"The little robber maiden's eyes were quite black; they looked almost melancholy."
"I can give her no more power than she has already. Don't you see how great it is? Don't you see how men and animals are forced to serve her; how well she gets through the world barefooted? She must not hear of her power from us; that power lies in her heart."
—"The Snow Queen"
This story is a mystery.
And it's a fable.
And it's a whirling, swirling dance.
It starts like this:
"The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen?" Hermione asked, examining the book that Harry had just handed her. "I read this when I was eight or thereabouts."
"It was on my desk at work this morning," Harry explained, lacing his fingers together so that he wouldn't snatch it right back.
He was in the corner table that Hannah Abbott always gave him at the Leaky Cauldron with Hermione next to him, her hair tickling his neck, and Ron sprawled out on the bench across. "Have you checked it for curses?" the redhead asked.
Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed the book from Hermione and subjected it to a litany of analytic spells. "Seems clean," he conceded after a few minutes. "Any idea who it's from?"
"The handwriting," Harry said tightly, unwilling to name his suspicions outright. He opened the book to the first page, where To Harry was inscribed in spiky, spidery letters.
It did, in Harry's defense, bear a certain resemblance to the handwriting in the textbook that Harry had taken to bed with him when he was sixteen.
Hermione was the one to catch on first. "Oh," she said, biting her lip. Her expression crumpled. "Oh, Harry. This isn't the Snape Question again, is it?"
And it starts like this:
Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Harry Potter who was ordinary in every way—except, of course, in the ways that he wasn't.
One of these was his utter and premature lack of parents. Harry was an orphan—and this story begins on a night in the middle of autumn, when Harry was visiting his mother's and father's graves.
The night was unseasonably cold. There was a blue aura around the slice of crescent moon overhead, sign of a harsh winter to come. Harry shivered as he walked the winding path to his sad destination, so that the circle of light from the lantern he held in one hand—the other was stuffed inside of his cloak—trembled at its edges. Swirls of ice were blooming atop the fallen leaves on the cobblestones, and Harry had to use force to open the gate to the cemetery, as it had frozen shut.
His parents' graves were side by side at the top of a hill. When Harry reached them, he saw that there was already a figure standing over the one on the left. His mother's.
To Harry, the figure seemed at first to be made of stars.
(This Harry Potter, as you've likely gathered, isn't precisely our Harry Potter, the one we know and love. He's a great deal like ours, but less tested. He's never fought in a war. You'll see.)
Harry gasped aloud; and when the figure turned to face the sound, Harry saw that it was a man with a severe profile—mostly nose—and long, inky hair, and very black eyes, and skin that looked almost as cold as his robes...which, upon further inspection, seemed to be made of dark and glimmering ice.
The man blinked, once. "What do you want?" he queried in a voice that was deep and precise.
"Uh," Harry answered before collecting his wits. "What—what is it that you're doing?"
"Paying respects to a lost friend. Begone, lad," the man replied curtly, turning back to the grave.
"A lost friend?" Harry wondered, persistent.
The man looked back over his shoulder at Harry with an expression that spoke plainly of his opinion of Harry's intelligence. "I do not require nor wish for company," he said slowly. "So kindly fuck off."
The stranger glared at Harry once more for good measure, then twisted to reach an icy white hand for the headstone again.
Blooms of frost were trailing across it in the wake of his fingers.
"No!" Harry cried, fearful and angry all of a sudden without knowing why. "That's my mother's! I won't let you touch it!"
The man snapped his body back to face Harry again, his robes billowing. And then he'd closed the distance between them, and his hand was on Harry's chin, lifting it.
He peered into Harry's eyes. For an instant, he looked almost afraid.
As soon as Harry thought this, however, any hint of vulnerability vanished. "I see that you've inherited your father's arrogance," the stranger sneered.
Harry jerked his chin back, away from that cold touch. It had chilled him to the bone on this already frozen night. "What do you know about my parents?" he demanded hotly.
Rather than reply, however, the man stepped around him and strode back down the path to the cemetery gate, then toward the village square.
His steps ate up the world. Harry had to run, and he still couldn't keep up.
The words of the man's answer came back to him, spat on the wind. "I will take something from you, Potter, just as you wished to take something from me."
Harry reached the village square in time to see a great sleigh, which also seemed to be made of stars, lift from the ground. The cold, furious man was inside—and so were Harry's two dearest friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
"Wait!" Harry cried, running after them.
But the sleigh was carried away by the wind.
So, here we are. The curtains have parted, the action begun. We've been able to take a gander at both of our leads. One is severe and solemn, commanding, hook-nosed. The other has unusually beautiful eyes.
And, of course, there's the first Harry, the one I'll call our Harry, who is sitting at a back table in the Leaky Cauldron, having a debate with Ron and Hermione about whether their former Potions professor is dead.
"Mate," Ron was saying from across the beer-stained wooden table. "I just don't think it's enough to go on." He spread his hands. "It's not like it says anything personal."
Harry huffed out a breath, then put down the book to run his hands through his hair. "I know. I know. Do you think I don't know how crazy I seem?"
"…Not crazy," Hermione said after a pause with a forced smile. She and Ron had exchanged a glance that Harry had pretended not to see. "Just…maybe a bit untethered from reality. I mean, if Snape was really alive after all this time, why would he send you a book of Muggle fairy tales?"
"I know," Harry repeated, burying his head in his hands.
They sat for a while in uncomfortable silence after that, until Harry straightened and Hermione leaned over to kiss his cheek. "We've barely seen you lately," she admonished. "Come to Teddy Lupin's birthday party next week, please? I know he misses you."
Harry's throat suddenly felt thick. "Yeah," he answered after clearing it. "Of course. I'll see you then."
Oddly enough, however, little Teddy Lupin's birthday party was when the next clue—if that was what it could be called—showed up.
The party was at the Burrow, and it was full of the people Harry loved. And despite the gray ominous look of the sky and the brisk March wind, it wasn't raining.
Everyone was outdoors in the garden. "...and it was a story written by this Muggle from forever ago, more than a hundred years—" Harry heard his godson say.
Harry had been making streams of colored bubbles shoot from the tip of his wand to entertain Victoire Weasley. They flurried back and popped in his face.
"What was this?" he called out to Teddy, attention diverted.
Harry's godson grinned at him. "The ballet Gran took me to last week! It was so cool. There was this evil queen with lots of polar bears, and the reindeer wore a hat—"
"What was the ballet you saw last week?" Harry asked Andromeda Tonks when he found her in the kitchen, putting candles in Teddy's birthday cake.
Andromeda paused and dried her hands on a towel. "In Edinburgh, it was a small company doing a version of the Snow Queen. Based on the Muggle children's story by—"
Well. I'm sure you can guess.
It had been like this for a while.
There were signs. Oblique ones. Ones that only Harry could see.
And yet they kept coming, in startling patterns of coincidence. Too many coincidences, but also too few: the lilies that had grown without being planted in Harry's garden. The time he'd been looking for esoteric information on the Wiggenweld potion for a case, and he'd found exactly the reference guide he'd needed in exactly the first place he'd looked. The way Snape's Order of Merlin, which was being held at the Ministry in the absence of a next of kin, had disappeared.
Even strung together, none of this amounted to anything like evidence.
There had been a beginning sign, of course: the lack of a body. It could have been stolen by a Death Eater, but none had ever bragged about it. It could have been taken by someone who'd fought on Harry's side and hadn't heard or believed the news of Snape's true loyalties...but again, no one had ever confessed.
So here's a thought experiment: Let's say, along with a twentieth-century physicist with an objectively funny last name, that you put a cat in a box and then (monstrously) shoot the box. If we're explaining the ability of quantum particles to be two distinct things—or all distinct things—at the same time, then the bullet kills the cat…and it doesn't. It's only when we force the universe's hand by opening the box that this pins itself down into an either/or situation.
So what, Harry often wondered (having been subjected to a lecture on quantum mechanics once by a drunken Hermione, who was really, he'd realized, playing it stupid for everyone else's sake most of the time), would happen if Severus Snape was the one you put in the box?
Or imagine that the box was a glowing golden cage, and the bullet was a horcrux-possessed snake. As a random example.
The answer was simple: Snape would die. Or he wouldn't.
Except—except—that Harry would need to check before it could really be one or the other.
His seventeen-year-old self had understood the urgency of this: he'd gone back to the Shrieking Shack while Tom Riddle's dust was still settling.
And yet the multitude of possibilities had continued their chaotic, overlapping dance. Because what was Schrodinger to think when he opened the box—and the cat was gone?
The theater in Edinburgh had seen better days, but the performance seemed popular. Harry had been lucky to get a last-minute ticket.
Once he'd been directed to his seat, Harry sank down into it, keeping his elbows to himself and stretching out his legs. Waves of chatter rose and fell as the seats around him filled. He had a sudden craving for popcorn.
The house lights dimmed. Harry's skin prickled. There were a tremor in the air—and it wasn't just the sounds of the musicians readying their instruments in the orchestra pit, the tuning of the bassoon.
The overture began. After it had played for a few minutes, the curtains parted, and Harry watched the ballet.
At intermission, he realized that the performance had put him in a sort of stupor. Rousing himself with a shake, he stood with everyone else to make his way out of the aisles.
The story of the ballet had been relatively easy for Harry to follow so far, mostly because he'd read "The Snow Queen" a dozen times since the book with To Harry written in the front cover had come into his hands. Once upon a time, there were two children, Gerda and Kay, who loved each other; but the Snow Queen, the queen of ice and winter from the far north, came one night and stole Kay away in her glittering sleigh. Gerda set out in search of him and had many adventures along the way, including being taken prisoner by robbers and freed by a little robber maiden. At the end of the first act, Gerda had finally reached her destination, and the Snow Queen's palace stretched above her in icy geometry.
Harry wondered if it was significant that this play was about childhood sweethearts.
Exiting out to the lobby, he found a corner above the stairs overlooking the main floor. It was a good vantage point to watch the other theatergoers milling, smoking, stretching, heading toward the loo. People passed by, but it felt private. He leaned against the railing.
He felt a presence manifest behind him.
Harry tensed. This was an interesting time for this to happen.
The presence was unquestionably familiar. "Snape," Harry called quietly. "Are you there?"
"If you turn around, I won't be," a voice answered from behind Harry, or maybe it was in the back of his head.
Harry released a great sigh, and he didn't look back. "That doesn't make sense."
"Potter, you fool. If I could make sense, this would all be so much—"
Harry stepped back into the other man's embrace. The voice choked off.
