Chapter 1: Harry. July 2001.
"Oh, Harry? If you die down there, you're welcome to share my toilet."
"Um... thanks, Myrtle."
Harry's palms are clammy with sweat. A nervous shiver runs through him. Unclenching his fists is a struggle. Despite it all, he takes a step, then another, and that's a struggle too. The fifth step becomes easier, and he keeps going: around that corner, through the doors, taking a lift onto another Ministry floor. His steps echo under the high marble ceilings.
This floor is not much different from the one with Harry's desk in the corner past Robards' personal office. The memos flock together overhead, the low hubbub of a busy space fills the aisles between the desks.
This isn't the Auror Department, but that one part, at last, is familiar.
Right, the loos.
The loos are right there, likely to be as crowded as the Muggle entrance to the Ministry of Magic, and far more stressful to enter because the concealment charms Harry uses in the presence of Muggles during his early morning trips will not work on Harry's magical co-workers.
It's Harry's second floor today looking for an available stall.
Taking a chance, he steps through the door labelled with a wizard's profile and immediately stares down, noticing the floor tiles, focusing on them instead of the sign, the space he's in right now. This is all wrong, screams his brain because years of habits cannot be broken overnight. He swats the bothersome thought aside. He observes. The floor tiles are chequered like a chessboard. They shine as the lanterns flicker. Black and white and no in-between, just like the signs on the doors, dividing up the world neatly into two sides and indicating who belongs where.
That's the trouble, isn't it? I'm here now. I belong.
Why doesn't it feel like it? What's wrong with me? Fuck. I'm Harry. I'm just Harry. I must keep it together.
Don't interact, don't be visible. Find a stall. Go in, go out, wash my hands, carry on for the afternoon. Such a routine act. Everyone's got this routine, but Harry's not like everyone. He can't help wishing for the Invisibility Cloak. Although sneaking around wearing it at work would be completely ridiculous, as ridiculous as looking up the vanishing charms apparently used back in the pre-plumbing days. He is done hiding. The loos on this floor are near the Official Gobstones Club and are supposedly the least used. Perhaps that would help.
It doesn't. Harry still has to count to three to calm his breath and still, such a mundane task is like taking a trip to a mirror universe where right is left and up is down and his breath is still shallow and panicked, constricting his chest in a death grip more than it already is.
A stall door nearby squeaks, flies open. Whew. Harry rushes past the long row of occupied urinals to claim it. It feels like the walk of shame even though he tells himself every second, his mind holding onto that one mantra: I belong. Here. Now.
It's just his luck, that, like a newfound Boggart, his supervisor steps out.
Fuck. Robards! Harry's heart takes a frantic leap. Despite the conversation they've had just last week:
"Look, I've got something that'll affect this team. I haven't told many yet."
"Do go on, Ms. Potter..."
Harry cringes, pushes forward, lifts his head enough to see a casual stare, then a tell-tale hint of widened eyes, and Robards looks away, sidesteps.
Facing anyone he knows here is the worst, facing someone who controls your pay cheque and daily assignments... well, it can't get any worse than that. At least there are fewer conversations in the men's, it's all very routine. Efficient. Yes, and as routine as it gets.
Harry gathers his wits and carries on, dashes in, presses the door closed, latches the ornate hook and only then releases a panicked breath of relief. Made it. For now. He sits and tries not to think of his feet facing the wrong way. No one, surely no one, checks for the feet under the stall doors.
Seriously, what kind of pervert would? Maybe people do, all the time. How would I know? Do people really glance and wonder? Or is it just me? Overthinking it all.
The surge of unease doesn't let go even as he empties his bladder. He dashes out just as quickly as he came in. At the sink, he splashes cold water over his face and catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror even though he's told himself a thousand times before not to dwell on looking.
An obvious sight greets him back.
She is short-haired and exhausted. Too young to wear the uniform, with that rounded jaw and round glasses, brows charmed to bristle thicker than they actually are. Above them, the messy fringe hides the lightning-shaped scar. Male Auror's robes, too tight at the hips, hang like an ill-fitting costume from the narrow shoulders to the rounded thighs.
Who the hell am I trying to fool? Should've used the loos on the other side, it won't be so crowded at least. The realisation stings. Stepping through the other of these twin doors feels far more familiar, but he can't. He can't do that anymore! It's a space no longer his to claim. It'd be unfair to everyone else there, his conscience calls out, bringing forth the image of a scared little boy hiding behind a witch's long skirts to avoid facing his own troublesome self. And still, the worry lingers: what kind of discomfort should he pick the next time he stands before the twin doors? Would a wounded conscience be easier than this?
I won't have to worry about it anymore today. I'll get through the afternoon, Apparate out straight from the Muggle stall, use the loo at home, then sort it out tomorrow.
There, all settled.
Harry takes a deep breath and carries on, through the door with the animated sign of a wizard's profile he no longer has to face today, at least, following the corridors to the lifts, then, all the way up to his desk.
Four hours of relief, then home. I need a cuppa. Thirst won't help me focus and the reports are due tomorrow.
Tea or not, he has no clue how he's going to concentrate on getting any work done. The focus just isn't there. Frantic, he rubs his forehead then obsessively brushes his fringe over the faded scar (and the round hairline, and the too-thin brows) - all three making him self-conscious.
What's wrong with me? It hasn't been any better for weeks now. I must keep it together. I'm Harry. Just Harry. Breathe.
His mind is in disarray. He's been trying to make it to Friday for a few months now but the weeks aren't getting any shorter. I'm a complete bloody fraud, his thoughts suggest. I should not have ever confessed. Ever. At all. Maybe just to George, we could've worked it out together. But I definitely never should have said anything to Snape. Snape, of all people!
If I wouldn't have confessed, it wouldn't be real. I could have held it together and never had to go through with it. Is it too late to take it back? Is it possible to Obliviate people and start all over, maybe wait for a decade or two for a decision this important? For George's sake.
Harry's feet carry him to his desk and he sits down, slouching, painfully aware of his thighs far too round as his backside meets his seat, his boots are too loose to compensate the view of feet far too small, and there's always that annoying indentation in the fabric of his robes stretched over his chest, never as flat as it should be. (At least the robes are dark enough to hide the worst of the shadows. I hope they are!)
This is humiliating. I have to find a way to fight this. I wasn't this afraid to face Voldemort, for fuck's sake. But this isn't Voldemort. These are dozens of daily physical stings to his true self, triggered by words or visuals or awareness of his own body.
I didn't know, once, and didn't notice any of this, how can I go back to not knowing again?
The answer is so simple, he doesn't even have to search for it. Obliviate. Point a wand to his own temple, say the spell, hope it won't leave this body a gibbering wreck. But he'd never do that. He can't. It would feel too much like the suicide of his true self.
Harry slumps and stares at his empty hands until a flock of memos flying overhead startles him out of his stupor. Ron's desk is empty. Ron's been out on patrol rather often these days, and everyone else is too busy with their own reports to pay attention. There's the scratching of quills against parchment, the rustle of memorandums. Bloody hell, I never wanted a desk job. Aurors were never supposed to be like that! What have we trained for?
Harry releases a breath. It never used to feel this sweltering hot in the office before... not until the first shot. Now his entire back is coated with sweat, probably the only sure proof right now that his body is changing. (He had to tighten his belt another notch, but he isn't sure whether that's the recent stress that's caused it, or a handful of weekly testosterone shots.) Why can't the changes brought by them be simple and quick, like the Polyjuice Potion, but permanent? Wham and all is done, everything is over, but no, instead Harry's stuck like this, with months, maybe years to go, hoping things change faster, waiting people's reactions out day by day, having to face himself in the mirror, having to face his co-workers, face Robards, in the loo.
He's suspended in between and the in-betweenness just won't stop, and he hates every second.
How did I get here? I was content once... It's not a question he should dwell on but he can't help himself. Because once upon a time, his former self was at least content, may have had a future and a life. Harriet Euphemia Potter, the Girl Who Lived, sorted Gryffindor, but now that school's over, now that his mind has opened this personal Pandora's Box and accepted the contents, Harry feels nothing common with that given name inside him, any more than there's anything left of his youthful courage. It seeped away in the daily grind of his current job. Sliced away as soon as his plait tumbled to the floor like a cursed snake, with one snip of a spell. Perhaps every emotion he knows nowadays is dulled with dehydration, every drink rationed to postpone facing the daily inevitable. As simple and as basic as it gets. A dilemma: either the mirror in the public loos shows a lie of a body or Harry's mind has been trapped in a profound delusion. But which is it?
Bloody hell, I'm a mess. He thinks back on the morning of the first shot. George had stood there with him, squeezing his shoulder, as Harry sat on his side of the bed trying to divide up the width of his thigh into visual thirds. Molly Weasley's crocheted bed cover was crumpled in a multicolored heap by the bedside, George's old shirt all but hidden underneath. Harry cast a disinfecting charm on his thigh, and the thinner needle went in, as if on its own. That part turned out to be easy. A sense of relief flooded him as he pressed the plunger of the syringe until he could no longer force it down. At that moment, he knew, somehow, that everything would be all right.
Ha! Everything isn't all right! The mirrors haunt him. His own doubts cripple his determination, born of naivete. Turned out there is no magic switch, no spell. All that's left to him is a painfully slow process, months and years worth. Oh, fucking hell, what did I sign up for? How sure am I about going through with this? Sure, there are days when it is simple when Harry flexes his arms and feels strong, stronger than before, and as sure of himself as Ron or George or any bloke he knows. He can see the outline of a growing bicep, and doesn't know whether to allow foolish excitement or admit that he's scared - scared shitless - because how is he supposed to figure out he wants this for good when he's never existed like this, not fully, not even in his daydreams. He holds onto the thought of relief of thinking of himself as Harry - Harry, dammit - and not the name which strikes him with an awkward shame (of a delicate, ugly bow lowered over his head, lacy and pink as if it had just been plucked from Umbridge's collection of Frolicsome Feline plates.) I'm Harry, he reminds himself and exhales in relief. No one else but Harry.
No one he knows has gone through an experience like this. He's an oddity, an ultimate freak. No wonder it had to be Snape who had heard one of Harry's first panicked confessions. George was the first to know, but it was Snape, to Harry's utter surprise and horror, who was the second. Then, Ron and Hermione. Robards. Molly and Arthur. Then there were many frantic letters, written over the course of two sleepless nights and duplicated by a spell, to Headmistress McGonagall, to his classmates, to the Dursleys. Damn it, the order of people he's confessed his deepest secret to was all wrong. Snape wasn't supposed to know at all, not yet, but he did, and that forced Harry to confront his friends and family and co-workers. The awkward obligation to say something first hand before the rumours reach the people he cared about certainly set the tone for the rest of the process and now it was all a big mess.
Three hours until he can go home. Harry clenches his sweaty palms into fists and forces them open once more. His heart is a clock that can't stop measuring time in frantic seconds.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
His fingers search out the beginning of stubble on his upper lip. His thighs press together around a dull throb at his crotch. He doesn't know how to call that sensation yet. Growth? Transformation? It's almost like magic. His nostrils are filled with an unfamiliar, stronger scent of his own sweat. His skin feels thicker, oilier. He doesn't know if the hair on his arms is any darker but there's a patch of it right over his knees and on the backs of his thighs that definitely has darkened and turned coarse. Oh bloody hell, this is overwhelmingly slow and not happening fast enough! He is ecstatic, yes, but also scared as fuck for the next change to be a nightmare instead of a guilty giddiness of a free fall.
His throat hurts once in a while and then his voice turns slightly hoarser. The corners of his hairline feel softer, with fine hair shedding when he runs his fingers through it. Such odd, specific changes, not at all what one would expect. Random. Consistent only in surprising him day by day with a new discovery.
What if the clock strikes midnight, and it all turns back, a carriage for his mind shrinking back into a shattered pumpkin on the roadside? After all, waking up at three a.m. in their dark bedroom, to George's soft snores, he still has to coax his frazzled mind into a reminder: this is me. The real me. Am I real enough? Am I man enough?
He wants to keep this. He wants to continue. He wants to see it through. Apparently, this is exactly what he needs right now (maybe always) to navigate the world. The next shot is on Monday, and there's enough testosterone left in the phial for two more weeks. Then, he has to go back to the Muggle doctor and confound her into thinking she's seen Harry for several months already as a regular patient, to fill the script and continue on with the unknown. He can't fathom how the Muggles he saw in the waiting room handle the long journey of counting days, weeks, months for the prescription. He's well aware that magic saved him years of living in between, years of this. He's the lucky one.
No other way to go but onward, his mind calls, and that gives Harry the strength to continue on with his day.
Harry will leave work soon, apparating out of the loos in Whitehall as soon as he exits the Ministry of Magic Headquarters through the official entrance (right after unlocking the stall door for the next guy that might need to use it). He will come home to the Chinese takeout waiting for him in the charmed icebox and George's quiet company. But wait, where did this story begin? Surely not today. One day in the middle of a long journey is no proper beginning. Where do all the good stories start? Some start with the right book finding its reader. Yes, we should start there. Let us begin properly then, at Hogwarts.
Chapter 2: 'Harriet, hon.' December 1996.
"Want a jam tart, Harriet, hon? It's all right. I haven't done anything to them. It's George's custard creams you've got to watch..."
Christmas is almost here, at Hogwarts. Snowstorms swirl against the icy glass of ornate windows; Hagrid leaves tracks in the snow to the Great Hall as he carries the giant Christmas trees, a whole dozen of them, now decked in holly garlands. Tinsel swirls and twists around the bannisters. The suits of armour become the row of unlikely lamps, with the everlasting candles twinkling inside their helmets. Mistletoe springs from the cracks in the stone walls of the corridors. An occasional seventh-year boy strikes a pose under a mistletoe bunch as Harriet brushes past him, disgruntled. Boys! Lucky that Harriet's secret trips past her bedtime gave her a good sense of castle corridor layouts, including secret ones, so she is able to duck in and out of them without much fuss, mistletoe-free, on the route from one classroom to another, Half-Blood Prince's Potions textbook tucked firmly into her rucksack.
Even Ron points and laughs at her frustration and jokes about 'bloody book-sexuals', the bastard! Even though Harriet likes this improved Ron better, at least he is no longer aggressive and moody, but still, this isn't all for the best. Lavender Brown tags along wherever Ron goes, sticking her tongue down Ron's throat and eyeing Harriet with a challenge as if Harry cares who Ron chooses to kiss! All she cares about is not choosing one best friend over her other best friend, and neither of her friends is likely to ever speak to each other again. It would be so much easier to take Hermione's side, but Ron's hands and forearms still have angry cuts and scratches from Hermione's bird attack. Ron still keeps his sleeves rolled up so they're visible, as if to prove a point.
"She can't complain, right?" Ron asks Harriet. "She snogged Krum. So she's found out someone wants to snog me too. Well, it's a free country. I haven't done anything wrong. Right? Right!"
Harry pauses and does a good impression of a thoughtful Hermione, absorbed in the reading for Charms: Quintessence: A Quest. Biting her tongue bothers her, as much as she wants to stay friends with both Ron and Hermione over this. Is it bad of her to keep spending time with Ron? Gryffindor girls are supposed to stick together over things like this, right? But Ron is her friend too! And look at Lavender, going after her own housemate's long-term crush. It's all so awkward.
"I never promised Hermione anything," Ron mumbles. "I mean, all right, I was going to go to Slughorn's Christmas party with her, but she never said anything… she said just as friends… that doesn't count as a promise!"
Harriet turns a page of Quintessence, aware that Ron is watching. Ron mutters something under his breath, barely heard over the fire crackling in the common room. "Krum"? "Can't complain"? Oh, Ron.
Hermione rushes off to classes and to the library so quickly that Harriet can only find her in the evenings, when Ron is so tightly wrapped around Lavender downstairs he doesn't notice Harriet heading off to bed early. Hermione refuses to sit in the common room while Ron is there, so Harry generally joins her in the dormitory where Ron cannot go before everyone else, including Lavender, follows them.
"He's at perfect liberty to kiss whomever he likes," says Hermione, squeezing her book tight on her lap, while Harriet perches on the side of her bed. "I really couldn't care less."
Hermione raises her quill and dots an i so ferociously that she punctures a hole in her parchment, leaving a mark over her pristine bedcover. Harriet stays silent. She feels mute anyway, unheard, as everyone around her vents their own problems. She bends low over Advanced Potion-Making instead, blows a strand of hair out of her face, and takes notes on Everlasting Elixirs. Once in a while, she pauses to decipher the Prince's useful additions to Libatius Borage's text. (Sometimes, she daydreams of another world, where she writes these notes on the margins herself, without a care for the unspoken rules. She can picture being the Half-Blood Prince so easily, it becomes a guilty pleasure to imagine herself in a different time and place, holding the same book open.)
"And incidentally," grumbles Hermione, after a while, "you need to be careful."
Careful? Of what? Reading!
The silence lasts far too long. "For the last time," Harriet finally spits out, in an angry whisper, "I am not giving back this book, I've learned more from the Half-Blood Prince than Snape or Slughorn have taught me in -" She can't part with this book. She can't.
"I'm not talking about your stupid book crush!" says Hermione, giving the book a nasty look as though it had been rude to her specifically. "I'm talking about earlier. I went into the bathroom just before I came in here and there were about a dozen girls inside, including that Romilda Vane, trying to decide how to slip you some nasty brew. They're all hoping that if you're cursed with buck teeth and boils the seventh-year boys will stop competing over who gets to come with you to Slughorn's party. They seem to have bought Fred and George's potions, which I'm afraid to say might just work -"
Harriet's heart skips a beat at the mention of George, but even that doesn't smooth over the matter at hand. "Why didn't you talk to them? Explain things," she demands. "It's not as if I want any of this! Tell them to stop! Or report them to the Headmaster!"
"They didn't have the potions with them in the bathroom," says Hermione scornfully. "They were just discussing tactics. I doubt whether even your precious Half-Blood Prince" - she gives the book another nasty look - "could dream up an antidote for a dozen different Weasley potions at once! Why don't you just invite someone to go with you, that'll stop all the others thinking they've still got a chance. It's tomorrow night, they're getting desperate."
"There isn't anyone I want to invite," mumbles Harriet - after all, George isn't at the school anymore, despite the fact that his freckled, shirtless self keeps cropping up in her dreams in all ways that make her devoutly thankful that Ron cannot read her mind.
"Well, just be careful what you drink, because Romilda Vane looked like she means business," warns Hermione grimly.
She hitches up the long roll of parchment on which she is writing her Arithmancy essay and continues to scratch away with her quill. Harriet watches with her mind a long way away.
"Hang on," Harriet says slowly as an idea emerges in her mind. "I thought Filch had banned anything bought at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes?"
"And when has anyone ever paid attention to what Filch has banned?" asks Hermione, still concentrating on her essay.
"But I thought all the owls were being searched. So how come these girls are able to bring all these terrible potions into school?"
"Fred and George send them disguised as perfumes. Or cough potions," says Hermione. "It's part of their Owl Order Service."
Owl Order. Huh. So I can write to George whenever I want, and hope for a reply. Just like this. I'm a complete idiot. I really am!
Quick. What do I need from Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes? From George?
Certainly not Fred's Potions! Maybe a dozen of those good old Canary Creams that George likes baking so much. I don't mind being turned into a flying creature at his hand, even for a short while.
Harriet thinks of George in the kitchen, or the lab, whistling to himself and twirling on his heel, with a wooden spoon or a shiny whisk in his hand raised high, and cannot help but grin wide. What a picture he'd make, beaming and dancing around as he crafts another Weasley invention. Those clever, freckled hands never miss the right move. His shirt would ride up high over his belt and his narrow hips would tilt, to the point where Harriet could spot the twin jut of his hip bones, follow the sprinkle of red hair disappearing beneath his shiny belt buckle and hope desperately that the heat in her cheeks isn't too visible.
What if I just order perfume. Actual perfume. Would George send me back a custom made flask? Would he sign the label?
Fred keeps calling me 'hon', but George never did. Does that mean he likes me, or is it the opposite? I can never tell. That's fine though, it's not as if I ever wanted to be a 'hon' to anyone in the first place!
But I'd wear perfume if it came from George. Every day.
Chapter 3: Snape. January 2001.
"You have kept Potter alive so that she can die at the right moment?... You have used me… I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to keep Lily's child safe. Now you tell me you have been raising a pig for slaughter."
Snape, to Dumbledore.
Outside the walls, the wind lashes against the dirty glass. Melting snow smears against the windowsill and immediately ices over.
Inside, resting on the shelf, are old books, some missing half of their binding with age, some dusty but intact. The covers hold the names of the authors: Libatius Borage, Phineas Bourne. Their margins are marked up with corrections and odd notes in meticulous black ink. The first handwritten line inside each book proclaims it to be the property of the Half-Blood Prince. For many years now the books have only known the gaze of a single reader. Their weathered spines are warmed, on occasion, by the touch of a sallow hand.
On the ground floor of the dark, dusty brick house at Spinner's End, a bitter, broken man draws his worn, woollen cloak around his achy knees and toasts the fireplace in celebration of another birthday passing. Each year is a testament to his unlikely survival. He is alone when he is here (past forty) just as he was alone when he turned twenty, or thirty years old. But that's all right, Snape treasures the comfort of solitude. He has received no owls: neither congratulations nor a packaged curse. He prefers it this way: the lack of company, the safety of staying invisible, all but forgotten. Whisky warms its way down his throat, an odd sort of warmth settling in his gut.
The corner by the fireplace contains a small wooden workbench where a fresh batch of potions - freshly brewed - is already poured into their bottles. Each bottle is small, dark and shiny, like a shard of black glass, with an ornate label where a silvery outline of a feather shimmers and fades. The labels bear a name that is neither Snape nor Prince. The name means nothing in the long run but the safety of a pseudonym is everything to Snape at the moment. It means that he can earn enough with his craft to afford the next week's groceries, restock his ingredient stores, and keep his subscription to Potions Quarterly.
The fact that he is still alive and free (to consume food, to brew his potions, and to read his books) is an utter impossibility.
He is alive because of Potter: the ultimate irony, an unappreciated one.
Potter, a recent hire of the MLE, who keeps swinging by on patrols but is thankfully not scheduled to arrive today. Snape signs and rolls his eyes. Small miracles. Such peace and quiet are to be cherished.
Potter fills the room with an abundance of youthful disruption. She grins and waves through the fireplace, and then presents her Gryffindor self in the house Snape's mum died in, in the rooms that witnessed plenty of grim and unseemly things, as if Spinner's End is something to look forward to spending one's time in.
Potter is no longer the child Snape tried his best to teach Potions, or Occlumency, or common sense. Snape refuses to refer to her as 'the girl' or 'Lily's daughter' in his thoughts ever since that one Occlumency lesson during which he glimpsed a peculiar sensation in Potter's mind. It was not a memory at all but a living concentrated awareness, a bubble: of a dark and quiet space, a cupboard drifting away from the rest of Potter's consciousness.
There was a young boy in striped pyjamas locked inside: his knees were drawn to his chest, his skinny arms wrapped around himself, body folded in on itself. Potter's - Lily's - green eyes shone in the light spilling out from somewhere behind Snape as if Snape was the one who offered a path to freedom out of the darkness. "Help me!" Older Potter's voice and a young boy's voice - both one and the same - echoed through the space, muffled and embraced by the darkness all around. And Snape, not knowing what to make of it, stepped back, let go of the thought bubble and let it sink far beneath the weight of the other, regular, thoughts.
Potter is nothing like that trapped boy now, especially recently, since joining the MLE. Her face is painted and powdered, her robes are adorned with lace and carry a faint lily-bitter scent. Her hair is in a meticulous plait. Her fingernails, a light peach shade, rest over a wand's handle that doesn't quite add up to the look of an otherwise perfect femininity: a brother wand to the one the Dark Lord carried.
Potter's behaviour doesn't add up either.
It's a disguise. Snape is thinking back to the defiant student in his classroom, at the first-year with those owl-eye glasses, and yet Potter is so dedicated to maintaining this new look, it's clearly something she has invested interest into.
Perhaps it's nothing.
I am overthinking. Snape dismisses his own paranoia. Potter has grown up, that is all. She's learned what will get her ahead in life and she's learned to play the game.
And yet, there was something familiar behind that frantic green-eyed stare. Snape still sees a boy in the desperation of a creature locked deep in Potter's mind. And then he pushes aside the memory of a skinny teenager with the shaky stride of a spider. He dismisses the avalanche of further thoughts like flies, swatted with a spell cast with his mother's wand. He locks certain things in a box and leaves them there: the pang of guilt, a rush of need, as young Severus once averted his eyes from Paul Peters' pursed lips poised over a shiny tip of a pen during handwriting practice in a classroom filled with Muggle children. It was a year before his Hogwarts letter came; he never did speak with Paul. Severus winced, just imagining Da's disapproving voice: 'Toughen up, boy. You aren't one of them freaks, are you?' His father would go for the belt if he ever knew this about Severus. (Dad never learned, and neither did mum.)
Severus then thinks of Regulus' infectious smile, Regulus' lashes, long and dark, how they cast a fluttering shadow over his pupils. Severus did share conversations with Regulus, he now has memories of them to hold onto. He doesn't know whether it makes things better or worse in the long run. He traps the memory of Regulus into a thought bubble, separating it from the others, and lets go of it, allowing it to sink down, deep, until the time he can face it again.
Perhaps it's for the best if Potter's secrets are left alone in the dark. Let them linger comfortably there, let them stay breathing but buried and trapped, let them wither away like an unread manuscript. An unwritten fairytale.
It'll certainly make life easier.
Chapter 4: The Burrow. July 1997.
"You look... wow!" George's eyes opened wide, as if he couldn't get enough of Harriet in her formal dress robes and heels. "Ready to go down then?"
"Okay," said Harry, feeling a shade of poor Ron's misery at the idea of so much lace and satin despite the fact that her own robes were brand new, and wishing she could just stay barefoot in the common room until the Yule Ball ended. Fred winked at Harriet as he bowed, letting her and George pass him on the way out of the portrait hole.
Outside the Burrow, the sun rises above the cloud cover, painting everything orange. It's idyllic somehow, this sort of strange light. The slanted stripes of purple shadows from the fence fall across the garden patch. The grass sparkles with morning dew.
George wasn't supposed to pop by for a visit but Harriet had hoped he'd make an exception anyway. He does. She tries to ignore the joy bubbling up at the thought that he made it here just to celebrate her birthday, but she can't. She's happy. It's a happy day.
George looks down into Harriet's face, takes a deep breath, and says, "Happy seventeenth."
"Yeah?" Harry says softly. "Thanks."
"So what did mum and dad give you?"
"Jewelry. It's... beautiful." Harry puts on a smile. It's an elaborate set: golden ivy leaves embedded with tiny pearls, a pendant and a pair of matching earrings. She'll probably end up piercing her ears eventually, at this rate. She's never had anything like this. She thinks back at the eleven-year-old with a messy plait, tracing uneven candles in the dust of a cold floor and blowing them out with a wish: to be elsewhere and to be someone else. "They really shouldn't have."
"Between you and me, what with all of my brothers, they're still getting used to having a girl around. Consider it practice for Gin's birthday. That'll be some party, I bet! Now you'll have something nice to wear for dancing all night long."
Harriet shrugs. "I still don't think I'm any good." The Yule Ball had felt so awkward but maybe that was perfectly normal: it had been the first (and only) time she had ever properly danced.
"Well, you're wrong." George beams. "When we danced it was perfect, right from the start."
Harriet can almost hear the festive tune and see the crowded, brightly lit Great Hall, she can feel George's hands on her waist, steering her to the music, and even that felt awkward, even though she loves George's hands. George's gaze on her is steady but Harriet finds it difficult to look back. Looking at George right now is like forcing her eyelids open against the sun.
"Nice view, innit," she says feebly, pointing toward the actual sun rising. Ugh, what am I thinking! Quick. Just stop talking.
George ignores her gesture and Harriet cannot blame him.
"I couldn't think of what to get you," George says. "Fred suggested to just send you a box of our finest merchandise and a dozen roses in Gryffindor colours. But, really, nothing seemed right."
"You didn't have to get me anything."
George shakes his head. "I... nothing would be of use. You were never one for flowers. You wouldn't be able to carry any of our heavier stuff with you, not if you need all of your strength to fight. And I know you will. And you will win against any bastard that comes at you too."
Harriet sneaks a glance at him. George is so full of life and cheer. It is a wonderful thing about him, he never gives up on the world. And yet, unlike Fred, he isn't blind to this side of Harry. Harry can trust George would stand shoulder to shoulder in a wizarding duel with her any day. Perhaps soon, they will.
George takes a step closer, running an unsteady hand through his hair, the side covering his missing ear. "I've been thinking though. And I can't let you go without something to remember me by, you know, just in case some dashing rescuer ever sweeps you off your feet."
Harriet rolls her eyes. "I think the chances of a rescue - dashing or otherwise - are going to be pretty thin, to be honest."
George's beaming smile takes Harriet off-guard. "Well, true. But you've always been the one doing the rescuing around here. It's why - oh, nevermind, I should just - Harry..."
"What?" She turns, mesmerised at the sound of her name on George's lips.
"Just... Happy birthday," George whispers, and then his hands slide over her cheeks and Harriet is kissed as she had never been kissed before. She lets her lips part and it's bliss, better than any dessert she ever tasted, and better than some gift of perfume would have been - George, right here, the steady feel of his bicep, and the tangled locks of his long red hair at Harry's fingertips. His awkward, tender hands at her back and that beautiful, beaming smile. It gives Harriet hope for the future.
