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Harry hurried across the grounds of Hogwarts. He wished he could linger, but he was just barely on time for a very important appointment. The air was crisper here, cooler, so very different from the humid London summer air. He passed by Hagrid's hut, and remembered the shape of the smoke that would rise from his chimney in the colder months. Hagrid wasn't there now - last Harry heard, he was traveling the continent with Madame Maxime. Still, Hagrid had faithfully sent him a birthday cake this year, with about fifteen candles on it. (Hagrid had written that he ran out of candles before he could get to 23.) Harry personally thought the structural integrity of the cake would have disintegrated with even one more candle, so it was probably for the best.

The castle was as he remembered it, magnificent and warm. It felt like a homecoming. As Harry traversed the halls, he found himself reminiscing over his eighth year at Hogwarts - there was the spot where Ginny had viciously bat-bogeyed Zach Smith after he had cheated on Harry. There was the spot where Luna had cushioned the floor and taught Harry how to do a proper headstand. And there was the spot where Ron had accidentally grabbed Hermione's boob when he tripped, and Hermione had yelped so loudly that Harry had said, "I didn't know you owned a crup, Hermione," because he hadn't seen the whole boob-grabbing debacle, and Hermione had called them both neanderthals and told Ron that if he wanted to touch her breasts, he should ask nicely next time, and Harry had made loud retching noises while Hermione turned up her nose unabashedly.

They were good memories, he thought. He wanted to make more here - he wasn't finished with Hogwarts just yet. Harry neared the sturdy oak door of Hogwarts' Potions Master, and knocked loudly, hoping he came off more confident than he felt.

"Ah, Harry, my boy!" Slughorn boomed, throwing the door wide open - a feat more impressive than it seemed given the fact that Harry knew how much the dungeon doors weighed.

"Sir," said Harry. "Thank you for meeting with me - "

"Well, of course!" Slughorn interjected merrily. "For one of my favorite students? Any time. Why don't you come in? Would you like a cup of tea? Perhaps some crystallized pineapple?"

Harry smiled. Slughorn somehow managed to be both ostentatious and genuine at the same time. After all, he didn't offer his beloved crystallized pineapple for just anyone.

"Thank you, sir. I'll just have a cup of tea."

Slughorn snapped his fingers, gave their order to one of the Hogwarts elves, and gestured for Harry to take a seat in one of the overstuffed armchairs.

"So what brings you here, Harry?" Slughorn asked.

"Well, sir, I've been studying potions quite regularly these past couple years - I'm not sure if you've heard, but I've been working for the Weasley twins," Harry began. "I started off helping them enchant some of their products, and then I began helping them brew some of their potions. I ended up getting my potions distribution license when I came up with some of my own ideas and I wanted to try them out. It all ended up spiralling from there, and I found myself experimenting with some of my own brews. Fred and George seemed to really like some of my creations. Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes has a new line now, called "Boring Practicalities," and since most of my creations were more… well, practical, I suppose, they've ended up making up a majority of that line."

"Ah!" said Slughorn. "Of course I've heard about your work, Harry. I must say, your disillusionment potion has made after-hours rounds at Hogwarts into quite the hassle! Now, correct me if this is false, but I've heard that you've been working with the Aurors?" Slughorn asked, mustache twitching excitedly.

"Yeah," Harry tried not to blush. "I've been working with them for my potion, Interviewer's Delight? I'm not sure if you've heard of it, but it essentially makes the interviewer quite… well, suave, I suppose. It has some of the same components as Felix Felicis, so the interviewer ends up acting how the subject would be most responsive to. That was a big thing with the Aurors, because sometimes suspects will respond to a sympathetic Auror, sometimes they'll respond to an intimidating Auror. It all depends on the psyche of the suspect. That potion originally started off as a dating potion, to calm your nerves and behave in a way your date would be receptive to. Fred and George joked that I could turn anything boring, but I think the potion is better this way," Harry said. He thought he was probably talking a bit too quickly, but Slughorn seemed not to notice.

"Indeed, indeed," said Slughorn. "I heard about it from a friend in the Ministry last month. I must say, the use of Occamy egg yolk was inspired. So, how may I help you, my boy? Legal counsel, perhaps? I have a very good friend who's a successful patent attorney; Zaira Greensleeve. She's represented Damocles Belby since his creation of the Wolfsbane potion. Or perhaps you'd like to get published? Tell me, how may I help?"

"Actually," said Harry, tracing the rim of his teacup with his index finger. "I'd like to get my Potions mastery, and I was wondering if I could study under you, sir. I have lots of practical knowledge, but my foundation is pretty lacking. I'm missing a lot of knowledge that I know would help me in the future. My grades in Potions were pretty abysmal before sixth year, and for good reason. I - "

"Nonsense, Harry! You're a natural if I've ever seen one. Just like your mother."

"Well," Harry hesitated, but he figured it was better to be honest from the get-go. "I actually had help that year - I'm really not a natural. My Potions textbook belonged to Professor Snape - Headmaster Snape? - it belonged to Snape, and it had all his old notes in it. So, really, my potions only came out well because I was following the notes he had written in the margins."

"Oh," said Slughorn, looking vaguely surprised yet unconcerned. "Well, I must say, Severus's notes were definitely the right ones to follow. Unsurprising, of course, with his unparalleled perfectionism in the art of Potions. But don't sell yourself short, Harry. A good recipe very rarely guarantees a good potion."

"You aren't, I don't know, disappointed, sir?" Harry asked, slightly incredulous at Slughorn's easy acceptance of Harry's immoral academic practices.

"Well, I never figured, but I always encourage students to share notes with each other, study together. Why, back in my day, the Slytherins shared all their class notes! And it was you who did the brewing, not Professor Snape. Since you've got your distribution license, I assume you took the NEWTS at some point, yes?

"Yes, sir. I got an O," said Harry, bewildered at Slughorn's easy acceptance of his cheating, but not wanting to press the issue.

"Why, of course you did," Slughorn beamed. "Now, before we make any decisions, I want to make sure you understand all the requirements for your Potions mastery. It's quite a lot of work, and you're successful enough without it, so I want to make sure you know what you'd be getting yourself into." Harry nodded, and gestured for Slughorn to carry on.

"The first requirement is perfecting the classics. You'd be brewing everything from Wolfsbane to Polyjuice to Amortentia; difficult potions, some of which one might be expected to know for the NEWTS, but held to a much higher standard. They must be impeccable. This is when you'd be getting into the technicalities and learning some of the intricacies of the potions theory and techniques. It's usually the apprentices' least favorite part, but based on what you've told me, it may be the most beneficial for you.

"The second requirement is research of an archaic or lost potion. Some students choose to jointly study Potions and Alchemy for this, and some students research a potion from antiquity only mentioned by Homer or Hesiod. Why, I even had one student research a family recipe, passed down in bits and pieces through family legend. This portion of the mastery is largely up to you, as long as it meets the requirements that it has been lost to the ages and not yet rediscovered. There's absolutely no expectation for the apprentice to actually make the potion - in fact, it's usually nearly impossible to brew - although some do have a fun time making an attempt at it. You'll need to write a paper on it by the end of the year."

"Now, how are you feeling about the apprenticeship? Cold feet?" asked Slughorn.

"No, sir. I knew what I'd be getting into, and the whole thing sounds brilliant," said Harry decisively.

Slughorn smiled, popped an entire half-ring of crystallized pineapple into his mouth, and chewed. When he finally swallowed - and Harry was beginning to feel a bit awkward, watching him masticate the candied fruit - he clapped his hands together once. Harry startled.

"Wonderful!" Slughorn exclaimed. "Well, I'm flattered you'd like to be my apprentice, and I am certainly willing to take you on. Just have the NEWTS board send over your scores. The only hiccup I think we might run into is finding the time - after all, I still am a full-time Potions professor. I think we should look into having some more Potions Masters drop in and instruct you from time to time, to ensure that you're getting all the instruction you need."

"Whatever you think is best, sir," Harry said, not even bothering to hold back his smile. He was going to get his mastery! He was actually going to be a Potions Master! Sure, it'd be a lot of hard work, but it was going to be so worth it when -

"Professor Snape, definitely," said Slughorn, effectively cutting off Harry's exuberance.

"Professor Snape?" asked Harry warily.

"Professor Snape," nodded Slughorn. "Absolutely. He has a portrait in one of the upper level Potions labs, and more free time than he knows what to do with. I'm sure he'll be glad to do it. We can make that lab your personal one so it's convenient for him. I've never heard of someone getting their mastery from a painting, but he'll just be there for extra help when I haven't the time. Sound like a plan?"

"A plan?" Harry asked dumbly.

"A plan," said Slughorn, nodding again. "Well, let's go on up to the Headmistress's office and talk to Severus."

---

"Alright," said Snape, sneering down haughtily from his gilded frame.

"Really?" asked Harry. "You're actually going to take me on?"

Snape's expression became something approximating a smile, but much more feral. "I'll do it. But I make no promises as to how patient or accommodating I'll be. It should be amusing to watch you flounder."

He's out for my blood, Harry thought. Maybe those rumors about him being a vampire weren't too far off. Harry knew his feelings for Snape were quite complicated - he tried to avoid thinking too much about the man, lest he be overwhelmed with either anger or guilt. Harry was pretty sure that Snape's demeanor would be as unpleasant as ever, but after all, wasn't it still Harry's fault that Snape's body was trapped in a coma state in the Janus Thickey Ward? His body was still alive, still breathing, but here he was animated in a painting, and everyone knew what that meant. Functionally, Snape had passed on, and no amount of life support could reverse that. And all because Snape had given his life to the cause - to help Harry.

"Well, that's settled, then!" exclaimed Slughorn. It's not fucking settled! thought Harry.

"Well, Mr. Potter, if everything is settled, we should pick a time for you to arrive," said McGonagall, "And assign you some chambers as well. Neville Longbottom is helping out with Professor Sprout this year, and if you'd like to be near, I can assign you quarters in the same wing. Or, if you'd like to be closer to your labs, we could put you in the dungeons."

Harry had a vivid flashback to the cold, damp common room of Slytherin, and said quickly, "Not the dungeons, please. Near Neville would be wonderful." Snape sneered down from his portrait. Harry thought Snape was probably internally monologuing something along the lines of, "Ah, the Chosen One thinks he's too good for the dungeons, is that so? Need special accommodation? I'm sure if you apply on the basis of a mental disability, they'll make an exception for you."

"Horace? When would you like to begin?" asked McGonagall.

"Perhaps in a week or two," said Slughorn, "So that we can get settled before the students come back for first term." Slughorn looked over at Harry inquiringly.

"Great! Yes, I mean, that works for me," said Harry. Snape rolled his eyes.

---

"Harry," the shepherd in the painting whined. "You aren't paying me any attention. Look, I even put flowers in my hair for you." He flipped his long blond plait over his shoulder to show Harry the little purple wildflowers he had woven into it.

"It looks great, really," said Harry distractedly, "But I actually really have to get into my rooms now - "

"But Harry," the shepherd said, "You haven't talked to me all day, and look, I'm so pretty today. Here, you can see better from this angle," the shepherd said, and reclined back onto a hay bale, arching his back and spreading his legs. Harry stopped for a minute, simultaneously annoyed and immensely grateful that his chambers had come with this particular painting as his guard.

"Yeah, you do look pretty," Harry said, feeling himself blush. The shepherd smiled coyly. "But I do really have to get into my chambers, or I'll be late for my first meeting with Slughorn."

"You're such a scholar, Harry," the shepherd teased. "When are you going to come have a little fun with me?" he said, but he allowed the door to swing open, and Harry was able to escape into the relative safety of his chambers, where he scooped up his bag, attempted to flatten his hair, gave up on his hair, and steeled himself for his first day as a Potions Apprentice.

When he arrived at the lab, he was indeed five minutes late, but it seemed that Slughorn was even more late, so he busied himself with looking around the room. It was nice enough, for a little Potions lab in the dungeon, but it was lacking any sort of warmth. Harry wondered if he'd be allowed to bring in a sofa or some chairs, so he could sit and do some work during the simmering stages of his longer brews. As it stood, there was simply one wooden desk, several well-stocked shelves of ingredients, and a long Potions table with five burners. Three regular burners, one convection burner, and a smaller microburner for low-volume brews. Harry tapped his wand to each burner to turn it on, and ran his hands over the low flames. They were good quality, but the leftmost burner ran a little too hot - Harry would have to remember that for the future. He'd learned that lesson quite late, that you had to be aware of the quirks of your burner, and he thought back ruefully on the fact that he had never once checked the strength of his burner when he was at Hogwarts the first time around.

"I see you've already familiarized yourself," came a booming voice from the doorway. Harry must have looked chagrined, because Slughorn chuckled and said, "I'm glad, my boy. Once must be familiar with one's instruments."

"Right," said Harry, "I'm sorry I didn't wait for permission -"

"Nonsense!" Slughorn cut him off. "On the contrary, I'm glad! This is to be your lab, after all. You should know your space inside and out."

Harry's first day of apprenticeship turned out to be Slughorn assigning potion after potion, deadline after deadline. Harry had written it all down on a piece of parchment, but he quickly resolved himself to write Hermione asking for a planner as soon as possible. Harry had a potion to perfect every week: some potions he had already brewed, several of which he recognized but hadn't yet made himself, and several that he had never even seen before. Harry was also given tentative deadlines for his research project, but Slughorn said that most apprentices tended to go at their own pace, so Harry was free to work on the research whenever he pleased.

For the next week, Slughorn kept out of Harry's way as he attempted to brew his first Masters-quality Draught of Elation, with the instructions to, "Impress me, my boy!" On the second day, Snape sidled into a portrait frame that Harry hadn't noticed. Harry debated greeting Snape, but Snape said nothing, sneered, and raised an eyebrow as if to say 'get back to it', so Harry tried to get back to his work. But Harry could feel Snape's eyes assessing him at every turn, and no matter how much he tried to keep a level head, he could feel himself getting tetchy. Every so often, Snape would tsk at him from the portrait. The first time, Harry was juicing Tentacula root, and yes, fine, maybe he was being a little rough with it, but it really wouldn't affect the quality of the brew. So Harry ignored Snape and resolutely continued viciously juicing the root. Snape tsked several more times throughout the afternoon, and then several hours in he fully scoffed, loudly and condescendingly. Harry looked down at his handful of Acromantula hairs, surreptitiously recounted them, and was unpleasantly surprised to see he had added not one, but two extra acromantula hairs. He considered throwing them all into the brew, just to spite Snape, but he gritted his teeth and dropped the two extra hairs onto his cutting board before throwing the rest of the hairs into the brew. Snape scoffed again. Harry worked very hard not to roll his eyes.

The next two days of brewing progressed similarly; Snape scoffing at Harry, Harry trying to ignore him. After all, if Snape wasn't going to give clear advice, then it wasn't Harry's responsibility to try to translate the derisive noises. Finally, when Snape outright snickered at Harry as he shredded his mint leaves, Harry whirled to the side and glared at Snape, brandishing a fistful of mint.

"If you're not going to be helpful, could you leave, please?" Harry asked nastily.

Disappointingly, this seemed to serve only to increase Snape's amusement. His curled upper lip rose into some evil imitation of a grin. "Maybe you should try taking some advice, Potter," he said. "Oh, right, I forgot. Potter knows better than everyone else."

"You haven't given me any advice. You usually have to say something to give advice," Harry replied through gritted teeth.

"On the contrary, I have lots to say," Snape said, voice like an oil slick. "For example: you have no respect for the art of potion making and you will be stuck brewing juvenile concoctions for your whole life. If, by some miracle, you do graduate with your Masters, you should know it will simply be a reflection of the boot-licking masses catering to your every whim."

Harry felt his blood rush through his ears. "I guess some things never change, Snape. You're still a miserable bastard," Harry spat.

"You are the most ungrateful brat I've ever had the displeasure of knowing," Snape snarled.

"Great!" shouted Harry. "Then go away and stop knowing me!" Snape snarled and turned on his heel, marching out of his frame, his black robes billowing ridiculously behind him. "And don't bother coming back!" Harry shouted at the empty frame. He looked back at his mint leaves and - oh fuck, it was lemon balm.

---

"Well done, Harry!" said Slughorn.

"Really, Sir?" Harry asked incredulously, looking at the beaker of Draught of Elation that Slughorn was turning over in his hands. Something just didn't seem right about it.

"Well," Slughorn hesitated. "The consistency is a bit runny, the color is slightly off, and the scent isn't totally correct - too acidic. It's still a good brew, as good as any you'd find in the store, but I'm afraid it's not totally up to Masters’ standards. You understand," he said regretfully.

Harry sighed. Yeah, that was more like it. He knew he could do better, but Snape's presence had distracted him so much that by the time Snape was gone and Harry could finally think properly, it was too late to salvage his first attempt. He had ended up having to re-brew the whole concoction. It was something about Snape's eyes on him that got under his skin, agitated him, made his blood rush.

"Too much tentacula, I believe. Or perhaps it was slightly crushed? Well, whatever the case, I have full faith in you to brew me a quality sample by next week," said Slughorn. So, great, Harry was going to have to spend a second week on a potion that only needed three days of brew time. Harry scolded himself internally - this is what he had asked for, after all. His inattention to detail was exactly the habit he was trying to break.

"Sounds good, Sir," said Harry.

"Ah, and Harry! Just so you know, I won't be able to be very present this week. The new students are arriving this weekend, and the first week is always the most chaotic. If you have any need of instruction, I would suggest asking Professor Snape. Actually, I'd suggest asking Professor Snape for instruction whether you think you need it or not," Slughorn said, and then Harry was deafened by Slughorn's thundering laugh.

---

"It's just down the corridor, this way," said Harry, steering Neville down the corridor.

"We're practically neighbors," said Neville with an affable smile. Neville had just arrived yesterday from South America for his apprenticeship with Professor Sprout, and Harry had to admit that the sun had done him well. Already towering over Harry in the height department, Neville's skin was nicely bronzed where it was exposed - except his hands, of course, which Harry assumed had been clad in gardening gloves the whole summer.

"Just warning you," said Harry, "my portrait guard is a bit… unusual."

Neville laughed. "Aren't they all, a bit? I got some Arthurian knight who spends most of his free time composing sonnets. Sometimes he makes me listen to three or four before he'll let me in."

"Yeah, mine is a bit like that," said Harry hesitantly. "But not really at all, actually. You'll see soon enough."

Neville did indeed see, when they arrived in front of Harry's chambers to see that the shepherd had stripped himself of his shirt and was now pouring water from a gourd down his chest. Harry saw the shepherd open one eye furtively, and then pour another splash of water on his chest before smoothing his hand up his sternum and around his neck.

Neville looked dumbfounded and red. Harry bit back the urge to snicker, and he cleared his throat.

"Oh!" said the shepherd, flicking his hair over his shoulder innocently. "I didn't see you there. You know, it's really quite rude to watch someone wash themselves. But since it's you, Harry, I'll make an exception. Your friend can watch too," he said, and then began loosening the string at his breeches.

"Nope, that's fine," said Harry matter-of-factly. Poor Neville had turned purple at this point. "We'll leave you to it - just going to have some tea in my chambers, if you would?"

The shepherd sighed. "Well, if you must. I wouldn't want you to see anything….untoward," he said. Wouldn't you? thought Harry, but the shepherd allowed the heavy stone door to swing open, and Neville practically sprinted into the chambers.

"I told you," said Harry, shrugging.

"I wasn't expecting that," Neville said abashedly. "I thought he was going to reminisce about a goblin rebellion, or something."

Harry prepared them tea, and they passed an hour easily talking about their summers. Harry and Neville had grown closer since their school days, but all of Harry's friends knew full well that he was a terrible pen pal, so Neville's life since his internship in South America was news to Harry. Neville confessed sheepishly that he had met someone there - an Australian on semester abroad who was working with a shaman there.

"No way, Nev!" exclaimed Harry. "That's amazing. What's she like?"

"Well, she's quite headstrong, but one of the kindest people I've ever met. Amanda doesn't go with the flow when she believes it's wrong, but when she cares about you she'll fight for you 'till the death. She's a serious academic, too, but she's very outgoing."

"Is she pretty?" Harry teased.

"Beautiful," said Neville, a dreamy look passing over his gaze. "The most beautiful girl I've ever seen. But that's not why I love her."

"You love her?" Harry whistled. "Congrats, Nev. That's big." He threw an arm over Neville's shoulder, smiling widely.

"It feels big," said Neville, still with his dopey smile. "She's going to come visit me here soon. She wants to see the stargazey poppies - Hogwarts has one of the largest groves of it, right by the Black Lake."

"Sounds like you two have a lot in common," Harry said quickly, before Neville could get too deep into the scientific aspect of the stargazey poppy.

"We have a lot of passions in common," said Neville, "and our values, too. But our personalities are quite different, I'd say. It works well like that. I respect Amanda for the reasons why we're similar, and the reasons why we're not."

"It makes sense to me," said Harry. "Sounds very compatible. You'll introduce me when she comes, yeah? We can get dinner at the Three Broomsticks together."

"Of course, Harry. I think you'll get on like a house on fire." said Neville. He smiled into his teacup, then looked back up. "How about you, then? Are you seeing anyone?"

Harry shrugged. "Nah. You know how it was after the battle - dating was weird. And now, I don't have any time or interest. Married to Potions, as it were," he laughed. "Sounds a bit pathetic, but I'm not pining after anyone and I love Potions, so I might as well be happy with my life now."

"Speaking of, how is your apprenticeship going?" Neville asked. "I heard that Professor Snape was going to help mentor you."

"Yeah, it's going alright," said Harry, but he could feel that his mood had soured slightly. "Snape was going to mentor me, but we had a bit of an argument last week and I haven't seen him around since."

"No," Neville faked surprise. "Harry Potter got into an argument with Severus Snape? I don't believe it."

Harry laughed. "Yeah. We were both gits about it though, to be honest. He started it, obviously, but I'm starting to regret it right about now. This is my second week remaking a potion, the Draught of Elation, and I have to give my potion to Slughorn in three days. It's going well, but it's not perfect, and it needs to be perfect. I know Snape knows exactly what I'm doing that could be improved, but, ugh, I just can't bring myself to go begging him for help. But I also couldn't bear working on this potion for a third week in a row. You know?"

Neville nodded. "It must be difficult for you."

Harry cringed. "Well, I mean, I didn't come here to make friends. I came to become a Potions Master - and a good Potions Master, one that deserves it."

"Are you going to ask him to help you?" Neville asked.

"Yeah," said Harry dejectedly. "It's going to suck though. I bet he'll be a bastard about it - make me lick his little painted shoes. But it'll be worth it. It'll be worth it, right?"

"Seems like," said Neville easily.

