Severus had been walking for half an hour, the sword banging against his leg, fingers numb under his leather gloves. He stopped to catch his breath, taking his gloves off and tucking his hands under his arms to warm them. He’d have to find a suitable lake or pond soon but he didn’t know what he’d do if he couldn’t, he didn’t have a backup plan.
He knew this forest. Every once in awhile he’d get up early and find a quiet spot, away from the villages and hiking trails, where he could search undergrowth for Foxglove and chanterelle mushrooms. He knew it well enough to have some rough idea of where he was. Just east of Cannop Brook, he thought, about two miles from Potter's camp. A bit far for him to walk, but he knew the boy would do it.
He put his gloves back on and kept walking, keeping his eyes fixed on the trees ahead. In the dim light he could just make out a circle of blue-white, even and smooth, like the surface of a shallow pool.
He hurried towards it, hoping to warm himself and eager to get the thing done. The ice was slick beneath his feet, smooth, and so deep it didn’t crack under his feet.
“Diffindo.” The centre of the pool broke open and Snape conjured a long measuring stick and stuck it in. Just over a metre. Deep enough to be a challenge, not so deep that the boy would drown. Snape drew the sword out of his robes and dropped it into the pool, freezing the open water with a flick of the wand. He vanished the measuring stick and set about erasing every footprint from the clearing.
He supposed the boy would see it as bragging rights, something to tell his friends; did I ever tell you about the time I jumped into a frozen pond? Barely even felt it. His father and Black used to jump in the black lake sometimes on a dare, while people stood on the shores and cheered. Drunk off their arses, most likely. Fucking pricks.
He stopped to warm his hands again. The forest was so silent, so still, he imagined he’d gone back in time, a few million years maybe, before there were any people. There was a time the thought might have been comforting. It wasn’t now, not when he was so alone.
But he couldn’t dwell on that, not now. He squeezed his eyes shut and remembered her.
They were sitting side-by-side on the swings on a spring day, pushing with their feet.
“Can I see your hand?” said Lily.
Severus smiled incredulously. “What d’you want to see that for?
“I can tell you your future.”
Severus held out his hand and Lily took it in hers, warm and soft. She traced the lines on his palm, and it made him squirm but in a good way.
“You’re going to have five children and invent a cure for baldness and make a million pounds.”
Severus burst out laughing. “Sounds good to me. Galleons though. I’m a wizard, remember?”
Lily smiled and pressed his hand in hers, and she didn't let go. .
Severus opened his eyes and raised his wand. “Expecto Patronum.”
She shot out of his wand and watched him, waiting. Severus stood beside her, taking her in. She wouldn't leave him until he was ready. He wasn’t sure he ever would be. He wanted to lay down in the snow beside her and never get up.
He closed his eyes. “Go now,” he whispered. When he opened them she was gone.
He walked the perimeter of the clearing until he found two trees growing alongside each other, the perfect place to watch without being seen. He murmured an incantation and ran a jet of hot air over himself, wishing he’d worn more layers under his robes.
There was nothing to do now but wait and hoped the boy wouldn't do anything stupid. He stamped his feet on the ground and walked around a bit to keep himself warm, reciting the ingredients to Felix Felicis and trying to remember the lyrics to "Space Oddity." After awhile he just stood and watched.
She sauntered through the trees without a sound, all pearly white light. Severus memorized the shape of her as she stood by the pool and waited. She would have to leave soon.
He reached for a flask and took a swig of Polyjuice Potion, just in case. The villager was about ten years younger than Severus, an inch or two taller, with an open ruddy face and mop of brown hair.
He listened hard for footfalls, and before long there was a soft crunching through the undergrowth. Potter stopped beside the pool and watched the doe, and for the tiniest sliver of a moment Severus knew they were thinking the same thing. That they could watch her all night.
He pushed the thought aside.
The doe vanished. As far as Potter knew, he was alone. He cleared away the snow and stared into the ice.
For fuck's sake. Of course the boy would try a Summoning Charm, he was used to having everything handed to him. Severus rolled his eyes and stifled a derisive snort.
The boy resigned himself to the inevitable and stripped off his clothes. Severus was positively delighted that the boy would have to work for something for a change.
