If there was one thing a reptile knew, it was the difference between sunlight and shadow.
He'd been traveling below ground for a long time, instincts guiding him up and out of the tunnel. Now, the world was shifting bars of sunlight and darkness, tooth-edged grass under his belly, a songbird fluting from the high distance above.
He kept moving, a rope of scales and muscle. He'd been slithering beneath the willow's twisting boughs, but now he tasted the openness of a meadow on his tongue. Perhaps he could finally rest. Small animals were skittering about with their stuttering heartbeats, the hot blood racing under their fur. Perhaps he could find something to eat.
The air tasted acrid, like smoke and fear and the kind of words that crackled and burned; death, too much needless death.
But a sharp breeze was lifting that away, and the grass around him was green and greedy. So it was spring, not winter.
He was glad it wasn't winter.
Unbidden, a memory rose. Night; trees and ice. Moonlight. A shivering young man, pale skin, patchy growth on his cheeks and chin, shadowed hollows between his ribs. His gaze beneath obscuring glasses cast downward, steely and determined. From where he hid, Severus had thought with a wrench deep in his gut that there was no child left in the boy. He hadn't realized until right then that part of what he was fighting for was the boy's childishness, his innocence, his Gryffindor conviction that good was good and bad was bad; his impetuousness; his honest joy, only ever spied from afar.
He slithered along the edge of the daylight as it retreated.
He'd struck at a field mouse and missed, then lost it in the underbrush. He could hunt for new prey, but he was a cold-blooded creature now, and his energy was waning with the sun.
But what did it matter, really? He'd been trailing blood this whole time; with the falling temperatures of evening and the way the iciness of the pain was finally reaching its way down into his organs and bones, there was no way he would survive the night.
And perhaps that was fitting. The part of him deep inside that was still Severus Snape knew that he should have died last night, as a man. Instead, his magic had given a last great heave and transformed him to this, the Animagus form he'd only taken once before.
He was aware of the irony of the method the Dark Lord had chosen for his disposal, given the circumstances.
But then again, ironies were only useful in life when you were planning to make a story out of it, and Severus had the feeling he was done with all that.
And maybe it was right for him to die like this, quiet and alone. It would certainly be more peaceful this way. No green eyes to burn into him, Potter's rage (at Severus, at the violence that had been done, likely at his own helplessness) crashing against him in wave after wave.
Harry, he thought. It was the first time since the transformation that he'd really articulated anything in words. I'd like to call him Harry now.
Feeling surprisingly peaceful all of a sudden, he coiled himself up in a tight spiral and breathed slowly and waited for whatever came next.
What came next, it turned out, was the sudden descent of a foot from above.
He'd reared up due to pure irritation at being interrupted in the middle of the important business of dying. When he saw who had almost stepped on him, though, he stopped hissing and collapsed again. If he'd still been a man, he probably would have cursed hysterically and thrown things.
"No, no, I'm sorry! I scared you, didn't I? I mean, the feeling was mutual, but it was an accident. I just didn't see you there."
Harry Potter had spoken this in a murmur, and now he was kneeling, his hands on his knees. They were streaked with dirt, and so was his face, and so were his clothes.
"Oh, you're hurt. Looks nasty." Harry clucked his tongue in sympathy. "How'd you get it, hm? Never mind, let me see if I can help."
Had they failed to defeat the Dark Lord? How was the boy still alive?
"I've been getting loads of practice with healing today. There was a big battle, you see. Lots of people were injured…the ones who weren't killed."
While he spoke, Harry had pulled his wand out of the side pocket of his worn denims and was lacing a basic binding spell over the wound in Severus's neck.
"We won, though. Which is what matters, I guess." Harry finished layering the spellwork and looked down at him tiredly.
He held out an arm. "I'm going back to the school now—the castle that's nearby. Someone there ought to be able to fix you up better than I can. Do you want to come with me?"
Idiot, Severus thought. You little fool. I could be anyone, any Death Eater who was Slytherin enough to take this particular animal form—
He slid up Harry's arm and curled around it tight.
He spent the majority of the next few days sleeping.
That first evening, Harry had brought him to Poppy Pomfrey, who'd looked even more tired than Harry. "An adder?" she'd wondered, frowning down at where Severus was still looped around Potter's arm. "Mr. Potter, why—?"
"I found him injured near the Whomping Willow," Harry explained. "Maybe he got caught up in the battle somehow. Please, I know you're busy, but if you could just make sure the spells I cast will hold…"
Severus knew that the critical cases among the injured would have been transported to St. Mungo's by now, but that didn't mean that Poppy hadn't been working nonstop for a day, if the battle had been as vicious as Harry had implied. It was a credit to her compassion—or perhaps to the fact that it was the Golden Boy who was asking—that she accommodated Harry without further complaint.
"This fellow's been poisoned," she murmured in surprise. She reinforced Harry's spells, then doused his wound in an antivenin—one of Severus's own, by the feel of it—and sent them on their way.
After that, he'd expected the Gryffindor dormitory, but instead it was a small room on a lower level near the Hufflepuffs. Later, he would find out that both House towers had nearly been destroyed in the fight.
