. Colors spiked behind her eyelids. She couldn't breathe—

And then the tide turned, the tension in her body finally releasing. She sucked in heaving gulps of air and collapsed down into a warm embrace, and Snape, the bastard, was shaking with silent laughter again underneath her, and she thought I’m going to get him for that as her eyes slipped closed.

Chapter Text

When Harry came to, her companion was rolling the shoulder that she wasn’t pressed against and flexing the fingers that had very recently been inside her.

Stretching indolently, she took stock of herself. Her curls were sticking to her neck with sweat, she was still breathing in fits and gasps, some type of rash had spread across her chest and abdomen, and the area between her legs was throbbing with residual sensation.

She’d never, she suspected, felt better in her life.

She burrowed deeper against the man beside her, murmuring, “And you said you wouldn’t be gentle.”

Snape craned down at her. “Did I?”

It wasn't fair, how sexy he looked with his hair all mussed and his skin shiny with sweat and the ghost of a smirk still twitching on his lips. She wanted—gods, she wanted to hide her face, but also to lick him all over like a puppy.

“Mm, ages ago.” She ran one bare foot up his trouser-clad calf. “Ancient history." Sitting up, she gave him a pointed look. "I hope you’ve learned better about yourself since then.”

He snorted, then pulled her back down against his shoulder. Feeling thoroughly happy with this state of affairs, Harry lifted her mouth to be kissed.

She knew that they were far from done with their time in the Room of Requirement, and she even had a plan—sort of—for what she wanted to do next.

Still, it was nice to just be held and snogged for a while. Aside from everything else, she'd never expected kissing to be so marvelous.

Plans could wait.

~

Kissing Harry Potter, Severus was realizing, was a remarkably effective way to shut her up. Too bad he hadn't discovered it years ago.

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect method: as it brought her into close proximity with a certain area of his body, he was forced to twitch his hips away. He was erect—of course he was erect—and he didn't want her to accidentally press against anything that might make her feel skittish.

With the unnerving insight that she’d begun displaying lately regarding himself, however, Potter was breaking away, glancing down the length of his body, murmuring, "It's your turn." One of her hands drifted closer to the join of his trousers. "I'd like to—"

The quiet in the Room of Requirement was split by a loud pop.

“Hello, Miss Harry! Hello, Headmaster Severus!" a cheerful and familiar voice called out.

It was a few seconds before Potter put the wand that battle-honed instincts had slapped into her palm back on the nightstand. "Er, Winky. Hello," she managed. Belatedly, she lifted an arm to cover her bare breasts.

Having already replaced his own wand on the bedside table, Severus reached behind himself for a pillow, which the girl accepted with a glance of profound gratitude. “Hello, Winky,” he agreed with the driest courtesy he could summon. “To what do we owe this…surprising visit?”

Standing at the foot of the bed, the elf in question pulled her tea towel out in a curtsy and beamed. “Winky is bringing food from the Great Hall!” she announced proudly as several platters covered in silver lids popped into existence around her and somehow all managed to settle themselves on top of the small table between the armchairs. She gave the two of them a look that could only be classified as sly. “Miss Harry and Headmaster Severus need to be keeping their strengths up."

Beside him, Potter choked.

"Winky is also bringing Miss Harry's glasses in case she is needing them and the expandable muggle no-baby shields from Headmaster Severus's rooms!" the undaunted elf announced happily, pulling Potter's bifocals from one pocket of her tea towel and a sheaf of condoms in their foil packets from another.

To his chagrin, Severus felt a flush attempt to work its way past his facade of polite neutrality. Maybe it was the way Potter was now glancing between him and the condoms with her eyes as wide as saucers. Damn Hooch and her inappropriate retirement gift...

Levitating the glasses and condoms on top of the breakfast paraphernalia with a snap, the elf darted wide brown eyes back to the humans on the bed. "Are sir and miss not pleased?" she demanded, a sudden quiver in her voice.

Severus placed a hand on the small of Potter's back to keep her from replying. "No, Winky, you've been very thoughtful," he answered gravely.

"Yes!" The elf nodded vigorously, her cheery manner returning in full force. "Winky is a good elf and is helping Headmaster Severus protect Miss Harry!"

And with a second pop, she disappeared.

All was silent, and then Potter let out a loud groan, burying her face in her hands. "Oh god, that was—"

"Mortifying?" Severus offered mildly.

"Yeah. I mean, how did she even—" A hand wave encompassed the Room, her nudity, the two of them, the bed.

Because touching her was addictive, Severus allowed himself to give the small of her back a light caress before removing his hand. "Elves always know much more than wizards and witches credit."

"Guess so." She dug her chin into the pillow in her arms, gaze intent on his face. "You were very nice."

Severus frowned. "It would be uncommonly cold-blooded to be impatient with someone who would torture themselves for causing displeasure," he pointed out.

Potter blinked, then ducked her face against the pillow again. Why was she smiling at him like that?

Severus took a deep, silent breath. He gestured toward the food. "Would you like to eat?"

The girl wrinkled her nose. "I suppose we'd better. It'd be a shame to let it go to waste."

She didn't look particularly enthusiastic about the idea, but she climbed to her feet, pausing once Severus had risen as well to pull the bedspread up and wrap it around herself.

He raised his eyebrows. After their recent intimacy, the modesty seemed incongruous—but what was the girl, if not charmingly—ahem, annoyingly idiosyncratic?

Winky had been generous with them, bringing pumpkin juice, tea, rashers of bacon, eggs, toast, jam, porridge, apricots and strawberries. Despite her protests, Potter took some of almost everything, eating mostly with her fingers and drinking the pumpkin juice straight from the pitcher. "Little savage," Severus murmured as he spread jam on his third slice of toast.

"What? Did you want some?"

He did not.

"Didn't think so." The brat smirked at him. "Not all of us cut our toast into little squares and eat them with a fork, you know."

Mock-glaring—and he was entirely certain that Potter could tell his false glare from his sincere one at this point—Severus put down his knife, speared two squares of toast at once, and took a single overlarge bite.

Potter had a lovely—entertaining expression when he startled her into laughter. And there was that smile again, the one that was far too bright and open to be directed at him.

Madness, he thought distantly. Being here with her was a torturous, delightful exercise in madness.

They returned to eating, but Severus found that he had little remaining appetite. Not when he could look at Potter instead, wrapped up in a blanket with bare shoulders as she ate an apricot, licking the juice off her fingers. The bird’s nest of her hair, the slender column of her neck with a trail of red love bites—his work—rising at the base. Salazar, she'd been gorgeous when she came. He shouldn’t be surprised that the girl would throw herself into pleasure the same way she flew: with abandon and exquisite sensitivity and utter disregard for doubts or consequences.

It was acceptable for him to let his gaze linger, wasn't it? For now. Until their time was up.

Looking up from the stem of the strawberry she'd just finished, the girl noticed his gaze and met it, lips parting at whatever she saw there. And fuck it all, it was getting harder and harder to think of her by her last name when she looked at him like that.

It wasn't long before Ha—Potter was clearing her throat. "Can I ask you a question?"

“You are doubtless going to do so whether I agree or not,” Severus replied, knowing it lacked real venom.

“Well, you don’t have to answer," she pointed out logically. She glanced down at her plate, squinting as if in thought, then looked back up and said, "Prostitutes."

“If you think that’s a question…”

“No, I mean…" She scrubbed a hand through her hair, looking uncertain. "...you’ve only had sex with prostitutes?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

When he just stared at her, she rushed to add, “I mean, did you never want to try for something more? A relationship?”

“Do I seem like the type?” he asked irritably. The balance of the morning had been consistently precarious, and he had the sudden premonition that the girl was about to topple it over.

Potter frowned at him. “I don’t see why not.”

"No?" He put down his fork and knife with a resounding clatter. "And where should I have found my lucky paramour—the staff or the Death Eaters?"

She winced. "All right, I see your point. But I'm sure you know other people—potioneers—I mean, you could've, if—" Looking increasingly flustered, she blurted, “Was it because of my mother?"

Suddenly feeling as if thorns or nettles were prickling his skin, Severus scraped back his chair and rose. He strode to the hearth and leaned against it, wishing it were easier to breathe. Lily, he thought, and then, in a rush of stark self-remonstration—how could he? How could he do this with Lily's daughter?

When Severus felt arms wrap around him from behind, he realized that Potter had followed him. “I'm sorry,” she whispered, laying her cheek between his shoulder blades. “I shouldn’t have brought it up."

He could agree, sneer that her penchant for doing exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time amounted to a talent—but what would be the point? "I don't wish to speak of this," he settled for saying, stiff and almost soundless.

Potter's arms tightened. "I know," she answered lowly. "I just—I think she would have been proud of you. Of the person you've made yourself into, despite it all. You should know that.”

Was the little twit forgetting that he'd caused her parents' death? And did she honestly think that Lily would approve of the fact that he'd quite recently fingered her daughter to orgasm?

“You are absurd,” he finally managed, his voice wretchedly unsteady.

Slipping around to where he could see her, Potter lifted her chin and shook her head vehemently, curls bouncing in a dark, frizzy halo. "No." Her expression was both tender and fierce. “Sometimes, yeah, but not always. Not now."

She didn't seem to realize that the bedspread she'd wrapped around herself had drifted down below one breast, a tempting curve, the nipple now soft and unpebbled.

Pushing her back into the wall, he kissed her hard.

She squirmed against him in shock and surprise, so he kissed her harder, until her gasps turned into moans.

His erection had retreated during breakfast, but now it was rapidly swelling again to full length, the hardest he could remember it being since he was a teenager—if then. And he was suddenly sick of hiding it, protecting the girl from the evidence of his arousal. When she arched against him wantonly, her hands lacing themselves in his hair, he ground into her, taking hold of her hips to seal her more firmly against the stones.

Harry—Potter gasped again, and yes, the way her face transformed, the delicious pressure against his swollen length, that was bliss, but it wasn’t nearly enough

She stiffened, pushing him away.

Severus reeled back as if scalded, self-castigations looping through his head. Fucking shit fuck, he'd lost control, he’d hurt her, he’d gone too far—

She fell to her knees.

The breath punched from his lungs. "What are you..." He swallowed and tried again. "There is no need—"

Potter was sitting on her feet, the bedspread puddling around her. Leaning forward, she caught his belt loops in her fingers and rested her cheek against the bulge of his erection over the fabric that clothed it.

“Of course not," she answered, her gaze clear and direct. “I just...I'd like to see it. May I?”

It might have been wrong—reprehensible—to do this with Lily’s daughter, but Severus couldn’t deny the surge of pure want that coursed through him. Hearing the breath hiss from between his teeth, he leaned against the wall for support.

He nodded.

With a quirk of her lips that looked like nothing so much as satisfaction, Potter opened the placket of his trousers with a Seeker's deftness and reached inside gently. His penis, Severus could feel, was doing most of the work to free itself, bursting proudly from confinement. He closed his eyes, suddenly unable to bear the idea of watching Potter’s expression as she saw him for the first time. He knew what he looked like: long, circumcised, very slightly curved, and unusually dark in color, providing a jarring contrast against his pale skin. He was so achingly hard that the head would be shiny, moisture leaking from the tip. It wasn't attractive, it wasn't—

A hand wrapped around him. A brush of wet heat.

He opened his eyes.

Apparently pleased with the small taste she'd taken, Potter started pressing delicate kisses up one side of his shaft, then the other, pausing only to flick her tongue under the head. "I've got you," she whispered, and Severus’s stomach fluttered.

"Harry..." he croaked, one of his hands finding its way into her curls. He would not have expected her to do it like this. He would have expected challenge, cheekiness; not this aching, disarming sweetness.

She sat back on her heels, looking up at him. Her lips were damp, her cheeks flushed, her pupils wide and dark. “What would you like?” she asked, voice husky.

Where was the sense, now, in not asking for what he wanted? Voice broken, desperate, he said, “Open for me.”

Silence. Potter inhaled.

Sitting up higher on her knees, she laved the head of his cock with the flat of her tongue, then sucked it in.

After that, everything was bliss, nirvana. Although the girl initially attempted to take too much and provoked her gag reflex, she seemed to easily fall into a natural rhythm, bobbing and stroking him with her clever tongue to the cadence of music that only she could hear. It was clear that she’d never done this before, but it was also becoming obvious that, as with all things physical, she’d been gifted with the ability to learn very quickly. And she was so intent, so transparently eager—somehow, her very solemnity seemed obscene. He was at her mercy, helpless. He couldn't look; he couldn't look away.

It was an embarrassingly short time before Severus found it impossible to hold back anymore. His hips stuttered in aborted thrusts, and then Potter’s hands on his arse were pulling him deeper, taking all of him, or at least as much as she could—

“Off!” he growled, giving a handful of her curls a sharp tug.

The girl jerked back and stared up at him, breathing hard. “Why?” It was spoken in the tone of an accusation, almost a whine.

“Do you want me to come down that pretty throat?”

She blinked, but only once. “Okay,” she answered, returning to her task.

Fuck. He didn’t—he couldn’t—

Severus went snow-blind, the world behind his closed lids whiting out. And then he was coming, releasing what felt like a river, a flood. His balls ached from the strength of it, and he pulsed and pulsed for what seemed like hours until he was finally spent.

To the girl’s credit, she didn’t pull off until he’d finished emptying himself. When she finally released him, though, her first move was to spit his semen on the floor. “Yurgh,” she said, and then spit again, a bit of spunk dribbling down her chin.

“I—tried to warn you,” Severus pointed out, voice hoarse. He watched the progress of the pearly glob as if it was a dangerous potion at boiling point.

“You did,” she agreed. She wiped her lips and chin on the back of her hand and coughed. “Merlin. Now I know what the Quidditch girls were always complaining about.”

Severus could happily go for the rest of his life without hearing about the sexual exploits of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Also, he had far more pressing matters to deal with: namely, standing. It was suddenly an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.

He managed to lurch to the closest armchair before his legs gave out underneath him, although it was a close call. Then he looked up to see that Potter had climbed to her feet and was fidgeting awkwardly, swaying from side to side and not seeming to know what to do with herself.

Easy enough to remedy that. Catching her by the hem of those ridiculous yellow knickers, he pulled her until she folded onto his lap with a sigh.

"Feeling shy?" he asked when she buried her face in his neck.

She nodded against his collarbone.

He stroked up her bare back. “You were exquisite.”

He felt a smile curve against his skin. For all that she was blushing fiercely, smugness was rolling off of her in waves.

He found himself wanting to lick those red cheeks to see if they burned against his tongue. Instead, he kissed her.

Harry, he thought, finally surrendering. It would be rather silly, he admitted to himself, to continue thinking of someone by their last name after they've spat your ejaculate out.

And although Harry tasted like a combination of semen and pumpkin juice, Severus was finding that he really didn’t mind.

Chapter Text

"I always thought I'd hate doing that," the girl said into Severus's shoulder.

He stilled the hand that was stroking circles on the small of her back. "And did you?" Had he led her to do something she would regret?

"No." Lifting her face, she gave him a slow, considering look, then smiled. "Not at all."

As that was a thoroughly satisfying answer, Severus offered a pleased hum in reply. Then, when he felt himself capable of it, he stood and carried her to the bed, summoning the duvet from where she’d left it on the floor and using it to cover them both.

When they were properly ensconced in their nest, Harry twisted so that she could press herself fully against him. “Time?” she mumbled.