When he was down to his pants he took a deep breath and jumped into the pool. Severus heard his gasp all the way from the trees.
The sword wasn't that far down, it shouldn’t take him long. Severus imagined the boy plunging into the water, kicking with his feet to get some depth. He might have to fumble around for the sword a bit, but it was big enough, it'd be easy to see. He checked his watch. Thirty seconds. One minute. One minute thirty seconds.
Most people could last two or three, at most.
There was no one around. Severus knew what he had to do. He sprinted to the pool, not bothering to strip down, and jumped in.
Potter was writhing and flailing as though someone were holding him down. A Grindylow, maybe. He grabbed hold of Potter’s waist and shot a stunning spell at the water, but the boy kept flailing, and Severus saw that he was grabbing his throat-something was strangling him, some metal chain round his neck.
The metal chain broke off and Severus yanked it off his neck and chucked it onto the ice. He he knew what it was, and they'd better not lose it.
Severus lifted him out of the water and shoved him on to the ice, as far from the open water as he could get him. Potter got to his knees, gasping and choking, but breathing, at least. Severus would've rather crawled naked through a tank full of scorpions than give him mouth-to-mouth rescucitation.
He grabbed hold of the ice to push himself up, but it cracked. Shit. He tried again. Same thing. He would have to ease himself out.
His body was numb and so shocked he didn't feel the cold. Not a good sign. He zeroed in on the ice, thinking only of getting out of that water, resting his arms on it, careful not to push too hard. He let the water carry his weight and bit by bit he eased himself onto the ice, until his feet were out of the water.
He was shivering so hard his stomach hurt. Potter was nearby doing...something. Fumbling with his sweater? He was so tired. Maybe he should lay down on the ice and sleep.
He shook his head and slapped himself on the face. He couldn't sleep, he had to get warm...get himself and the boy warm. A blanket maybe? Fire...
He could barely hold his wand, but there was no question of not doing it. He had to.
His fingers were so stiff it slipped from his hand and fell to the ground. He bent over to pick it up, struggling to get a proper grip. Hands shaking, he pointed it to himself and muttered an incantation, his speech slow and his words slurred. What if it didn’t work...
In a few seconds his clothes were warm and dry. But it wasn’t enough, and the boy wasn’t moving.
He concentrated harder than he'd ever done in his life, closing his eyes and picturing a woolen blanket, three layers thick, big enough for two people. Nothing. He tried again. After three tries the blanket appeared out of thin air, and Severus caught it with the tips of his fingers.
Potter was lying face first on the snow-covered ice. Severus shook him.
He gasped and opened his eyes. They were dull and unfocused, as though he’d been drugged. Severus had ten, maybe fifteen minutes to get him warm. Maybe not even that.
He dragged Potter to a stand of trees and draped the blanket over them, wrapping his arms around him so they were pressed together, Potter’s chest against his, rising and falling, steady but slow. His skin was cold to the touch but he was shaking now. They both were, so hard they could barely hold on to each other. This was a good thing, it meant they were warming up. Severus didn't dare shoot any hot air at them, for fear it would shock them.
Potter drew his legs up and Severus remembered he wasn't wearing any shoes. He grabbed hold of his legs and put them on top of his, squeezing his feet between them.
Still clinging to him, he leaned against a tree and freed one of his hands to pull out his wand. He conjured a thick woolen hat and once he'd put it on the Potter's head he aimed it at the surrounding trees, Summoning every loose twig and branch and piling them up on a bare patch of ground about two feet away. When the pile was knee high and covered in good-sized branches he set it on fire.
The blanket wasn't flammable, but Severus was too tired and too cold to move closer. After awhile the blanket warmed and they didn’t shiver so much. Potter’s chest rose and fell against his own, slow and steady, and this was too strange, too much. This body was Potter’s son, the who'd hated him from the first day, who’d kill him the second he found out who he was. This was someone’s skin against him, someone’s breath on his neck, hair in his face. This wasn’t real, he wasn’t there.
But why did he want to be? Was he really so desperate to be touched by another human being? Was he really this bloody weak? He loosed his grip a little, but he couldn’t let go completely. Potter had to stay warm. He slipped his hands into the sleeves of his robes so he wouldn't feel Potter's skin against his own.