Bang! The door to the Burrow flies open and Harry jumps. They separate awkwardly, standing two steps apart.
"Oh, I am so, so sorry," says Ron pointedly, staring at his brother, then at Harry. George promptly hides his hands behind his back. Harriet lifts her hand to her mouth. "My bad."
"We... um. Oh, you're here early. Is Fred-" Hermione is just behind him, slightly out of breath.
George shakes his head. "No, Fred's back at the shop. It's just me, I'm afraid."
Hermione's eyes are wide as she puts two and two, George and Harry, together. There is a moment of strained silence, then George reaches a tentative hand and pats Harry's shoulder. "All right then. Happy birthday, Harriet."
Harriet hates that name, hates it with passion. It's not what George called her when he kissed her and that makes her hate it even more.
Ron's ears are burning red, and Hermione's fidgeting with her hair. Harry wants to slam the door shut, leaving them trapped inside, but it feels like a fog has set in, dimming the bright morning sun, and the wind is picking up, ruining that sunlit blissful moment with the promise of a rainstorm. All the reasons for ending it with George, for staying well away from him because - bloody hell, this is a distraction, it'll get both of us killed - seem to have risen up from the long shadow of the Burrow, extending to where Harry stands. She looks up to George's missing ear. This is not a joke or a game. George's life is on the line. He's gotten lucky once but luck runs out when you least expect it.
She notices George's furrowed brow, his freckles growing paler by the minute, and she wants to say something but how can anyone find words to say in a moment like this. George's mouth thins in a grim line after a moment missed and gone forever.
"Thanks," Harriet says curtly instead of reaching for George's hand as she wants. "I'll... see you around."
And then Harry steps through the door and ushers Ron and Hermione inside.
Chapter 5: Home. January 2001.
"You know, the Prefects' bathroom on the fifth floor? It's not a bad place for a bath. Just take your egg and... mull things over in the hot water."
"Home, love," Harriet mumbles, closing the squeaky door in their small flat, the first space she and George share together. It's a habit, even though George is still out on an ingredient hunt in Bulgaria. The separation isn't as much of a dull ache as during the war, when Harriet pined, longing to hear George's voice on Potterwatch, during the time when she, along with Ron and Hermione, were searching for the horcruxes. Now it's more of a worry on the back of her mind. Charlie will keep him busy, she dismisses it. Even in George's absence, the flat is filled with the remainders of him, the dynamite-grey dust and flattened boxes in bright colours. Glitter and confetti from the latest project for the shop blow across the stairs.
It's all quiet but the silence here is not new. George has been too quiet lately. They both still mourn Fred's loss, in so many ways. Sometimes they check in on Ron, all too protective of him when he gets into scrapes at work. (Though it's Hermione who is prone to overworking.) Sometimes they both share a drink, settle in together in front of the fireplace. It's in the quiet moments like those, when George's head is cradled on Harriet's lap, she feels content to be close to someone without words.
Harriet usually traces the scar of George's ear under the long red strands. The scar is all Snape's doing, a daily reminder to keep vigilant during her patrols of Spinner's End, but instead of holding on to something she cannot forgive or forget, Harry sends thanks to their lucky stars that George survived the war. That Ron and Hermione both survived. She doesn't know what she would have done without them, if there had been more funerals, more loved ones to bury and mourn.
They've talked about getting a kneazle together but the year of Voldemort's reign is still a haunting presence and it feels like they both live from day to day. A creature may lend permanence to the end of their battles, but apparently, neither of them is ready to let go. Maybe next year will prove to be different.
The Auror training provided some distraction at first, a sense of belonging, of purpose. But George is the opposite of purpose, he is something like solace. He is home, as much as Hogwarts was: their tiny little flat over the shop was supposed to be a safe place to be, an escape from reality, from the Prophet headlines, starting with The Girl Who Lived Shocks the Wizarding World, Moves in With Weasley Lover. Harriet had used that for kindling for the fireplace, not even bothering to read the rest. There had been speculations of a spring wedding, of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, what with the famed Weasley stamina and vigour. Harriet had obliterated the papers with an explosion of confetti-sized pieces and such strong words even George's eyes had widened. "Bloody hell, you've got a mouth on you. Mum has taught you well!" He'd whistled, impressed. Harriet had punched his shoulder. "Well, don't just lounge about, help me clean up this mess."
Tonight though, George isn't home and Harriet cancelled the Prophet deliveries long ago. Those are for the shop downstairs, not their private sanctuary. She closes the door behind her, and winces, toeing off the pointy, high-heeled shoes. Her feet hurt but the textured rug feels good through the thin stockings. She lets her feathered hat float to the hat stand. With all the press and publicity, she feels like a spokeswitch for the Auror Department, a figurehead and nothing more. What is needed right now is more action, not more exposure, but life isn't cooperating with what a junior Auror may want or need. As things stand, she is doing her best to fit in, was trying for a while now. She has asked Fleur for help with her wardrobe and the hairdo spells. She has adjusted the frames of her glasses to the latest slim, ornate style, and tried to be content with the fact that she is making a difference in the world. They're rebuilding after the war, and if a handful of bright tailored robes is what it takes to get Harry's message across, she'll do more than that. She'll put on a face and wear a mask of powder and rouge if she must: a figurehead, pointing in the right direction, toward the future.
She could find contentment in that. Harry has George and George has never treated Harry as a poster child. She has a job to do. She has her friends. She has a world to rebuild. That is enough of a life, isn't it? This is part of growing up, it's how adult lives are supposed to go. A wedding next year, new family, new start. She'll become Mrs. Weasley eventually, she reckons. (Harriet does not feel anything at the prospect of that, only a twinge of unease, though she cannot voice why.)
Dragging her mind to the present moment, Harriet pulls the pins out of her hair, letting her plait fall, discards the cloak, the robe, the blouse, heading straight for the hot water. It feels necessary. A steamy bath to unwind. With a lazy flick in the direction of the taps, Harry sends the water flowing, the sound of it drowning out the din of the crowds outside on the busy street.
In the bathroom, Harry sheds the rest of her clothes like snakeskin, drops the glasses onto the side of the sink, steps into the water and curls up in the centre of the heat, drawing her knees to her chin. Hugging her legs. Hugging herself. It's how she feels most comfortable, curling her body into a ball. Sometimes curling into a ball like this, in the bath or in bed, is the only way Harry feels at ease, almost ready to face another day.
Mrs. Weasley. Loving wife. Someday, loving mother.
Harry loves George, truly does. But none of those labels feel right. But what did last names matter? Harry was always just Harry to friends, to George. They were, all of them, battle comrades getting on together after the war, and surnames were as irrelevant in the heat of the battle as they were during the time of peace, among the surviving veterans.
Without glasses, Harry stares blearily at the soap bubbles parting, and an odd thought runs through her mind: I have such small feet. Disproportionate, ugly. How did I not notice before?
Perhaps it is a trick of the light, a result of seeing them underwater. Harry reaches out and tries to cover one of her feet with her hand in comparison, but it doesn't help. If anything, it makes it worse. Now her hands stand out as too small and short-fingered and dainty, with those nails charmed a neutral shade of pink. She frowns and mutters the countercharm, watching her nails shrink, solid colour fading to the bitten mess underneath. Her cuticles sting with the warmth of the water as if her hands have a dozen papercuts.
George's hands are beautiful, whether gliding over Harry's, or crafting something down in the shop. In comparison to George's, Harry's barely stretch the three-quarter length of his hand. Harry is not too short for an average girl but she feels tiny around Ron and George. She grew used to the jokes, everyone grows thick-skinned around the Weasley family around the dinner table, and she often followed Ginny's lead of eye-rolling and giving back as good as one got.
Harry never dwelled on her body, but lately, perhaps with all the fuss of her tailored robes and make-up, and the mysteries of the latest hairdos in the wizarding fashion world, the small mirror by the bath became like the Mirror of Erised, drawing her in to look at the reflection framed inside. But it was only a reflection after all, nothing Harry particularly desired to see. There were no answers within, no solace, but yet, Harry kept on looking, examining a stranger in the mirror. To break away from that habit, Harry started to draw those daily baths hotter, staying in the bathtub until the glass fogged over, so Harry wasn't trapped by the mirror while getting out. Looking at it has become a compulsion that led only to self-doubt and left behind an awkwardness Harry didn't know how to shake.
But that's absurd, she tells herself, mirrors are such a common source of anxiety! Doesn't everyone feel this way once in awhile looking at themselves in the mirror? What with all the dieting tips in the Witch Weekly, it had to be so. Honestly, it was such a small, insignificant thing to worry about, Harry felt guilty just thinking about it further. It was only a body, after all, rounded out in peacetime, what with Mrs. Weasley's meat pies and pudding, but Harry hated it, missed the angular fit of George's hips against hers. Their bodies matched for once then, if not in height. She wanted - wants - to feel like the battle comrades they were. She doesn't know how to bring that feeling back. Does this mean she is broken? But who isn't, in their own ways, after the Battle of Hogwarts. Everyone lost someone they loved. That had to leave a scar for life.
Sometimes, especially lately, Harry feels like a shell, steered around by others, talked over by everyone around her. Perhaps the shell will hatch one day. But what is really inside to be let out beside a mind hurt by the fighting, by the recent losses, trying to make the best of things to stay alive?
Oh hell, enough of that. Harry dunks her head underwater and furiously scrubs any remainder of make-up off her face. She fumbles for her glasses and rises from the bath, groping for a towel and rubbing the steam off her body. It's only when she hangs the towel back on the rack that she glimpses a dark smear in the centre. Dammit. Tergeo! Last thing I need to worry about.
No wonder it feels like a Dementor has been looming nearby. Well, not much to be done about it. She summons dark underwear charmed to soak up liquid at the crotch and one of George's old shirts. It reaches halfway to her knees and Harry settles inside it like into a cocoon.
Straight to bed, it is. Harry grabs a bag of crisps and a chocolate frog from the counter in the kitchen, and, after some consideration, a beer bottle from the icebox. It's George's stash but he won't mind.
Her sleep in the empty bed made for two is restless. Harry jolts awake from a nightmare of being trapped as a painted doll, a mannequin in a storefront window made to model the latest fashions, suspended forever in silence, unable to scream for help. But that nightmare is promptly, thankfully forgotten, and at four a.m. she stares at the pre-morning gloom brightening behind the curtain and wonders what kind of dream woke her so suddenly. The unease lingers but the memory of the dream is gone.
What's going on, where am I?
By Harry's ear, the empty crisp bag rustles, a chocolate frog box tips over, falling against one of the beer bottles and sending it rolling onto the floor. Harry can't summon the will to clean it up.
This is home. Isn't it? I'm OK. Am I OK?
Minutes later, Harry is still curled around a pillow, thoughts restless and racing. Danger? No, just a nightmare. Fuck. I hate these. Who have I become? Why am I broken? A failure. A wreck. Who am I? What's real? What can I trust? Who can I trust?
Breathe, Harry. Breathe!
I'm Harry. That much Harry knows. A raw and hurting tangle of thought trying to survive and assert itself. That thought gives Harry the strength to steer this uncooperating body into submission. Harry feels like a thing these days, an 'it', a reanimated golem stamped with a sequence of five letters, piloting around a frame with two hands and two feet and some magic inside. The image brings more comfort than the alternative.
I should clean up. George is back tomorrow.
Harry counts the beer bottles and winces. Never drinking this much on a weeknight again. Gah. Not worth the trouble.
At that, Harry's crotch feels warm and slick, because gravity is an unforgiving force and so is nature, and Harry hates - this, fucking hates this body to bits, through the dull fog of dehydrated desperation and headache. No longer wants to be stuck inside it in the daytime, from one sequence of dreams to the next. Harry fumbles for the wand on the headboard and snaps a brief Tergeo downwards: treating it like a wound received in the heat of a battle, and not an embarrassment, helps.
Don't think of it bleeding. Cast a spell. Move on.
Still, Harry can't help but recall several months before this one, a drunken stupor causing hot tears, as Harry curled up in bed around a hot water bottle, breathing through a full-body ache (and soul-ache) that just wouldn't go away. Muffling any groan that might escape, so George, who was working a rare late-night shift downstairs, wouldn't pick up on this weakness. A litany (or was it an internal scream) of "I'm Harry, I'm HARRY, Fuck! I'm Harry. Gotta breathe. Breathe Harry, breathe. That's it, soldier," was nowhere near a rational thing. But it felt so true and for all Harry knew it was Perfectly Normal, as voiced by Professor McGonagall. For a period, that is. The Hogwarts dorms never had anyone making noise at three a.m., as far as Harry remembered, and Hermione was rational and informative about all the sexist societal stigmas and rather thorough about the history of menstrual products. Was this a remainder of that stigma she talked about when they were fourteen?
Impossible to tell.
For now, Harry merely counts every breath until a torrent of frantic thoughts calms and clears somewhat. What would it take to get through the day as someone genuine, what with the necessary disguise of Harriet Euphemia Potter (soon to be Mrs. Weasley). It's just an act, a daily masquerade. It's not who I am, not really. That thought makes the prospect of tomorrow's disguise a bit easier: putting on the tailored robes with an ornate collar and gathering resolve to face the thought of another day in those horrible high-heeled witches' shoes does not seem like the end of the world.
Spending the day as 'just Harry', if only in one's head, is surprisingly easy in comparison to the alternative.
Just Harry is a survivor, a good friend, an equal to George, not a trophy to be won, as the newspapers are fond of insinuating. Harry'd be alongside Ron on the streets, not behind a desk or in front of the quick quotes' quills scribbling. Harry'd never be caught dead in a tailored lacy set of maroon robes with the lipstick to match.
Harry wants to go flying with a good friend: side by side up in the sky, what could be better? Harry would ride - that old broom that hasn't been touched for ages high up, past the cloud cover, and scream out all the day's troubles out into the wind, a firm grip on the upthrust broom handle and the world at - at one's feet, the whipping wind turning - this messy tangle of hair into a lion's mane, like Ron's but darker. It'd be short like Madam Hooch's. Once in awhile Harry wonders how it would feel like, having hair that spiky and short.
Perhaps that's all it takes. A haircut. A fresh start. Determined, and slightly scared, Harry marches into the loo and stares at the mirror.
A young woman with a long plait stares back.
One Severing Charm is all Harry needs right now. It slips past Harry's lips as swift as a snick of the scissors. The black plait tumbles to the floor like a snake and Harry's head feels lighter. Harry's conscience - clearer.
Harry looks on, with narrowed eyes, looking at the new self in the mirror. Better. Different but much better than before. Fleur might disown Harry for ruining her hard work, and the Witches' Weekly magazine will surely fill numerous pages with the speculations of a new style but for now, the wide-brimmed witch's hat will hide the most of it, no-one will be the wiser.
Harry reaches for the glasses over the sink, puts them on. They look far too odd like this, daintily perched. Not with this hair. Harry makes a face in the mirror and in one swift motion of elaborate wandwork cancels the transfiguration spell on the frames. The lenses grow bigger, the frames darkening and thickening once more, looking as they did when Harry was still a Hogwarts student.
Yes. This feels right. Frighteningly so.
It's not something easily hidden away under the wide-brimmed hat but Harry doesn't give a damn. Facing oneself without flinching is a step in the right direction.
There's something resembling a boy in those features framed by the mirror. A jolt of joy passes through Harry at the thought and is dismissed for its oddness.
Wouldn't it be odd if Harry was a boy all along, somewhere in another time and place? Is there such a place? Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. Ha, how daft is that? But that's the odd part: nothing about that statement feels weird to Harry. It feels right. It feels calm and serene and even familiar, like sliding back under the well-worn bedcovers and settling in for a good night's sleep.
It's all too right. More real than the world outside.
In fact, for the first time in a long sequence of weeks and months, or perhaps years, blending together, Harry feels alive.
He thinks of it, and therefore, he exists.
Chapter 6: George. March 2001.
"The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches... born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies... and the Dark Lord will mark her as his equal, but she will have power the Dark Lord knows not... and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives..."
Harry drinks quite a lot before summoning up the courage to even voice it. The back of Harry's head is against George's shoulder and George has his arm swung around Harry, his hand resting over Harry's chest, right over the letter H on Molly Weasley's gifted jumper. It should feel uncomfortable, fussed over, to be cradled like that, but Harry brings up a vision of them at the forefront of his mind as battle comrades. As equals.
Soldiers have no secrets from each other. They trust each other fully.
Harry has no excuse. All right then, here it goes. "Could you ever fall for me if I was a bloke?"
"Dunno. Would you fall for me if I wasn't?"
Harry considers it, though the answer sounds hollow, as much as George's teasing jokes when he's in one of his sombre moods but still wants to put up an appearance. "I'd be mad not to. Hot redhead with a Beater's bat? You'd rock a Playwizard centrefold during Quidditch season."
"You'd better believe it. What brought this on?"
"Must you ask?"
"Just so you know, if you are considering a threesome with hot Playwizard centrefolds, I'm not completely opposed."
"Ugh." Harry's eyes roll. "Papercuts! Forget it! Another beer?"
"Slow down, Harry." George looks down, his voice gentle, taking the beer bottle away and setting it aside. "You look like you have a lot on your mind. With your hair all new and the old glasses, I've been wondering. And I reckon it's not so much about you wanting to wear the trousers in the bedroom..."
Why does every joke have to turn into an innuendo with George around? Harry eye-rolls and swats his side to stop George from elaborating on that idea. "Hey. Doesn't everyone ask themselves at times, what would be different if... well, you know." Harry gestures down at their intertwined bodies. "What if. In another world, where I was born a boy. What would it be like? Would I still have this scar? Would my parents be alive? What kind of life would I have? Would some girl born in July have to deal with killing Voldemort? Would Voldemort win? But it's all a fantasy, of course. Not like it'll ever be real. Trelawney's prophecy always referred to a girl, and it was right about everything else. So, no point in wondering, yeah?"
"I see." A pause lingers, just as George's hand shifts to Harry's shoulder. Squeezes. "So... do you want to be a bloke?"
Harry freezes, sinking his teeth into his bottom lip. He can't move. Can't breathe. George knows! Knows what I am. Guessing some of it least. As close as a guess can get to Harry's inner truth.
"I do like your hair, for what it's worth. And it's not like the prophecy applies any longer."
Fuck. "You aren't into blokes..." Harry protests. It's the last line of defence. A lingering terror. George is straight. If I admit this, that I am a bloke, I'll lose George.
"For you, half of the wizarding world may be more than a tad queer, love," George sighs. "In any case, we won't know 'til we try, yeah? So if you really have your heart set on it, well..."
Oh but this makes no sense. Fred apparently swung that way, once or twice, but George isn't his twin, no matter how many identical twin jokes they used to toss around! George is as straight as it gets. He'd said just as much remembering Fred, telling Harry about his childhood crushes, his hopes and dreams. Was this an attempt to somehow honour the memory of his brother? A misguided attempt to soothe Harry? But there's another question on Harry's mind. "'Try'? What do you mean."
"Well, I am guessing eventually you're going to go through with the whole thing, whatever it is Muggles do," George waves his hand absentmindedly. "The sex change. The operation."
Harry blinks. 'The' operation? Which one? There are operations for this? "Wait. There are others who've done it? How do you know them? Who?"
"Easy, love. There's someone in London. A supplier." George looks shifty and Harry wonders if it's undercover ingredients or weed or something stronger. "Zoe. Used to go by Jack. Quite a character. Would drink me under the table."
"Feeling emasculated, are you?" Harry bristles at the thought of someone one day bringing up the things he doesn't want to hear or see about himself, so casually: Harry. Used to go by Harriet. Would 'Harriet' haunt him forever just as it's haunting Zoe now? No, best drop it. George didn't mean it, he doesn't know.
"Me, nah! Could ask her which doctors Zoe's gone to, I reckon. Are you serious about this?"
Harry considers the implication. What would an operation mean? Body parts sewn on, Frankenstein-style. Body parts removed. Scarred skin. Sutures. Knives and needles applied to the parts of a body no one - absolutely no one - wants them in the proximity of. It doesn't inspire much hope. Does being even slightly curious about the outcome already make Harry a freak? Does being reluctant make him too normal to ever try this?
"No! Of course not. An operation, in a Muggle hospital? I'm not completely barmy."
George's hand scratches Harry's fringe, brushes it aside and rests over the top of Harry's head, warm and soothing. "Never said you were, love."
That evening, Harry concentrates in a quiet room and takes a deliberate step to disregard those two parts of Trelawney's prophecy. Two simple words, her and she, to cast aside and remake into something else. He might as well wish for the world. Screw the prophecies. I'm Harry, he tells himself. I lived. I am alive, but I'm not a girl. That much I know. How do I make my body less of a girl now? He presses his arms around his chest and considers the Shrinking Charm. Hermione's stern voice rings in his head as if she is here: "You know well enough those are dangerous to perform on a human body." And so, instead, he digs up an old cast-off shirt of Dudley's from his school trunk. He hadn't touched this in years. He slices off the sleeves, puts it on, and shrinks that into a garment that would flatten him. He feels guilty and giddy and foolish for even trying this but it works well enough: his chest looks nothing like George's, but at least it's somewhere in between. He has to take shallow breaths and is wary of casting a second charm because of the pressure on the sides of his ribs. When he puts on a set of dark robes over the binding garment, his front is almost as flat as what he's aiming for. But that perfection is an unachievable goal.
He feels guilty just keeping it on. It's like wasting a clean bandage on a perfectly healthy limb: after all, the problem seems to be all in his head, innit? This is a foolish pretence.
And yet, at the same time, it feels right. His eye is drawn to the new shape of himself. He forces his shoulders into a wide and square stance, spreads his elbows like spreading wings, and plants his feet firmly on the floor. Yes. Wow. This feels good. This is what I need.
He doesn't want to take the contraption off when it's time to sleep. He must. Another few hours and his ribs won't thank him. He slides the wand under the stretchy fabric and points the tip of it away from his body, aiming at the bottom of the shirt. "Engorgio."
See, he tells himself, there are other simple measures. Muggles may need their operations. But they don't have magic. Magic solves everything!
He feels rather proud of his workaround as he folds the shirt carefully. He'll use it again. (He'll need it tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after that.)
Not long after, George enters the bedroom, a bottle of homemade Polyjuice Potion in his hand. "For you," he tells Harry. "Not the best workaround but hey, pick the right strand of hair and you'll get to try out how the other side lives for an hour. I'm open to... you know if you want me to show you how the plumbing works or..."
"Kinky," Harry snaps. The default self-defence around the Weasley family is not to let them shame him into blushing.
"Now who is jumping to conclusions, maybe I only meant pissing standing up," George deadpans. "If I won't teach you to aim right, who would." He puts up a stern upper lip and does a passable Professor Snape impression. "There'll be no foolish wand-waving in this loo! You will clean up every drop."
Joking helps ease the awkwardness at least, but it's the easy camaraderie of being one of the lads that pulls Harry into the absurdity of this gross-out contest. "If that alone is your measure of a man, I question your life goals," Harry snorts. "Before you say it, I've got no interest in signing my name in the snow either. No matter what kind of cock measuring you or your brothers have gotten up to as kids, it doesn't mean adults must..."
"Dunno, there's no better feeling when you're in the Carpathians with a full bladder in the morning and there's an icy cliff drop that makes your head spin with how high it is, and the only way you can piss in that weather is with your brother's heating charm on your..."
"Hey, easy there!"
"What? Really, Harry? You're cringing, aren't you? You are!"
"Well, yeah, I'm not into That Sort of Weasley family bonding. Whatever Charlie and you do in your spare time is none of my business."
"Just saying... Whenever you decide to - you know. The option is on the table. You would have to find the right Muggle for the hair."
"Why Muggle?" Really, why?
George raises his eyebrow. "Why do you think? My family is off-limits, I am not playing doctor with you looking like anyone we share Christmas meals with. Or with anyone we might know. Call me old-fashioned. And besides, you haven't been around anyone but my family lately."
Harry frowns. It's true, they haven't been socializing with anyone these days. Except for Ron and Hermione.
George grows quiet. Then continues, soft and slow. "I mean it. I'll brew you the next batch too. You are probably eager to try. I'd give you my hair in an instant, but..." he pauses, his stare suddenly blank and his expression sombre. "I can't. It'd be too much like facing Fred again, it's... it won't be him, of course, but... I can't." he offers as an explanation.
Looks like Harry's not the only one having a difficult time facing his reflection in the mirror. Poor George. I'd never do that to him! Harry takes in the sight of George, offering the world on the palm of his hand, the only world he knows how to make, and shakes his head mutely. He reaches out and puts his arms around his beanstalk of a lover, mourning a terrible loss, a cautious and protective grip.
"I'd never ask you to do that for me," Harry assures and sets the bottle aside. "I'm sure it's a temporary problem, but even if not... listen, we'll figure it out together. We have before. With everything else thrown at us."
"Yes," George says, sliding his arms around Harry's waist and pressing his lips against Harry's temple. "Yes, we will."
Harry shrugs the uneasy feeling of being trapped as a doll, as soon as George's large fingers fan over the sides. A bothersome thought lingers: if George was as he claimed into blokes, is that how he'd behave with one? Things are so much easier when Harry is the one initiating contact. He doesn't feel awkward then.
Fighting his own instincts, Harry leans into the embrace. Everything will be OK, he has to believe that. The rest is just habits, and those can be changed.
A bottle of Polyjuice remains untouched on the nightstand. It is a thoughtful gesture, but Harry's not comfortable trying it. He wants this body to be right for once, not to be stuck inside of someone else for an hour. Existing inside some other bloke's body is just as wrong as existing inside his own, the way it looks in the mirror today, with the too-small hands and feet, too-wide hips, too round of a jawline. There's not enough Polyjuice supply in the world to shrink his hips or flatten his chest, or deepen his voice and let him keep this body. There's no one else like that in the entire world so there'd be no hair for him to drop into the Polyjuice potion.
George, with his easy eagerness to suggest solutions, doesn't need to know that though. Not right now. Perhaps not at all. He's only trying to help. It's not his fault he can't understand Harry's dilemma. No one can.
I'm a bloody coward. Some Gryffindor I turned out to be!
At least George now knows.
Chapter 7: Coward. 1997.
Harriet races across the entrance hall and out into the darkness of the school grounds: she can just make out three dim figures sprinting across the lawn, heading for the gates. They will Disapparate there, just past the school boundaries! Damn it all. By the looks of things, it's some huge Death Eater and, way ahead, Snape and Malfoy.
Malfoy, the boy who once offered to be her boyfriend, as easily as offering a handshake. 'Deal, Potter?'
She was eleven.
The cold night air rips at Harriet's lungs as she rushes after them. A flash of light in the distance outlines her target. She doesn't know who she's racing after, but continues to sprint, not near enough to get a good aim with a curse -
Another flash, shouts, answering jets of light, and Harriet knows: Hagrid came out from his cabin and is trying to stop the Death Eaters, and though every breath shreds her lungs and her chest is on fire, Harriet speed up, because the voice in her head screams, throbbing and swift: not Hagrid… not Hagrid too…
Something catches Harry hard in the small of the back and she falls forward, her face smacking the ground, nostrils bloody. She knows, even as she rolls over, her wand ready, that the enemies are closing in behind her…
"Impedimenta!" she yells and rolls, crouching to the dark ground, and miraculously her jinx hits one, her target stumbles and falls, tripping the other. Harriet leaps to her feet and sprints onward after Snape.
The vast outline of Hagrid, illuminated by the crescent moon flashes as the clouds part; a Death Eater aims another curse, but Hagrid's immense strength and the toughened skin of a half-giant seems to be protecting him better than any spell ever could. Snape and Malfoy are still running; they will soon be beyond the gates, able to Disapparate -
Harriet tears past Hagrid and his opponent, then takes aim at Snape's back, and yells, "Stupefy!"
She misses; the jet of red light soars past Snape's head; Snape shouts, "Run, Draco!" and turns. Yards apart, he and Harry face each other before raising their wands simultaneously.
Come on, don't fail me now! Harriet shouts: "Cruc -"
Snape parries, knocking her back off her feet before she can complete it; Harriet rolls over and scrambles back as the huge Death Eater behind her yells "Incendio!" With an explosive bang, orange light spills over them: Hagrid's house catches on fire.
"Fang's in there, yer evil - !"
Damn it. Work! Harriet clutches her wand in a death grip. "Cruc -" she chokes out for the second time, aiming for the figure ahead of her illuminated in the firelight, but Snape blocks the spell again. Harry can see him sneering.
"No Unforgivable Curses from you, Potter!" Snape shouts over the rushing of the flames, Hagrid's yells, and the wild yelping of the trapped Fang. "You haven't got the nerve or the ability -"
"Incarc -" Harriet screams, but Snape deflects the spell, lazily, with a flick of an arm.
"Fight back!" Harry roars at him. "Fight back, you coward!"
"Coward, did you call me, Potter?" shouts Snape. "Your father would never attack me unless it was four on one, what would you call him?"
Even though there's a small pang of joy at 'Potter' - Yes, I am my father's child, Harry still bristles. I am not dad! I'm not! I'm neither of my parents. And so Harriet tries once more. "Stupe -"
"Blocked again and again and again until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed!" sneers Snape, deflecting the curse like swatting a fly. "Now come!" he shouts at the huge Death Eater behind Harriet, looming. "It is time to go before the Ministry turns up -"
Fuck! "Impedi -"
But before he can finish, excruciating pain hits Harry; she keels over in the grass. Someone's screaming, the agony will surely kill her now, Snape is going to torture her to death or madness -
"No!" roars Snape's voice and the pain stops as suddenly as it had started; Harriet stays curled on the dark ground, clutching her wand and panting; somewhere overhead Snape shouts, "Have you forgotten our orders? Potter belongs to the Dark Lord — we are to leave! Go! Go!"