After a time, he felt a nose pressed into the place where his neck joined his shoulder. There were lips under that nose, Harry was fairly sure, traveling up the side of his throat to plant themselves, gently, behind his ear.
"How do you like the ballet?" the voice finally asked.
Harry was shivering. "I like it, I suppose," he eventually managed. "It's, ah, impressive—but I've got no frame of reference. I've never even been to the Nutcracker."
He heard a deep, scoffing chuckle. "There's much more to ballet than the Nutcracker."
"I'm sure. It's just…cold. The movements are lovely, but they seem…constrained, maybe."
"Perhaps you would have preferred Stravinsky's Rite of Spring."
While they'd been speaking, Harry's shivering had worsened. He realized that he'd thrown his head back, lips parted. His eyes were closed.
He wondered what he must look like to the people nearby. But what did that matter, when Severus Snape's arms were around him (sort of; maybe)?
And yet, when Harry opened his eyes, he saw that nobody was paying him—them—any attention.
"What happens in that one?"
"It depicts a series of pagan rituals to celebrate the springtime. In the central episode, a youth is chosen as a sacrifice and dances herself to death."
Harry's mouth had gone dry. "Ah."
"As the story goes, at its premiere in 1913, it incited a riot. Many historians think of this event as a symbolic gate into the twentieth century."
"If you say so." Harry wiped his sweaty palms on the sides of his neatly pressed trousers. Then he reached up and gripped the arms that were around him, tightly.
A chime sounded from loudspeakers outside the theater doors. Intermission was almost over. The crowds around them thinned.
"It's springtime again, isn't it, Harry?" he heard the other man say.
It could have been an honest question.
Considering Harry's history of self-sacrifice, it could have been a threat.
But it sounded like dark humor, meant to tease.
"Why are you doing this?" Harry demanded plaintively. He deeply wanted to know the answer to that, supposing that the man was really there and doing anything at all.
But Harry's question was met with silence. Severus Snape was gone.
Now might be the time to inform you, patient reader, of a few pertinent facts.
Once upon a time (for so we might as well say, since we're going back to the beginning again), there is a boy. He's just won a war.
Despite this—and also because of it—he feels remarkably alone.
He has a bowl full of memories that bring him a certain kind of solace, although the comfort is laced with wormy feelings of guilt, the bitterness of unfinished conversations, lost chances.
But it isn't easy to view the memories without a Pensieve. He doesn't own one. They are rare and difficult to buy. There's one at the Ministry of Magic, where the boy works, but it can only be accessed after filing a rhinoceros's weight in paperwork. There's one at Hogwarts, where the boy went to school, but the Headmistress there has gently started to recommend therapy whenever he asks to borrow it again.
One day, the boy decides that the wisest course (or at least the most effective one) is to remove the middleman. So he catches the glimmering strands one by one on the tip of his wand, and he feeds them into his mind.
He and Snape had been having these half-conversations off and on since Harry had taken the other man's memories into himself.
Harry always felt trembly and hyper aware of his surroundings after a visit from Snape Incarnate, as he'd taken to calling him. But the man wasn't usually so physical, so real.
He knew what Hermione would say, if he ever told her about the way he sometimes spoke to Snape, felt him as if he was actually there. She would talk about hallucinations, visual and auditory and cenesthopathic schizophrenia. She would recommend a full psychiatric evaluation. A visit to the Janus Thickey Ward.
And maybe she would have been right. Harry didn't have any excuses for the fact that he'd never told her or Ron about this particular aspect of his life in the last few years.
With his heart still pounding from that strange interaction, Harry retreated back to his seat, muttering his apologetic way across a row of knees.
The show started again. It was Act II, and the moon had risen on the young heroine, the green light of aurora borealis stretching above her. It was time for her to enter the palace of the Queen.
Harry licked his lips. Perhaps the conversation at intermission had sensitized him in some strange way, because he found himself watching the ballet with new eyes. It was actually very beautiful, the dancing. And yet, it still struck him as nothing so much as eerie.
The theater was about giving speeches, wasn't it? People always had so much to say, and characters didn't think anything that they didn't speak aloud. But here, there was none of that. Instead, everything was the flat of a hand arcing suddenly through the air; an unspooling spin; the grace of an extended leg; the swift contortions of the human body, a gleaming pointe shoe making a closed loop with the crown of ice on a ballerina's head. The dancers themselves were entirely silent. They mimed their emotions through their striking capacity for movement.
And Harry wondered: in any universe, would he have been able to do that? Would he have known the names of the steps (battement, arabesque, cabriole)? Would he have been as swift as the ballerinas, as powerful and bendy and precise? Would he have been able to leap as high and land as flawlessly as the men? It was an uncomfortable thought.
And yet, despite Harry's uneasiness and his captivation with the show, he was very tired. He hadn't been sleeping well for months. Years. And the music had grown soft as the heroine found her lost love in the ice palace, enchanted as he might be...
His eyelids drifted closed.
And now, at last, is the time to return to our other Harry Potter, the one we just met.
His friends had been stolen. Harry set out to chase them that very night, following the trail of scattered snow and ice left by the flying sleigh.
He pressed on through dawn and the morning, although he was exhausted and footsore and this was the farthest he'd ever been from home. He did sleep the following night…on the cold ground near the ice trail, which was getting harder and harder to spot because it was melting away.
Before he'd left the village, Harry had snuck back to the house of his aunt and uncle, who'd raised him after his parents died. (A carriage accident. Really: although a man named Tom Riddle had once headed a dangerous cult of magicians somewhere near Harry's village, he'd died under mysterious circumstances long ago and had nothing to do with Harry at all.)
Harry's aunt and uncle had never wanted him, and they resented his parents for dying and leaving them with the care of such a disturbing young man. They'd locked the doors against him as punishment for being out so late, but there was a window in the back of the house that he could squeeze through, if he didn't mind bruised shoulders and hips. He'd stolen some rolls and a small ham from the kitchen that could fit under his cloak.
He ate the last of these rations on the third day, which was also when the trail disappeared entirely. At a loss for what else to do, Harry kept walking in the direction he'd been going and started asking the scattering of other people he saw—mostly farmers, working to finish the harvest—whether they'd seen a large sleigh fly overhead.
But this only earned him mistrustful looks, and a few chased him out of their fields.
Just as the sun was starting to set, though, Harry came upon a riverbed where a great fir tree had fallen, taking a shelf of rocks that had run beside the bank along with it.
The snake was half-buried under the pile of stones and mud, wriggling in an attempt to escape without success. It was only a long, green garden snake who had probably been resting in the sun. Harry bent over it and quickly dug it out. "There," he muttered as he shifted the heaviest rock. "That should be enough for you, friend."
The snake had frozen when Harry's shadow crossed its head; now, it darted to freedom. "I thank you, Ssspeaker," it told him, slithering itself onto the highest rock in the pile so that it was almost at eye level with the boy. Harry got the feeling that it had wanted to look him over properly.
"You're welcome, but it was no trouble," he said politely. He'd always been able to talk to snakes. It was another of the ways that he wasn't quite as ordinary as he seemed.
"Perhapsss." The snake swished its tail at him. "You have traveled far, Ssspeaker. What do you ssseek?"
Realizing that here at last might be someone who could help him, Harry explained his quest.
"Yesss," the green snake replied, to Harry's delight. "I felt the Sssnow King passs aloft between earth and cloudsss."
Harry inhaled. "The Snow King?" he repeated.
"The Wizard of Iccce," the snake agreed. "He who tamesss the North Wind."
"Can you tell me anything else about him?" Harry asked eagerly. "Who is he? Where was he going?"
"You chassse him in ignoranccce?" The snake flicked its tongue at him, obviously perturbed. "He isss one of your kind with a frozen sssoul. He livesss in a cold palaccce where the iccce dancesss and never ressts. He can take many sshapesss."
"Many shapes? What do you mean, ma'am?" Harry asked, for he'd realized that he was talking to a female snake.
The snake seemed to be amused at this. "Sssuch mannersss," she hissed. "He travelsss the world in many formsss, young and old, human and elssse. He knowss many ssspellsss."
Harry suppressed a shudder. All of this news had been distinctly alarming. "This palace where the King lives. Friend, do you know where it is?"
The snake uncoiled and recoiled restlessly, conveying doubt. "The only way to get there isss north," was all she finally replied.
A week later, Harry was still walking north, and he was starving. All he'd eaten for three days was what he'd managed to forage from bushes and trees along the way.
The land was growing wilder, far more forests now than farms. Harry spent the following night choked in the darkness of one of these forests—and he woke up to find a knife at his throat.
It belonged to a fearsome robber, one of a pack of wild-eyed, eerie men with matching tattoos of snakes and skulls on their left forearms. Since Harry had nothing of value on his person, they spent that day arguing about whether they were hungry enough to cannibalize him, or whether they should save his blood for what he gathered was some dark magic ritual. They got roaringly drunk that evening still debating it, with Harry tied up near the fire.
This time, the knife that woke him was slicing his ropes.
The fire had burned to its last embers, and it would have been nearly impossible to see his rescuer in the dark, even if the robbers hadn't taken his glasses. Whoever-it-was was entirely silent except for the occasional harsh breath as they worked. The person communicated by touch, clapping a hand over Harry's mouth when he started to speak, then pulling him to his feet (Harry reeled dizzily into his rescuer's shoulder, as his legs had gone numb) and bodily leading Harry away from the snoring circle of bandits, into the denseness of the trees.
"Who are you?" Harry ventured to whisper at that point.
"Be quiet," a voice hissed in return, young but deep.
The boy—for he'd sounded like a boy or young man, perhaps the same age as Harry—seemed to know where he was going. Harry felt his glasses being pushed up the bridge of his nose again, and then he was led on a winding path through the black trunks of the trees. Occasionally, they had to duck or crawl under branches, edge sideways between bushes. Harry was just grateful that the feeling had returned to his appendages by this point.
They ended up in a small clearing, where Harry's companion lit a lantern—Harry's lantern, which the bandits had taken—and revealed a flea-bitten but large reindeer tethered to a tree. He had a saddle on his back with round bags hanging down to his flanks.
Harry glanced from the animal to his rescuer, who was finally speaking again. "We can be at the forest's edge in two hours if we hurry." He was untethering the reindeer, avoiding looking into Harry's face, so that Harry's main impression was of sharp movements and thin shoulders. "If we make enough distance by dawn, they might not be able to track us, even with magic."