---

Harry gritted his teeth. The gargoyle guarding the staircase to the Headmistress's office seemed to be giving him a sneer, but it could have just been a trick of the light. Harry made a face at it, just to see if it would react. It didn't, and Harry really couldn't procrastinate any longer.

When he made it up the stairs, he spent an extra minute staring at McGonagall's door before knocking. As long as it wasn't too humiliating, he would do whatever Snape asked of him. He needed to learn, and Snape would help him do so. He knocked on the door.

"Come in, Mr. Potter," said McGonagall. Harry spared a brief moment to wonder how the Heads of school always knew who was outside their door.

"Headmistress," said Harry, stepping into the office. "I didn't mean to trouble you, but I wondered if I could borrow your office for a moment?" Harry asked, not looking over at Snape's portrait just yet.

McGonagall's lips twitched, but she nodded. "I'll be back in five minutes," she said crisply.

Only when she was gone did Harry gather up the courage to look at Snape's portrait. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad, and Snape would apologize for antagonizing Harry, and they'd go off and brew potions at the end of a rainbow. Harry looked up. Snape didn't look as though he was going to be apologizing any time soon.

"I wanted to apologize," Harry blurted. "For my behavior. I didn't give you the respect you deserve as a Potions Master, and I was wrong."

Snape glared silently. Harry winced.

"Is there anything I can do that will make you overlook my poor behavior? I know that I need your expertise, and that I was wrong to snap. My behavior will change in the future," Harry said.

"Great speech," said Snape sarcastically. Harry let a moment or two pass, just in case Snape had something else to say.

"Will you please come and help instruct me in the lab today?" Harry asked.

"And why would I do that?" asked Snape.

"I don't know - I just," Harry sighed. "I know you have no reason to help me, and I know that I was wrong. But you're one of the best, if not the best Potions Masters in the country, and I'm already having trouble with my apprenticeship. And I know you know exactly what I'm doing wrong, and I need your help. Please. I need you - your help."

Snape didn't say anything for a moment, but his black eyes glittered with some unknown emotion. His eyes narrowed, as if he were trying to ascertain the veracity of Harry's words.

"Fine," said Snape, and Harry felt himself nearly sag with relief. It was really that simple? "But you will not contradict me in the lab. You will not criticize my teaching methods. And you certainly will not direct any slights towards me on a personal level. Is this understood?"

Harry nodded quickly. "Yes, sir. Understood." Snape nodded, frowning, and disappeared from his frame.

When Harry arrived in the lab, Snape was standing there in his portrait, arms crossed. "Your Draught of Elation is terrible," he said.

"I know, sir," said Harry.

"Start from scratch."

Harry collected his ingredients from the cupboard, and set about preparing them. Conscious of Snape's eyes, he made sure to slice the Tentacula root gently and double check his Acromantula hairs. Before he could put his Acromantula hairs in the cauldron, Snape made a little disapproving noise. Harry counted them a third time, but, no, he still had exactly twelve hairs.

"Sir? Is there something wrong with my Acromantula hairs?" Harry asked, so incredibly politely that it almost seemed ungenuine. "Sorry," he said quickly, "I'm just not sure what's wrong with them - I know there are twelve."

"Yes, there are twelve," said Snape, "but two of them are clearly finer and slightly shorter than the others, meaning they were taken from a juvenile, and therefore have less magical potency. You'd do well to replace them with two adult hairs. Of course, you could use them, but you'd have to account for the decreased potency, and that's far beyond your abilities," he said with a disapproving sneer.

Ignoring the last insult, Harry studied the hairs. It was true - two of the hairs were finer, shorter, and a slightly lighter color than the rest. He replaced them with two coarser hairs and held the bunch up to Snape's portrait. "Good, sir?"

Snape nodded and Harry stirred the hairs in. The potion turned the exact right shade of violet, and Harry couldn't help the small smile that spread across his face. The brewing went smoothly for another hour or two, until Harry was measuring out his newt eyes. Snape made a humming sound, and Harry recounted his newt eyes. Fine again - seven eyes.

"Sir?" Harry asked.

"The active ingredient in newt eyes is in the vitreous. The rest of the eye is relatively useless, and in most potions it doesn't make a difference. However, in potions with an acidic base, the cornea can have a diminishing effect on its efficacy. If I were you, I'd use only five newt eyes, but massage them between your hands before you put them in to over-activate the vitreous."

"Really, sir?" asked Harry. "That makes sense to me, only I've never seen anyone do that before."

"Perhaps you've never seen that because you've never worked with a brewer of quality before," Snape sneered. "The theory works for trimshade beans in an alkaline base, as well."

Harry nodded, and lightly rolled the newt eyes between his palms.

"Harder," said Snape. "Newt eyes are tougher than you may think, and if you don't fully massage them, you'll just be putting in too few eyes."

---

When Harry got back to his chambers that night, toting a picnic basket of leftovers the house-elves had prepared for him, he collapsed exhaustedly onto his plush red couch. It was so soft and inviting, Harry couldn't help but close his eyes for a second.

The next thing he knew, he was awoken at 3 o'clock in the morning by the loud rumbling of his stomach. He rubbed the sleep sand out of his eyes blearily, grabbed the picnic basket from whence he had dropped it, and carried it over to his bed. Reclining back on the bed and munching on a sandwich, Harry studied the painting hanging across his bed. It was of a shaded forest, green and lush. The sun filtered lazily through the trees, casting rippling patterns on the undergrowth. A fern swayed gently, the corner of it teasing in and out of a spot of light. Looking at the fern, Harry realized it was actually a bristlehorn fern, one of the main ingredients in Skele-Gro. As Harry studied the painting, he realized that several of the plants in the forest were potions ingredients. The artist had done a beautiful job rendering them. The ferns were perfect, the brambleberry bush pristine. He imagined what it would feel like to walk through those woods, gathering the herbs and feeling the dappled sunlight on his shoulders. He almost wished he could enter the painting.

Maybe I should tell Snape about it, he thought, then laughed to himself at the image of Snape frolicking through the painting with a little wicker basket. As ridiculous as the thought was, Harry wondered if Snape did have access to potions ingredients, or if Snape could even brew in a portrait. It would be sad, he thought, if Snape couldn't do the one thing he loved in life. Harry did want to help him if he could. After all, he had been incredibly helpful today. Apart from some of the little barbs, he hadn't antagonized Harry at all. And he had spent hours with Harry in the lab, watching Harry nearly botch a potion that he could probably make with his eyes closed.

Harry tried not to be jealous of Snape's Potions abilities, but a bitter taste entered his mouth. Harry bet Snape could have made the Draught of Elation perfectly when he was in fifth year. Harry had never truly appreciated the man's brilliance until he started brewing potions himself. At Hogwarts, it had been a chore, a distraction, an annoyance. But now, Potions was an outlet, a passion. Something he enjoyed doing, something he wanted to master - not just for his career, but for his own self-betterment. Potions was the one thing that he was willing to sign up for an extra year of schooling for. And Potions was something he was good at - not good in the traditional sense, the way Snape was, but he was talented in creating potions. He could invent potions like nobody's business. Sure, maybe the exact proportions of the ingredients might be slightly off, but he still created brand-new potions that worked. Harry was good at Potions, and he wasn't going to let a moment of downfall overshadow all the triumph of the past several years. He was going to use these moments of failure to get better, to learn from his mistakes, to improve his craft.

With a renewed sense of hope for his apprenticeship, Harry grabbed a book that he had been putting off reading for as long as possible. Potions of Olde, it was titled, and it was filled with handwritten chapters, each on a different archaic potion. Harry set about flipping through its pages - all two thousand of them - trying to find a potion that inspired him. A horrifying number of them were torture potions, and Harry flipped through those pages quickly, before any of the illustrations could burn themselves into his eyes. Several more were almost entirely useless, such as a needlessly complicated potion from the 1400's that allowed the user to quack in perfect imitation of an actual duck. Fred and George would probably like that one, except for the fact that half of its ingredients were made up and the other half were from extinct animals.

One potion caught his eye, though - Panacea. The universal cure. Harry waded onerously through the book's difficult language and old-fashioned spelling to read the chapter on Panacea. Supposedly an Ancient Greek potion, Circe originally made it for Odysseus after he had washed up on her shores, using for ingredients only moly flowers and tokens of her love. Later on, a Roman witch named Flavia made Panacea for her husband, who was dying of an unknown wasting disease. Flavia apparently used a base of olive oil, all of her golden inherited family jewelry, and more "tokens of her love," again. The next recorded instance of successful Panacea was in Northumbria in the seven hundreds, when a herder-by-day, potioneer-by night brewed it for his wife, who fell gravely ill after giving birth. He included mead, the hairs from his wife's favorite heifer, and again, "proof of his loyalty." The book had several more examples, all the way up until the 1700's, each one with increasingly more obscure and personal ingredients. It was interesting, thought Harry, but entirely unfeasible. He thought it more likely that the potions were useless and the individuals weren't so much "cured" as they just happened to make a miraculous recovery. Still, it was interesting to learn about the theories behind the potions of the Ancients. He decided to look for more in-depth books on Panacea, thinking it an interesting research topic for his mastery.

--

"Very well done, Harry!" exclaimed Slughorn. Harry wondered if Slughorn was going to say that about all his potions, no matter if they were shitty or not.

"It seems you've fixed all the problems with your previous batch. Consistency is perfect, color is spot on, scent is ideal."

"I had help from Professor Snape," said Harry, but he was pleased at Slughorn's response.

"Well, naturally! I must say, it almost seems as though Severus himself brewed it."

"Maybe don't tell him that, sir," Harry said with a nervous laugh. He didn't think Snape would take too kindly to being compared to Harry. Slughorn chortled good-naturedly and gave Harry his next Potions assignment, the Wolfsbane Potion. Luckily, Harry had made the Wolfsbane Potion many times, as he regularly donated the potion to the clinic in Knockturn Alley. He was confident his potion would turn out well - after all, he had tweaked the recipe a couple times himself, but if Snape could help him improve it even more, he was excited to learn.

--

Snape wasn't in his portrait in the lab yet by the time Harry got there on Monday morning, so he began to gather the necessary ingredients and treated his cauldron with the proper oils. Halfway through slicing his amaranth, Harry heard a rustling from behind him. Snape had entered the painting.

"Good morning, sir," said Harry. "Slughorn was very pleased with the potion."

Snape nodded.

"Thank you for your help," said Harry. It sounded a little awkward coming out, but he thought it was important that Snape know that Harry was grateful to him.

Snape nodded again, but more slowly this time. "What are you working on this week?" he asked.

"Wolfsbane," Harry responded. "I'm relatively confident about this one."

"Oh?" said Snape. "We shall see." This was a far less dickish response than Harry expected, and Harry almost caught himself smiling as he prepared to rise to the challenge. How odd, that something Snape had said could make him feel any sort of positive emotion.

As he prepared to brine his tumbleweed, he turned to Snape's portrait again. "I know you're supposed to put the tumbleweed in as-is, but I usually brine it in distilled water beforehand, to soften it up a tad. I don't need as long to imbue the potions with magic as the recipes account for, so I tend to try to speed up the process of adding ingredients. I usually make large batches of Wolfsbane, so I try to complete them as quickly as possible. Is it okay, do you think? I haven't noticed any negative effects on the potion."

Snape pursed his lips, considering. "Technically, it should have a negative effect on the potioneer, since the potion will sap the wizard's energy far too quickly and leave their core depleted. If the wizard has sufficient enough power, however…. Well, I suppose you'd know best how much your core is depleted by it."

"I haven't had any problems with it yet. I'm usually a bit tired after the brewing process, but I can still cast fine."

"Go ahead, then," said Snape.

Harry nodded, and commenced with brewing. "I didn't mean that to sound like a humble-brag," said Harry. "My magic can actually be pretty annoying sometimes. Too volatile, you know?" Harry's brain caught up with his mouth, and he instantly tried to backtrack. "I mean, not that you'd know, because I'm sure you have far better control of your magic, it's just for me, personally - "

"I know," Snape cut him off. "Your magic will settle. Give it time."

Harry's eyebrows rose of their own accord. "You think, sir?"

"I know." Snape smirked, but it wasn't a nasty smirk, like the ones Harry was used to. It was a smirk that made him feel like he was in on the joke, like there was something only he and Snape knew.

Harry hesitated for a moment, but his curiosity won out over his decorum. "Was your magic like mine, ever?"

Snape smirked again, and again Harry felt as though he and Snape were sharing something, but then Snape said, "Not a discussion for now," and, "Get back to preparing your ingredients."

Harry began to grind his dragon's egg shard in a heavy granite mortar and pestle, but right before he was finished, Snape interrupted him.

"Do you know the sifting charm?" Snape asked.

"I don't think so," said Harry.

"I'll teach it to you. Use it to sift out the larger pieces, then grind those again. When you're finished, measure by volume, not by weight. If you're making multiple batches, it's a good way to cut down on the most expensive ingredient. Not to mention, the finer pieces give the potion a much more palatable texture, and help diffuse the dragon's egg evenly throughout the brew. Repeat after me: cribro subtiliter."

"Cribro subtiliter," repeated Harry, but the pronunciation was slightly off. Snape made him repeat it until his pronunciation was perfect, then he taught Harry the wand movement. Harry shook his wand back and forth, as though he were shaking a sieve.

"Go on, then," said Snape, and Harry levitated the crushed dragon's egg and cast the sifting charm on it. The finest of particles drifted down, as though he were dusting powdered sugar on the top of a tart, but the particles glistened iridescent in the light, baby pinks and blues and greens mingling together. It was beautiful, and Harry held his breath as the last bit of the fine glittering dust fell slowly into the bowl.

"Brilliant," said Harry, and then felt a bit stupid.

Snape scoffed, but then he said, "Indeed," and gestured for Harry to carry on.

--

The next few days of brewing went smoothly, but more impressively, Harry and Snape's working relationship had become remarkably less acidic. Harry couldn't tell exactly when it had happened, but Snape's barbs had stopped being so nasty and started becoming more lighthearted. Actually, when Harry thought of it, Snape hadn't really even been too bad in the beginning. Sure, he had been condescending and rude, but that was usually the case with preeminent Potions Masters. If not for Slughorn, Harry's next choice to study under for his apprenticeship would have been Alan Eckman, a man so notoriously misanthropic that every couple years one of his apprentices would quit in tears, and Harry had been actively prepared to deal with that. So Harry was forced to come to the conclusion that perhaps it wasn't Snape's attitude that Harry had had a problem with, it was Snape himself.

But Harry didn't really have a problem with Snape anymore. It was almost impossible for him to hold a grudge, because even though Snape had terrorized him and his friends throughout their entire time at Hogwarts, the Order never would have been able to win the war without him. And now he's stuck on life support in St. Mungo's, Harry thought. It was a depressing thought, but it made him appreciate Snape even more.

When at the end of the week Harry finally finished the potion, he poured into a flask and inspected it for quality. It was good - really good - and Harry grinned up at Snape as he held the flask up to the light.

"The texture is perfect," said Harry. "It's not chalky at all - like the Dragon's egg was so fine it nearly dissolved into the potion."

"Well," said Snape, "That's what happens when you incorporate ingredients properly."

"True," acknowledged Harry. "This'll be great for big batches. Maybe if I have some extra time this weekend I'll make some more."

"How selfless," Snape said snidely.

Harry barely refrained from rolling his eyes, but he did turn around to give Snape a stare-down. "I mean, whether or not it's selfless isn't really why I do it. I do it because I can, and because I want my godson to grow up in a world where people get help for their illnesses. Where we don't let people just suffer when we can do something about it. So I guess, yes, you could say that it's incredibly selfish of me, because it has a direct effect on me and my family's lives."

Snape didn't say anything, but his lips had twisted up in an odd expression. Harry raised his eyebrows, but Snape still didn't say anything.

"I mean, if you'd like to go along believing that I'm truly the most selfish person on the planet, go right ahead. I'm not trying to convince you anything different. But you won't get me to dislike myself."

"I'm…" Snape started. "I'm trying to reconcile my perceptions…. There's some cognitive dissonance," he said haltingly.

"It looks kind of painful," said Harry.

"Hmph," said Snape.

"Let me know when it happens," Harry said with a small smile. "I already sorted through my opinions about you, and I felt much better afterwards." Harry turned from the portrait and grabbed the vial, whistling cheerily as he left the Potions lab. "Thank you, Professor!" he shouted over his shoulder.

--

Harry didn't know if Snape had really worked through his feelings about Harry, but when they met again on the following Monday, he seemed to be in a bit of a better mood. Not that that meant much when it came to Snape - he was still incredibly dour. But when Harry began gathering ingredients for his next potion, Snape cleared his throat.

"What's up?" asked Harry. "I haven't even started preparing the ingredients yet. I can't have messed up already."

"No, you haven't," said Snape. "I was just going to ask you to move my portrait. Perhaps to the wall across from you."

"Oh," said Harry. He hadn't even thought about it, but he realized that Snape had been forced to peer over Harry's shoulder to catch a glimpse at the potions. "Of course. Gods, I'm sorry - I didn't even think about it." Harry cancelled the sticking charm and carried Snape's portrait to the wall on the other side of his workbench.

"Is this alright?" he asked, as he lifted the portrait onto the wall.

"Fine," said Snape, and Harry was startled by the proximity. His gaze snapped to the portrait, and he nearly dropped it. He realized that if Snape were here in person, they would be standing only inches apart. From this distance, He could see the flecks of amber in Snape's eyes, he could see each individual eyelash, he could see the cupid's bow of his lips. Lips which began to curl into a sneer.

"Sorry," Harry said, flustered. "I just didn't expect you to be so close, I guess."

"Just put the sticking charm on," Snape said tersely. Feeling very thick, Harry obeyed and backed off awkwardly, bumping into the work table.

"Sorry," Harry said again, voice weirdly high. He began to prepare his ingredients then, but he had to admit the feeling of being watched from just across the table was different from when Snape was behind him. It was.. Unsettling? No, that wasn't quite the right word.

It made him hyperconscious of Snape's presence. It made him slightly anxious, yes, but somehow it felt….good. Harry liked having Snape's eyes on him, he liked knowing that Snape was watching. He wondered what he looked like from Snape's point of view. He liked it when he would look up every once in a while and see Snape's serious, sharp gaze on him. Sometimes his eyes would be on the cauldron, the ingredients, his hands. But sometimes Snape would be watching his face. Harry wasn't sure why. When he looked up, Snape's eyes were on his, and Snape didn't look away when Harry made eye contact. He kept looking at Harry, and it felt like Snape's eyes were burning pits into his soul. Harry swallowed slowly, but still didn't break eye contact. It felt like a challenge, somehow, but Harry couldn't figure out how to win it.

So Harry just looked back down at his potion and thought about Snape's eyes on him and wondered when it had become not such a bad thing, after all.

"Sir?" he asked, during one of the simmering stages when all he had to do was stir counterclockwise until the potion turned the right color. Harry looked up, and Snape's eyes were on his face again. It felt like a weighted blanket, and Harry licked his lips. "I was wondering - can you make potions? Or, can portraits even make potions?"

A crease deepened between Snape's eyebrows, and Harry hastened to add, "I'm sorry if that's intrusive, or something. You don't have to answer."

Snape shook his head. "It's a two-pronged question. Yes, I can brew. No, portraits cannot brew."

"I don't think I understand, sir," said Harry slowly.

"I can brew. I've made potions successfully with the limited ingredients I've come across. But none of the other portraits are able to brew - they're not even able to do lasting magic. When I first woke up in my frame, I asked the portrait of Aldous Hartford about it, but he wasn't able to brew, despite being a master during his life. Something about the magic contained in a portrait not being enough for reactive magic. It obviously wasn't relevant to my situation."

"That's….kind of weird," said Harry. "But good, I suppose, that you're able to."

"Why?" Snape asked, sneer curling on the left side of his face. "So I can make a boils cure over and over again with the four ingredients the painter left me in my cabinet? That might be stimulating for you, Potter, but it's not enough for a real master."

"Right, well," said Harry, trying not to take offense. "What I was going to say - why I asked the question - was because I noticed that there were a lot of magical ingredients in one of the paintings in my room, and I wanted to let you know. That you can use them. I mean that, if you want to, I'll lead you there and show you which painting it is."

Harry wasn't sure exactly what he expected from Snape, but a vicious scowl certainly wasn't it. "Okay, never mind, then," he said, drawing it out hesitantly.

Snape continued to scowl at him, and what the fuck was it with Snape always just looking at him, not saying anything. The silence was oppressive, and Harry had to physically restrain himself from picking at a scab. Harry wanted him to just say something, so that he'd stop feeling so bloody uncomfortable.

"I think it's time to put the oleander in," Harry said to break the tension, even though he knew the potion wasn't ready for the oleander.

"Not unless you want to fail out of your apprenticeship," said Snape, which was a rather rude way of saying, "it's not ready yet," but at least it was something. Harry looked down at his potion and continued to stir.

As it neared evening, Harry was feeling quite confident about the latest potion - he'd be done by Wednesday at the latest, and most of the rest of the brewing required constant stirring and simmering. The reason why this potion was considered so difficult was that the spell most wizards cast on their stirring rods tended to get erratic, and took a lot out of one's core when it was used nonstop for hours. Similarly, if a wizard chose to go the manual route, the wizard's arm would get tired and the rhythm would falter. Harry had never had much trouble with maintaining the animation spell on the stirring rod, so he was usually relatively free to let his mind wander provided that his magic could maintain its focus on the task at hand.

"I think I'll be doing some research for my lost potion tomorrow," said Harry, looking up at Snape's portrait. "So it might be a bit boring for you. You don't have to come if you don't want to," he said.

Snape's lips twitched down in a frown. Harry couldn't fathom the reason for it, but he almost looked… disappointed. Did Snape actually want to hang around Harry as he read faded old tomes?

"I mean, you don't have to," said Harry, "Because I know you're probably busy, but I'll definitely still be working on my potion throughout the day and I know I'll probably need some help for it. Maybe you could bring work to do while the potion is simmering?"

Snape's expression didn't change at all, but he sighed and said, "If I can spare any time for you, I will attempt to prevent you from blowing up the cauldron. But I make no promises."

"Sure, thanks," said Harry. Snape nodded slightly. Had Harry actually read that situation right? Perhaps Snape was just worried that Harry would ruin the potion and they'd have to start all over again. But then again, Snape couldn't really care less about Harry's success. Which meant that Snape… actually did want company?

It was such an unfathomable thought. Snape looked as grumpy as ever, as though he'd rather be anywhere but here. But that couldn't be the case, because Harry had given Snape an out and Snape hadn't wanted to take it. Harry wondered why Snape didn't seek company in the other portraits, but he thought it would probably be unconscionably rude to ask.

--

Snape did show up the next day at around noon, carrying an old book with him.

"Hello, sir," said Harry. "Thank you for coming. I've just added the shaved bicorn fang. I have another hour of stirring before the black kelp."