And Harry's ground shudders under her face as the Death Eaters obey, running toward the gates. Harry lets out an inarticulate scream of rage: In that instant, she doesn't care if she lives or dies. Pushing herself up to her feet, she staggers blindly toward Snape, the man she hates, as much as Voldemort!
Snape flicks his wand and the curse is repelled yet again, but Harry is mere feet away now and Snape's face is clear. He no longer sneers or jeers, the blaze of the fire shows a face full of rage. Mustering all her magic, Harry thinks, Levi -
"No!" screams Snape. With a bang, Harry soars backwards, hitting the ground hard, and this time her wand flows out of her hand, her plaits whip against her face heavily. She can hear Hagrid yelling and Fang howling as Snape closes in and looks down on her, wandless and as defenceless as Dumbledore. Snape's pale face, illuminated by the flaming cabin, is suffused with pure hate, just as it had right before he had cursed Dumbledore.
"You dare use my own spells against me? It was I who invented them — I, the Half-Blood Prince! And you'd turn my inventions on me, like your filthy father, would you? I don't think so… no!"
Harry dives for her wand; Snape shoots a hex at it and it tumbles feet away into the darkness and out of sight.
"Kill me," pants Harry, and feels no fear: only rage, only contempt. "Kill me like you killed him, you coward!"
"DON'T -" screams Snape, and his face is demented, inhuman, as though he is in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning hut, he's nothing like the stern teacher in Harry's childhood classrooms - "CALL ME COWARD!"
He slashes at the air and Harriet feels a white-hot, searing brand - nothing like her own hair - whipping her across the face as she's slammed backwards into the ground. Spots of light burst in front of her eyes and for a moment all the breath escapes her body. A rush of wings above stops the attack and something enormous blocks out the stars. Buckbeak rushes at Snape, who staggers backwards as the razor-sharp claws slash at him. As Harry raises herself up into a sitting position, her head still swimming from its last contact with the ground, she sees Snape running as hard as he can, the enormous beast flapping behind and screeching as wildly as it never was before -
Harriet struggles to her feet, looking around groggily for her wand, hoping to give chase again, but even as her fingers fumble in the grass, discarding twigs, she knows it's too late, and sure enough, by the time her wand is in her grip, she turns to see only the hippogriff circling the gates.
Just beyond the school boundaries, Snape Disapparates.
Harry, a shocked shell of a child soldier, remains behind.
Chapter 8: The Stag. April 2001.
Something was driving the Dementors back...
Fighting to stay conscious, Harriet watched it canter to a halt as it reached the opposite shore. For a moment, Harriet saw, by its brightness, somebody welcoming it back... raising his hand to pat it... someone who looked strangely familiar... but it couldn't be...
Harriet didn't understand. She couldn't think anymore. She felt the last of her strength leave her, and her head hit the ground as she fainted.
George's birthday comes and goes, without celebration. It's a sombre affair these days, honouring Fred's memory as well as celebrating George's life. George keeps the shop open. They visit Molly and Arthur and afterwards, Ginny, Ron and Hermione, Harry and George, share a drink at their place and set off old fireworks packaged by Fred's hand. Their guests don't stay long, and afterwards, George and Harry share a long hug. It breaks Harry to see George this quiet, this listless. Broken down by loss and emptiness and yet, still, putting one foot in front of the other.
The passage of time helps dull the grief, but it'll never be gone completely. A week passes by, then another.
Harry grows restless, counting down the days of personal lifeless inaction. How does one know they're ready to move forward? That it is time to take a leap of faith. What if today is the wrong day. What if tomorrow would be too late to try?
"Expecto Patronum," Harry murmurs, hand curling around his wand handle, summoning up a memory of friendly banter in the recent years.
"OK, I've got one for you. Harriet and Snape, sitting in a tree, K, I, S, S..."
"Damn it, not again! Must you, Ron?"
"Really, Ron, Harry's right! Must you?"
"Oh, come on, Hermione. Snape's got a matching Patronus and everything. What can be better? Deer! Dear, dear me. It's far too good not to -"
"Oi, I remember you blushing and grinning from ear to ear when waltzing with McGonagall. Care to explain what your hand was doing two inches below her waist?"
"Harry! Come on, it's the Headmistress!" Ron stares at his friends as if they'd desecrated the sword of Godric Gryffindor in one fell swoop.
"Aiming high, are you? Or is it low? You 'brave lion about to pounce'! Go on, show her your footwork now!"
"You know... Harry's right. Just two cats getting along, bonding over the shared values, wonder who'll start purring first?" Hermione adds. "Oh, dear, Ron. You are blushing. Should I be worried about your Transfiguration marks being earned in flagrante delicto?"
"That's... not a waltz, is it."
"Pretty sure she means shagging, Ron."
"Ugh. Did I mention, ew! No! Nothing against the Headmistress McGonagall, she's a talented witch, brilliant with a wand, really... What? WHAT?"
But then again, laughter rises over them as they toast each other in front of the fireplace at Ron and Hermione's new flat. Harry's fully prepared to crash on the couch after, as firewhisky burns its way down. It's safe and comfortable, the safest Harry has felt for a long time.
The ghostly stag springs to life at the thought of that warmth. Harry needs all the warmth and brightness of a Patronus right now. After Fred's funeral, George had trouble casting his Patronus for many months, and Harry was overjoyed to see that ghostly magpie again, soaring up at the ceiling of their flat. Harry never wants to lose the stag like that. It's too precious to him. He watches it prance and disappear, dad's legacy, the only tangible reminder of dad's existence that he's got. It's all sorts of ironic, now that he thinks about the distant figure he once assumed to be his father at the lakeshore, saving two lost children and a lost man from the swarm of Dementors.
That year Harry's hair was the shortest it had ever been, Harry's glasses - round, like on that old photograph of dad spinning mum around: it's as if that Harry had been chasing after the memory of dad all throughout his existence, only to discover nothing but himself standing on the shore, casting that first corporeal Patronus.
Maybe... just maybe... this is the right thing to do. Was the right thing to do all along.
This is who I am. Who I've been all my life.
I need to do this.
But how do I explain it to everyone? No one, absolutely no one would understand. I can't even find the words to talk about the enormity of it. My entire life is a lie. What's real?
For some reason Harry's mind grips onto a nightmarish memory once more: that distant shape of himself by the lake, casting a spell to save his past self, his godfather, and his best friend from the sea of Dementors, an endless swarm of them, swirling, swooping, converging... over the passed out man and two Gryffindor girls huddled over him...
A sharp pang of despair shakes Harry to the core, at that last thought - of himself as something he's been trying to avoid thinking about - a sensation as powerful as anything brought forth by an approaching Dementor.
All right. Enough of that. I'm Harry. Just Harry. Breathe.
Fuelled by that childhood memory of the lake, shaken once more from the memory of Sirius, held so close and yet long gone now, and feeling pangs of horror (excitement?) - whatever it is, it's just as suffocating and stifling as the upturned sea of dread and danger. A gathering storm. Well then, time to face the storm at last! And so Harry takes a deep breath, Apparates into a corridor, right by the lobby of a Muggle doctor. Dr. Singh, his memory supplies. Or at least that's what George said, as he talked about Zoe's contact in the Muggle world.
If he won't do this today, he won't do it at all.
It's perfectly quiet and cosy. Instantly, he wants to disappear. He steps forward into a neat, completely Muggle waiting room, and wants nothing more than to sink into one of those square, blue seats and turn invisible on the spot. Do all these Muggles around the place know exactly what I'm here for? Are they here for the same thing? Shit!
Instead of allowing himself to sink into the deepest depths of hell on the spot, he drags himself up to the reception centre.
"Huh, I just can't find a record under that name..."
Harry waves his wand covertly at the Muggle contraption that looks like a flattened TV with wires extending out. "Check again, please. I'm sure I have an appointment."
"Ah, there you are. It'll only be a second..."
"Potter. Right this way, please."
It's such an odd feeling, a comfort, to be a stranger in the crowd, amid Muggles at least. No one stares at Harry here, no one catches glimpses of his scar. That small moment of calm centers him and keeps him moving.
He doesn't know how to find the strength to face the doctor. It helps a little bit that when Dr. Singh enters, she's not what Harry expects. She's short and stout and imposing nonetheless. Above a pristine white coat and behind an equally pristine clipboard shines a toothy smile. As flashy and as bright as George's.
"Potter, Harry Potter, is it? What can I help you with today?"
Harry wants to hide his hands in his pockets, cover up the width of his hips, turn away so she isn't staring at his round face. He knows he has to answer but his voice is all wrong and squeaky and high-pitched, even though it's been this way all his life.
I'm an impostor. I don't belong here.
Expecto Patronum. It's not a spell, he merely visualises the ghostly stag rushing forward, breaking through the faceless shrouded crowd of monsters. That one memory, one brief second, in the stag's light, when he mistook his own body for a man's body - for dad - on the lakeshore makes his heart clench in his chest with longing. It felt right. For that particular moment, everything was as it should be.
How can I find that again? Can it be found?
Testosterone! Harry's mind screams. One step at a time. Just this. This is enough. Now, what's next? How do I go about it?
"So, HRT. I mean, I need it. I really do. I'm ready," Harry cringes inwardly - sorry! - and casts a brief confounding spell on the Muggle doctor. "That's what I've been discussing for a while now, right, with my psychiatrist, and all the paperwork is in order, so..." Gotta keep it calm. She mustn't suspect a thing.
No reaction emerges out of that stiff expression with an arched brow. "Well, that's the end-goal, isn't it? But why don't you sit down and tell me a bit about your health history? Relax," she adds softly. "I know you're nervous. You've made it this far and your labs look fine. This is just a formality. How do you feel about needles?"
"Alright, I reckon."
As she explains about subcutaneous and intramuscular shots, about the importance of a proper dose, Harry still doesn't allow himself to breathe freely.
The thought of having to stab himself with a needle is not the scary part. No medical procedure is as invasive as taking a step to be vulnerable, to bare his innermost self in front of a Muggle stranger, to even ask for this sort of thing. It's OK. She's a doctor, he tells himself. A good one, from what I've read. She will sort me out. I have to trust that.
Who can I trust if not a doctor... and myself? I have to trust myself on this!
Right then. One step at a time.
Step one, find clothes that don't make me uncomfortable to see myself in the mirror. Step two, testosterone. Step three, tell Ron and Hermione.
Chapter 9: Snivelly. April 2001.
Snape lay panting on the ground. James and Sirius advanced on him, wands up, James glancing over his shoulder at the girls at the water's edge as he went. Wormtail was on his feet now, watching hungrily, edging around Lupin to get a clearer view.
"How'd the exam go, Snivelly?" said James.
On the weekend, Snape puts on his coat with the collar raised high to cover up his scar, and steps outside. He walks the cobbled streets to the nearest grocer and places milk, eggs, and bread into the shopping trolley. Afterwards, he counts out Muggle money and claims two bags of food which should be enough to last him into next week. On his way back, the clouds part and the sun surfaces, reminding him that spring is actually here. The passing cars are rare, splashing mud onto the footpath as they zoom by now and then. The wind blowing from the direction of the river is fresh for once and does not reek of rubbish as much as it usually does. Snape cautiously takes a deep breath of fresh air and enjoys the simple sensation of oxygen filling his lungs before heading home.
It is not... unpleasant, this mundane, quiet existence, speckled with a rare moment such as this. It is actually quite acceptable as far as life goes. Snape has been through far worse.
That night, he dreams of Azkaban again. The cells, the stench, the tasteless gruel. The wound on his neck throbs dully, signalling rain somewhere upwards, beyond the thick walls, where the sky still exists.
And then, falling deeper into the dream within a dream, a nightmare locked within the wider nightmare, Snape dreams of his sentencing, of the gavel striking the surface of the table and his sentence spoken aloud, condemning him to a lifetime in that wretched cell. He deserves nothing less, after all. And still, he looks around in dulled shock and Potter isn't in the seated crowd. Potter is nowhere to be seen... Potter isn't there.
Snape wakes with sweaty palms and damp sheets and asserts his surroundings. He is home. He is free. Nothing is amiss. It's early spring. It's also Monday - the Every Other Monday. Potter will surely stick that unruly head out of his fireplace in the afternoon. This is how things are. This is the reality. Potter was there in the courtroom that day, testifying before the Wizengamot on Snape's behalf. That testimony made all the difference.
Of course, Potter had been there, had saved him from Azkaban or worse. It is absurd, and Snape almost laughs at the memory, how the difference between his own bed and a revolting cell was the presence and fiery defence Potter provided. Instead, he takes a deep, soothing breath.
He won't think of Potter any more, until the scheduled visit.
He won't think of Potter saving him, at least.
He will think of the recent change in Potter's hair, cut short again, and the choice of glasses is impossible to ignore: it reminds Snape - far too much - of a mouthy young brat in his own classroom. More so, with Potter's features being what they are, they bring flashbacks of Snape's childhood bully, of James Potter himself.
Potter's lips, pale and unpainted, turn that face into yet another reminder of Snape's childhood tormentor. If it wasn't for the thin arched brows and the softer jawline, well, the way they both manage to stick out their elbows and plant their feet firmly on the ground these days, with all the confidence of a Gryffindor youth refusing to tread lightly... it's an unsettling reminder. It's downright disturbing how little of Lily is left now in her child.
What's more unsettling is the irrational portion of Snape's brain trying to insist that, even with the shade of James Potter's features unmistakably present, the face framed by that dark short-cropped hair is, despite everything, an appealing sight, handsome rather than pretty. (Snape won't think about that for now and so he dismisses it as irrelevant.)
Potter's change in behaviour is such a puzzling thing to witness. Snape is a keen observer of people, as a Legilimens and a spy, he prides himself on being able to figure out the motivation behind every minuscule detail, every tiny change that occurs. But this is not minuscule, this is about as subtle as a brick to the head. This earnest overcompensation for every pressed lace blouse and every pair of pearl earrings worn in the past, for every tap of pencil-thin heels across the floorboards of Snape's house, for the flowery perfume that used to linger over the sofa.
Potter's not a teenager going through a rebellion, far from that, but the change in mannerisms is unmistakably intentional. Even the smooth rounded chin sticking out in protest reminds Snape of the fifth-year boys - barely old enough for a shaving spell - ruining his ingredients on a dare.
Nothing, aside from this one oddity of Potter's choices in attire (official Auror uniform with a distinct wizard's cut and style), in daily presentation (about as ladylike these days as the Falmouth Falcons' locker room), is amiss. Potter is courteous and amazingly dignified, Potter doesn't taunt or pry, Potter appears to have discovered basic manners on every official visit and does not overstay a strained welcome. Potter is still the picture-perfect image of a shining Auror, the kind that (Snape imagines) spends all day rescuing kittens from trees in a glittering world where every street is brightly lit and clean and smells of sweets, and no wrong turn would ever lead to Knockturn Alley. Just the kind of perfect, tooth-rotting fantasy that cannot possibly exist outside of your average madman's fevered brain. And yet Snape wants to see more of it. Wants to see more of Potter.
This act, this change, is nothing but deliberate, but Potter's motivations are a mystery. No matter how skilled Potter gets at adopting a new sense of fashion, no matter how many earnest smiles Potter can flash at strangers, it's not going to win admiration or fans. In fact, it'll likely alienate anyone capable of stiffening their upper lip in contempt at a deviation from the norm. 'Neglecting her looks,' the papers might speculate. 'The Golden Girl, going through a rough patch.' Snape sneers at the thought of that. This sort of thing is not for show or attention, not merely something to gossip about; whatever it is Potter is trying to achieve deserves dignity, the same dignity that Potter has managed to show Snape before, be it in Azkaban or in front of Wizengamot or at Spinner's End.
And neglect? That's certainly not the cause of it, of course. Snape remembers himself, unwashed and uncaring, throughout his childhood. The shaky walk, the pale, pimpled skin, the ink-splotched nose nearly pressed to the parchment, painstakingly deconstructing the odour of drying ink as one might deconstruct a potion from its fumes. He knows the symptoms, the reek of neglect far too well.
This is far too measured and planned to be mere neglect of one's body. Potter making an effort to change outward appearance past the expected default. It's captivating, like watching a snake, all scale and slime and coils, emerge out of a pale and perfectly ordinary egg.
When has Potter ever planned and executed anything this elaborate? It's... fascinating. Possibly because it's familiar. I, of all people, bloody-well know the sheer amount of effort it takes to change one's habits.
Snape summons forth the memory of a young Hogwarts teacher hiding behind the facade of voluminous robes, forcing his spine as straight as a ramrod, squaring his shoulders and tilting his chin up, injecting cultured sophistication into every spoken word, until these actions too become habits, become second nature, become all he is. Professor Snape. Until Snivelly is left in the dust of an unwanted memory, in the eggshells of the past. Until all of Da's mannerisms are driven clean out of his being, until even Mum's wand - an untraced backup used all throughout his Hogwarts years as his own - is abandoned for a more suitable alternative. No wand at all.
I must keep an eye on Potter... Transformations like these are never easy. Shedding the weight of one's upbringing comes with sacrifices.
But what past could Potter possibly have to shed?
Perhaps the next time Potter is here, I should offer tea and see if I can find out more. Why not? It always worked for Dumbledore.
Chapter 10: 'Mr. Potter.' April 2001.
"There's no need to call me 'sir,' Professor."
Harriet Potter and Severus Snape
Out of everything in the world that Harry has rescued from Voldemort's clutches, saving Snape's scrawny arse from being thrown into Azkaban for the rest of his days is an achievement of a bloody lifetime. Not that it isn't a thankless task, but it does make one smug to think about. It's petty, but Harry relishes it like a cold bottle of beer, like all the stress coping mechanisms that are too bad for him.
Harry sits in a rickety chair during his bi-monthly trip to Spinner's End. Ministry surveillance wasn't about to stop in Snape's case, but Harry was really the best one for the job when it came to not prying, and Snape stopped snapping right and left after the first six months post-Azkaban.
Still, these encounters are awkward as hell.
He's late to check up on Snape, apparating to Spinner's End after a nerve-wracking lunchtime trip to the pharmacy for a single tiny phial that's about to change his life. He hasn't even got the syringes to go with it yet. Potter, Harry, the phial says on the label: his future. He's taken it out of its box right away and stuck it in his pocket. He's held onto it like it's Felix Felicis, the most precious of potions, turning it, rolling it between his fingers as a reminder: he has it, it exists.
As Snape distracts himself reaching for the tin of black tea, Harry can't help but take the phial out of his pocket to see his name printed on the label once more, making it real.
On the stove, the tea kettle releases a loud whistle like a freight train, and Harry jumps, watching in shock as the tiny phial slips out of his grasp and drops to the floor, hurling toward certain disaster. Oh fuck. Harry lunges after the precious cargo, not fast enough, Snape's wandless magic catches it, making it bob in mid-air like a snitch.
With the familiar scrutiny of a potioneer among dangerous substances, Snape peers at it, as the phial turns, surely allowing him to read the print on the label.
Testosterone cypionate, it says.
Potter, Harry, it says below. Undeniably there.
Harry cannot inhale. He wants the ground to swallow him whole where he stands. He doesn't know whether he'll ever be able to breathe. With some effort, he draws a cautious breath. Good, now, I must say something. Maybe it's all OK and he didn't read the label. Maybe he doesn't know what it is.
Ha! It's Snape. Of course, he knows.
"Um," Harry says: "Thanks. Can I have that back?"
One eyebrow arches, thin and prying. A wave of Snape's hand sends the phial, safe and sound, toward Harry's eager grip.
"Listen, Snape." Quick, what do I say? I can tell him it's for George. Or for Arthur. That it's far less bother to use my name in the Muggle world. I can tell that the label is wrong. I don't have to explain at all. I don't! It's Snape, for fuck's sake. I don't owe him any explanations. He lets his shoulders sag, keeps staring at that one spot on the floor where Snape's pointy boot begins and his shadow ends. Bloody hell, this is impossible!
And then, as sudden as the first drop of rain, and as inevitable as a freight train, Harry lets out the truth of the matter, past his lips. "I think I'm a bloke. I mean... I know I am, but -" There are so many buts to this. This is bloody stupid. Fuck!
Snape seems far too calm. Probably plotting, figuring out how to use this to his advantage. Holy shit. What can I expect? Snape would surely use this opportunity to mock Harry. To think of it, this is a perfect blackmail opportunity for a former spy.
"Well. Do go on, Mis-" A wave of Snape's hand makes the teacups dance in the air like a rollercoaster ride, like a Mad Hatter's idea of an afternoon treat. "-ter Potter. Tea?"
It's not the plain teacups that fill Harry's mind with wonder. It's that one word. The suspense of it, like a bomb about to drop, and then not. Mister. It sounds odd, that two-syllable word, with a pause in the middle for emphasis. That one stupid sixth-year joke haunts Harry's memory like a brand. "There's no need to call me 'sir', Professor." It wasn't even that funny when it slipped out in class, but it is downright ironic now. A memory of Snape's stern voice during lectures, of his enraged reactions, emerges and Snape sounds nothing like that at the moment. Even his stare softens as Harry looks at him. Blinks. There's a calm composure about this moment which seems to stretch on in silence.
"What, do you prefer something else?" And surely it's not Harry's choice of beverages he's inquiring after. Snape's voice is oddly polite, almost friendly. It's not what Harry ever expected.
Only a freak would understand this, realization dawns. Not my friends, not the Weasleys. A real freak, like Snape. I just hope he's freak enough. To get this. To get all of this. I want someone to get it! Not just pretend that they do, or try to be polite for my sake. I need at least one person to understand.
"No!" Harry stops him. "This is fine." Mister is just fine. Tea is too. Harry is a freak underneath it all, damn it, and he wants this, needs this like water, like the next breath of air, and the sudden flood of relief at that one simple word hits him even as his ears burn, as he tucks away the precious phial of testosterone back in his pocket, as he sits down, leans forward, resting his elbows over his knees, hiding most of himself, all of himself as his body is at this point in time, all the wrongness of it, except for the tense shoulders and clenched fists, fingers intertwined. He's all pins and needles at this point. It would be far easier to exist as something like a hedgehog, not a human being, a mass of needles curled into a perpetual ball. A hedgehog would be fine with an 'it', it wouldn't care what humans call it. A hedgehog would not have to wake to a mess of a mind, forcing the sleepy thoughts into a reminder of a name and a certain image of masculinity to calm itself and face another day. A hedgehog wouldn't need to borrow George's shirts every chance it gets. It wouldn't have to worry about the awkwardness of hunching over to hide the not-quite flat enough chest or forcing the high pitched tone of voice deeper! Harry pauses and lets himself exhale. "This is absolutely great."
"As long as you're certain." The teacups settle on the edge of the wooden table. Pristine as the brewing equipment in Snape's classroom. Steam rises from the tea kettle's spout.
I am. More than I can express. Harry can't add anything else. He can't possibly speak again, but he nods, mutely. Thank you. It means everything to him, that moment of unexpected validation. Everything!
Snape continues, presenting his wand for the Ministry's routine inspection, as usual, carrying on as if nothing earth-shattering has occurred, and yet... As Harry casts the monitoring charms, notes the household spells, his personal, quiet joy builds up, bubbling over.
He stashes away that one spoken word, hides it away, the memory of it, the way it sounded when it slipped past Snape's lips, casual and poignant all at once.
I'm Harry Potter. I'm Harry. I'm Mr. Potter.
That feels right. Comfortable, like sliding into a familiar bed. Welcome, like the heat of a solitary bath with the water still running and nothing else left to do for the day.
He thinks he understands precisely then what Hermione meant about the reluctance to take Ron's name when they marry. It's not often seen in the wizarding world, but it has to be possible. It's the name dad had all his life, the name mum took when they said their marriage vows. He wouldn't discard this surname without a fight any more than he'd allow 'Harry' to slip away from the forefront of his mind.
He likes the way it sounds when others say it, though there aren't many others. Any of them, really. Just Snape.
It is the unexpected joy of that one first 'Mister Potter' heard in Snape's kitchen that Harry's mind latches onto, months later, on a warm afternoon in July, as Harry battles his inner demons at his desk, trying his best to make it through yet another report.
It's nearly six p.m. He reaches for his wand. Snape no longer needs supervision per se but they both decide to continue on with these visits, every other week.
"Expecto Patronum," Harry says and the stag bursts forth. He quickly shares his message with the messenger. "Look, Professor," (Snape said long ago not to call him that. Dammit!) "Er, Snape. I think... I won't make it today. Nothing major, just I'll see you next week, yeah?"
What do you say when cancelling a bi-weekly... whatever it is. It's no longer an Auror checking up on a Ministry charge, that's for sure.
Yes, it's that kind of Monday already. All he's looking forward to is a bottle of firewhisky and a feather-soft sofa. He has no idea how he's going to get through this week, let alone another year of this. Wait, would it be a year? Two? Three? Puberties take longer than a year, don't they. Bloody hell! I'm screwed. I don't know if I'll make it until Wednesday with the way things are going.
Let me make it until Wednesday at least.
But what would Wednesday bring me, what, I'll be all of two days further into becoming a man then?
The thought is of no comfort. It makes him feel like a mannequin. An animated wooden puppet many days away from becoming a Real Boy. Only no Blue Fairy can possibly make this right. Harry's on his own.
At the silver flash of movement, he jolts. He is surprised to see his Patronus return so suddenly, only it's not his. It's a slender, smaller doe without the branching horns on its head. Whoa. Definitely didn't expect Snape's personal messenger.
The whispered message is unexpected as well. "In that case, happy early birthday, Mr. Potter. See you after the festivities. Sunday for tea, perhaps?"
Harry's sudden smile is impossible to hide as he runs his fingers over the phantom doe's head. She prances and disappears from sight in a shower of white snowy sparks.
It is my birthday. Twenty-first. Time flies!
Why does it then feel like the real him is not even a year old? Where would one start counting from, anyway? Harry thinks back. ("I'm Harry, I'm HARRY, Fuck! I'm Harry. Gotta breathe. I'm Harry, not Harriet!" The snapped Tergeos as if at an open wound, the profound unease four days out of the month.)
It may all go away soon. A few months is all it usually takes. The endocrinologist, Ms. Singh - Dr. Singh, Harry corrects himself because titles are important - had said as much.
That particular effect of the weekly shots, he's certainly looking forward to experiencing, can't be soon enough. It's rather ironic: be it a leftover wound of the war, or the quirk of his own self rejecting all signs of femininity, but Harry never wanted kids.
George probably does.
Oh hell, Harry thinks. Maybe we should get that kneazle together. See how we fare with someone more independent than a baby.
For once, he thinks he understands Snape. Poor bloody sod certainly hated being surrounded by all the rowdy first-years, let alone having to teach all of us anything useful.
Chapter 11: Sunday. August 2001.
Professor Trelawney whirled around as Harry let out a snort of laughter.
‘Let me see that, my dear,' she said reprovingly to Ron, sweeping over and snatching Harriet's cup from her. Everyone went quiet to watch.
Professor Trelawney was staring into the teacup, rotating it anti-clockwise.
‘The falcon… my dear, you have a deadly enemy.'
The first time Snape offers tea and company to Potter, he thoroughly questions his good sense.
After all, no man with a past like his should ever willingly share a word, let alone food and conversation, with an Auror. It's how it felt having tea with Dumbledore before, under constant scrutiny: lemon sherbets sparkled in the light like jewels and the sunlight streamed through the windows of the tower, dust motes suspended in the stillness and the mundaneness of it all. Snape dealt with it by keeping tight control over his Occlumency shields whenever he was in the Headmaster's office.
To break away from that unpleasant line of thought, and questioning his good sense even further, Snape, on a whim, offers his visitor a glass of something stronger.
"Brandy? Innit a bit early for a proper drink," Potter, with his sleeves perpetually rolled up halfway, assuming his default pose of bared elbows resting over the widespread knees, tells Snape, as he shrugs. "Yeah, why not."
Several months into this, there are moments when Potter is still overdoing masculinity like an entire flock of smelly teenage boys tasting their first butterbeer in Hogsmeade and boasting about their brooms. It's an obvious act but it's how he feels secure, Snape thinks. Sometimes Potter's, noticeably deeper, voice cracks and breaks and that enhances the effect. That alone makes him look like someone younger, someone Snape shouldn't ever offer brandy to.
"To the past staying in the past," Snape toasts after he pours a finger's width of brandy out of the bottle to both glasses in equal share.
"To surviving Voldemort, and every day after, yeah?" Potter echoes. "That's one thing we did right."
Snape eyes him, wary of such pragmatism coming from a Potter. "I am not averse to repeating this again, I suppose there is a solace to be found in the company of a fellow survivor. Once in a while."
At that casual mention of surviving, Potter's eyes widen as if in surprise and it puts him unexpectedly at ease enough to stretch out his legs. The gesture is almost natural now, but still with that momentary hesitation, Snape notes. He has seen it enough times to know that Potter is fighting a habit of crossing his ankles, schooling himself into masculinity, one meticulous detail at a time. "Yes. Here's to that. Well-put, Professor." He watches Potter take more than one sip from his glass.