"Why should I trust you?" Harry asked.
Finally, the boy turned to face him. Harry saw an unfortunate nose, high cheekbones, and black hair that was oily enough to reflect the lantern light. The scowl on his thin lips looked as if it belonged there.
"Do you fancy being made into soup?"
It was Harry's turn to grimace. "This could be a trick," he pointed out. He couldn't quite say why, but something about this strange young man unsettled him deeply.
The boy glared at him, then turned his back and started walking, the reindeer trotting along beside him tamely with its tether looped around his left hand. He held the lantern in his other.
"You're a fool," he called back with a gusty sigh, as if he'd been cherishing the hope that it might be otherwise.
Harry swore to himself, then followed.
As predicted, they made it out of the forest before dawn. They traveled in open country after that—never on roads.
It was hungry work, especially for a young man who'd been so sparsely fed before being captured. Luckily, the reindeer's saddlebags turned out to be full of sustenance. Game meats like rabbit and deer, wild root vegetables, even a large sack of mushrooms. They stopped at noon to rest and eat (in Harry's case, cramming the food into his face).
This was when Harry finally found out his new companion's name—or at the very least, what he wished to be called.
"The Half-Blood Prince," Harry repeated slowly, trying not to let his incredulity leak into his voice. The thin, mangy boy certainly didn't look like a prince.
"Don't speak to me at all if you don't want to use it," was all the reply he received.
Despite himself, Harry started to laugh.
The Prince blinked at him, apparently befuddled. His pale cheekbones were suddenly tinted red.
"I don't suppose you want to keep going north?" Harry heard himself ask.
It took depressingly little time for Harry to regret the invitation. Not truly, because the company of the Prince came with taking turns riding the reindeer, whose name was Gus, and sharing the other boy's food. His stomach and his feet were glad of the companionship; it was only the rest of Harry that could have used a break.
The problem with the Prince was that he was keenly intelligent—that much was obvious from the start—but he had little to say to Harry that wasn't an insult. His opinion of Harry's own mental abilities (and his personality, since being reckless and arrogant were character traits) was dim at best, and he seemed to take a special delight in telling Harry so.
"Dunderhead! Numbskull!" the boy railed. Harry had spotted some new mushrooms growing near where they'd stopped to eat lunch that day and had been picking them to add to their stores, only to have the Prince yell at him about poison for twenty minutes.
"Then teach me," Harry snapped. "If you know so bloody much about the world that I don't."
This actually seemed to mollify the Prince. Somewhat.
Over the course of the next few days, he began to lecture Harry on the plants they saw, and then on other topics—history and war and strategy, or art and music.
The breadth of the Prince's knowledge was actually astounding, Harry realized. It was as if he'd soaked up every fact that he'd ever encountered so that he could weave them together into a tapestry where everything was connected, each thread leading to new ones to explore.
And although Harry still found himself at the business end of a scathing remark on occasion, he also recognized that he was starting to enjoy the Prince's quick wit and sarcasm. Every once in a while, he would burst into laughter, as he had at the Prince's initial surliness; and Harry would see that same surprised look, accompanied by a rush of color into the Prince's sallow cheeks.
Even more rarely, the corners of the other boy's lips would turn up as well, and he would look like a different sort of person than Harry had taken him to be entirely.
"Did those bandits capture you as well?" Harry asked one night as they sat on opposite sides of their small fire.
The boy shot him a black look. "Capture?" he repeated after a time, shifting to stare back at the flames. "No."
Harry frowned. "So—"
The Prince cut him off. "But I hated them, and I was with them for far too long."
"You were one of them? What did you do?"
The silence lasted for a while. The Prince shifted the embers at the base of their fire with a long stick. His expression was stony. "They used me for my intelligence and my skills," he finally said.
The fire crackled. Harry looked across it to see the Prince's dark eyes on him. "Why did you save me when you made your escape, then?" he wondered. It was a question he'd been wanting to ask for a while.
The Prince's eyebrows rose. A small smirk settled in one corner of his mouth. "So that if we encountered any traps, you would fall into them first," he explained.
Harry snorted with laughter again and decided to ignore his burning curiosity—for now—and let the other boy keep his secrets.
But he was young and earnest by nature. The questions spilled out of him regardless of his resolve. "Did you do anything you regret?" he demanded when they were getting ready for bed.
The look on the Prince's face at that—the blank mask that it had become—was enough to give Harry his answer.
But the Prince was done answering questions for the night.
The Prince had two watertight bedrolls made from an animal's hide in his alarmingly useful saddlebags. They spread these out every night, not too far from each other—but never as close as the reach of an arm. The ground was hard and the night air chilled, and sometimes it rained, so Harry would have to scrunch down into the tight, airless darkness to sleep. He was usually uncomfortable and restless.
One night, he woke from a nightmare where the sky was pressing down on him, an endless, crushing void. He put his glasses on and looked up at the clouds and the moon and the tree branches and the stars...
...and then he looked over at where the Prince had settled himself and saw that his bedroll was empty.
Unexpectedly panicked, Harry called out, then climbed to his feet when no answer came.
He found the Prince in a nearby copse of trees. The Prince didn't hear him approach because he was weeping, his knees drawn up and his forehead curled against them, lank hair spilling down their sides.
Harry decided that the best thing to do would be to pretend he hadn't seen this and return quietly to their camp. He did so, and soon he heard the robber boy shuffle back and lie down near him again.
But Harry stayed awake, remembering the sound of the muffled sobs until dawn.
He liked this odd boy, Harry realized. He liked his bluntness, his keenness, his bad temper, his courage, the way he tucked his hair behind his ears, his sudden movements, the epiphanic grace of his hands.
The next time that Harry woke at an hour when the innocent should be asleep, it was not to the Prince's absence, or even to the sound of dreadful tears.
Instead, the noise was of the other young man attempting to pleasure himself—although 'pleasure' was perhaps a poor choice of term, as his muffled gasps sounded much more filled with pain than anything else.
Harry rolled onto his side. The rhythmic pumping sound stopped.
The Prince couldn't silence his harsh breaths, however, and they formed a bridge across the distance between them. "I can help with that," Harry offered softly, into the night. "If you want."
Then, even the sound of the Prince's ragged breathing went quiet. A chill seemed to roll over the world, like a sudden frost. Harry prepared to lick his wounds and go back to sleep.
But now the Prince was a dark shape over him; Harry hadn't even heard him rise, he'd been so silent. He held open the top of his bedroll, and the Prince climbed in. Miraculously, it suddenly seemed big enough for two. In the wild wheeling of Harry's thoughts, one was that it was lucky they were both underfed.
But the Prince was still taller than him. His weight, half on top of Harry, was a press of elbows and knees and hipbones, sharper even than the Prince's tongue.
"What do you want?" Harry whispered.
"I want…" The Prince stopped speaking and moaned as a certain part of his body slid against Harry's side, under where his shirt had rucked up.
His lips were against Harry's, their damp breaths mingling. He took Harry's left hand in his right and wrapped it around the hot, throbbing length between his legs. Burying his face into the crook of Harry's neck, the Prince didn't take his hand away, using Harry's at the pace and constriction he wanted.
Harry's other hand was trapped under their bodies. When he tried to free it, the wriggling brought his own needy arousal in contact with the warm groove where the Prince's pelvis met his thigh.
Harry kept squirming, chasing that incandescent sensation again. The Prince released Harry's hand and moved his lips up to Harry's earlobe, clamping it determinedly, rubbing the edge of it with his tongue. Harry finally got his right hand free and buried it in the Prince's soft, greasy tangles. His left hand was clutching his friend's arse now, since the Prince had rolled on top of Harry and they were each pushing against the other, uncoordinated, desperate.
"You first," Harry heard the Prince order, in a voice so low that it shivered all the way down Harry's spine and made a home there.
Harry understood that there was more to this than generosity. It was a challenge, because the Prince needed some kind of proof that this wasn't a ruse or a trap.
So Harry came first.
The days blurred together, except that each was incrementally colder and shorter than the last.
They slept in one bedroll now to conserve warmth, with Harry's cloak draped over that; and the Prince converted the second bedroll to a low tent to shelter them.
Over the course of the nights following their first intimacy, Harry learned that the Prince's favorite way to make them both come was by holding Harry down, capturing him, pinning him with his weight.
Harry loved this. He loved when the Prince was straddling him, frotting against him until he spilled his sticky seed all over Harry's tender stomach. He loved the way the Prince seemed incapable of looking away from Harry in moments like that, or when the agony-rapture of Harry's own completion was writing itself all over Harry's body, in his expression and shaking limbs, his own pooling release.
They both wrote what they did on Harry's body, not only in the joining rivulets they left, but in the red marks that the Prince trailed across Harry's skin with his lips, his tongue, his teeth. Was Harry just as much of a freak as his relatives had always said, for wanting this? If so, he realized—and wasn't this oddly liberating—that he didn't much care.
"Why did you save me from the bandits?" Harry asked quietly, one night when the Prince's head was pillowed on his shoulder and they both knew that the other was only pretending to sleep.
"Because I didn't want you to die," the boy eventually replied with a snort, rolling away.
They usually reserved their more youthfully exuberant activities for after they'd made camp for the night, as the stretches of darkness were getting longer and longer. But one day, when it was warmer than normal—indeed, it would be the last warm day in that part of the world for months—Harry and the Prince had decided to rest for a short while at midday in the tall grass by a gentle stream, and Harry was learning about the delights of performing fellatio.
The Prince had done it to him the night before, not to mention putting his fingers in a place where Harry had never dreamed fingers could go. ("There's something I could show you," the Prince had said to Harry in the lantern light, sly and shy.)
As rapturous as that had been, Harry now realized that he might like this even more: having the Prince's hands on either side of his head, guiding it, sometimes holding it still so that he could work himself in and out from between Harry's lips at his leisure. This left Harry to focus on the rhythm of it all, taking irregular breaths through his nose—and knowing that the Prince's pleasure was utterly dependent on Harry himself. It made him giddy.
He took the Prince's length as deep as he could go, then licked down further to taste the sweat of their journey on the Prince's scrotum. The noise the boy made in response to this was a string of black curses, choked and whimpered. When Harry slid back enough to look up at him, it didn't seem as though the Prince could breathe. He felt dizzy under those dark eyes, ensnared.
It was enough to make Harry reach down and work his own erection frantically. He was going to come going to going to—
As Harry's release squirted out, the Prince's fingers tightened in his tangled hair. The sharp pain brought Harry back to the present, the world swimming in front of his eyes, then clarifying.