"I've got a lot to do," Harry told him after Severus had slithered onto a warm rug by the hearth, where a fire was blazing merrily. "But you can rest here and let those spells work. The elves will keep the fire going. And I'll ask them to bring you some mice or something."
Keeping his head lowered, Severus hissed in acknowledgement.
Harry bent near him again. "You'll be safe here," he promised. His gaze was clear and focused, but guarded; Severus couldn't remember his expression ever being so hard to read.
But fatigue was overtaking him, so he curled himself up and shelved the enigma of this unfamiliar, suddenly adult Harry Potter for another day. It had been a very exhausting year.
He heard Harry ward the door behind him as he left.
Severus guessed that it was approximately a week later when he finally left Harry's room to slide silently through the castle.
It was only the second day that he'd been awake for long enough to do more than eat a few of the rather revolting dead shrews the house-elves kept giving him on little platters. "Be careful," Harry had advised that morning before propping the door open for him. He'd obviously noticed Severus's increased activity, his restless slithering from side to side on the hearth rug. "I'd understand if you don't want to be cooped up in here anymore, but everyone's kind of gone off snakes at the moment."
Harry Potter, the king of understatement?
Severus pretended not to notice the warm tickle of the protective spells Harry cast over him before he left.
It was curiosity that ultimately propelled him out of his safe and cozy sanctuary. Harry had said that the war was won, but he'd hinted at a terrible cost. What had become of Severus's students, his coworkers, the place he'd called home for twenty-seven years?
He was also curious about what Harry was doing with his days. Though drowsy, Severus had roused himself enough each morning to see the young man kicking off the covers and leaving shortly after dawn; then he wouldn't return until well past dusk, at which point he would cast a diagnostic on Severus, apply another potion or two, and go to bed.
So now he was coiling down the hallways of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, trying to reconcile the school he remembered with where he found himself now.
It wasn't just his perspective that had changed, or even the fact that his primary sensing faculties as a snake were smell and taste and infrared. It was that there were jagged openings where there should have been walls, pitfalls and traps everywhere, the residue of cursework and spilled blood.
A deep sorrow was filling him. He cursed Albus for letting this happen, for touching that fucking ring and starting the chain of events that would end with children being attacked in the place they should have been safest; but more than that, he cursed himself.
Feeling sick, he returned back to Harry's room and vomited mouse guts all over the hearth rug.
He must have fallen asleep sometime after that, because he awoke to the gentle balm of Harry's daily healing spells. Someone had cleaned the mouse guts up—maybe an elf, maybe Harry himself.
Harry didn't go straight to bed after he'd finished the healing regimen, this time. "It's pretty grim, I know," he said instead, sitting with his legs crossed in front of the fire and his chin balanced on his hands.
The posture made him look younger, more like the awkward fifteen-year-old whose mind Severus had invaded during their disastrous Occlumency lessons. "I suppose you want to hear about it?"
Severus slithered closer.
The reflection of the fire in Harry's glasses obscured his eyes. "Remus Lupin died. Also his wife, Tonks, Nymphadora Tonks. Fred Weasley. Lavender Brown. Colin Creevey." The list continued, far more than there should have been, but far less than Severus had feared after seeing the damage outside.
Harry, it seemed, had had a hand in that, accepting the Dark Lord's ultimatum to meet him alone in the forest in return for halting the attack. And that was when the tale grew wild and strange, with artifacts from children's tales and train stations and bloody Albus Dumbledore, who apparently couldn't stop meddling even from the grave.
He listened with his coils quivering as Harry described the battle that had sprung up anew after his return from death, including the deaths of Nagini (Longbottom? Really?) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Molly Weasley?!) and culminating in his own duel with the Dark Lord.
"And then I told him—" Harry's voice rose in volume and clarity. "—that Severus Snape had been loyal to us and acting on Dumbledore's orders all along. It shook him, I think. So we both cast our spells—he tried to AK me, I did Expelliarmus—and our wands locked, but mine was stronger because I was the master of the Elder Wand, and when the wand flew out of his hand, he died."
"For real this time," Harry added into the ensuing quiet.
"And ever since then, it's been rebuilding—we just finished re-anchoring the wards—and funerals. We've had all the funerals except one. We can't have Professor Snape's because there's no body."
And then, rather than qualifying this extraordinary statement in any way, the aggravating boy said goodnight and went to bed.
It was only later that Severus realized that Harry had only described what had happened after he (Severus) had supposedly died.
"There's the injury, not to mention the clothes left in the Shack. Why would someone take the body, but strip it first? And where's his wand?"
"Harry, stop and think about this. Even if he is who you think he is—"
"And he doesn't talk, Hermione. I never met a snake who wouldn't talk to me. Even Nagini talked to Riddle. Don't you think that's strange?"
From his position hidden under a workbench in the classroom that the Golden Trio was currently restoring, Severus could make out Granger's arms crossing over her chest and the stubborn jut of her chin. "There was no Animagus form registered with the Ministry, Harry," she countered. "And I know that's not saying much, but what if this is some rogue Death Eater you're sheltering? You're sleeping in the same room. That's chancy, even for you."
"You know I set wards when I sleep."
This pronouncement was greeted with a huff, then silence.