The lad's mind is older than his looks. A grown man's mind. He is certainly not a student anymore, despite insisting on calling Snape Professor now and then. Snape does not particularly feel like mentoring anyone perfectly capable of learning from their own mistakes. What Snape can do instead is notice and observe Potter's presence as well as his own body's oftentimes puzzling reactions to it. When did Potter's smile, that lopsided twist of his mouth, ever become a handsome sight, anyway? When did that messy mop of hair become acceptable? When did his eyes stop being the reminder of Lily and became Potter's own? It happened so gradually, so naturally, and that alone is an unsettling discovery. Snape is far too paranoid to accept that things 'just happen' without his thorough analysis and dissection.
Snape holds back his own drinking. Noting the patterns in Potter's habits, new and old. Analysing them. The lad is fond of resting his elbows over the knees, sticking his chin out when he's particularly daring. Sometimes, he lifts his hand to scratch the back of his neck. When he's relaxed, he settles into boyish mannerisms with profound ease, as if unleashing them from a long-locked closet.
"Professor'? You never showed respect before, why start now? And don't get too used to drinking all my supplies, Potter. Next time, you will bring your own bottle to share."
"Sure. What do you like?" Potter smiles, the bloody devil. From this angle, with that smile, he no longer looks like his father to Snape. His voice is deeper, certainly, but it's not James Potter's voice. Every once in a while, there's still a soft, lilting pitch that reminds Snape of Lily, as if Potter had spent enough time with her to pick up her manner of speaking, of asking questions with a particular head tilt, with the arch of the brow. But that's surely impossible.
"If you show up with the box of butterbeer expecting me to sit through a round of footy on the telly, you will be banished swiftly to the nearest pub," Snape sneers, but it's for show. "Aside from that, surprise me."
"You've got a telly here?" Potter perks up. "Good for you. What's next. Running water?"
Snape thinks back on the telly's empty static interrupted by Da's drunken snores. The sound of running water hitting the metal sink resonates from the kitchen, punctuated by the banging of the plates. Mum ran out of clean ones once a week and resigned herself to doing the dishes on an angry whim. Severus knew better by then than to step one foot into the kitchen and cast a cleaning spell, or even to lend a helping hand. Ma's temper was legendary and nothing would anger her more than a reminder of what had withered away in her over the years of Spinner's End's drudgery and Da's nagging.
No, the television set is no longer in his house.
"In case you haven't noticed, I have my books," Snape answers plainly, extending his arm to gesture at the well-organised shelves. "What man could possibly want for more?"
Potter, his voice warm and slurring, affected by the rest of his drink gulped down too fast, gives the books a considering passing glance, and then shrugs. "Dunno, I could think of a few more things."
"Like what?" Snape prompts.
Potter shrugs. "The usual. World peace. House-elf liberation. A cure for baldness..."
That last one almost brings out a smirk from Snape. Baldness. Oh, of all things. When would he ever have had the chance to worry about that? He doesn't come across as this much of a vain sod.
And then he notices a nervous twitch of Potter's hands, as his fingers run through the corner of his hairline, twisting and pulling. Letting go. Rolling the resulting loose hair between thumb and forefinger.
Don't tell me he is worried. Hm.
"When it comes to the art of potion-making saving the world, I can assure you, you can have one out of three, at least," he says softly. "In an imperfect world, that's better than nothing, no?"
Potter's silent. He repeats the gesture on the other side of his face, and it's just as skittish as before. "Um, it's not what you are thinking. I'm not worried, really. It's just hairline, redistributing, I think, all part of the expected effects. Nothing to worry about. Unless it's stress..." Potter says. "But it's fine, really. I was joking anyway."
His face looks sombre, far from a joke. A much deeper tension is betrayed in every part of his body. It's as if he is afraid of something and at the same time afraid to talk about any of his fears. There's a mystery in that but it will have to remain so, for now.
"If this is what it takes to make you see sense, I am more than happy to send up a batch of Hirsute Healy's Hair Oil monthly to your door," Snape smirks, attempting to ease the tension. "I, of course, brew a far superior version which will cost you extra. It needs more frequent application but it will leave your scalp oil-free."
Potter looks up at that and gives Snape's own hair a dubious, amused smile. "Yeah right."
Snape meets Potter's eye and, after a moment of deliberation, rakes his hand through his tangled strands to expose his face and arches his left eyebrow in a clear challenge. "Trust me, a true potioneer knows how to take full advantage of a grown wizard fussing over his thinning locks and of a young lad fussing over a scrap of a moustache, in equal measures. I suppose you may have both to look forward to in life. As far as I'm concerned there is nothing wrong with occasional vanity when it earns me up to eight galleons a bottle for a discreet and timely owl delivery. Accio sample!"
A wave of his hand summons forth a small ornate bottle. Harry squints at the label with a blond, beaming wizard suspiciously resembling Gilderoy Lockhart and gives Snape an incredulous look: "Ferdinand Falcon's. Fabulous. Hairgrowth Elixir?"
"Of course." Snape deadpans. "What else did you expect? Surely not my actual name."
"Well, why not?" Harry's mouth twists in thought as he adds teasingly in that lilting, Lily-like tone especially noticeable at the end of the sentences. "I reckon you'd have to rename it to Severus Snape's 'Superior' Elixir. Doesn't sound half bad."
"Perish the thought," Snape scoffs, suddenly finding himself warmer than before, only partially due to the drink making its way down his throat. "A former Death Eater's brew would only ever be bought as rat poison, and that would never sell even half as well. Regardless of superiority."
He reaches out then, defying all common sense, and closes Potter's fingers around the bottle. "Keep it." He sneers for good measure. (After all, practical gifts must come with a matching sneer.) "Though if you ever report it as a bribe, Auror, there will be consequences, none of them pleasant."
Potter's mouth curls. "I'm not here in an Auror capacity," he states. "Innit obvious by now?"
"Hm?" Snape lets the silence linger, a prompt for Potter to continue explaining because he certainly isn't about to comment further on the topic. It's best to hear what Potter thinks of it all.
"You're a survivor and I'm a survivor. Besides, you offered tea so I'm here for that. Um, thanks. For the drink. Not just the drink, everything else too." Potter stumbles over uneasy words. "I mean it. From one soldier to another."
Potter hasn't pulled back yet. His knuckles are rough and dry and his thumb trembles slightly under Snape's touch. Snape yanks his hand back abruptly, leaving Potter holding the bottle. Snape's face is warm, far too warm for it to be the influence of a drink he has barely touched. "You're welcome, Mr. Potter."
There's a genuine reaction to Snape's words, to his own name, plain as day on Potter's face: it's one of joy. Such an odd emotion to see expressed so clearly, so openly, directed toward a former enemy. Because even though Snape never considered them such, surely Potter did, once upon a time.
He seeks a glimpse of any reasonable emotion - anger, hate, disdain, or at least of awkwardness - in Potter's stare but there's none to be found. Just joy and easy acceptance.
Potter is oddly desperate for human contact. And far more stressed than he lets on, Snape thinks afterwards, finishing his drink only after ushering the slightly-drunk young man towards the fireplace and handing him the jar of Floo powder. That much is obvious. I hope it's not because of that useless bloody twin he's shacked up with. The dunderhead has always been trouble, ever since school, even for a Weasley. No good can come of that!
Snape squashes down a misplaced wave of something - Annoyance? Protectiveness? Doesn't matter, move on. Run far away. This isn't yours to keep, not yours to hold onto. - and carries on with his evening as he resumes his reading.
'From one soldier to another,' Potter had said. There's something about that phrase that Snape holds onto, even now, even in peacetime. He's been a solitary soldier all his life, he never expected to experience peace. Not like this. Certainly not shared with another.
How can Potter, with his numerous friends and admirers, possibly ever understand the life of a soldier. A spy.
It doesn't matter. It's peacetime. We won. And knowing Potter, he probably meant nothing by it.
Chapter 12: Ferdinand Falcon's Fabulous Hairgrowth Elixir. August 2001.
About once a week, Uncle Vernon looked over the top of his newspaper and shouted that Harry needed to learn to plait her hair better. Harriet must have spent more time fussing over her plait than the rest of the girls in his class put together, but it made no difference, her hair simply grew that way - all over the place.
At first, Harry simply sets the bottle gifted to him on the nightstand, to join the bottle of Polyjuice George handed to him awhile back. He doesn't intend to use either any time soon. Either is a silly sentiment. It's not what he needs right now.
He distracts himself with the set of daily exercises, charming a set of quills to grow heavier, far beyond their usual weight, and then lifts and holds them out at an arm's length, slowly counting down to twenty. He barely manages to hold them up that long by the third time around and drops his arms down at his sides. Whew. This is harder than he thought. By the end of the seventh repetition, he is sweating heavily. He lets go of the quills, exhales, and then checks his flexed bicep. Has it gotten bigger since yesterday? Since last week? Is it too early to tell?
Maybe if he keeps this up, in a few months, his hips won't be as noticeably wide, offset by the wider shoulders. Maybe then, the Auror's uniform wouldn't hang so oddly and twist in all the wrong places.
Even with magic, Harry cannot alter his height or his bones for good, but there are some things that he can change: small, concrete, measurable steps he can take to alter his body. His appearance. Awhile back he rebuilt his basic wardrobe starting with underwear and socks, casting aside anything that someone like George or Ron wouldn't feel comfortable wearing. He's got a system now, every morning as he avoids the bathroom mirror. Every article of male clothing he puts on is an armour against the world. He counts the pieces of it as a whole: socks, pants, trousers, shirt and tie and cloak. Glasses. He slicks his hair down parting it sideways, casts a thickening charm on his eyebrows, and only then looks at himself in the mirror. Acceptable.
This is what it takes to be comfortable in his skin, and he'll take advantage of every opportunity, on his own terms.
He casts an angry stare at the Polyjuice bottle. It's taunting him with its simplicity. All he has to do is pick a Muggle bloke of a similar build and age, distract him and cut a lock of his hair. Polyjuice is an easy route that would take him there in a series of gulps, a temporary remedy that would come to an end and leave his body a shattered pumpkin at the edge of the road one hour into the fantasy, one magic-driven shell of a body masking another. And then once the magic expires, it will only leave behind a reminder of how far he has yet to go, a taste of what he cannot have for good, or at all. Barty Crouch Junior had kept up the pretence for most of the school year, so it is possible to drink Polyjuice long-term, but Harry doesn't think he can go through that, abandoning himself for the sake of having another bloke's body. The constant countdown toward another Polyjuice dose would be as bad as the restrooms at work. Harry isn't that desperate yet, or is he?
Steady now. Breathe, soldier.
Harry's gaze drifts to the two bottles. One is plain and smooth, with its round sides and a matching ceramic stopper. It has a piece of white tape and a handwritten label with an expiration date in George's hand. The other is dark, with the sharp angular sides, cut like a crystal. It sticks up like a shard of black glass, a weapon. A feather, probably a falcon's, shimmers, indented into the label, every filament rendered perfectly by a charm. Snape has certainly done his best to present the merchandise as worthy of the higher price.
Harry hates that he's even considering the choice right now. There is no choice! There is not!
Fine then, just this once.
He reaches for the glass bottle and uncorks it, tipping clear oil onto his fingers. The label instructs him to apply two drops daily to the scalp. Harry rubs it into his jaw instead with all the desperation of a young boy sporting only a sprinkle of hair on his upper lip. His face has been missing a five o'clock shadow, and it is as much of an annoyance as the width of his hips, the narrow arcs of his eyebrows. The next two drops end up in his fringe - just in case.
It's not vanity, he assures himself. It's a precaution. It really would be a shame if I would not have the means to hide my scar.
He feels so guilty choosing it over George's honest offer of help, like picturing an embrace in the dark with a stranger once you already surrendered your heart to another. But aside from guilt, there's also an unvoiced fear that a lingering, welcome caress of someone who sees you for who you are would lift at any second now, never to return.
Snape's brew leaves his hair smelling faintly of bergamot and sage. It's comforting enough to remove one worry off Harry's plate.
Maybe that temporary comfort is exactly what Harry needs right now. He doesn't know what he needs, besides that.
That's the trouble, isn't it? How can I trust that I'm making the right decision? What if I get it all wrong. What if I've imagined it all? What if it's all a big mistake? What if it's all for nothing?
Among the mental chaos, calming thoughts emerge. The chant he relies on to calm himself down in the most turbulent of times. Steady now. Breathe, soldier. I'm Harry, just Harry. Nothing else.
That alone gives him strength.
Chapter 13: 'Sweet Pea.' September 2001.
"Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it."
The first time Harry and George have a fight, rain clouds have been gathering over London, heavy as the atmosphere in the flat in September.
Harry's tired of wanting to flinch every time George's hands come near his chest or hips. There's something in the body language making Harry feel inanimate, used and groped like a quaffle. He doesn't have the words to explain it. Only... is this what Dr. Singh meant when she asked whether he'd had a good chat with George beforehand and warned of the dynamics changing during intimacy?
Harry doesn't feel a particular need for intimacy now, screw that for the foreseen future, to be honest! His body is wrong, was wrong all along and every stray touch feels like a reminder, an invasion. He can't imagine what he'd do if George ever placed his palms over his chest as he used to when they first got together. The thought of those bits of his body squeezed, the memory of it... ugh, just no. Some days the wants to unleash the pent up rage and tattoo the fuck out of his bare skin, cover it up with the brightest, strongest glimpses of his mind, the fuel for an entire herd of Patronuses, to reclaim back this curvy shell.
This is insane. Fuck, I can't possibly let George know how bad my reactions are, he chides himself. This is wrong. George's trying. Really is trying. He's doing this because he loves me and he's going out of his way. This isn't fair to him. They've just gotten back from the Burrow where George has fielded Arthur's sixth (equally curious and cheerful) inquiry after Harry's physical changes on this 'Muggle marvel of a sex-change hormone'. "George has taught you the shaving spell, already, I trust. Say, Harry, how do these syringes work again? You have several, right? But why would anyone put so much work into making one so elaborate to only use it once and throw a perfectly good contraption away?"
Bloody hell! There are days when I don't want to discuss any of it!
At least when they argue, Harry's deeper voice matches George's. It's hoarser and breaks into a higher pitch at times. Harry's still growing into it.
"No, I don't want you to back off. Or to sleep on the couch. I just said I need a bit of space now and then, fucking hell, George. This isn't a big deal!"
"Well, how small of a deal is it then, Harry? And while we're at it. It's not just me you're avoiding. You've been avoiding mum and dad ever since we've told them. They do notice, you know. Mum's been worried about you."
"Everyone is bloody worried! I know, all right. I know. I need them not to worry so fucking much, George. I'm not a child!"
"Of course you're not. They care about you. We all care."
That stops Harry in his tracks. He's cold and sluggish and tired. He's being petty and unfair and he doesn't give a damn.
They'd fuss much less, realisation strikes him, if the bloody rumours printed in the paper were correct and he was a few months into a pregnancy. He cringes at the thought and fights his own mind to dwell on the image more than is healthy for him. Imagine that, his body changing in a different way, not a day without a new development, but everyone around, the entire world, reacting with genuine joy and enthusiastic good wishes as soon as they found out. The gossip would take on a different tone. He'd be an object of jealousy instead of being branded a freak of nature.
Surely, many already think of him as such. Those who avoid eye contact on the streets. There are those who have stopped striking up conversations. Is it just the fact that he's now navigating society as an effeminate young man (if only in his head, since he cannot speak for others) instead of a somewhat-pretty young witch or...
He feels invisible and exposed at the same time. He doesn't have it in him to argue with his own doubt. Enough. He runs his hand through his hair, pulls at the frail strands in the corners of his hairline. He doesn't know if he wants them gone completely or to linger for a while longer.
"Oi. Stop it, love," George says softly, the fighting mood between them fading. "Are you planning to go bald at twenty?"
Harry hmphs, shoving aside a deep-seated worry at exactly that outcome. When did grandpa Fleamont go bald anyway? Dad's hairline looked a bit high in the pictures. There'd be no hiding the scar. He'd probably look all funny. It's shallow to keep thinking about this. He should be sure about all the expected changes by now, it's been a few months for the doubt to fade. Does worrying about the what-ifs of losing his hair make him an impostor playing at being a real man? He doesn't deserve the next week's injection. (He needs it like he needs oxygen.)
Argh! Things are never simple.
At least Snape's potion is there if he needs it again. He should start applying it daily, perhaps it would soothe some of the worries at least.
He wraps his arms around himself, stopping himself from fidgeting with his fringe. "I know they care," he admits. "And I know you do as well. And it isn't fair to them, or to you. But sometimes it's... difficult. And I just need space to think things through." There, that ought to get the point across.
George sighs. His hands rise to Harry's shoulders. "You've been worrying an awful lot lately. Just so you know, there's no pressure either way, if things aren't right and you're..."
Something drops inside Harry's stomach, and he feels that awful, dark void growing. "If. You're. What?" George is silent. "What, George?"
"I just meant, if you're unsure and you want to stop. None of us will judge you."
Harry thinks of the now-dimming horror of the loos at work, imagines having to explain things to Robards twice. He imagines having to return to the women's and facing himself in the mirror there: not man enough, apparently. He thinks of those horrible maroon robes shrunk and stashed in the corner of his closet emerging like the boggart of a Dementor and settling slowly over his head. He pictures the exact shade of his lipstick and rouge, Gryffindor-red shades he is no longer comfortable seeing, much less touching.
He pushes his shoulders back. Shrugs George's touch off. There's deep-seated anger that flares inside and Harry's body has learned by now how to process that anger into resolve. "I plan to continue," he states calmly. "I want this."
Something breaks in the shielded mask of George's freckled face. A corner of his mouth lifts in a now-rare smile. "I knew you would," he says with conviction. "You're the bravest person I know, Harry. You always were."
Oh, George. And just like that, the rush, the anger of a fight settles into warmth in Harry's chest. He fights a smile in return. Maybe everything will be alright after all. "Aren't you forgetting Dumbledore?" he asks George. And Snape. They are the bravest men I know.
Speaking of Snape...
It's Sunday evening and Harry's already late. "Crap. Is it six o'clock already? Look, I've gotta go! Something came up at work, so..." It feels so terrible, lying to George, but George would have a fit if he knew where Harry is headed. And after all, it's Harry's job to check on Snape now and then. This is all it is. "We're OK, right?"
George lifts his hand to Harry's face. "Yeah, sweet pea - um, Harry."
Harry tells himself he doesn't mind the slip-up. Sweet-Pea-for-Potter was George's teasing nickname for Harry when he still went by Harriet and old habits are hard to kill. It was a gesture of affection then. They'll have to sort through every nickname and every inside joke now, dissect it by gender lines and comfort levels and discard several like old clothes. But not today, this can wait, just as the stack of fashionably tailored robes in Harry's closet is still waiting to be given away. For now, he gives George a spontaneous hug, kisses him square on the lips, summons his new cloak and Apparates in a rush.
Spinner's End is sunny, with the clear skies above his head, a startling discovery after the foggy rain in London. Harry walks quickly down the row of the two-up two-downs, knocks on the door with the peeling paint and no number.
"Mr. Potter. Enter."
Harry exhales his worries and allows his mind to settle into a particular state of relaxation at the sound of 'Mr' coming from behind that threshold. For some reason, it has a calming effect on him still, ever since that first time.
He spends far too long in the study, in the ragged armchair which has seen too much dust and wear. Snape is not much for conversation either. It's comforting nonetheless, this now regular reunion of two veterans trying to adjust to peacetime.
"M'sorry. I'm not much company," Harry lifts his glasses and rubs his eyes. His entire body feels sluggish. He rests his fingertips on his upper lip and feels a faint trace of stubble. He forgot to cast the shaving charms this week. Perhaps he'll try them twice a week from now on.
Here, he feels free to talk about the testosterone if nothing else. Snape is one of the rare few people besides George to have seen it, witnessed the early evidence of Harry's physical transition with his own eyes. It's a viscous clear liquid stored in a phial, just like all manner of potions Snape had stashed away on the shelves in his Hogwarts dungeon. The kind he's made many write dreadfully long essays about. Harry can write this one in the course of an hour and get an O! He's sure of it. Testosterone cypionate. A controlled substance in Muggle UK. The main method of delivery: intramuscular injections. Primary effects (too damn slow!): muscle growth, genital growth, facial and body hair, changes in sensitivity to heat and pain, changes in body odour, the possibility of male pattern baldness (but enough about that). Higher dose converts excess testosterone into estrogen, neutralising the desired effects. Regular blood tests are recommended to ensure proper dose. Prolonged exposure carries an increased risk of prostate cancer (non-existent, in my case)... ok, enough of that too.
"You seem tired."
"Yeah. I'm an idiot. I almost skipped my shot last week," Harry blurts out over a steaming cuppa. No one knows. Not even George.
"I see." Snape nods in acknowledgement, his expression as unreadable as ever.
"It's not like I'm afraid of a shot or anything. I can do those with my eyes closed now, only, you know, I don't," Harry adds as Snape's eyes widen, "I forgot to pick up the refill and there was hardly enough leftover in the phial for the regular dose. I overdid it a bit, the first few times. And so I sort of just... looked at it and, dunno, gave up, I think. There wasn't enough for a shot. Can't believe I didn't pay attention. But I've got it now. And I want to continue, but..."
Harry runs his hand through his hair and sighs out his frustration. "George called me brave today for keeping with it, for being sure, he's finally stopped slipping," what with the 'sweet pea's' and 'darling's'. Harry looks up and out of the corner of his eye notices an unpleasant smirk twisting the corners of Snape's mouth. "We haven't figured out what to call each other yet."
"A name usually suffices." Snape's tone is dry but there's something humorous in that arch of a dark eyebrow - a masculine feature on a masculine face - all angles and shadow. Harry is jealous. He has to charm his brows thicker every morning. There are patches of new hair in front of his ears but his cheeks are still baby-soft and bare. Harry eyes the five-o-clock shadow on Snape's face with curiosity and can't help but compare that to how far he has yet to go. It's easy to suggest things when Snape isn't the one waiting in-between, but the trouble is, he's right. And Harry knows he's right.
"Right," Harry sighs. "And I know it's been hard on him and I don't want to add to the confusion. I have to be sure, absolutely sure from now on. I can't slip up. I owe it to everyone I've told so far!"
"Ah." Snape's stare is calm. Curious. "Why would you do that to yourself?"
What? Weekly shots? Not him too. "Do what?" Harry snaps.
"Why do you insist on allowing everyone but yourself the courtesy of doubt?"
The question seems so pointless. Harry runs an exasperated hand through his hair. "'Cause I'm the one injecting myself every week. I must be sure. Every single time!"
"Correct me if I'm mistaken, but you are at the start of the journey and you've never seen the end. It's not as if you can predict where you'll end up mid-leap. Won't a certain measure of uncertainty be... expected?"
Oh, Harry thinks. Well, if you put it that way!
"All right," Snape sighs. "When do you feel most uncertain?"
Harry bites his lip. Thinks about it. Really, when? "Whenever I see my name in the paper. They still print Harriet. It's as if they've completely ignored my letter to the editor." They probably had no clue what to make of it. "What if it's all for nothing, the T - testosterone, I mean - won't work worth a damn, and the Prophet will never stop doing what they do. And those articles are all I'll be remembered for decades from now." The future feels like a death by a thousand papercuts.
"The Prophet is an insufferable rag that hardly makes good kindling, much less reading material."
"It's more than that. People around me try but slip up. More than they think they do." He ought to know, he remembers every single she and her, overheard, around the office or on the street, on the radio. Ron slipped once. Then quickly corrected himself after Hermione's stern glare. George began to use his name more in conversations, avoiding the pronouns altogether, and even that sets Harry on edge. Each instance of "Harriet", of "she" breaks the comfort of his mental reality, like a burst bubble at the time when he's finally settled into the illusion of a good dream that is almost there but not quite real yet. The words send a pang of the now-familiar dread and doubt through him. So how can he not remember those words, like a snap of a rubber band against the wrist, each and every one? They are the vicious scratch of a quill against the back of his hand as he's writing lines in Umbridge's office: I must not tell lies. If he hears it enough, he's back to that four a.m. panic of a frazzled mind trying to convince himself "I'm Harry!", all over again, and failing, falling further into a daymare of Harriet.
Harry squeezes his half-empty teacup. "What if the shots won't work? Look, I know that most of the world will never accept it," he says dejectedly. "I know they're pretending in front of me. To please me. Or to make me feel good. I mean, look at me, I'm short and I look like this." He gestures at himself. "No matter how much I try, some things won't change."
Snape's lips twist in a thin line. "Nonsense, Mr. Potter. There are plenty of short men. With a far worse lot in life than a hero's legacy to uphold."
How does he do that, insult me at the same time as... inspire me.
Harry looks up, faces that stern glare. He needs to know. Snape is a spy. If anyone is good at pretending, it's him. "Are you pretending to make me feel good?" he asks.
One eyebrow arches sharply. "Have I ever?"
Harry shakes his head.
"If it's any consolation, Mr. Potter, to any Legilimens worth their salt, these things are quite clear," Snape continues quietly. "Your mind has always been an open book. And as far as I can tell, it is also the mind of a young man capable of handling a temporary challenge thrown his way."
Fuck. Well, that's... comforting and no comfort at all, especially since Snape all but admitted slipping into Harry's daydreams now and then. Ugh. What if it was at the wrong bloody time? Like the time when Harry forced himself to think of Uncle Vernon naked just to concentrate on the conversation at hand. Harry refuses to feel ashamed for his own thoughts. They're thoughts and they're all his. He's allowed to be a teenage boy in his own bloody mind! Take that, Snape!
Out of spite, or possibly daring, Harry forces his thoughts into a clinical summary, as if still writing that essay on Testosterone cypionate. Changes in libido, additional immediate physical feedback of arousal or repulsion. The sensation of arousal culminates in the centre core of the organ instead of at the surface. You want a mind of a young man, well then! I'm the one going through second puberty here, I reckon. Quick. What would make even Snape blush? The growth is notable and occurs in the first few weeks of treatment, a pink head emerging from the clitoral hood... growing in size in an aroused state. Yeah, this one essay he'd never have the courage to turn in, even on a dare. He remembers spending the first few weeks after a shot surprised by a distinct feeling of a full bladder, but it was an itch higher up. It went away when he thought of unpleasant things. It took Harry an embarrassingly long time to pinpoint the name for it or the reason. Arousal. Whoa, this often? I suppose I'm lucky I don't have to hide the obvious signs in public.
"Stop that. Trust me, I've been around enough hormonally addled adolescents, no amount of lewdness in your thoughts would surprise me," Snape states with a narrowed-eyed stare.
"Stop reading them then!" Harry snaps back.
"I assure you, I am not." Snape proclaims, adding smugly. "But you are blushing."
"If it helps to give you peace of mind, and a sense of privacy, you can always close your eyes. Limiting eye contact for some time usually does end Legilimentic links."
Harry deliberately meets Snape's eye, holds the eye contact until the intensity of it sends a rush of heat through his body. "What if I trust you," he says.
Snape is the first to look away, with a quiet, hissed: "Perhaps you shouldn't."
Harry frowns. "Why?"
Dark hair casts a deep shadow across Snape's features as he looks down. His right hand squeezes his left forearm as if wanting to break off the Marked limb. "You should know by now that I'm not a nice man," he spits out, particularly vicious.
Harry narrows his eyes in a challenge. "Yeah, but a good one." It's why he advocated for Snape's release from Azkaban, why he insisted to be assigned to Snape's case as an Auror. Snape was Dumbledore's man, through and through. He was on their side. He is still on Harry's side, Harry's sure of it. They are both survivors fighting battles that may be over for everyone else. Does Snape still have nightmares of Voldemort's reign, the flashbacks to the fighting just like Harry does?
Snape glances at Harry, with that indecipherable expression, his eyes dark and there's something brittle inside. Like black ice on a tarmac in the middle of London winters.
"Enough of that for today. You may use my Floo powder to go home. This place is woefully unprepared for a Weasley rescue party and one Weasley in particular at least must be worried about his young and handsome paramour chatting up another man at this hour."
Another man. Holy shit, a frazzled thought hits Harry. Hold up, this feels all sorts of weird. George and I have been ignoring this for so long. I've almost forgotten that since George is a bloke and I'm one too, it means I'm queer. A queer bloke. Gives people a whole lot more to gossip about. Bloody hell. Harry chides himself for not avoiding thinking about it until now. He doesn't want to think about it further. George and Harry have always been just that, George and Harry, even before. This is the only instance someone else, someone who acknowledged Harry, had brought it up, even if as a joke, and that's what it took to even think about it, when Harry's mind was so full of other worries for months.
"And, Mr. Potter, for what it's worth, introducing substances into one's body - or not, for that matter - can bring about a pleasant effect. However," Snape bares his teeth and it's not quite a smirk. "There are plenty of other qualities that measure a man's worth. I hope you do find an acceptable measure of your own worth, one you can live with when the time comes."
Harry hmphs, collecting his cloak. He tilts his head and dares to test his luck. "What do you measure me by?" Measured by Snape, here's a thought. "Good thing I never did take my N.E.W.T.s. Too late now, I reckon."
"I'm no longer your Professor, you ungrateful sod. But if you must know, your lack of common sense and your ability to survive."
Somehow it makes Harry all giddy, the easy way Snape addresses him, the euphoria of it, the validation. "Ungrateful sod? So you're saying you only find me worthy 'cause I'm The Boy Who Lived?"
Snape casts him a particularly judging look. "Hardly a boy now, aren't you? Time to stop thinking of yourself as one, Potter. I don't tolerate children well, so don't test my patience."
Harry grins and lets out a cheerful: "Aye aye, Sir."
"Imagine that. Respect from a Gryffindor." Snape's eyebrow arches as he dismisses Harry with a wave of his hand and a grumbled: "Well, better late than never."