And it might have been a trick of the light (and oxygen deprivation), but suddenly Harry felt as if the black eyes staring down at him belonged not to his awkward, brilliant robber boy, but to the Snow King.
The other was fucking his mouth swiftly now, and the impression passed in a flicker.
Still, Harry's thoughts as the Prince finished on his tongue were muddled and afraid and slow.
Harry sat up on his knees and spat out the other boy's seed on the stream bank. "Don't pull my hair," was all he could think to say.
The Prince stared at him with a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows, catching his breath and sitting up too. "I thought you liked that. You liked it last night."
Harry turned away and stood, tucking himself back into his trousers artlessly. His desire had evaporated with this new sense of unease.
Harry was untethering Gus the reindeer from where he'd been lapping at the stream water when the Prince caught up to him and stepped close again. His arms were dangling awkwardly at his sides, as if he wanted to reach for Harry but expected to be shoved away. "I'm sorry," he said.
Harry offered him a small smile. "We need to keep moving. I have to rescue my friends."
"Your friends." The Prince made the face that he always made when Harry mentioned them.
"That." Harry twisted on one heel and pointed at the other youth. "What does that expression mean?"
The Half-Blood Prince's movements were jerky as he paced around Harry and started working his fingers through Gus's flanks, picking out burrs and sticks. "Your friends are probably dead," he muttered against the reindeer's fur.
"I hope not," Harry answered, after he'd finished feeling as if he'd been punched in the stomach.
The Prince didn't reply this time, his fingers remaining busy as he focused on his task.
"But even if they are, that doesn't change anything. I won't turn back."
When the Prince still didn't acknowledge him, Harry felt an unfamiliar rage boiling up inside. He picked up a clod of dirt and threw it at his friend. "What do you say to that?"
"I've already said you're a fool," the Prince answered dismissively, beginning to lead Gus north again in strides.
They were both in a strop for the rest of the day.
But that night, with the Prince asleep and drooling on Harry's chest (they both knew that they couldn't afford to sleep separately, this far north and on the cusp of winter), Harry lay awake and thought about it.
Were Ron and Hermione dead?
It was possible; and if so, Harry could not predict the limits of his grief.
But his gut told him that they wouldn't have been killed. He could remember his encounter with the Ice King with startling clarity right now, likely because of the strange light that had been cast on the Prince earlier that day.
The Snow King had been sneering, and angry, and disproportionately vengeful, yes; but some acuteness that had been recently honed within Harry told him that there was more to the man than that.
Just as all things must come to an end, there came a time when Harry's companionship with the Half-Blood Prince did as well.
It was the following morning. "This is as far north as I will go," the black-eyed boy told Harry when Harry stumbled out of their makeshift tent at dawn. "You can keep the reindeer, but here I will leave you."
Harry was too shocked to even put up a good protest. He nodded dumbly, and the Prince stared at him with the strands of hair at the sides of his face slipping out of the leather tie he'd used to pull them back.
He grabbed Harry's shoulders and kissed him, harshly.
Then the Prince released him, before turning and striding south. There was a hunch to his shoulders, and the cord at the nape of his neck finally snapped, his hair blowing free in the icy wind.
That night, Harry saw the aurora borealis for the first time, a green rainbow across the black heavens.
He supposed he should have known all along that the Prince had never intended to be anything to him but a companion of the road.
"Wait," he said to the stillness and coldness all around him. "Don't go. Please. Don't leave me."
Idiot, he cursed himself furiously. He should have spoken when he had the chance.
Harry felt wretched with his own impotence. "You bastard," he spat. "You utter prick—"
Even as he raged, he was missing the warmth of the Prince's gangly arms and legs wrapped around him at night.
And he missed the steady companionship—having someone to shield him, at least a bit, from the wind.
He'd never understood what he'd done to warrant the Prince's loyalty…but he had never considered having it so abruptly ripped away.
Harry's teeth were chattering. Rising from his much less effective tent (it was only his cloak, now that the Prince had taken the second bedroll away), Harry reached back and worked himself open with his hand, the way the Prince had done—the way that had spread out vistas of possibilities in front of Harry's eyes.
"Please," he whispered again.
It burned. He wanted it to burn more.
Once upon a time. It's an interesting phrase, isn't it? Archaic. Even ritualistic. Maybe that's why it can be used as a net to catch our dreams, a gate with well-oiled hinges into the lamp-lit gardens of the mind.
Once upon a time there was a powerful spell. Its purpose was to let a witch or wizard lower the walls that naturally kept their magic inside so that it spilled out for the taking. It was supposedly invented by Merlin.
Voldemort knew this spell. He'd tried to force certain of his followers to cast it so that he could steal their magic, only to discover that magic, like water, followed the laws of osmosis: it had a way of flowing downhill, or rushing to wherever magic was not. Because he'd already collected so much magic in his eighth of a soul that remained, none would pool around him, so he found the spell useless.
Harry Potter—and here I'm talking about our Harry, the one we've left sleeping at the theater for so long—knew this spell. He'd learned it when he was nineteen, a Junior Auror investigating the case of a wizard who'd been found dead in the center of a crowd. The man had opened up his magic to the world, and everybody else had bled him dry.
And here's another story:
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Harry Potter, who was a wizard, and his life when he was growing up was very adventurous indeed.
Then the dust settled. Harry had served his purpose. The evil Lord Voldemort had met his maker, kicked the bucket, given up the ghost. Goodness had prevailed; peace was restored. La la la.
Except that Harry didn't really know who to be, in peacetime. He'd been a child soldier. His soul was a tangled thing, a deep forest. He couldn't see a way inside.
After the war, Harry became an Auror—dark wizard hunter, detective. He was good at it: intuitive, if prone to bouts of recklessness and often incapable of relying on any of his colleagues other than Ron. He thought about getting married to Ginny Weasley, but they were drifting farther and farther apart as the months passed, so he didn't.
There was the Snape Question to keep him busy, after all. When he was twenty, he spent six months tracking the harvesting and selling of ingredients for Polyjuice potion in his free time.
For a while, Harry had thought he had something. It had been nebulous, just a shadow-shape starting to take form, an unnamed significance hidden in the figures and lists.
But if there had been anything real to find, he would have found it. So he gave the effort up. He still had no evidence.
He had nothing; he had a conviction.
And the creeping sense of something just below the surface that he couldn't see.
The signs kept coming. The anonymous list of renegade Death Eaters' probable locations that had been sent to the DMLE, complete with a few choice insults about how the Aurors had bungled the investigations so far. The way Harry had woken up after being poisoned when inspecting a case of domestic abuse at a Pureblood manor to find that he'd been given the antidote, with no one at the scene knowing how it had happened.
Was Harry crazy to see it all as connected?
It was the uncertainty of it that hounded him, that tugged at him like an ebb tide. And the unfairness. Snape had been a first-class bastard, obviously, but he'd sacrificed the second half of his life to preserve them all, and he'd been brave and true and unfathomably alone.
And Harry wondered, sometimes, if he and Snape weren't much more alike than he'd ever thought. Oh, he had the memories, so he knew that the way the man's mind had worked had been completely foreign to Harry's straightforward logic—all allusions, layered levels of meaning, metaphors circling like buzzards around every idea to spot its weaknesses.
But despite that, they had a lot in common—like how far they would go for others, the ones they loved.
"Say that Snape is alive," Hermione had said to Harry once, when she and Harry and Ron had been lying on the floor of Harry's flat with their heads together.
"Which I don't believe, but… Let's just say he was. What would his motive be? Why would he be playing this game of cat and mouse with you?"
That terminology didn't sit well with Harry. "Is that what it is?" he wondered aloud—before deciding that he didn't really want to hear their answers. He waved his arms in the air expressively. "I dunno. Maybe this is his way of…testing the waters about coming back. Maybe he's not sure of his welcome."
Harry had got so that he could hear when his two best friends were sharing a speaking glance, even when he couldn't see it. "Or maybe…" Ron began. He stopped and lifted up the bottle of champagne they'd been sharing (Ron and Hermione had just gotten engaged, and they refused to celebrate without Harry there as well) and took a swallow. "I don't want to hurt your feelings, Harry—" he hedged.
"He could just be fucking with you," Hermione finished bluntly, taking the bottle from Ron and sitting up slightly to drink from it too.
"No," Harry answered immediately, shaking his head.
Hermione coughed from the champagne, then frowned down at him and shook hers right back, her curls fluffing momentarily against Harry's face. "Not that I believe Professor Snape is alive," she said again, "but Harry, you have to admit that your former relationship was characterized by antagonism. If his goal was to unsettle you—to make you lose sleep, and miss work, and see less of your friends—then he's certainly succeeded."
Harry closed his eyes, adjusted his glasses. Ron was sitting up now too, and his friends were looking at him with sympathy.
"No," he said again, more softly and firmly this time. "It's not malicious. Not entirely, anyway."
"Why do you think so?" Hermione asked, after a moment of hesitation.
She was listening and taking him seriously, at least, which was more than at the beginning of this conversation.
Sitting up as well, Harry wrapped his arms around his knees and chewed his lower lip.
"I haven't been able to put the pieces together yet," he eventually admitted.
Truth be told, Harry didn't even know if there were pieces that could be fit together in this case, no gaps between their edges. He didn't know if this was that kind of mystery at all.
(He hadn't considered the obvious solution yet: that, in the tradition of The Moonstone, the very first detective novel, he had committed the deeds and set up the signs himself, while he slept. Perhaps when the second consciousness in his head came to the fore.)
"But he always wanted to protect me, even if he made me hate him while he was doing it," he finished. "And it seems like that's what he's still doing."
"Fair point," Ron said after a moment, to Harry's surprise.
After that, they'd finished the bottle, and the conversation had wandered to other topics—namely, a slightly slurred lecture by Hermione on the quantum paradox. Harry had only understood half of it, but it had made an impression.
And when the signs of Snape continued in all their apocrypha, he remembered it. Snape was here, and he wasn't. Happenings that reminded Harry of him or that appeared to be directed by him were showing up around Harry in a tumbling cascade. Meanwhile, Snape paced in the back of Harry's mind, where his memories lived.
It has been a few years since the war's end now, so they've had some time to settle in. They used to feel alien, too big for Harry's skull. The turning points of a man's life; the errors he made that rewrote his purpose. Everything that Snape had felt about that. It was a lot to squeeze in there among Harry's own share of whirling thoughts, dreams, doubts.