Granger shifted, and Harry came into view fully for the first time since Severus had slipped into the classroom after overhearing the beginnings of their conversation. The young man took Granger's hands. "'Mione, I know you're worried, but—I've got a really strong feeling about this, yeah? I just have to trust my instincts."
Weasley, who’d been continuing to work this whole time, finally stopped re-transfiguring the desk legs that had somehow become octopus tentacles and dusted himself off. "Just keep your guard up, mate," he said mildly, wrapping one of Harry's forearms in a brief grip.
Harry shot the redhead a look of gratitude. "Thanks, Ron."
Granger's stubborn expression had faded while she watched the two young men interact, but her forehead was still creased with worry. "Harry, you're welcome to come stay with us for a while. You can even bring him, if you want."
Harry smiled slightly and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Thanks, Hermione. The offer means a lot to me, but I think you guys need your space."
Weasley blushed, and Granger looked prim.
Harry ran his hands through his hair, dislodging dust and several chunks of plaster in the process. "But I am thinking I can leave Hogwarts now, with the Ministry's team of builders arriving tomorrow. It would be nice to go somewhere else, maybe somewhere quiet where I can study and focus on the trials. But I don't want to be too far, with you two and everyone else in Hogsmeade right now."
Weasley and Granger shared a glance. "It might be best to stay local," Granger agreed, chewing her lower lip in thought. "There's a nice empty cottage with a garden back two streets from ours, though it looks a bit like everything's gone to seed…"
Granger was the only one of the three who was facing the open door, and her attention was focused inward on her thoughts at the moment. Severus took advantage of her distraction to slip away.
You idiot, Severus thought when Harry brought him along to the house in Hogsmeade he'd decided to rent.
The cottage turned out to be small and grey, infested with termites in the floors and doxies in the curtains.
The garden was nice, though. It backed the Forbidden Forest and had plenty of tall grass and small furry prey to keep him occupied. There were even some boulders framing a burbling spring, a perfect place for soaking up the warmth of the sun. It was an ideal home for a snake.
Harry didn't seem overly bothered by the tumbledown nature of his new lodgings, cheerfully starting on repairs with the aid of his two sidekicks and assorted Weasleys.
Not wishing to catch more attention than he'd already been granted, Severus kept out of the way in the garden during the process.
That didn't mean he was lucky enough to go entirely unnoticed, however. "Wicked looking bugger, isn't he?" the twin who hadn't been killed said one afternoon, pausing while levitating an armchair inside to stare out toward where Severus was sunning himself on a rock.
Ronald had been following him with a floating kitchen table. Always observant of changes in sources of heat, Severus could just make out the young man's shudder. "Bloody terrifying is what he is," he answered in a low voice that carried on the wind.
"Do you think he's really…?"
"Harry thinks so." Ronald sent Severus another assessing glance. "Personally, I can't say."
"There's a spell to make an Animagus turn back," George offered. He also spoke quietly, though Severus had gathered the impression that this was a constant thing since the death of his twin rather than stemming from any desire not to be heard. Grief shadowed his eyes, and he kept catching himself turning to face someone who wasn't there.
"We know," Ronald agreed with a snort. "But Harry thinks it would be disrespectful or something."
George rocked back on his heels. "Noble of him. Bit dodgy in the strategy department, though."
"Well, it's Harry," Ronald answered, as if that explained everything. And it did, of course.
Giving Severus a final set of glances, they lifted their furniture again and disappeared inside.
Harry continued to seek Severus out for potions and diagnosis before bed every evening, telling him with obvious pleasure shortly after they'd moved in that the venom was almost out of his system. Other than that, however, the two of them kept to themselves, with Severus whiling away his days outside while Harry left in the mornings on his own business, then spent the evenings eating cold sandwiches and scribbling on loose parchment at the dining table.
The Saviour's latest project wasn't a mystery: he was attending Death Eater trials while studying for the NEWTs. This was perhaps not what Severus had expected of the boy who'd scraped passing marks in Potions by the skin of his teeth; except that many of those expectations belonged to the old Severus Snape, the one who was a Death Eater and a spy. Now, as a snake, he just didn't find them as relevant anymore.
As time went on, he was discovering that a lot of what he'd formerly held as the very marrow of his identity (his love for Lily; his need to atone for Lily's death), was seeming more and more distant, as if it were part of the skin he'd shed that week in the high grass; as if it had happened to another creature entirely.
He still loved Lily, and he always would, but always, he was beginning to realize, didn't mean only; always didn't mean that loving Lily that was all he would do.
"Harry, you can't possibly expect me to drink tea with that thing staring at me the whole time."
They'd had a cold snap that morning, and Harry had held the door open when it started raining for Severus to come inside. Grateful for Harry's continued thoughtfulness regarding his welfare, Severus had curled up in front of the drafty fireplace and attempted to be unobtrusive. He had not been staring at where Ginevra Weasley was sprawled on the sofa opposite Harry, one socked foot edging closer and closer to his lap.
When Ginevra had first arrived, Harry had offered her a cuppa and taken his time making it. Instead of joining him in the kitchen, Ginevra had used the interval to stomp her way around the sitting room with the gleam in her eye of someone who was making plans.