Chapter 14: The Honorary Weasley. October 2001.
‘My dearest Harriet!' said Fred, elbowing Percy out of the way and bowing deeply.
‘Simply splendid to see you, m' lady –'
‘Marvellous,' said George, pushing Fred aside and seizing Harriet's hand in turn. ‘Absolutely spiffing.'
Harry waves off the bouncing teacup from his desk, lest it splatters over the paperwork, and takes a glance at the corridor toward the loos. He uses the stall at work, before apparating home, to prove a non-existent point to himself ("The lads at work... I don't imagine they'd be all that bothered," Robards tells him once, behind closed doors of his office.) Regardless of Robards' words, Harry's shoulders are squared, his posture tall, as he faces himself in the mirror before he steps through that particular doorway. The animated wizard on the sign gives him a friendly nod.
Harry's hair is slightly longer, almost as long as George's, wispy ends trailing over his ears and along his neck, his messy fringe covers the scar on his forehead and most of the eyebrows - they are too stubborn to thicken on their own still. It's rather exciting how he can grow his hair out these days without staring in the mirror and seeing a girl looking back. He doesn't quite know if it's just a change in self-perception or... he doesn't look all that different. Same height, same eyes, same small hands. There are enough subtle changes to his face, his neck and his shoulders, that it works though. He doesn't question his good luck further.
Sure, he's fielded several questions from the well-meaning and still-clueless Ministry workers from another floor on whether he's got a cold this week, but on a Wednesday, a stranger on the street, an older Muggle, had addressed Harry as a bloke, despite the hair - 'Oh, sorry, coming through', 'no trouble at all, young man' - and it made his morning. Huh. So soon. It must have been the voice lowering deep enough that finally swung that needle past the imaginary fifty-fifty threshold in random strangers' minds, has to be! It can't possibly be the chin and the upper lip hair he's been encouraging to grow with Snape's potion with just as much vigour as Neville fusses over his houseplants.
Harry feels like celebrating for weeks, months as he steps through the door of their small flat, rushes over to George and swings his arms around the taller frame, planting a celebratory, joyous kiss over his lover's mouth.
He pulls back quickly when his enthusiasm clearly isn't matched. "What's going on?"
"Oof. Nothing," George mumbles and his arms are steady around Harry, if a bit stiff. George's hold shifts from Harry's hips to his forearms - perhaps he's finally learned from Harry's body language that it's an awkward thing for Harry to bear. "You look... good. Really good. Hey, stubbly, how was your day?"
"Brilliant," Harry exhales. "Listen to this, I was a 'young man' to someone, a Muggle bloke, on the street. I think everything's going to be alright, yeah. Shots are working." Wow, Harry thinks, as he hears himself speaking, my voice sounds deeper than George's now. Just about right.
George smiles that sad smile of his that Harry grew used to seeing every time George ran across Fred's handwriting or belongings at the shop. "Yes, of course, they are."
"Hey. HEY! What's wrong, love?"
There's a pause in the air, heavy enough to cut with a butter knife. George's hold on Harry trembles. "Sweet pea, I am so, so sorry. I love you," he presses his face against Harry's temple and continues on one breath. "So very much. It's why I have to say this now. I think," his voice cracks and fills Harry with dread. "I think - I am pretty certain - I'm still straight."
Oh, Harry thinks. And the nightmare of many weeks' worth of worry rises back, as inevitable as the tides. Fuck.
What can one say to that? What is there left to say? Harry pulls back and faces his lover.
That rueful grin of George's is back. "The shots are definitely working, for what it's worth."
He's been sharing my joy and all the while watching something he loves fade away, and never said a word to me, a thought dawns.
Harry lunges and holds onto George's skinny, stalk-like frame, hugging him, pressing his face right into that wide shoulder, a solace. Always a solace.
George hugs Harry back, carefully, like he's hugging one of his brothers, exactly like he would hug Ron, in fact. Harry will take that. He'll take any comfort he can get right now.
"You know, you're an honorary Weasley, m' lad, already are. Always has been," George whispers into his ear later. "You saved me from going off the deep end, right after Fred. I'm honoured to be in your life. But I can't marry you if that's what you're after. Not the person you're becoming. Just so we're clear on that."
"Does it mean... which one of us needs to move out?"
"Oh, sweet pea. Sorry. I'm so sorry! Harry. Let's just take it one day at a time, yeah? We don't have to decide now."
It sounds so... final. Like ripping the bandaid off on the day after the shot, as his thigh hair, coarser now, get caught on the sticky sides. "All right," Harry takes a deep breath. "All right." Breathe.
He wants to jump off the nearest cliff. He wants to ride his broom up to the sky and shout into the abyss. He wants to drink himself into a stupor.
Whoever wrote in that one handout from the Muggle hospital that he'd have a hard time crying on testosterone clearly lied. Hot tears sting Harry's eyes and his throat aches with an unvented scream.
That night, he presses his face into the pillow and his hand finds George's. He thinks of George's hand finding and gripping his, back at Hogwarts, making Harry's heart jump, the way Fred's presence didn't affect him but George's did. They were both so young. George was such a clueless git back then. "I love you," he offers. Always will.
"I love you too."
It feels like the beginning of the end.
Chapter 15: The Half-Blood Prince. November 2001.
Harriet had already attempted a few of the Prince’s self-invented spells. There had been a hex that caused toenails to grow alarmingly fast (she had tried this on Crabbe in the corridor, with very entertaining results); a jinx that glued the tongue to the roof of the mouth (which she had twice used, to general applause, on an unsuspecting Argus Filch); and, perhaps most useful of all, Muffliato, a spell that filled the ears of anyone nearby with an unidentifiable buzzing, so that lengthy conversations could be held in class without being overheard. The only person who did not find these charms amusing was Hermione, who maintained a rigidly disapproving expression throughout and refused to talk at all if Harriet had used the Muffliato spell on anyone in the vicinity.
On the weekend, Snape buttons up his coat but leaves the collar down. His hair has grown long past his jaw and it covers up the scar on his neck well enough. It's cold enough outside for a scarf but he doesn't put it on yet (he'll likely regret it later). Instead, he summons his good walking boots and a pair of cloth grocery bags instead. His footsteps echo as he crosses the cobbled street empty of cars or passersby this time of the evening. Snape puts two cartons - of milk and eggs - and a loaf of bread into the shopping trolley and does not think of Potter. After all, Potter has missed visits before and all was well. Instead, he counts out his remaining Muggle money and accepts the smaller coins in exchange. He carries two bags of food (enough to last him a week) back to his place. As he walks, the darkness settles in over the streets and it rains. Snape has to put the bags down, raise his collar and pull the sleeves down over his knuckles to warm his chilled hands. Afterwards, he picks up the pace and walks faster to escape the weather.
He does not think of Potter then, or at all.
Just a few more blocks to go. He turns the corner lit by a broken streetlight, and the constant flicker gives his surroundings a sense of alarm, the kind of alarm that makes all the day's worries rise to the surface of one's awareness. It gets dark out so early in the evenings now. The winter is around the corner and all predictions say it will be a cold one. The electric buzz from the streetlight is hard to miss, when it sets Snape's teeth on edge, like the Wizarding Wireless not tuned to a particular station, like the ringing in his ears from the dull grey static emerging out of Da's television set. Like the constant worry of a boy cowering in the corners of his childhood home, always within earshot of the next bout of yelling, no matter where he hid. Snape may think of Potter then, just for a moment, but it is a fleeting thought.
This is tolerable weather, he tells himself. Hogwarts grounds were far worse during wintertime. No wonder Snape spent all of his time in the dungeons, with the fireplace lit and his good winter cloak never far away. Nonetheless, he can feel his left knee beginning to ache and makes a mental note to himself to set proper ingredients aside for a pain-relieving ointment. He'll need it once December arrives.
In the meantime, Snape keeps his steps even and puts one foot in front of the other, staying calm is a necessity when one carries a heavy load and the footpath is iced-over this badly.
He makes it home without incident and puts the groceries away in the kitchen. He washes two dirty plates and sets them out to dry. How long has it been since Potter last came here?
Two weeks? More? He usually sends a Patronus with a message if he cannot make it. But that ghostly stag has been absent from Snape's life for a while now.
What does Snape care about Potter's presence or absence? Obviously Potter has grown weary and bored in the company of an ex-Death Eater, or better yet, he saw sense at last, and has abandoned this particular charity project for shinier, more cheerful endeavours. And good riddance to him!
Snape doesn't worry about it further. Maybe just a bit... He cannot help if the silence of this house on Spinner's End grows heavy at times, like the rustle of Muffliato cast on his own ear and that electric buzz makes him uneasy. It's as if Da's telly is back on and set to static, mum's dishes are clanging in the sink and there's a threatening silence in the air, a precursor of the next time tempers run hot and explode in a storm of conflict. His body is tense with the anticipation of something terrible about to happen. Some may call it paranoia, but Snape is a realist. (Terrible things are always waiting for him around the corner.)
Snape's sofa still holds traces of Potter's scent, the lily-bitter fragrance has faded almost to nothing and is barely detectable even to Snape's sensitive nose. But the sharper masculine smell - either of cologne or aftershave - that replaced it remains: cedar and sage. Once, Potter overdid it, obviously not accounting for the stronger scent, and showed up in Snape's living room reeking like an artificial forest. Snape did find it amusing at the time even if his nose did not.
There are a few things that Potter does that do not quite align with general expectations. He has obviously mastered more than one way to tie his ties, but still leaves them too loose around his neck, like a boy wearing one for the first time and growing tired of a tight collar fifteen minutes into a formal event. Once or twice, as Potter lounged on Snape's sofa in an unselfconscious sprawl, knees wide, elbows propped against the backrest and robes unlaced, Snape's hands itched to adjust that tie around his neck into a proper fit. Snape did not, of course, that would have meant overstepping dozens of unspoken boundaries. So instead his gaze slid down the smooth black strip of Potter's tie, past the silver bar of a plain tie clip; the black fabric widened slightly until coming to an end with an arrow-point tip poised at a reasonable height, just over the belt buckle, as the bulge below - Snape forced his breath into a calm exhale and directed his gaze at the fireplace then. Firstly, proper hosts did not ogle another man's bits in polite company. ('Toughen up, boy. You aren't one of them freaks, are you?') And secondly, of all people, Potter's bits were certainly none of Snape's business.
No, this is definitely not something Snape should ever dwell on further.
He's made his peace with being alone and leaving such nonsense unexplored, long ago.
To compensate, and to dull the remainder of the anxious buzz of static from Da's telly in his ears - his inspiration for Muffliato - Snape pours himself firewhisky and sets the glass on the table with a loud clack.
Potter won't be back here. I must get used to the idea now. It's easier this way.
At night, Snape dreams of Azkaban once more. The cells, the stench, the tasteless gruel. He's placed away from the others so his cell is mostly silent and dark. They forget to refill the oil lamps just outside, but that suits him just fine. He's in a dark and quiet place, lost and forgotten and left behind to rot. There will be no Potter to save him. He's unreachable and all alone, in a bubble of darkness, suspended in a place without passage of time, sinking slowly to the bottom of unimaginable depth.
He awakes with a gasp, clawing the woolen blanket off him and focuses on the dim pre-dawn light from the window, the lumpiness of the pillow behind him, the scratchy worn wool of the bedcover and the safety of his own bedroom. I'm safe. I'm home.
He thinks back at the boy in the striped pyjamas he once discovered at the edges of Potter's awareness and wonders whether he did the right thing letting go of that particular bubble and letting it sink down and away, not dragging it into the light there and then, for further scrutiny.
If he had, would it have made a difference? It was not Snape's place to intervene, not his closet door to fling wide open. Also, there was the matter of the Prophecy to consider. Does the fact that Snape is even considering the possibility of intervention now make him no better than Dumbledore treating people as a game of chess?
Snape dismisses the thought. Irrelevant. What time is it? "Tempus!" It's Monday. The Every-Other-Monday. Potter used to show up on Mondays before and there is a small chance he still might. The prospect of that visit drags Snape out of bed. He gets dressed and tends to the fireplace, purely a matter of keeping the place warm in November, of course, and not any foolish consideration of keeping the Floo connection active. He cracks two eggs into a sizzling skillet in the kitchen, and toasts a slice of bread. As he spreads butter and then jam on top, the kettle at the back of the stove releases a loud whistle. Snape is used to it, but he can see how it would seem startling to others. Potter, for example, who dropped a phial of his medicine in this very kitchen. Potter, again.
He looked so startled then, so shaken. A young man, with the closet door flung wide open in front of a - what might as well be a stranger. Snape doesn't know whether he'd retain as much dignity and composure in the situation if (in another time and place) his own closet doors were ever flung wide letting in that blinding white light by a complete accident.
Snape hopes he said the right thing then. He hopes his body did not betray something that could have been perceived as judgemental or threatening. That he treated the matter with the sombreness and attention it deserved and yet did not dwell on the panicked confession. But how would one know for sure? No two closet doors are ever the same.
He knows by now that the doors inside his own mind will stay firmly locked - let the dead stay dead and mourned, oh Regulus - but if, for some reason, someone had to know this, truly know, it would, after all these years of silence, perhaps, be a relief, like a belated memorial for a loved one, finally held as a way to mark that hollow, endless, unvoiced ache.
Chapter 16: Spinner's Beginning. November 2001.
"But this is touching, Severus," said Dumbledore seriously. "Have you grown to care for her child, after all?"
"For Potter?" shouted Snape. "Expecto Patronum!"
Harry doesn't make it out to Spinner's End for weeks. He's asked Robards for an extended leave and Robards mumbled concern into his beard and then reached out with those thick hands of his and pulled Harry into a bear hug ("There, there, lad." Perhaps Robards is a decent man after all), but it's undecided when (or even if) Harry'll be back to work again. He started spending his nights at Grimmauld Place, if you could call spending twelve hours a day in Sirius Black's childhood bed in a comatose sprawl, surrounded by drawn up dusty velvet curtains, rest. George's pain, a worried tone in his ear (mimicked perfectly by George's magpie Patronus) keeps him awake but he tunes it out with alcohol from the cellars afterwards. Like an injured animal, he doesn't want anyone to see him hurt while he licks his wounds.
It feels almost as bad as it used to, once in a while, once a month, when Harry used to curl up in his bed, trying to keep a sense of self afloat, keep the overwhelming tide of flared anxieties at bay.
It occurs to him that he hasn't bled for over a month and a half. There's a pang of momentary worry about a pretty-damn-foolproof contraceptive charm failing despite being pretty-damn-foolproof, and then the realisation of how damn impossible it would be given how much time has passed since either George or Harry had to cast that charm last. He worries anyway, until the obvious conclusion dawns. Testosterone shots. Another welcome effect. One less unwanted reminder of the unwanted parts.
Harry doesn't quite know what to think of it all. Hooray? Does it even matter now?
Harry never wanted children. George does. Could there ever be a compromise? Could he make the sacrifice one day of having a child with his lover? Could he stare at the declaration of his motherhood in the papers, go through months of his body swelling up in all the wrong ways, give birth. Give up his body for the sake of another. For the sake of the promise of a family. His own family. Surely his mum and dad would have approved of that. There's only one problem. The mere thought of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and motherhood makes Harry's mind fog over dully as if being assaulted by a Dementor, to the point where he is tempted to summon his Patronus to break through that fog. Harry's nothing like what's expected of him and that's the trouble! He's always been a freak.
Harry'd do anything for the people he loves, Gryffindors usually do, but now the sentiment making this particular sacrifice doesn't make him feel better in the least. It makes him feel true dread, as it seeps into his very bones and makes him shudder.
The next few days are a blur. He refuses to admit that it feels like getting over a breakup. He shoves the thought aside, stops comparing this to a period of mourning. This is just a bad fight. He doesn't want to see anyone he knows, not that Ron and Hermione aren't persistent enough to get through, checking up on him daily. He waves off their worry and hides the worst of it. He coaxes himself out of a dusty, unfamiliar bed on a Monday morning with the promise of another testosterone shot and the subsequent energy boost but the truth is, his weeks are beginning to feel like listless, lazy Sundays. Entire weeks are composed of Six Days Before the Next Shot.
This is madness. He was happy without knowing once. He was Harriet then and he was content with that lot in life. Can't he be Harriet again? Just for a while. Maybe a few years to give George a chance to get used to the idea, before they make another attempt, this time with better communication. With their relationship stronger and more mature.
Although his blood test results come back normal, Dr. Singh inquires about his health. Upon the news of trouble with George, she immediately suggests finding a support group. Harry drags himself out to Muggle London on a Thursday afternoon and joins a circle of a dozen Muggles who, in a small room decorated with a rainbow flag, introduce themselves by their names and pronouns. (Harry listens closely, mortified to screw up someone's pronouns because he isn't used to any of this yet, but at the same time knows how awful it'd feel on the receiving end if he were to get it wrong.) When his turn comes, Harry mumbles his name, and the oh-so-familiar 'he, him', and receives all welcoming nods. His knuckles are tense as he folds his arms over his chest and allows his fingertips to dig into his forearms.
He stares past the group and toward the corner where the loos are. 'Toilet', states the chalkboard sign on the first one. 'Another toilet', states the second door. It puts a small smile on Harry's face.
"Hi, I'm Zoe, and my pronouns are she and they," a tall, long-haired brunette beside him says. She has a pink chiffon scarf around her neck, black leggings don't hide the legs that go on for miles and the mint-green lacy top doesn't do much to conceal a tan shoulder tattooed with a tentacled lily blossom. There's a certain air around her, a striking mood. Freak and proud of it. Zoe, that's George's supplier, races through Harry's brain. Oh shit.
Faced with the prospect of talking in front of someone who knows his George, Harry doesn't find the courage to speak more than a few words at the meeting. Baring one's soul in front of the crowd, well, that's never been an easy task. George and Harry aren't talking still. What if George talks to Zoe first and she gossips? Harry stays silent.
The next evening, he drags himself to the nearest fireplace with the Floo powder on the mantel, lights the fire and utters 'Spinner's End', putting his head through the flames. It seems like a slightly less scary alternative to speaking - and being vulnerable - in front of complete strangers. Perhaps Snape can insult him into moving through his day faster than he has been.
Snape's eyes widen as they face each other through the Floo. "Mr. Potter! Are you all right?"
'Mister' sounds too odd to Harry's ear today. Like Harry doesn't deserve that title yet. It's as if a girl named Harriet has never deserved it, and what else can Harry possibly be if not Harriet bloody Potter? (Birth certificates don't lie. Given names don't lie. The weight of societal expectations would never lie to anyone, would it?)
"Yeah," Harry shrugs. "May I come through? I've got..." he summons an unopened bottle of wine from the cellars. "Got booze right here. Want some?"
With a snap of a finger to lower the wards and one twitch of that pointy chin, as much of a welcome as one can manage when they're a surly git with a perpetual wand shoved up their backside, Harry reckons, Snape fixes his stare on him and spits out: "Get your arse over here, Potter. Now!"
Shit, he's in a mood. Should've known. Still, like a doomed man, Harry gathers another handful of Floo powder and steps through, bottle in hand.
"Has it occurred to you to inform me before you go missing for weeks or is revisiting the worst parts of your teenage years all the part of the plan these days?" Snape inquires bitterly, "A man unused to your antics, might even worry about a sudden disappearance of his regular visitors."
"I'm sorry," Harry sighs, dejected. "It's just... George and I, we had a row. Had to sort things out. A lot of things. Still sorting them." His chest aches, and not because he's overdone the spell on the fabric that binds it before putting on a clean shirt prior to Floo-calling Snape. He didn't have the time to charm his eyebrows thicker or to brush his hair just right. What's the point? I won't ever look right, anyway.
"Ah." Snape steps back. "In that case, best of luck. Sorting things. Out."
Harry scowls at that. "Dunno if we will anytime soon."
"In the meantime, I wish you all the joy possible with the smitten fan of the week as a rebound entertainment. All young men, such as yourself, ought to-"
What is he on about? Really, that's what he thought I was up to? "There are no smitten fans!" Harry squares his shoulders, braces for the inevitable, readies for the shouting match of a lifetime. "There never will be! I will get George back! No matter what."
Snape's lips thin. "Oh?" In the following silence, the fireplace crackles angrily.
"There won't be any more testosterone shots," Harry states, flat and final. To himself. To Snape. "Not if it means losing George. I'm not fucking losing George! He loves me. I need to stop."
Snape's eyes widen, once. And then the silence in the room is ominous. Seething. Harry is far past the age of being afraid of a teacher, even if that teacher is poised as a striking cobra, all but fangs bared.
"Do you truly want this?"
"Yeah? J-just, hear me out. I thought about it," Harry says. "And if I - um, pause - things, the shots I mean, now, well, the only thing that's really changed so far is my voice." If Zoe, a Muggle, can control her voice as she did, I can too. Just a bit of a higher pitch... there's hope for me. Liar, his thoughts nag. That's far from the only change. His thighs instinctively press together, as if to conceal the evidence of another early development. All right, that too, but hardly noticeable, day to day, so. Is that it? The facial hair is not that far along yet. Hell, he can apply shaving spells all over to compensate. He's gotten good at them, practising on his chin. How hard can it be to point his wand to a different body part without cringing on the inside? Armpits, legs. Make it all smooth and bare. Why does the thought of even doing it fill him with such dread? He's cast far worse spells before, and this should be no harder than brushing his teeth in the morning. And yet, sometimes it feels as if the truth is unshakeable. He'd have to shed his entire skin, remove all traces of himself including his scent like a prey yet uncaught, exorcise his feelings, erase the very existence of his mind to even attempt this. When it comes down to it, it's just a mindset. A man's mindset. So how does one hide a mind? Thoughts can be hidden, of course, they can, Snape did it all his life. Can Harry become a spy like Snape, can he switch back into Harriet's skin, and be happy living an elaborate lie he can't possibly fail? Pretending so hard and so long that he can, at last, accept that pretence as truth and make peace with it. Maybe Snape can tell him how, he did it for so long, for Dumbledore.
Silence hangs heavy between them and Harry feels like an insect speared by a pin of his own making, trapped behind invisible glass.
Snape stares at him and there's a quiet seething outrage in that dark stare. Harry doesn't need Legilimency to understand the profound disappointment. For a second there, Harry wants to scream back 'don't call me "coward"', even though Snape said nothing of the sort. The tension in the space between the two men can be carved with a knife, leaving icy pin-pricks all over.
"No," Snape declares. Quiet. Final.
How dare he! I thought he understood what it's like. Of all people, he'd be the one to understand difficult choices. "Fucking hell, can't you at least try. I'm asking you. I need this. I'm going to try to pretend for a while. You've done difficult - horrible - things, pretending for us, how did you keep your Patronus through it all?" I need some hope to hold on to. Who's better to show me how it's done than him?
That seems to take all the breath out of Snape, it's as if Harry slapped him. "I never expected her to return to me," Snape answers softly. "Why would she, I gave her up!"
"Then you'll understand." Harry faces him. He shouldn't plead. He mustn't. He does. "I can't. Give up. George."
Snape's face is far too pale. A crypt keeper's face. Old and worn and decades past youth. Perhaps it was never young, to begin with. Silence spreads between them, heavy with Harry's dread. "Very well, I'll consider it," Snape croaks at last. "On one condition. I need to know what is on your mind."
Legilimency. Of course. OK. Figured that would be part of the deal. Harry nods dejectedly and spreads his arms, faces Snape where they stand. "Go on then. If you're so good at mind-reading, read!" I don't have anything to hide, not anymore.
"One. Two." Snape says, steadily, cautiously, warning Harry of the impending intrusion. "Legilimens."
It's at the moment that Harry locks stares with Snape, that he can feel the thread, the invasion, the soft, warm feather-brush of something foreign - of no-longer-a-stranger, a fellow survivor, a soldier - penetrating his mind. It's as if his chin is tilted up to the light, offering his true self to face an examination. Snape's presence in his thoughts is not subtle, in fact, Snape is trying to give him a fair amount of warning. It's as unsubtle as the sea of confusion contained inside Harry's skull. All the maybes and the what-ifs spinning in wider and wilder circles, escalating into a hurricane. Maybe, just maybe, I've made a mistake. Harry thinks on the times with George when everything was simple, and they were just two battle comrades in a long war where half the battles were unseen and unacknowledged. That kiss at the Burrow. That evening at Hogwarts after the battle, spent by George's side, in George's arms, as he mourned Fred's loss. They were equals and in love, and they still can be. To get that back, Merlin, I don't even mind being George's 'sweet pea' again, I can let the illusion of her exist: in the Daily Prophet, in the house. I'll tell everyone I was confounded and they hadn't realised until now. I'll explain everything. Would that be so terrible? It'll be a temporary measure. It may buy us a few years, perhaps. I miss him. What wouldn't I give for a few years of happiness together with him? I'd give all of myself for that if I have to. There's not much of me now that's truly worth keeping, is there?
There's a shadow of something, is it of disgust or fear or surprise - impossible to tell - that runs through Snape's stern facade. And then the subtle brush of invasion is gone from Harry's mind. "No." Snape spits, enunciating quite clearly for such an impulsive gesture, "I cannot help. No one can, besides yourself."
"Fine then! I'll do it myself!" What else is new? Harry's been on his own and in trouble before. He can manage his way out of this one. All Harry needs to do is stop this elaborate fantasy, stop the weekly routine of shots, and then learn how to face the mirror without cringing. That's all! Harry's even existed unafraid of mirrors once upon a time. All he must do from now on is figure out a way to escape this dreadful fog that keeps creeping over him at the thought of even trying such a feat.
Snape's face hardens into a mask. "As. You. Wish." There's a momentary deliberation and then he adds, soft and more intimate than any feather-brush of a Legilimens. "Mister Potter..."
That's the trouble, innit. It all started with that one title. If Harry didn't cling to it as much, maybe, just maybe George and him would still be together and happy.
"Don't call me that!" Harry bristles. Something inside Harry snaps, that moment, in the deep shame of Snape's acknowledgement of him now, right now, when he's finally ready to let himself go. When he is so ready to give up on one future for the sake of another. Maybe something, one day, will be born, hatching out of Harry's former shell. It's not ready to surface yet. It feels at the moment like it will not be for a long, long while.
Right now, Harry slams the front door to the house on Spinner's End, because it's the only satisfaction he can derive out of the experience. It's only fair, he tells himself, Apparating back to the place that's not a home.
I've left the wine behind. Oh well, the contrary sod can choke on it for all he wants. I've got more, right here.
Going back now, or ever, and facing Snape after this seems as unthinkable as scaling the tallest mountain range step by step on the coldest night of the year, without magic to help him along.
So why does it feel as if Harry has left the best of himself behind at Spinner's End by slamming that door?
Don't think of it. Breathe. I must hold it together. I must fix it. I will make it right. I have to, for George.
Chapter 17: Out of Grimmauld Place. November 2001.
"Grimmauld Place," said Harriet.
The other two gaped.
"Don't be silly, Harry, Snape can get in there!"
"Ron's dad said they've put up jinxes against him — and even if they haven't worked," she pressed on as Hermione began to argue, "so what? I swear, I'd like nothing better than to meet Snape!"
It's been two days (or is it three?) since he's been outside. Harry's lost count.
His sleep is erratic, his mind on edge at all hours of the night, impossible to calm down. Eating - something, anything - and drinking water is an afterthought. Getting out of bed is a chore.
Who is he? What is he? Has he dreamt it all up? Has he imagined the past few months and let himself believe in fantasy? What's real? He doesn't feel male. He doesn't feel female. It's far easier to exist as a thing, an it. But there's humanity in him and society dictates that demands a label. A choice of one or the other. He must be going insane.
He loves George far too much to face the choice right now. Does he have to choose today?
Can he change it all back, retrace his way into how things were before? He tries it. It's easy enough too - all it takes is a bit of a doubt sown in his own thoughts. Stupid girl, his mind easily slides into a familiar self-deprecating routine. Stupid, arrogant girl. I had it all and I just had to go after something impossible. And for what?
I'll never be a man, not in the ways that count.
Real men aren't afraid to face themselves in the mirror. Real men don't curl up bawling around their pillows. Real men father children, fight for their families.
Harry brings up the hand with a faded scar on the back it. Traces the writing. I must not tell lies.
If he had a quill, any quill within reach, he doesn't know what he'd use it for, to draw three red strokes through the reminder of his failures or to retrace them, painfully and slowly. It's not a healthy thing to want, just another reminder why Harry's broken, why he can't be trusted to make decisions right now, why he cannot trust himself to do the right thing. After all, his mind is full of delusions, that's all it is. How can it be anything else?
It's good there is nothing sharp nearby. Breathe, Harry reminds himself. Instead, he uses a finger to trace over the letters in his own handwriting. No more lies. I should stop lying to myself.
Real men don't fall in love with other men.
I'm nothing but a fraud. My entire life is one giant lie. I'm ashamed to be my parents' daughter. It's too painful not to be George's love. I'm not the friend Ron and Hermione think me to be. My mind keeps telling me I'm not the Girl Who Lived, I hate seeing that in the papers. I hate hearing it. How can I stop hating that? Is it even possible?
It feels as if the world is making up a bigger and bigger lie with every story they tell about me.
But if every story is not true, what am I without them?
Try as he might, he doesn't know how to answer that any longer. His mind comes up with an exhausted blank. Can one exist as nothing at all? Does a liar of this magnitude deserve existence? Does a lifelong liar deserve a life?
Harry doesn't know what time it is. It must be evening already. The candles inside the lamp at his bedside have mostly burned down and the entire room is plunged into twilight, with a bare sliver of street lights seen between the curtains. It's so dark so soon. Perhaps he should just sleep. One action at a time is all his mind has room for. He doesn't know what'll come after sleeping. Or whether it'll come at all.