"Fine," Snape said shortly. He opened his book to a seemingly random page in the middle and pulled out parchment and a quill. Harry supposed that was a dismissal, so he turned back to his own reading.

He was reading again about Panacea. This book focused more on the brewing techniques employed - or really, lack thereof. The author, whose name was wholly unpronounceable, described how the main rule about potions similar to Panacea was that there were no rules. Of course, if you messed up, the potion wouldn't work. But the author emphasized how the heart, soul, and magic were more important than the mind for brews like Panacea.

Apparently, the brewing technique, which went by a variety of names from "free brewing" to "animascente," involved reading the ingredients with magic, as though they were tarot cards, and throwing them in willy-nilly. It sounded ridiculous the way the author phrased it, but Harry had to admit that his process when creating his own potions wasn't incredibly dissimilar. Harry tended to gather several different groups of ingredients: ingredients he believed would be relevant for the goal, binding agents, reactive agents, and stabilizing agents. And then, Harry would put in the ingredients he felt necessary. If one binder felt better, or one stabilizer felt better, Harry would put in whatever he thought felt best. It probably wasn't the best method for potions creation, but it was what the twins had taught him, and what he had taken to quickly. Harry wondered if all potioneers created their potions that way, because he couldn't imagine Snape standing around a cauldron, feeling up ingredients and throwing up shields every time the potion reacted badly.

"Professor?" asked Harry. "Do you know much about free brewing? It's also called - "

"Uninhibited Brew, animascente; yes I know about it," Snape interrupted, looking up from his book. He strangely didn't look too annoyed at the interruption. "I don't personally employ it. It's chaotic, and very imprecise. And it cannot be learned; you either have it or you do not. Some brewers use it for new creations - that is, if they're starting from scratch. In that context, it can get you far, but you will never be able to perfect a brew with animascente. That requires precision and specific knowledge of how each ingredient reacts. I've spent most of my academic career perfecting recipes which were originally conceived with animascente."

"I think I've been brewing like that - with animascente - but I never really had a term for it before. This book didn't explain it well; they made it sound like you just throw in ingredients randomly. But most of the time, when I'm creating a potion, I'll have a bunch of ingredients I think would work well, and then I'll just feel around for the right one. It's not really feeling around though, because it's not random. Like, I'll get a flash from my magic or my subconscious that tells me I should try putting that ingredient in. It doesn't always work, of course, but my process from then on is to try to feel for the ingredients that don't fit, and omit them. I didn't know what it was called, but I guess I just assumed that was how everyone created potions."

"Hmm," said Snape. "Well, it's a rare skill. I'd be tempted to tell you not to employ animascente, but I suppose your work has been good enough for the Ministry."

"How do you create potions?" asked Harry, trying to conceal a small smile. Snape had practically given him a compliment. In Snape's language, it felt like the highest praise.

"As I said before, if you were listening, my work mainly revolves - revolved - around fixing and perfecting potions. In which case, I studied the ingredients in-depth. You'd need to learn arithmancy and muggle chemistry at the bare minimum in order to do the calculations."

"Right," said Harry. "I don't think that's my strength. But I would want to look into that for further study. As it is right now, my potions are effective and they do the job well, but there are usually a couple unintended side-effects."

"No surprise, given that you've hardly tried to refine them at all," said Snape, but he didn't say it nastily.

"I guess," Harry responded. "What are you reading?"

Snape didn't answer aloud, but he held his book up to the frame. "Herbal Potions," Harry read aloud. Below that it read Cruelty-free Potions for the Animal Lover.

"Interesting," said Harry, even though it sounded like a book of the most boring potions in existence. Nearly all potions that Harry found interesting involved some form of animal parts - they were the ones that reacted in strange, unpredictable, exciting ways. "Why are you reading it?"

"As we spoke about earlier, I am able to brew, but I lack ingredients. I'm hardly going to go bicorn-hunting in the paintings. If I'm going to attempt to brew anything of worth, I'll need to use the plants in your painting. And I'd like to be able to use them to any effect."

"So you do want to come gather ingredients in my chambers?" asked Harry. "I mean, in the painting. The painting that's in my chambers."

"I was considering it," said Snape, smirking. "Have you changed your mind?"

"No! Of course not. I was just surprised, because you didn't seem very enthusiastic about the idea earlier."

"I wouldn't want to make you….uncomfortable," said Snape, in a weird tone of voice. It was slightly off, somehow. Harry had never heard Snape speak like that before, but it did weird things to his stomach, making it feel weightless and heavy all at once.

"Why would it make me uncomfortable?" asked Harry. Was his voice weird too? It sounded a little weird. Snape's eyes were very sharp, and as his smirk grew even wider into something predatory, Harry felt his stomach jump again.

"Because I would be in your personal space. In your bedchambers, to be precise. Isn't that private?" Snape said. His tone was almost teasing, Harry thought. It still made Harry feel odd.

"It's okay. I don't mind you in my bedchambers," said Harry. Did something sound wrong with that sentence? Harry was too distracted by the look in Snape's eyes to think about it.

"You wouldn't mind?" asked Snape.

"No, I wouldn't mind. I'm offering it," said Harry, insides flipping wildly. He could feel a flush on his cheeks - he couldn't remember when that had happened, but it was rapidly creeping towards his hairline. Though he couldn't figure out why, he felt hot and flustered.

"Focus," said Snape, dark eyes flicking over to the potion.

"What?" asked Harry.

"Focus," Snape repeated. Harry looked at the potion. It was violet, as it should be, and the stirring rod was - oh Godric, the stirring rod was going about a hundred miles a minute. It had actually sloshed some of the potion over the side of the cauldron. Harry closed his eyes and tried to get a grip on his magic, willing it to come down from its frenzy. When he opened his eyes, the stirring rod was back to its sedate pace of earlier, and Snape was looking at Harry with an oddly amused expression, as though Snape knew something that Harry didn't. Harry frowned. He didn't like feeling out of the loop, and right now he was feeling incredibly out of the loop.

"That was weird," said Harry. "That's never happened to me before. I mean, sometimes if I'm really bored it will slow down, but I've never had it do… whatever that was."

"Hmm," said Snape. Harry wondered if he would ever be able to understand what that sound meant.

"Do you know what it was?" Harry asked. He held his breath waiting for the response.

"It's your magic: your emotions," said Snape. "You'd know better than I."

"You'd think that, right?" joked Harry, huffing out an awkward laugh. "I don't know."

Harry looked directly at Snape now. He didn't realize he had been averting eye contact since he calmed his magic, but now looking him in the eye brought back a wave of those odd emotions. Snape was… it was weird. He looked weird, with his high black collar and his cuffs so tight around his long forearms. Didn't it get restrictive? Didn't Snape want to unbutton the sleeves and roll them up, unbutton the collar and push the robes aside so that he could feel the air hit his neck, drift over his collarbones? Harry could hear the sloshing of the stirring rod as it picked up its pace, and his magic felt fervent again, so he closed his eyes to get a grip on it. When he felt calm again, he averted his eyes to the cauldron.

"It's ready for the black kelp," said Snape. "What with all that extra stirring," he added.

"Right." Harry shook his head, as though he were trying to dislodge whatever had come over him to make him feel so odd. "Let me know when you want to come collect ingredients. I'm going to add the kelp now."

--

The rest of the week progressed rather smoothly, in Harry's opinion. Snape had pretty much taken over Slughorn's duties as Harry's Potions Master, and Harry would only see Slughorn once a week to submit his potions. It was funny, if he had known that it would turn out like this, he'd have been horrified. But actually, Severus was an amazing Potions Master, probably even better than Slughorn would've been.

He had finished brewing on Wednesday, and spent Thursday and Friday in companionable silence with Snape. Occasionally, Harry would ask Snape a question, and Snape would respond in a surprisingly un-condescending manner. Still, his manner was different now than it had been before. It still made Harry overheat. Harry had taken to jiggling his leg every time Snape would begin talking in those low, sibilant tones, so that he wouldn't think too hard about whatever the hell was going on with his emotions. Still, Harry had seen Snape's eyes narrow at his bouncing leg, so he'd probably have to find another distraction tactic before Snape got too fed up with him.

Harry had a relatively calm weekend. He and Neville met Ron and Hermione in the Three Broomsticks. Ron spent the night doing impressions of Snape that had all of them in stitches - though Harry was a bit guilty about it, and told Ron to knock it off halfway through. Neville and Ron easily outdrank Harry and Hermione, but when Hermione and Ron stumbled out of the pub, Harry could see that Hermione was supporting most of his weight. Neville, by comparison, was still going strong, and on their return to the castle, he stole Harry's hat and ran up through the gates. Laughing, Harry followed him, and when they got up to the warmth of the castle, they were both out of breath and in good spirits. Bidding Neville goodnight when they got to their floor, Harry sighed contentedly. It had been a good night. He was happy. The shepherd flirted with him outrageously, but let Harry into his room without too much ado.

The next morning, he was distinctly not happy. A quick tempus showed that it was 6 o'clock in the morning. His hangover was pounding something fierce, and as he searched through his potions stash he was forced to conclude that he had run out of hangover cures. Apparently he had fallen into bed fully clothed and at some point in the night decided it would be a good idea to strip off to the buff, so he grabbed the pile of discarded clothes from last night off the ground, pulled them on, and dragged himself to the Potions lab. Fifteen minutes in and out, and he'd be better. He began to prepare his ingredients, definitely far more haphazardly than usual, and started slicing - well, mushing - his marshmallow root. Something flickered at the edge of his consciousness, but he ignored it and continued to prepare the rest of his ingredients. When he had them laid out on the board, he looked up and let out a very undignified, high-pitched scream.

Professor Snape looked down on him from his portrait, face twisted in a disdainful moue.

"Shit, sorry," said Harry. "I mean, whoops, sorry. You scared me; I didn't see you there."

"I could tell," said Snape caustically. "Fun night, then? Just get back?"

"Uhhh," said Harry. "I'm sorry, I really can't process any words right now. Can we please talk in a couple minutes when I've finished this?"

Snape sniffed, but Harry really didn't have the effort to talk. He threw his marshmallow root into the cauldron, holding back the urge to vomit at the smell. He grabbed the wheat chaff, turning his face away from the cauldron as he put it in. God, why did hangover potions have to smell so horrible? The ingredients all smelled fine on their own, but somehow when they hit the cauldron they made the most foul stench. Harry grabbed the agave next.

"No," said Snape.

"What?"

"Figure it out," he snapped.

"Please can you just tell me?" Harry nearly begged. He wasn't in the mood for a lesson right now. "I promise I will not be able to figure it out. I think I'm still drunk."

"Bully for you," spat Snape. "That's aloe, not agave."

Snape was right, of course, and Harry thanked him and hurried through slicing up some agave. Snape glared at him as he completed the potion. Harry had previously thought it was kind of nice, if not unnerving, to have Snape's eyes on him, but now he would give anything not to be the center of Snape's attention. Snape looked about ready to murder him, though Harry couldn't really understand why.

Harry finished the potion and didn't even wait for it to cool down before imbibing. As soon as the potion hit the back of his throat, he regretted it, for the flavor was even worse when it was hot. Harry bent over, desperately trying to keep himself from throwing up the potion. Breathing through his nose very carefully, Harry swallowed, and finally, there was sweet relief. He sighed and stood back up.

Snape looked supremely angry. Eyebrows furrowed so deeply they nearly touched, lips pulled thin in anger.

"What did you want to talk about?" asked Harry wearily.

"You're a disgrace," snapped Snape.

"Well, that's a little harsh," said Harry. "All I did was go out with my friends to a pub. It was a Saturday night. I mean, I'd say it's pretty fucking normal behavior," Harry said indignantly.

"It's the principle," spat Snape.

"Are you for real?" Harry shouted incredulously. "The principle of what? What have I even done? I went to a pub with friends. Are you in a bad mood because you never had friends? Sorry that I'm not a miserable bastard like you, but I would like to have some form of social life."

Harry instantly knew he had gone too far. He still had no idea why Snape was being so tetchy about the whole thing, but it was a low blow.

"Fuck you," said Snape, tone entirely devoid of emotion. His face had closed off too. "You have no idea - no, you know what? You can have your fun night, go off and fuck a barwench and stumble through your walk of shame into the castle stinking drunk. Enjoy it while it lasts, because soon you're going to look in the mirror and see a burnt-out, washed-up, useless old fool."

"For having friends?" shouted Harry. "For having a social life? Projecting much, Snape? Just when we were starting to get along, just when I started to like you, you've made me remember why I hated you so much. Thanks for your sacrifice, but you still have a shit personality."

"I could not care less what you think of me," Snape said. He stomped out of the painting.

Harry cleaned up his station furiously. If he and Snape had had this disagreement earlier, it wouldn't have meant so much to him. But as it was, Snape's words had hurt him. He finally felt as though he and Snape were making some progress. And it had felt good to have the Potions Master's regard for a while. Harry figured it was going to be a long while - if ever - before he was going to have that again.

Monday brought with it the First of October. Harry tried to be cheerful on his way to the lab. Floating jack o'lanterns decorated the hallways, grinning and cackling and sometimes even floating after an unsuspecting student. As Harry crossed a corridor, he caught sight of Peeves assaulting a group of young Gryffindors with a gigantic cauldron of pumpkin guts. It was funny, but it was hard to laugh when he knew that he may have just irreparably damaged his relationship with Snape. He was sure that Snape wouldn't be in the lab this morning.

Harry was proven right when Snape didn't set foot in the lab the entire day. As the week went on, Harry found himself hoping that Snape would miraculously show up and start giving him tips. He completed his potion on Friday, however, with no sight of Snape.

Slughorn accepted the potion, which did lift Harry's spirits slightly. Slughorn said that it was the perfect texture and color, but that the acidity was very slightly off. Still, he said that it was good enough to be considered masters-level work.

It did make Harry feel good that he had completed a masters potion with no help from Snape. Well, with no direct help from Snape. He had learned a lot in the three weeks Snape had been instructing him. Still, it was disappointing that the potion wasn't perfect, but Harry outright refused to go running to Snape, even if he knew he would be able to help. Harry didn't need his help.

For some reason, Harry expected that Snape would come back the next Monday. But no, the lab remained free of his sour presence. He worked his way through the anti-paralysis potion carefully, trying to remember and apply every piece of advice that Snape had given him. On Tuesday, he started to think that there was something wrong with the potion - it was bubbling too violently, despite the fact that Harry had turned the flame down far lower than the recipe called. He wished Snape were there.

Slughorn did not accept this potion. He shook his head regretfully. "I can't really tell if it's undercooked or overcooked, Harry, but it's certainly something," he said.

Harry wasn't surprised by how crushing this defeat felt. He hadn't failed a potion since the first week of his apprenticeship, and here he was over a month in, apparently making significant enough mistakes that the potion was deemed a failure. He felt a rush of anger rise in his gut - who did Snape think he was, insulting Harry when he had done nothing wrong? Harry was sure as shit that he didn't deserve that treatment. He told himself that he really didn't care whether Snape came to help him, because he'd rather get along with a bit of extra trouble if it meant he didn't have to deal with Snape's horrid personality. It didn't matter that Snape hadn't been so horrid in the weeks leading up to the fight, because he had shown his true colors then.

Harry failed the potion again the next week. The first time he had failed a potion twice in a row. He refused to ask Snape for help. Harry wasn't in the wrong.

The next Monday, Harry set up his workspace exceedingly carefully, the way he thought Sna - Slughorn might. He chopped his ingredients to the exact specifications. He began adding his ingredients at the exact time indicated by the recipe, to the second. He reached to add his mandrake leaf.

"No," said an oily voice above him. Harry looked up. Snape looked back at him with inscrutable eyes.

"The recipe says to add it now," responded Harry tersely.

"The recipe is incorrect. You need to wait until it's teal, not cyan."

"Well then why would the recipe say, "Add when cyan," then?" asked Harry.

"Because it was written in the 1400s when there was little distinction between the colors and nobody ever bothered to change the recipe," responded Snape.

"How does anyone even use this recipe, if the colors are completely wrong?" asked Harry, frustrated beyond measure.

"If you want to be a Master, you need to be looking for the right stage not only with your eyes, but with your magic as well. That’s why we assign it to apprentices. Reach for the potion with your magic. Can't you feel it's not ready yet?"

Harry extended his magic gently towards the potion. Snape was correct, the potion felt strangely lacking in some way. Harry had attributed that to the fact that the potion didn't have very many ingredients in it at this stage, but when he studied it further, he did come to the conclusion that it simply needed longer at this stage. Harry sighed.

"Decided to come back, then?" asked Harry. It came out more bitter than he intended.

Snape hummed impassively. Harry had forgotten how much he missed that sound. Harry closed his eyes and kept his magic extended towards the cauldron. When it finally felt ready – as if it was humming for the next ingredient, Harry opened his eyes. And what do you know, the potion was teal. Harry stirred in the boomslang venom and waited for the next stage. Harry and Snape worked in relative silence for the rest of the day - Harry only breaking it when he wanted confirmation that the potion was ready for his next ingredient.

By the end of the week, Harry and Snape were nearly back to where they had started off. Harry didn't want to forget how incredibly mean Snape had been, but every time Snape would say something not mean, Harry would get that weird feeling in the pit of his stomach again.

When the last two stages came, Harry felt confident enough to sense when he should put the final ingredients in without confirmation with Snape. The penultimate stage came far before the recipe indicated, and the last stage came slightly later. When Harry stirred the last ingredient in, he permitted himself to look up at Snape.

Snape gazed down from the portrait, one eyebrow arched high. Something glittered in his eyes - something Harry couldn't understand.

"Good," said Snape. That was it. Just, "Good," and it was enough for Harry's stomach to flop over inside him, to make his knees weaken slightly. He grabbed the lab table for support.

"Thanks," said Harry weakly. He cleared his throat. "Guess I'll bottle this up for Slughorn, then."

"You should get it off the heat, first," Snape remarked mildly. Harry felt a blush climb its way up his neck.

"Yeah, of course." Harry drew his wand to stop the flames. Instead of going out nice and calmly, the flames disappeared with a noise like they were being sucked into a vacuum, and the burner shuddered.

"Shit, did I break it?" asked Harry. He pulled the cauldron off the burner and set it to cool on the trivet. When he pointed his wand back at the burner and urged the flames to come to life, they roared up nearly a foot in the air before calming back down.

"Evidently not. But you might want to be more careful with where you stand in the future," Snape said, nodding his head towards Harry's hands. One of Harry's sleeves was slightly singed. Harry busied himself with preparing the potion into vials, labelling them and signing his name on the one for Slughorn.

"Thanks for your help," said Harry when he was done.

Snape merely nodded.

--

Amanda, Neville's girlfriend, was coming to Hogwarts this week. Neville stopped Harry in the hallway on his way back from Slughorn's office to invite him to join them at the Three Broomsticks on Saturday night. Harry agreed enthusiastically.

Amanda turned out to be one of the most interesting mixes of Gryffindor and Ravenclaw that Harry had ever met. Almost like the anti-Hermione, she was brash and reckless, but seemingly obsessed with gathering knowledge for the sheer sake of it. She had a thick Australian accent, but every so often she would throw in a word of Mandarin. "I'm Chinese-Australian," she explained. "My parents moved to Australia when my mum got pregnant with my younger sister."

Neville and Amanda were… well, ridiculously cute, thought Harry. It wasn't one of those in-your-face, Won-Won and Lav-Lav types of relationships. It was just so obvious that they respected each other and cared for each other deeply. And she was good for his self-confidence. She was quick to laugh, loudly and freely, and seemed to relish each one of Neville's little dad jokes. Harry saw easily how delighted it made Neville.

"My dad loves Nev," Amanda said, grinning widely. "He's hated all my past boyfriends, but obviously Nev is different. We had to internationally portkey all the way over to them in Melbourne. My sisters love him too, but they're not getting their hands on him," she laughed uproariously. "Too bad your nan hates me," she remarked to Neville, "because I'm not going anywhere anytime soon."

Neville tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ears - there were several stray pieces, actually, but Harry suspected Neville chose the one behind her ears so that he could caress her cheek as he drew his hand away.

Amanda and Neville were staying in a room at the Three Broomsticks for Amanda's visit, so they retired upstairs when the night got late. Harry made his way back to the castle by himself, letting the cool air wash across his body. He wasn't very drunk, just tipsy, but the crispness still felt wonderful. He suspected it was going to snow in a few weeks, though he didn't know if it would start sticking until December.

The shepherd was in good spirits when Harry got back. Apparently, he had been over at the portrait of Neville's Arthurian knight, and he began describing their encounter in lurid detail. When the shepherd began to describe one of the veins on the knight's member, Harry interrupted him.

"Shepherd," Harry started, but it felt weird to call him that. "What even is your name?" he asked. "I just realized I've been calling you "the shepherd" this entire time."

The shepherd blinked confusedly, no doubt still on his earlier train of thought. "I don't have a name, silly," he said. "I'm not a portrait, just a painting. I'm not based off of anyone - I'm original; one-of-a-kind."

"What do you want me to call you?" asked Harry.

"I'm the shepherd," he said, brow still furrowed in confusion.

"Right, but like, do you want me to call you something other than the shepherd?"

"No - what? That's what I am. The shepherd." he said. "Harry, you're confusing. I must admit, I'm quite sore, but if you did want to fool around, I'm sure I could swing it, just for you."

Harry laughed. "Seriously, is sex all you think about?"

"Pretty much," the shepherd shrugged. "My painter was a bit of a perv. But his dick, however, oh Merlin -"

"Thanks, shepherd, but I think I'm just going to go to bed now," Harry interrupted quickly, tapping on the wall. The shepherd sighed and let Harry into his chambers with bad grace.

--

Monday morning came with a feeling of unease for Harry. Yes, he and Snape had gotten back to some sense of normalcy, but there was something volatile lurking beneath the surface of their relationship, and Harry was hesitant to push anything.

When Harry got to the lab, Snape was already there in his portrait doing some reading.

"Good morning," said Harry.

Snape nodded. "Have a good weekend?" he asked.

Harry nodded unsurely. After all, it had been Harry's weekend activities which had caused Snape's earlier outburst. "I met Neville's girlfriend," he said cautiously. "We had dinner at the Sticks together."

"Double date?" asked Snape. His tone was faux-friendly, like he was trying his best to be amicable but was not succeeding very much.

"Nope," said Harry. "Just the three of us. Why do you ask?"

Snape shrugged, and the movement looked weird on him. Too forced. Harry gave him an odd look, which Snape countered with an impassive one.

"Okay, then," said Harry. "Can we brew?"

They spent the morning as usual, Harry brewing and Snape correcting. Harry was pleased that the corrections were coming far less frequently than they had at the beginning of his apprenticeship. And when Harry peeled the alicantinite beans before placing them in, Snape gave a nod of approval and the faintest glimmer of a smile. It was ridiculous how the smallest little sliver of approval made Harry feel so good.