Their shivering slowed, then stopped althogther. The slack of his muscles was a relief, like a settled stomach after being sick. Potter rested his head on Severus’ shoulder and they sat and listened to the crackling fire, their chests rising and falling almost in rhythm. Potter’s heart beat against his robes, faster, steadier than before. His body was healing, returning to normal. Severus wanted to rip off his body so he couldn't touch him and he wanted to stay there and he wanted to be someone strong enough to get up and walk away. He’d never held anyone like this, never been held like this.
For fuck’s sake, what was wrong with him?
He freed one of his hands to tag a swig of Polyjuice and held Potter to him until the fire burned low. He used his wand to break a few branches off a nearby tree and directed them into the fire, until it blazed hot.
Potter must’ve felt its heat. He jerked his head away as though just realising he was there and sat up straight, drawing the blanket up to his neck and clutching it to himself the way a self-conscious teenager might clutch a towel in a changing room. Severus let go and let one arm hang at his sides, using the other to brush away a long strand of hair that didn’t exist.
Potter squinted as though to get him into focus. His glasses were sitting atop the pile of sweaters on the ice and between that and the stubble that covered his chin he was almost unrecognizable. Except for those eyes.
“You were drowning in the pond,” said Severus, his voice thinner, lighter, more nasally. “I heard splashing and I came to investigate.” He cringed, realising how much like himself he sounded.
“Thank you,” said Potter. “You saved my life.”
All his self-sure smugness was gone and he actually sounded...sincere. “Not at all,” muttered Severus.
The silence was thick with Potter's realisation that he'd just been held by a complete stranger while dressed in nothing but his pants. If only he knew. The thought was so ridiculous Severus almost laughed even though it was about as funny as a punch to the face.
Potter glanced around the forest. “Erm, so, do you live around here?”
Severus could've lied, of course, but there wasn't a house for miles around. “Not exactly.”
Potter didn’t ask what he was doing in the forest so late at night, but his face did.
"I fancied a walk," said Severus, cursing himself as soon as the words had left his mouth, because who the hell went for a walk in the Forest of Dean at 3 am in the middle of winter?
Potter's eyes darkened in confusion, but he didn't say anything. Perhaps Severus could play the part of eccentric woodsman. One who'd been to a Christmas party and was completely out of his tree.
Potter put a hand to his neck, searching for something that wasn't there. "Did you happen to see a locket?"
"As it so happens I did. It appeared to be strangling you. I cut it off and threw it on the ice." He nodded to the frozen pond, where the locket lay in the snow.
Potter let out a shaky sigh, his relief confirming the thing Severus already knew. "It's...sort of a family heirloom," he said. He wasn't much of a liar.
"Did you see a sword?"
"It's right next to your clothing."
Potter glanced over at his pile of clothes. "It was my grandfather's. I've been using it to cut wood."
Pathetic. He'd heard more convincing lies from his first-years.
They watched the fire awhile, a few inches apart, each clinging to their own end of the blanket.
"How did you know my name?" said Potter, as though he'd just thought of it.
Shit. He'd used his name to rouse him. He raised his eyes a bit and imagined that Potter had asked something nonsensical. "Pardon?"
"I thought-when you pulled me out of the water, I thought I heard you say my name."
"You must've heard wrong," said Severus. "Hypothermia can play tricks on you, that way."
"Yeah. I suppose it could."
Severus supposed he'd better see the thing through. "What is your name?"
Potter opened his mouth slightly and closed it again. "Dudley Dursley," he said.
Well. Potter wasn't as reckless and stupid as he looked.
"And you are...?"
Severus didn't have a clue what fake name to use. He thought Potter would be in and out of the water in less than a minute and he'd be sleeping in his bed.
"David Bowi-"-a half-second's pause as he realised how far-fetched this would sound-"Bowiman. David Bowiman."
Whether Potter bought this nonsense or not he didn't know, but he sat up a bit straighter, looked out at his pile of clothes beside the pond.
"I think I'll get my things. I've, er, set up camp not too far from here. My friend and I thought we'd do a bit of winter camping."
"You will not."