He jolts awake to the shimmering, pale light of a Patronus. Mine? No, it can't be. His face is hot. His mouth dry. His breathing is strained. He hunts for his glasses and the blur turns into a familiar shape. The doe. Snape's.
It feels like waking from the ages-old stupor, and then the doe leans in, giving his cheek what would have been a warm nuzzle, and Snape's words are whispered into his ear: "Potter. I've changed my mind. I'll help you. Come."
Even though the doe fades with a final leap, the short phrase carries Harry out of bed, sends him scrambling for some action. Surely, Snape's invitation (just as his whipcord-thin patience) won't last forever.
Harry wraps a loose robe, then a wrinkled cloak around his unbound chest, fighting the sense of dread by layering fabric over himself. To make things easier, he pretends he's carrying an awkward bundle pressed to his flat ribs, that those lumps aren't a part of him at all and then he hates himself for resorting to these pretences to actually face the world outside. After all, it didn't use to be that way, he didn't use to feel anxious about that at all, back when he didn't know enough about himself, back when he was just numb and unaware, steering his body into submission. He rakes an angry hand through his hair, and then, after some deliberation, summons a precious phial which he'd need in three days' time. If Snape has offered to help, well then, that's something Harry is certain he can help with. He can take the testosterone off Harry's hands. Harry no longer trusts himself to make the right choice while it's in his possession.
It doesn't feel right to step out of Snape's fireplace when he just left Spinner's End by slamming the front door. He Apparates into the chilly darkness and knocks on an unlabelled, nondescript door, the last in the row of several worn-down brick houses. Even the air here smells of coal dust and of the dying fish from the river. It's so cold and silent outside, with an occasional snowflake settling into the icy dirt. The clouds swirling overhead look just like a sea of Dementors. Harry sees the door open in front of him with a triangle of warm light spilling under his feet and doesn't envy any other creature or man still outside at this hour.
"Potter. Come in."
Harry takes a step into the hallway. The creaky door shuts closed behind him and the heavy bolt falls all by itself, clicking into place and shutting out the dreary world.
"Hi. I got your message. Is this a good time?"
Snape is in the chair by the fireplace. Dark curtains of hair slim his face, exaggerate his beaky features. A glass of something warm and dark, probably brandy, sits by his side. He doesn't comment on Harry's dishevelled state but instead gestures at a sofa. "Sit. Down."
Harry grips the testosterone phial in his hand. It is so tiny, like a jewel. Like a dose of poison, Harry's mind suggests. And which is it? Who can tell? His palm is sweaty. Inside is the next two weeks' worth of... madness, of self-doubt, of salvation. He wants it off his hands. He doesn't want to make the weekly choice to inject any more. Perhaps removing it from the equation altogether will help.
"Here," he says, setting the tiny, sealed glass container onto the dusty table surface next to Snape's drink. "You may have this."
Snape's fingers clench, once, but he doesn't reach out for the phial. "Sit, Potter." It's not a suggestion this time. Those long pale fingers then form a steeple, with Snape's elbows anchored over his knees. Snape leans forward and his face comes into view from the shadows. "Let me tell you a story."
One hand stretches out towards the table, reaching not for the phial, but for the heavy glass. Snape takes a deep gulp, stops, and then, in one smooth motion, drains the rest.
Harry settles down on the worn sofa, and watches, mesmerised, the sight of that Adam's apple bobbing exposed over the stark collar. He's jealous, he cannot help it. He supposes he might have had one of his own, in a few years' time. If all went well, in a different universe. The trace of a scar on the side of Snape's neck is all but hidden by hair and shadows and Harry will never have that. He doesn't want more scars - no sane person does - and Harry, while not exactly an example of sanity at the moment, has his own to bear already.
"When I was young," Snape speaks and something about his grave tone urges Harry to listen in closely, "I fell in lust with a young man. His name was Regulus."
Oh. It's far too personal and far too vulnerable, maybe the most vulnerable side of Severus Snape Harry has ever glimpsed, short of what he thought was his dying breath on the Shrieking Shack floor. All he can do is hold his breath and take it all in.
"He was beautiful in all the ways I was not. We accepted our Marks in the course of the same week. I took it as a sign. For so long, I didn't know whether I wanted to be him or to be with him. I thought it was envy. Envy would have been easy, but eventually I could no longer deny lust."
Snape's eyes meet Harry's. Dark and depthless and mesmerising. "I asked myself, what did it make me, aside from a freak of nature? It was all too new and queer and unheard of. I blamed myself most of all. I blamed only myself. I withdrew from him. I tried to fight it, to dismiss it. Soon enough, I stopped thinking of myself as a human. I was a creature, an 'it'. A thing, Marked for life." Suddenly, that toneless voice shifts and gains emotion and depth. So much, that it takes Harry's breath away. "When I realised what I was doing, it was too late. Reg was gone before I had a chance to tell him." Snape pauses, with a sharp inhale, and with so many difficult conversations just this year, Harry knows how standing on that cliff feels like all too well: when it hurts to utter another word, but you have to keep talking because the alternative is still worse. "Do not make the same mistakes I did. Take it from a bitter old man, Potter, a lifetime of self-hatred for being queer leads to nothing good."
It's not a happy moment, but it's brittle-sharp and fleeting with its poignancy. Harry doesn't know how to describe this feeling in his chest. It surely isn't hope, or the kindled warmth of camaraderie, of realisation, that he was let inside the doors that haven't been opened for a long time, inside the innermost defences of a very private man. That right in front of him is a man who was once 'in lust' - in love - with another man and admits to it so freely. It is a precious gift Harry is certain he doesn't deserve to be given. A glimpse of a man on the precipice of accepting himself. The knowledge that men could feel this, share this with one another, and still remain men... Good men. Worthy of life. Worthy of salvation. The universe doesn't so much shift at that admission but rights itself at Harry's feet.
Snape pulls back into the shadows, hands still steepled below his chin. "Your turn," he says, and Harry isn't sure what Snape expects to hear, but he's damn certain it's going to be hard to let the words out.
"You aren't that old!" Harry protests then, to stall for a few precious moments, to buy time and compose his thoughts. Snape's queer. Wow. I... how did I not know this? This changes so much.
It hardly changes a thing. It's not as if I care who he loves, or lusts after. Anyway, who am I to compare my current situation with Snape's loss. His loss is real, and permanent, and marked him for a lifetime.
"Don't change the subject, Potter," that eyebrow arches sharply. "Your turn."
Harry forces his thoughts back to Snape's question. Forces himself to speak. "I... don't know... What I am, or who," Harry lets out, his voice quiet. These frequent pauses let him breathe, let him continue. Small steps. Word by word, if I have to. He squeezes his palm over the back of his left hand. No lies.
"I refuse to live like a thing, or a creature. That much I know. But it's... complicated." Harry lets out a sigh. I've gotta think this through. How can I possibly explain this? "How can I ever make it right? If you ever took out my brain and pickled it in one of your slimy jars stuck on the shelf for the rest of my life, that part's definitely a bloke. Don't you dare write anything but Harry over it! But that's... completely insane. A brain in a jar isn't a human and no matter what I try I'll never be who I want!" How can I be?
"Firstly, Potter," a hint of bared teeth signals some hidden warning, "I am not in the habit of 'pickling' human brains. That's a delicate job best left to formaldehyde. And secondly," Snape's voice grows stern. "Any teacher worth their salt would tell you: a mind is an excellent measure of a man." Snape pauses for just a second. "Now, when will you start putting your mind to use and realise that I am not my former students' keeper? Make your own choices. I believe this is yours." And then the inevitable phial is levitated toward Harry. It floats, bobbing in the air halfway between the two men, in the resulting silence. A familiar printed label rotates into view: Potter, Harry. Testosterone cypionate. A choice returned: no matter how unwelcome it is right now, Harry knows he has to face it on his own.
Harry takes all of two seconds to hold his breath and then reaches out, snatching the floating phial out of mid-air and shoving it back into his pocket. The motion makes the bundled cloak over his chest shift and he sags, with his arms crossed in front of him, looking straight ahead. He feels both vulnerable and ashamed. This isn't the shape he wants to be, physically or mentally. He turns to the side, with the full knowledge that he can't quite hide all of himself. He didn't bring the Invisibility Cloak with him but if he had, today feels as if he just had it right here, he'd never take it off.
"Um, m-may I ask you something? Can you..."
"Damnation, lad. Just spit it out!"
Harry shivers. Snape's good. Really good at this. At ignoring the obvious bits. A pair of obvious bits. Perhaps he's just good at pretending. Harry'll take that right now. He'll take anything.
"You were always good at asking the hard questions, you know. C-can you keep talking for a while? Just maybe say something encouraging instead? Just once." Harry closes his eyes. "I want to be a man to someone. I just want to be a regular bloke on the street but that's impossible."
Snape casts him a look that is almost judging and it's the last thing Harry sees before he shuts his eyes, heavy with moisture. "Really, Potter? Is this what you're truly worried about? Being a 'man' to 'someone'? Be careful who you look up to, or you will be taken advantage of!"
"This isn't a joke!" It's not! Please don't insult my needs.
"No," Snape says. "It certainly isn't." A deep breath follows. "What I meant, Potter, is... sometimes focusing inward before seeking validation in others is a better use of your time. Besides, what makes you think you aren't a man, right now and right here?"
Harry cringes under that glare as if he's being measured and perhaps he stands a chance at a passing grade after all, but how! It's like chasing the impossible! "You don't mean... I..."
Snape arches his brow. "Don't I?"
"Ugh... Fine." Harry sighs. Runs his hand through his hair. He might as well just say it. "Bloody hell, everyone walks on eggshells around the thing, but you try walking around stuck as a doll. I know I don't look anywhere near what a man should look like, but I'm trying, OK! I am fucking trying! It's no use. So... I can't possibly make it, I don't stand a chance. But with George -"
Snape stands abruptly, and with measured steps, crosses the room until he stands by the arm of the sofa, scrutinising Harry from the back. What a sight Harry must make right now, with his sloping shoulders and bowed head. Snape would never be caught like this, in a moment of vulnerability. It's no wonder Harry has come to mimic Snape's mannerisms when he wants to make sure his gait or posture is just right, throughout the day.
"Potter," Snape barks, with military-like precision. Like a general addressing a private, in the middle of the war. "I could tell you more about yourself right now than you ever expected to hear, but why should I? I am fully aware none of it would make a slight bit of difference in your current state of mind. So instead, I'll leave you with a lesson, lad, a warning all my students - who are worthy - receive from me, that hiding your truth from the world so inexpertly only shows them your innermost weakness, and that will invite people to exploit it. And trust me, there are plenty of people waiting for the opportunity to do just so. However, sometimes... telling the truth, no matter how much it hurts to voice it, is the only thing one can do to survive."
Harry freezes, biting his lip. He uncrosses his arms and puts them around his sides, on that threadbare sofa. It is so difficult right now to remain in place, what with Snape's measured voice in his ear.
"A brave man would turn around and face me, right now. Right here," how does Snape do that, send chills through Harry's spine with a mere change in tone. With a well-measured pause? Every word tugs on Harry's anger yet there's something past that - the nagging 'I know you, Potter, better than you know yourself' that Harry can't quite shake. "Question is," Snape adds as if it is an afterthought. "Are you man enough?"
Some part of Harry wants to stay forever in a tent made up of the Invisibility Cloak, to stay there for eternity, or to fade into obscurity with his mind stuffed in a jar on a dusty shelf. But there's another part of him, all Gryffindor, that never fails to respond, to rise to the challenge.
And so, with his fists squarely at his side, with his head unbowed, he rises (cloak be cursed, unbound chest be damned), and steps around the sofa, face to face. Short and curvy and shaped all-wrong, but with fire and resolve that keep him from walking out the door. There's gotta be some of it in his stare, showing, because Snape's eyes widen and grow darker. They don't speak, for a brief second that stretches into eternity. See me as I am, dammit. Take me as I am. You're this close and I need you to be closer.
"I'm Harry. Would you call me that?"
Snape's lips widen, just a half an inch.
Harry's tilts his head and doesn't look away. "Are you man enough?"
The corners of Snape's mouth twitch. His stare warms. "Very well. Harry."
Something clicks into place, inevitable, and only proper. It's as if they've met again for the first time. Harry Potter. Severus Snape. A meeting of two turbulent minds.
Harry still thinks of that moment, of a shared, shock-filled stare at Spinner's End, the next Monday morning, as he prepares the syringe and casts a disinfecting charm over one of his thighs. As he mutely rolls the testosterone phial between his thumb and forefinger, staring at the clear, viscous liquid within. A choice: to stop, or to continue.
Only it's not a choice at all now. Because for that one moment, facing his former Professor, Harry was all man and all resolve, right there and now. No matter what he wore and whether he held onto this one phial or not. His body was his: two arms, two legs, a forehead marked with the lightning bolt scar, and a mind that met a kindred mind after a sincere confession.
So the actual choice for now becomes: what kind of man is he going to be. The answer to that is not inside of a phial, never was.
Harry lifts an eyebrow and releases an exasperated sigh that sends the syringe wrapper flying. Bloody hell, I'm not the man terrified of a tiny prick of a needle, that's for sure.
Definitely not the man who would concoct an elaborate lie to keep his lover at his side.
A brave man, in the way that counts. Like Dumbledore. Like Snape.
After that, it's all routine. Disinfect. Draw. Switch needles to a thinner one. Choose a spot. Insert fully. Aspirate. Inject. Done.
I must speak with George, Harry thinks. And soon.
Chapter 18: Soldiers. May 1998.
"'Rodent'?" said yet another familiar voice, and Ron and Hermione cried out together:
"No - is it George?" they continued on together.
"It's Fred, I think," said Ron, leaning in closer, as whichever twin it was said, "I'm not being 'Rodent,' no way, I told you I wanted to be 'Rapier'!"
"It's Fred," Harriet sighed, longing horribly to hear George's voice. She didn't know how she knew that it wasn't him, she just had always been able to tell more often than not. What wouldn't she give to have George by her side! But first, they had to rid the world of Voldemort.
Where is George? Where is he? Harriet claws back her unruly hair, tucks it into her plait which is matted thickly at its base, impossible to undo by hand. Its end is tucked inside her robes, hanging down her bare back, plastered to her spine and sticky with sweat. Things are happening in slow motion in the Great Hall. McGonagall, Kingsley, and Slughorn blast backward, flailing and writhing from a magical bomb of Voldemort's fury. And then, right afterwards, Voldemort raises his wand to Molly Weasley.
No! Not her. "Protego!" roars Harriet and her Protego is echoed by a twin spell - George's voice hoarse from screaming, resonates in the crowd, in defence of his mother, and Harry is struck with the horrible truth that no one in the world would ever again have to guess to tell the twin voices apart. The double Shield Charm expands in the middle of the Hall, and Voldemort stares around for the source, focusing on George as a target so Harry has to act now or never. She pulls the Invisibility Cloak off and steps forward, closer to George, where she can shield him with her magic or her body if needed. Where she can take Voldemort's attention away from him.
"Harry," George gasps. "Harry!" She cannot look to the side to meet George's eye. She won't.
First, the cheers overtake the hall: "Harriet!" "SHE'S ALIVE!", but then, silence and fear settle over them, as Voldemort and Harriet face and circle each other, George is right by her side. George knows better than anyone what needs to be done. George promised her that when the time comes to making the most difficult of decisions, he'd let Harriet take the lead and fight alongside her instead of trying to rescue her. It was a hard promise to make, and it will be a harder promise to keep, but she trusts him completely, especially now that the task at hand is as enormous as saving the world.
"I don't want anyone else to try to help," Harry says loudly, to George, to others, and in the total silence of the Great Hall her voice carries like never before. "It's got to be like this. It's gotta be me."
Voldemort hisses. "Potter doesn't know what she's raving about. So," Voldemort's terrifying stare focuses on George, "who are you going to use as a shield today? This... who are you again?"
"Nobody," Harriet shouts to gain Voldemort's attention and anger. "By the way, there are no more Horcruxes. It's just you and me. Neither can live while the other survives, and I promise you, I want to survive this and I will live!"
"You?" Voldemort jeers, flashing red stare, his figure poised like a striking snake over Harriet. "You think it will be you who outlives me, do you, girl? Such a shame you even survived that accident and lived this long, all because Dumbledore pulled some strings."
"Do you really think it was an accident when I fought you in that graveyard?" They are still circling, both of them, and Harriet has forgotten everything but that perfect circle, even George's presence. She has to. She can't think of George, a wand's flick away from dying (kill the spare!) - she cannot. Voldemort is already responsible for the death of one boy at Harry's side when facing Voldemort, but George isn't Cedric. "That I didn't die tonight, that I'm alive, and I'm still here?"
"Accidents!" screams Voldemort. "Accident and chance and the fact that greater men stepped in to shield you, a girl, and allowed me to kill them and for what!"
"You won't be killing anyone else," says Harriet, her footwork steady, following that perfect circle once more, focused on the two red dots of Voldemort's eyes. "Ever again. I'm ready to die to protect the people I love, just like my mother did. To protect them from you. You can't torture them. You can't touch them. You don't learn from your mistakes, Riddle, do you?"
"You dare -"
"Yes," says Harriet. "Because I know something that you don't, Tom Riddle. Do you want to hear, before it's too late?"
Voldemort doesn't speak, prowling in that endless circle and Harriet knows now that she's got a chance. A slim chance, but a chance. A way.
"Love again, is it?" Voldemort's serpentine features twist with disgust. "Dumbledore's favourite fantasy. Love conquers all. Well, love didn't stop Dumbledore from falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork! Love did not prevent me stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach, girl - and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse, not even that boy of yours. So what will stop you dying now when I strike? Have you any magic that I do not? Ha! You, wielding a weapon more powerful than mine? It's absurd." Voldemort laughs, and it's more disturbing than his scream. Hollow and crazed. "A mere girl, thinking herself more powerful than I! I, Lord Voldemort, performed magic that Dumbledore himself never dreamed of!"
"Oh, he dreamed," says Harriet. "But he knew better than to use it."
"He was weak!" Voldemort screams. "Too weak. Pathetic."
"He was a better wizard and a better man!"
"I had him killed!"
"No, you thought you did, but you were wrong."
The crowds around Harriet and Voldemort breathe as one. George is still here, by her. George, please stay alive!
"Dumbledore is dead!" Voldemort throws the words at Harry like curses. "His body decays in the marble tomb on the grounds of this castle. He will not return!"
"Yes, he is dead," Harry states, calm as she never was during Dumbledore's funeral. "but you didn't have him killed. He chose his death, months before. He arranged it!"
"What delusion is this, little..." says Voldemort, but still he doesn't strike, only peers on, with narrowed eyes. "... one?" He's definitely using Legilimency, Harriet is sure of it, and for a second there, just a breath, it almost looked like Voldemort saw something inside of her. The moment passes.
"You still don't get it, do you? Snape wasn't yours. Snape was Dumbledore's, Dumbledore's from the moment you started hunting down my mother. And you never realised it, because of this one thing you just can't understand. You never saw Snape cast a Patronus, did you, Riddle?"
Voldemort does not answer. They circle on, like ravenous wolves.
"Snape's Patronus was a doe, same as my mother's." Harriet continues on with the only explanation for what she saw that possibly makes sense and desperately grasps at it as the truth. It has to be the truth. What else is there to think? "He loved her for nearly all of his life, someone he knew from the time when they were children. You should have known this!" Voldemort's nostrils flare. "He asked you to spare her life!"
"Foolish child, he merely desired her," sneers Voldemort, "but when she was dead, he agreed that there were other women, purer, worthier -"
"Of course he told you that," says Harriet, and wonders, just for a moment, of Snape sacrificing every piece of himself, every moral, every shred of decency to make Voldemort believe, to gain his trust. Severus Snape, the Death Eater, is not the story that the world deserves to know. It needs to know the truth for once. "Snape was spying for Dumbledore from the moment you threatened her, and he's been working against you ever since! Dumbledore was already dying when Snape killed him!"
"It matters not!" Voldemort's rapt attention is interrupted by his shriek, followed by mad laughter. "What does it ever matter whether Snape was mine or Dumbledore's? I crushed them as I crushed your mother - I reached the wand before you could get your hands on it, I understood the truth before you could ever comprehend a crumb of it. I killed Severus Snape three hours ago, and the Elder Wand, the Deathstick, the Wand of Destiny is truly mine! Dumbledore's last plan went wrong, all wrong, Harry. Potter!"
"Yeah, it did," says Harriet. "And this is your one last chance. It's all you've got left. I've seen what you'll be otherwise. So try. Some. Remorse. Just try." She squares her shoulders, sticks out her jaw and plants both feet steady on the floor. A battle stance, just like George taught her once during their sparring sessions. "Be a man."
"Oh, that is... rich. Coming from you." Voldemort laughs then, that mad, soulless laughter and Harriet struggles to understand what Voldemort may have meant by that, it's not funny in the least, but nothing clicks. And then his eyes, those terrible red eyes widen, and yes, he's certainly inside Harriet's mind. She is sure of it. Voldemort's expression is smug as if he's only how discovered something in her thoughts that she herself is unaware of. Does such a thing exist? It's a terrifying idea. Come on, she thinks in desperation. I have to fight it, dammit. But how, I can't even feel what he's after! Fuck, it hurts. My scar... Ugh. No. What's happening? And then, it happens. For a second, Harry's vision darkens as if there's a huge and empty cupboard all around and Harry's got nowhere to run and no one to ask for help - trapped inside forever without any hope of getting out. Oh god, help, somebody help me! HELP! It fades as if the boundaries of her own mind seize and push back - "Harry!" yells George, somewhere distant - and Harriet blinks away the attack. It has to be Vodemort breaching her mental defences, pulling out pieces of her memories that he considers most likely to damage her all at once, but how is he doing this? How is it even possible. I don't remember anything like this inside my own head. If this empty dark place existed, I would know! This isn't a cupboard, this is worse. Somehow it is much worse. The finality of this dark trap inside Harry's own head, as if Harriet's entire reality has gone and disappeared never to exist at all, chills her. "You still have no idea why this is so laughable, do you?" Voldemort hisses with what seems like perverse pleasure, and she processes the words between the waves of pain as they keep compounding, doubling in intensity. Harriet tries not to wince from the onslaught of them hitting again and again as they now come without a pause in between. "This is what makes it so good. Snape, that traitorous fool, once smitten with a Mudblood whore, has brought me the prophecy that is all wrong to begin with! But I see the truth now. Oh, I will enjoy killing you, immensely. Harry. Potter. After all, you are nothing but a demented joke -"
Between the last flood of agony and the next, a red-gold flare bursts across the enchanted sky of the Great Hall, just as the sun shines over the windowsill nearby. The light hits Harriet as it hits Voldemort, and Voldemort is suddenly both aflame, and a shadowy blur. Harriet hears the mocking shriek dying on Voldemort's horrifying lips as Voldemort draws another breath and - now or never - she too yells out, as her vision dims again and she's forced into that dark and terrible space inside her own thoughts, she cannot possibly fall in and be trapped there ever again! So Harriet stares on, braces herself, hoping beyond hope, and aims at Voldemort:
Chapter 19: Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. November 2001.
'Take it,' she said, and she thrust the sack into George's hands.
'What?' said Fred, looking flabbergasted.
'Take it,' Harry repeated firmly. 'I don't want it.'
'You're mental,' said George, trying to push it back at Harry.
'No, I'm not,' said Harry. ‘You take it, and get inventing. It's for the joke-shop.'
'She is mental,' Fred said, in an almost awed voice.
Harry and George meet at the joke shop. It's past closing time but it looks like the security spells haven't been altered to lock him out, so Harry goes in, after a moment of deliberation with his hand poised on the colourful handle of the main entrance to the store, plastered with posters advertising the newest Weasley products. A small silver bell chimes pleasantly over his head, signalling his entry.
"Harry? Give me a sec. Be right there."
They have tea, of all things. Harry's ready to scream out his frustration but he cannot. They are having tea. Somehow that makes it all impossibly... surreal.
They don't talk about the weather in London, thank fuck, but they do discuss enough idle gossip to make Harry want to claw his eyes out in protest. And suddenly, everything changes and on comes the point of the entire meeting.
"Harry," George's stare is intent. His hand squeezes Harry's. "There's something else you should know."
"Go on." Harry's hand twitches and it takes all the willpower not to pull it back. This is how straight blokes behave around a girl, not another bloke. It's a habit and he doesn't even realise how it will affect me, Harry tells himself. No! I have to be fair to George, he is used to holding my hand to communicate affection. Lifelong habits are hard to break. It doesn't make the gut reaction any easier to bear.
"I've met with Angelina, once. She's been helping me through this. She's a good friend."
Jealousy flares through Harry, as ugly and painful as only irrational rage and envy and hurt can be. Breathe. "Oh?"
"She said she wouldn't be opposed to dinner together. Not now. In the future, when I'm ready. Just thought you should know."
Harry takes a deep breath and with resolve pulls his hand back. Clenches and unclenches his fingers. His palms are sweaty, the new normal of his body. "And what does she need me to do? Give my bloody blessing?" he snaps.
"Harry! She's a friend. Nothing more. She encouraged me to talk to you first, just so there are no hard feelings. I thought this was very considerate of her."
Angelina was always so considerate of the Gryffindor teammates, especially girls, an ugly thought rears its head. Wouldn't want to end things on a bad note with one Harriet 'Harry' Potter, poor confused dear, would we?
Breathe. I've gotta stop thinking like this. I can't let worrying what others think of me dictate my life. It's none of my business.
Snape's suddenly-warm tone comes to mind and challenges Harry in a whole new way. Are you man enough? And that's apparently all it takes to get him to calm down. To unclench his fists. To settle into the comfort of his own skin and allow himself to be.
I know who I am. I am enough. Right now, right here.
"What's on your mind? You looked odd for a moment there."
"Nothing," Harry shakes his head. "Just remembering something Snape said."
"You're still visiting that sleazy git? Bloody hell!"
"What's it to you? You've never complained about my patrols."
"Ugh. Harry, just ugh! Have you completely lost your mind? Just promise you'll steer clear of whatever it is he tells you next. Between you and me, I can handle you stopping me from hexing the greasy bastard's nose clean off for what he did to me, and I can handle you becoming a bloke, but -"
Harry glares. Some things the people closest to him say about Snape these days stir up his temper. "'Becoming'? Oh, bloody hell no. You're speaking with a man, George," he says, quietly, insistently. He is prepared to repeat it over and over until it drives the point home. "Right now. Right here. A queer man who loves you. That's what I am. You're not queer though, and the sooner we both accept the truth, the better."
"I get this, Harry, come on, I'm not bloody daft."
"No, I don't think you are. I know you are capable of understanding, George. If you ever loved that nickname for me, or if you still do, you love a shell of me. And no matter how much I want it to be real for your sake, I won't live a lie."
"A lie! Is that all that we were to you?" Harry watches as the very idea knocks the breath out of George. He cringes. Ripping the bandaid off, yes, sometimes that's what it takes. He needs to do this, despite the pain.
"No," Harry shakes his head. "But if we ever continue this, us, it will be, George, and I won't have that. I can't do this. Not to you."
"Farewell, George," he says, and it is a definite farewell, because he owes George clarity, for both their sakes. He needs to go, but not before he forces it past his lips: "You really should have that dinner with Angelina. I want to see you happy and I think this is the best way." It's the truth, as close to it as he can admit.
He hopes it gives George the closure they both need.
Chapter 20: Hogwarts. May 1998.
Harriet watched the two men as if from one end of a long tunnel, they were so far away, their voices echoing strangely in her ears.
"So the child… Potter must die?” asked Snape quite calmly.
"And Voldemort himself must do it, Severus. That is essential."
Voldemort's body is placed in a chamber off the Hall, away from the fallen. Away from Fred or Tonks or Lupin. Away from Colin Creevey. The House tables are back but no one is split by their Houses any more. It's a mixed crowd, students and teachers, ghosts and people, centaurs, house-elves. Even Grawp peers through the frame of a smashed window, food thrown at his grinning mouth.
Harriet is completely exhausted, fighting to stay awake on her bench besides Luna, but Luna never expects anything of her. That's what makes Luna great company when you're this tired of the world. "I'd want some quiet if it was me, Harry," Luna suggests. "How do you feel about that?"
"I'd love some," Harriet says.
"I'll distract them," Luna offers. "Use your Cloak and go -OH LOOK! A Blibbering Humdinger!" She waves and points at the window.
Everyone looks up and Harriet slides under her Cloak and starts walking.
She observes as she moves through the Hall unseen: Molly Weasley hugs Ginny, both mother and daughter have matching streaks of tears over the dust on their faces, Neville has placed the Sword of Gryffindor besides his plate like a butter knife that someone has hit with an Engorgio. A newly gathered flock of admirers surrounds him. The Malfoys huddle together, looking unsure if they should be here at all, but everyone leaves them to their own devices. There are families everywhere she looks. Groups of friends or loved ones gathered together. Ron and Hermione are right there, by the window, sharing a private moment, with Hermione resting her forehead against Ron's shoulder. Harriet passes them by and lets them be. There will be plenty of time to talk later. And finally, at last, she sees the one whose company she craves most right now.
George's utterly lost, broken form might as well be a rag-doll, the way he huddles at the far end of the Hall, against the narrow bench, away from others. Still cloaked, Harriet slides her hand over his shoulder and whispers "Will you come with me?"