Where had she been when Harry was moving in, Severus wondered, or when he was helping rebuild Hogwarts? He was fully aware of the tendre the two students had shared in Harry's sixth year: it had been a source of considerable gossip among the teachers. When he hadn't seen Ginevra among Harry's kith and kin in the interval since the battle, Severus had assumed that their affair had been as short-lived as most teenage romances.
That wandering foot seemed to say otherwise, though.
"You know, I've always thought Riddle was sort of a discredit to snakes," Harry answered mildly. He took a sip from his own mug, steam fogging his glasses. "All the ones I've spoken to have been really nice."
"Ugh." Ginevra sent Severus another glare. "So you've been spending all your time just, what, chatting with it?"
"No." Harry shook his head. "This fellow's more the strong, silent type." He sent Severus a glance that said he was expecting him to share the joke.
"Harry." The redhead put down her mug on the sideboard with a pronounced thud. "Think of how it will look, you going round with an awful creature like this. People will think you've become another Voldemort! And you can't bring it to the Burrow—I know Mum won't let you, she hates snakes—"
"He was injured in the battle, Gin. I just wanted to make sure he got the chance to heal."
Ginny sat up, finally swinging both feet to the floor. "And now what? I don't see you rushing to release him back into the bloody wild."
"He can go if he wants." Rather than looking at the redhead, Harry met Severus's slit-pupiled eyes again.
"He's a snake, Harry! Why does what he wants matter?"
If the young woman had been aiming to get Harry's full attention, she'd certainly succeeded. He blinked at her, then put his mug down carefully and straightened his shoulders. "Of course it matters, Gin," he replied, his voice far too calm.
"Then why does it matter to you?"
Severus had realized what was happening here—and the pitch of Ginevra's voice was rising with desperation, so she likely did, too.
"Harry, I know you asked me to give you some time to think about us and our future, but it's been a month. I want to get married this summer. We can do it at the Burrow. I know Mum will be happy to have a project to keep her busy…"
The rain wasn't thudding against the roof anymore, and he could see a patch of blue sky through the sitting room window. Severus uncoiled himself and slithered to the door.
"Ginny and I broke up."
If Severus had been a man, he wouldn't have known whether to offer support or condolences in the face of this news; so he probably would have just sneered. Thank Salazar he couldn't possibly be expected to do any of that right now.
They were in the garden, dusk slowly sinking down through the trees beyond the fence. Harry was sitting on a rock, his legs folded tailor-style, his back straight.
He stared off into the middle distance. "It's funny to go through your whole life thinking you're one type of person, then realize that's not it at all," he said abruptly.
Severus lashed his tail. What was that supposed to mean? Harry was frequently incomprehensible—but it wasn't like Harry to be so incomprehensible on purpose.
Harry tilted his face toward the movement, and then he was smiling down at Severus. "Sorry, snake." He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "That probably doesn't make much sense."
He drew in a breath and released it slowly, closing his eyes. "It's just that I like men."
The fog of his breath joined the mist of the forest.
Harry laughed suddenly, taking off his glasses to scrub his knuckles under his eyes. "Ginny's so mad at me," he confessed. "I led her on, I guess. But I didn't mean to. I did think we'd get married, if I survived. But, yeah. No. Gay."
He let out another bark of laughter and shook his head, grinning from ear to ear now. "So, so gay."
Severus felt something swelling within him, some complicated emotion. Maybe it was pride, that Harry would so freely admit his own nature; maybe it was pride that Harry would admit it to him.
Or maybe it was something else entirely.
"Do snakes have gay people? I mean, are there gay snakes?" Harry was tilting his chin down toward Severus again, his eyes dancing.
Foolish boy. Severus wound himself around Harry's waist and rested his head on the young man's thigh, flicking out his tongue to drink in the scents of Harry Potter and the spring night.
As dramatic as Ginevra Weasley's visit had been, she came and went without shaking the tentative foundation of Severus's coexistence with Harry.
And yet, something had changed.
Perhaps it was that summer was finally here. The stream through the garden grew quieter, warbling instead of rushing; some of the blossoms on the trees became fruit; the weedy grass was dry enough to rustle when Severus slipped through it.
The Death Eater trials seemed to be over, if the amount of time Harry was spending at home was any indication. More often than not, Harry now took his studying outside into the fine weather, perching with his back to the rock where Severus basked to turn pages in companionable silence or take a nap with his head pillowed on one arm.
During these times, his features would grow softer, less shadowed. On occasion, he would drool. He looked nothing like a hero.
But then again, he never had. And that, Severus admitted to himself one particularly pleasant day when his companion had fallen asleep on the ground with a smudge of dirt on the tip of his nose, was the crux of Harry's charm. Not his wide-scale appeal among the wizarding world, which was currently based on gratitude (and everyone knew that gratitude was one of the most fleeting of public emotions)—but his true charm, the thing that had allowed him to succeed in his duel to the death with the Dark Lord: that he was so very human all the time, reckless and vulnerable but true as steel.
"Seen the news lately?" Harry asked one morning, shifting his attention from the tome on his knees to glance at Severus sidelong.