When Harry took his lunch break, Snape brought out the book on herbal potions again.

"Potter," Snape said when Harry was just starting in on his treacle tart. "I was wondering if I could come collect ingredients this evening? Perhaps after brewing?"

Harry nodded and swallowed his bite. "Of course," he said. "When we finish up, just follow me through the paintings and I'll lead you to my chambers."

Harry wondered if it was going to be awkward to have Snape in his chambers. As Snape had said a couple weeks ago, there was something intimate about letting someone into your bedroom. Harry wondered if Snape was going to judge the fact that he hadn't made his bed this morning - or any morning, but Snape didn't need to know that - or scoff at the Gryffindor color scheme and furniture. Half of him did expect Snape to ridicule his rooms, but the other half thought that Snape wasn't really the type of person to do that after Harry had extended his hospitality.

They finished up their brewing early on in the afternoon, so that Snape would have ample time in the forest scene while the sun was still up. Harry led him back through the corridors, trying not to look too closely at Snape's figure. It was confusing, the way that the perspective jumped from scene to scene, making him closer in some paintings and farther away in others.

"Is that as disorienting as it looks?" asked Harry. "The skipping between paintings, that is?"

"It was at first," said Snape. "None of the other portraits ever seemed to have a problem with it, though, so I had to learn to ignore it on my own."

"What does it feel like?" asked Harry.

"I can't describe it," Snape responded. "Die and become a painting yourself and maybe you'll understand."

"Not planning on that anytime soon," said Harry lightly. "And you're not dead yet, remember? We're coming up on it now. Just so you know, my guard painting is a bit flirty. Don't pay him too much mind."

Snape's brows furrowed, but he made his way into the shepherd's field scene. The shepherd was, as usual, in a state of dishabille. His hair was loose and curly, and his trousers were nowhere to be seen. Harry averted his eyes as the shepherd uncrossed and recrossed his legs.

"What do we have here," the shepherd gasped. "Oh Harry, is he for me? God, he's hot as hell. What's your name, handsome?"

"Potions Master Snape," Snape replied stiffly, a look of alarm crossing his face. Harry stifled a laugh.

"How about I just call you Master, then?" the shepherd responded, fluttering his eyelashes. Snape seemed uncomfortable as anything, which Harry found supremely hilarious, but he took pity on Snape when the shepherd began unbuttoning his shirt. Harry wasn't sure if the shepherd had any undergarments on and he knew that the shirt might be the only barrier separating him from full nudity.

"Shepherd, would you please let us in?" asked Harry, "We need to get in there before the light's gone."

"Oh, pish," snorted the shepherd. "You just want him all to yourself. Well, I can't blame you. Do be sure to tell me all the details afterwards. Ta!"

"Great, thanks, yeah," Harry muttered as the door swung open. He was relatively used to the Shepherd's inappropriate comments, but something about the situation was making him feel hot. Something about the shepherd assuming that Harry and Snape were going to….do something in here. It was making Harry feel tingly.

"Just ignore him," said Harry when Snape followed him into his quarters. "He's always like that; it doesn't mean anything."

Snape raised an eyebrow, which made Harry feel even more uncomfortably hot and tingly, so he just led Snape into the bedchambers and directed him towards the forest.

"I'll just leave you to it, then," said Harry. Snape waved a hand over his shoulder, already surveying the underbrush. Harry backed awkwardly out of the room - and wasn't odd that he felt awkward in his own room? - and went to go sit in the drawing room. He sank into the couch, and contemplated taking a nap. He closed his eyes, but gave up after a couple minutes with a frustrated huff. He was too tense. No, that wasn't it at all, because he wasn't really tense. It was just that his heart rate was elevated, goodness knows why. He wasn't uncomfortable with Snape in his room - he trusted him to be respectful to Harry's home, and even then, Snape couldn't do any damage from within a portrait. What was he going to do, burn down the painted forest?

Harry decided that if he wasn't going to be able to nap, he might as well do some work. It was probably for the best, anyway - Hermione was always going on about how naps messed up your sleep schedule. Harry got to work slogging his way through a book he had special ordered from the library of the European Magical Institution. It was on archaic healing potions, and Harry was hoping there'd be something of worth on Panacea. It reiterated the same points he had already read, but it did mention how East Asian cultures had a similar universal cure, 总药 or Zong Yao, believed by academics to be a variation of Panacea. Or perhaps Panacea was a variation of Zong Yao. Zong Yao, too, was made through animascente, though the animascente described for the brewing of both was far looser than anything Harry would feel comfortable with. The only significant difference was that Zong Yao required ginseng. Ginseng in any form: shredded, mashed, diced, cubed; all that mattered was that it was in the potion. Harry was just pondering his next steps of research into Zong Yao when Snape made his way back into a painting in the drawing room.

"Thank you," said Snape. It didn't even look like it was too difficult to say. Harry supposed that was marked progress.

"Where is it all?" Harry asked. "The ingredients?"

"I've shrunk them," said Snape. "Surely you didn't expect me to carry back three bushels of ferns unshrunk."

"Oh," said Harry. "Yeah, I guess I just… haven't seen portraits doing magic, really. I didn't know you could."

"I can," said Snape. "I don't think the others can do much."

"That's weird, though," said Harry. "That you can and they can't. Same with the potions thing. Why are you different?"

"I don't care," Snape responded curtly. "And I'd like to be on my way now, seeing as I've already sunk half a foot into the mud."

It was true, Snape had sunk a couple inches into the moor scene. Harry tried not to snicker as Snape yanked a foot out and it pulled free with a loud squelch. He must not have succeeded in remaining entirely silent, because Snape shot him a glare on his way out. There wasn't any heat in it, though, so Harry didn't worry too much.

Harry spent a bit more time on his research, then grudgingly roused himself from the comfortable nest he had made within his couch cushions to go get dinner. On his way out, however, the shepherd stopped him.

"Harry, oh Merlin, wherever did you find that man?" he asked.

"Uhh… He's my Potions Master, kind of?" responded Harry cautiously.

"Well now I know why you spend so much time on all that dull nonsense," the shepherd fanned himself. "He's disgustingly hot."

"You think everyone's hot," Harry responded uncomfortably. "It's kind of your thing."

"Aye, I may be a bit of a strumpet, but that doesn't mean I can't tell who's hot and who's not. And that man? Hot. So very hot. God, did you see his eyes? They were practically eating me from the inside out. I couldn't look away."

Harry shrugged, considering. He guessed that Snape did kind of have that look, as though he was… eating you from the inside out.

"And his body, ugh, he's built like royalty. All long and limber. I bet his organ matches; I bet it's huge and long and red at the tip and -"

"Okay, shepherd, two things," interrupted Harry. "One: please never speak to me about Snape's dick again. And two: please never, ever refer to it as an organ. That just sounds bloody wrong."

"Okay, fine," said the shepherd, "I'll hush up in a second, but you cannot tell me that the man doesn't exude raw sex."

"Yes, I can!" said Harry, and hurried off to the kitchens before the shepherd could continue the conversation. He made his way through the halls, trying very desperately not to think about Snape’s dick. Of course, that made him think of other parts of Snape, like his eyes and his fingers and – well, it didn’t matter, anyway, because Snape wasn’t hot. This was a very well-known objective fact. Harry tried to put the whole conversation behind him.

However, when they were brewing the next day, Harry’s mind did wander. Snape wasn’t hot, objectively speaking. He just wasn’t. He had sallow skin that looked almost grey in the low light of the Potions lab, and its colorlessness was compounded further by the fact that he had a red nose, so his whole face looked pallid except for the splotch of color right in the center. And sometimes Snape’s ears would go red as well, though there seemed to be no reason for it. His complexion was terrible, but, a little voice said, it was kind of cute that his nose was so red. It made it look as if he had been perpetually out for a walk in the snow.

And he was thin and scraggly, all hard angles. Nothing soft. Harry bet his arse was flat as a chopping board and his ribs looked like a xylophone. Not that Harry was thinking about Snape’s naked body, of course. Just that he was probably skeletal under those great robes of his: so thin that, even being a couple inches taller than Harry, Harry would probably easily be able to pick him up and throw him around. Not that Snape would ever let him. And not that Harry wanted to.

“Focus,” said Snape, and Harry snapped back to attention. He extended his magic towards the cauldron and felt that it was ready for the next step. When he had finished it and set the potion to simmer, he looked up at Snape.

Snape was apparently already making good use of the plants he had collected yesterday. He had a cauldron out and was combining the plants with alarming speed. Harry watched his hands as he diced some rhubarb, almost too quick to follow with the human eye. He picked the rhubarb up onto his knife and slid it into the cauldron gently.

“What are you doing?” Harry asked. Snape had already started chopping something else, something green that Harry couldn’t identify by eye.

“Trying to see if I can replicate the effects of thestral hair with plants,” Snape answered, not looking up from his cutting board. “We’ll see how successful it is. I don’t expect it to work on the first go.”

Harry nodded, impressed. Substitutions were common, though usually the substituted ingredient was relatively similar to the original. Unicorn hair, for example, to replace thestral hair. Harry had never heard of replacing thestral hair with an herbal concoction. Harry would never attempt something like that in a million years. He wouldn’t even have any idea where to start.

But here Snape was, calmly chopping his ingredients and attempting to do the impossible. Harry watched his fingers again. They were dangerous hands, Harry knew that for a fact, and there were several little silver scars that marred the skin there. One scar went all the way around the tip of his middle finger, and Harry assumed that it had somehow been severed and reattached. But for all their danger, there was something strangely dichotomous about his hands. Because, yes, they were the hands of a killer, and they were wielding a knife that could cut clean through a human neck with little effort. But they were also slender and pale and rather pretty. Ginny had told Harry once that he had nice hands, but Harry’s looked like those of a caveman compared to Snape’s. Harry’s hands were covered in veins and his fingers were thick and blunt. Snape’s, on the other hand, were long and slim and tapered. His index finger was probably the width of Harry’s pinky. His fingernails, long and sharp, were unceasingly stained with potions ingredients. Harry had gone through a phase where he had worn nail varnish to cover up the stains, but he had quickly realized that it could interfere with the brewing.

That was the only part of their fingers that looked alike. The purple-blue staining of their fingertips. What would it look like if they were to lace their fingers together?

Harry returned to his brewing, trying not to think too hard about what Snape was doing. But even as Harry kept his eyes locked on his own work, he could hear the rhythmic chop-chop-chop of Snape’s knife on the board.

The afternoon felt tense, because Harry couldn’t stop himself from looking over at Snape. He knew he was being obvious, but Snape hadn’t said anything yet, so Harry gave in to the urge to watch. It was soothing, watching him brew. Harry realized that this was probably the first time he had ever seen Snape brew. Funny that he had known the man over half his life and hadn’t actually seen him make a potion until now.

“It’s finished for the day,” Snape said later. It could have been a minute later or an hour later, but Harry was too caught up in just watching to care either way.

“Did it work?” Harry asked.

“No,” said Snape. “I didn’t expect it to.” He set the cauldron to cool and began clearing his ingredients. Harry was surprised at Snape’s easy acceptance of failure – then again, it wasn’t failure when it had never successfully been done by anyone before. Still, Harry thought that Snape would be disappointed and annoyed, or at the very least in a bad mood. Contrarily, Snape seemed to be in a rather good mood. Harry thought he saw the barest upwards tilt of lips. His lips were thin and pale.

“Something on your mind?” asked Snape, and Harry snapped his eyes up to Snape’s.

“What? No,” Harry said quickly. “Why?”

“Looked like you were thinking about something. Something to do with me?” Snape said inquisitively, one eyebrow arched high.

“The shepherd thinks you’re hot,” Harry blurted. He immediately felt himself turn red. Why in Godric’s name had he just said that?

“That’s flattering,” said Snape. “But you can tell him I’m not interested, and I never will be.”

“Because he’s a bloke?” Harry asked. Why had he asked that? He wanted this conversation to be over already.

“No,” said Snape slowly. “Because he’s a painting. He’s like an algorithm, if it were art. He’s not a person.”

“Aren’t you… you know, a painting, too?”

“It’s different, I suppose. I can’t stand spending time with the other portraits. Their personalities are programmed, almost. They never change, they never … they’re one-dimensional. I can’t describe it.”

“So the only reason is because he’s a painting?” Harry asked.

“Well, he’s hardly my type, either,” Snape responded, amused. “I’d prefer my partner to have more than five brain cells.”

“And that’s it?” Harry asked. He didn’t know what he was pushing for. Snape gave him a considering look. His eyes were dark as midnight, and they seemed to see through him. It brought a sense of vulnerability. It was like Snape could see all of his secrets, his inner thoughts and desires.

And then suddenly, Harry did know what he was pushing for. “It’s not because he’s male?” Harry asked, holding his breath.

“No,” Snape said. “It’s not because he’s male.”

“I didn’t know you – that you liked men,” said Harry. His heart was beating wildly in his chest, and he felt uncomfortably hot. He plucked at the collar of his shirt, trying to vent some cool air across his clammy skin.

“Because it’s none of your business,” Snape responded, but then he said, “I don’t care about gender. I never thought about it too much.”

Harry laughed. “I did. Took me ages to figure out I liked blokes.”

At this, Snape drew in a sharp breath, a look of surprise on his face.

“Don’t tell me – you didn’t know?” said Harry. “It was splashed across The Prophet for years. Still is, sometimes.”

“We don’t get The Prophet here in Portrait Land,” Snape said. “And I did know. I just thought you didn’t. I thought you were…”

“I didn’t know for a while, I guess. I do now. Doesn’t really matter anymore - I haven’t dated anyone in years.”

“Hm,” said Snape. His eyes felt as though they were physically boring holes into Harry’s, and Harry felt his pulse race again and his stomach flip over and – fuck, he understood it now. He understood it all. The shepherd was right, Snape was bloody hot, and Harry was attracted to him. How had he not realized it earlier?

“I’ve got to go,” said Harry, and bolted from the lab with no other explanation. It was rude, but Harry would apologize to Snape later when he had sorted through his emotions.

Harry locked himself into his chambers and had the house-elves send up some food. He ate it in bed, heedless of the crumbs that got everywhere. He kind of thought that sleeping in crumbs would be good punishment for how stupid he had been. So incredibly un-self aware.

It was glaringly obvious when he looked back on everything – the flipping of his stomach, the desperation for his approval, the rush he got when they bickered.

Snape would never be conventionally attractive, but he was sexy. His dark eyes, his nimble fingers. What would it be like to have those eyes boring into him from above as Snape fucked him? Or to look into Snape’s eyes, grab his jaw and turn his head towards Harry as Harry fucked him?

Harry shifted, feeling the way the denim of his jeans constrained his erection. Fuck, he was hard as rock just from thinking about it. From thinking about having sex with Snape. Harry ran his hand over his dick through his trousers, rubbing at the tip. It made him shudder and gasp, so he did it again until he could feel the wet spot of precome he had leaked. He was close already, and he knew he could come just like this, through his trousers, but he wanted to make it last.

He had been fantasizing about no one for the past couple weeks. A specific no one with dark hair and long fingers. As Harry pulled off his clothes and took himself in hand, his fantasies sharpened the no one into Snape so easily that Harry knew it had been Snape all along. The long fingers turned potion-stained, the dark hair turned long and lank.

Harry pictured Snape watching him, and he made himself go slowly, pretending to give a show. He tugged on his bollocks, pictured Snape’s eyes darkening to something ravenous, something hungry. He twisted his hand over the head. It was so sensitive that he could only do it once before he had to snatch his hand away.

Harry had always been self-conscious of the way he came. He didn’t come like a porn star, all arching up and flexing. His body always curled in on itself, his abs shook, his face tightened into a wince, and his hand cramped up into a claw. But none of that seemed to matter at all, when he was picturing Severus watching him come. Severus watching Harry shoot his load onto his chest.

Harry twisted his hand once more, felt his stomach clench and tense and curl him up, and then he was coming with a soft hiss that sounded awful close to “Severus.”

--

Harry found it ironic that he was far less awkward around Snape now that he had come to grips with his own feelings.

He still felt his legs go weak when Snape complimented him, and he still felt his stomach flip over at Snape's smirks. But before, he had been confused and disoriented at his own reaction. Now, however, he could just shrug his shoulders and tell himself, "Well, yeah, natural reaction when someone has a crush."

It made him bold, this sudden understanding. Because now he finally knew what he wanted. He would make offhand flirtatious comments that Snape hardly ever responded to. He was well aware of the fact that he stared at Snape constantly, and that he smiled at him far too often. He didn't even care when he felt himself beginning to blush.

Because it didn't really matter if Snape knew, did it? He probably already knew. And Harry had nothing to lose. The worst-case scenario was that Snape would reject him and Harry would be right back at square one. Sure, it would hurt, but Harry was a grown man by now, no longer a meek teenager terrified of rejection.

So it started slowly and subtly. Harry was watching Snape in the lab one day, and then Snape looked up and said, "Don't you have anything better to do than sit here and gawk at me?"

"I like looking at you," responded Harry with a smile. "I consider it a brilliant use of my time."

Snape just shook his head and continued on with his work, so Harry took that as a relatively good sign. After all, he might have a chance with Snape. Snape was attracted to men, and he was hardly going to hook up with one of the other portraits. Harry let himself hope that it could happen.

Snape continued not to rebuff him, so Harry grew bolder.

"You know you can come to my chambers any time?" said Harry. "I told the shepherd to let you in whenever you want."

"Thank you," said Snape. "I'll give you ample heads-up before I do come by."

"No need," said Harry cheekily. "I might be getting out of the shower, but as long as you're okay with seeing me, I don't mind. I don't mind at all."

"Well. I'll give notice before I come," responded Snape.

"That's very polite of you. Wouldn't want to choke me." Harry smiled up at Snape from under his lashes. He was delighted to see two little splotches of red appear on Snape's cheeks.

"That's inappropriate," said Snape, but a little amused smirk was tugging at the corner of his lips.

"Well, then, I certainly won't tell you what else I was thinking."

Snape blushed further. So fucking cute, thought Harry.

--

Harry's apprenticeship was going well. He almost never messed up on his potions anymore, and when he did, Snape was right there to tell him what he had done wrong and exactly how to fix it. Usually Snape caught it before it happened, but sometimes he let Harry make the mistake because he saw it as a good teaching moment. But this happened rarely, and mostly Harry and Snape spent their days working on their own potions, chatting while they simmered.

Snape had become far less shy when Harry flirted. Sometimes he even responded. Like today, for example, when Harry was complaining about how his wrist hurt from grinding moonstone all morning.

"It's not that hard," said Snape. "You make such a big deal out of nothing."

"It is hard. Very hard. " Harry grinned. "And it's your fault, you know."

Snape smirked back. "That sounds like a you problem. Maybe you should go relieve yourself. We wouldn't want you brewing while… distracted."

"I suppose it is a me problem," responded Harry. "But we could make it an us problem if you wanted. Just let me know."

Snape snorted and told Harry to get back to his brewing, but Harry took it as a good sign.

One day Snape asked if he could come harvest moonflowers at night in the forest scene.

"Of course," Harry responded. "I told you that you can come whenever you want, and I mean it. If there are other plants you need to harvest at night, you can come get them, too."

So Snape began coming to the painting at night. Not every night, but at least twice a week. He would tell Harry his plans beforehand, but after several weeks of Harry shrugging him off, telling him that he didn't need to ask Harry's permission, he began coming to the painting frequently and without notice beforehand.

Harry woke up one night to a rustling sound in the painting. He kept still in bed, listening to Snape gather ingredients. He never wore a shirt to bed, just pants, and he saw that his blanket had been rucked down to his thighs. Snape must have seen his whole body, seen the outline of his flaccid dick through his pants. It wasn't flaccid anymore. He didn't want to scare Snape off, because this was the closest he had ever gotten to any sort of sexual situation with him. And wasn't that kind of pathetic, that Snape was gathering ingredients and Harry was over here with a rock-hard prick about it?

But he wanted Snape to see him like this. He pretended that he was still asleep, but he let out a little moan. Maybe Snape would think that he was just having a sexy dream. Harry shifted a bit, and the rustling stopped. He rolled his hips, letting out another little moan, and the rustling grew nearer, as though Snape were coming closer. It made his dick throb, and he felt it lift off his stomach and twitch. He wondered if Snape could see it clearly.

He moaned again, and then a faint flicker of light shone through his eyelids. Snape casting a lumos to check if he was asleep. He expected the light to flicker out, but was pleasantly surprised when it didn't. He moaned again, rolling his hips. A soft noise came from the painting, like a muffled gasp. Harry could barely keep from smiling, so he turned over on his front. And fuck, that gave him the added benefit of having something to grind down on. He rolled his hips, feeling the soft plush of the bedspread drag against his cock. It felt amazing, so he kept on doing it, not even bothering to silence his moans. He half-wanted to be quiet, to see if he could hear anything coming from the painting, but he knew Snape was still watching because he could feel the magic of the lumos on his skin.

Snape was watching - actually watching. Harry's movements quickened. He wondered if Snape was touching himself while he watched. He wondered if Snape was hard. He pictured Snape peering out from behind a tree, cock in hand, biting one of those scarred, slender fingers to keep quiet so as not to wake Harry. Harry ground down against the bed, and now his breath was coming out in huffs, little "uh-uh-uh"s. Harry heard a noise from the painting, something that sounded like a muffled moan, and that was all it took before Harry was coming hard, one leg coming up against the bed as his body shook out his orgasm. When he came back down from the high, he realized that the lumos was out and there were no sounds coming from the painting anymore.

The next day, Harry looked closely for signs of awkwardness in Snape. Perhaps he was averting his eyes more than usual. But then, when Snape would make eye contact, it felt even hungrier than usual. His eyes were devouring, and Harry felt himself get half-hard from it. It caught Harry off-guard, the ferocity of it. Harry had thought that he was in control, that he was the flirt, that he was the one making Snape flustered. Under his gaze, though, Harry didn't feel in control. He felt as if he was along for Snape's ride, and he had no idea what was coming next. A shiver crawled down his spine, electrifying him.

Snape didn't come back to the forest scene at night for another two weeks. But then finally, finally, he did. Harry had been sleeping on high alert, so that he'd wake up as soon as he heard any noise. Snape rustled around the painting, collecting ingredients.

Harry wanted Snape to watch him masturbate again. Harry had been sleeping with the lights on dim, waiting for this opportunity. He reached a hand under the blankets and teased himself all the way hard. Harry let out a soft moan here and there, just in case Snape wanted to run away. Harry couldn't see Snape in the painting, but he hadn't heard him leave the scene so he assumed he was hidden behind a tree or a bush somewhere. Snape also wasn't making any noise, so he had presumably realized what was going on.