Is that gasp a 'yes'? She cannot tell but he follows. She leads him out, hand in hand, to the Gryffindor tower, to the common room that no longer feels her own after all this time away from Hogwarts. The fireplace is unlit. The armchairs are still there. She transfigures one wide enough for them to lie down side by side together and steers George down on it, hugging him to her. Harriet holds him until his arms stop trembling and wrap around her waist, his face is pressed in the crook between her neck and shoulder and his lanky body is shaking with sobs. Hearing each one breaks Harriet's heart into a million pieces.
They stay here in the dark room, surrounded only by the portraits and the light streaming through the gaps in the curtains. How long has it been? Harry has no way of knowing, as she holds George through his grief. As they hold each other. Her Cloak rests beside her. Her hair and clothes are a mess. It doesn't matter. She slides her hands under George's jumper to warm them against his fevered skin. George shivers and then, with a deep breath, mirrors her movements. His touch is warm and delicate as his hands press along her bare back.
It's been a rough year. They are both skin and bones. Harriet's hips are as bony as George's. She's never been this thin before.
Time moves slowly. Somewhere, a clock strikes seven times. Stops. There is a noise outside and then the portrait hole lights up with someone's Lumos.
"Harry! Oh, there you are!" Hermione's worried voice reaches her. Ron is right behind Hermione, his face pale and his eyes wide. Harriet and George don't jump up and separate themselves from one another, not anymore. Harriet stays holding him. She is well aware of how this looks like. She doesn't give a damn. Neither of them does. George's thumb traces something a lot like a heart into the bare skin of her side and she's content to do the same. It's a promise to not give up, to keep on living for those who didn't make it this far.
"Harry, you need to hear this!" Ron interrupts, panting from racing up the staircase. They must've rushed to get here. Harry reaches for her glasses by her side. Raises herself up and braces for the bad news. Did they find another body? Who?
"Come quick." Hermione cries. "We found Snape! And, just listen to this, he's still breathing."
Chapter 21: Solace. December 2001.
To the Dark Lord,
I know I will be dead long before you read this but I want you to know that it was I who discovered your secret. I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can. I face death in the hope that when you meet your match, you will be mortal once more.
A storm is raging outside but Snape's house is all quiet, like an abandoned library packed into space far too small for its dust and its volumes. In the corner, a fireplace crackles, the flames casting fleeting shadows onto the walls with the faded, peeling wallpaper. The candle lamps in the corner are dim compared to the fireplace.
"So George and I...," Harry says, his hands fisted over his knees. "It's over. It really is."
Snape's eyes flash, or is it just a trick of the light? "I am sorry," he answers.
It's a good day, relatively speaking. For the first time, Harry's tried on a Muggle-made contraption - binder - and it works better than his charmed shirt. There's that dull pressure against his ribs still, but a comfortable sort of pressure. His chest is flat enough that he has the confidence to put on a brighter shirt. It's dark green instead of his now-usual black.
Snape doesn't rush to show Harry the door, for what it's worth. Like an exotic bird of prey hiding in the shadows, he wraps his cloak tighter around himself and nurses his drink.
A brief glance at Harry and then an empty glass is summoned from the kitchen, and Snape pours some warm dark liquid out of the bottle, sending the glass floating toward Harry.
"Tell me about Regulus," Harry asks in the moment of quiet. Dares to ask, even though there's no telling what Snape might do, probably throw him out on his ear, for all Harry knows.
All Harry knows of Regulus is one note signed with R.A.B. That note shaped all of his understanding of the man. It left quite an impression.
"He was a young man with grand dreams. You would have liked that part of him, I imagine. But enough about that. Tell me, what is it you saw in Mr. Weasley."
Harry winces. This is personal. Vulnerable. Nothing he hasn't subjected Snape to, so it's only fair to answer. "George is full of life. He's proud to be himself. He was my strength, an equal, as we grew closer. I survived because he didn't give up: on himself or on me. I trusted him fully, and he never betrayed that trust. George is... a hurricane but that's what makes him George."
"Mr. Weasley always had a fondness for the extremes." Harry reckons it's as much of a compliment as Snape can muster when it comes to George Weasley.
"Um, Snape, may I ask you something?"
"Well... go on."
"You fell for Regulus. But I saw memories of you with mum." Harry frowns. "How does that... work?"
Snape's expression turns sombre. Wistful. It's an expression of vulnerability, the fact that Harry can actually read and recognise these emotions on Snape's face. It's also a display of inner strength. "She was my best friend. My only friend. Better than I could ever hope to have. Do you not have good friends, Harry?"
His name spoken so freely takes Harry off-guard. Puts him in the spotlight. All right then. "Ron and Hermione are mine," he says. They've always been his rock. His strength. He is lucky to have more than one true friend.
"So... Have there been others? Like Regulus," Harry asks then, timidly, knowing he is trying Snape's patience. Besides Regulus. Have you loved anyone? Anyone at all. Were you loved in return? He's trying his best to honour Snape's loss but the thought of lifelong loneliness is such an unsettling, tragic image.
Snape shakes his head. "Once is enough."
Harry frowns. It doesn't sit right with him, this mindset of once. "You can't just give up on human connection, on love," he insists.
"Love?" Snape sneers. "Who said anything about love?" But his face assumes that hollow, neutral mask far too quickly for the emotion to be genuine. "This was a bout of teenage lust, ill-advised."
"What about the rest of your life?" After all, Snape is far from a teenager now. Is he planning to die alone? He... of course, he is. Fuck.
"What about it? I began teaching at Hogwarts. The board may have tolerated a Death Eater who was Dumbledore's protege, but adding queer to the mix, around precious children? Perish the thought!" Snape's lips thin in something akin to disgust. "I couldn't risk it. It was impossible. You won't have to worry about that. Rules do not apply to a war hero."
"You are no longer teaching, and you are as much of a war hero as I am."
"We'll see." With a rueful smirk, Snape raises his glass. "Here's to the privilege of living as if the rules do not apply."
"To no rules!" Harry echoes, tasting the scotch, earthy and heartwarming, like a concentrated lungful of wet soil and electric charge right before the storm hits. It warms his very core, these private moments of one-on-one (man-to-man) interactions. He will cherish it - whatever it is - forever. These visits to Spinner's End make his heart sing, they make him want to take a leap of faith and do something completely irrational, but no, he has to let Snape take the lead on this and decide how this... mutual connection will develop for both of them. Harry looks over to Snape, a wizard that's profoundly lonely and proud, and grieving still. Such a sight he makes, though! Harry doesn't want to look away, doesn't want to control his own curiosity at the mere idea: What would happen if Harry, for once, just once, tried something quite... foolish. It's useless to wonder.
He could try something simple instead, like reaching out with his glass to touch the rim of it to Snape's. Blokes do that sort of thing all the time, don't they? Sure they do, in the pub, at any festivities where alcohol makes an appearance. And yet instead, Harry chooses something different, something queer. He sets his glass aside. Approaches Snape, cautiously, slowly, treating the matter with all the respect it deserves. He gets on one knee to bring himself to the same level as Snape, reaches out to cover Snape's free hand on the table with his.
"I want to be a friend to you. I know I'm not my mum, but..." Underneath his hand, Snape's fingers twitch like a spider, shivering awake after a long winter. "I'm here."
Harry knows full well now, from the example of a broken heart with George, that lust is fleeting. Lust cannot be promised to last. Besides, if anything were to happen between them, if there was a chance of a spark, well... Snape's queer and I'm stuck like this, in-between, an unwanted body for any gay bloke, an incompatible mind for a straight one. But friends? Friendships have no such limitations. There's stability there, one Harry is prepared to offer.
The only thing he has to offer, for now. Right here and right as he is.
Snape's stare reminds Harry of the darkness inside the deepest of closets, of a cage about to crack open. Something Harry is so reluctant to witness. He's not worthy of this.
Snape's lips twitch and then his hand turns, palm upwards, and grasps Harry's, in a handshake of an Unbreakable Vow, and then he's pulled to his feet, as Snape rises, and their chests meet, their stares meet. And Snape's other hand moves, past Harry's shoulder, to warm his cheek.
"To no rules," Snape echoes, quietly. And his stare is so intense, so questioning, as if daring Harry to step away, this instant, to give up on the impossible and move on. "Harry."
Harry remains, taking up space and standing tall, as he doesn't dare to yet elsewhere, in so many spaces meant for men to inhabit. Dizzy with his own daring, he slides his hands over Snape's forearms. Snape's fingers on his jaw are a cold point of contact, but an oh-so-welcome one. Is this really happening? Snape's touch is electrifying, striking, and so impossible.
"You may call me Severus," Snape rumbles. And as Harry watches those thin lips form every syllable: it feels as intimate as a first kiss.
"Severus," Harry echoes.
There's a welcoming twist to Severus' thin lips. A tilt of a proud jaw, a feathery rustle of the black curtain of hair revealing more pale skin. Harry is so, so tempted to press his lips against those thinner, twisted ones. Would it be a violation of trust? Would it be unwelcome? Would it be the end of everything? How can he tell?
"All right?" Harry prompts. Not quite a question. A request for help.
His reply is an arched eyebrow, a dare as much as a voiced 'are you man enough to follow through?' would have been.
He expects me to kiss him. He wants me to kiss him. Fuck, I hope I'm reading this right. I hope I'm not making a giant mistake. Drawn in, Harry allows himself to be mesmerised by that dark, heavy-lidded stare. He's daring me to!
I've got no idea how to do this, not with him. But this is it. Confused and desperate all at once, Harry leans forward, reaches up, and presses his lips against that thin, dry, teasing goal. He's got an armful of Severus, for that moment in time, and only because Severus allows him to. And, oh god, Severus' arms wrap around him, steady and large, Severus' lips part against his, softer than expected, and Harry's, quite possibly, made the right choice. We both need this.
Who would've thought it'd be like this, gentle and just right. Harry nearly sobs his relief into the kiss. And it is a kiss, an impossible one. An impossible dream dragged forth into reality with every shared breath.
Time and space still around them: Severus holds him. Harry holds on. A fever-dream of forever-after condensed into an echoed heartbeat.
Harry's reality shifts once more, unbound by the laws of physics. An impossibility manifested into being. Severus and him.
He gasps for breath as Severus pulls back, a warm dark stare meets his. All right?
Harry's more than all right. He's perfectly fine. Better than what he's been for so long through so many worried nights. At this particular moment, with Severus by his side, in his reach, in his arms, this is. Fucking. Perfect.
At that moment, the only measure of himself Harry needs is to see himself reflected in that dark, mesmerising stare and that glimpse of him is no longer a reflection that is full of flaws. He is just a man. He is Harry in Severus' eyes. He is real. As real as it gets. As real as the vision of a stranger - Dad! Then not. - glimpsed in the dark of the Forbidden Forest, lit in the dim glow of the stag Patronus before the Dementor fog overtakes Harry's conscience. As real as a youngster, staring down a thousand reflections and rejecting each one again and again until he finds himself. As real as a fighter in constant drag, in daily disguise, in a painted shell of a costume, hating being paraded in front of the reporters for the sake of publicity. Doing what's necessary anyway until something snaps, and shifts, like a dragon egg hatching in the hot water of a solitary bath and releasing a creature capable of flight into the world.
Harry's not a coward. (He's as much of a coward as Severus.) And perhaps now they can both be brave together when it counts most.
Chapter 22: Severus. December 2001.
"Look...at...me..." he whispered. The green eyes found the black, but after a second, something in the depths of the dark pair seemed to vanish, leaving them fixed, blank, and empty. The hand holding Harry thudded to the floor, and Snape moved no more."
"All right?" Harry asks and there are a dozen emotions that Snape detects in his green gaze, in the nuance of his expressions. There's the need, the uncertainty, the ultimate dilemma of whether to act on a feeling, whether to take that plunge. He is so responsive to Snape's touch. So openly vulnerable. Snape knows all the words that can break Harry right this moment and forever shatter his very soul, and he'd never bring himself to utter even one. He'd shield Harry against them, always, if he could.
Instead, stunned from the sudden intimacy of their positions and hiding every bit of his discomfort, Snape arches his brow in an open challenge. Are you man enough, Harry?
He knows the truth by now. He hangs all his hopes on that truth. Please let it be so.
Harry's lips part slightly, and he steps up, as cautious as a young stag taking a first step past the forest line. He tilts up his chin and keeps seeking something in Snape's stare. Perhaps he's found it because at last he lunges forward and presses his warm lips to Snape's.
The gentleness brings out a sense of vulnerability in Snape that he thought he was no longer capable of. Once again, he is the heartbroken young man pressing a hand to his lips while whispering Reg's name and mourning, stunned with hollow grief, for what might have been between them. Once again, he's numb and kneeling on the floor, reeling from the anguish of losing Lily. Once again, he's standing over his mum's grave at the Cokeworth cemetery. Only this genuine, all-encompassing pang of emotion is not pain right now, but the opposite of pain, with Harry's arms around him. With Harry's mouth against his. It's warmth. It's safety. It's trust.
Oh but this is a bad idea. Somehow, somewhere, Harry has gotten it into his head that he is an equal to Snape, that they are both equally broken, castaway soldiers at the bottom of life's toybox, but the truth is, Harry can still heal, can shine and climb out victorious. Snape... well, he's happy to let the world go on and leave him behind forgotten. It's so tempting to allow himself to grow still and silent, to gather dust in the endless peace of his solitude.
And yet... am I man enough?
It's what Harry asked him once, back when he was still a Potter to Severus.
Well, am I? Still.
Severus lifts his arms around Harry and tightens his hold on the daring young man, in an answering embrace. Yes. It appears I am enough.
I want this. I need this to last.
"Look at me," Harry whispers. "Look." And his voice is low and insistent and patient, just like his hold on Severus. Severus is somewhat aware of his own arms shaking. Harry's breath is warm against Severus' cheek. He has a peculiar scent on him, all-male, accented by the familiar ratio of bergamot to sage - a hint of the potion of Severus' own making in his feathery strands, over the soft stubble at his jaw. "It's alright. It's going to be alright."
Severus pulls back then and they face each other. Harry. Severus. An impossible encounter. An impossible story but a lived one. As true as the tale of two men finding themselves and each other in an old dusty house by the icy river has ever been.
When I asked Harry to look at me that day in the Shrieking Shack, Severus thinks, I couldn't bear to die alone.
He has been known to be a coward, once or twice.
Is he brave enough to admit the truth then? He would never forgive himself if he doesn't take the chance to let Harry into his life. He doesn't know.
He doesn't want to let that once-in-a-lifetime chance slip away.
He mustn't. He's lost so many loved ones already. Harry though, is here and now, and all life.
Severus inhales sharply, his nostrils widening, his eyes find Harry's green ones, and then, with the precision of a striking cobra, with the desperation of a man reborn, he claims Harry's lips in an answering, possessive surrender.
His fingers curl over Harry's shoulders. He feels Harry's body press into his embrace, he needs Harry's arms around him, and it's such an unimaginable, brilliant experience, being alive after all that's happened. Enjoying life again. Looking forward to it. More of it. As long as Harry's there to share these intimate moments with him. The best of life in peacetime, witnessed and enjoyed by these two survivors.
It's only as the flames in the fireplace die down, a long time from now, that Severus glances at the clock, untangles himself from a tempting hold, and sends a panting, eager young man away from his presence, through the Floo, home.
One of them has to be rational in this ill-advised encounter, lest it escalates further.
Alone once more, he runs his hand through his recently messed up hair, leans against the shelf that holds a collection of his hand-annotated childhood books, and lets out a deep, longing sigh. This is madness. Utter madness! What has he gotten himself into?
His hand still smells of bergamot and sage, from the time he brushed it over Harry's fringe, lingered over his cheek.
Despite the chill outside, he's thoroughly, completely warm.
His sleep that night is sound.
Chapter 23: Tea for Two. December 2001.
"Powerful infatuation can be induced by the skillful potioneer, but never yet has anyone managed to create the truly unbreakable, eternal, unconditional attachment that alone can be called love."
- Hector Dagworth-Granger
Outside, rare sunlight streams through the smeared glass, casting rectangles of light on the floorboards by the window.
Inside, Harry lounges on the threadbare sofa. He has taken off his boots and his feet, clad in festive red-striped socks, are planted on the middle seat, his knees drawn up. A dog-eared old book, Have Yourself A Fiesta in a Bottle! by Libatius Borage is propped open on his chest (to distract from the throbbing pressure between his thighs). The book's margins are filled with corrections and several paragraphs of sarcastic, scathing notes. The first handwritten line proclaims it to be the property of the Half-Blood Prince. Hello, old friend. Harry turns the pages lazily, caressing each one.
Severus enters the room levitating a tray of jam, toast, and tea from the kitchen. The corner of his mouth curls as he encounters Harry perched the sofa. "As glad as I am that you are reevaluating your career, do you really think that bottled fiestas are your next calling in life?"
Harry looks up from his reading. Though Severus' hair is now smoothed down, and his shirt collar is once more done up, there's a lingering flush on Severus' sallow features. (Less than ten minutes ago, he arched his brow at Harry as if daring him, and it was all the encouragement Harry needed: he nudged Severus toward the armchair by the fireplace, planted his knees on either side of Severus' lap and then snogged him senseless. He would never forget the narrow strip of Severus' exposed neck as he pressed his mouth beneath Severus' ear and tasted his skin. That prompted a strained gasp and afterwards, Severus' hold on him was frantic. Severus' inquisitive, possessive hands slid up and down his back, tracing the length of his spine and Harry had to pull back from the chair because the urge to thrust against Severus' raised thigh was swiftly becoming as vital and instinctual to him as panting for air and writhing at Severus' touch and ohgod, we need to pause this. Now. Right now. Shit. Quick. Think of something unappealing... something - Uncle Vernon starkers, shimmying up the staircase at Privet Drive. Right. That worked. OK, breathe.)
"I'm thinking of spending a year travelling, maybe even writing a book of my own. I'll need a good editor, of course..." Harry casts a final look at the marked-up margins and carefully closes the book shut. "Do you happen to know anyone like that?"
"Perhaps." Snape's brow twitches. "Depends on the subject."
A sex manual! Help me write it. Harry bites his tongue. He won't say it. He won't, no matter how much he wants to. Instead, he sets the book aside, bites into a piece of toast, because he's starving, and tries his best not to talk with his mouth full. He does manage an appreciative "Mmm!"
"You should have told me you were so... hungry." Severus' hand brushes his shoulder and it sends electric jolts through Harry. The fact that his thumb traces the ridge of Harry's collar where the fabric meets skin, just for a moment, doesn't help in the least. It's hypnotizing.
Harry flashes his stare at Severus while finishing off the rest of the toast on his plate. "I'm always hungry."
"Ah. Young men and their insatiable appetites," Severus says with a shade of satisfaction over his features - blink once and it's gone. "By the way, you have some jam, right here." His arm extends toward Harry again, not quite reaching the corner of his mouth.
Harry allows his lips to part, licks his lower lip while facing Severus. Leans forward against the fingers presented to him until he almost kisses the nearest fingertip. Perhaps he's not the only one who has difficulty controlling himself today. Severus' stare is dark. His breathing hitches, openly so. It's as if he's not even bothering to hide the subtle signs of arousal any longer around Harry.
"Aren't you," Harry asks "... hungry too?"
Snape's features remain the same, not a shift of emotion in them. And yet, the tea tray settles on the table with an audible clang; Severus' spells have never been this imprecise before. "Harry," he breathes.
Is it a warning, or is it a question? Nonetheless, it fills Harry with enough giddy bravery to ask, "So, um, have you got any more tea and toast left in the kitchen?"
Severus' lip curls in disapproval. His hand withdraws. "Oh, even you cannot possibly be this thick-headed -"
"Wait," Harry stops him mid-rant before it has a chance to escalate further. "Only reason I'm asking is, 'cause I hope there's enough left for breakfast tomorrow." He lets the implications sink in over a brief pause, as Snape's eyes widen. "For two, I mean. If stay until then. So, er, have you got a bed in this place maybe?"
Severus' expression is an odd, curious thing. A shade of something vulnerable crosses it and then disappears as he leans forward, allows his hair to fall over the sides of his face. "Only one bed. I'll show you if you'd like."
Harry forgets to breathe. His throat is dry and hot. He nods. "Yes."
A hand extends toward him and Harry takes it, rising from the sofa, as he's led into a small passageway between the bookshelves that turns out to be a small staircase to the second floor. It's dim and cobwebbed and is framed by the tall stacks of books along the wall, reaching as tall as the railing.
Why does he have a feeling no one but Severus has seen these walls for a long, long time?
The staircase leads to a corridor with scraped-up floorboards with a few threadbare rugs. Harry's socks catch against the occasional rusty nail cap, leaving motes of red fluff behind, like breadcrumbs on an unfamiliar trail, but he pays them no mind. Severus is in front of him, taking measured steps, and all of Harry's attention is on him. Severus leads Harry to the heavy wooden door (it opens with a soft creak) and steps aside to let Harry through first.
A candle lamp hanging from the ceiling flares to life at the wave of Severus' hand, and sure enough, here it is in the centre, the unmade bed with the plain cotton sheets and a couple of heavy grey blankets piled over it.
It's real. This is real. Severus sleeps here, every night.
He's about to be naked in this room with another, and it feels like he's never revealed himself like this - or ever - before. Perhaps that's true. His body feels like a new body, no longer a reanimated golem, his mind feels freshly formed and released from its prison.
Harry turns to face Severus, as his hands are twisting and rolling the fabric at the bottom of his jumper. In one quick move, like darting through a doorway marked with a wizard's profile, like jumping off a cliff with a broom that may not even fly, Harry yanks the jumper upwards and over his head. His glasses catch on the collar and come off too, softening the shapes in the corners of the room. Severus' face is still clear.
Severus' hands are slightly chilled as they pluck Harry's glasses from the woollen bundle. His gestures are infinitely careful as he folds the earpieces, as he sets the glasses on the bedside table.
Harry faces Severus, squares his shoulders and lets the jumper fall to the floor. He feels so naked under Severus' gaze: more so with a piece of black elastic stretching over his ribs. "Hang on," he says before Severus reaches out for him because something needs to be said. He won't repeat the same mistake twice: won't let the unease of physical interactions loom and linger on as it did with George. "I want this. With you. So much. A few things first. Um, try not to put your hands around my waist or" - he gestures at his bound chest - "right here. Also, there are some words - for body parts - that probably aren't a good idea. You haven't yet said anything, but just be careful."
Severus nods and leans forward to leave a chaste kiss on Harry's lips as if sealing an unwritten deal. "Are you comfortable with your back or your sides touched?" he inquires crisply.
Harry hadn't thought of it this way. Hm, he reckons most of the discomfort with his body is what he sees when he faces the mirror, what his body curls in on itself to hide in the moments of peaceful solitude. "Yes. Both are OK."
"Very good." Severus circles then, until he ends up behind Harry, not a looming threat for once but a dark and steady presence. His hands trace their way from Harry's thighs over his fingertips and up to his arms, like a shiver bubbling up, finally coming to rest on Harry's shoulders. A heavy, comforting weight.
"So regarding words? Hm." Severus leans forward as if on a dare and whispers against Harry's ear. "If I said that knowing that you are hard - and have been hard for a while now - and the smell of you like this, the thought of your arousal in my house, at my touch, makes my mouth water, would you prefer me to voice it next time or not?" He's practically purring, even as his lips touch Harry's earlobe in a ticklish, smooth swipe down.
Ohfuck! Arousal hits Harry like a punch to the gut, his hips thrusting forward instinctively, once, twice. "Ahh. Yeah! Go on." He throws his head back until it's supported by Snape's bony shoulder. He is trying to control his body from shaking too much. His hands are in tight fists pressed against Severus' sides.
Severus is touching him. Harry's safe in these hands. He's safe with Severus' words. Severus knows Harry inside and out: what makes him lower his mental shields, what makes his heart soar. Severus won't let him down.
"Easy," comes a whisper in his ear. "Easy, Harry." He's wound up so tight, he doesn't know if Severus' hands are a curse or a blessing. That voice though, Harry focuses all awareness on that and allows the magic of it to overtake him. "Let's start with something simple first, hm? I'll keep my hands on you." Thumbs dig into the tight muscles at the back of Harry's neck. They force him to relax for once. Narrow, tight circles of blissful pressure follow. "Oh, one more thing."
"Yes?" Harry leans instinctively into that soft whisper, into the warmth of Severus' mouth at his ear. The tension is driving him mad.
"I won't touch your cock unless you ask me to."
The phrase strikes Harry like a lightning bolt, the way it spills from Severus' lips, warm and ordinary, the casual truth of it, the fact that Severus got the words right, an echo of the words in Harry's mind, and then followed up with the promise of so much more, if Harry ever braves the utter vulnerability of asking for it aloud.
But that's just unfair. The contrary sod has Harry writhing, wanting, with the way he knows just what to whisper in his ear. Harry grabs hold of those narrow hips and thrusts back, grinding against an obvious hard-on. He won't be the only one losing control here, he won't! With one desperate hand he loosens his belt, drags down the zip. Severus' hands take over as he tries to pull down his trousers, gliding over his arse, pushing him forward, squeezing and guiding Harry toward the edge of the bed.
"Onto the bed, face down." A soft command is spoken against the back of Harry's neck. Harry gasps because he had no idea that the pressure point right there, where Severus just traced a circle with his tongue onto his skin, right above the edge of his binder, could be that sensitive.
Harry melts into the soft sheets. With some difficulty, forces himself to stop grinding his hips against the solid surface. A part of the problem is, Severus' hands are still kneading his arse, through the soft fabric of his pants, before moving upwards to press in along his spine, and every point of contact is maddeningly arousing. Severus' fingers curl, nails digging in lightly and Harry loses it.
He arches up into that touch, knees apart, chest flat against the bundled blanket, face pressed against a lumpy pillow, and he is so far past embarrassment right now that a throaty moan reverberating through his body doesn't even phase him. "Fuck. Severus!"
He fumbles with the edge of his underwear, simple briefs, the kind he loved seeing on George once, and pushes them down quickly, hoping Severus won't draw attention to the pair of matching colour socks folded together just right and positioned at the crotch with a sticking charm. The fabric is damp as it slides along his thigh, spreading slick moisture with it. The awareness of that particular fact is odd, and it embeds itself like a stray splinter in Harry's brain, so he focuses instead on the sensation of himself growing hard, on his hips poised to thrust forward in a haphazard rhythm. The struggle to hold still against the urge to thrust is intimately familiar by now as if his body has always behaved this way, all along.
Severus said he won't touch him unless Harry asks, bloody teasing sod! That, for some reason, makes the not-asking a challenge, Harry wants to see how far he can push it, how long he can last in this game against his own body that he is surely destined to lose, and soon. Already, the glide of Severus' fingers along Harry's bare thighs, catching every coarse hair, is an infuriatingly maddening affair that's making Harry moan out his need in a handful of hasty words and surrender himself into bliss. If Severus reaches over his belly, following the recently thickened trail from the belly button down and touches him - yes, now, just like this - one or two caresses is all it will take, there's no way he'll last long, or at all.
Harry lasts longer than he expects. One, two, three desperate breaths before he rolls over, grabs Severus' hand and presses that infuriating, wonderful hand between his legs. "Fuck! Severus, please!" He seeks out Severus' mouth with his own, a hot, slick tongue traces his bottom lip and he all but loses it right there and then. Severus' fingers, slick with the evidence of Harry's arousal, glide over the underside of his erection, circling over the infinitely sensitive head.
"Like this?" Severus asks. His hand stills.
Harry buries his head in Severus' shoulder, tasting salt on Severus' skin, right above the parted collar. He throws his arms around the skinny, still clothed frame and holds on. "Yes. Again."
Severus' fingers are slower this time around, applying steady pressure at the base of his cock, tracing all the way up the shaft, pulling the skin over the sensitive head and pushing it back, until Harry's thrusting against that wonderful, impossible hand over and over again. His head is thrown back, his body is a needy arch. His thighs are spread wide. The hand stills and pulls back. Harry moans out in protest, but then Severus' body shifts on the bed over him, his stare burns. The loose ends of his hair trace a path down Harry's belly. His hands are holding Harry's thighs apart. So still. Time stretches on, like the first drop of a hot treacle right off a spoon. Harry feels the warmth of Severus' breath first, against the very tip of him, and that alone sends the first wave of pleasure through him. No matter how much he wants to see, he stops fighting to keep his eyes open.
And then, the inevitable slick heat covers him, surrounds him, the pressure of Severus' lips, the circling of his tongue is Harry's undoing. His orgasm rips through him like a summer's night thunderstorm, starting at the point of contact, driven out of him by Severus' hot, wonderful mouth. He spasms, sweaty and panting, burning up and tense all over, shaking with pleasure, his hands over Severus' ears, his lips parted around a desperate cry.
He's so sensitized afterwards, Severus' tongue, stilling against the very tip of his cock still makes him shiver. "Ahh."
Severus' hands settle over Harry's body, bone-tired, heavy-limbed with relaxation. He wants more of this, he can't handle the pressure, the movement. He nudges Severus' head back. "Come here."
"Was that... acceptable?"
The question startles a huff of laughter from Harry, even as he nods.
Severus moves upward, his knuckles trace along Harry's jaw. His fingers uncurl and grow still and lax over Harry's left cheek. As he leans close, Harry can smell the evidence of his own pleasure on Severus' lips. He tilts his head up, tasting it next. "It was more than that. Thank you," he breathes.
Severus' lips widen into a smile against Harry's mouth. Harry shifts his leg upward, wedging one knee between Severus' parted thighs. Severus is hard, the weight of his clothed erection pressing against Harry's hip.