She was perfectly capable of finding out herself, but Severus didn’t mind casting the spell. “One hour and thirty-five minutes."

“Left or gone?”

“Remaining.”

Harry sighed and ducked her forehead against his chest. “Still want to, you know, have actual sex," she murmured into his sternum. "Will you be able to before time’s up?” A shift against him emphasized the fact that he was flaccid and utterly spent.

Severus actually had no idea. None of his past encounters had involved the need to measure his refractory period. “We shall see,” he settled for saying. He wasn't a teenager, and he wasn't going to make promises he couldn't keep.

"All right," she agreed softly, sounding disappointed; so Severus curled her more tightly into his embrace.

Time passed.

As in many of their recent encounters, Severus found that it felt natural to let Harry lead the conversation, flitting from topic to topic to follow the winding course of her thoughts. He'd known for many years that her attention span wasn't one of her strengths—but it was no great concession to admit that her company would never be boring.

“Did you want an Order of Merlin?” she asked at one point. And when Severus found himself at a loss for a response—because of course he wanted an Order of Merlin, but why on earth was that presently relevant?—she said, “You deserve it. I’ll make sure you get one.”

Severus lifted a brow. “Do avoid troubling yourself,” he finally managed, heavily sardonic.

“Oh, it's no trouble at all," Harry replied, batting her lashes and ducking her chin to hide a smirk. At least the brat understood when she might deserve to be mocked.

At another point, when she’d twisted so that her back was to his front and his arm was looped around her waist, she pointed to the nearest bookshelf and said, “Hey, look—the Room has Jane Eyre.”

Severus scanned the shelves until he spotted the particular volume that had caught her attention. “The Muggle novel?”

She pulled out of his embrace and sat up. “Yeah. It’s my favorite. Helped me stay sane in fifth year, to be honest. Have you read it?”

“No.” If they were talking classic works of Muggle literature… “I’m more of a Shakespeare man.”

She blinked, her lips quirking. “Of course you are."

Before he could decide if he wanted to dig into why there was any of course about it, the girl's smile turned sly. "Go on, then." She leaned back against the pillows and crossed her arms over her chest. "Quote something for me. I bet you've got loads memorized.”

Severus considered asking her if she thought he was a monkey who would perform for her amusement...but he'd never been able to resist a direct challenge.

It wasn't difficult to sort through his favorite bits of verse (all from the tragedies, of course). He cleared his throat, then said,

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

When he finished, Harry had her chin propped in one hand. "That was pretty. What did it mean?" she queried after a pause.

"Essentially, that we all must do the right thing at the right time."

"Ah." She peered into his face. "So you’re telling me you really do have to leave."

Severus hadn't expected her to pick up on the reason he'd chosen this particular verse so easily. He was still prone to underestimating her, it seemed.

When he didn't reply, she scrubbed a hand through her hair tiredly. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to stay. I know…" She inhaled. "I know that's not what this is.”

"Yes," he answered, at a loss for anything better to say. She was right: it wasn't. There was very little that would convince him not to leave wizarding Britain—not when remaining in Harry's vicinity would only continue to foster her foolish attachment to him and put her future at risk.

The girl bowed her head slightly, and then green eyes met his with a flash of humor. “Just don’t forget about me, yeah?”

As if he ever could.

"Foolish girl," Severus answered. And then, since discussing this subject further would get them nowhere, he leaned forward to capture those sweet lips in an even sweeter kiss.

Harry met him willingly, arching into the heat of the embrace with a sound that was remarkably similar to a sob.

Severus understood how she felt: for all that they'd been intimate all morning, kissing her again was a physical relief, water to a traveler in the desert.

After a time, Severus gave in to the urge to roll her so that she was beneath him, pressed down into the mattress as his lips wandered to her cheek, her jawline, the delicious curve of her neck, her pert, succulent nipples. Without really thinking about it, he worked a hand down between them, under her knickers and into the wetness between her legs again. Merlin, she was warm and slick and tight.

As her hips started to buck against him in an unsteady rhythm, Severus realized that he might be making a bit of a fetish of her innocence, of each little gasp of surprise, every flush and whimper. She was just so sensitive and responsive, so honest in her enjoyment of his efforts. He'd never had a lover who was so eager for his touch—although, to be fair, he'd never had a lover who he'd kissed like this, or spoken with at length, or stayed with for longer than five minutes after the inevitable finish.

Salazar, she was beautiful. He could feel her shivering beneath him, quivering with all the banked power that being the savior of the wizarding world entailed. A wave of possessiveness surged through him that he was powerless to stop, so he ground his renewed erection down into her, glorying in the friction and heat of her skin. He’d been too focused on Harry to really pay attention to how rapidly he was swelling again—but now he suspected that he might be hard enough, as the saying went, to hammer nails.

Her body tensing, Harry pulled away from him and gasped for air. “Severus—” she moaned, cutting herself off to swallow before trying again. “Severus, if you don't fuck me right now—"

No one had ever said his name like that: so reverent, as if it were a word that meant something sacred in a foreign tongue. “You'll what?” he asked, because he was a bastard and he wanted to know how she intended to finish the threat.

She gave no answer except to rub her stomach against his length again. "Don't you want to?" she asked, biting her lower lip in obvious uncertainty.

He wanted it viscerally. The idea of spreading out all that courage and sincerity and insolence beneath him, pressing her down and fucking into her until she was numb and laughing with it—

“You would need to be sure,” he said, almost not recognizing his own voice.

"Trust me." She tightened her grip on his shoulders and gave a dry, almost desperate laugh, her fingernails digging deep enough into his skin to leave marks. "I am. I really, really am."

Whatever his protests, Severus's hands were already at work, drawing her absurd yellow pants down her legs, throwing the wretched things on the floor. One of them—he wasn't sure who—kicked the duvet off the bed, and then Harry helped him remove his own trousers.

Severus could still barely believe that he was here right now, that this maddening, beautiful young woman was willingly giving this to him. That he was teetering back and forth on the edge of allowing himself to take it.

At this late date, he admitted to himself in a wave of clarity, he doubted he could bear not to.

"Very well," he answered hoarsely, letting the green of her eyes fill him and finally allowing himself to fall.

~

“Very well,” Snape answered, his voice low and rough; and Harry, who’d been holding her breath, exhaled in relief.

Her relief was short-lived, however—because as soon as the man spoke, he was drawing away from her, leaving her alone on the bed. “Where are you going?” she called plaintively.

He’d stopped near the table and turned his back to her, his arms moving in stiff jerks. She heard foil tearing. “You will enjoy teen pregnancy less than a short pause, you impatient twit,” he replied.

She wondered if he knew how long it had been since his insults had begun to sound like endearments. Still, she could hear the tension in his voice, see it in the stiff line of his shoulders as he rolled the condom on.

Nervous. He was nervous.

When Snape glanced back at her with something like remorse on his face, she whispered, “Come back to me,” and held open her arms.

It had worked a few hours earlier, and it worked a second time just as well. And how the hell could he look so graceful as he stalked toward her across the bed? He was so mesmerizing, with his lean muscles and tight arse and inky black hair and even all the scars that riddled his frame. Remembering Fleur's pride in Bill's scars at the end of sixth year, Harry realized that she was thoroughly of the same mind. From the whip marks on his back to the evidence of Nagini's fangs to the faint raised outline that had once been the Dark Mark, all that Snape's scars meant to her was that he'd been courageous and selfless and had managed to survive.

When the man was back where he belonged, Harry wrapped her arms around his neck and looked down at the jut of his member. Even encased in latex, it was an impressive sight. She remembered how large it had felt in her mouth. “Will—will it fit?” she asked, feeling a sudden bout of nerves of her own.

“Yes. You can stretch.”

Snape sounded as if he knew what he was talking about, which was reassuring, but Harry still had her doubts. It was hard to focus on those, though, when he was hitching her legs around his waist and positioning himself against her. He rubbed the head of his penis up and down her cleft, gathering moistness, then prodded at her entrance bluntly.

He wasn't aligned right. Reaching down between their bodies, Harry took him in hand to pull him into place, caressing a bit before she let go.

Snape ducked his head against her shoulder in thanks, then pushed into her as far as her natural resistance would allow. Retreating, he did this again and again. “Relax,” he murmured into her hair.

“Yeah,” she agreed rather breathlessly, widening her legs and wiggling against the firm grasp of his hands on her hips. She reached up and laced her fingers through the headboard to give herself better leverage. She would try.

In, pressure; out—an odd feeling of emptiness and expectation.

When the head finally slipped inside despite her tightness, Snape's eyes flickered up to hers and held there.

Two uneven splotches of color stained his high cheekbones. He pushed the rest of the way into her in one slow stroke.

Breathing in through her mouth and out through her nose, Harry craned her neck to look toward where their bodies were finally joined. It didn’t hurt, exactly, but it also didn't feel precisely comfortable. “I guess you were right," she finally murmured, shifting her hips slightly as she adjusted to the feel of being so stretched and full down there. She bit her lower lip. "Good thing I’m really wet.”

When her companion made no answer, she looked up. “Severus?”

Snape’s shoulders were stiff and taut with exertion. His hair was a black curtain hiding his face.

Letting go of her grip on the headboard, Harry ran her fingers through the dark strands, pushing them back so that she could arch up and pepper his face with soft kisses. “Shh,” she whispered on instinct. “You’re doing so well. You made me come so hard earlier, with your fingers. And I like having you inside of me so much.” She nuzzled his cheek, knowing that she was practically crooning. “Will you fuck me now, please?”

The silence in the Room of Requirement seemed to have gotten heavier. “You will ruin me,” the man finally rasped out.

The harshness in his voice made her think of his injured throat and St. Mungo’s and the Shrieking Shack. “I won’t,” she started to protest—but it was suddenly impossible to speak, because he was pulling out of her and pushing all the way back in with one clean thrust.

She cried out, the sound startling loud in the quiet. And then he did it again, so she cried out louder.

After that, everything was connection, rhythm, sensation. Harry had known that sex might be overwhelming, but she hadn't expected that being overwhelmed could feel so utterly right.

Snape just felt so strong and warm with his long form pressed on top of her, his thrusts so deep and steady. Sooner than she could have possibly expected, Harry felt a crescendo building—and that was all the warning she got before it rolled through her, an involuntary tightening and a high, needy keen that she muffled in her partner's neck.

When she'd gotten her breath back and was lapping at his adam's apple, enjoying the taste of his skin and sweat, Snape exhaled and rolled them so that she was straddling him. "Grind against me," he told her, his eyes dark, chest rising and falling with heaving breaths. His tight grip on her waist pulled her down into the renewed undulation of his hips. “Follow my movements.”

Well, if he asked like that...

She would never, Harry decided some time later, think of riding a bucking broomstick the same way again.

As much as she secretly enjoyed how confident he was in maneuvering them into new positions, Harry decided that she also liked having him underneath her, stilling him by clenching her thighs, lacing their fingers together and leaning her weight on him to hold his arms above his head.

Reading her intentions, Snape allowed her to dictate the pace for a time, gaze locked on hers. Harry raised and lowered herself, getting the feel for being in control—and then, feeling inspired, she tightened her internal muscles in a sudden vise.

Snape jerked in reflex. "Little tease," he gritted out.

Harry felt a mad, wild grin spreading across her face. "If you don't like it, Professor, you're welcome to assign detention," she baited in return.

As expected, that made his eyes burn. “I am not your professor any longer,” he growled, thrusting upward twice for emphasis.

Harry arched a brow. “Are you sure? You seem to be trying to give me a particularly hard lesson at the moment.” Snickering at her own terrible pun and still holding him down, she lifted herself off of him and let the head of his penis slip up and down through her folds, evading all of his attempts to seat himself back inside her.

He glared. “And having just as much success as I ever did in class. Wretched minx.”

“Mm. I like that one." Leaning down, she kissed him on the cheek, then whispered, "Tell me more.”

"Imp."

"Mm-hm."

“Siren. I ought to leave you here.” He broke the grasp of one of her hands and used the freedom to fondle her buttocks, then arched up to lave her nipples hungrily.

She shuddered. “You wouldn't."

"Wouldn't I?" He looked up at her from between her breasts, his eyes glittering. “I could tie you up so you can't touch yourself and go have. More. Breakfast.” He punctuated each of the final words with a short thrust, finally finding the right angle to slide back inside of her.

"Ah!" Harry's next breath was half-laugh, half-moan. “I—I could get out of it,” she boasted. Who knew that lust and defiance could feel so similar? “Might not even—ungh—need my wand.”

Snape groaned, long and low. He finally broke the grip of her second hand and began to rock into her with vigor again, pulling her tight against him. At the same time, the rough pad of his thumb slipped forward to rub her clitoris. “Captivating little noodlehead,” he whispered in her ear—and then Harry really was laughing, letting out the giggles that had been building up inside of her the whole time.

And maybe laughing was part of the key to coming, because she was suddenly right there, trembling and squeezing her eyes shut all over again.

The man stroked her through it, and she collapsed on top of him when it was over. “You didn’t—?” she asked when she had enough breath back to speak.

He shook his head, giving her a wicked look from under his lashes.

“Urgh,” Harry said, and then, “Want to try, um, behind me?”

A blink; a lifted brow. The wicked look remained. “If you wish.”

At the moment, the idea of lying on her stomach and letting him do all the work was highly appealing. Lifting herself and feeling a surprising pang of loss when his penis slipped all the way out of her, she rolled to the side, ending up starfished on her front across the sheets. She lifted her arse to make a more enticing target—and then Snape moved behind her, spreading her cheeks and gamely rubbing his cockhead up and down her cleft twice before pushing it back in.

If she'd wanted to relax, Harry realized a few thrusts later, she might have miscalculated. With the man behind her like this, each of his advances ground him even deeper inside her, so deep that she swore she could feel him bumping against her cervix with each stroke. On top of that, his bollocks kept swinging against her clitoris, which made her feel as if tendrils of fire or electricity were licking their way up her spine.

The man was setting a punishing rhythm, and it felt ridiculously good—but Harry suddenly found herself missing the sight of his face, the sound of his voice. “Severus—” she called as the intensity built, starting to panic. It was too much too much too much—

And then he was there, pressing down along her back, lifting her upright against his chest. “Rise to your knees,” he instructed, then, “Wrap an arm around my neck.”

Severus, she repeated to herself as she obeyed. Severus Severus Severus Severus.

She ended up twisted nearly in two and supporting very little of her own weight, but that was all right, because Severus (Severus Severus Severus) had a strong arm curled around her, and they could kiss like this, lips tongue teeth—

—and then he was groaning in her ear, thrusts growing wild before stuttering, throbbing—

He pulled out, and Harry fell out of his arms, squirming so that she was on her back on the mattress again, hips bucking wildly—

Catching her and yanking a leg up over his shoulder, Severus leaned down and captured her clitoris precisely between his lips.

Harry wailed.

The world fractured into shards.

When she regained full awareness, he was licking her through the aftershocks, gentle swipes that circled her most sensitive bits without stimulating them directly.

That was it: she was going to die, right now, right here, from euphoria and overstimulation and embarrassment alike. “Please, please tell me you came this time,” she begged.

The man chuckled, and she looked down to see that he’d already managed to get rid of the condom, his cock half-hard and bare where it nestled against his inner thigh. "I did," he muttered in a voice that was half-strangled and deep enough she might be able to swim in it and drown.