Harry pushed the blankets down and shoved his pants off. He lay back, spreading his legs, rolling his bollocks with one hand. He ran his finger over his taint, and then over the pucker of his arse, moaning as he felt it flutter. He wandlessly conjured some lube, rubbed some of it over his hole, back and forth, and he smoothed the rest over his cock. He let his hand trace over the veins of his cock, let it come up and twist over the head. He grabbed the tip, squished his thumb into the slit and moaned as he watched himself dribble a bit of precome.

Harry thought he heard something from the portrait, some sort of rustling that sounded like fabric. He hoped it was fabric, he hoped Snape was jerking himself now. Harry let his right hand loosely move over his cock as his left one teased his entrance. It slipped in, just an inch, and Harry groaned with satisfaction. He imagined it was Severus's finger, the finger with the scar that wrapped all the way around. It slipped in an inch or two farther, pressed against the inside of him.

"Severus," he gasped. "Fuck, that feels good. Just like that."

A branch snapped in the forest.

"Oh fuck yeah, put another in," Harry groaned. "I fucking love your fingers in me." Harry fucked into himself with two fingers, quicker than he usually would, but then again, he was putting on a show.

"Yes, oh fuck, Severus, I want your cock. I want your big cock inside me; give it all to me. I can take it," he gasped, not realizing that he was teetering on the edge of orgasm until he was almost there. He stilled, let out a breath as a continuous moan, and waited until he felt ready to carry on.

"Severus," he said.

The forest was quiet, but Harry heard a brief inhale.

"Severus, I know you're there," Harry said. "Come out."

No response. Harry sighed. "I'm having a good time here, but it'd be better if you came out. I want you to watch me. I want to watch you."

Still no response. Then a shuffling noise. Severus appeared from behind a grove of trees, walking stiffly. He approached the frame of the painting. He said nothing for a little while, and then he waved a hand and said, "Well? Carry on."

Harry grinned, biting into his lip. He stroked his cock a couple of times, slipped a finger back into his arse. "What do you want me to do?" he asked.

Severus still said nothing, but he walked into a patch of moonlight. Harry wished he could see through the layers of robes.

"Take your robes off," said Harry. "It's only fair." Severus reached a hand up to his neck and began unbuttoning them, painfully slowly. When he finally got to the end of the buttons, he rolled his shoulders and the robes fell to the mossy forest floor in one fluid motion. He was still too covered for Harry's taste, but at least now Harry could see the thick outline of his cock in his trousers.

"Merlin, I knew you'd be big," said Harry. "I've been thinking about it since forever. But you knew that already. I want it in me. I want to see it."

Harry slipped another finger in, smoothed his thumb across the slit again. "Come on, Severus, take it out. I know you want to."

Come on, take it out, please, he thought. Severus shook his head, face expressionless but eyes burning. Harry huffed a laugh. "Like it'll make it any less real if yours isn't out too? I know you're going to get off on this later, anyway. Might as well do it here with me now."

Harry felt his dick jump in his hand as Severus began to unbutton his flies. He held his breath, and then let it all out in a rush when Severus finally pulled it out. Slender, thicker at the tip, long, pale, and perfect. Severus's hand gripped it lightly around the base.

"Godric," breathed Harry. Severus held it firmly, slapped the thick end of it against his palm. It made a dull, heavy noise.

Harry had to take his hand off his cock, because he'd come now if he wasn't too careful. But he kept on pressing his fingertips into his prostate, more firmly now. "Don't you want to stroke it?" asked Harry on a moan. "It's so fucking hard. It'll feel so good. Go on, come on, stroke your cock for me, baby."

Severus hitched a breath in, and ever-so-slowly, the hand that was around the base crept towards the tip, then back down the shaft. The head was pink and shiny. Harry moaned, ran his fingers over his own head, pretended that it was Severus's. He fucked his hips up off the bed, into his hand, and then back down onto his fingers. He felt wildly uninhibited, knowing that what he was doing was turning Severus on. Severus began to stroke faster, leaning back on his heels.

"Did you touch yourself last time?" Harry asked. Severus's motions stilled. "When I was pretending to be asleep? I thought about you stroking your cock, watching me fuck the bed. Looking at me and wanking."

"Did you? Did you fuck your hand thinking about fucking me?" Harry was close, knowing he was pushing Severus but too gone to care.

Severus nodded. "Fuck," Harry groaned. "You did? Tell me."

"I stood in that grove," Severus whispered gruffly. "And I couldn't hold myself back. I watched you, and it felt so wrong, but I couldn't stop myself. You looked… I came when you did."

"That's so hot," Harry groaned. "Ah, fuck, I'm going to come. Watch me come - don't fucking - don't fucking take your eyes off me. I want you to watch - " Harry shuddered. He wanted to keep his eyes open, but the force of his orgasm overtook him and he shouted his release. Halfway through the aftershocks, he was able to open his eyes. Severus had a hand braced against the edge of the frame, leaning forwards as he stripped his cock.

"Oh shit, baby, come for me," Harry gasped, still pumping his own hand weakly. Severus groaned then, the first real noise he had made all night, and then he threw his head back. Severus came like a porn star, Harry thought, all long arching lines and sharp angles. Harry watched him spill over his hand, come running down his knuckles and onto the forest floor.

There was a brief moment of silence while they both caught their breath, and then Harry whispered a wandless cleaning charm and stretched like a cat, a satisfied grin plastered on his face.

"Severus," Harry said. It came out sappy and romantic, which wasn't at all what he was trying for, but nonetheless felt right.

"I don't remember giving you permission to call me that," said Severus, tucking himself away.

Harry laughed. "I think I've earned it."

"I suppose you have, Harry," said Severus, an amused glint in his eye. It was funny that someone with such an impassive face could have such expressive eyes.

"That was good," said Harry, although he thought it was probably pretty obvious to both of them that it had been more than just good.

"It was. But I'm going back to my portrait. It's cold in this painting."

Harry waved him off, watching him bend to pick up his robes. Nice arse, too, Harry thought. Not as flat as he had originally pictured it. Severus picked his way through the forest. Right before he reached the edge of the frame, he turned back around and looked at Harry. Harry smiled, and Severus smirked, and then he was gone from the scene. Harry threw his blanket back over his body and sunk into a satisfied slumber.

---

"Good morning, Severus," chirped Harry as he entered the lab. "Sleep well last night?"

"Well enough," responded Severus, looking up from his cauldron with a faint smirk.

"I slept wonderfully," said Harry, pleased. He had been worried that Severus was going to close up and pretend it never happened. But evidently Severus was quite content to acknowledge their actions.

They brewed through the day, Harry flirting his arse off. And it was still sexual, this tension between them, but Harry felt as though there were some added element that hadn't been there before. Some sort of tenderness. Just a slight softening of the corners of Severus's eyes that made him look almost fond. Them standing there over their respective potions, smiling slightly at each other. It was as if now that they knew how they felt about each other, they didn't have to try so hard to be distant. Harry didn't even care that he looked sappy as all hell. He felt like a teenager again; he couldn't stop thinking about Severus. And he maintained a low level horniness throughout the day, just enough that his prick was always just a bit hard. It really was like being a teenager again. When their brewing came to an end, Harry invited him back to his room.

"You can conjure yourself a bed, right?" Harry said, when he was sitting down on the edge of his bed, Severus in the forest scene before him.

Severus nodded and conjured a perfect replica of Harry's four-poster bed, but in Slytherin colors.

"Is that a subtle way of telling me you don't like my color scheme?" Harry mock-pouted.

"I'm not thinking about your color scheme right now," said Severus, voice low and mellow.

"What are you thinking about, then?" asked Harry, voice catching in the middle.

"I'm thinking about your tight little hole, the way it looked stretched around your fingers last night."

Harry inhaled sharply, dick standing at attention. He didn't expect Severus to be so daring so soon.

"Yeah?" said Harry, pulling off his jumper. He ran his hand over his chest, around his pectoral. "Thinking about what it would look like stretched around your dick?" He brushed his fingers over a nipple, then pinched it. He rolled it in between his fingertips.

"Mm," said Severus. "Yes. But also…."

"Also what?" asked Harry, unbuttoning his trousers. He ran his fingers through the trail of hair on his stomach, tugging at it lightly.

"Also thinking about you fucking me. My arse clenching around your fingers."

"Oh, fuck," Harry exhaled. "Gods, I want that. I bet you're tight as fuck, baby. Tell me more."

"I want your thick fingers inside me. I want to feel your callouses against my rim," said Severus lowly, shucking off his robes and undoing his waistcoat.

"Yeah?" Harry pulled off his trousers and pants in one go. He hadn't taken his shoes off, and the fabric bunched around his ankles. He didn't even bother getting them all the way off, he was so eager to get his hand on himself.

"I want you to fuck me," said Severus. He had undressed now and he sat on the edge of his own bed. He was thin, and there was no surprise there, but there was something overwhelmingly erotic about the sharp angles of his body. The way the point of his ribs stuck out when he leaned back, the keen jut of his hip bones. Even his bony elbows, his angular collarbones. Every sharp angle, every anti-curve was so perfectly lickable, kissable, salacious. "I want to feel you over me, on top of me, inside me," said Severus.

Harry groaned, feeling a possessive shiver electrify him. Talk about feeling like a teenager again, he was already bloody close. The lust dulled his inhibitions, filled him with fervor. He wanted Severus, he wanted Severus to be his. He wanted to own Severus, to possess him fully.

"Fuck, I want to fill you up, make you mine," he said in a rush.

"You want to claim me? Make me yours? You know I'm not that easy," said Severus. "I belong to myself."

"I want to…. possess you. I want my cock in your arse, I want my fucking fingers in your mouth," he said. "I want my fucking tongue in your ear, I want to put my thumb in your bellybutton," he moaned in one breath, barely thinking about what he was saying. "I want to fuck your mouth with my tongue, I want to lick your teeth. I want to have every part of you."

"That's bizarre," Severus huffed, but Harry was watching him through hooded eyes. He liked the way that Severus's chest was heaving, the way that he stroked himself from the front and the back. Red blotches had blossomed over his heaving chest, the same shade as his red nose.

"I can get weirder," said Harry, pushing his thumb into his slit and wriggling it. His abs tensed suddenly and without notice, and then before he could even comprehend it or stop it, he was coming hard. Curled over himself like he was, some of the come shot onto his chin and dribbled onto his chest. He groaned weakly and caught his breath.

Severus was watching him, and oh fuck, it was hot. Harry wasn't even that embarrassed about coming so soon, because his dick was standing back at attention as soon as he looked up at Severus. Severus stroked himself slowly, with far more control than Harry would ever be able to manage, and he bit a thin lip with a sharp tooth. The tooth had a little chip in the corner. Harry wondered what the rough edge of it would feel like against his tongue.

"I want to put my fingers in you, slowly at first, just rubbing around your entrance. I want to make you beg for it - you're always so bloody in control, I want you to just give up all that control and beg me for it," Harry said, lightly running one of his fingers through the come on his chest. Severus smirked, but his chest had grown even redder, a stark contrast against his pale stomach and his pale pink cock. He looked ready to burst any time soon.

"I want to fuck you slowly at first, and then fast; so hard you can hear my hips slapping against your arse from the Great Hall. I want to make that bed shake so hard the canopy comes down on us," Harry said, lazily pumping his cock. He knew he wouldn't be able to come again for a while, but it still felt nice enough. Severus looked like he was right about to come, but still his hands moved slowly. Harry wanted to watch him lose control. "Then I want to suck your dick until you come in my mouth, and then I want to come up and kiss you and push the come into your mouth so it mixes with our spit and gets all over our lips. And then I want to put my hands on your neck so I can feel your throat bob as you swallow it all down," Harry said. Severus's fingers tightened, his pace quickened, and Harry saw the moment it happened, the moment when Severus's face transformed into pure oblivion, his jaw slack, eyes shut, head thrown back. He arched backwards, hip bones and ribs and pulsing cock all standing out at attention like an offering for Harry's mouth.

Severus collapsed back onto the bed when the shudders had dissipated, and Harry grinned up at him. “Hey, sleepyhead,” he said after a minute or two, “Want to have dinner? I don’t know if you eat, but I’m starving.”

Severus shifted, rolled to the side, and sat up. He wrapped the green blanket around himself. “I don’t usually eat,” said Severus. “I don’t get hungry. But I’ll stay with you.”

---

It became a common thing for Severus to come over, get off with Harry, and stay for dinner. Well, for Harry’s dinner. He teased Harry mercilessly over his palate, although Harry gradually learned that Severus’s tastes weren’t so refined as he liked to make them seem. He mocked greasy food, but then he told a story about exploring muggle London with Sinistra and her wife and gorging on McDonalds and thinking he’d never had something as delicious before. And he rolled his eyes at Harry’s love of sweets, but when he drank tea – which was rarely ever, given the whole lack of hunger – he put in far too many cubes of sugar.

Harry said that if he were to tell anyone that Severus Snape takes four cubes of sugar in his tea, he’d be laughed at. Severus shook his head with a wry smile, and then Harry said, “Isn’t it funny how one of my favorite people and one of my least favorite people take their tea the same way?” Severus looked at him quizzically, and Harry grinned and said, “You and Umbridge, of course.”

Severus didn’t seem to get the joke, so Harry rolled his eyes. “You know – Umbridge is my least favorite, you’re my favorite?”

Severus scoffed. “How kind of you to put me in that tier, Potter. I’m sure Granger and Weasley would be delighted to know you exalt me to their standard,” he said sarcastically.

“Ooh, he called me Potter,” Harry snorted. “Really breaking out the big guns here. I’m hurt,” he fake-pouted. “And anyway, they already know how much I exalt you. Actually, I’m pretty sure Hermione knows that I exalt you every night.” Severus stared at him.

“And by exalt, I mean have sex with. My jokes are really falling flat today, aren’t they?” said Harry.

“You told Granger about us?” Severus asked, brows furrowed.

“Well, kind of. I heavily implied it, at least, and she's definitely clever enough to read between the lines. Is that a problem?”

“Not a problem,” said Severus, looking a bit nonplussed. “Wouldn’t it be a problem for you, if it were to get out?”

“Nah, I'm not pressed,” Harry shrugged. “I mean, Hermione would never blab about my life to the press. And anyway, if it did get out, people would probably just think that I’m weird. I don’t really mind that, as long as my friends still love me.”

“Think you weird,” Severus repeated, scowling. “Well, it certainly is weird, as you put it, having an affair with your ugly old professor.”

“Severus, come on. Because you’re a portrait, not because you’re… well, you. If you were here standing in front of me, I’d tell the whole bloody world about us, just so everyone knows you’re mine.”

Severus looked skeptical, so Harry went on. “You didn’t see those Prophet articles after you were cleared about how you’re a “man of mystery” and all that. You’re a hot commodity, babe, and I wouldn’t let anyone put their hands on you. I'd tell them all that you belong to me.”

“You’re obsessed with possession,” said Severus. A little smile ghosted over his face.

“I’m obsessed with possessing you,” said Harry. Severus shook his head and smiled a little wider, his cheeks charmingly pink.

---

As December came around, Harry found himself wondering if he should get Severus something for Christmas. But what could you even get a painting? Harry had promised that he'd go to the Burrow for the holidays, as usual, but he couldn't help but feel sad about leaving Severus behind.

About halfway through December, he was deep in the stacks in the library, researching his project, when he came across a dusty old painting of a library. It was a bit meta, he thought, to have a painting of a library within a library. And also a bit depressing, because barring Hermione, most people who were stuck in the most archaic, dense section of the library hardly wanted to look at yet another scene of a library.

But Harry knew someone who would appreciate it. He made his way to the circulation desk. Madam Pince had retired a couple years ago, and the library was now run by her niece, Atalanta, who was far nicer than Madam Pince had ever been.

"Atalanta, I have a question about one of the paintings back there," he said.

"Oh?" she asked. "Which one?"

"That one in the archaic Potions section? It's of a library scene."

Atalanta tapped her chin. "Honestly, I don't think I've really noticed it. What do you want to know?"

Harry rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "Well, actually, I was wondering if there's any way I could buy it? I don't want to take it out of the castle or anything, I just wanted to put it somewhere else. I could pay for a replacement for it, too."

Atalanta shrugged. "Let's take a look at it." Harry led the way to the painting, and when they got there, Atalanta stared up at it in surprise.

"You know, I don't think I've ever noticed it before," she said. "Bit embarrassing, given that I'm the librarian. But are you sure you want it?" she asked. "Isn't it a little… well, drab?"

Harry laughed. "It is, a bit. But it's not for me. I know someone who will love it."

"I mean, if you're not taking it out of the school, I don't see any reason why you should have to buy it. You could check with Headmistress McGonagall, if you like, and if she approves, it's all yours."

"Atalanta, you're golden," Harry said. Atalanta laughed. "Seriously, thank you so much. You have no idea what this means to me."

---

The day before Harry left for the holidays, he and Severus were in the lab doing their own readings. Harry hesitated, but he figured this was as good a time as any to show Severus the painting.

"I got you something," Harry said.

"Did you?" asked Severus.

Harry nodded and pulled up the covered painting. "It's - I thought we could hang it in the lab, if you wanted it." He unwrapped it without finesse and held it up for Severus to see. "It's a library scene. I couldn't make out the titles, so I don't know if there's even anything good in there, but… I dunno. Do you want it?"

Severus stared at the painting for a moment. Harry shuffled his feet, feeling oddly self-conscious.

"It's totally fine if it's not your cup of tea, I just thought - "

"I love it," Severus interrupted. "Thank you."

"Oh!" Harry said, feeling his cheeks heat up. "Okay, awesome. I could hang it here, by my couch, so we can do our reading together?"

Severus nodded. "Thank you."

Harry lifted up the painting and cast a sticking charm to hang it on the wall.

"I didn't get you anything," Severus said quietly.

Harry laughed. "There's no need. Honestly, I just saw it and I thought you might like it. I didn't even buy it."

"Still," said Severus. "It was very thoughtful." His lips drew up in a tiny smile. It was so incredibly genuine, Harry felt it flood him with warmth. Gods, he wanted to make Severus smile like that all the time.

Severus walked into the library scene, perusing its contents. Harry watched as he pulled one of the books out, nodded at it, and set it on a rickety little table. He looked happy with the library, Harry thought. Harry almost wished that he could be there in the library scene with him, picking out books and sitting across from him at the wooden table.

---

The weeks went by, and as the snow melted into Spring, Harry found himself falling deeper into his attraction to Severus. He knew it was more than just attraction, more than just a crush, but it was intimidating to admit, even to himself. But he found him noticing little things about Severus that made him fall even more deeply into… attraction with him.

Such as the way that Severus blinked furiously when trying to figure out what had just happened in his Potions experiment. Or the way that he flicked his hair impatiently out of his view when he was concentrating.

And Harry and Severus opened up to each other even more. Harry told Severus about his childhood. Severus told Harry about his.

It was actually Severus that had made this move into further emotional intimacy. Harry and Severus were relaxing in Harry’s room together late one Saturday night. More accurately, Harry was relaxing in his room. Severus had set up a bubble in the forest painting, a little dome of wards around the four-poster bed and a wooden desk he had conjured. He had started sleeping in the forest every so often, protected from the elements in his bubble. He had vanished the canopy of the four-poster, saying that he liked seeing the stars when he fell asleep. When it would snow, the snow would pile up and obscure his view, and Severus would stand on top of his bed and shoot spells at the top of the bubble to shake it off.

Severus was reading something dense-looking that he had found in the bookshelves of a painting of Shakespeare, and Harry was unapologetically reading a salacious muggle novel that couldn’t seem to make its mind up between being a murder mystery or a bodice-ripper romance novel.

"I'm going to treat myself to some firewhiskey," said Harry. “Shame you can’t get that in the portraits.”

Severus looked up, and a weird expression crossed his face. He scowled for a brief moment, then turned back to his book.

“Who turned you into Mr. Grumpy?” asked Harry, bewildered.

“It’s nothing,” Severus said, tone like ice.

“There’s this cool new thing I heard about,” Harry said. “It’s called communication. Maybe we should try it?”

Severus sighed and rubbed the high bridge of his nose. Harry gave him some time to gather his thoughts. “Could you not drink around me, please?” he asked.

“Sure…” Harry replied hesitantly. “Any reason why?”

Severus nodded. He sighed again. He twisted a particularly oily lock of hair around his finger.

“My father used to drink,” said Severus quietly. “He was an alcoholic. Addiction can be genetic. It…I got the gene for it.”

“I’m sorry,” said Harry. He tried to keep his expression as calm and compassionate as possible. It was surprising to him, because Severus just always seemed so in control.

“It’s no bother. And anyway, you can drink if you like,” Severus said awkwardly.

Harry shook his head. “What I like is not triggering my boyfriend.”

‘Boyfriend?” Severus scoffed. “What are we, twelve?”

“Lover, then?” Harry tried.

Severus bit his lip. They were pale, but the skin turned pink under his teeth. “I suppose we are.”

Harry smiled, reclining back into his bed.

“Can I ask you something?” asked Harry. Severus nodded. “I don’t want to dredge up old stuff,” Harry said, “But I was wondering if maybe that’s why you were so angry that time, way back in September? When I was brewing that hangover potion?”

Severus shook his head, then stopped and tilted it to the side. “No. There were other factors at play, then. Looking back on it, I reckon that was part of it. But the main reason… well, it didn’t have to do with you. It was unfair of me to attack you like that.”

Harry shrugged. “I’m over it. And don’t forget, I said some pretty awful stuff as well. It takes two to tango." He shrugged again. "Let’s not think of it anymore. I was just curious.”

“Hmm,” said Severus. “Get back to your trashy novella.”

“It’s not a novella,” said Harry. “You’d like it if you read it. The smut is fantastic.”

--

One Saturday afternoon, Harry was returning from the quidditch pitch. The winter air had felt wonderful, raking across his cheeks and through his hair. He made his way back to his rooms, face pleasantly chapped. Just before he rounded the corner, he set his broom down to rub his fingers together to get some circulation back into them. He could have used a warming charm, but there was something that felt so quintessentially like winter fun about having chilly fingers.

A deep, melodic voice drifted from down the corridor, a voice he immediately recognized as Severus’s. A high giggle accompanied it – that would be the shepherd. Curious, he peeked his head out around the corner, and immediately had to stifle a laugh.

Severus was sitting against a tree, and a milky-white cow had rested its head on his lap. Severus had a book open, resting lightly on the cow’s head. The shepherd was sitting across from him, thankfully fully clothed, a chess board between them. “Knight to C4,” Severus said, and the shepherd moved his piece.

“That was a mistake,” said the shepherd smugly.

“We’ll see,” answered Severus, turning a page of his book. The cow snuffled and buried its head a bit deeper into his lap.

There was something so incongruous, so delightfully pastoral, Harry thought, seeing Severus relaxing in the shepherd’s scene. Harry chuckled and walked towards the pair.