But everything fit in Harry's head a bit more naturally, now. Sometimes, Harry caught himself regarding the memories as if he'd made them himself—as if the grief for Lily Potter were his own, and the mistakes.
But usually not. From the beginning, the memories had had a life of their own.
"The difference between the two of us, Mr. Potter," Snape Incarnate had once told him with a glower, "is that things come to you when you ask for them."
Harry had pointed out to the other man that there were striking similarities between their lives. That they might be considered two sides of the same coin.
Now, Harry felt himself tense. They'd been lying in bed together, facing each other. It was one of the rare times that he'd been able to see Snape, not just hear him or feel him. (And they were both fully clothed, if that's what you were wondering.)
"You think I didn't have to fight?" Harry demanded now. "You think everything I've ever been given didn't come with a price?" Even when he'd found out that he was a wizard, it had come with the little bonus of being asked to kill Voldemort.
"Of course you fought, Potter," Snape told him softly, snidely.
He was rolling away, and he kept unspooling in front of Harry's eyes, fading away to nothing more than an after-glare so that the final words he spoke were in Harry's head.
"And so did I."
And here, my good-natured and long-suffering reader, is a third and final short tale:
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Harry Potter. Harry, the main character. Harry, the hero.
But he'd been the hero for a long time. He'd been someone who we could all—you and me—see ourselves in, at least a little bit, with his loyalty to his friends; his instinct for survival; the gradual way he lost his innocence; how he liked Quidditch and pretty girls (sort of, maybe); his hot rage and surprising capacity for pettiness; his frequent inability to see past the end of his nose (those iconic glasses are there for a reason, after all).
But that was all in the past, now. His restlessness only grew. His soul was a deep, dark forest.
Things had happened to Harry in forests.
So you might agree with me that it wouldn't have been any wonder if Harry had simply given up and kept to the well-lit edges of himself, ignoring anything scarier, or more complex, or more true. If it were you or I, that's what we might have done...and Harry is, after all, quite an ordinary young man.
Except that he's braver than us, and much more pure of heart.
He became an Auror. He was good at it.
He thought about getting married. He did not.
He was in love.
The day after the Prince left was when the blizzard came.
It started at midmorning and continued through the afternoon, the wind howling, the sky pressing Harry down with its white chaos.
There came a time when he lost all ability to see where he was going. He couldn't trust himself to ride or lead Gus on a safe path. And there came a time after that when the dependable Gus seemed to finally decide he'd had enough of Harry, breaking free of his hold on the reins and disappearing at a gallop into the white blur of the world.
And there came a time after that when Harry felt a growing certainty that he was going to die.
He'd collapsed on the ground, shaking, with no control of his limbs. He was seeing visions of his childhood: how he'd slept in a cupboard under the stairs until he was fifteen and couldn't fit. Then, his aunt and uncle had moved him up to the attic, which was freezing in winter, but had a trellis outside where Harry grew roses in the spring.
He pictured the roses, and the shaking stopped. He was sinking down into a dark well, the walls closing together overhead.
He felt a press against the side of his head.
With his eyes struggling open, Harry thought he was hallucinating again.
The creature above him looked like a doe, one of the female deer that he would have seen in the gullies and woods near his home—except that she was all silver, sparkling and glowing with it; and this wasn't just from the snowflakes that were collecting on her head and back and flanks.
The doe licked Harry with a rough tongue, and he regained warmth and life.
He pulled himself to his feet with a hand in the silver hair of her withers. With his fingers still buried there, she shot him an oddly familiar expression of impatience and began to lead him forward into the curtain of snow.
And perhaps the doe had more magic than she'd already shown, because in what seemed to be fewer than a dozen of Harry's rasping breaths, he was stumbling over a dark structure protruding from the earth with puffs of smoke rising from it, each whipped away by the wind.
A chimney, he realized dazedly.
Harry lurched around the chimney three times before he found a thin spot in the snow with a door under it.
It gave away inward before he could unseal it.
A woman was on the other side of the door, standing on a flight of stairs leading down into the earth. With a firm grasp and an admonishing expression, she pulled Harry inside.
The house in the earth turned out to be a single dark, smoky room with a fire ablaze in the hearth. There was only one chair pulled up to it, but the woman who lived there had conjured a second out of the smoke in the air.
With her bright and sharp eyes, her triangular black hat, her dark cloak, and the wand in her hand, she looked so much like a witch that Harry, perhaps made wiser by his adventures, was a bit surprised that she actually was one.
Despite this, something about her made Harry like and trust her instantly. Maybe it was that she reminded him of a schoolmarm he'd once had, an unendingly dignified woman, ferocious in defense of her students.
The witch's name was Minerva.
She had whisked off Harry's wet outer clothes with a brisk flick of her wand, then given him a bowl of soup and a blanket. The soup had been much more filling than Harry would have expected, the blanket much warmer. Magic was a very useful thing, it seemed.
Now, they had been speaking together quietly for some time.
"Do you…do you know him well?" Harry asked, his voice wavering. Minerva had just told him that she and the Snow King were neighbors, of a sort, and Harry's breathing had gone funny. He was almost there.
The witch's gaze on Harry's face was sharp. He felt scrutinized, measured. "Better than almost anyone else, I imagine," she finally answered, her voice starchy but compassionate. She smiled faintly. "Though he's a difficult man to judge."
"Why is he…" With his shoulders hunching up to his ears, Harry lowered his empty soup bowl to his lap. "…so cold?" he finished, lamely.
"Ah." Minerva sat forward. "Now, that is an interesting question."
Other than her voice, the only sounds were the crackling of the fire and the howling of the wind outside. "Perhaps," she said, slow and no longer focusing on Harry, "it's because there is a silent place inside of us all, deep inside. You might call it an emptiness between the heart and the soul. That's what living here has taught me."
She was staring musingly at the fire, and the sides of her mouth quirked up. "But many people don't want to face this, so they live their lives in fear." Finally looking back toward Harry, she inclined her head. "Perhaps you've known a few like that."
Harry thought of his cruel, small-minded aunt, so fixated on how she looked to the neighbors that she would turn her shrill revulsion on Harry for the slightest perceived failing. Now, with the perspective gained from distance, he thought that she'd been exuding a muted sort of terror all along, even despair.
He cleared his throat. "I think my aunt and uncle have always been afraid. They were certainly afraid of me—because I'm so different than them."
The witch's eyebrows rose at that. She snorted, lacing her fingers in her lap. "Often, fear of difference is fear of having lived in entirely the wrong way."
That struck Harry as unaccountably wise, and he found himself leaning closer to her. "But the Ice King?" he asked.
"Indeed." Minerva nodded to him. "Some people are afraid of the emptiness at our core, the great black night of silence that we all hold inside. But others… I believe that when your Ice King was young and foolish—foolish in a different way than he is today—he did something that he deeply regrets. He is one of those who have sunk too far into it, so that even when we touch them, they can't feel our warmth. That is what has happened with our friend Severus."
Harry listened to the fire and breathed slowly. "Severus?" he repeated.
"That's his name," the witch confirmed. "Severus Snape."
The blizzard had died by the next morning, so Harry could continue on his great search. "It's too far to travel on foot," Minerva advised him brusquely. "You'll have to take my old broom."
She handed Harry a gnarled, twiggy broom that she'd used the night before to sweep up the ashes around the hearth. Harry blinked at it, then put it between his legs on instinct.
He rose instantly off the floor.
"Good," the woman said with another wry smile at Harry's shocked and delighted laughter. "You're a natural."
She held out a steady, warm hand for him to shake. "Fly north, and you won't be able to miss it, young man." she instructed. "And I wish you luck in finding what you seek."
"Thank you," Harry whispered, more grateful than he could express.
And then Harry was off, soaring, spinning, capering through the sky.
For Harry, swooping between the clouds and the ground with little regard for gravity's pull was one of the best parts of the story so far. With the broomstick gripped tight in his hands, he felt as if he'd been born to fly, as if a part of him that had been asleep all his life was finally waking up.
But we're reading, not flying; for us, Harry's exuberant race-spin-glide over the tundra to his ultimate destination with his cloak whipping in the wind is only a footnote in the journey.
And yet, it might be important to remember how happy it made him feel.
I say this because, when he finally landed at the entrance to the Snow King's palace—a gleaming fortress with great corridors carved by the wind—Harry's heart was still flying, and the lightness of it had allowed him to realize a few things and decide a few others.
So he clutched his broom in one hand, straightened his spine, and knocked on the frozen door at long last.
It opened under his fist.
Harry (our Harry, I mean, the detective) didn't even know how it had happened. The falling in love bit.
He didn't know if it had been the Half-Blood Prince's shyness and awkwardness and loneliness and fierceness and intelligence, or Snape's courage and passion and steadfastness, his cunning, his sarcasm. The way he'd always protected Harry; the way Harry mattered to him, centrally, intrinsically. It might have been all of this at once, or even something else entirely—like a frustrated admiration at how well Snape had fooled him, or perhaps Harry's unfortunate penchant for clinging to any male authority figure who showed him a scrap of regard.
But whichever way it had happened, there it was.
And the things he wanted, oh, the things he wanted, those creatures of the dark woods.
There had been one time—one glorious time—when Snape had come to him in the night. Harry was twenty-five now. It had happened when he was twenty-two.
It was the middle of winter, and Harry's bedroom was dark, too dark to make out any details of the presence—the man—who'd been dipping the other side of his mattress when he woke.
But Harry would have known Snape anywhere, even if he were blind. He'd have known the man by his voice, obviously, but also his scent, and the sharpness of his shoulders, and the callouses on his thin fingers, and the oiliness of his hair.
Harry had known at the time that this was half a dream. His meetings with Snape were always half a dream.
And yet, it had felt so very real. "Are you sure?" Harry had asked after the visitor, who'd been shaking violently since he arrived and seemed nearly as cold as ice, had given Harry curt but unmistakable instructions about what to do to soothe him.
"That I want to be the hero's catamite?" Snape had asked waspishly, there in the dark. His body against Harry's was a thrumming, flighty thing, and yet it was soft wherever the skin was bare.
"Well, I mean... Aren't you nervous?" Harry had asked, being new to this kind of thing at the time. He was certainly nervous.
"Of course not." Harry could hear his former professor's glare in his voice, even if he couldn't see it. "Nonetheless, I suggest that you do it before I change my mind."
"Okay," Harry surrendered, kissing the man's shoulder and running his hands up and down his wiry back. There was no way in hell he wasn't going to say yes.