"Thank god," she muttered, pulling him down onto the pillow with her so that she could lie against him as her heartbeat finally slowed and her sweat cooled.

I really should thank Lavender, whenever I see her again, she told herself drowsily. And then she closed her eyes against thoughts of the future and finally let herself succumb to the peace after the storm.

~

They finished, as it turned out, with fifteen minutes to spare.

“How do you feel?” Severus asked after a time. His chest was still heaving, his voice unsteady.

Harry chewed her lip, considering the question. She could tell him that she felt wonderfully debauched and thoroughly shagged out and like she absolutely wasn’t a virgin anymore…but that might be missing the point.

“I love you,” she said instead, since it was true.

The man gaped for half a second, and then his expression turned pained. “You wretched girl, you mustn’t—mustn’t say that.”

She didn’t think she’d ever heard him stutter before. “Mustn’t I?” she challenged. She didn’t expect him to say it back, but she knew her own heart, and she didn’t see why he shouldn’t know it as well.

His shuttered expression remained, but now it was tinged with frustration. “You need to forget me," he growled.

Ridiculous man. Only Severus would say something like that after making spectacular love to her.

She huffed, then leaned over his body to kiss his chest, his belly, his soft penis, the tip of his hooked nose.

When it was clear that she wasn’t going to argue with him—at least not in words—he slowly began to calm, hands drifting upward to play in her hair.

He smelled different now, she noticed in surprise. Still like musk and daisies, but also like fresh earth after a rainstorm, potent and clean.

Settling back down with her head on his shoulder, Harry sighed. The Room of Requirement had been a warm cocoon all morning, but they couldn’t stay there forever. The world awaited. Literally, for Severus. She needed to tell him goodbye.

“I know it’s not always easy to be happy,” she began quietly after sorting out her thoughts. “In fact, I think it can be bloody difficult at times." She paused, resting the crown of her head against her companion's chin. “And I don’t know if it’s something you can work for, or if it just sort of...happens, you know, based on outside circumstances.”

The man peered down at her, all dark eyes and frown lines. His fingers in her hair had stilled.

“Perhaps a bit of both.” Harry cleared her throat. “But what I do know is that you deserve to be happy. So please, Severus, just…do what it takes. Yeah?”

He continued to stare at her. He seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Harry to reveal the proverbial ace up her sleeve.

She offered him a small, crooked smile. She wasn’t wearing sleeves.

He let out a huff of breath, then pulled her back down onto his shoulder again and pressed his lips against her forehead, just to the left of her lightning bolt scar.

He didn't answer, but she knew he'd heard.

~

For years, Harry had both loved and hated the Hogwarts Express. In the summer, she'd yearned for it because it would take her to another year among magic and friends; in June, she'd reviled it because it was returning her to Little Whinging and the Dursleys.

Now, as it carried her away from her final year at Hogwarts, she couldn't say if she felt happy or sad, elated or heartbroken or some strange unnamed emotion that was both at once.

She just knew that she'd promised to be aboard, so she was.

Chapter Text

It had been a very long time, Severus realized, since he'd looked—really looked—at his feet.

The high arches; the rounded, calloused heels; the long toes with a few strands of fine dark hair over each knuckle.

His feet were pale. Paler, even, than his face and hands. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen them in the sun, much less stood barefoot with wet clumps of sand under his toes.

He licked his lips surreptitiously, tasting the salt on them from the ocean air. Sunlight arced across his vision. On the distant curve of the land, he could see the volcanic cone of Mt. Agung, the highest point on the island of Bali, where he now stood.

It had been a week since the final morning of term—a week during which Severus had seen to his last duties as Headmaster, bid the staff adieu, packed up his belongings, deposited the irrelevant ones at Spinner’s End, and taken a series of international Portkeys to the other side of the world.

He'd chosen Bali as the starting point of his research endeavor (he was not going to call it an adventure) for two reasons: first, because it had a large community of wizards who were friendly to travelers; and second, because it was probably far enough away from the United Kingdom that no one would recognize his name.

Despite this precaution, he'd ended up signing S. Prince on the guest ledger of his lodging house. Ridiculous. It had been almost two decades since he'd aspired (ached) to join the ranks of his mother's pureblood kin.

And now he felt...not like himself. It was difficult to describe. Loose, adrift, mentally unmoored. His ties to the past had been slackened, unknotted by a certain Seeker’s deft fingers. He felt as if he'd been stretched taut like a sail.

He'd even bought a pair of sandals to wear on the walk from his hotel to the beach. Salazar. Had he lost his fucking mind?

Because the sun was starting to sink toward the glistening water, Severus's shadow was a long stretch of darkness behind him. Briny blue waves washed over his feet, eating the sand out from under them until he had to shift sideways. The subtropical humidity in the air lapped at his skin.

He took a deep breath.

He thought of Harry.

Harry, who had managed, in the course of their single morning together in the Room of Requirement, to strip him down to nothing but his scars and his sneer—and then down past that as well.

And he couldn't even bring himself to regret it.

Vexatious little heroine. The blasted girl had been an almost tangible presence in his mind for the last week—smirking at him when he ate breakfast, watching him quietly with sad green eyes while he packed. Even now, he could easily imagine her standing a few steps ahead in the waves, grinning at him over her shoulder as she prepared to dive in, all frizzy hair and reckless joy.

And his body longed for her. He might as well have been burned in each of the spots she'd kissed him, considering how keenly he could still feel the heat of her lips.

Severus snorted to himself. He couldn’t decide what was more appalling. Yes, taking Harry's virginity had been a wildly inappropriate and incautious and reprehensible (and wonderful) thing—but then again, sandals.

She'd said she loved him.

Foolish girl. She was only eighteen. Severus knew exactly what it was like to fall in love as a teenager and never be given the chance to change his mind.

He bowed his head against the swell of salty air off the water, then turned and made his way back to solid ground, slipping his sand-encrusted feet back into the absurd footwear as he went. He had work to begin.

Chapter Text

Severus stayed on Bali for a month and a half.

To his chagrin, very little of this time was spent in beginning his research. Despite the energy that he’d always given to every activity he’d thrown himself into, be it inventing spells or plotting vengeance against the Marauders or impressing the Dark Lord or spying for Dumbledore or teaching Potions to little nitwits, he now found that he wanted to spend the majority of the day sleeping, curled around himself like a babe in the womb.

And when he wasn’t sleeping, he rambled, leaving tracks in sand that shifted under his feet. This was not a vacation, he admonished himself—before spending another day walking the surfline, eating sate lilit from food carts, dodging racing children and nodding to any Muggles who said hello.

It was a luxury to think slowly, to have nothing to do. For the first time in many years, he found himself feeling grateful to Albus Dumbledore. Probably from a guilty conscience, the older wizard had left a generous provision to Severus in his will, which meant that he had no need to rely solely on what he’d managed to save from his paltry teacher’s salary to pay for any of this. It was blood money, certainly, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t earned it.

Though he initially stayed in a wizarding hostel in the urban area of Denpasar, rubbing elbows with the other international travelers eventually started to drive Severus spare. Three weeks after he arrived on Bali, he moved to a small lodging house in the mountain village of Batur for the quiet and privacy.

One evening at sunset, he hiked from the village proper to a temple at the head of a lake that fed the rice paddies for most of the island. There were still a few tourists milling about, but otherwise the temple grounds were empty. Pausing between the intricate stone gateway and the eleven-tiered central tower, Severus breathed in and out through his nose shallowly. The hair was rising along his arms and legs, power crackling in a frisson down his spine. Everything was silent but the snap and curl of the wind.

He'd thought that this Hindu place of worship was purely Muggle, but the old, old magic he could feel surrounding him and the dense tapestry of unfamiliar spells told him otherwise. The blood thrummed in the fingertips of his wand hand. A flame of curiosity suddenly sparked to life within him, the hunger for knowledge, the desire to test his wits and mettle in this compelling new world. He was coming back awake.

After that, he began his work in earnest.

He spent a week outlining the specifics of his goals. In general, his objectives were twofold: to gather rare ingredients for experiments in brewing that he'd considered over the years but never had the chance to actually test, and to explore how the wizards and witches of a variety of cultures (especially non-Western cultures) used and thought about magic.

Severus knew that he was naturally curt and antisocial. However, he was a keen observer, and he’d mastered the most nuanced translation spells known to wizarding Britain—and he was sincere, which children at least were always able to tell. Furthermore, his years as a spy had taught him how to ingratiate himself to others, how to get them to talk.

He’d had to make adjustments to his wardrobe, of course. The sandals were only the beginning. Ever since being hung by the heel and stripped naked in fifth year, Severus had known that clothing was a form of armor and had used it as such—but flowing black robes, no matter how satisfyingly they flared and snapped with one’s movements, were not appropriate for a climate that could easily have eighty percent humidity on a dull day.

The Indonesian wizards favored loose shirts over sarongs tied around the hips, but Severus suspected he’d look like nothing but an absurd imposter if he imitated this. Instead, he chose Muggle attire, informal slacks and shirts of light materials like cotton in neutral colors. No sun hat was necessary with anti-sunburn and glare charms. He washed his hair (three times), then tied it back.

Perusing himself in the mirror, he was satisfied; at the very least, he looked nothing like his father.

He practiced wearing an attentive, mild expression and walking with measured steps, not the strides he had used in Hogwarts. Returning to the wizarding hostel in Denpasar, he asked the proprietor if she knew of any local gatherings or rituals that he could attend or any non-Muggle guides who would be willing to sit down for interviews. From there, it was simple to immerse himself in the rich culture of the island and find new people to speak to every day.

He discovered that it was surprisingly easy to be respectful and polite to the Balinese, who were proud of their history and typically friendly in turn. The Severus Snape known to wizarding Britain would have snarled at every stranger he met, or maybe just attempted to intimidate them—but he wasn’t that man anymore. Not here.

Here, he was Severus Prince, an academic. He had no past—or at least none worth more than the present.

~

It became clear during his fifth week on the island, however, that he hadn’t quite managed to cut every tie to his past when he left Hogwarts.

Dear Severus,

Hopefully you don’t mind hearing from me. I did say I would write, after all.

Truth be told, I’ve drafted this letter a dozen times already. But it’s the middle of the night here, and I can’t sleep for thinking about it, so I guess it’s time for me to be a Gryffindor and make this one stick. At least you’re not going to correct my grammar or deduct points for not writing enough inches or something.

Hope you actually get this letter. Apparently there’s a system for international post that keeps owls from flying themselves to death, but it all sounded a bit dodgy to me when the clerk at the Ministry described it. If this letter doesn’t manage to reach you, let me know, all right?

Sorry, bad joke.

So, Bali, eh? I looked it up in a Muggle library. Looks fascinating. Are you having a good time? Have you been sun-bathing? Collecting potions ingredients? Are there lots of wizards there? Seems like the Muggles might have a closer relationship to magic than ours, considering all I’ve been reading about their traditional worldview and rituals and whatnot. Did you know they have a festival of silence once a year where everyone has to stay home and keep quiet for a day, and the tourists have to stay in their hotels? You’d probably appreciate that—no brats filling the air with inane chatter...

The last word was blotched, as if the letter’s author had paused to think. Severus imagined her nibbling on the end of her quill, running a hand through her perpetually messy hair. He closed his eyes and forced them open again.

At the risk of sounding mother-hennish, are you eating all right? No house elves to look after you, you know. I worry. You’re so picky. Although I know you must have looked after yourself in the summers every year. Still, you’re on the other side of the world and all, so hopefully the food’s not disagreeing with you. Maybe it’s delicious. I’ve never had Indonesian food before. Do you like it?

I’ve been all right, in case you were wondering. Started Auror training last week. It’s about what you’d expect—lots of people staring at me as if I fart rainbows, lots of others acting like I can’t possibly deserve everyone else’s hero worship. Which I don’t, of course—you’d be the first to remind me of that. And at least I’m being challenged.

And speaking of training, did you know that Malfoy managed to cadge his way into the Auror program? Bet you did. Can you tell me, is he sincere? Does he really want to join the MLE? Seems like he’d have to, considering all the shite he’s getting from the other trainees and some of the teachers about being a Death Eater. Do you think I should stick my neck out for him? I want to—he and I are friends now, of a sort—but you Slytherins have wheels within wheels, so if you think he’s playing some type of power game, I’d appreciate a warning.

There was another blotch, and the handwriting was slightly more slanted in the next words, as if the writer had risen from whatever desk she’d been using and paced a few times before continuing.

All right, I’ve probably bored you to tears by now, so I’ll stop and go to bed. Might finally be able to sleep, since I’ve got this weight off my mind.

I know hearing from me might not be welcome. So you really don’t have to write back if you want a clean break. But I just wanted you to know that you might be traveling by yourself, but you’re not alone. You’ve not been forgotten, I mean. I miss you rather wildly, you impossible man.

Yours truly,
Harry

Severus could easily picture the self-deprecating smile that would accompany her final statement. He looked up from the page and controlled his breathing, steadied his incautious heart.

There was no peace to be had from Potters, he thought to himself. But it struck him as trite, so he dismissed it.

“Are you she?” he asked the bird that had brought the missive, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. It was a scops owl, barely older than a fledgling, with exceedingly messy feathers and wide eyes that seemed to glow at him with an air of false innocence. He didn’t think Harry had ever managed to become an Animagus, but it never paid to make assumptions where she was concerned.

The creature just ruffled its feathers and hooted, tilting its head beseechingly.

“Oh, very well." Severus looked around his small kitchen, glancing briefly toward the window. Outside on the mountain, the morning mist was beginning to dissolve. “What do you want? Treats? Mice?”

He had neither, and the bird didn’t answer, so he ended up giving it the omelet he’d been planning to eat for breakfast.

As the little owl began to gorge itself with a pronounced attitude of smugness, Severus summoned a clean sheet of paper to the table and inked a quill.

That was when his brain caught up to his actions. Would it really be wise to write a reply? Would it be prudent to continue having any sort of relationship with Harry, even if only through correspondence?

He’d already left her, though. And she’d asked for his advice regarding Draco. What harm could it do to write back? What would it hurt, to keep this one tenuous thread of connection to his past alive?

The ink on his quill had dried, so he dipped it again.

Harry,

Regarding your concerns with my health: You may rest assured that I am perfectly able to feed myself, you silly chit. And I'd be delighted to write in red ink, if that would alleviate your obvious discomfort with the unfamiliarity of this mode of communication.

In terms of Mr. Malfoy, it was my impression that Draco is very earnest, in that he earnestly wants to forget the past. Whether becoming an Auror will aid him in this pursuit will only become clear with time...

~

Five days later, Harry Potter sat on a closed toilet lid in a women’s restroom at the Ministry of Magic, her legs drawn up to her chest and a parchment unfolded in her hands.

She was drinking in the last few lines.

I must insist that you develop better sleeping habits, you ridiculous child. I am enclosing the recipe for a sleeping draught that is milder and less addictive than Dreamless Sleep, therefore safer to take semi-regularly, though no more than four times a week. You passed your potions NEWT, so you ought to be able to brew it. I did not protect you for seven years only to have you expire from prolonged insomnia.

And regarding your question about if I am enjoying myself: Yes. The temples are beautiful here.

The only signature was a simple

Severus

The spidery scrawl of the handwriting was achingly familiar from her many nights spent flipping through the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook, nearly three years ago now. And the letter itself—four pages of acerbic wit mixed with odd moments of prickly sweetness—was all so very Severus that it made her chest ache.