Up close, he could see that Severus had little bits of grass in his hair.

“Harry!” the shepherd exclaimed delightedly. “You didn’t tell me he was good at chess! And what a gentleman he is.”

Harry shrugged, stifling a laugh. “I didn’t know he played. Though I suppose I could have assumed.”

Severus brushed a lock of hair out of his vision, pulling out a piece of grass out. “Well,” he said. “The shepherd is good enough at chess, and it’s much warmer here than in the forest.”

The shepherd nodded. “The forest scene goes through the seasons, but it’s always Summer here.” He stretched and flopped backwards onto the grass. “Io seems to have taken a liking to him,” he said, gesturing to the cow.

Severus harrumphed. “Only because I’m still enough to rest her head on.”

“It’s too bad you can’t play with us,” sighed the shepherd.

Harry smiled. “It’s alright, I’ll leave you two to it. Don’t seduce my man, shepherd.”

“As if I even could,” the shepherd scoffed. “He’s obviously only got eyes for you.”

Severus raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?” asked Harry. Severus shrugged, loose and languid. “Good to know,” said Harry. “Join me in my chambers when you’re finished playing, yeah?”

“You know what that means!” the shepherd cackled. “Harry wants to get dirty.” He opened the door, cackling the whole while. Harry didn’t even try to deny it. He shot Severus a wink.

---

Once Harry and Severus had fallen into a routine, life passed easily. Harry tried not to worry too much about the future – about what he’d do once he left Hogwarts. He and Severus spent most of their time together, even when they were asleep. Even if they were each working on their own individual projects, he and Severus would sit near each other and converse occasionally.

Harry’s lab work had improved radically. Severus barely ever had to correct him. When he did, it was mainly advice on how to be cost-efficient with his ingredients and still get the same final product. Because of his newfound competency, Severus usually gave him this advice before he began with the brewing, and then ignored Harry’s work in favor of his own, unless Harry had a question.

Today, Harry was in the lab, working on the Polydraft Potion for his apprenticeship. Polydraft was similar to Polyjuice, but depending on how it was brewed, the drinker could take on only certain aspects of another person. For example, the drinker could take on just someone’s eye color, or their height, without experiencing any other effects. Polydraft also had a far quicker brew time at around a week, as compared to Polyjuice’s lengthy month-long brewing process.

Unfortunately, because of its rapid brew rate, the Polydraft was even trickier than Polyjuice. One wrong move, and the potion would be rendered useless.

And of course, as soon as Harry decided to take a little break from it and curl up on the couch with a trashy novel, the potion had to act up.

“Harry,” said Severus, alarmed. “Your brew is smoking.”

“Shit!” Harry leapt up and ran to the work table, but the damage was already done. The potion had hardened to a stone-like consistency. He tried in vain to stir it, but the stirring rod had become stuck.

“Didn’t I tell you when you started this potion, that you had to make sure to keep an eye on it during the sixth stage?” Severus asked.

“Well, yeah,” said Harry dejectedly. “I forgot. I thought it was later on, I guess.” He pulled the cauldron off the stove and set it to cool. Hopefully later he would be able to use a corrosive to dissolve it, so he would at least be able to salvage the cauldron and the stirring rod.

“You need to listen to me,” Severus said. “Listen to me carefully now: do as I say.”

It was probably an inappropriate time for Harry to become aroused, but there was something demanding in Severus’s tone of voice that turned him on. He nodded.

“Three grams of hydrochloric acid in the cauldron, now,” said Severus. Harry dutifully poured the acid in.

“Wait until it’s slightly softened,” Severus said. “And then levitate over the waste drain. Dislodge the potion carefully.”

Harry did as bid, but his pants were starting to get uncomfortably tight. He levitated the cauldron and upturned it, then jabbed at the mass.

“Listen to me,” Severus said sternly. “Dislodge it carefully.” Harry felt a shiver run up his spine. He supposed it was kind of funny, how easily Severus could get him randy. He dislodged the potion into the sink and set the cauldron to rest.

“What now, sir?” Harry asked. He was sure it was obvious what he was thinking of – his voice quavered slightly, especially when he said “sir.” Severus’s gaze flicked down to his trousers, studied the bulge it found there.

“Come here, in front of me. Lean on the table,” he said, eyes dark and ravenous. Harry shivered again and positioned himself right before Severus’s portrait. He leaned back, his erection on display through the tented fabric.

“Tell me, Mr. Potter,” Severus said, voice sharp. “Does this excite you?”

Harry bit his lip and nodded. His hips twitched up slightly.

“Answer me, Mr. Potter. I can’t read your mind.” Harry thought this probably wouldn’t be the best time to say that actually, yes, Severus could read his mind.

“Yes, sir,” said Harry. “It excites me.”

Severus smirked, and it sent little shocks down his spine. “Well, that’s entirely inappropriate. We can’t have that, can we?”

“No, sir,” Harry answered.

“You’ll have to relieve yourself,” Severus ordered. “Do it here, in front of me, so I can make sure you’re doing it right.”

Harry nodded, holding back a grin, and sent a wandless locking charm towards the door. He unbuttoned his trousers slowly. “Will you help me, sir?” he asked, feeling cheeky.

“I will instruct you,” answered Severus. Harry unbuckled his belt and let his trousers fall to the floor. He brought his dick out of the flies of his boxers.

“Is that good, sir?” asked Harry.

“Very good,” Severus answered slowly, sibilantly.

“What should I do now, sir?” asked Harry. His dick twitched in midair, and Harry loved how lewd it looked. Him here in the lab with his trousers around his ankles, his dick twitching.

“Don’t touch it yet,” said Severus. He had shucked off his own outer layer and was standing above Harry in his trousers and waistcoat.

“That’s okay, sir,” said Harry, feeling himself twitch again. “I could probably come just from your voice, anyway.”

“Is that so?” asked Severus. He seemed genuinely surprised.

Harry shrugged. “I’m twenty-three. Your voice is probably enough to get me off. But I’m really not in the mood for a struggle today.”

“Fine, then,” said Severus, but his eyes still gleamed with interest. “Stroke yourself. Slowly.”

Harry put his hand on his cock and gave it a light tug, feeling it jump. Severus watched the motion from above, the way the tip dribbled a little. Harry swiped his thumb over the clear liquid and spread it across his head.

“I didn’t tell you to do that, did I?” said Severus.

“No, sir,” Harry gasped. He brought his hand back down to the shaft and continued to tug at it lightly.

“Does that feel good?” asked Severus. “Do you like stroking your cock right here in the middle of the Potions lab? You know, that locking charm could be broken easily by an alohomora. Anyone could come in now and see you wanking yourself in front of me.”

Harry groaned, but to his embarrassment his cock seemed to grow even harder. He slowed his motions down, trying to last as long as possible.

“I wish you could see how you look right now,” Severus crooned. He unbuttoned his own trousers and drew himself out. Harry licked his lips. “Gods, just like that. You look like a wet dream.”

“Yeah?” Harry panted.

“Mm,” said Severus. “Get on your knees here.” Harry couldn’t hold back his gasp as he sank to his knees.

“Like this?” he asked.

“Just like that,” answered Severus. “Don’t come yet. Keep touching yourself, but don’t come yet.”

“I can’t really touch myself if I don’t want to come yet.” Harry clasped his fingers in a tight circle around the base, trying to stave off his impending orgasm.

“So soon?” Severus laughed. Harry should have been humiliated by it, but it was fucking hot. And Severus was right, it was soon. Harry nodded unapologetically, feeling the way his hair stuck to the back of his sweaty neck. Severus smirked and picked up his own pace, and for the next several minutes it was all Harry could do to just try not to come. He could feel it building steadily, and when he could finally tell that Severus was getting close from the blotchy red marks that had made their way up his neck, he softened the tight grip he had around himself.

He came forcefully, down his knuckles and onto the cool stone floor of the dungeons. When he looked back up, still in a haze, Severus was watching. His jaw was slack, and then it tightened.

“Come on my face,” gasped Harry. “Do it.” He opened his mouth, knowing how wanton it would look.

Severus arched, head thrown back for one moment, and then Severus was watching himself shoot his load towards Harry. The come disappeared before it could break the fourth wall, but Harry took his own slick hand, brought it up to his face, smeared some of it on his lips. Severus was still coming, watching intently, and Harry licked his lips, pretending it was Severus’s come. He wondered what it would taste like – if it would be bitter, or salty, or acrid.

When Severus had finished, he collapsed back on his desk. Harry tucked himself away, sent a cleaning charm at the floor, and rinsed his hand off.

“I don’t think we should ever fight again,” said Harry happily. “We can just do this instead.”

“Certainly would make things more simple,” Severus agreed.

---

When Harry had finished his Polydraft potion, he was set to work on the Draught of Delirium. The Draught of Delirium was affectionately known by potioneers as the Draught of Detonation, due to its high volatility and propensity to explode at the drop of a hat.

Severus was working on his thestral hair substitution. He had moved away from it for about a month but had recently decided to come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. Harry was in one of the simmering stages, so he wasn’t worried too much about his own brew. He watched as Severus decanted the herbal solution, blinking rapidly the whole way.

“It feels right,” said Severus.

“Really?” asked Harry. “Go on, then, try it.”

Severus nodded. He had already prepared a simple base for it, the Relief of Grief, a potion meant to provide strength to those in grief. The only animal part needed was Thestral hair – or, if it worked properly, Severus’s herbal substitution.

He set the Relief of Grief to heat on his main burner, he and Harry watching it intently. When it was hot enough, he added the herbal concoction ever so carefully.

They both held their breath, watching the potion. And then, ever so slowly, the potion turned the exact right shade of baby blue.

“Holy shit,” said Harry, “You’ve actually done it.” Severus looked up at him, smile wide on his face, and then everything happened all too fast for Harry to comprehend it.

Harry’s Draught of Delirium exploded, and, as if in slow motion, Severus raised his wand and shouted, “Protego!”

Harry barely felt the blast of heat before a shield appeared around the potion. The potion splattered against it and dripped down to the table. A burning sensation made itself known on Harry’s collarbone, and he quickly wiped off the small glob of potion that had flung itself at him before the shield had been erected. Catching his breath, Harry stared at Severus. Severus stared back, and then at his wand, and then at the shield, still glimmering faintly.

“How did you do that?” Harry panted.

“I don’t know,” said Severus, looking just as confused as Harry felt.

“That’s not normal. I don’t know a lot about portraits, but I know they can’t perform magic on anything outside of the painting," said Harry

Severus just frowned.

“It’s not normal,” said Harry again.

“No, it’s not,” said Severus.

“I’m writing Dean. You remember Dean Thomas, right? He’s a painter now, he’ll know what’s going on.” Maybe, he added silently

Severus nodded.

--

Several days had gone by before Harry received a response from Dean. When a little nondescript brown owl tapped on his bedroom window, he shot up from his desk and ran to get it.

“It’s from Dean,” said Harry. Severus, sitting at his own desk in the forest, nodded and looked up, clasping his fingers underneath his chin. Harry skimmed the contents of the letter.

Dear Harry… You’re right that it’s not normal….Portraits aren’t able to perform magic….impossible….The only thing I can think of is that the portrait is holding more than the usual amount of magic. Portrait magic is sustained by the last imprint of magic that the wizard left in the world. Sometimes it’s not even enough to be able to perform magic within the painting. The portrait must be holding more magic than that. Almost as if the portrait is containing the wizard’s whole core, or his whole soul.

Harry read the last line again, slowly. The portrait must be containing the wizard’s whole soul. A container for a soul.

Harry looked up at Severus, eyes wide. “Tell me you didn’t do it,” he said desperately.

“I didn’t do what?” asked Severus, looking pale.

“Tell me you didn’t make a horcrux,” shouted Harry. “I refuse to believe it. I – the only explanation is that it’s containing your soul.”

“I didn’t make a horcrux,” Severus shouted back. “I could never. Who do you take me for? Voldemort?”

“I don’t know! All I know is that the portrait is containing your soul!”

“I never made a horcrux. There must be another explanation.”

Harry deflated. “It’s the only explanation. Your whole magical core, your whole soul – it’s in that painting.”

Severus sighed. “Well, then, maybe it is. But not as a horcrux.”

“Maybe…” started Harry. “Maybe your soul and your magic fled here. Like, when it thought you were going to die, it fled to the closest thing with your magical signature.”

“It’s possible,” said Severus. “My body is… there’s no core in my body.”

“I guess it’s here, then,” said Harry. “In the portrait.”

Severus nodded. "I think.. I think Albus was trying to tell me something like that. In the beginning of the term, Albus said something to me like, "You don't belong here." I thought he was just....being cruel, trying to tell me that I hadn't belonged anywhere or with anyone during my life and that it would be the same in my afterlife as a portrait. But I didn't listen to what he was saying. I think he may have been trying to tell me that I didn't belong here because I'm not actually a portrait. That was… That was the night before we fought, that Sunday morning. That was why I was so angry."

“That must've been what he was trying to tell you," said Harry. "Want to try some magic, then?”

Severus pursed his lips, drew his wand and flourished it. There on Harry’s desk appeared a thin bud vase. Before Harry’s eyes, a slender green stalk appeared in the water and grew upwards, blooming into a moonflower. Harry reached out and touched a petal. It was soft and cool beneath the pads of his fingers.

“Guess that settles it, then,” said Harry. “But you know, this is actually good news.”

“How so?” asked Severus, looking at the moonflower.

“Well, it means that you’re alive. Like, actually alive. Your body is alive in St. Mungo’s, your soul and your core are alive here. We just have to get them all together.”

“And how, pray tell, will we manage to do that?” asked Severus.

“I dunno,” said Harry. “But we’re going to figure it out.”

--

Harry’s lab work petered off after that, as he and Severus spent their days reading through heavy tomes on core magic. It was tough work, especially for Harry, who was not much of a reader, but it gave him hope.

Yet the weeks went on with little sign of success. Harry made his way through the library books one by one. He had almost made his way through one of the last books on cores when a paragraph caught his eye.

The most recent case of core replacement was in 1909, in the Daning County of the Shanxi province of China, when a young witch named Yusheng Bai accidentally split her core during ritual magic. The portion of her core which had broken off from the main piece resided in her runic calligraphy set, into which she had previously poured a significant amount of magic. Her friend brewed Zong Yao - a mystical healing potion - for Yusheng, who made a full recovery after ingestion.

“Severus,” said Harry.

“Hmm,” he replied.

“Severus, I think I found something.”

“What’s that?”

“Zong Yao. Someone had a similar problem to you, and their friend cured them with Zong Yao.”

Severus shook his head. “Zong Yao is a myth. They probably just recovered naturally.”

“No, I mean, I know it’s a long shot, but it’s worth doing some research about it, yeah?”

“You’ve already done your research into Zong Yao,” Severus said, “and you concluded, just as I did, that it’s a fanciful myth.”

“But the case was in 1909. That’s less than a hundred years ago – I bet there are still people alive who were there when this happened.”

“So, what, you’re going to go to China on the off chance that there’s actually something of merit?”

“Yes,” said Harry. “Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Severus sighed. “It’s not worth it, Harry. There isn’t any truth in it. You’d be going halfway across the globe for no reason.”

“It’s not “no reason,” Severus. It’s a pretty fucking big reason. Maybe it won’t work out, but maybe it will. Why shouldn’t I try?”

“For starters, how are you going to get there? The Chinese authorities are incredibly strict with whom they let in. And let’s say you do make it in – you’re going to trek through miles of mountains, all by yourself?”

“I’ll sneak my way in,” said Harry.

“Oh, brilliant. Have a great time spending the rest of your life being interrogated for espionage.”

“They won’t catch me,” Harry replied stubbornly.

“Okay, let’s say they don’t catch you,” said Severus cattily. “Then what happens when you’re there? Translation spells are only one-way. Meaning that you won’t be able to ask for directions, communicate with anyone. You’ll die in those mountains.”

“I won’t. It’ll work out. You’ll see.” Harry felt the frustration bubbling up in his core, and he tamped down on it ruthlessly.

“It’s not worth it!” Severus exclaimed. “I won’t have you die on a mountain pass in the middle of nowhere for a useless mission!”

“It’s not useless! And you haven’t any choice. I’m going, whether you like it or not.”

“Why?” shouted Severus, hands pressed against the frame.

“Because I love you!” Harry shouted back. Severus’s eyes widened. “Do you get it?” Harry shouted. “I fucking love you, you bastard. I’m going to China. I’ll see you when I get back.”

Harry turned around and fled the lab, unable to bear the look of shock upon Severus’s face. Severus hadn't said it back. But it was okay. He was going to fix this.

Harry packed his bags in a hurry – enough clothes and toiletries for a week-long trip, but nothing more. He just hoped wasn’t going to be there for too long. He zipped it up and ran out into the corridor, straight into Neville Longbottom.

“Goodness, Harry! Where are you going?’

“China,” replied Harry tersely. Neville laughed. Harry didn’t.

“Oh, blimey, you’re actually going to China?” Neville asked.

“Yep,” said Harry.

“How are you going to get in?”

“I dunno. I’ll figure it out,” said Harry. He sidestepped around Neville, but Neville grabbed his arm before he could get too far.

“Wait a minute, Harry. I think I can help you, but I need to figure it out,” he said.

“Can you really?” asked Harry hopefully.

Neville nodded. “Come to my quarters, let’s work it out. Explain to me on the way.”

Harry followed Neville, recounting what he had learned about Severus’s condition and explaining his mission to China. When he had finished, Neville had already stoked a fire.

“Okay,” said Neville. “I think I have a plan.”

“You’re not going to tell me I’m dumb? Or that it’s useless?”

Neville smiled. “I don’t know much about the potion, but I don’t think it’s useless. You and Snape – you’re more than just friends, yeah?”

Harry nodded. “I love him,” he said quietly.

“Alright,” said Neville, not looking too surprised. “Let’s call Amanda.”

“Amanda? Why?”

“She has a Chinese passport, and she still has family back in China who she visits sometimes. If you go with her, they’ll let you in by International Portkey. And Amanda speaks fluent Chinese, so you’ll be far safer.”

“Shit, Neville. That would be amazing,” Harry said, relieved.

Neville floo-called Amanda, who was not too keen on being woken up in the middle of the night, but who readily agreed when Harry and Neville explained his predicament. They made a plan to have Harry portkey to Melbourne, meet up with Amanda, and then portkey together to Taiyuan, the capital of the Shanxi province.

---

 

“Come on, Harry!” Amanda shouted over her shoulder. “We need to get to the next town by nightfall.”

Harry wiped the sweat off his brow and willed his aching legs to move a bit faster. This was the third mountain they had climbed today, and their fourth day of trekking.

“How are you doing this?” he asked incredulously. “I think my feet are going to fall off.”

Amanda slowed her pace and waited for Harry to catch up to her. “It’s because you spend all day in that little Potions lab. You need to get outside more often.”

“I do exercise,” Harry protested. “I fly a couple times a week.”

“Yes, yes,” Amanda rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “I see your lovely bulging quidditch muscles. But you’ve been skipping leg day. Not to worry, we’ll get you whipped up to shape soon enough.”

Harry wondered what Severus was doing back at Hogwarts. Perhaps he was working on another herbal substitute. Harry pictured him over his cauldron, sweeping the hair out of his face. He pictured nimble blue fingertips shredding flower petals. Or perhaps Severus was nervous, and he was pacing about the library painting like a caged animal. Harry wondered if Severus was still sleeping in the forest scene, or if it felt lonely now that Harry was gone.

It took them two more days before they made it to the magical district of Xia Hebao, accessed through a set of buildings carved into the dramatic loess cliffs. From then, it only took them two more days to locate someone who had known Yusheng Bai.

They were meeting with her today, in a tea shop near their hostel. Her name was Guang, and she was an ancient old witch with white hair and crinkling laugh lines by her eyes. Harry had applied his translation spell before they left that morning, so he could understand everything she said. Amanda helped translate Harry’s words into Mandarin.

“Bai passed away twenty years ago,” Guang said. “When Huifen passed, she could not carry on without her. It was before her time, but she died knowing that she would meet Huifen in the afterlife.”

“Can you tell me about the potion – Zong Yao?” Amanda translated for Harry.

She nodded. “Huifen made the potion for her, back when they were twenty. Bai had split her core, making her magic unstable. It reacted out against her, maiming her and possessing her. She would have died soon after the accident. Huifen saw that the only way to cure her was to make Zong Yao. She worked on the potion for forty hours nonstop, blindfolded, letting her magic decide for her. I watched over her during that time, making sure she ate and drank, keeping watch over the potion for fifteen minutes while she took naps. She poured her life into that potion. I remember thinking that the ingredients were odd – that there was no way they could work together. I don't even think she put ginseng in. But she had faith in her magic. She didn’t take her blindfold off once, until the very end. She was exhausted by then, but as she placed the last ingredient in, she collapsed to the floor. She had poured her whole core into that potion. Huifen was left as a squib, but Bai recovered fully.”

“Huifen had to use her whole core?” Harry asked.

Guang nodded. “Yes. The potion requires a sacrifice. Huifen is lucky that she had enough magic to simply leave her as a squib. Many are not so lucky, and they pour their whole life-force into the potion. Some die. But for Huifen, it was no question. She was willing to sacrifice anything for Bai.” Her eyes teared up, and she dabbed at them with a napkin.

“Huifen must have loved her very much,” said Amanda.

“Very much,” Guang agreed. “And Bai loved her back. They were soulmates, you see? Huifen couldn’t live without Bai, and Bai couldn’t live without Huifen.”

They spared a moment of silence for the two women, and then Harry asked for clarification about the sacrificial aspect of the potion. “Is it black magic?” asked Harry. “It’s okay if it is, I’m just…. I’d just like to know.”

Guang shook her head. “Not at all. It’s the lightest form of magic out there – she sacrificed herself willingly, for love. There is nothing more pure.”

Harry nodded, and thought about how Lily had sacrificed herself for Harry. How beautiful, clean, and kind her protective magic had been.

They spent the rest of the morning with Guang, speaking about the potion and about Bai and Huifen’s life together. When they parted ways, Guang embraced Harry and whispered in his ear, “Good luck, Harry. I hope your love is worth it. I hope you survive it.”

Harry blushed, but he should have known that Guang would understand why he was asking about Zong Yao. Harry nodded, and watched as Guang disappeared from sight as she rounded a corner.

“Are you okay?” asked Amanda.

“Fine,” replied Harry. “Actually, better than fine. I know what I’ve got to do now.”

“Surely you’re not still thinking about making the potion,” Amanda said, shocked. “You could die. At the very least, you could be left a squib.”

Harry shook his head. “I highly doubt it. I have way too much magic, anyway. It’d be good to get rid of some of it. I don’t mind if I’m left with only a small amount left.”