Harry was careful and tender in opening Snape up, and he would never forget what it stirred in him to do it by feel alone, guided by Snape's curses and hitched breaths. He would never forget the feel of the taut muscles in Snape's spread thighs with their light coating of hair, or the silkiness of the man's cock as it bobbed against the hipbone where Harry had rested his cheek, or the heat inside of the soft, tight channel where Harry's fingers were buried. It was so profane, it almost felt sacred.
"I used to dream of this," Snape admitted, some time later. He was sitting on Harry's hips with his harsh breaths lapping against Harry's shoulder, and there was more inside of him than fingers now.
"I couldn't stop thinking of it during the final year of the war," he added with a deep groan, adjusting his hips. "Of someone fucking me so hard that I forgot everything I'd done, everything that was still needed before I could rest."
"Someone?" Harry wondered on his own panted breaths. "So it wasn't me?"
The ghost of Harry's former professor—if a ghost was what he was—gave a bounce that made the younger man see stars. "What do you think, Potter?"
A question invites an answer, so Harry decided to give one. "I think…I think it was."
The other man was silent for a time. Harry began snapping his hips up more swiftly, a rolling rhythm. He heard it start raining.
"It was no one," the man finally snorted, using his weight to press Harry down. "A mental construct. All it needed was strong arms and a cock."
Harry wondered what it would take to make the truth spill from Snape's lips. Nothing short of Veritaserum, he supposed.
"It doesn't matter," Harry whispered. He caught one of Snape's hands in his own so that he could bring it to his lips and kiss it. "Because you're here now. Right now, you're here with me."
And it was perfect, in that moment. Everything was marvelous, here in the pitch black with a man who was probably dead, who could disappear at any second—
Harry opened his eyes.
He was disoriented, at first. The theater around him, which had so recently been filled with crashing music, a rapt audience, and silent dancers…was empty and abandoned for the night.
And Ron and Hermione were sitting on either side of him like sentinels.
Except that Hermione was flipping through a heavy pile of paperwork on her lap, while Ron was alternately glaring at and chewing on a hangnail.
"We weren't just going to let you come here alone, mate," Ron explained apologetically when Harry cleared his throat and shot him a bemused, slightly betrayed look.
"Not if there is something happening that none of us understand," Hermione added, putting away her ream of papers neatly in the inner pocket of her jacket with a shrinking charm. "And even if it's not Professor Snape, something strange is going on."
"What happened to the ballet?" Harry settled for asking, waving a hand at the darkened stage. "The last I remember was just after intermission."
Hermione snorted. "It ended hours ago. We decided to let you sleep and cast a Disillusionment over all three of us so that no one would make us leave. You looked as though you needed the rest."
Harry scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I suppose I did." Although he had an awful crick in his neck to show for it.
He wanted to laugh, or maybe to cry. Why was it that everyone seemed to have their shit together but him? Harry had come here to do some detective work and try to align a series of what were likely pure coincidences into a readable pattern, one in which he was at the center of a web spun by the dead-not dead Severus Snape, not just going 'round the twist with hallucinations. Instead, he'd fallen asleep for hours, past the crescendo of the performance...and he hadn't even noticed that his best friends had been hiding in the audience in order to keep an eye on him the whole time.
Fuck. Harry ran his fingers under his glasses, rubbing at his temples. He was such a fucking mess.
"I have something to tell you both," he said in a cracked whisper.
"Harry!" Hermione screeched when he finished talking. "You've been seeing Snape this whole time?"
"Not seeing," Harry corrected. "Not usually. Hearing, more often. Er. Feeling."
"You put his memories in your head! How is that different to when you were Voldemort's horcrux? You—you utter idiot!"
"But I chose this, Hermione," Harry tried to explain. "I didn't want them to just...languish there, forgotten. I wanted a part of him to be alive again, if there was any way I could do that."
"Oh, Harry." Hermione hid her face in the crook of one arm, taking shuddering breaths.
"I mean, I know I have the emotional depth of a teaspoon and all—but I'm pretty sure that's not how any of it works," Ron put in, looking like he might cry too. "You can't just bring people back from the dead by wishing for it, mate."
"I know, but—"
"The difference between the two of us, Mr. Potter, is that things come to you when you ask for them."
Snape had said those exact words to him, hadn't he? Harry heard them again now, reverberating, resounding in the empty theater.
Things came to him when he asked for them.
Harry still didn't think this was entirely true. Snape had never acknowledged exactly how difficult Harry's life had been. And yet...maybe Snape (dead-not dead, real-not real) had meant it with a different significance than Harry had always thought.
He was rising to his feet. He had to move. He had to do this before he lost his resolve or his hope.
"What are you doing?" Hermione hiccupped, staring up at him. On his other side, Ron was climbing upright too, each freckle a dark contrast to his pale skin.
Harry cleared his throat, and then he asked his friends—softly—if either of them had heard of a particular spell.
"I never really thought that Snape was alive," Harry explained. "Alive and off living a new life somewhere, or maybe living here still, using Polyjuice. I mean, it's a possibility, but..."
Harry paced sharply back and forth. "I know this sounds crazy, but to me it feels like he's right here at the surface of everything, just barely out of reach. He's not here, but he is. I feel like… I feel like he's been leading me in circles, trying to show me something, but I've been too blind to see it."
He took a steadying breath. "So I'm not going to play that game anymore. Not by those rules."
"You're going to offer him your magic, so that he can…bring himself back?" Hermione clarified slowly—which was an improvement on the yelling and pleading and calling Harry more and more inventive names that she'd been doing for the last half hour.
Harry exhaled. "Yeah. And if he's here, he can use it to cross that final bridge. And if he's not, you two will keep me alive."
Hermione still looked as though she might throttle him. "What if he uses all of your magic?" she demanded at unnecessary volume. "You could die!"
Ah. So they were back to the yelling now. "He won't," Harry told her, attempting not to wince. "But if he tries, you and Ron will stop him. If that makes sense."
"It really doesn't," Ron said, his arms crossed over his chest.
All three of them took a moment to stop arguing and breathe.
"Harry," Hermione said, breaking the silence. "If this doesn't work, you've got to give up, all right? You have to understand that you tried your best, but Snape is just…just gone. You have to give up the memories, and you have to move on."
Hermione was usually right, and Harry's grasp on sanity wasn't so tenuous that he thought this was an exception. "But you'll help me?" he asked, taking her hands.
Hermione took them back and swiped angrily at her eyes. "Fine," she sniffled.
"Ron?" Harry asked, turning to the tall redhead.
His oldest friend looked down at him with a hard stare.
"Of course," Ron finally agreed. "Whatever you need."
They warded Harry as he cast the spell.
The spell was an old one that increased in potency through exposure to the natural elements, so they'd decided to cast it on the theater's roof. The ballet had been an evening performance, and it had been fully dark when they made their way up there; now, with the wards prepped and tweaked and set and re-set, it was nearly midnight.
Harry's skin was tingling. He stared around himself at the Edinburgh sky, the dark clouds, the city. He'd been worried that it would hurt, letting everything that made him a wizard spill out into the world.
It didn't. Instead, he simply felt larger, vaster, boundless and incalculable and unrestrained. He'd heard that this spell could be addictive, and now he understood why.
"Well?" Hermione asked, panting.
"We can't hold this forever, mate," Ron reminded him in a strangled voice. "Your magic is leaking everywhere, and it's bloody hard to contain."
"Or ignore," Hermione added under her breath.
Right. Harry understood that his friends, while exerting themselves to maintain a protective barrier, were also deliberately keeping themselves from absorbing the seductive power that was on offer. So he needed to cut to the chase.
Harry stepped forward, eyes scanning the dark horizon.
"Snape," he began awkwardly under his breath. He cleared his throat. "Snape," he said again, louder this time.
"Severus Snape. I don't know if you can hear me. But…but I think you can."
Harry inhaled through his teeth. "So. I wanted to ask, are you planning to spin me in these circles endlessly? Send me obscure sign after obscure sign that you're watching over me until I die?" He released a rasping, choked laugh. "Sodding hell, Snape, I know you're there."
Harry let that statement linger on the night wind, then added, "And I think you should come back. Not for me, but for yourself. Because you have so much life left to live."
He paused and ran a hand through his hair. "But if you won't do it for yourself, do it for me."
There was no response.
"You said that I get what I ask for," Harry added quietly. He raised his wand to his temple and slowly began calling Snape's memories to the fore, dragging them out into the light.
He had nowhere to put the pearly strands, so he contained them in front of him in a spinning ball.
"So here I am, and I'm asking," Harry finished. "It's now or never, Severus. If you don't come now, I'm not going to wait anymore. I'll have to let you go."
The labyrinth of ice was eerie and cruel. There were passages that ended in abrupt drops; there were others so small that Harry had to get down on his belly and crawl.
The only animate thing here seemed to be the wind. It was pulling at him, hard enough that he wondered if it was leaving streaks of blood on the exposed skin of his face. Nothing around him seemed to be alive; and when he called out, all he heard was the echo of his own voice.
Until he found Ron and Hermione.
They were in a small chamber that he'd almost overlooked, turning down the corridor in the opposite direction—except that he'd suddenly smelled something so out of place but familiar, it made him want to cry. He spun backwards and burst through the door in the ice to discover his two best friends in a snug room lined with furs, baking treacle tarts on a fire.
Hermione yelped, and Ron shrieked. Then there was hugging: Harry lifted Hermione off the floor and spun her around, and Ron attempted to do the same thing to him, which ended, of course, in everyone tripping over everyone else and piling up on the floor. The happiness that Harry had felt while flying, which had been keeping him warm in this cold castle, built itself up into a bonfire of joy.
Once the laughter and hugging had been seen to, the three friends ate the treacle tarts, which were burnt, and traded stories of their adventures eagerly.
But Harry let Ron and Hermione do most of the talking.
"It's been awful," Ron complained. "He's been keeping us busy by setting assignments and homework, as if we were still in school!"
"Actually, it's been quite fascinating," Hermione put in. "I've never encountered anyone with so much raw knowledge before. It would take me years to finish learning from him."
The redhead groaned and flopped down on one of the two beds on the far wall, which were made of proper mattresses and furs for blankets. "You see what I've been dealing with?" he groused at Harry. "This is why we haven't escaped yet. She's got this bloody list of questions to ask him that's fifty pages long—"
"Sixty," Hermione corrected cheerfully.