He’d added a question in the post-script about if she knew how McGonagall was faring with the start of Hogwarts’ new term looming on the horizon. For Severus, that was tantamount to insisting she write back.

Harry knew she was wearing a stupid grin all over her face. She really couldn’t help it.

She was folding the letter carefully and slipping it into the inner pocket of her trainee robes when someone pounded a fist against the restroom door. “Potter! Robards says to stop pissing like a girl,” came a familiar drawl.

Harry snorted to herself. For probably the tenth time that week alone, she wished she wasn’t the only female in her trainee group.

When she emerged, Malfoy had his hands shoved into his pockets, and the red of his robes made him look almost pale enough to be an albino. Taking in Harry's expression, he frowned. “No one should look that happy coming from a loo alone,” he muttered, glancing behind her at the closed door with suspicion.

Harry snickered. “Fuck off, Malfoy,” she said with a crooked smile, turning to lead the way back to the classroom. Severus's owl had come during a lesson, so she'd snuck out to read it right away.

The former Slytherin rolled his eyes. “If you say so,” he answered dryly, falling into step beside her.

Chapter Text

Life went on.

After he was finished on Bali, Severus went east to Papua New Guinea, then south to Australia, then northwest to the Philippines; north to Taiwan, then into mainland China for several months; west to India; then circling through Thailand, Singapore, Japan.

After that, he traveled between the Pacific islands, ending up in Rio de Janeiro. He made his way inland to the Amazon rainforest, then even further to Peru and the Andes. Days spent finding wizards and witches who would talk to him, cataloguing spells, drawing connections; nights spent in small buildings or tents or simply under the wide net of the stars.

These days, it was easy to remember that he was a resident on a small planet that was spinning wildly through the nothingness of space. Sometimes, he’d grip his mattress or the earth while he fell asleep; but when he woke up, his hands were always empty.

He thought of Harry often, of course. More so whenever a letter arrived.

Harry was an unpredictable correspondent, sometimes rambling on for ten pages at a time, sometimes as terse as a single paragraph. But there were a few constants about the letters: they were always carried by the same little owl that had brought the first one; they never mentioned what had happened between the two of them in the Room of Requirement; and they were always signed with a simple

Yours truly, Harry

China, eh? Harry wrote. And How’s India? And, Do the wizards in Australia really have kangaroos as familiars?

Wallabies are the more popular choice, Severus wrote back.

~

For her part, Harry went three months into Auror training before making a major decision.

“I’d like to give you and Teddy this house,” she explained to Andromeda Tonks. The two women were drinking tea together in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place while Teddy knocked a ball across the floor and toddled back and forth haphazardly to retrieve it.

When the older woman merely looked at her in surprise, Harry rushed to continue. “I know it was your childhood home. And Teddy’s more of a Black than I’ll ever be.”

Mrs. Tonks blinked and brushed a strand of her neat grey hair behind one ear, then looked down at her teacup in thought.

“I appreciate that very much, Harry,” she eventually answered, “but I spent my entire childhood dreaming of getting away from places like this.” Her lips lifted slightly. “I was a terrible Pureblood—too fascinated with all things Muggle. And my family…it was actually rather a relief when they cut me off, to be honest. Because I knew I would never have to speak to them again.”

“Oh.” Harry chewed her lower lip. She understood what Andromeda meant, as she felt rather the same about the Dursleys.

“I’ll sell it, then, and I’ll put the money in a trust for Teddy’s future,” she finally decided. “And I’ll make him Heir Black.”

They were interrupted at that point by the young man himself, who’d lost his ball under the refrigerator and was pulling on Harry’s leg so she’d help him find it. Harry crouched to get it and used a summoning spell when it proved to be too far back to reach.

“Please,” Harry added when Teddy was squealing in delight at his toy again. She was still sitting on the floor, stretching her legs out with her back to the fridge. “I think this is what Sirius would have wanted. I know he loved me, but I’m set for life from just the Potter inheritance. Teddy is his cousin and the son of one of his best friends. Sirius would have wanted to give him whatever he could.”

And truth be told, as dear as she held her memories of Sirius, she’d felt for a while as if the Ancestral House of Black was a stone around her neck. She didn’t like coming home to it. It was gloomy, and it reminded her of the war. She didn’t sleep well at Grimmauld Place, even with the draught Severus had told her to brew.

In fact, she’d been making a nuisance of herself staying with Ron and Hermione in their tiny cottage in the suburbs every other night. Much as her friends loved her, she suspected her welcome was starting to wear thin.

And so was Andromeda’s resolve, Harry could see. Sure enough, after pursing her lips and brushing a hand over the crown of Teddy’s head as he wobbled past, the older woman said, “If you truly want this, dear, I won’t say no—for Teddy’s sake.”

Harry exhaled in relief. “Great.”

Taking a swig of her cooling tea, she held it on her tongue and closed her eyes. This was her first day off from training in two weeks, and she was bloody exhausted. Getting the house ready to sell was going to be a lot of work, she reflected tiredly.

“But where are you planning to live, my dear?” Andromeda asked in a soft voice, interrupting her thoughts.

Opening her eyes again, Harry gave the older woman a crooked smile and shrugged. “Eh, I’m nineteen. Maybe I’ll rent a flat.”

She’d like a little house of her own, honestly. Someplace cozy and warm in the countryside maybe, with bookcases and a garden and room for a dog.

But work would be keeping her in London, and the little house didn’t seem quite so nice when she thought of living there alone.

My biggest concern is what to do with Kreacher, Harry wrote to Severus later that evening. I don't think I'd be able to stomach sharing two rooms and a bath with him, but he'd die of mortification if I freed him. Maybe literally.

See if Narcissa Malfoy wants him, was Severus's response. If not, Hogwarts.

Harry ended up offering Kreacher the choice. He chose Hogwarts.

~

What do wizards do for fun on the Galapagos? Harry asked.

Skinny dip with sea turtles, Severus wrote back.

~

Severus’s research was engrossing, but it wasn’t so demanding that he never had a dull moment. There were plenty of hours spent idle and unfocused—in bed, on boats and trains as he traveled, even occasionally on horseback.

Often, he found himself thinking of the past.

And for Severus, unfortunately, thinking of the past meant thinking of the dead.

The specter of his father was best dismissed. The Marauders as well. Severus usually managed to hold his tongue whenever his young correspondent mentioned Black or Lupin, but it was far more out of respect for Harry than the men themselves.

The Dark Lord himself was not so easy to disregard offhand, but he deserved to be forgotten most of all.

Then there was Albus.

It’s Dumbledore’s birthday today, Harry wrote one day in late June, almost exactly a year from when Severus had left the UK. The Ministry threw a commemorative ball. Very sparkly. He would have liked it.

I miss him, but I still think it’s awful, what he made you do.

Severus rolled his eyes slightly as he read—but if anyone had the right to dig up buried hatchets, he supposed it was Harry.

We all had our parts to play, he answered after some consideration, writing quickly because he was about to set out for a rare magical flower that only bloomed above the tree line on Mt. Fuji once every seven years. And I believe that Albus was a very lonely man with deep-seated regrets, at the end.

Needless to say, his feelings surrounding Albus Dumbledore were very complicated. For many years, the irritating old sod had been the only person in Severus’s life to openly show him affection. And yes, that affection had come at the price of his obedience. But he’d come to depend on Albus over time as something steady and unchanging, one single certainty in an increasingly tumultuous world.

He’d also taken a certain amount of pride (because he had to find pride where he could) in the fact that he, Severus, was the one who was strong enough and cunning enough for Albus to depend upon in his self-sacrifice, the most important play of the game. And yet Severus had never felt weaker than after Albus had fallen from the tower. His Occlumency shields had been completely lowered, everything bared—if only Harry, in all her righteous fury, had simply been able to see.

Yeah, I know about that, was Harry’s reply a few days later. And I’m not saying I didn’t love him. Just…he made me hate you. He made us all hate you. And he took advantage of you, your courage and loyalty.

Reading these words, Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. It seemed that Harry was still determined to make a hero and a victim of him simultaneously.

In truth, what he’d hated the most about Albus—and what still rankled, whenever he considered the man’s actions in the last few years of his life—was nothing to do with himself. Rather, it was the fact that he’d callously set Harry up to be killed.

But he didn’t believe there was anything to be gained by mentioning this. I did what needed to be done, he wrote back. If there was one thing that Severus had absolutely no doubts about regarding his role in the war, it was that he’d done what needed doing, and he’d done it well. And Albus got the worse of the bargain, as he was the one who died.

That’s true, I suppose.

Of course it is, you daft girl.

Git.

I am not going to allow this conversation to devolve into name-calling, he replied with a particularly precise flourish of ink.

The only answer was an enigmatic, Too bad.

~

And then there was the time he spent thinking of his mother.

His mother’s death had come quietly (heart attack at home) in the November after the Potters were murdered. As Severus had already been lost in a cloud of guilt and grief over Lily, it had barely registered at the time.

And yet now, in December of the year 2000, the brand new millennium, he was in a shack on an island off the coast of Honduras, and it was the middle of the night, and he was crying.

Eileen Snape hadn’t, arguably, been a very good mother. She’d been too miserable most of the time to be affectionate, steeped in regret down to the marrow of her bones. But she’d been his mother, the center of his life during early childhood. And as Severus’s father had died when he was nineteen (liver failure; there hadn’t been a funeral), she’d only gotten to be free of the man for two years.

Severus wept in his bed for an hour, then made himself tea and watched the ocean until dawn. He wrote two letters to Harry the next day, describing every random, meaningless memory of his mother that came to mind. He burned the first letter, but the second one made it through.

~

He didn’t know why it felt so important to turn these reflections over and over again in his head, but it did.

He thought about Lily, but that was nothing new. He always thought about Lily. Despite everything that had happened, he was certain he always would.

~

Whenever Severus didn’t know what to say to Harry, he wrote about the places he visited and his research, long-winded letters that wound through everything he was thinking and back again like a snake biting its own tail. This sometimes reminded him of scribbling his disjointed commentary in the margins of his textbooks as a teenager. But Harry always listened.

She was no philosopher, but her responses were practical and creative. You should write some type of compendium, she told him once. A cross-cultural one, where you describe major spells from around the world. Comparing and contrasting how Brits versus wizards in Latin America think about the whole thing. Magic, I mean. Severus Snape’s International Compendium of Magic, yeah?

Severus blinked at the page. How was it that Harry could still make him feel at a loss when she was over eight thousand kilometers away? That would take far more than one half-baked ethnographer, he eventually replied.

He could so easily picture the lift of her chin that would accompany the response, the direct and challenging green of her gaze. So gather a team. Find funding. You'd do a bang-up job.

I appreciate the vote of confidence, he wrote back.

Does that mean you’ll do it?

It means I’ll think about it.

That means you’ll do it.

Brat.

I knew I’d get you to call me names eventually.

He’d wanted to call her much more than that. He wanted so much more than that, full stop.

But it was impossible. Harry was where she belonged, doing what she was meant to do.

If Severus were honest with himself, he dreaded the day the letters would cease. Because they were bound to, as Harry moved forward and away from him into her adult life, the life she ought to live.

Writing to Harry wasn't the same as being near her, taking her into his arms. But it was better (far better, Severus sometimes allowed himself to admit) than nothing at all.

~

On occasion, Harry’s letters seemed to be deliberately trying to aggravate him. If Voldemort had looked in the mirror of Erised, do you think he would have seen himself with a nose? she wrote once when she seemed to be in a particularly farcical mood.

Of course not, you absurd girl, Severus found himself replying heatedly. Even if granted the possibility of hidden depths—which I highly doubt—it is unlikely that Voldemo

His hand froze in its tracks.

He'd been writing the Dark Lord's name.

Severus blinked twice. “Voldemort,” he said aloud.

He expected his arm to flame with the old pain, or at least the ghost of it—but nothing happened. Nothing at all.

He exhaled slowly. It is unlikely that Voldemort wanted anything but to be master of the world. Having complex desires is one of the elements that make us human, and I’m sure you’ll agree that he was far less.

He finished the letter with considerably less steam, feeling light-headed and confused and strange. He had the sense that something in his inner landscape was changing, a tectonic shift sending up tremors from deep below the surface. But he couldn’t for the life of him say what was happening or how.

~

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear…”

When the curtain fell on the final act of the beloved Elizabethan comedy, Harry stood and clapped along with the rest of the audience in the small Muggle theatre. It was a heartfelt ovation: she hadn’t expected to understand much of the play, but the actors had made the archaic language come alive. Harry had found herself wincing in sympathy with the befuddled quartet of lovers at certain points and almost wheezing with laughter at others.

A few minutes later, after the house lights came on and the audience began funneling out, Harry slipped backstage.

It smelled like a strange mixture of mothballs and canned soup back here. Holding the bouquet of flowers she’d bought from a street vendor earlier and smiling blandly at everyone who gave her curious looks, Harry finally found the correct dressing room and knocked.

“Yes?” came a familiar voice.

When the door swung open, Harry saw that Lavender had been removing her stage makeup in a space about half the size of the Dursleys’ cupboard under the stairs. “Hullo,” Harry said awkwardly. She let the door close behind her, though it made the press for space even tighter.

The other witch gaped up at Harry from where she was sitting for an instant, then glowered. “Harry? What are you doing here?” she demanded. Her eyes flicked up Harry’s body and back down it again. “You’re an Auror,” she added in a mutter, seemingly to herself.

Harry didn’t know what Lavender had seen, as she wasn’t wearing her Auror robes. “I am, but—”

“Glamours aren’t illegal!” her ex-dorm mate interrupted with vehemence, pushing herself to standing and crossing her arms.

Lavender was likely talking about the enchantment that made her scars from Fenrir invisible to the Muggles. “No, they’re not,” Harry agreed softly. Deciding to put her best foot forward, she held up the bouquet. “This is for you. You probably get loads better ones, but it’s got your namesake in it, at least.”

Her mouth pressing shut into a stubborn line, Lavender eventually took the flowers and gave them a suspicious sniff. “What are you doing here?” she asked again, more slowly this time.

Harry spread her hands. She didn’t know what Lavender had been through since she left Hogwarts, and, whether the other girl knew it or not, Harry owed her a debt. Sort of. In any case, the least she could do was avoid frightening or insulting her. “I came to see the play.”

The actress straightened her shoulders. “What do you know about the theatre?” she demanded haughtily.

Perhaps it was the sneer that made Harry gentle her voice still further, down to the tone she reserved for frightened children and prickly Slytherins. “Very little.”

Lavender’s forehead creased at that. Maybe she'd been expecting more bluster. “Did you like it?” she asked abruptly, leaning forward on the balls of her feet.

“Yeah.” Harry pushed her hands into her pockets. “Yeah, I did. You were really good.”

Still staring at her, Lavender shook her head slowly, her blonde curls bobbing. Then she turned on the spot and Apparated out.

Chapter Text

Abandoned in Lavender’s dressing room with the clap of Apparition still ringing in her ears, Harry exhaled and ran a hand through her curls. At least Lavender had taken the flowers.

There was a brochure for Lavender’s acting company lying on her dressing table. Harry grabbed it before she left. She’d enjoyed the performance far more than she’d thought she would, after all.

Hermione’s parents had moved back to London, the previous year. Maybe they would let her borrow their internet connection to look up the troupe’s next play.