“You’ll probably be left with none,” said Amanda. “And that’s the best-case scenario.”

“Don’t worry about me, Amanda. I’ll be fine,” Harry waved her off.

“No, you won’t be fine. That’s the entire point of the sacrifice.”

“I have more than enough magic to complete the sacrifice,” said Harry.

“I don’t think you understand,” said Amanda. “But I can’t stop you, if it’s something you feel you need to do.”

“It is,” said Harry.

---

When Harry got back from China, it was nearly three o’clock in the morning. He placed his bags on the floor of his sitting room and massaged his sore calves. The Zong Yao would be tough, yes, but not impossible. And Harry’s one natural skill as a brewer – animascente – would help him throughout the process. He pulled his boots off and padded gingerly into the bedroom. He’d have to make some blister salve tomorrow.

“Welcome back,” said a soft voice. Harry nearly jumped out of skin, but when he turned on the lights he saw Severus sitting up in bed.

“Thanks,” said Harry. He smiled up at Severus, knowing he finally had a chance to heal him. He could be with Severus in person, he could embrace him, he could kiss him, he could be with him.

“How was the trip?” asked Severus.

“Good. Very informative. The hike was a bitch, though. I’m thinking about cutting off my feet and regrowing new ones.”

“Probably more trouble than it’s worth,” said Severus, smiling.

“You’re probably right,” said Harry. It was nice finally being back, finally being able to look at Severus’s wonderful face, even with his bedhead and the little bits of sleep sand in the corners of his eyes.

“What you said, before you left,” Severus said softly. “Do you really?”

“When I said that I love you?” asked Harry. “I do. You don’t have to love me back. I just wanted you to know.”

“I do, too, you know,” said Severus. He rubbed the stubble at his chin, it made a scratchy little noise.

“You do?” asked Harry. “You don’t have to.”

“I do.”

Harry grinned, felt the joy overtake him. “Brilliant,” he said, knowing he probably looked like a loon. He couldn’t help it, though. He was picturing his life together with Severus.

“I’m going to heal you, baby,” Harry said.

“Are you, now?” asked Severus. His eyes sparkled mischievously.

“Mmm,” said Harry. “And then I’ll be able to annoy you all the time. I’m going to jump on the bed when you fall asleep early. And I’m going to kiss you all the time – you’re going to be sick of my lips.”

“I could never be sick of your lips,” Severus responded, and his tone was oh-so-sweet. Harry wanted to savor it forever. “Get your sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Harry nodded, turned off the lights, and fell into bed still in his hiking pants and his sweaty athletic shirt.

“Good night, Severus. I love you,” he said. Right before he fell asleep he heard Severus respond, “And I you.”

---

Harry woke up in a wonderful mood. Severus was sitting there at his desk, sipping at a cup of chamomile tea. The tendrils of steam rose up to the top of the dome, the warm morning light shining through it.

“Have you been here since I left?” asked Harry.

Severus shrugged. “I wanted to be here when you returned. I went to the lab sometimes. You were gone for two weeks, you know.”

“It didn’t seem that long,” said Harry. “You look a bit tanner, though. I didn’t even know you could get tan. But it must be all that time in the sun out here in the forest.”

“I like this forest,” Severus responded. “It’s a shame it’s just a painting.”

“When we get you better, I’ll make you an office just like this one. We can get a house in the countryside, use the basement for brewing. Somewhere sunny, near the woods.”

“Sounds nice,” Severus said. “Want to tell me about this master plan of yours?”

“Zong Yao is real,” Harry said. “I talked to a woman who told me how to make it.”

Severus frowned. “Are you sure? Why haven’t people been making it more often, then?”

“A couple things,” said Harry. “One is that most people are unaware of it. I had to go to one of the most remote magical communities on the planet to learn about it. The second reason is that it requires animascente – true animascente. I mean, full-on blindfolded animascente. And the last reason is that it requires a sacrifice, and I suppose not everyone is willing to make that sacrifice. But none of those are problems for me – I’m a natural at animascente, and the sacrifice won’t be bad.”

“Sacrifice?” Severus repeated. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“It’s not bad,” Harry replied. “Just a bit of magic. I’ll be glad to be rid of it.”

Severus shook his head. “I’m going to assume that you are drastically understating it. I can’t let you sacrifice your magic for me, Harry. I don’t care if it’s just a drop of it – I know how sacrifices are. It won’t go the way you think it will.”

“Severus, I’m not worried about it. It won’t be bad.” He wished he could hold Severus’s hand.

“It will be bad,” Severus scowled. “I won’t let you. Let me do more research – give me a couple months to come up with an alternative. You need to work on your apprenticeship now, anyway.”

“I don’t give a flying fuck about my apprenticeship right now. Not when I have the solution right here in front of me.”

“Promise me that you won’t brew Zong Yao until you have my express permission,” Severus commanded.

“I can’t promise that! I can’t just sit around while you’re trapped in here! Not when I can do something about it.”

“Give me one month, then. Just one month.”

“Fine,” said Harry. “One month. And then you can’t stop me.”

---

Waiting for the month was painful, yes, but it wasn’t as bad as Harry had thought it would be. At the end of the month, either Severus would have a solution or Harry would brew Zong Yao and cure him.

It itched under his skin, the knowledge that he was so close to the solution, but he was happy. There was a light at the end of the tunnel for him and Severus. He spent his days brewing potions for his apprenticeship, watching Severus as he made his way through his research, and thinking about their future together.

“Will you live with me?” asked Harry.

“Hmm?” said Severus.

“When you’re out of the portrait, will you live with me? We can get a house out in the countryside. I mean, if you don’t want to teach anymore. You never seemed like you like teaching, though. It would be nice if we could do our own work. Maybe I could create potions and you could perfect them.”

“That’d be nice,” said Severus. He smiled softly. “I’d like that.”

“Me too,” said Harry. “I can’t wait.”

---

A week or two into the month, Harry flooed to Ron and Hermione’s place for the weekend. He stumbled out of the flames into their warm, comfortable apartment to the scent of a mouthwatering beef stew.

“In here, Harry!” shouted Ron from the kitchen. Harry walked in to see Ron holding a wooden spoon and dressed in a frilly pink apron with the words, “Kiss the Chef!” emblazoned on the front. Harry burst into laughter.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ron laughed. “Hermione thought it was funny.”

“She’s right,” Harry choked out, wiping tears from his eyes. “Looks lovely on you. Forgive me if I don’t kiss the chef, though.”

“Oh, how you wound me,” said Ron. “I’ll just have Hermione do it, then. She’s at the shop getting some wine right now. Here, make yourself useful and peel these potatoes.”

When Hermione got back to see Ron and Harry flinging bits of mashed potato at each other, she simply sighed. She gave Harry a kiss on the cheek and persuaded him to abandon Ron to sit and have a drink with her.

“What’s this I’ve been hearing about a potion, then?” Hermione asked.

“Did Neville tell you?” Harry asked. “It’s this potion made with animascente – free brewing, you know? Well, it’ll cure Severus. I know I can make it, he’s just making me wait for a month.”

“Sounds dangerous,” remarked Hermione, “If he’s making you wait.”

Harry shrugged. “Severus is just overprotective. It’ll be fine. It's not dangerous.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you lie to me, Harry James Potter. I talked to Neville and Amanda. I know about the sacrifice. You’ll end up dead or a squib.”

“I won’t,” Harry said. “I have more than enough magic for it.”

“I know you're very powerful, Harry, but you’re not Dumbledore. Sure, you have enough magic that you probably won’t die making it, but you need to be prepared to become a squib.”

“I won’t become a squib,” Harry protested.

“You likely will,” said Hermione. “And you can go on deluding yourself, but you need to think hard about whether you’re willing to become a squib for him.”

“I won’t become a squib. But it’s still worth it if I do. I won’t regret it either way.”

“Do you really mean that?” asked Hermione, her large brown eyes studying him.

“Yes, I mean it.”

“You love him, don’t you?” Hermione asked.

“Seems pretty bloody obvious he does,” said Ron from the doorway. Harry nodded. “I don’t get it, mate,” Ron said. “But I’m happy for you. You haven’t had someone for so long. I’m glad you have him. Might take a while for us to get along, though.”

Hermione laughed. “Can you imagine him at Christmas at the Burrow? He’d be horrified.”

“Gods, yeah, I can see his face,” Ron said. “Like that one where it looks like he’s smelled something foul.” Ron wrinkled his nose up in a close approximation of Severus’s disapproving expression.

Harry laughed. “He’d probably make that face, yeah. But he’d like it a lot. I know he would. His eyes would be happy.”

“The only thing Snape’s eyes have ever been is scary,” Ron joked.

“That’s cause you don’t know him,” said Harry. “I can tell how he’s feeling by his eyes. And I’m pretty thick when it comes to emotional stuff. I can just tell with him. Once you get to know him you’ll understand.”

“Yeah,” said Ron. He smiled. “I’m looking forward to it, mate.”

---

The next two weeks passed at a crawl. Harry got progressively antsier, waiting for the moment when he could brew the potion. Severus was looking increasingly harried, the papers at his desk in a jumbled mess and the stack of books balanced precariously on the forest floor.

The night before the month was up, Severus was burning the midnight oil.

“Love, have you slept more than an hour a night this past week?” Harry asked.

Severus shook his head and held a hand up for silence.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Harry. “Just get some sleep and let me take care of this.”

“I need to find another solution,” said Severus, not looking up from his notes.

“We have a perfectly good solution,” said Harry. “Please just get some sleep. It’ll all work out.”

“If you die….” Severus began.

“It’s not going to happen,” Harry said firmly.

“It might happen. If you die, I will never forgive myself. I’d gladly live a thousand lifetimes in this portrait to protect you from death."

“Look at me, love. Look at me. I’m not going to die. I’m taking this risk by myself. Probably nothing bad will even happen to me. But if it does, I don’t want you to blame yourself. In fact, think of it this way: I’m doing this for myself. I’m being selfish, and I’m ignoring what you want. I’m doing this because I want you out here in the real world. I’m not doing it for you. If anything bad happens, it’s my fault for being selfish.”

Severus scoffed. “Please don’t.”

“It’s the truth. I want you here with me, and I’m willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary for that to happen.”

“Your death is the one thing I couldn’t bear,” said Severus. “I wouldn’t survive. The potion would be for naught. It’s not worth it.”

“It’s worth it to me. Please go to bed and stop thinking about it. Think about what our life is going to be like together. Think about our beautiful cottage and our dark Potions lab in the basement and our forest.”

Severus didn’t say anything, so he went on about their life together. He talked about growing chamomile in the garden so they could make their own tea leaves. He talked about how he always wanted a crup, and they could adopt one from one of the local shelters and spoil it with bacon bits and morsels of roast from the table. He talked about how they could sleep in wards in the forest during the winter, protected in their warm bubble, how they could make love underneath the stars and the softly falling snow. He heard when Severus’s breathing pattern changed into that of slumber, but he continued to talk to himself about their lives together. He fell asleep with a soft smile on his face.

---

Harry woke the next morning feeling determined. Severus looked worried, but he seemed to have realized that there was nothing that could change Harry's mind. When they got to the lab, Harry blindfolded himself and attempted to get to work.

He felt his way around the lab and made his way to the Potions cupboard. He let his hands roam over the bottles of ingredients, pulling out the ingredients and placing them on his work table whenever they felt right. He couldn't tell how long he had been standing there at the cupboard - it could've been hours, it could've been minutes.

When he had finally laid out all his potential ingredients - and didn't it feel odd, not knowing exactly what they were? - he placed a cauldron on the burner. Something stopped him, though. Something in his magic urged him to use the other burner that he had neglected this whole year - the one with the volatile flames that always ran a bit too hot. He placed his cauldron on that burner and lit it with his wand, and his magic sung with a feeling of rightness.

"Are you sure that's the best one to use?" asked Severus from above him. Harry pictured his expression; slightly doubtful, probably a bit worried.

"Don't worry, love," Harry said. "I won't do anything unless I'm sure it's right."

Harry filled the cauldron with an aguamenti. Something felt right about the base being the product of his magic. He cut off the stream when it felt like the right amount and began gathering his ingredients. That was the thing about free brewing, that you couldn't prepare your ingredients beforehand. Because your potion was constantly evolving, you had to adapt after each step. Harry was supremely grateful for the newfound knife skills he had gained over the course of his apprenticeship, because he knew he'd be chopping under pressure with this potion.

As the base heated, Harry set to work on his first ingredient. He let his hands hover over the ingredients. Some felt warm to him, but nothing felt completely right. He tried picking the ingredients up, holding them in his hands, bringing them to his cheek and his chest, but still, he couldn't find the perfect ingredient. In fact, they seemed even colder now than they had before. Frustrated, Harry went back through the ingredients, probably treating them a tad more roughly than usual. They were stone-cold to his magic.

"Calm down," said Severus. "Focus. Don't think, just feel. Feel what you want to happen."

Severus was right - the entire point of animascente was not to think.

"Deep breath - in and out," said Severus, and Harry took a harsh deep breath. "Breathe with me," he said. Harry listened to the sounds of Severus's breath and tried to follow along. It was soothing, knowing that he was here with Harry. That soon, he would be here in person with Harry.

Harry let his worries go. Nothing on his mind but Severus. He thought of the little scar that wrapped around Severus's finger; how even and straight the silvery line was. Harry smiled, thinking about Severus's beautiful hands and his long fingernails. Maybe he would convince Severus to finally cut them, once he was cured.

Softly, something pulled at his magic. He reached out his hand, felt something like a tuber underneath his fingers. He shook his head, willing himself not to think too hard about it. He picked up his knife and began chopping. He kept on chopping, finer and finer, until the thin slices felt like they resonated - with him, with the base, with the overall magical atmosphere in the air. He gently placed the slices into the now-bubbling base, smiling when he felt the potion sigh in contentment. Harry imbued the potion slightly - not enough to make it unstable, but enough to quench its appetite for raw magic.

Once the first ingredient was in, Harry had a much easier time with the rest of it. Each time he'd get stuck, he'd think about what it would be like to feed Severus the potion and see his eyes flutter open, and the animascente would all come rushing back, brimming with potential ingredients and potential preparation technique.

Harry lost himself in the process, ignoring all sensation except for that of the magic. He didn't think about his aching back or his sore feet or his grumbling stomach. At some point, Severus asked for a house-elf to bring him some food, which Harry stuffed in his mouth and chewed without tasting, only because Severus insisted. Severus's concern filled him with another rush of love, so strong and powerful that Harry nearly launched himself across the worktable to get the next ingredient. He felt the thin gossamer petals of a flower, and when he crushed one of the petals beneath his fingers, the aromatic scent of moonflowers filled the lab.

Harry kept this up for a long time - though how long, he couldn't say. All he could tell was that he was tired, and that his magic felt drained. He had been subtly imbuing the potion every time he put in a new ingredient, and although he was only putting in the barest sliver of magic each time he imbued, it seemed that it had added up.

When he took his third meal break, he swayed slightly on his feet. The house-elf that had brought the platter grabbed his hands and led him to a wooden stool. He tried to get up - after all, the show must go on - but the house-elf gently pushed him back down.

"Mr. Potter be scaring Mimsy," she said in a high, fragile voice. "Mimsy is thinking that Mr. Potter should be sitting down." Harry gave a weak protest.

"Listen to Mimsy, Harry," Severus said softly. Harry sat back down and slumped over. Mimsy placed a spoon in one of his hands and a dish in the other. Harry ate, feeling guilty at how glad he was to have a slight break from the potion.

"You'll tell me if it boils over, right?" he asked.

"Yes," responded Severus. "Don't worry, just eat." So Harry ate. Now that he was sitting and he wasn't completely engaged in the potion, he could feel the physical exhaustion even more acutely.

"How long has it been?" he asked Severus.

"Around sixteen hours," Severus responded. Harry sat upright in surprise.

"Has it really?" he asked. "It didn't feel that long at all."

"It felt like twice as long for me," Severus responded wryly. Harry could just picture his thin lips twisting up in a smirk. "You should sleep soon," said Severus. "Just for an hour or two."

"Nope!" said Harry. He hopped up from the stool. "I'm good to go."

Harry kept up the process, determined as ever now. Some time later, he nearly slipped up. He was just about to mince some unidentified leaves when Severus stopped him, pointing out that he hadn't cast a cleansing charm on his cutting board in between ingredients.

"Shit, you're right," Harry sighed. He cast a cleansing charm and began to mince the leaves. When he had added them to the potion, Severus stopped him again.

"You need to get some sleep," Severus said.

"I'm fine," Harry responded. "But thank you for being concerned about me."

"No, you really need to get some sleep. A quick nap, at least. I'll watch over the potion." Severus's tone brooked no argument, so Harry sighed and made his way over to the couch.

"Alright, fifteen minutes. Send a stinging charm to wake me up, will you? I'm probably not going to wake up easily,' he yawned.

Harry awoke to the light sensation of a feather against his cheek. Disoriented, he pushed it away and turned over, trying to get back to sleep. But the feather tickled against his cheek, and then tickled against his neck. Harry scrunched up his neck, and then the feather moved to his nose. Harry sneezed, opened his eyes to pitch darkness, felt the blindfold on his face, and immediately remembered where he was. He shot upright.

"How long has it been?" he asked, panicked.

"Thirty minutes," responded Severus. "I thought you could use the extra sleep and the potion was stable.” Harry extended his magic to the cauldron, and thankfully felt that it was indeed stable.

"Thanks," Harry said. "I feel better now. Was that a feather you woke me up with?"

"Hippogriff feather," Severus responded. Harry could hear the humor in his voice. "You didn't want me to wake you up by pelting you with bezoars, did you?"

Harry laughed. "It was certainly better than a stinging charm. Now hush. I have to concentrate."

Harry began stirring the potion, but it did seem stagnant. It needed something more, and it wasn't more simmering. He felt his magic extend towards the cauldron, caress it lightly. Ah. Magic. It needed more magic. Harry imbued the potion some more, and this time it was no drop in the bucket. It felt as though he had pulled up the stopper in a bathtub, and the magic was slowly draining from him right before his very eyes. Just when Harry was beginning to get worried, the flow of magic cut off, and the potion let out a happy pulse.

Harry brewed until he had nothing on his mind other than Zong Yao and Severus Snape. He ate meals every so often and he took another fifteen-minute nap at some point. He was just placing some type of fungus into the potion when he felt it tug on his magic again. He unstoppered his magic reserves and let the magic funnel out of him and into the potion. It was then that Harry felt himself cross the point of no return with his magic.

There was a certain amount of magic that a wizard could expend, and it would regenerate in his core. But once you reached a certain point, your magic wouldn't be able to regenerate to anything higher. Harry estimated that he had about thirty percent of his magic left in his core. Surprisingly, he wasn't as upset as he thought he would be. Even if he lost another ten percent of his magic, that wouldn't be drastic. After all, twenty percent left of Harry's magic capacity was still enough to let him do all the spells he needed. Sure, he'd never be the powerful wizard he once was, but the trade-off was so well worth it that Harry didn't even find himself worrying about it.

Harry brewed his heart out until finally, the potion felt ready. The potion sang to him and the remaining ingredients were silent. Harry smiled. As he had thought, he still had over twenty percent of his magical core left - more than enough to work with.

But the potion wasn't perfect yet. It didn't need any more ingredients, it didn't need extra stirring, and it didn't need extra simmering. Harry knew it needed magic, just like before.

Harry took his blindfold off. The light blinded him for a minute, and he closed his eyes as he tried to get adjusted to it.

"It's ready?" asked Severus.

"Almost. The brewing is all done, so I don't need the blindfold anymore."

"What's left, then?"

"Just the magic," Harry responded. Carefully, he opened his eyes. Severus had his fingers laced together under his chin, looking down at Harry with an expression of concern.

"Hey, don't worry," said Harry. "We're almost done. And can't you feel how right the potion is?"

Severus shook his head. "You know I can't free brew."

"No, I mean, just feel the potion with your magic. The way you taught me."

Severus closed his eyes, and a couple seconds later, he raised his eyebrows. "That's one powerful potion," he said.

"Of course it is," Harry grinned.

Severus frowned. "How much more magic does it need?" he asked.

Harry shrugged. "I guess we'll see," he said. "Hey, will you do me a favor? When I'm finished imbuing, will you get McGonagall and have her take the potion straight to St. Mungo's? I might be really tired, and I want to make sure you get it as soon as possible."

Severus nodded, but his frown grew deeper.

"Don't worry, love," Harry said, and then he unstoppered his magic again. It trickled out of him slowly, far slower than before. But it didn't seem to have any intention of petering off any time soon. Harry stood there over the cauldron and fed it his magic. The potion gulped it down relentlessly. Harry was beginning to worry when he started to sway on his feet, disoriented. Now, his magic couldn't seem to make up its mind between imbuing the cauldron and staying with Harry. It was almost as though it was trying to satisfy both of them - or satisfy both of Harry's wants. Harry wanted to be left with magic, but he wanted to fully imbue the potion. The magic seemed to understand his warring feelings, and it hovered in the air between him and the cauldron.

It was then that it hit Harry. A true sacrifice. It wasn't a sacrifice if Harry got to keep his magic. If Harry was happy enough to keep ten or twenty percent of his magic, then the potion understood that he wasn't making a true sacrifice.

He needed to sacrifice more. He needed to sacrifice it all. The realization filled him with nausea. His magic. He needed to give it all up. Gods, he hadn't understood why Hermione and Amanda and Severus were all so adamant about how dangerous the sacrificial portion of the potion was. Stupid, Harry thought. How could you not understand?

It had been wishful thinking, that he could have his cake and eat it too. That he could continue his life with magic and also have Severus.

He loved his magic. It had been his life; it had been his savior. It had been the one thing keeping him going all those summers with the Dursleys. It had filled him with joy, every time he created a potion. He thought about the beauty of magic - how splendid his patronus had been, how incredible it had been to perform his first spell, how wondrous it had felt to cast. He had loved his magic. Harry would rather sacrifice anything other than his magic. Harry would cut off his own legs if he needed to. He would rather go blind, or deaf, or mute.

Harry wondered if he could sacrifice it - if he could even summon up the will to direct his magic to abandon him for the potion.

Harry had loved his magic. But Harry loved Severus more. Harry pictured his life with magic but without Severus, and his life without Severus but with magic. It wasn't really a question, when he thought of it that way.

Harry collected himself. He looked up at Severus.

"I'm sorry," Harry said.

"It's alright," Severus responded. His posture relaxed. "We'll find another cure. You tried your best."

Harry shook his head. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "Please don't blame yourself."

Severus's expression twisted up in panic. "Wait!" he shouted. "Don't do anything reckless - don't sacrifice anything - don't - stop - "

"I love you," said Harry. Something warm and wet and salty trickled down his cheek, onto his lips.