With their familiar bickering ringing in his ears, Harry's eyes slid toward the door and lingered there. So nothing terrible had happened to his friends. The worst that they'd faced after being kidnapped, it seemed, was boredom; and that was only Ron.
He wasn't discounting the idea that they were both—or maybe all three of them—under some enchantment. In Ron and Hermione's case, it might have made them forget certain important things about the outside world, like how worried their families would be while they were gone.
But still. It meant something, didn't it, that the Snow King had taken care of them—fed them, warmed them, even attempted to keep them entertained?
"Ronald Weasley, if you say that one more time—"
"Can you show me where he is?" Harry interrupted.
They stopped talking and blinked at him.
At least there was no need to ask who he meant.
The ball of memories rotated in front of him. Harry waited for something to happen, something to change.
Rain started to fall, making the halos around the streetlights below them turn into hazy cones. Harry lifted his face toward the deluge, hardly caring that it was covering his glasses, that he was breathing it in, that he could drown.
Feeling the rain suddenly stop, Harry squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't want to look up and see Ron or Hermione holding an umbrella over him, pity etched into their faces. He wasn't ready to admit defeat.
Harry swayed on his feet. His magic kept spilling out of him, and he waited some more.
"He's probably in his throne room," Ron said as he led the way. "We've seen him dancing in there sometimes, with these people made of ice—gave me nightmares when we first got here, actually."
"Hermione." Harry stopped and turned to the young woman, thinking of something. "Do you remember what the symbol of Tom Riddle's followers was? That creepy wizard from when we were kids?"
"Yes, of course," Harry's friend frowned at him. "It was a snake in a skull, like this." Quickly, she scratched a likeness in the icy wall.
Harry nodded, a suspicion confirmed. "And do you remember how Riddle died?"
"I know that one," Ron put in, looking down at the two of them. "He was found frozen to death—in the middle of summer."
Harry thanked them both and started walking again.
"Harry." Hermione caught his arm. "I'm not sure if this is a good idea. I mean, you weren't invited, and he's got a temper. After all, his heart is frozen."
Harry only quickened his steps.
"Here we are," Ron said as they turned a corner and ran into a blast of extra frigid air.
The tight confines of the ice corridor had suddenly expanded into a room large enough to hold Harry's entire village. The walls were crystalline and intricately carved. Craning upward, he saw that the ceiling was a moving blizzard, sending snow and ice down in gusts.
There was a frozen throne on the other side of the immense room. Between Harry and the throne, there were dancers.
But the throne was empty, and the dancers were made of nothing but frost and wind.
There wasn't even any music beyond the blizzard's howling. Harry yelled an explanation to his friends, hopefully loud enough to be heard…
...And then he plunged into the whirl, letting it claim him for its own.
And here, at last, our story becomes a ballet. It's not the ballet that the other Harry saw, but it's the only one for us.
And yet, ballet is an art form that's meant to be seen, not described. We could list the names of the movements—piqué manege, rivoltade, dégagé, sissonne, coupé jeté—but that's not the same as seeing them performed. We could say that Harry spun and leapt. We could say that he was flung out of the maelstrom of the icy dancers again and again, and that he caught himself and regained his balance, then was reeled back in. We could say that he felt as if he'd made a covenant with his body in order to convey, without words, the passions of his heart. We could say that his lips and skin, as he moved, were turning white, then blue.
But perhaps it would be best to simply say that Harry lost himself for a while. In the dance, the storm.
He awoke to a keenly familiar face. How was it that Harry had never seen the resemblance? Of course, the Snow King had harsher lines in his face and wore better clothes…but Harry really should have recognized those flashing eyes. Not to mention the nose.
Also, the tone the man had taken was immediately recognizable as one of the Prince's unbridled rants. Harry seemed to have caught it midway through. "—were meant to find your friends and make your escape! After all the trouble I went to in making sure you survived, you little fool—"
"It would've been a lot less trouble if you'd just given them back and admitted you were wrong," Harry interrupted. It came out sort of mumbly, but it had just as much heat.
Severus Snape glared at him with his nostrils flaring, oily strands of hair falling down into Harry's face.
Which was when Harry realized that he was being cradled against the man's chest. And his lips were tingling. "Did you just kiss me?" he wondered aloud.
Severus suddenly looked shifty. "No," he said.
"He did," put in Hermione, her face swimming into view at Harry's left side.
"And he gave a cracking speech about how you were too—what was it—beautiful and kind and courageous to die," Ron added from Harry's other side. He whistled. "It was some really top-shelf material."
"I shan't repeat myself," Severus said, looking up to sneer at Harry's two friends ferociously. His arms around Harry tightened.
This was all well and good—better than good, in some respects—but Harry was feeling more and more at sea the longer this conversation went on. He reached up his free arm and fixed his glasses so that he could get a better look at where he was.
He was still in the great ice chamber of the Snow King's throne, but it took him a few blinks to realize this, because it had changed dramatically. The white, cutting stormwinds that had served for a ceiling had vanished. Instead, Harry could see the winter sun high in the sky and feel its light on his skin.
"I don't understand," he said after catching his breath, which had been stolen by a sudden desire to weep.
He was loath to part from the warmth of Severus's chest and the steady thrum of the heartbeat that he'd been able to hear there since he regained consciousness, but he felt as if he needed to sit up for this.
He did so, and he adjusted his glasses, and he ran his hands through his hair.
In Hans Christian Andersen's story of the Snow Queen, when the lass Gerda finds her sweetheart Kay in the great crystalline citadel, all she needs to do is kiss him and cry a few hot tears on his chest to melt the ice in his heart.
But that was a bit too easy, maybe. After all, the Snow Queen wasn't even there. And nobody asked Kay what he thought of any of this.
And there's something much more powerful than tears or a kiss, in any case—which is, of course, a choice.
Ron and Hermione told the first part of the story.
Severus told the second.
"You couldn't stop dancing, Harry, even when the ice figures clustered around you. It was really scary."
"It almost looked like they were pulling something out of you, mate, some type of light. You were turning blue and black. You collapsed."
"We tried, but we couldn't reach you. We lost sight of you under all the flurrying snow. But then Mr. Snape pushed past us, and—"
"—then everything got sort of clear. We saw that you'd been buried under all that ice, but Snape dug you out..."
And then there came (from Ron, of all people) another oddly admiring description of the way Severus had breathed life into Harry's lips again with a kiss, then given a rousing speech about why he wasn't allowed to die.
Harry glanced over at the other man to see that, as the Prince always had, he was blushing bright red while glowering. So he cut off his friend before Severus either died of embarrassment or chucked a pile of snow at Ron's head.
"There are a few things I still don't understand," he said softly.
"Only a few?" Severus sniped in an equally low voice. "Then your intellectual capacity has certainly grown since we last met."
As an insult, it was predictable. And the man was still sitting on the ground behind Harry and touching him, a large hand resting lightly on the small of Harry's back.
"More than a few," Harry agreed amiably. "But I'm not totally hopeless: I've figured out some of it. You were the Prince, obviously, but also the doe who saved me in the blizzard. And those robbers who captured me, they were what remained of Tom Riddle's followers. I think you really were one of them, just not recently. A long time ago."
Taking a deep breath, he caught the other man's dark eyes and held them. "But what I really want to know is how you knew my parents."
Severus regarded him gravely. His free hand—the one that wasn't hovering over Harry's back—lifted as if it wanted to linger against Harry's cheek. The rough pad of his thumb made contact.
Harry noticed that the wind was slightly warmer, and the ice at the top of the chamber was glistening, as if it were starting to melt.
"I knew your parents when we were children," Severus finally answered. "There was no love lost between myself and your father, but your mother was my best friend, until I went down a path she couldn't follow. Our houses were in your village, right next to each other, with a box for a garden linking them that we would climb between…"
So Severus told his story, and Harry listened. And all around them, the ice continued to thaw.
By the time the man's voice had grown hoarse and his telling was done, a direct path had opened for them to leave the ice palace. It even passed through the warm little room where Ron and Hermione had slept so that Harry could pick up his broom.
The four of them were leaving deepening footprints the closer they drew to the edge of the palace and the outside world. Ron and Hermione were in front, holding hands, occasionally stopping to lob snowballs at each other. Severus had fallen behind.
They reached the outer wall, which had melted half away. The sun was brighter out here, a blinding yellow wave.
"Are you coming?" Harry asked, turning back.
When Severus hesitated, Harry reached out one empty hand with the palm up.
The man was winded, if the rapid rising and falling of his chest was any indication. Harry understood that he was throwing everything he had—everything he was—into this decision.
Finally, Severus's shoulders shuddered and dropped. His breathing calmed.
His lips quirked in a small smile, wry and genuine.
"I wouldn't mind a hot bath," he admitted, slipping his hand into Harry's own.
And the other Harry Potter, our Harry, opened his eyes to see that the person holding the umbrella over his head was Severus Snape.
They all—Harry, Hermione, Ron, and a very much alive former Potions professor—went back to Harry's flat, where they ate and tried to work out what the hell had just happened.
The explanations took several hours.
"I was held, while dying, by a boy who was in possession of all three Deathly Hallows and was therefore the Master of Death," Severus Snape finally snapped. He seemed to have grown tired of the interrogation and Hermione's endless hair-splitting. "He later took an essential part of me—my core memories, which dictated my reasons for living and dying as I did—into himself. I would not have been capable of dying fully, even had I wanted to."
"So you're alive," Hermione said slowly, from where she and Ron were still sitting across from their former professor at the kitchen table, "because Harry wanted you to be."
The resurrected, strained-looking man appeared to deflate. "That seems to be the case. He held onto me, and I did not break free."
"And you've been haunting Harry since the war." Ron's voice was steely.
One dark eyebrow lifted. (Oh, how Harry remembered that eyebrow.)
"Not in the traditional sense," the man answered, staring down his hooked nose at the redhead. "And not by intention."
Swallowing visibly, he swept his gaze toward where Harry, exhausted from the draining of his magic, had collapsed on his sitting room sofa. His eyes quickly skittered away again.
"And yet, that might be a better word for it than anything else."
"Severus?" Harry called—because Snape was Severus, and Severus was Severus Snape. Bringing a person back from the dead certainly put them on a first-name basis. (And yes, he was still entirely giddy from the fact that his harebrained plan had actually worked.)
He started to struggle upright.
The man's head jerked toward him again at the motion. "Sit back down, you reckless little—"
"Then come here and tell me what's wrong," Harry interrupted.