~

It was Romeo and Juliet.

After that was Twelfth Night. Next, a break from star-crossed lovers for Henry V, then Macbeth, then All's Well That Ends Well.

At the exact moment when Harry was laughing because the actor playing Coriolanus was incapable of giving a monologue without showering the first three rows of the audience in spit, Severus was stretched out on the ground with his fingers laced behind his head, contemplating a tree.

Acacia xyphophila, commonly known as Australian snakewood. More specifically, it was the snakewood tree that had sprouted in the central courtyard of the Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the remains of Salazar Slytherin’s wand.

The story of how the wand had come to Ilvermorny was an intricate one that his hostess had explained as she showed him around the castle grounds when he’d arrived two months earlier. Isolt Sayre, a descendent of Salazar Slytherin (and consequently a distant ancestress of Tom Riddle), had brought the wand with her when she’d escaped her oppressive family by sailing to America in 1620. Not knowing the wand had belonged to Salazar Slytherin, she used it as her own for many years until her aunt, Gormlaith Gaunt, sailed to America with the intent to kill Isolt for her blood treachery in marrying a Muggle and founding a school that educated Muggleborns. In a great duel between Gormlaith, Isolt, and Isolt’s two teenaged sons, the wand was shattered. Glad to be done with it, Isolt buried it, discovering only later that it had grown into a healthy tree whose leaves had medicinal properties.

Severus, by contrast, had first arrived at Ilvermorny in June of 2002, nearly three years to the date from when he’d left Hogwarts. It had been Harry’s fault that he’d gone there, really. (Because didn’t everything in Severus’s life come back to Harry, in one way or another?) In this case, it had been her suggestion that he collect the widely scattered threads of his research and weave them together into some type of rudimentary encyclopedia, a guide to the vast differences in how magic was practiced on Earth.

Severus found the idea daunting...and yet, it had stayed with him in the back of his mind throughout his travels. He’d kept it below the level of conscious consideration for months—but then, each time he brought it to the surface, he realized that it had grown more solid, more intricate, taking on a life of its own…until it manifested, finally, into an ambition.

The first true ambition that he’d had since he was a teenager and he wanted to help the Dark Lord conquer the world.

But Harry had been right, that he couldn’t do this alone. For a project of this magnitude, he’d need to find a team of collaborators and an independent source of funding. Which meant writing more letters, this time to wizards and witches from a variety of cultures with academic or philanthropic bents.

Despite the portfolio of his work he sent with each letter, Severus was disgruntled to only receive two interested replies. The first had been from a wizarding research consortium that made its home in Antarctica, of all places. The second had been from a woman named Adaeze Danjubi, Ilvermorny’s newly instated Professor of World Magics, as they called it.

Since it was still summer hols for the students, Severus had had the school and its grounds largely to himself for the previous two months. This meant that he’d been able to spend a great deal of time with Slytherin’s tree.

He didn’t know why he felt so drawn to it, precisely.

Well, there was the obvious: the fact that he’d been sorted into Slytherin House at age eleven had been the catalyst that set the rest of his life in motion. Although the Death Eaters might have still reached out to him if he'd been placed in Ravenclaw for his curiosity or Hufflepuff for his work ethic or even (shudder) Gryffindor for his ability to discard fear when it counted, going to Slytherin had meant that he was isolated among students who considered him less than themselves due to blood status. In turn, this had driven Severus to attempt to prove himself again and again, until the desire for respect became a burning need for power and control—which had, of course, taken him down the path by which the power and control would most be stripped from him.

But all that was in the past—and although he'd sifted through the past quite a bit during his travels so far, Severus didn’t find himself thinking of it much when he laid a hand against the snakewood’s bark or stretched himself out on the twiggy ground between the roots.

Instead, he would watch the puzzle of the branches above him, the way the sunlight and shadow interplayed through the green of the leaves. What would fill him then would be an awareness of the tangible presence at his back, the strange magic soaking out into the world from the trunk and branches and bark.

And whatever he or anyone else wanted to make of the snakewood—a symbol of transformation, for example, of the definitive refusal of everything in the world to pause in the constant process of becoming something else—it was still just a tree. In a limited capacity, Severus could even call it his tree, now, the place where he went to sit and let shifting sunlight and darkness brush their way across the canvas of his closed lids, the heat of the New England summer seeping into his bones.

It was late August now, so there were still no students around to see him in such a casual pose. Even though he’d been the relatively mild-mannered Severus Prince instead of the sniping, snarling Professor Snape for three years, he didn’t think his dignity could take it.

Snorting softly at the thought to himself, Severus picked up the weathered paperback he’d left open on his chest and resumed reading.

Jane was expressing her opinion again, of course. Rochester was a fool to think that she'd ever do anything less.

“I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience…”

~

Weddings, Harry decided, were something she could do.

Oh, she'd been terrible at almost everything leading up to the day—guest lists, flower arrangements, dress fittings—but she was brilliant, it turned out, at giving pre-wedding pep talks.

For Ron, it had been relatively simple. “Harry, what if she changes her mind?” he’d demanded while she was straightening his collar and fixing the rose in his lapel.

Harry grinned up at him, feeling her chest swell with affection for this man who had been her very first friend. “Ron Weasley, she’s utterly gone on you,” she informed him solemnly. “And have you ever known her to change her mind once it’s set?”

“That’s true…” A bit of color starting to come back into his cheeks, the redhead sighed. “I’m so bloody lucky, Harry. I don’t deserve her at all.”

“You’re right, mate,” Harry agreed, reaching up to ruffle his hair. “She’s much too good for you.”

“Oi!” Ron slapped her away. “You’re my Best Person, too! What kind of support is that?”

"The kind that you deserve, you berk," Ginny had answered with a smirk as she slipped into the dressing room, signaling to Harry that she was ready to take over the groom-babysitting duties for the moment.

Hermione’s jitters, on the other hand, had taken a bit longer to assuage.

“Harry, what if something goes wrong? What if I forget my vows, or—or the cake explodes?”

They’d been sitting in front of a mirror in the Burrow’s spare bedroom before Apparating to the Ministry banquet hall that had been rented for the event. “Then we’ll eat Luna’s hat,” Harry offered confidently as she twined another frost lily through the elaborate knot in Hermione's hair.

Hermione glared, looking like the only thing stopping her from bending to knock her head against the vanity was fear of mussing her makeup. “This is no time for joking!” she admonished fiercely.

“M’not,” Harry protested, working hard to keep a straight face. “It’s fully edible. Chocolate cake with rhubarb-flavored icing.”

For some reason, the bride-to-be didn’t look particularly reassured by this.

Harry put her hands on her friend’s shoulders and shifted her until they were facing each other. “Hermione, everything is going to be fine.”

When Hermione gripped Harry's arms in return, her nails dug in. Hard. “How can you say that? The last wedding we were at, the Ministry collapsed!”

Carefully, Harry leaned forward and pressed her forehead against her friend's. “But we sorted that, didn’t we?”

Hermione let out a noise that was half gasp, half chuckle. “In a manner of speaking,” she conceded dryly after a moment.

Taking a gulp of breath, she pulled back and added, “Oh, Harry, I know I’m acting like a ninny, but I hope you get to experience something like this one day. If that’s what you want—I mean, I’m not trying to imply that a woman needs to be married in order to feel fulfilled in life, or anything like th—”

Harry had never seen her friend acting less self-possessed. Twining their hands together, Harry halted the flow of babble by kissing her cheek. “‘Mione, shush. I’m so happy for you.”

“Oh.” Hermione hiccuped. “Oh, Harry. I love you so much. My mascara’s going to run.”

"Good thing Fleur taught me a charm for that, then," Harry said with another grin, standing up again and flourishing her wand.

And the charm had held perfectly. Hermione's mascara hadn't run—not through the ceremony, or the vows, or the toasts, or even the relatively minor explosion of the wedding cake (after which Hermione ate three slices of Luna’s hat just to give the universe a two-fingered salute). It held through Hagrid blubbering like a baby, and little Victoire throwing a tantrum about not catching the bouquet, and Malfoy's fiancée Astoria Greengrass looking like the sheer amount of laughter in the air was giving her indigestion, and Molly making Arthur floo-call the Ministry every twenty minutes to see whether the political situation remained stable.

Now, with the reception almost over and the guests beginning to say their goodbyes, Harry paused for a moment to admire her two friends as they swayed with their chests pressed together on the dance floor. Hermione was looking gorgeous, her cheeks flushed, her floor-length gown shimmering like fallen snow. And while Ron wasn’t nearly as pretty (although his new wife might disagree, of course), he had the look of a man who'd found exactly where he belonged in the world and had no intention of ever letting it go.

Harry was dead chuffed with herself, to tell the truth. She was acing this whole friendship thing.

And if she had to slip outside at one point because she’d drunk too much champagne, and missing Severus had hit her like a sucker punch in the gut until she was doubled over with it, barely able to breathe?

She just needed to remember all of the people in the banquet hall who loved her. Growing up with the Dursleys, she’d never expected to belong to a family or a community that was so full of joy and warmth.

She’d go back in when she was ready.

~

Another benefit of coming to Ilvermorny during the summer holiday was that Professor Danjubi, Severus's hostess, was free to discuss the project at length.

Adaeze Danjubi proved to be a highly competent (and surprisingly young) witch who had immigrated to the U.S. with her parents from Nigeria as a child. A serious woman who was passionate about her work, she was accustomed to straddling the divide between cultures and had fought tooth and nail to get her classes on non-Western magic on the curriculum at Ilvermorny after completing her Mastery in her twenties. To Severus's delight, she'd taken to his project with gusto, working long (unpaid) hours with him over the summer to hammer out details of the compendium's layout and scope in return for being credited as the second author.

When school started again in September, it seemed natural for Severus to stay on board in Massachusetts to continue writing drafts where he could consult Adaeze with ease.

That, of course, was before the catastrophe forced his hand.

~

It began innocently enough. One Friday in mid-December, Severus was sitting at his desk and writing the latest installment in one of his ongoing debates with Harry (You have to admit, he’s a bit like you, she’d said, to which he was currently replying, I do not have an insane wife hidden in the attic, you fanciful waif), when he was interrupted by a voice calling, “Sev, are you coming to town tonight?”

Adaeze was leaning into the door of his small office and grinning at him.

Severus put his quill down carefully and lifted an eyebrow. It was the evening of the last day of classes before the school’s winter break, as the Americans called it, and joy was in the air. The students had finished their last end-of-term tests that day, and the upper years had been given passes to Salem, the city below the mountain where Ilvermorny was wreathed in eternal fog.

"Must I?" he demanded archly, returning her smile with a slight quirk of his lips.

The woman’s grin didn’t flag. “Well, several of the older years would be terribly disheartened if they didn’t get the chance to see their Prince out of his robes.” Coming into his office to lean a hip against his desk, she adjusted her colorful head scarf, crossed her arms over her chest, and looked down her nose at him pointedly. “As I understand, that’s half the draw of the event.”

One of the biggest surprises of his time here at Ilvermorny had been the inclination of certain subsets of the female student population to consider him an object of attraction. Even when Severus had summoned some of his old venom in an attempt to stymie such nonsense, the girls had reacted by sighing and whispering to each other about how much they loved his accent.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Severus barely stifled a groan. “Half the draw, my arse," he muttered, glaring up at the woman.

“Yes, precisely,” she agreed without missing a beat.

Oh, for Merlin’s sake.

Severus was about to answer with a definitive no when Adaeze spoke again. “I know you’d rather stay in—I feel the same, to tell the truth—but we’re short a chaperone." The teasing tone had dropped from her voice, replaced by something much more sincere. "And there’s a new restaurant I’d like to try, if you wouldn’t mind keeping me company.”

Surprised, Severus blinked up at his colleague. He hadn't expected her to press the issue. Was it possible that she was asking him (his nostrils flared slightly; he still despised the word) on a date?

Unbidden and unwanted, a memory surged to the forefront of his mind: Harry, the Room of Requirement, tilting her chin up and trying to pretend she wasn’t nervous. "You would take me out to dinner? If we were on a date?"

The blood roared in Severus's ears.

He shoved the memory behind his Occlumency barriers firmly. If there were ever an appropriate time to relive that conversation and everything that came attached to it, now was certainly not it.

“Very well,” he agreed, clearing his throat. “It would be my pleasure."

~

And it was a pleasure, he realized later that evening as he sat across from her in a small Muggle pub, drinking a fine dark ale and having a lively argument about the thirty-seven regional subclasses of elemental magic. Even the jukebox playing Frosty the Snowman couldn't dampen his enjoyment of the night.

And yet, in the back of his mind, a part of him was quietly panicking.

Was this a date? Did he want it to be a date? Adaeze was an attractive woman, of course, intelligent, poised, confident, undeniably beautiful—and he would even consider her a friend now, after four months of working together…and then there was the fact that she was exactly the sort of person that Lily might have become if she hadn’t been killed when she was twenty-one…

“Sev? Are you all right?” Adaeze had paused to look at him with concern.

Severus swallowed against the lurch of vertigo in his gut. “It's nothing. Please continue.”

His companion was still obviously worried, but she had the grace to let it go, just as she’d never pressed him about his past or the scruffy little owl that brought him letters twice a week. The conversation resumed, though Severus doubted that he'd be able to recall any of it with clarity later.

After they finished eating, they started rousting up the students to shepherd them back to school. Severus's thoughts remained abuzz throughout this process. He barely noticed when he and his fellow chaperone had finished their task and begun walking back to the staff’s wing together in companionable silence.

It was only when Adaeze stopped short beneath the twisting branches of the great snakewood in the central courtyard that Severus came back to himself.

Because she'd leaned into him in the darkness and pressed a soft kiss against his lips.

Her breath tasted of wine and spices. Above them in the night sky, fresh snow began its descent.

And Severus felt frozen, as if the ice were crystallizing around his heart. His eyes slipped closed, and all he could see was another night, another face turned up to his in the dark.

The professor pulled back, her expression beginning to fall.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, each breath shuddering through him. It was all he could think to say.

~

That, however, was not the crisis. The crisis happened the next day.

At this point, Severus was used to receiving post from a variety of sources. He’d been many places and had met a surprising number of wizards and witches who were willing to correspond with him on a regular basis in relation to his research.

When an unfamiliar owl started pecking on his windowsill as he was stepping out of the shower, therefore, none of his old instincts rose in warning.

But the Ministry of Magic’s seal on the envelope did the job.

The message inside was written on expensive matte cardstock, with tiny ink fireworks exploding on either side of the page.

Dear Mr. Snape,

Congratulations! In accordance with your deeds of heroism performed in the Second Wizarding War against Lord Voldemort, culminating in the defeat of said foe, your presence is requested as the recipient of an Order of Merlin, First Class, to be awarded on the date of July 30th, 2003, at a reception in which you will be honored by the most venerable witches and wizards of the land.

Dinner will be included. Please indicate on the enclosed whether you would prefer chicken, steak, or a vegetarian alternative.

Cordially,

Percifal Weasley,
on behalf of Kingsley Shacklebolt,
Minister of Magic, Great Britain

Chapter Text

On December 31st, 2002, Harry Potter sat on a bench in Piccadilly Circus, reading a travel-stained letter. Her heart was pounding in her chest.

She read it quickly, the first time.

The second was a bit slower.

Certain phrases were starting to swim out at her.