Had he been human, Severus would have lifted a sardonic eyebrow. He was a snake who lived in a plot of land twenty meters across. When was he supposed to have seen the news?
"The Ministry's giving a posthumous Order of Merlin to my old Potions master, Severus Snape." Harry clicked his tongue. "Third class, unfortunately. He deserved first class, seeing as we would have lost the war without him."
What game, Severus wondered slowly, was Harry playing?
"He was the bravest man I've ever known. I really think he should have been sorted Gryffindor."
Rearing up with a loud hiss at that was an unconscious reaction. Mostly.
And now Harry was grinning, damn the brat. Severus decided to slither up to a rock that was farther away from the irritating whelp.
"I'm sorry, snake," Harry called to his retreating length. "I didn't mean it! I was only teasing."
Severus climbed higher still.
"Please come back." Harry was speaking more softly now, looking up at him with his hands spread, palms open. "I know y—he was really as Slytherin as it gets, in the best sense of the word."
Severus released a drawn-out hiss.
Harry, it seemed, understood that this was a question. "I mean, he was so intelligent," the young man elaborated, holding Severus's eyes. "So cunning. Passionate. It's taken me a while to realize it, but Slytherins can be very passionate sorts, can't they?"
Perhaps that's why we're so easily led, Severus thought, lashing his tail. He lifted the front of his body and slithered onto an overhanging tree branch. There was nothing quite as satisfying as looming over someone as unsettling as Harry.
But Harry wasn't done yet.
"And yeah, he was a bastard to me, but I might have deserved it. At times."
"I can't imagine how hard it must have been to go through with Dumbledore's plan, to hold fast while being so alone this last year. He must have had so much inner strength. I just wish he knew how much I respected him, now that I know the truth."
Tilting his face up to track Severus's progress along the branch, Harry smiled impishly. "Also, I've decided now that I've thought about it a bit that he was really fucking hot. In a dark and grumpy sort of way."
Severus fell out of the tree.
"Lunch, then?" Harry asked, holding out his hand. "I think there's a rat in the kitchen you could catch."
Severus was still too shocked to take anything but the obvious course of action and slither up Harry's arm.
The boy was humming to himself for the rest of the day.
Feeling shaken, Severus had opted to remain indoors for the night. He was drowsing in the cozy, tight shelter under the sitting room sofa when he heard the noise.
"No! Please don't do it..."
Panic spiking in his gut, he wondered if Harry was being attacked. But no, the bedroom was dark, the boy's prone form still wrapped in the bedsheets. And besides, Severus knew that Harry had too much pride—like Severus himself—to ever sound so small and broken while awake.
"Please! I can't I can't I can't—"
"Wake up, Harry," Severus hissed. "You're ssssleeping."
Harry woke instantly, lighting his wand without words. His spectacles flew into his hand. "Fuck," he said, his breaths heavy.
There was just enough light for Severus to see how pale his skin was against the inky black of his hair and the glimmer of sweat all over his body. His eyes were dark pools with thin green rims.
"Fuck," he repeated, bending half over himself with a retching sound. Then he focused on Severus. "You can talk."
Harry peered down at him, the lines of his face hard. "So you've just…chosen not to until now?"
Severus slithered quickly towards Harry's bedside table, then looped back toward the door, a serpent's version of pacing. "Sssimpler," he finally explained.
He watched Harry breathe.
"Sorry," the boy eventually said, scrubbing a hand through his hair and down along the shadow of his jaw. "Nightmares, you know."
Severus did know. The snake mind gave him a buffer at present, but nightmares had been a steady companion for most of his life. "Dreamlesss Sssleep," he suggested.
"Addictive," Harry countered. Grimacing, he braced himself against the edge of the bed. "Plus, I'd rather just, I don't know, work my way through it."
What an idiotically Gryffindor idea. "Facing nightly terrorsss will not make you ssstronger," Severus pointed out, knowing that his derision was perfectly clear in his tone.
If anything, however, his acerbity seemed to make Harry smile. "Maybe not," the young man conceded, falling back onto the bed with his arms spread. "But I don't know what else to do." He stared up at the ceiling.
"I will ssstay and wake you," Severus decided. "Ssshould the dream reoccur."
At first, he thought Harry was going to reject this offer. It was only after he'd spoken that Severus realized how ridiculous it would be, a snake who was once a man the young saviour had loathed keeping guard over his restless sleep.
But Harry surprised him once again. "Then you'd better come up here," he answered, patting the mussed coverlet beside him.
Severus shifted uneasily. "My presssencce in your bed won't alarm you?" He'd planned to watch over Harry from the floor, or perhaps beneath the bedframe.
"Dunno. Better try it and see." Harry held out an arm, his expression all false innocence and a hint of challenge.
Severus shouldn't. He knew he shouldn't. As bedfellows, they would be far too strange for anything here to end well.
And yet, he'd never been a coward. And hadn't he made lost causes a bit of a specialty?
He coiled up Harry's arm, scales brushing and whispering against skin as he allowed the boy to settle him in the warm dip in the mattress at his side.
"Well?" Severus asked tersely, flicking his tongue at the smells of healthy-male-fear-sweat. He held the boy's eyes.