Potter swiveled his head around, startled. "Sorry?"
"You've only just warmed up. You're not going back out there, it's dangerous."
Potter had that stubborn, mulish look in his eyes he hated so much. "It's fine, really, I can manage."
Idiot. Arrogant reckless Gryffindor fool. Severus grabbed him by the arm.
"Stop playing the hero!"
His words were sharp, jagged, roughing the villager's soft, mild voice into something more like his own. Potter stared at him, eyes fixed on his, and Severus wondered if he could see him behind the man's face.
Potter’s eyes darted back to the pile of clothes where his wand lay. He was unnerved, Severus could tell. Whether he'd sensed him or not Severus didn't know, but he knew something was off.
The fire had burned low and the cold was creeping under the blanket. Severus made a motion for his wand before the realisation struck him. Potter had been so out of it he hadn’t even known Severus was doing magic. He’d know now. He could go and collect some sticks the Muggle way, but he hadn’t thought to change out of his robes and his cloak.
The decision was easy. They couldn’t get cold, and they wouldn’t. He raised his wand and cut some branches off a nearby tree.
Potter started and glanced at the pile of clothes where his wand lay. “You’re a wizard.”
“Muggle-born,” said Severus, the idea just coming to him. He slipped into his Black Country twang to make his performance even more convincing. “On the run from Snatchers. I was lookin fer summat ter eat when I heard yo’.” He cringed, thinking how much like his father he sounded. Time for a different tactic.
"Did you send the doe?" asked Potter.
Severus channeled his inner Lupin and arranged his face into a look of polite puzzlement. "Sorry?" There. Now he was getting into the act, his actual self would never be this mild-mannered.
They watched the roaring fire, Potter fidgeting under the blanket. Trying to sort out his next move, likely.
The heat from the fire warmed the blanket until it was almost hot and Severus leaned back against the tree and took another drink from his flask.
“Is that water?” said Potter.
Shit. “Er, no,” said Severus, playing for time. “It’s...a healing tonic. I was injured yesterday.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Severus put the flask away. “Thirsty?”
“Yeah. A bit.”
Severus conjured a wooden cup and scooped up a handful of snow, melting it beside the fire.
“Thanks,” said Potter, taking a deep drink. He set the cup down. “So have you had any news of the outside world?”
Severus looked him over, wondering how much to tell him. “Some. The Death Eaters have been going after Muggles and Muggle-borns. Rumour has it that the Dar"-Potter's eyes darkened but Severus didn't miss a beat-"damned You-Know-Who nearly got Harry Potter.”
“Really?” said Potter, with a completely unconvincing look of surprise on his face. He’d last five minutes as a spy.
“Yeah. He was in a right temper after, too. But he’s left the country, so I’ve heard.” Severus didn’t mention that he was after some powerful wand. Only his Death Eaters knew, and there wasn’t much Potter could do about it anyway.
Severus stared into Potter’s eyes. He thought he’d look away, that he wouldn’t be able to stand his gaze after their forced intimacy, but they widened slightly, searching his, allowing him in.
Images flashed by, Miss Granger’s face, a broken wand, a snake emerging from an old woman’s body that made him shudder. He saw a book about Dumbledore, and felt Potter’s anger, his disappointment. He glanced away.
They had one thing in common, at least. They were furious at the old man, at the mess he’d left them.
Severus stared into the fire. He had nothing to say to him. He wasn’t Dumbledore, nor was he the mysterious stranger who showed up to dispense kindly advice and inspire him to greatness. He’d fucked up and he was doing his duty and keeping him alive and that was all.
Potter gave him a sideways glance. “Has it been difficult? Being on the run?”
Severus shrugged. “I’m alive at least.” And that was all the old man had really wanted, wasn’t it, was for him to stay alive long enough to get the thing done.
Potter watched the fire awhile. “I’ve been on the run myself. And it’s-I don’t know. Everything’s such a mess.”
They sat and watched the fire together a long time, until his eyes were heavy as lead. Potter yawned and rubbed his face and Severus yawned with him. They needed sleep, but they couldn't do it there, they’d freeze. Severus stamped his feet and pinched himself on the arm.