…crucial juncture in my research…

…the Ministry doubtless has its reasons for drawing me out in this way…

…do not make the mistake of imagining that I am still at the point in my life when I am eager to lick up the scraps of public favor…

Even without such telling watchwords, the intent of the letter was perfectly clear: Severus had declined the Ministry’s invitation. He wouldn’t be coming back.

~

Blissful heat, pressing him down. Husky laughter in his ear. A whisper of his name, so careful, both demand and plea...

The impossible sweetness of being buried inside of her again, her legs spread around his hips, her body quivering like a lightning bolt that he’d caught and dragged to earth…

“Harry,” Severus groaned into her dark curls. Holding her down by her lovely arse, he drove up into her quickly, growing more desperate with each thrust—desperate to come inside her, now now now before she disappeared—

Severus awoke in agony.

Biting his free hand and tasting blood, he fumbled his belt open with the other and shoved it down inside his trousers to curl around himself. He pumped his hips roughly, squeezing because he needed it tight…and he came with a gasp that was almost a whine.

After he finished, he felt brittle, flayed. Despite what he’d done with his hand, satisfaction—true satisfaction—remained completely out of his reach.

His breath unfurled in a white plume around him.

He could almost taste the salt of her sweat on his lips.

He collapsed back onto the lumpy mattress of the cot he’d been given in the only outpost of wizards in the Antarctic and covered his face with his hands.

~

The Antarctic/South Shetlands International Consortium of Explorers (or ASS ICE, as it was unfortunately known), was the southernmost wizarding collective on the planet. It was located on Deception Island, a volcanic caldera in the Drake Passage of the South Atlantic Ocean that had been a whaling outpost in the previous century and now housed Argentine and Spanish research stations. What the muggles didn’t realize was that there was also a wizarding base on the west side of the island, founded two years previously to protect the nearby sea dragon breeding grounds.

It was early January, and the Antarctic summer would be ending in March, which meant that the long darkness of winter would set in and make any type of travel essentially a death sentence until September, when the sun would rise once more. Severus would be here for the better part of a year, then.

Which was good. It was what he’d planned, when he’d left Ilvermorny. In the days after Adaeze had kissed him and he’d been unable to respond, a great deal of the luster had faded from his surroundings. Things had been awkward between them, and then there’d been the crisis of the invitation to return to England—and Severus had suddenly felt the pressing need to get away, away from the reminder of how he’d rejected a woman who was utterly perfect for him because he couldn’t ignore his feelings for the one person he was never going to allow himself to have.

And why not? a small voice in the back of his mind asked. She loves you. She’s said so. You miss her. What possible harm…

But that was when the voice grew silent—because returning to Harry would do a great deal of harm. No matter how well they got along, and how regularly they communicated even when there was half a planet between them, she was not supposed to be in love with Severus Snape. The reasons he’d had for leaving her to begin with were still entirely valid. She deserved better. She deserved more, so much fucking more, than a life spent with a man like him.

And besides, Severus wasn’t ready to return to wizarding Britain for the simple reason that he didn’t want to become Severus Snape again. He didn’t want to be the Death Eater, the spy, the bat of the dungeons. Hero, murderer. He may have chosen to rename himself arbitrarily when he’d first arrived on Bali, but the new persona he’d created had become a sort of shelter for him over his years of travel. He liked it. He liked being Severus Prince, who had no past, no ghosts.

He thought of the letter he’d written to Harry after he’d received the Ministry’s invitation.

He thought of how he’d finished it.

Good luck, Harry. I have no doubt that you’ll succeed in whatever you set out to do. I am currently on my way to a research base in the South Shetland Islands, where I plan to spend the Antarctic winter. As this is one of the most remote places on Earth, please don’t endanger any owls by attempting to contact me further.

Severus

Certainly, it had been a harsh way to end years of correspondence. But he’d done it. Because it had needed to be done.

It was a clean break, and coming here to the bottom of the world had given him the perfect excuse for it. And now Harry—or perhaps both of them—could finally fucking let go.

~

One thing Severus hadn’t realized when he’d come to the Antarctic was how much he’d miss the darkness.

At this time of year, the sun never set. It made him feel sort of sick, honestly. The world wasn’t supposed to be like this. The middle of the night was a nauseating time for the sky to be blue.

And yet, it was beautiful here, craggy mountain peaks rising from panoramas of ice and sea. Often, Severus felt so removed from the rest of the world that he caught himself wondering if his whole life up until this point had been an illusion, a fantasy invented in the great solitude of his mind amidst this dazzling frozen world.

Especially on a morning like the present, two weeks after he’d first arrived, when the weather was balmy enough (i.e., approximately 3 degrees Celsius) to take an anorak along Deception's outer rim, then climb up its glacial banks to the west.

One of the reasons that the sea dragons were particularly plentiful in these waters was because of the abundance of the tidal sea caves where they laid their eggs. In other areas of the world where the creatures had once lived, their eggs had been the primary reason they were over-hunted, as they had potent magical properties.

More importantly for Severus at the moment, the soil of a nesting ground where generations of eggshells had been left behind was highly attractive to magical flora and fauna. This included the extremely rare sickle-thorned ice phlox, a plant that was vital to the bases of several complex potions, such as the one that filled the circuits of a Time Turner. He'd found a patch a few days ago on a mountainside above a deep network of caves, and now he'd brought his harvesting equipment.

As denoted by its name, the sickle-thorned ice phlox grew through ice, which meant that any icebed underneath the blooms would be very weak and thin. Walking among them would be treacherous.

Yet, they were too delicate to be harvested from afar. Severus didn’t have a broom (and he wouldn’t have wanted to ride one anyway if he did, since that would make his stomach feel as if it were trying to squeeze its way up through his throat), which meant that his only option was to hover over the ground while bending to uproot the plants. Mix in the fact that he was currently doing this on an icy mountainside, and it all meant that he needed to be very, very careful—but also to work quickly.

This plan was bolloxed when he looked up to see a familiar winged silhouette on the horizon.

The little owl was dipping and reeling crazily through the air as it approached. Quickly, Severus conjured a net to catch it.

“You shouldn’t have come here, little one,” he admonished the bird roughly when he was holding it in his arms. In truth, he was shocked that the owl had survived the journey. He’d told Harry not to attempt writing back while he was in such a harsh environment. What had she been thinking?

Still shaking from either cold or exhaustion—likely both—the owl pecked at his cheek and chirped, holding up its leg.

Casting a strong warming charm over the creature, Severus bundled her into his cloak, next to his heart. Only when that was finished did he take the parchment from its talon and look at what the owl had delivered.

He frowned, realizing that it wasn’t a letter from Harry after all. It was a folded page of newspaper—what looked like the front page of the Daily Prophet…

~

Two weeks earlier…

Sitting across from her in a Muggle café in Piccadilly Circus, Lavender Brown sniffed and tossed a shining lock of hair over one shoulder. “Honestly, Harry. Sometimes I wonder why I bother with you.”

“My charm?” Harry suggested.

“Hmph." The way Lavender shifted in her seat could definitely be called a flounce.

Harry tapped her fingers against the edge of the table. “If you won’t accept my help coming back to the wizarding world, what about someone else?” she wondered. “Like…the two boys I saw you with that time? Back in eighth year?”

Frowning, Lavender leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. “Stephen and Edward? I haven’t seen them since Hogwarts.” Her nose wrinkled. “We never dated or anything. It was just sex.”

Absurdly, Harry found herself blushing at this revelation. “Right,” she said after a pause.

Lavender stared at her, then started smirking. “It really wound you up when you saw us, didn’t it?”

Harry felt her embarrassment grow. “Well, yeah." She trailed off, not really knowing what else to say.

Lavender finally uncrossed her arms and started to pick at her salad. “It’s just because you’re so naturally monogamous,” she muttered after a moment. “It’s a bit prissy, but you can’t help it, I suppose.”

Harry rolled her eyes. “Thanks, I think.”

“It used to irritate the hell out of me. Reading about you in the Prophet. How they’re always gushing over you, calling you the most eligible witch in Britain and our sweet Harry, our darling Harry, our brave Harry. What a lot of rot.”

“I never wanted any of that," Harry protested.

“But that doesn’t keep you from using it,” Lavender pointed out shrewdly.

Harry acknowledged that with a nod. “You said it used to irritate you.”

“Right.” Lavender flashed a toothy grin. “Because then I realized that it can’t be easy, being in love with Snape.”

Harry inhaled sharply. She was entirely certain that she'd never revealed that to the other girl, despite the somewhat prickly friendship they'd developed since Harry had started coming to her plays.

"Oh, look at your face!" Lavender murmured, obviously highly amused by the entire exchange. “We shared a dorm for six years, Harry," she explained. "It’s not as if you didn’t talk in your sleep.” Pausing to take another bite, she tilted her head speculatively. “I do sympathize, to a certain extent. It might be hot to get under all those buttons.”

Knowing that the flush in her cheeks had a different cause than embarrassment now, Harry heard her chair scrape as she sat forward. “Don’t speak of him that way.”

Lavender narrowed her eyes. “Don't get your knickers in a twist,” she parried with a huff. “I’m just joking. I didn't mean any harm."

"Yes, you did," Harry couldn't keep herself from shooting back.

"Don't be so dramatic."

"That's rich, coming from you."

Lavender glared, and Harry's lips quirked, and they ate in silence for a time.

“So how’s that working out for you, then? Haven't heard much about Snape lately,” the other woman finally asked, giving Harry one of the most Slytherin glances she’d ever gotten from a Gryffindor.

Harry took the final bite of her sandwich, chewed, and tilted her head back to look up at the café’s ceiling. She thought about the fact that it had been a week since Severus should have been notified about his Order of Merlin, according to Percy, and neither Harry nor the Ministry had heard anything from him since then. Meanwhile, a swathe of dark blue had cut its way down the Atlantic on the globe Harry kept on her writing desk.

This had thrown her for a few reasons. Besides her worry over the fact that he hadn't written to her recently, Severus had seemed so, well, settled at Ilvermorny over the last few months. He was teaching again as a guest lecturer, and he actually seemed to like it now that the students respected him and he wasn't responsible for marking loads of awful essays. A quiet sort of contentment had been radiating out from between the lines in his letters, something she'd never seen from him before. Why would he suddenly leave?

She decided to be honest with the other woman. “He’s traveling the world.”

Lavender's eyebrows shot up. “That’s what they all say.”

“Is it?”

“Essentially.” Lavender simpered, but then her expression grew more serious. “Harry, it’s none of my business…but you can do better. Someone who’s actually here, for a start.”

“Can we get the check, please?” Harry asked the waitress as she passed. Once she’d paid, Harry scraped her chair back and led the way outside.

As they walked out onto the sidewalk, Lavender dithered in the café’s entryway. “Same time next week?” she asked, almost hesitant.

Harry exhaled. “Yeah. See you then.”

Lavender nodded. "Looks like you've got post," she added, pointing up to the eaves of the hair salon next door.

She left.

Harry took a step back and craned upward, spotting a stately grey owl perched on the roof with a weathered envelope in one talon…

Despite the ice on the ground and the slush that squirted out from under the wheels of the red double-deckers, the streets were full of comings and goings, Muggles in thick winter coats. Ten minutes later, Harry Potter sat in the middle of this, her head tilted back against her bench and her eyes closed against the winter sunlight, fingers itching to rub a scar that hadn’t hurt in over five years. The letter from Severus was clasped loosely in her hands.

She was disappointed. Of course she was disappointed.

When Severus had left, she’d made peace with the fact that she might never see him again. But now, at the thought of it, an icy feeling was blooming in her abdomen.

She hadn’t realized until just now how strongly she felt about this, how tightly and secretly she’d been hanging onto the hope that Severus would come back to London one day and sweep her off her feet. Idiot. She’d been a prize-winning idiot. Again. She always seemed to do that where Severus was concerned, didn’t she?

Her eyes still closed, Harry scrubbed a hand through her curls and exhaled harshly.

Lavender wasn't the only one who'd told Harry it was time to move on. Hermione had been dropping hints to that effect for the last year, making a point to introduce her to coworkers in the Ministry who were handsome and intelligent. Nice blokes. Only slightly blinded by Harry's celebrity.

Bland. Awful and bland.

When Harry had first asked Severus to take her virginity, she’d done it because the thought of being with him didn’t turn her stomach. He'd been the only person who she'd wanted to think of that way. And that hadn’t changed. She tried to picture letting anyone but Severus bed her, to imagine making love to someone who didn’t have oil-slick hair and pallid skin and an absurd nose and eyes that were as dark as the earth under frost, as black and soft as the night sky. It made her want to retch.

But she didn’t want to be celibate for the rest of her life. More importantly, she wanted a partner, a steady shoulder to lean on. And she wanted to have kids. Not immediately, but definitely within the next five or ten years. Harry knew deep inside that she’d be a good mother, if only because she had so much love to give.

She opened her eyes and looked around herself at the whirl of traffic, the scrim of ice on the ground, the laughably oversized ads on the sides of buildings. At this time of year (the new year, Harry remembered: it was December 31st), the flashing colors and chaos of Piccadilly Circus seemed to be directly at war with the thick grey clouds in the sky and the bite in the wind.

She’d told Severus to go find a life that made him happy, if he could; and she’d meant it fiercely. She still did. The words had come all the way down from the bottom of her heart.

But a part of Harry—an entirely selfish part—had hoped that he would decide that that life would be with her.

She had to face the bitter truth. He was never coming back. He’d found what she’d told him to look for—and Harry wasn't a part of it, even though she'd fought so hard to get him this Order of Merlin in the years since he'd left.

Hot tears were gathering in her bottom lids. She let two leak out before wiping the rest away.

She needed to take her own advice, Harry realized. She needed to treat herself as she’d asked Severus to treat himself. She needed to work for her own happiness; she needed to believe that she deserved it, that it was within her grasp.

~

It probably wasn’t surprising that when Harry didn’t know where to go or what to do with herself, she went to work. New Year’s Eve or not, she had a mountain of paperwork to finish.

To be fair, Severus's letter wasn't the only thing that had rattled her. Her love life might have been bleak, but it wasn't as if she had something like a great passion for her professional life to make up for it.

Oh, there were certain parts of her job that she liked well enough. She liked investigating and that moment that happened when she was lucky where everything clicked into place. She liked helping people who needed help and minimizing the hurt caused by those who were violent and bigoted or simply unendingly petty, like the Dursleys had been.

She even didn't mind the moments of intense action. She'd been in danger since becoming an Auror, but she was never alone and she was almost always well-prepared…and, frankly, nothing had compared as of yet to what she'd faced before she killed Voldemort.

The problem was that all of this was only a small fraction of what her superiors and the Ministry in general wanted her to do. Typically, her day's work would go something like: department meeting, press conference, paperwork, interview about a case she hadn't actually been involved with, paperwork, and then finally getting out to the field...although she'd probably be assigned to partner with someone who photographed well.

Today, the whole issue seemed to be neatly summed up by the fact that the first thing Harry saw when she entered the Ministry of Magic, as always, was the statue of herself, looking scrappy and lovely in her victory over great evil. Feeling fed up with the monstrosity’s optimistic expression, she flicked a two-fingered salute at it as she passed. She really hated that thing.

While the DMLE would normally be middling-busy at this hour in the early evening, Harry only saw a few clerks at the front desks tonight when she stepped off the lifts. Crime didn’t take a holiday, but Aurors did. She could only hope that nothing major happened that would mean they'd all need to be pulled in from home.