Harry had the chutzpah to grin at him, teeth flashing in the darkness. "I mean, you are pretty scary," he answered somberly, ending the Lumos on his wand. "But I sort of think it's all hiss and no bite."
Severus hissed into Harry's ear.
Harry yelped, then covered his mouth to swallow a laugh. Severus allowed himself to feel smug and nestled down into the warm blankets again.
"Are you stuck?" Harry whispered later, long after Severus had thought he'd fallen back asleep. "That's one of Hermione's theories. I could help, if you are…"
"Go to sssleep, Harry," Severus answered. He had neither the need nor the desire to consider that offer right now.
Harry's breath huffed against his side.
He lifted his wand, and his beautiful, powerful wards spilled out of it, wrapping them in a cocoon of safety that would last until dawn.
When Severus reflected on what his former self would have thought of sharing a bed with Harry Potter every night—and as a sodding snake, no less…
Well, perhaps it wasn't worth thinking about after all.
On the evening of July 31st, the Burrow was bustling to the rafters with assorted Weasleys and Grangers and Lovegoods and Longbottoms and everyone else who loved Harry, which turned out to be a recipe for chaos incarnate—but then again, Severus wouldn't have imagined that loving Harry would ever be anything else.
"Will you come?" Harry had asked that morning in bed.
"Molly," Severus had hissed in protest.
Harry peered at him, fishing for his glasses on the side table. "You mean how Ginny said she hated snakes?"
"Well, it's my birthday, so she can't turn my guests away." Carefully, he reached out and stroked a finger up and down Severus's spine. "I'd like for you to come."
Severus was suddenly extremely glad that snakes couldn't shiver.
He watched Harry stretch, the weathered cotton of his Chudley Cannons shirt pulling thin and taut over his chest. "Very well," he capitulated, knowing deep inside that he'd lost the battle as soon as Harry had asked.
Now, as a snake in the lions' den, he attempted to stay in the shadows as much as possible. And yet he'd been acknowledged by most of those present, from Ginevra's sullen glare to Granger's terse nod to Luna Lovegood telling him that his aura was looking much clearer now. Even the Weasley matriarch had greeted Severus when they'd first arrived, releasing Harry from what looked like a bone-crushing hug to stare directly at the reptile on his shoulder. "And welcome to you, too," she'd said formally, her fingers clenched in the folds of her apron.
Severus couldn't see any reason to reject this unexpected courtesy. Carefully keeping his fangs and forked tongue hidden, he arched up and bowed.
Molly seemed taken aback by this, but the whiteness around the edges of her lips eased.
Harry was having a wonderful time among his friends and family, Severus could tell. Leaving him in the midst of a rambunctious and slightly inebriated game of Exploding Snap, Severus slipped out to the Weasleys' garden, which was decorated with hanging lanterns for the occasion and had recently been de-gnomed, more's the pity. He'd been looking forward to a snack.
He ended up curled on a bench near the toolshed, close enough to the bobbing lanterns that the sounds of joy and revelry still washed over him, far enough away that he would blend in with the deepening night.
Arthur Weasley was the one who discovered his hideout.
"Hello," the man said in a cautious but friendly tone as he approached. "Do you mind if I sit?"
Severus unwound himself and slithered closer to the edge to leave more room.
The man settled himself with his hands on his knees, humming a light tune.
"It's quite a party, isn't it?" he said after a time. "A bit loud, but it's good to see everyone enjoying themselves after so many dark days. Harry especially, of course."
Leaning back to look up at the night sky, he added, "Molly and I have long considered Harry one of our sons."
Severus lashed his tail, wondering what was coming next.
Arthur didn't seem perturbed by his movement, nor by the fact that the conversation was so one-sided. "We hope he thinks of us as his family in return."
He did, Severus knew.
Looking back down, Arthur scratched his nose. "We've been worried about him, to tell the truth. Harry's always been such a strong, caring, independent boy. And he was given so much responsibility in the war, I'm sure you know. He's always had to follow a path set by others—but I think he's finally getting the chance to choose his own way. Molly and I couldn't be prouder, and we want every joy for him."
Still holding Severus's gaze, the man took a breath and expelled it in a large gust. "And I'll take this opportunity to wish the same for you. From what I understand, you certainly deserve it."
Standing, Arthur nodded a cordial goodbye and whistled as he walked away.
Severus remained in place long after Arthur had left, turning the strange interaction over and over again in his thoughts.
He'd just been given Harry's adoptive father's blessing.
But for what?
Harry found him an hour later. "I'm knackered," he said cheerfully. "Ready to go home?"
He was flushed and windswept from a nighttime game of Quidditch that some Weasley or other had thought was a good idea, his hair even wilder than usual, his eyes creased at the corners from laughing.
Severus slithered up his arm and onto his shoulders, barely stopping himself from flicking his tongue out to taste the sweat at the nape of Harry's neck.
Apparition was dizzying for both of them, if the way Harry stumbled on landing was any indication. "Hope you don't mind," the boy murmured once he'd regained his balance. "I brought us a bit far from home. Fancied a walk."
Severus didn't mind.