He was surprised and very pleased when Severus actually did, scraping his chair back from the kitchen table and closing the distance between them in a few measured strides. Even more unexpectedly, he knelt next to Harry so that they were at eye level.
"I did not intend to make you feel as if you were going mad," was what Severus said.
Resting on his pillows, Harry drank in the sight of the older man. In ways, he looked just as Harry remembered from his schooldays—severe and drawn and unwashed, dressed in black. In others—such as the hesitation in his eyes when they met Harry's own (for Harry understood that, for Severus, any act of apology, or kindness, or love was one that required great courage)—
—he didn't look the same at all.
"Then it's a good thing I'm so hard-headed," Harry answered, easy to forgive. Raising a hand, he brushed the backs of his fingers against Severus's sallow cheek.
"Well." Still in the kitchen, Hermione cleared her throat. "It would take the Unspeakables years to even postulate a theory about what just happened. Not that I intend to tell them, mind you." She paused, rising to her feet. "We'll come up with something that doesn't mention the Hallows. Maybe just that Professor Snape has spent the years since the war traveling for his mental health."
Harry wanted to kiss her.
She hummed to herself, glancing toward Ron pointedly. "I think it's time we went home. We both have work tomorrow." As she turned to Harry, her expression became stern. "But you need to take a sick day." She looked him up and down. "Or a sick month. It will likely take that long before your magic regenerates to its previous levels."
"I'll make your excuses to Robards," Ron told Harry, rising as well. "Professor," he said with a cautious nod toward Snape as they left.
The door closed behind them, and Harry and Severus were left alone.
They both spoke at once.
"You can stay here with me if you want. I mean, you don't have to. Please don't think that you owe me anything, just because I brought you back to life—"
Severus, meanwhile, was saying, "My memories, Potter. What in Merlin's name did you do to them?"
"What do you mean, what did I do to them?" Harry demanded, his train of self-abnegating babble derailed.
"I mean…" Severus had risen from his kneeling position and was pacing back and forth. "…that their edges are all wrong! No, don't stand up, you careless whelp. Do I have to—"
Severus had decided that he did, apparently, have to, because he'd stalked back to the couch and caught Harry before he could finish climbing to his feet, then laid himself down and pulled Harry down onto his shoulder.
"Could you be more specific?" Harry asked meekly after a time.
From this position, Harry could hear Severus's voice reverberating in his chest when he spoke. "They used to be entirely mine, the direct and unembellished recall of my experiences. Now, they're lightened, and blurred, and kept in place by a distinct layer of Harry Potter."
"So I'm in your head a bit now, too." It probably wasn't great that Harry felt so chuffed about that, but there it was.
One of Severus's hands was stroking and twining in his hair. Harry wondered (and his giddiness was only growing) if his former professor intended to use this method to make sure he didn't overexert himself all night.
"I can feel what you thought about them," Severus answered. He was making a face that was difficult for Harry to see because of the angle, but Harry thought that he looked more distraught than angry.
"I don't require your pity," he finished, stiff and low.
Well. That was worth sitting up for. "You ought to be able to feel that it's not pity," Harry protested fiercely.
He held Severus's eyes until the other man gave a small nod and tugged his head back down.
"But why did you lead me to the Snow Queen?" Harry wondered after he'd gotten comfortable again, with his head on the thin chest and one of his legs looped over Severus's and that large hand—oh rapture—moving its gentle massage to the back of his neck.
At first, Harry thought that Severus might not reply.
But then he huffed a breath that curled against Harry's messy hair. "You'd been working too hard without resting. I thought that perhaps you would enjoy it," the other man explained quietly. "Your mother always liked the ballet."
"Oh," Harry breathed.
He felt Severus's chest swell, and he twisted up to see that his former professor was about to speak again, perhaps to explain himself further and attach caveats and addendums to the simple sweetness of what he'd just said.
But Severus didn't get the chance. His mouth closed, and then his eyes did as well.
He'd closed his eyes because Harry, being heroic, had tilted up and pressed a tremulous kiss to his lips.
Severus's eyes drifted open again, dark lashes fluttering. Harry saw that his pupils had grown.
"Was that all right?" Harry asked, breathless.
To his surprise, his former professor answered this with a guttural, gasping sound, his chest shaking. With a thrill spreading up from his core, Harry realized that it was whole-hearted laughter.
"This is impossible," the man told him in a croak. "You're impossible, you extraordinary brat."
Lest Harry get the wrong idea, however, Severus had shifted and rearranged his hands so that he could cup the younger man's jawline, fingertips settling softly in the thick hair behind Harry's ears. And then he was bringing their mouths together again—carefully, again and again.
"I don't think I'm impossible," Harry whispered back in the spaces between kisses, slight as they were. "Or extraordinary."
He couldn't keep from grinning, just a bit. "Or if I am, it's what I've always been."
And so, my gentle reader, we've finally reached the end of the tale.
It ends in more than one way, of course. It ends like this:
Since Severus was still adamant that Harry was too weak to stand, he'd ended up carrying Harry to the bedroom for the night. They'd knocked a few lamps and a basket of fruit over on the way, but who cared about oranges at a time like this?
"I'm going to take such good care of you," Harry moaned.
Severus let out a sound that was surprisingly like a snicker at that, tightening his arms around Harry's chest. He was sitting behind Harry with the younger man straddling his lap, and the head of Severus's cock had been slipping, pushing, pressing upward for some time, looking for give.
"This, Harry?" the man murmured in his ear, his voice laced with as much amusement as arousal. "Is this how you're going to take care of me?"
"Yeah," Harry agreed, unembarrassed.
Then he gulped and sighed, because the head of Severus's cock had finally breached him. And Severus was pulling Harry down tighter into his lap so that his entire length could sink into Harry's body, slowly, conclusively.
It was such a stretch, such an amazing sensation of fullness.
"I'm here," the man whispered huskily in Harry's ear as they fucked. His clenched grip on Harry's waist testified to the truth of his words, as did the kisses he pressed to Harry's neck and jaw, as did his swift, inexorable, nearly desperate thrusts.
He fucked Harry, in fact, as though he'd waited a very long time for this…and as if he was afraid that Harry might vanish at any moment.
"I've got you, Severus," Harry gasped, bracing himself against the onslaught. "I've got you, I've got you..."
And it ends like this.
Severus Snape, formerly the king of the northern ice, had to wait a while before he got his hot bath.
They'd stopped at Minerva's underground house so that Harry could show off the results of his quest and return her broom (to no effect, since she insisted that he keep it)—but there had been no room there for privacy, which seemed to be an intrinsic component of Severus's desires.
"I suppose you'll want me to return to the village with you," Severus had said to Harry, early after they'd left his melting palace. He'd looked distinctly resigned at the idea.
"Well, maybe for a while," Harry answered after considering it. "But I think I've got a taste for going on adventures. So not for too long, or I'll get just as bored as you. How does that sound?"
"Hm," Severus grunted, which meant yes, that would do nicely.
The man's flying sleigh wouldn't work for him anymore, since it was made of ice and the ice recognized that he'd given up his sovereignty. So they were traveling south on foot, or on the broom, with Harry shuttling everyone back and forth to a fixed destination one at a time. This was useful when their feet needed a rest, but Hermione was terrified of flying, and Harry's flight trajectory had gone wobbly more than once because of Severus's inability to keep his hands to himself.
They were lucky, in that the worst of winter seemed to have passed.
And when they were about halfway to the forest where Harry had been captured by the robbers, a truly serendipitous event occurred: they camped one night in a wild meadow of tall grass and budding tulips and woke up the next morning to find that they'd been joined again by Gus the reindeer. Severus had pressed his face against the animal's neck and whispered to him for a long time, then fed him a fruitcake from the stores they'd been given for their journey by Minerva.
There were few inns on their route, and most of them were disreputable. So Severus ended up not getting his bath until they'd reached Harry's village once more.
Ron and Hermione were both welcomed home by their families with a great deal of hugging and scolding and tears, but Harry was distinctly unexcited about seeing the Dursleys again. However, when he approached the front door of the house where he'd grown up, he discovered that the windows were boarded shut, the front garden gone to seed.
The Dursleys had packed up and left. Vernon had been offered a job somewhere south, in a city. They'd told all of the neighbors that they were never coming back, and they'd tried to sell the house. But it turned out that they couldn't, as it was technically under Harry's name.
The house had an empty and abandoned feel, but the roof wasn't leaking. And it warmed up quickly once they built a fire in the stove in the kitchen.
They filled the bathtub together, each carrying two buckets of boiled water at a time. When they both climbed in (it was a large bathtub, as it had needed to fit Dudley Dursley's bulk), the water quickly turned brown from the grime of their travels, but Harry didn't mind.
Especially not when Severus was sitting behind him, fiddling with his thumbs at what he'd once called Harry's "pretty nipples." (It had been the night after Harry had flown them all over the robbers' forest, spotting copious evidence that the bandits were either dead or long gone. They'd celebrated by opening Minerva's scotch, and Severus had told Harry, in the privacy of their bedroll, that his nipples were too pretty for any sane man not to want to flick and lick and tease.)
It was when they finished scrubbing each other and climbed out, dripping on the floor, that Harry remembered the rosebushes outside the attic window. Still naked—for it was warm enough for that now—he tugged Severus up to the little room upstairs.
It was still a bit too early for blooms, but he could see in the moonlight that the bushes were tall and healthy, covered in green buds.
He turned back from the window to find Severus regarding him with an expression that Harry couldn't name. "My roses," the younger man explained with a smile. "I'm glad they're still there."
When Severus still didn't respond, Harry twisted back to the glass again for one more look.
But he felt the other man's arms slip around him, and then a trail of kisses meandered down his spine, ending at a spot much lower (and much more sensitive). Soon, Harry was breathing heavily with his pleasure, Severus's tongue lapping at him and then spearing him open, making him slick, making him quiver. They collapsed onto the small cot where he'd slept before leaving on his adventure. His glasses fell off.
Severus was kissing along one of his arms now, from the shoulder to the wrist. Harry was arching up against the other man. Severus's hips were swinging in hard thrusts, steadily working the heat of his length in and out of Harry's body. And it hurt—it burned—it set Harry aflame.
And Harry knew that spring had come.
And it ends, of course, like this.
"You're still so cold," Harry Potter—both of our Harry Potters—whispered to their exhausted and much-loved Severus Snapes. One had gotten up to find some blankets for the cot in the attic. The other had needed to use the loo.
As Harry pulled the other man back down to him, his voice was husky and welcoming.
"Come here. Let me keep you warm."