When she reached her desk, however, a flash of light eight cubicles down caught her attention.

Malfoy’s desk was in a far corner of the floor, away from the visibility of the busy center. He was slumped over it now, his wand clenched tightly in his right hand.

He was casting a Patronus.

It was a ferret.

Harry knew better than to comment on that.

“Nice work,” she said softly instead. During training, he’d struggled with the spell—and yet now, the silvery creature was fully corporeal. It couldn't seem to stay still, bounding from the desk down to the ground, then onto Malfoy's shoulders, then back onto the desk again.

Malfoy turned toward her, and the ferret dissolved.

The skin around his eyes was red.

“Potter,” he enunciated slowly. It was too flat to be called a drawl. “Congratulate me. I’m not getting married.”

Harry blinked. “Congratulations,” she said after a pause.

The silence around them in the normally busy workfloor was an odd and oppressive thing. “Are you on duty?” she wondered, shifting her weight.

Malfoy shook his head.

Harry chewed her lower lip, locked in an internal debate. She took a deep breath and made a decision.

“Come on,” she said, reaching down to pull him up.

As he stumbled to his feet, Malfoy gaped at her. “What? Why?”

Harry smiled at him, knowing it was an edged and private thing, her most honest smile—the kind that only a few people had ever seen on her face. “Just trust me,” she answered, tugging him toward the lifts.

~

Two weeks later, in Antarctica, the headline was emblazoned in glaringly large font across the top of the newspaper clipping that Severus clutched in his cold hands.

Forbidden Romance for Harry Potter! Affair with Ex-Death Eater Exposed!

Under it was a picture of Harry in what looked like some sort of Muggle nightclub.

Kissing.

Draco Malfoy.

Severus stared at the page in blank shock. His vision swam luridly, and he felt as if the blood had frozen in his veins.

He barely noticed that he’d dropped his hovering spell and was now standing directly on the bed of ice phlox. In a similar fashion, the sharp crack that resounded below him blended with the thunder in his ears.

And then, in an exact replica of what was happening to his heart, the ice gave way below Severus’s feet—and he plunged down into the darkness of the mountainside.

Chapter Text

Severus regained consciousness to darkness and blinding pain.

One or more of his ribs were definitely broken, and his right shoulder felt as if it had been dislocated. An investigation with his left hand confirmed the fact: his humerus was jutting forward at an unnatural angle, lighting his nerve endings on fire whenever he shifted that side of his body.

He controlled his breathing and focused, attempting to force his muscles to relax. One, two…

He wrenched the shoulder back into place.

He’d screamed, he knew, because it was echoing back at him now, a ricochet of sound. He hadn’t heard himself scream like that in years. Not since the Dark Lord and his unquenchable thirst to cast the Cruciatus…

Severus forced his thoughts back to the present. He was shaking, he realized. Shivering, despite the heavy clothing he'd put on that morning and his warming charms that were still in effect. It was possible, he realized distantly, that he was going into shock…

Once again, he steadied his breathing. Think of nothing—not fear, not panic. Compartmentalize. Occlude. Observe.

Not that there was much to see. He’d fallen into a narrow crevasse of rock, a dark pit in the mountain. Shards of light were flickering down on him from the thin ice high above with one thicker streak from where he’d broken through it, but the walls and ground beneath him were black and tundral. He had no idea what the shadows on either side of him hid.

But he was lucky to have only cracked a few ribs and dislocated a shoulder, considering how far he’d fallen. And he could fly up there to the surface, or even just Apparate directly back to the wizarding base, since he knew the coordinates. Where was his wand? It had been in his hand when he’d crashed through the icebed.

This was when Severus discovered the true damage done by his plunge underground. Because yes, his dragon heartstring and black walnut wand, which had sent up an explosion of blue and white light the first time he’d touched it when he was eleven, was lying on the ground a short distance away...

But it had splintered in half with the fall.

He was a powerful wizard, maybe one of the most powerful alive by sheer dint of perseverance, but a wizard without a wand was much less than half the spellcaster he'd once been. Severus felt sick to his stomach, which had been happening a lot lately. But this was worse, far worse. His breaths were short and tight, and there was an uncomfortable wriggling sensation against his chest, as if his heart were about to burst out of the cracks in his rib cage—

Or as if a small owl was attempting to escape from a pocket in his robes.

“Still with me, little one?” Severus croaked as he pulled the bird out, feeling the worst of his panic recede for a moment.

A quick check proved that the owl was still all in one piece. Thank Merlin he’d landed on his side, shielding her from harm. She hooted at him, blinking her lambent green eyes at their shadowy surroundings in confusion, then transferring her gaze up to him in what was unmistakeably a glare.

Not for the first time, Severus was struck by how uncanny the similarities were between the orbs that were currently staring up at him and the gaze Harry had turned toward him in so many ways over the years. He remembered being suspicious of the bird when she'd first delivered Harry's letters... But as far as he knew, Harry still hadn't become an Animagus.

And even if she had, she wouldn't be here.

“You, at least, should be able to fly out,” he told the bird hoarsely. “You can bring me help.”

The owl hooted again as if in understanding, then launched herself from his hands—only to flutter and collapse to the ground helplessly when her wings gave out.

She tried again, with the same result. “Enough,” Severus said, scooping her back up onto his lap. “You’re too exhausted.” Who knew how long she’d flown before reaching him here? If she'd come from Argentina or even Prince Edward Island, it had been far longer than a bird of her size and species would normally be able to travel, even a magical one.

Hissing an inhale between his crooked teeth, Severus shifted backwards and over until he’d rolled onto his uninjured side, still carefully cradling his companion against his stomach. In doing so, something crumpled beneath the crown of his head.

It was the page of the Daily Prophet that had instigated this disaster.

The light from above was too scarce to really see much of it. He could barely make out a few phrases of the article.

This reporter can only speculate…

...caught here in a moment of candid passion…

“It’s always been dodgy, how well they get on,” says an anonymous source...

Story continued on pg. 5.

And above all of that was Draco, catching Harry’s face amid the closeness of dancing Muggles and pressing his lips to hers. Since it was a wizarding picture, this was happening again and again, Harry’s look of surprise and the smile she gave the man afterwards repeating itself ad nauseam.

Severus stared at it for far longer than he should have, given the circumstances. Jealousy boiled through him, hot and violent.

This was just as bad as when he’d been a teenager and he'd first learned that Lily was dating James Potter. Worse, far worse, because he’d never heard Lily’s cries of rapture amidst climax, never held her in his arms and then forced himself to let her go.

Unlike when he’d heard about Lily dating Harry's father, however, the heat of his jealousy quickly faded and was replaced by pure misery.

He turned his face into the hard, icy ground. Damn the woman. Damn Harry Potter.

He’d known that she would ruin him. He’d told her so, and she’d said that she wouldn’t, but he’d known.

The true lump in his throat—the exceedingly bitter pill to swallow—was that this was all his own fault, of course. When he’d agreed to have sex with her, he’d been thinking with his prick, or maybe his heart; and in Severus’s experience, nothing good ever came from doing either.

Was he meant to live the rest of his life like this? Wanting and not allowing himself to have, needled deep in his skin by his unconscionable desire?

Had he made a mistake in refusing to return?

Whereas an hour ago, Severus would have dismissed the question harshly, he now found that he couldn’t. If he hadn’t been such a stubborn arse about it, he wouldn’t be here now. If he hadn't been determined to get as far away from Harry as he could while remaining earthbound and alive, he wouldn't be injured and trapped in a cave in the bowels of fucking Antarctica, seeing the evidence of what he’d been saying he wanted for so long right under his nose and wanting to smash every single fucking jar of potions ingredients he'd ever owned because of it.

He watched Draco kiss Harry again, still transfixed by her expression. Surprise. Pleasure.

He couldn't even blame her. While he might be having an easier time if Harry had chosen another Gryffindor as a partner, perhaps a Weasley (no, he would never have an easy time at the idea of anyone else touching her or being on the receiving end of that crooked Harry grin), Harry and Draco shared a career. They were the same age. They had a history that might lend itself to passion. And Severus himself had observed the fact that Draco had managed to remake himself into a good man after the war.

He looked at the newspaper clipping again. “Who sent this?” he wondered aloud. His gut told him that it hadn’t been Harry, although he knew he’d been wrong before.

The little bird trilled and hooted at him again, but that wasn't much of an answer.

Closing his eyes, Severus curled tighter into himself in defense against the chill that was seeping down into his muscles and blood and bones. He didn’t know what the temperature was down here, but it had to be well below freezing. His warming charms wouldn't last for much longer.

As high as he looked, he could see no way to escape, no handholds on the walls.

Without a wand, his magic could do little to keep him from dying in this prison.

In Severus's life, it had often seemed like he'd been doomed from the start. An unmarked grave would suit him, he supposed.

The little owl hooted at him and pecked his chest, right above his heart.

Very well. Severus could face the fact that this was the ending to which his own idiocy and terminal stubbornness had led…but he didn’t want the little owl to die down here as well.

The sea had carved this cave out of the rock at some point in the past, whether it was decades ago or centuries or millennia. Although volcanic activity might have cut off the outside access since then, it was possible that he might find a way out through water if he searched.

Clutching his recently dislocated shoulder, he pulled himself off the ground, bundled the owl next to his chest again, and conjured a wandless Lumos in the palm of his hand.

He picked a direction and stepped forward into the black.

Unfortunately, it led to nothing but a cold dead end, striations of ice and dark earth, which meant he needed to turn back and retrace his steps. He stayed close to the wall as he did so, leaning against it when his broken ribs pained him too sharply.

Before he'd returned to his starting point, however, the owl began hooting wildly, flapping her wings and clawing until she'd worked her way out of Severus's robes. She still couldn't fly once she was free, but she hopped rapidly into the darkness ahead without even twisting her head to check if Severus was following.

Severus was too shocked to call out to the creature before she disappeared. After a few thundering heartbeats, he followed her at the fastest hobble he could muster, his Lumos casting a flickering arc of eerie light ahead of his steps.

And his crevasse was opening up into a cavern that he was sure he’d never seen before. He would have noticed the piled remnants of sea dragon eggs against the frozen walls, the icicles hanging from the ceiling, the dense bed of orange ice phlox stretching across the ground.

And he certainly would have noticed the other person in the cave.

“Hullo, Sev.”

Sitting with her legs crossed among the fossilized eggshells and flowers was Lily Potter, looking not a day older than twenty-one and very much alive.

Chapter Text

“Hullo, Sev,” Lily said, sitting cross-legged in her bed of flowers.

“…Hello,” Severus answered after a pause, surprised at how steady his voice sounded when he had entirely lost the ability to breathe.

Lifting her face toward him, Lily regarded him somberly. “Come sit next to me,” she suggested.

“No, thank you,” Severus answered, perhaps less evenly this time.

Lily’s eyes narrowed. “Sit down before you fall over,” she ordered.

No one could pull off imperiousness as well as a woman who’d been buried for more than twenty years, Severus thought as he sat.

“You’re dead,” he felt it was necessary to point out.

“Hm. Are you sure about that?”

Severus took a moment to study her. Her hair was as orange as the flesh of mangos. Her chin jutted. She had freckles all over her arms.

“Yes. You died on October 31st, 1981. I found your—” After all these years, he still couldn’t bring himself to say corpse. “—your body.”

“And you wept. I know, Sev," Lily agreed softly.

Severus shivered at her tone.

“Ice phlox," he snapped, looking down at the flowers that surrounded them in their icy prison. "In certain potions, it instills hallucinogenic properties."

Lily raised her eyebrows. “That’s true.”

“Or did I die—when I fell—”

“Sev. Calm down.” She’d reached out and laid a hand against his wrist, and it was solid and warm.

"I know this is difficult for you…but I’m not really here to answer questions,” he heard her murmur over the staccato roaring of his pulse in his ears. "I'm sorry, sweetheart."

“You never called me that.” It was suddenly easy to glare at her, at whatever this thing was that was pretending to be Lily, his Lily. He snatched his wrist back. “You’re not real. You’re just a figment of my fucking imagination.”

Rather than taking offense, Lily merely smiled. “There’s the Sev I knew," she said with satisfaction. "I was starting to think you’d forgotten him back at Hogwarts.”

What the fuck was that supposed to mean?

“If you’re alive—if you didn’t die…” Severus knew he was gasping for breath again. “My entire life’s work—”

“What about it?”

“I wouldn’t have had any reason for it! I wasted it all—years of it, doing what that fucking monster asked—”

The accent he'd cultivated as a teenager was slipping. He was sounding more and more like a boy from Cokeworth with each word—and for once, Severus realized that he did not. Fucking. Care.

“Do you know what I had to do, Lily?" he demanded, starting in a trembling hiss and then rising in volume. "I had to torture students! I had to kill the only man I ever thought of as remotely like a father to me!”

Her hands resting on her legs, Lily was now looking at him with an expression that somehow mingled sympathy with impatience. “Are you done?” she interjected when he paused for breath.

Severus stared at the apparition wildly. How dare she sit there, taunting him with her solidity and the pulse in her neck? How dare she face his rage and suffering so calmly?

“No!” he yelled, hearing it reverberate off the walls of ice that held him captive, the icicles that were hanging above him shivering against each other with the wave of sound.

But they didn't fall—and when he tried to speak again, all of the words had dried up in his throat. So it seemed that he was done, after all.

Lily’s chest inflated, then deflated as she let out her breath in a gust. “Is that what you truly believe of yourself, Sev?" she questioned after a time. "That if I hadn’t died, you wouldn’t have fought for what was right?”

“I…” He had no sodding clue, to be honest. But why be honest at a moment like this? “Where’s my owl?” he demanded instead.

“Here.” Lily laid her right hand against her chest.

Severus stared at her.

“Didn’t you think it was odd that all of your post was delivered by the same bird, no matter where you went around the globe?” Lily wondered in her beautiful voice, a voice that he hadn't heard anywhere but his dreams for two decades.

“The eyes gave me away," she finished softly, "but you never thought of me when you saw them."

He hadn’t. He really hadn’t.

“I thought the owl had been assigned to me,” Severus snapped when he’d finally regained his voice. “And you’re still not real. I’m dreaming this up because I’m dying.”

Lily, thy name is hypothermia, he thought with a mental giggle that did not bode well for his continued self-control.

The ghost snorted and shook her head. “Look, Sev—I can’t say whether I’m ‘real’ or not. I can’t put boundaries on it like that. But look around you—can’t you feel the magic here? Do you see how this might be an ideal place—perhaps the only place—where we could sit and talk like this?”

Severus scoffed, but he did understand what she meant. Magic had saturated this strange, cold half-place at the bottom of the world, whether because of the fossilizing piles of sea dragon eggshells or the vivid orange flowers that bloomed on the frozen cavern floor around them, where nothing should be able to grow.

“I’m happy to see you," Lily said, reaching out and touching him again, the tips of her fingers brushed against the knobby knuckles at the back of his hand.

Severus clenched his fingers, and the weak ball of light that had been floating above his palm wavered. “You’ve been my owl," he snarled, caught between wanting to prolong the contact and drawing away from it in revulsion. “You’ve seen me.”

Lily's dimples showed, but her smile was sad. “Then I’m happy that you can see me now, too."