There were only a few lit windows among their neighbors' houses, and the harvest moon floated above them in the black sky. Whatever was on Harry's mind, he kept his own counsel this time. His steps were even, his gait light—and Severus was grateful for the silence.
"Staying out?" Harry asked once they'd reached the cottage door.
"For a ssspell," Severus agreed, surprised that Harry had read his mood so easily.
Harry knelt to let Severus slither down. "I'll leave the door open. I'm for bed, snake—but I wanted to thank you again for coming."
Call me by my name, Severus almost said.
But he needed Harry to leave, because he needed distance, time to think.
When the boy did disappear inside, Severus curled around and around himself, feeling the warmth of the earth below his belly.
He knew what Arthur had meant, in truth. It was only a matter of being willing to admit it.
He wouldn't allow himself to start it without intending to finish, however, which would be when he was old and grey and ready to shuffle off this mortal coil, if the fates and Harry allowed. He wouldn't start it without meaning it to last, without intending to hold Harry in times of grief and sing to their children (for surely Harry would want children).
Filled anew with purpose, Severus slipped off the steps and into the night once more.
When he'd first transformed, it had been simple to abandon his wand in the tunnel under the Shrieking Shack. It was far more difficult to retrieve it now.
Once he'd finally slithered his way past the village and through the creaking building to the tunnel entrance, Severus knew he would never be able to make it back to Harry that night as a snake. Wrapping himself around the dark and familiar length of wood, he was a man again very quickly, his limbs stiff and covered in sweat, the blood hot in his veins.
Feeling as if he were swimming through a sort of dream world, he twisted on the spot and Apparated into the forest near Harry's home, hopefully far enough away that the crack of displaced air wouldn't disturb Harry's peace.
Wand in hand, he approached the back garden on foot.
He ducked through a gap in the fence and made his way carefully to the back door, guided by moonlight. Harry's wards recognized him and let him reach the doorstep with little more than a caress of magic up and down his skin.
As he reached the threshold, though, a wave of fear rolled through him. Who was he to follow this course, to dream of what he'd finally allowed himself to imagine? Harry's despised professor, a man twice his age, a man who'd been partially responsible for his parents' deaths?
He was a snake again before he realized that he'd wished it.
The wand had clattered down next to him on the doorstep. Taking it carefully between his jaws, Severus slid through the cracked door. In Harry's bedroom, he hid it under the extra pillow.
Harry hadn't stirred as Severus wound his way up the bedpost, but when Severus finally settled in a coil next to him, the boy blinked awake and turned to face him. "There you are," he murmured, reaching out to rub a light pattern against a section of Severus's spine. "G'night, snake."
"Goodnight," Severus hissed, and Harry smiled with his eyes closed.
Severus awoke to the feeling of sunlight on his skin, a weight pressed against his side, and limbs that were torpid and heavy with sleep.
"This is a nice surprise," said a muffled voice near his chest.
Severus shifted the hand that was stuffed under the pillow, rubbing his fingers up and down the smooth length of wood and feeling the buzz of the magic under his skin. He didn't quite dare to move his other hand, which was currently splayed open on the Boy Who Lived's back, only a thin layer of cotton between Severus's palm and bare skin.
"You're surprised?" Severus asked, his voice hoarse and scratchy from disuse.
Harry Potter's bird's nest of hair shifted, and a bright green squint became visible. "That it's you? No, I knew that all along." He pressed his cheek against Severus's shoulder. "I kept trying to get a rise out of you so you'd change back."
Severus could think of several tart retorts to this, but a slender and slightly hairy leg was rubbing against one of his own. "I noticed," was all he managed, and even that sounded more strangled than not.
The leg continued its lazy glide. In concert, a hand rose, two fingers tracing lightly along the side of Severus's neck. Harry's eyebrows lifted. "God, the scar's not even deep."
Severus wondered if he was dreaming. But no, this sunlit world where he woke up as his human self in bed with a very tactile Harry Potter was a strange one, but it felt solid and real. Would his blood be hammering so loud in his ears if this was a dream? Would it be rushing in such a mortifying manner to another area as well?
"Mr. Potter." Severus wet dry lips. "I believe that it would be prudent at this juncture to mention that I am naked."
"Hm?" Harry murmured, and then he blinked as if coming out of a trance. Slowly, a very red blush suffused his cheeks.
"Right," he muttered, breaking the contact of their bodies to pull himself out of the bed. "I can go make breakfast," he offered. "If you'd, um, like some time to adjust."
Severus's entire being ached to catch the young man and pull him back, reclaiming the warmth of all that glorious skin against his own. But Harry seemed to have finally come to his senses after their unusual awakening, so this was likely his way of asking for some space to recover.
"Thank you," Severus answered, his voice still rough.
Harry nodded once, stuffed his glasses on his nose, and backed out the door.
Left alone, Severus slipped out from under the blankets and carefully rose to his feet. He looked down at himself. The end of his body seemed so distant from the beginning.
He stretched experimentally.
It was different, being a man once more. He missed the snake's detachment—but it was good to carry his warmth inside again, and he had a newfound appreciation for having arms, feet and legs, fingers and toes. He loved having toes, he realized, giving them a slow wiggle.