"Stop!" shouted Severus. "Please! Don't!"

Harry sent a silencing charm at the painting, hating himself a bit for it. Severus's face was screwed up in anguish, and as Harry watched, he slammed a hand against the frame, mouth moving soundlessly. Harry felt another tear roll down his cheek.

"Just know that I love you," Harry choked out. "Even if you can't forgive me. I'm sorry. I love you." Harry closed his eyes.

Please imbue the potion, he asked his magic. It's what I want.

His magic swirled, uncertain, but Harry smiled. I love him. Please imbue the potion, all the way. The magic parted from him reluctantly, but it began to trickle towards the potion again. It was horrible, feeling the magic slip away from him, but he thought about Severus. Over and over, he pictured Severus's eyelids fluttering open. When there was one last droplet of magic left, perhaps enough for a weak lumos, it circled around him in the air. Thank you for being a good friend. I loved you, too, he told it, and he watched it slowly drift into the potion.

The silencing charm must have come undone when Harry lost all his magic, because he heard Severus shout, "Harry!"

But Harry could feel the world sliding out from under him. Blackness crept across his vision. He collapsed to the floor and let the blackness overtake him.

---

Harry awoke to a horrible feeling of emptiness. Usually it took him a while to come to his senses after waking up, but that feeling of loss deep in his core made him realize immediately what had happened.

"Harry, are you awake?" asked a soft voice off to his left. Something squeezed his hand. He opened his eyes. He must be in St. Mungo's, because the sheets were thin and the walls were blindingly white and the smell of antiseptic permeated the air. Severus was sitting by his bedside, holding his hand. His hand was warm and soft. Harry had always thought they would be cold. Harry smiled.

"You're here," Harry said. His voice was cracked and raw. "I can't believe you're here!" he exclaimed. He grinned, and felt his dry lips split. "You're really here," he said, awed.

Severus smiled. "I'm here," he said. He placed his wand over Harry's lips and mended them with a silent spell.

"You're okay?" Harry asked. Severus nodded, and Harry launched himself towards Severus, capturing his lips in a kiss. It was a bit too hard, and the angle wasn’t quite right at first, and Harry knew that his breath was atrocious, but it was nevertheless amazing. Severus's hand came around to cup his head, and his lips were soft and warm. That spot in his core that had felt empty before was flooded with love. He made a soft sound, and Severus's thumb caressed his cheek.

A noise came from the doorway, and they broke apart. Ron and Hermione stood there, and then Hermione rushed to his bedside and threw herself at him. Harry hugged her, and then Ron came around the other side of the bed and put his arms around both of them.

"We were so worried, Harry," Hermione scolded him. "We didn't know if you were going to wake up."

Harry smiled. "Aw, come on. I told you guys I wasn't going to die. All you had to do was believe me."

"You also told us you weren't going to become a squib, mate," Ron said with a wince. "So we were pretty scared for you."

The reminder of his magic-lessness hit him hard, but he looked over at Severus. It was so incredibly worth it.

"I'm sorry for scaring you all. Thank you for being here for me."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Of course we are. You were out for three weeks, but everyone visited. Molly knitted you this scarf. Neville and Amanda were here for a while too, and Luna came and visited. She left you these… things. I think they're earrings." She pointed at two fuzzy pink things on his bedside table.

"The twins brought you some stuff, too," said Ron. "But I definitely wouldn't test them out until you're all better. I have no idea what they are. Or if they've been test-run."

"I don't think they'd poison me right after I woke up," Harry joked.

"True," said Ron. "But they would turn you into a bird, or something. Best not risk it."

Hermione laughed, and Harry felt it was all okay. Here with his loved ones, the future seemed wonderful.

But Severus wasn't laughing. He seemed still worried. Harry squeezed his hand.

"Do you guys want to go to the canteen?" Harry asked. "I'm famished."

Hermione and Ron nodded, and Severus squeezed his hand again. Severus helped him get up from bed, which Harry was at first offended by, and then very grateful for once he noticed how much his muscles had atrophied. Severus slipped an arm around his waist, and Harry leaned on him. He could definitely walk on his own, but it felt so wonderful to finally be able to touch him.

Hermione forced Harry to get the blandest sandwich he had ever seen, but she did allow him a cup of lime Jell-O for dessert. He ate his meal with fervor, and when he was finally done scarfing it down, Hermione placed her hand on his arm.

"So," she said. "You're a squib."

"Gee, thanks, Hermione," Harry said. He meant it to come out lighthearted, but it probably sounded a bit more bitter than he meant it. "I don't mind it," he added. "I'm glad everything happened this way, and I wouldn't change anything if I had to do it again."

"Well, I'm glad you feel that way," said Hermione. "But I've been doing some research, and -"

"Please don't suggest it," Severus cut her off. His brows were creased, his eyes melancholy.

"Don't suggest what?" asked Harry, intrigued.

"Don't you think we should let him decide for himself?" Hermione asked Severus.

Severus sighed. "I don't want to give him this… this ultimatum."

"It's not an ultimatum!" Hermione argued. "It's just an option. Really, Severus, just let me explain it to him." Harry raised his eyebrows at Hermione's use of Severus's given name, but Severus didn't seem to react to it. Harry supposed they had gotten to know each other over the course of Harry's hospital stay.

"I'd like to hear the option," Harry said. Severus sighed, but he nodded.

"I'm going to get more tea," said Severus. He got up from the table, sweeping a hand across the back of Harry's neck as he passed by.

"So. I've been doing some research. Actually, I started the research back when you first came and told us your plans. I'm glad that you don't regret giving up your magic, but I think I've found a way for you to have it back - or at least, have a portion of it."

"Are you serious?" asked Harry. His heart leapt.

"I'm serious," Hermione nodded. "But it's not simple. Essentially, when you brewed the potion, a portion of your magic was stored inside it, and when Severus drank the potion, it melded with his core. So Severus has some of your magic in him - not all of it, mind you, just a small portion. There's this archaic marriage bond that I found where the two participants sort of… share their core. You'd each have access to the same magic core. It's quite dangerous because sometimes cores don't mesh well together, and then both participants can die. That's why no one's done it in years. But that's not an issue for you two as Severus's core easily accepted your magic, so we know for a fact that you're compatible."

"So we'd share one core?" asked Harry.

"Pretty much. Technically, it’d be Severus’s core, and you’d be able to access your portion of the magic."

"Wow,” Harry sighed. “I mean, I'm good with it, but I wouldn't want to pressure Severus. Is the marriage thing just a formality?"

Hermione shook her head. "No. It's quite the opposite, actually. The bond is one of the strictest ones I've ever seen - you both would have to be completely faithful, you'd need to live with each other, as you need a certain amount of physical contact, and most important, the bond can never be broken. You wouldn't be able to back out, until one of you died."

Harry let it settle over him. To him, it sounded wonderful - regain use of his magic and spend the rest of his life with Severus. He had planned on doing the latter, no matter what.

For Severus, however, it would be a sacrifice. Harry knew that Severus loved him back, but he couldn't justify asking Severus to spend the rest of his life with him. And he knew that Severus would agree to the terms no matter how trapped he would feel, simply to repay Harry for curing him.

"I couldn't ask Severus to do that for me," he told Hermione. "It just wouldn't be fair to him."

"Well, don't think about Severus for a second. How would you feel about it?"

"It'd be like a dream come true, obviously. But if I marry Severus, I would want it to be on our own terms. And I'd want him to want it, too, just as much as I want it. I don't want him to do it out of some misplaced sense of responsibility."

Hermione smiled softly. "It's not like that for him, Harry. Trust me. Just talk to him - tell him how you feel, and then listen to him. And I mean, really listen to what he's saying, not just what you think he's saying."

Harry nodded, then shook his head. "If I tell him I want it, he's going to agree. No matter what he feels."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Then ask him to go first. Godric, you boys are so thick."

Severus slipped back into his seat, holding a cup of tea between his hands.

"I've told him," said Hermione. "You should talk about it together. Why don't you go back up to the room?"

Severus nodded, stood up stiffly, and pulled out Harry's chair. Harry looked up, pleasantly bemused. Severus's ears were a bit red, but he offered his arm to Harry smoothly, and slid an arm around his waist when Harry stood.

They didn't say much on their way back up. When they got back to the hospital room, Severus locked the door and cast a muffling charm. Harry patted the bed next to him, and Severus sat down next to him. He still seemed stiff and uncomfortable, so Harry laid his head on Severus's bony shoulder. Oh, how wonderful it felt, to have his cheeks pressed against that fine collarbone.

"So," said Harry. "What do you think about it?"

"I think… well, I think it'd be a solution, I suppose. But you're in your twenties - you have your life ahead of you. I couldn't in good conscience tie you down to me like this."

"Like how?" asked Harry.

"Out of necessity. Out of need. I couldn't force you to make this decision to tie yourself down simply so that you can have your magic back. It would be incredibly immoral of me. Not to mention selfish."

"You're worried because you think I don't want it? But you do want it?" Harry asked. He grabbed Severus's hand and threaded their fingers together.

"I…" said Severus. Harry looked up at him. His face was drawn in a wince.

"I want it," said Harry. "It's exactly what I want, with the added bonus of regaining some magic. I already planned on spending the rest of my life with you - you must know that, right? But I wouldn't want it if you didn't want it. I couldn't live with you, knowing that I had trapped you because you feel guilty."

"You understand what it entails right?" asked Severus. His face was still screwed up, and he avoided eye contact. "You'd never be able to change your mind. Ever. You'd be stuck with me your whole life."

"Brilliant," said Harry. "It sounds wonderful to me. It's you I'm worried about."

"Me?" Severus scoffed, disbelieving. "I'd be lucky. You're…I'll never want anyone but you."

"You really mean that?" asked Harry. He didn’t care how desperate he sounded. "Because I really want to believe you, but I'm just so scared of trapping you in a marriage that you don't want to be in." Harry hoped with all his heart that Severus did want this.

Severus looked at him now. He cupped Harry's cheek in his hands, smoothed a thumb over his cheekbone. "I love you," he said. "You're it for me. You're all I want."

"Me too," Harry whispered. Severus's finger swiped over his bottom lip, and his black eyes swallowed Harry's. Harry had known how expressive Severus's eyes were, but it was different when he wasn't in a portrait. When Harry was inches away from him and could see every little fleck of amber in them, and he could see the emotions swimming in them. Doubt, fear, and love. Overwhelming amounts of it, so strong it almost felt as if it was pouring from his soul. Harry felt himself tear up.

"You do love me," Harry whispered. Severus nodded. "You really want this?" Harry asked. Severus nodded again, thumbed away a tear.

"I love you," Harry whispered. "I want to spend my life with you."

"Let me do this properly," said Severus, and Harry was confused for a moment before Severus knelt to the floor, right on the bleached-white tiles in front of his hospital bed and pulled out a ring box. The ring inside was a simple braided-gold band.

"Harry Potter, I love you more than you'll ever know. You've brought me life - and not just in the physical sense. You brought light and happiness to my world when I thought there was none. There is nothing more that I want from life than to be able to live it with you. Will you do me the honor of being my husband?"

"Gods, yes," Harry said. He felt the tears rolling down his face, but they were the happiest tears he had ever experienced. "Please marry me, Severus." Severus slipped the ring onto his finger, perfectly fitted, and Harry pulled him up.

Harry kissed him with all his heart. His hands tangled in Severus's long hair. I get to spend the rest of my life doing this, he thought.

---

Epilogue - 10 Years Later

Harry made his way through the woods unhurriedly, following the well-trodden path. It was Autumn, and the leaves crunched under his work boots with every step. In the winter, this would be a moonflower thicket, but for now the temperamental little bulbs stayed wedged tightly in the earth. Harry inhaled the crisp fall air and pulled his jacket a bit tighter around himself.

Their cottage was located on unplottable land in the middle of the forest. Although, calling it a cottage was probably a bit modest. Severus would roll his eyes every time Harry made an extension, but they loved their home nonetheless. Just last year he had renovated their lab in the basement, complete with panic-wards that would go off before a potion exploded and fake windows charmed to overlook the garden.

A small garden snake slithered through the underbrush. "Mice," it hissed.

"Sorry, lil buddy, but I haven't got any for you today," Harry replied. "Mice," the snake hissed disappointedly, and made its way off the path.

Before too long, Harry was at the conservatory. When they had first bought the property, they had experimented with various wards, trying to replicate the effects of Severus's ward bubble in the painting, but it turned out that real snow was quite a lot more difficult to keep out than painted snow.

So Harry had constructed the conservatory, a large glass building that sat in a sunny clearing in the forest. Harry had furnished the space and charmed the glass walls and ceiling to be UV protective, as Severus's fair skin was quite sensitive to the summer sun. Harry had found that out when they went to the beach in Cornwall and Severus came back looking like a tomato.

Harry crept along the outside of the conservatory, over to where Severus's desk was situated against one of the walls. He rapped on the glass, hoping to give Severus a little scare.

"I can hear your footsteps, love," Severus said, the upwards twitch of his lips betraying his amusement. Harry laughed, made his way to the doorway, and then over to Severus's desk.

Severus pushed his chair back from the desk. "Developments?" he asked.

Harry nodded, smiling, and plopped himself down on Severus's lap, straddling his long thin thighs. "I'm finished with the night vision potion. It's up to you to make it nice and pretty now."

"Good," Severus responded, nuzzling Harry's neck. Harry tilted his head to the side to give Severus better access.

"What are you working on?" Harry asked, threading his hands through Severus's hair.

"Mmm," said Severus. "You, now?"

"You rapscallion," Harry laughed. "Do you think I'm that easy?" Severus began to kiss down his neck, unbuttoning his shirt.

"Only for me," Severus said. Harry felt Severus's lips curve into a smile against his neck. Severus placed his hands on Harry's waist and pulled him a bit closer. Harry rolled his hips gently, feeling the slow swell of their erections brush against each other as the soft, unhurried arousal built up.

Harry ground down, hearing Severus's voice hitch. Severus unbuttoned his shirt some more and licked one of his nipples, then rolled it gently between his teeth, and Harry let out a moan. He never got bored of this - in fact, it just kept on getting better and better. Just like every year, he fell more and more in love with Severus.

Harry began unbuttoning Severus's shirt, feeling Severus's slim fingers slip underneath his belt.

"Want to go to bed?" Harry whispered. Severus squeezed Harry's hips tighter. Harry slid off his lap and pulled him up from the chair. He walked backwards slowly, still unbuttoning Severus's shirt until his knees hit the bed. He fell backwards onto the soft sheets, pulling Severus down on top of him.

Severus kissed Harry slowly, lips sliding against each other, tongues caressing languidly. Harry felt the sharp edge of Severus's chipped tooth against his tongue, and he licked over it. He loved that tooth. It was so quintessentially Severus.

And then Severus lowered his hips and oh, that pressure felt nice. Harry wrapped his legs around Severus and rolled his hips upwards. Harry knew they had all the time in the world, but there was something about being with Severus that always made Harry want it immediately.

Harry bucked his hips upwards, trying to quicken the pace, but Severus placed a firm hand on Harry's hips, rolling his own down torturously slowly. "Not so fast," he whispered in Harry's ear. "I'm going to have my way with you."

Harry shuddered. "You could have your way with me quickly," he suggested. Severus chuckled, deep and low, but Harry finally felt Severus's hands ghost over his bulge and pop the button of his trousers. He undid the zip and pulled Harry's trousers off, stroked his cock through the thin cotton pants. Harry arched up, but Severus pushed his hips back down.

"Patience," he said, and then he began trailing light kisses down Harry's chest. He wound a finger through Harry's chest hair and tugged on it. And finally, when Harry was feeling like a bit of a wreck, he kissed his way down to Harry's pants.

He slipped them off and turned Harry over, urging him up onto his knees and spreading Harry's arse cheeks. Harry loved this part, when he knew that Severus was watching him.

"I'm still loose from last night," Harry said.

Severus spread his cheeks a bit wider and ran a finger over his hole. "I can see."

Harry couldn't help the groan that came out of him at that. Severus looking at his stretched, loosened arse. "You can put it in now," Harry said, voice colored with lust. "Just do the charms."

"Hmm," said Severus. Harry felt his breath ghost against his crease. "I want to eat you out. I like the sounds you make."

Harry swore colorfully when Severus took his first lick. His nimble tongue teased in and out, around his hole, over his perineum. It was so hot, being completely exposed to Severus like this. He felt himself clench around Severus's tongue. Harry was a panting, moaning mess when Severus's first finger breached him. Severus's fingers were soft and slim, and it slipped in easily before it began to tease his prostate lightly. By the time Severus had worked up to three fingers, Harry had to make Severus stop before he came. Harry still almost always came before Severus, but he at least wanted Severus's cock inside him when he came.

Severus laughed, biting one of his arse cheeks. "Don't come yet," he teased. "I'm not finished with you." He sucked on one of Harry's bollocks.

"Fuck," Harry groaned. "Then you better get on with it and stop teasing me."

Severus pulled Harry up for a bruising kiss and maneuvered them around so Harry was sitting astride him. "Go on, then," he said. "Fuck yourself on my cock, love."

Harry trembled and put a hand over Severus's mouth. "If you want me to last any time at all, you need to silence that dirty mouth." Severus's eyes sparkled, so Harry conjured lube and wasted no time slathering it on Severus's cock. He lowered himself down slowly, all the way to the hilt, and felt Severus's rough exhale puff against his fingers. He began moving, slowly at first, and then quicker. He took his hand off of Severus's mouth and placed it on his wiry chest, using it to steady himself. His sternum was bony, and Harry could feel his ribs beneath his hand. Sometimes he liked to take his time, kiss along those ribs and over his collarbones, but once Severus slipped his cock inside him, he couldn't concentrate on anything but that feeling. His cock was hard and dripping, and it slapped against Severus's pale abdomen with every pass. Severus's fingers were tight on him, one hand clasping his waist, the other around his hip.

Harry was already close, and he wanted it to last longer, so he angled himself so that Severus wasn't hitting his prostate directly. But fuck, it still felt too good. Sinfully good. The hand on Harry's hip slipped around and lower, and Harry felt a finger tease at his arse where it was stretched around Severus, rubbing at the skin there. It made him moan loudly, and he fucked himself down even harder.

Severus pulled Harry up, held him steady with just the tip in. Then he dropped Harry, and Harry saw Severus's mouth drop open too as Harry was roughly impaled. Harry clenched his arse, knowing what it would do. Severus groaned and grabbed Harry tight, fucking up into him at the perfect angle. And Harry knew he wasn't going to last much longer. He collapsed onto Severus's chest and ceded all control, let himself get lost in the feeling.

"Fuck, baby," Harry moaned. "I'm going to come. Make me come - oh god -"

"Yeah?" Severus grunted. "You're going to come on me? Clench that pretty little arse around me?"

Harry moaned louder as Severus's strokes became more pointed, more sharp. And then Severus said, “Gods, you're gorgeous. Fucking perfect. I love you," and before he knew it, Harry was coming. Body clenched over, back curved, tremors wracking through him. He heard Severus groan with him, knew that Severus was feeling the hot splash of Harry's come across his stomach.

Harry caught his breath, then raised himself off of Severus. He sent a quick cleaning charm at Severus's dick and lay down beneath his spread legs. He wanted to tease Severus, make him wait for it, but he was too eager to make him come. He licked up the shaft, tugging on his bollocks lightly. Then he took the head in his mouth and swallowed it down. He loved the sense of power it gave him, listening to Severus moan and feeling him tremble underneath his hands. Not to mention, watching Severus come was probably the hottest thing Harry had ever seen.

He swallowed his dick down whole, then bobbed up. Severus bucked his hips up, and Harry smirked up at him and pushed his hips back down to the bed. Severus groaned and tucked a pillow under his head so he could watch more easily. The look on his face was so fucking predatory, so fucking sexy. Harry wrapped a hand around the base so that he could bob his head more quickly. He looked up at Severus as he did so. On the sunlit bed, his blown pupils stood out. His chest was getting blotchy and red, and Harry knew he was close.

Harry doubled down, maintaining eye contact, fluttering his eyelashes. A few more rough bobs and Severus was coming. His head tossed back violently, his back arching up off the sheets, his thighs and abs quivering and tense. Harry felt Severus's load flood his mouth, and he pulled off, gently stroking Severus through the rest of his orgasm.

Harry smirked when Severus had come back to the land of the living, and he crawled up over Severus. Severus seemed to know what was coming. He wrinkled his nose, but he opened his mouth slightly, and Harry let the come spill into Severus's mouth. He captured Severus's mouth with his own, dipped his tongue into Severus's mouth, and licked inside it. The come was bitter and salty. He licked it out of Severus's mouth, and then he licked across Severus's lips before collapsing on the bed next to him.

Severus pulled Harry's head up and placed his arm underneath his neck. He wiped the last bit of come off his lips. "You're so odd," Severus laughed. "Why do you always do that?"

"Because it's hot," Harry grinned. "And because you like it, too." He rolled over and placed his head on Severus's chest. His heartbeat was steady and strong.

They stayed like that for a couple minutes, enjoying the feeling of the warm sunlight on their bodies until a light scratching noise filtered through Harry's consciousness. "Do you hear something?" he asked.

Severus stretched and sat up. "Fuck," he said. "It's Theocritus."

Harry lifted his head up off the bed. Sure enough, the stocky little brown crup was determinedly pawing at the door, his two tails wagging madly. Harry smiled. "Well, let him in."

"Put some pants on," Severus said, hauling himself out of the warm nest they had made in the blankets. "I don't want him to see us naked."

"He's a crup," Harry responded, eyes closed. "He's always naked. He doesn't care." A pair of pants hit him in the face.

"Just because he has no modesty doesn't mean we don't have to," Severus said. Harry laughed and pulled on his pants.

"We should ask Molly to knit him a little winter coat," Harry remarked as Theocritus came bounding over. "Come up, Tee Tee! Jump! Good boy!" he encouraged, patting the bed. Theocritus leapt on the bed. Severus pretended that he didn't like it when they let him on the furniture, but nearly every night Harry would find the two of them curled up together on the sofa by the fireplace. And Severus was really the one who would spoil him rotten, giving him little bits of food from the table and frying his kibbles in leftover bacon fat.

"He doesn't like it when you call him that," grumbled Severus through an unwilling smile.

"Yes, he does," Harry said, dodging Theocritus's over-enthusiastic tongue as it tried to worm its way up his nose. "Look how he worships me. Don't you love your daddy, Tee Tee?"

"Salazar knows why," Severus sighed. He lay back down, picked Harry's head back up and placed his arm underneath it. "Settle down, Theocritus. We're relaxing right now. Play time is later."

Surprisingly, Theocritus seemed to actually listen to Severus. He collapsed with a satisfied huff between them, tails thumping loudly. Harry wrapped his arm around the both of them and closed his eyes again. He couldn't ask for a better family.