Abruptly, the anger drained out of Severus. This whole situation was absurd, uncanny, and probably fatal, considering the iciness that had crept down into his bones since he'd fallen into the mountain, his warming charms offering him their last flickers of protection as he and Lily sat.

This might be his chance to do something that he'd longed to do for half his life. His only chance.

Severus cleared his throat. “Lily, I—” The words were getting stuck at the back of his tongue, but he forced them out anyway. “I am so, so sorry for the role I played in your death.”

Lily regarded him for a moment, then closed her eyes. “Listen to that,” she murmured. “I can hear the sea.”

Severus could hear it too, all of a sudden, a steady wash of waves, thrumming percussively against the walls of his prison and making the icicles tinkle again.

“I forgive you, Severus Snape. I forgave you a long time ago," Lily added, her green eyes eerily luminous. “And I'm sorry too, for giving up on you when we were teenagers.”

Severus shook his head vehemently, ignoring how his hair was falling into his eyes. He had never expected to receive an apology in turn. “No, Lily, you were right to do that. You were right on all counts. I should have listened to you.”

Lily's breath huffed out in a cloud, almost dense enough to make a shadow on the glittering wall. "Then make it up to me by listening to me now."

Severus felt his eyebrows draw down. "What would you ask of me?" What could she possibly demand of him now, when he was so close to death?

The Lily-ghost regarded him for a moment with her beautiful, dead eyes. “You need to stop making Harry miserable and go back to her,” she said finally, decisively.

And then she climbed to her feet and turned her back to him, walking away into the darkness.

“How can you say that, knowing what I am?” Severus called, stumbling after her.

She didn't answer.

“I killed you!” he tried again, nearly shouting this time.

“No." Lily didn't turn back, but she did pause at that, her voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. "I died because I chose to, Severus Snape. I died to protect my daughter, and I would do the exact same thing a thousand times again.”

She disappeared into the frigid black.

Severus scrambled to follow. “Lily!” he called after her.

Once more and fading rapidly, the ghost’s voice floated back to him. “The Sev I knew would have fought for what he wanted.”

“I did!” he snarled in answer. “And look where that got me!”

There was no reply this time—no reply but his own echo and the sound of a rising tide.

“Lily!” Severus called desperately. “Lily, come ba—”

He collapsed onto his side without being able to finish the sentence, clutching his shoulder and his broken ribs. Pain was lancing through him, and it felt almost (but not enough) like heat.

His ball of light flickered and died.

He hated the sound he was making now, that harsh but soft whimper released involuntarily through his teeth. It was the sound he’d made as he groveled at the Dark Lord’s feet after enduring the Cruciatus. Voldemort had listened for it, gloated at it. He’d always thought that it had meant that Severus’s will was broken, that he wouldn’t be able to hide anything from his lord’s next mental probe.

And what did it mean now? Now that Lily’s ghost—or whatever that creature had been—had finally left him? Now that he was alone in the dark?

His mind skipped across years, continents, then looped back to the present, drawn to the terrible reality of this moment like a planet to the sun.

He found himself thinking of the ghost’s final words to him. Of wanting.

He’d wanted things, once. When he was young. Wealth; acceptance; success; power; a fairer world. Or, at the very least, not to be glaringly poor anymore. Not to have everything he didn’t have constantly rubbed in his face. He’d wanted these things so much that he’d sold his soul to the first person who promised to give them to him.

And of course, he'd ended up with nothing. Nothing but perhaps what he'd had originally: his poverty and ugliness and lack of social graces; his sharpness; his bruises; his awkward mix of idealism and distrust; the way he looked at everything and everyone too closely and saw things they didn’t want him to see. The chasm between his logic and his passion. How he’d always been hard where he should have been soft and soft where he should have been hard.

“Then why haven’t you died yet?”

Once again, the question seemed to spring from everywhere around him without having a single point of origin. This time, Severus couldn’t even tell if it was spoken in Lily’s voice or his own.

Severus nearly choked, and what emerged was a bitter wheeze. He hadn’t died because Harry Potter had saved his life after Nagini had torn out his throat in the Shrieking Shack; he hadn't asked to be saved, and he certainly hadn't worked to make it happen.

"Then why did you take your memories back?"

Memories? When had he...

Ah, of course. The hospital. Harry, in the moonlight, holding out a glass vial that was milky with the memories Severus had shed while he died, asking him if he wanted them returned; offering a choice, somehow understanding how important it was to offer Severus a choice.

Not for the first time, Severus found himself wondering if he should regret that decision, the moment that he'd decided to take his very worst and very best memories back again. He would have only been half of himself without them, yes, a simpleton with his edges dulled—but he might have been happier for it.

But what would have been the point of living as only half of himself? He had his pride, after all. What would have been the fucking point of living if he wasn't going to live?

The sounds of the sea were everywhere, now, lapping, drumming, rising in volume. The taste of salt was heavy on his lips.

Gasping (wanting to rage and snarl and scream, but also wanting to laugh; Harry had made him laugh, he remembered), Severus swallowed his whimpers and pulled himself to his feet again, lunging forward into the black.

Into the water. He’d found the place where the cave dipped below sea level and was flooded with the South Atlantic.

He lost his footing quickly.

He sank.

He swam.

His lungs burned, and his muscles were trying to go rigid with pain and cold and terror, but he swam, and he poured his whole stupid, breakable heart into it.

~

He might not have survived if a team from the research station hadn’t been in a boat outside the underwater cave entrance when he broke through the surface. A little owl had brought them there, the other wizards explained—though none of them were able to say what had happened to it once Severus was yanked from the icy grip of the sea.

He dreamed of the owl, though. Later, when he was back on his lumpy mattress in ASS ICE headquarters, sleeping off the effects of pushing his body much too far, then swallowing far too many potions to make up for that.

He dreamed that the little owl was making a nest on his chest in his pile of blankets and watching over his feverish slumbers of recovery. But when she turned toward him, he saw that she had Lily’s face.

As Severus looked at her, his eyes heated up and his vision blurred. He felt tears sliding down his cheeks and into the hollow of his neck.

“It was you, Lily. It was supposed to always be you,” he explained in an exhausted rasp.

“I know, love,” Lily murmured. Her wings became arms, which she wrapped around Severus, letting him press his face into her shoulder for a time.

“What do you want, Severus?” she asked when it seemed like the worst of the sobbing had passed.

Severus scrubbed at his eyes and took a shaky breath.

He wanted to see Harry again.

He wanted to go home.

He didn’t realize that he’d spoken aloud until Lily smiled at him and said, “Then do that, you utter pillock.”

“Okay,” he agreed meekly.

Lily’s smile widened into a grin, and she became an owl again, launching herself up from his chest and out into the night sky that had replaced the ceiling for the duration of this dream. “You might want to hurry,” she called, her voice floating back down to him.

What did that mean?

Severus soon found out—because, when he woke up, there was a letter by his bedside.

The handwriting was unmistakable. It made him nostalgic in a way he wouldn't have expected, thinking of stiff tartan, winters in a cold castle, strong Scotch.

Dear Severus,

Much as I’d like to spend a page chastising you for not writing to me as you promised when you left, time is of the essence. You need to come back, my dear man. There’s been an attack on the Ministry, and our Miss Potter’s in the thick of it, as usual…

“I need an International Port-Key!” Severus yelled as soon as he finished reading. There was no time to lose.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, Harry Potter thought.

She was dreaming. She knew she was dreaming. Her skin, that distant thing, was hot with fever, then wet with sweat for lapses of time that Harry had no way to measure.

She dreamt in fragments. Some of them came from memory. Some of them were nothing more than phantasmagoria. Her hands on the steering wheel of Arthur’s flying car as she guided it through a dark storm. Quidditch pennants flapping at the edges of her vision. Dobby’s grave by the sea. Fighting her way out of a graveyard and taking cover in Number 4 Privet Drive, where she waited in her cupboard to be discovered or, perhaps, forgotten. The dreams had no order or pattern.

Once upon a time, Harry Potter thought, in a private room in the Janus Thickey Ward of St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.

She was fairly far into the thick of things to be saying something like once upon a time at this point, she supposed.

But still, better late than never.

(It was a bit like floating on the surface of an ocean, she'd decided. Natural buoyancy—the buoyancy of a mind that very much wanted to remain on the surface of the present moment, in direct interaction with the outer world—went a certain ways, and so did kicking her legs and pumping her arms, so to speak...but she'd never been a strong swimmer, so eventually she'd be forced to surrender to exhaustion and let herself sink down below the waves.

And down.

And down.)

Once upon a time, Harry thought, clinging to the phrase as if to a piece of flotsam in a deep sea.

~

"Her eyes are open for approximately three-fifths of the day," Minerva explained as she led Severus through the antiseptic, whitewashed hospital halls. "And she seems to retain motor control. However, she is unresponsive to attempts to communicate, whether verbal or physical."

Coming to the lift, they paused to wait for the doors to open. "Tell me how this happened," Severus ordered. "Your letter did not include many details."

"I wasn't there," the Headmistress of Hogwarts answered shortly. "I cannot say specifically, and no witnesses have been able to pinpoint exactly which curses she absorbed. However—" The lift doors opened. It was empty except for a trainee healer, who quickly brushed past them as they entered, too preoccupied to look at their faces. "—my personal belief is that her state has more to do with catching a magical backlash from the sheer amount of power she wielded in ending the attack than any individual curse."

The lift stopped at the hospital's fourth floor, and they exited. Not wanting to tarry, Severus refrained from voicing his opinion, though privately he agreed: he'd never heard of a curse that could do precisely what had been done to Harry Potter. But power? Yes, Harry had always had far more power than she knew how to handle or even understood.

"Here we are," Minerva said, resting her hand on his shoulder. They'd stopped in front of a thick wooden door.

Severus moved swiftly to open it, but his old friend's firm grip restrained him. "Thank you for coming, Severus," she told him. Tired but keenly intelligent eyes—still so familiar despite his years of traveling—met his own. "I'm sure that if anyone can find a way to bring Harry back to us, it will be you."

Severus's tongue was sticking to the roof of his mouth. "Let us hope that your faith is not misplaced," he said after a pause to find his voice.

He twisted the knob and pushed the door open.

~

"A group of assailants wearing masks reminiscent of You-Know-Who's Death Eaters attacked the Ministry of Magic at noon yesterday, attempting to breach the office of the Minister himself. The aggressors managed to use a previously unknown warding spell to dampen the magical ability of all nearby wands except their own.

The attack was stymied when Harry Potter cast a counterspell that, according to witnesses, 'just ripped through the magical bindings on our wands.' With all of the Aurors on the premises now able to fight, the Death Eaters were quickly captured and taken into custody. While there were several injuries from this Dark and insidious incident, it has not yet resulted in any fatalities.

However, Potter herself is currently been held in St. Mungo’s as a result of unknown curses. Our trusted sources say she is not conscious or coherent. Could it be that the Saviour has valiantly sacrificed herself to preserve peace in our troubled times?

Ex-Death Eater Draco Malfoy, recently rumored to be romantically involved with Potter, could not be reached for comment."

—The Daily Prophet, January 11th, 2003

~

Inside Harry's room was Harry's family.

Not all of them, of course. Given the number of people who loved Harry Potter, they wouldn't have all fit.

But Granger was there, looking like her hair hadn't seen a comb in days, her midsection disconcertingly round (seven months along, Severus would guess); Ronald Weasley, reading a Quidditch journal, deep shadows under his eyes; and Draco Malfoy, seemingly doing nothing except watching the door.

"Professor Snape!" Granger gasped at his entrance.

But Severus barely heard her. This was because there was another person inside Harry's room, and that was Harry Potter herself. She was lying on her back in a cot with grey sheets, her eyes wide enough that he could see the whites, the unfocused pupils, the irises, as vivid a green as wet seaweed.

He walked toward the bedside. Harry didn't react to his approach.

For a second, he wondered what he must look like to these people. Wild and unhinged, perhaps. He hadn't rested since the limited time he'd spent recovering from his near death before receiving Minerva's urgent summons. It had been four days since then, the time it had taken to acquire Portkeys from Antarctica to Argentina, then to Brazil, then across the Atlantic to Liberia. From Liberia to Spain, and then finally, finally British soil once again.

It had been a terrible journey: nauseating whirlwinds of travel punctuated by long periods of waiting and yelling at customs agents, which he'd managed to do in three languages and had still never found satisfying. He'd rarely slept, and never in a bed. He still didn't have a wand, only the shattered fragments in his chest pocket, digging into his breastbone. His hair was stringy. He had a week's worth of stubble on his sunken cheeks. His movements were jittery with hunger and fatigue. His barely healed shoulder ached; his barely healed ribs ached.

He felt like a clockwork toy that had been wound too tight and was performing its allotted movements frantically, joints knocking together. His teeth were rattling. He'd bitten his tongue and swallowed the blood on the way here. He'd considered buying a cup of cheap hospital coffee to get rid of the taste, but seeing Harry as soon as possible was far more important. He was Severus Snape.

This was a strange place to have an epiphany of such a nature as that. And yet, the realization was sweeping through him. He'd spent so long running from being Severus Snape, refusing to come back to wizarding Britain because he couldn't bear to take up the mantle of his name and history again and be everything that being Severus Snape entailed...but here he was. He was Severus Snape whether he ran from it or not.

Which way I fly is Snape, he thought. Myself am Snape. As the devil had said in Paradise Lost (more or less), wherever Severus was, there was Snape.

And it didn't matter. All that mattered was that he needed a functioning wand.

"I require a wand," he told Hermione Granger, Ronald Weasley, and Draco Malfoy in a cracked voice.

There was a pause.

Several glances, of the loaded variety, were exchanged around Severus's back.

"Professor..." Draco began with a notch between his brows. Meanwhile, Weasley blurted, "Snape, why wouldn't you—"

"You can use Harry's," Granger interrupted.

Standing stiffly, she waddled to the bedside table, where she opened a small drawer and extracted a familiar length of holly. She held it out to him hilt first with a jut to her chin. Her expression was assessing, but also pleading.

"Thank you," Severus said, taking it and feeling where Harry's grip had worn the handle smooth.

He took the final step forward so that he could loom over the figure on the bed. Though "figure" was the wrong word. It implied lifelessness, and Severus saw with a wash of relief that there was nothing lifeless about Harry Potter. She couldn't track him with her eyes and was betraying no awareness of her surroundings; but she was as alive as ever, her muscles tense and firm, looking as if she were about to leap off the bed and straight into the air, a broom slamming into one calloused palm. Her chest was rising and falling. There was sweat on her flushed skin, her eyelids and her arms and her lips, sticking the dark curls to her forehead. While he watched, she shook her head back and forth against the pillow.

"Harry," he tried to say. He thought about taking her face in his hand to shift it gently to an angle where he could look into her glazed eyes.

No; he didn't dare to touch her. He crossed into her line of vision by moving to the other side of the bed.

Hissing an inhale through his teeth, Severus wondered how well the borrowed wand would work for him. Would his own magic accept it, or would it refuse and recoil?

There was only one way to find out. He pointed it at the young woman's temple. "Legilimens," he whispered harshly.

To Severus's relief, he felt the magic in his core flare out and spill eagerly into the wand as a conduit.

Severus focused on the depth of Harry's pupils. (They weren't, as common sentiments ran, a window to the soul; but perhaps—if he begged entrance well enough—they could become a certain kind of door.)

He took a breath and slid down.