And another pleasant surprise was that the skin of the underside of his left arm was pale and smooth, completely unmarked. Severus twisted it back and forth in the light, caught between wanting to do a savage dance in victory and the almost overwhelming urge to cry.
"It's not live mice, but hopefully you don't m—"
Harry's cheerful voice had stopped mid-sentence. He was frozen in the doorway, holding a tray of eggs and toast and juice and staring.
Belatedly, Severus realized that he still hadn't dressed.
Carefully, Harry took a step to the side and slid the breakfast tray onto an empty chair. "Sorry, Professor," he explained, shooting Severus an embarrassed glance. "I'm, um, trying not to swoon like the girls in those books Ginny's always reading."
Severus couldn't see what was so appealing about his body, but desire was writ plain across Harry's face. "You can call me Severus," he answered, unable to look away.
Harry's flushed cheeks grew even redder. He glanced at Severus again from under his lashes. "Great! And I'm Harry. Er, obviously."
"Harry," Severus repeated. It felt different, saying the name aloud rather than in the privacy of his mind. More forbidden; more like a promise he intended to keep.
At the sound of it, a shift seemed to come over the younger man. He licked his lips. "Could you say it again?" he asked, stepping closer.
The look in Harry's eyes had Severus feeling helpless, teetering on the edge of the thrilling unknown and terrified, but wanting desperately to fall. "Harry," he whispered, his breaths going short and shallow.
"Again," the boy commanded, stepping near enough to touch.
Mouthed against a pulse point, husked into an ear, murmured against lips far softer than anything his own had ever touched.
"Harry. Harry. Harry."
After that it was tentativeness, false starts, reassurances. "Rash," Severus groaned when Harry told him what he wanted. "No, I don't have any rashes," Harry had countered with a breathless laugh.
And yes, they might have got carried away...but Harry tasted like the first gulp of sweet air on his tongue after years of holding his breath. And Salazar, the noises he made—and he was so warm inside and tight—
It was animal and human, gentle and rough. The bed creaked below them. Harry's face transformed in climax, the space between their bodies grown slippery with his pleasure—and Severus was shaking, he couldn't stop it, he was falling apart—
With a sweaty and shivering Harry clinging to him afterwards, Severus couldn't believe he'd been given the good fortune of this moment. He wanted to kiss Harry senseless.
So he did.
The world was a soft sort of wet the following morning, all mist that hadn't cleared yet and water dripping from the eaves, the trees in the forest. A summer storm had moved through in the hours before dawn.
It had been a very busy day after their unexpected morning, a day filled with visiting Spinner's End to see if his wards had held, then the Ministry to tell them that reports of his death were, in fact, exaggerated; fending off reporters; visiting a surprisingly weepy Minerva McGonagall, who'd slapped him and then hugged him, to the embarrassment of them both; and then back home with Harry, to sit cross-legged in front of a crackling fire eating takeaway Chinese food that Harry had grabbed somewhere in Muggle London. They'd spoken about Lily, and the war, and the future, and Severus couldn't remember ever feeling so raw and happy at once.
He and Harry had both woken with the pounding of the rain on the roof, rolling together again into shared warmth from where they'd drifted apart while asleep. "I'm too old for you," Severus had whispered into mussed curls.
Harry had snorted against Severus's neck, then draped a leg up and over Severus's hips in a wordless but clear demand. So Severus had coaxed him open and entered him for the second time, hearing his cries mingle with the thunder of the storm, sucking a dark line of bruises down one of Harry's shoulders and knowing it was a claim.
Now, everything was peaceful, nearly silent. He liked the soft caress of mist between his fingers, Severus realized. He liked the feel of wet blades of grass beneath his bare feet.
Harry found him there a few minutes later. "Good morning," the younger man said with a crooked smile, slipping a steaming mug of tea into Severus's hands.
Severus took his first sip gratefully. "Good morning," he answered in turn.
Harry ducked his chin into his cup, and he seemed to be content to stand beside Severus quietly for a time, breathing evenly and letting the steam fog his glasses.
"Please stay," Harry said abruptly, his lips setting more firmly as he met Severus's eyes.
"Harry." Severus worked his jaw, scrubbed a hand through the loose strands of his hair. "We barely know one another." He looked down at his unmarked arm. "And to be honest...at the moment, I barely know myself." He realized the truth of his words as he spoke them.
Harry tilted his head. "Then we'll find that out together," he answered, quiet but sure.
Severus felt his lips quirk. Foolish boy, he thought—but he'd finally realized that just because Harry was foolish didn't mean he wasn't right.
"I would love it if you stayed," Harry repeated, softer this time.
Severus turned to him, and his throat worked soundlessly. Harry glowed like this, with his eyebrows clumped in disorderly tufts and the red line of a pillow indent bisecting the stubble on one cheek.
If there was one thing a snake knew, it was the difference between sunlight and shadow.
Harry Potter was sunlight, radiant and pure—and a snake who could spend its life basking in sunlight would be a very lucky snake indeed.
"Are you certain?" Severus asked, feeling helpless with want. "You've only just begun to live."
Harry reached for his free hand and laced their fingers together. "But so have you, Severus," he answered wisely. "So have you."