"Maybe you should take this off?" Harry runs his hands over the outer robe, wrinkling the fabric over Severus' chest and feeling no regret whatsoever. He nuzzles Severus' earlobe and catches it with his lips. The giddy, overwhelming joy that has seeped into his very core must be infectious because Severus exhales a shaky laugh. "I want to touch you."
Between leaving kisses on Severus' neck, he makes a go at a row of buttons and Severus' and his fingers meet, trying to undo the next one. Harry smiles warmly as he helps Severus out of his shirt and robe. Severus unbuckles his belt and unfastens his flies and Harry, feeling sheepish and awkward, like a teenager fumbling in the dark for the first time, licks his palm, sticks an impatient hand under Severus' waistband and wraps his fingers around his prize. Severus' breathing hitches at that, his lip bitten. Harry, emboldened, moves his hand up and down the shaft. He locks gazes with Severus, just as he continues to adjust his grip. Severus' stare is equally alarmed and darkened with need, his pupils so wide. A thin sheen of sweat covers his shoulders and chest. A slight flush spreads from his chest to his face. He's breathing heavier than before. "Harry."
"Hmm?" Harry hums to himself. As Severus' trousers and underwear pool around his thighs. As he brings his other hand to cup Severus' balls. "So how do you like it most," he asks softly, watching the man in front of him. "When it's just you in this room. Do you go slower? Or harder? Do you speed up when you're close? Do you run your finger over the tip to make yourself come? I do..."
Severus thrusts into his hold, with a groan, and then pushes his hand down, wraps it over Harry's fingers, squeezing harder, moving Harry's hand in tune with his thrusts. They're on their sides, facing each other on the bed, and Severus lifts his free hand and runs a thumb across Harry's mouth. What?
Harry's lips part and he wraps them around the slippery weight, as Severus' finger is inserted into his mouth past the first knuckle, up to the second. Harry's lips are messy and wet as he slurps around his mouthful, runs his tongue over the fingertip, and wants a completely different body part filling him instead.
Severus' thumb, wet and slippery, smears saliva over Harry's lower lip, over his chin. Harry exhales against it and tries to catch the fingertip with his tongue. It must be some kind of a spectacle because the hungry, possessive way Severus stares at Harry's open mouth is impossible to fake.
It strikes Harry just how much he wants this, Severus, filling him. Thrusting inside, features twisted with pleasure, fingers curled in a desperate hold over Harry's body, Severus letting go, letting pleasure overtake him, as he comes. It'll be brilliant. More than brilliant. Severus' cock would be hard and hot and huge and Harry needs it like breathing.
"H-have you got any lube," Harry pants before he decides to talk himself out of voicing it all together. "Need you in me."
Severus' eyebrow arches in an unspoken question.
"Now!" Harry insists. Severus surely knows the mechanics of sex between two blokes by now. "Fuck." He is too impatient to explain the part about the comfort levels of being penetrated, and that this is the most uncomplicated, least awkward way for him to enjoy it. He is too turned on to justify desire.
He doesn't need to.
Severus' thumb traces his cheek. Severus' lips cover his, as a slick tongue seeks entrance between his lips, fills his mouth, thrusting, claiming.
Severus' hand glides down Harry's spine, his fingers fanning wide over one of Harry's arse cheeks, squeezing hard, as the index finger dips into the crack. Here it goes again, that arched brow, in a mute inquiry. Sure? "Yess," Harry gasps, pressing back into that body contact. This is what he needs.
There's a non-verbal spell, it turns out, a series of spells, and Harry's surprised to learn that they exist but of course they do. Magic's brilliant that way.
Harry lets go of Severus' cock and pushes his knee up over the covers. He stops himself from grinding against the crumpled, sweat-soaked sheets as two of Severus' slow, slippery fingers press down on him, and press inside. He gasps as he's stretched wide around them. Severus' gaze is on him, dark and breathtaking, the kind that Harry can drown in, floating in the dark abyss forever. He gasps again as Severus murmurs another spell and he's flooded with slick warmth from the inside.
He bucks against the fingers penetrating him, raising his arse, pushing his hand down over the hardened evidence of his arousal. Severus' hold on his wrist stops him though. Harry groans in protest, but his groan is muffled by the pillow.
"Let's work on your timing first, shall we?" Severus moves from Harry's side, adjusting their positions so Harry's pressed into the bed, the back of him exposed to Severus' sight and touch, and then the weight of Severus' limbs settles on top of him, heavy with tension, almost as if he is daring Harry to wrestle him into the place he needs them to be, but Harry only exhales a moan as the fingers inside of him withdraw. He needs those fingers back. "Sev'rus."
A thicker weight presses inside of him, thrusting slow and steady, enough for Harry's breathing to speed up, enough for him to imagine how Severus' cock would feel inside him instead. Severus' other hand, over his stomach, angles him and holds him still. Fingers glide over his crotch, over his pubic hair, rubbing at the base of him but not moving up the shaft, a slow, teasing promise of what's to come.
"Come on," Harry pleads. "Severus, come on. In me. Now."
His answer is, at first, a disappointing lack of fingers inside, but then a thick cockhead, pressing against his entrance, which has already been slicked with magic. Mad with want, he angles himself against it and attempts to thrust. Severus' fingers on his cock press harder, move down over the shaft. When he's finally penetrated, it's almost a relief. He pants his joy out, as Severus adjusts his position in a series of shallow thrusts, deeper and deeper in. Severus' knees force his legs to spread wider, the weight of him is a welcome, wonderful thing. Harry presses his forehead into the pillow and breathes as deep as he dares with the constricted ribcage.
He hears a soft gasp, evidence of Severus' pleasure, just as real as his hard length thrusting inside Harry now. Severus' hand on him is relentless, thumb sweeping the length of his shaft, pressing over the head and rubbing in circles. Harry gasps at the growing waves of pleasure. This won't take long at all. His arse spasms around Severus' cock. Once, twice. His eyes are closed shut, his mouth opens in a soundless moan. Please. Ohfuck. Please!
Trapped between the maddening pressure of Severus' hand on him, the persistently steady movements in him, fucking him raw, all Harry can do is ride out the pleasure and let it build up under Severus' touch. Again, and again, and again. Until their breathing is fast and shallow, and Severus' thrusts turn chaotic, uneven until that last unbearable caress of a circling fingertip over the tip of Harry's cock is Harry's undoing. Harry cries out, hoarsely, and stills, Severus' length throbbing hot inside, Severus' breath warming in his ear, Severus' hand forcing another orgasm out of him, the good kind that, for just a while, make Harry forget all about gravity or breathing or the world in general.
Severus thrusts in him, wild and desperate, and then his mouth latches onto Harry's shoulder and he comes too with a soft groan. His arm, braced below Harry, grasps the sheets until they're a wrinkled mess. Harry puts his hand over Severus' hand, slides his fingers in between Severus', and holds on. He can't trust words right now. He can trust touch to communicate what he means. He needs Severus. He can't ever let go of this: of Severus' easy acceptance, of Severus' discovery of Harry's inner self. The world within Severus' reach is Harry's entire world, the kind worth existing in forever. He must make sure Severus knows it. Severus has to know! When Severus withdraws and collapses onto the unused side of the bed, a heavy weight at Harry's side, the fingers of his left hand are still entwined with Harry's. Severus' Mark is faded but visible and Harry does his best to let it remain forgotten, lets his mind slip from the past disappointments onto more bearable, pleasant things of the present moment and the future yet to come. It's the least he can do to return the courtesy shown to his own body by Severus.
They both catch their breaths. Harry's mind is a languid pool where his thought bubbles keep circling deep beneath the surface. His body feels exhausted and thoroughly fucked, in all the good ways that count. He runs his hand through his hair and even though he feels sticky and slick all over, the messy parts of mutual pleasure are all worth it, this evidence of shared need and release, sweat and come, mixed together and drying against his bare skin.
Severus waves a hand over him and murmurs a lazy cleaning charm before casting one on himself. Harry presses a kiss, thanks, into the palm of Severus' hand. He feels sated and cared for. He nuzzles the pale shoulder and presses his cheek over Severus' chest. Severus' heartbeat is still a rapid drum. So is his own.
Moments later, Harry doesn't want to move away from the comfortable warmth of Severus' embrace. He has to. His ribs are already aching with every inhale. And so he pulls back the covers and sits on the edge of the bed, bracing his bare feet against the cold floor, leaning forward and peeling his binder off, wriggling out of it until the tight elastic no longer traps his upper arms. One deep, determined breath later, he bundles the sheet in front of his chest and settles into the comfort of the bed once more, at Severus' side. Severus throws a protective arm over him and nudges Harry even closer to him, into the shared nest of blankets. Harry's leg ends up wedged between Severus'. Severus' hair strands brush, ticklish, against Harry's shoulder.
Silence settles in the gloom of their shared space, as quiet and all-encompassing as the snow outside, a thick ribbon of it gathering bright and fluffy, over the windowsill, against the night sky aglow with the sparse warmth of the distant city lights.
The grey blanket is surprisingly soft against Harry's skin, a comforting weight in addition to Severus' hold over his shoulder.
Severus still sleeps even with the sunlight beaming through the gap in the curtains. Harry untangles himself from the warm cocoon of the bed and winces as his toes touch the cold floor.
It is probably a mistake to venture out naked, with one blanket draped around his shoulders, into the drafty corridor. Harry starts to regret his decision as soon as the morning draft sends chills up his legs and arms, but then he finds what he was looking for and walks in, not bothering with closing the door behind him.
A claw-footed deep tub in the small bathroom is nothing like what Harry is used to. The only mirror in the vicinity is a small round trinket next to the shaving supplies, tilted upwards at an angle where it surely won't catch any glimpses of Harry's body within. The plain round stopper hangs down from the tap on a thin chain. Harry wedges it in place and turns the tap on until the steaming water gathers at the bottom of the tub. He tips in a generous portion of something fragrant and bubbly out of an unmarked bottle, climbs in, curls in on himself and watches the tub fill up, the water level rising around him steadily until it reaches his chest. Only his shoulders and knees are above the water. Soap-suds swirling lazily on the water surface obscure his sight. Steam fogs up his glasses completely and Harry winces and sets them aside.
"Accio toothbrush," A familiar voice at the door breaks the silence, "May I come in, or is this a solitary affair?"
Harry thinks about it with a momentary pang of panic. Of shyness. But then draws his arms over his chest, and shifts toward the back of the tub.
Severus' back is pale and broad-shouldered. There's a sequence of moles like a path leading down his backside and Harry wants to trace them with his tongue sometime soon. A robe is wrapped around those narrow hips and Harry doesn't know why Severus has even bothered with that. It not like he hasn't seen all of the man before.
"Join me?" Harry puts on an adventurous grin and pats the soap suds.
At the sink, Severus spits out a mouthful of toothpaste and water, wiping his mouth. "Only if you insist," he says, giving the tub a calculating look. Long fingers untie the robe at his hip and let the black fabric fall. Harry's mouth waters at the sight of Severus, half-hard already.
"I insist." Harry traces a soapy hand upwards, smearing bubbles on the inside of one skinny thigh with the pattern of sparse dark hair. He observes the jut of Severus' hip bones, the lengthening of that shaft as Harry's fingers come near it.
Severus steps over the tub's edge and settles down between Harry's thighs, his presence brings the water level up significantly. Fluffy soap suds rise to completely cover the taps. The water comes up to Harry's collarbones. Harry wraps soapy arms around Severus' chest and rests his chin over Severus' shoulder. Even now, with his arms full of naked Severus, he can't quite believe his luck.
"Have you considered the profession of a limpet?" Severus snorts, reclining back and stretching out his long legs to take most of the tub. "You're quite good at it."
Harry rubs his slightly bristly chin against the smooth, wet back, and then places a lazy kiss at the nape of Severus' neck. His hand reaches underwater to trace a circling path down Severus' belly. "Speaking of being good at something: you should definitely spend more time naked. You look brilliant like this. Of course, I don't have my glasses on."
"Brat." Severus turns to capture Harry's lips in a thorough kiss.
"Those spells you used yesterday," Harry asks afterwards, as they share a single breath between them in the steam of the bath. "Teach me!"
Severus' smirk widens. "A proper gentleman's gentleman ought to know at least half-a-dozen of them. Or have you not perused the right books in the Restricted Section? I am thoroughly disappointed in your education." His smirk says otherwise. The teasing sod looks downright smug.
Harry moves forward and gives those thin smirking lips a tentative lick, tracing the curving smugness with his tongue. Seconds later, Severus is panting, his hair in soggy disarray, his lips and neck reddened by Harry's persistent mouth, Harry's adventurous hand on his soaped up cock. Harry's incredibly proud of himself for such an outcome.
"Must you," Severus gasps "make me personally responsible for this part of your instruction? Oh, very well. I suppose I can't be the only one responsible for magic in the bedroom, you must pull your own weight if you expect this to carry on."
"You enjoy this too," Harry states plainly, twisting his hand just so, and dares Severus to contradict. "In fact, you love it. Every. Single. Bit." He fully expects Severus to spit out a protesting rant at that, even as he punctuates the last words with the strokes of his hand.
Severus does not. Instead, his lips widen in a rare smile. As if Harry got a difficult answer exactly right on the first try.
Harry throws his arms around him, buries his face in the soap-covered shoulder, and holds on, as hard as he can, as he speeds up the thrusts. The water in the tub sloshes over. Severus' knuckles are white as he clutches onto the rounded edges. His entire body is tense. It's easy to settle into a slightly faster pace, it's how Harry likes it too. Their sizes may be different but a cock is a cock and Harry knows how it feels to own one. Harry curls his fingers around the thick veiny length and puts all the pent-up need and desire into showing Severus just how much he needs him to come right now.
"Good," Harry pants, as if letting go of a lifelong secret on a single breath. "You're so good right now. I love doing this, you know that, right? You've gotta know. I want you to know it."
Severus' features are so tense, his body obediently writhing in Harry's hold. "Harry. Ohh-"
Harry tightens his hold on him, 'cause distractions won't do in a moment like this. Not with a slick, spasming length in Harry's fingers. Not with come spurts painting Severus' chest and belly, mixing in with soap suds. God, it's a maddeningly-hot sight that will embed itself in Harry's memory forever. He brings his hand over Severus' chest, gathers his come and slides his hand down between their bodies, to grasp his own aching cock. Just a few strokes of his fingers, a couple more, faster, faster. Ohgod yes! "Yeahh."
Severus' hand is in Harry's hair, Harry's forehead is pressed against a bony shoulder. A groan of pleasure muffled against pale skin. As Harry lifts his water-wrinkled, come-stained hand to his face afterwards he realises that, with soapy water, he cannot tell where Severus' scent ends and where his begins. They are such similar, mingled scents of two male bodies: it's impossible to tell the difference by smell or taste.
They breathe and stay together in the cooling water, arranging their limbs around each other. After a while, Severus gets out first, summoning a towel for Harry. As Harry rises, the fluffy, rolled up length of it, settles around his neck and shoulders, like a rounded collar. Harry rubs his cheek against it and grins, holding the rolled up ends to his chest.
Their eyes meet. Severus lifts one hand to Harry's face and runs his fingers over Harry's fringe, wringing droplets from Harry's hair. Harry gives the pad of Severus' palm a playful bite and lets out a content huff of laughter against Severus' wrist, as Severus' fingers settle, ticklish, over the curve of Harry's ear, not weighted down by the earpiece of his glasses for once.
Aside from the bundled towel draped over the back of his neck and hanging over his shoulders, Harry's not dressed. He holds onto the towel's edges and stands tall anyway. Severus' gaze is warm, unlike the mirror. Also unlike the mirror's incomplete reflection, Harry knows that Severus sees him, all of him, and that makes everything all right.
Chapter 24: London. 2002.
Don't let the Muggles get you down!
Try and come to London,
P.S. Percy's Head Boy. He got the letter last week.
"Er. I must ask," Harry voices the question at the Muggle trans group's meetup, scratching his cheek and feeling the day-old stubble there. His voice resonates from the tall ceiling of the hall: it is gruff and deep, unmistakably a man's voice now, and it's still a surprise how much it's changed and how fast it has made a difference in people's perception of him. It has allowed Harry to slip into easy comfort with every stranger he meets, trusting their initial reactions to align with the comfortable limits of his mind. But other things, like lingering doubt, like unanswered questions, are not so comfortable, nor are they easy to entrust to a group of strangers. Still, Harry owes it to himself to try. "Has anyone ever... doubted themselves, as they transitioned. 'Cause I have. A whole lot." He feels like he's confessing a colossal failure. He's prepared for the flabbergasted stares, for doubt, to be cast out of this group forever if it comes to it, since he's not real, not one of them. "Is that bad of me?"
I'm taking up time from the real problems. The people who deserve support. What have I done? Waltzed into one of their doctor's offices and took up resources and medicine, took someone's place in the long queue, without being absolutely certain, without even getting vetted by a psychiatrist first. No better than a common thief. They'd be right to condemn him. He's nothing but a fraud.
Besides him, Zoe smiles and he sees her hand rise upward. "Who hasn't here questioned themselves every day? I still am." Harry looks up from his own clenched hands. Not a single person's hand in a circle of over a dozen remains unraised. "I also regret not sticking to a diet. Or not asking that gorgeous sweet thing at the pub for her number the other day. Who knows how my life would turn out then! Honestly, it's all too human to worry."
"Oh," Harry says. Maybe it's all OK. A feeling dawns, sparkling-bright and easy, like opening a door to a long-lost home, the kind of home you are proud to enter, and it's Christmas and a birthday party all at once inside. Wow. Perhaps I am not an impostor among this lot. Maybe I am one of them!
Looking at the blokes around the room is a confusing experience. The first time seeing Hadrian, for example, zapped Harry into a mind-blowing realization that any slightly-shorter man on the street could have at one point gone through the same dilemma of staring in the mirror and seeing a girl stare back, wishing to be invisible in crowded loos. It gives Harry hope that given enough time, he'll be just another bloke in the crowd.
He stays for the biscuits and tea afterwards. Hadrian, a bearded redhead with a pair of bright blue gauges in his ears, hands him a tin. "Do you, um, maybe wanna go out sometime? For a pint. Or if it's a glass of merlot, you're after..."
Harry shakes his head. "Thanks. I can't. I've got a man waiting for me at home."
"He isn't here then," Hadrian says, elbowing Harry. "Hmm... Takes one of us to show you a really good time, just sayin'."
Harry snorts. "Doesn't matter. Won't be him." Harry thinks of Severus and lights up, in an easy smile. He always did wear his heart on his sleeve.
Hadrian, who recognises a lost cause, backs off. "Suit yourself," he says. "What's his name?"
"Severus," Harry says, with the same easy smile. It fits on his lips like no other.
"Oy, and I thought I was obsessed with the Romans." Hadrian whistles. "Parents, man! Well, if he's ever interested in changing it on his ID, I have all the steps written out from last year."
Harry snorts around a mouthful, biscuit crumbs spraying, picturing Severus arguing with the Muggle authorities over a piece of plastic instead of simply applying a charm to it. "I think he's good. Real good. It suits him, a lot actually."
"Sounds like a catch," says Hadrian with an exaggerated wink and then claps Harry on the shoulder. "Go on, get home then. Best of luck, you two lovebirds."
Harry washes the biscuit down with the rest of his tea and does just that. Time to go home.
He apparates to Spinner's End from the nearest empty alley, crosses the cobbled street toward the familiar doorway, and presses his hand against the locked wooden door with the peeling paint. At Harry's touch, something inside the door clicks and slots into place, begins the sequence of undoing multiple magical locks and latches. And then, at last, the door swings open.
"Severus, m' home!"
Severus is seated by the fireplace, and there's a slight smirk on his face, as if he has something to show Harry. It's all very suspicious. Harry squints at him. "What is it? Have I got something on my face?"
"Take a look at this." With the light snap of Severus' fingers, the Evening Prophet floats off the newspaper stack and opens, with a rustle, to a particular page. He's wary of papers these days, but Severus surely won't steer him wrong, so Harry steps up to it, peering at the small blurb of an article.
Dressed according to latest wizarding world fashion, Auror Harry Potter, who recently announced that he is planning to step down from his current role at the MLE at the end of the month...
Harry blinks and rereads once more: he was... his role... Just a couple of short words in greying newsprint that catches his attention and he cannot look away. He. HE! They finally listened! Wow. At last!
"Thought you might like to see this," Severus murmurs, watching Harry as Harry grins, going over the rest of the article and then, on a whim, lunges himself at Severus and throws his arms around the man. With a sudden oomph, Severus catches Harry and slides his hands into the back pockets of Harry's jeans, steadying Harry on his lap. Harry's knees are braced on both sides of Severus' hips. He runs his hands through Severus' black hair, pushing it out of the way before leaning in for a proper kiss.
With a final rustle, the newspaper settles on the floor behind Harry, as he distracts Severus enough to break his concentration on the levitation spell.
Harry considers that a victory.
Chapter 25: Spinner's End. 2002.
Mrs. Dursley sipped her tea through pursed lips. Mr. Dursley wondered whether he dared tell her he'd heard the name "Potter." He decided he didn't dare. Instead he said, as casually as he could,
"Their daughter - she'd be about Dudley's age now, wouldn't she?"
"I suppose so," said Mrs. Dursley stiffly.
"What's her name again? Henrietta, isn't it?"
"Harriet. Or Harry. Nasty, common name, if you ask me."
"Oh, yes," said Mr. Dursley, his heart sinking horribly. "Yes, I quite agree."
Harry has a dream one night in the summer of 2002. It's a vivid, elaborate dream. In it, Trelawney's prophecy refers to a boy instead of a girl and everyone assumes a boy's body and a boy's mind from the moment Harry is born. Uncle Vernon chides him for growing out his hair too quickly after a proper haircut instead of going on about his messy plaits. Fred never puts on a grandiose act of an (im)proper gentleman showering Harry with patronising attention all throughout school. Harry shares the dormitory with Ron and the Gryffindor boys. There is nothing awkward whatsoever about the loos or the locker rooms unless, of course, Moaning Myrtle makes an appearance inside one of the stalls or takes a violent dive through the row of urinals. Harry doesn't think twice when he sees himself in the mirror: his reflection is simply a reflection and it's nothing to dwell on for another second. Severus is the same all throughout his encounters with Harry, a nasty, cruel presence at first, and then surprisingly, a lifesaving one, as swift and unpredictable as the silver doe prancing through the Forest of Dean.
Until the day everything changes: Voldemort murders Severus and try as he might, Harry cannot save him, cannot even voice what Severus meant to him all along.
Harry falls for Ron's and George's little sister in that dream, and they go on to have three children after the war. Their youngest son carries Severus' name as well as Albus'. Such a mouthful, that combination, though Al pens his full name in perfect cursive by the time he's in kindergarten.
This is the kind of life where Harry is destined to know nothing of intramuscular injections and if he ever did glimpse a particular pattern of horizontal chest scars on a man's body, he'd simply assume they were received in a magical duel and pay it no further attention.
Severus has always been Snape to Harry in the dream. He never became Severus. That particular truth makes the dream a nightmare. Harry wants to have spent his childhood as a boy growing into a man so badly but try as he might, he cannot fathom trading that reality for Severus' life.
He rolls over in a narrow bed under the cool sheets. Spinner's End is quiet this time of night. No creaking floorboards or doorways. No breeze from an open window. No mosquitoes ruining the restful morning. Just the quiet sound of another person breathing nearby.
Severus is beside him, fast asleep. His tangled greasy locks spill over his cheek and Harry pushes them back. Afterwards, Harry traces the shape of him over the woollen blanket and feels Severus' body shift closer, mould itself to him, a touch of a hand seeking out Harry's shoulder.
Harry finds that sallow palm with his lips and simply inhales. He drags a stubbled cheek over Severus' icy fingertips and places a solemn kiss over Severus' pulse point. A promise of tomorrow.
Severus will wake soon, grumble about the mundaneness of the ScarAway strips across Harry's chest and insist on his own treatment composed of seven homemade elixirs and ointments. Harry will take him up on it. He'd be mad not to.
Harry doesn't particularly care if the single scar a few inches below his nipples ends up wide or raised. He has enough experience with the uncomfortable scars by now, and this one is freedom rather than discomfort. It's a recent development, this Muggle operation carried out in St. Mungo's Ward, but regardless of the novelty, Harry can take deep breaths again. He doesn't have to bind daily. He no longer cringes at the feel of Severus' fingers splayed over his ribcage. (Numbness at the nipples slowly returns to full sensation of skin on skin contact, as Severus' hands glide upwards, to his collarbone.) He can go swimming if he wants. Not that Cokeworth has many opportunities for that. The river's too narrow and muddy for a proper swim. Harry is excited anyway. He breathes deep, bare-chested and free. Some freedoms are long fought for, but oh so very much worth it.
He looks down at Severus and is met with a dark, sleepy gaze. Harry smiles, seeing it.
He's happy here. Or elsewhere.
For once, in such a long time, he doesn't need to change a thing.
Chapter 26: Author's Notes
This story has been difficult to put down on paper. It's arguably the most emotionally charged story I've written since the Price of Magic (because a perpetual boy ghost whose entire world and existence depends on the presence of a single person seeing him as himself is totally not what a clueless trans man would write, nope, not at all!) Recently I've been going through a period of intense stress (no longer an issue, thankfully), so writing out the introductory scene was a matter of condensing the stress from weeks of personal experience to a few pages' worth of frantic sentences. It was the most therapeutic thing that I could have done. It then got me thinking about what kind of world this Harry would exist in - what would be different and what would be the same.
Also, around a year ago, there was a post going around tumblr speculating that in case of a 'genderbent' Harry, Snape would be Petyr Baelish to Harry's Sansa Stark (given Harry is my default POV guy, the idea was making me dysphoric as well as disgusted at the assassination of Snape's character and casual dismissal of his story arc as a sleazy stereotype, thanks ever so, internet!) Having spent enough time in Harry Potter fandom during the golden age of its Snape and Harry fanfiction classics, I have Many Opinions on this sort of nonsense but will bite my tongue and let this story speak for itself. Although I should reassure you that The Measure of a Man takes that kind of narrative, folds it until it's all corners, and shoves it upwards inch by inch until it reaches the originating orifice and is finally spat back out into the abyss of lesser tumblr posts.
Harry is definitely of age (he came of age at seventeen, according to the wizarding world customs) and has been making adult (albeit reckless) decisions for himself since. Snape is obviously older, but is no Alan Rickman. Talk to me about my reading and writing tastes possibly shaped by the internalised infantilization of trans-masculine brains in AFAB bodies if you dare. I will point you to a lifetime of fic where the obvious train wreck trifectas of the age difference, animosity, and power imbalances take just slightly under 100k to reach a healthy, loving relationship between two equals who see each other exactly as they are. What can I say, I like train wrecks with happy endings.
This is a snapshot of approximately a year's worth of fictional transition. It is far from the exact lived experiences of any human being. Like any fiction, it may match or it may differ vastly from your - or anyone's - life. It is certainly not meant to serve as a how-to reference to life or all things trans. Several shortcuts were taken for the sake of Narrativium (such as the suspiciously quick timing with which Harry grew comfortable with the restrooms at work). I did my best to research HRT process for the UK, since I'm not British, but did not go out of the way to do so. I also did my best to think over and map out Harry's specific dysphoria triggers and comfort levels with his body in various parts of the story, since some of them match mine, while the others do not.
Overall, I wanted to capture the uncertain, turbulent time of early transitions (and the darkest of closets that came before) as the mind still sorts out internalised misconceptions, and as one navigates the cis-gender and gender-binary societies where people can be both clueless and unintentionally hurtful with daily interactions. Fred, George and the Ministry scenes are all good examples of this.
Harry is frequently mis-gendered and dead-named in the header quotes, some titles, and any chapters happening prior to July 2001 (I've struggled with portraying the accuracy of first-person present tense POV without it.) When discussing Harry, do not use these parts of the story as an excuse to perpetuate backwards trends. Harry's name is just Harry. Harry's pronouns are he/him/his, full stop. He switches to male language to describe most of his body relatively early on. We don't get to un-write his history. When discussing Zoe's past, expect Harry's inwardly cringing reaction out of people - at the very least - if you do it in a similar way George did.
This story contains sex coupled with magic that does not accurately represent Muggle realities: until you can cast the same sequence of spells as Snape, use protection. If you happen to wear a binder, do not fall asleep in it, your ribs won't thank you.
That said, mirrors and loos are a trend with my writing. (Again, echoing back fifteen years to ghost Harry in the Price of Magic.) Did I hit all the cliches yet? The story also contains plenty of eggs and shells as a metaphor, for what it's worth, because I am that shameless. Speaking of mirrors, if you're looking for a similar narrative from my earlier - far more clueless - attempt at trans themes, Mirror, the Game of Choice and Consequence may be to your liking. If you want a recent dark story about Snape and Harry that passes the Bechdel Test, give Memento Mori a try. For shorter fluff and PWPs, check out Grim or Theriac Therapy. If you're interested in the mainstream works that feature trans gay men in the leading role, try Romeos, the 2011 movie.
To the readers that can relate to the headspace portrayed in this fic on a personal level: hey, man, you are not alone. Yes, we exist and we are real. I've been through a similar experience as what's written in this story regarding my gender identity (can't really comment on the sexuality bit from that perspective) and it's OK. Many of us have been here before and many will come after. I once stood in a huge crowd of us: that alone changes your perspective like nothing else. May you find the people that matter through it all and keep them near you, always.