Potter stretched and stood up. "I think I'm warm enough now. Really."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "You're not thinking of walking back, are you?"
"No. I'll Apparate."
"Are you sure you're able to?"
"Take this," said Severus, handing him the blanket. "Keep it on you even after you've dressed."
"Right," said Potter. He extended his hand and Snape shook it, keeping his grip rather loose. Now that Potter was alert and awake and himself his touch felt...different. Repulsive almost. How could he have held him for so long?
"Thank you," said Potter. "Thank you for everything. You saved my life."
He walked to the edge of the pond, the blanket draped round his shoulders, and picked up his clothes.
"Do you know how to dry them?" said Severus.
Severus rolled his eyes. Potter was far enough away that he wouldn't see it. "Bring them here."
He brought them over and Severus dried them out and warmed them with a flick of the wand. Potter dressed behind the blanket and when he'd finished he was carrying the sword at his side. The locket was in his jean's pocket, most likely. Severus couldn't see it on the ground, anyway.
Before he knew what was happening Potter threw his arms around him and clapped him on the back. "Thanks again. Good luck with everything.”
Severus kept his arms at his sides, hoping he’d take the hint and got the hell off him. Even though he wasn't sure he wanted him to.
“Same," he said.
Potter let go and walked a few feet away, to give himself room to spread his arms, and with one last look he vanished.
The castle had become a prison, a place he hated, but still, Severus longed for his warm bed. The fire had burned low and he didn't worry about the hot coals on a freezing night like this. He tightened his traveling cloak and began to spin.
Something wasn't right, something he couldn't explain, the way his skin prickled in the seconds before his Mark burned. He closed his eyes but his thoughts weren't on the Hogwart's gates.
He was still stiff from the cold, and he stumbled as he he stopped spinning, nearly falling on the ground. Potter was lying a few feet away, beside a tree. The snow was stained with blood.
"Potter!" Severus knelt beside him. The blood seemed to be coming from his left arm, but there was no time to examine him, or heal the wound. He was going to freeze again if they didn't find shelter, and the change in his body temperature was already putting strain on his heart and lungs.
He draped him in the blanket and picked him up, holding him tightly to his chest, and they spun in the air.
There were cabins around the forest, luxury ones by the looks of them, but Severus couldn't remember where they were. He wished he could; they'd be warm, and would've been something deeply satisfying about breaking into the kind of places he never would've been allowed as a dirt-poor kid from Cokeworth.
They stopped outside a small equipment shed not far from Potter's camp. Severus broke through the padlock with a simple charm and conjured a thick futon to protect Potter from the cold ground. He laid him down, ripped through his sweaters and examined his arm. Just as he'd thought there was a small chunk missing just above the elbow. Splinched. Potter clenched his jaw shut but a low growl built in his chest, escaping his lips.
Severus traced a pattern around the missing flesh. "Regenero."
The bleeding stopped and new skin stretched over the wound. Severus poured a few drops of dittany on it, and with a puff of smoke his skin was as smooth as it had been before.
Severus cleaned the blood off the blanket and draped it over him, tucking it under his shoulders.
Potter squinted up at him. "You know my name."
"Rest," said Severus.
Potter must've been exhausted, because he closed his eyes and kept his mouth shut. Severus was so tired his arms were numb and he couldn't keep his eyes open. He needed sleep.
He had no choice. The shed was sheltered from the wind but the air wasn't much above freezing, and the gravel floor was too cold to sleep on. Or was it? What if it was just an excuse, he wanted to-but of course he didn't, that was nonsense, it wasn't a question of what he wanted, it was a question of staying alive. Keeping his promise.
He lifted the blanket and crawled onto the futon, draping an arm around Potter’s bare skin and pressing against him until he got warm. Potter's body slackened and within minutes his shaking settled into a deep slow breathing.
Severus was too tired to sleep. His body lay there, limp as a rag, but his mind kept right on going. Potter was much more tolerable asleep, but still, this was bloody unbearable. If he knew, if he saw who he really was...Severus couldn't even think it. And he was running low on Polyjuice.
He freed his left arm and checked his watch, with had survived his dip in the pond, thanks to a built-in Impervius Charm. He'd allow himself three hours of sleep, then he'd get up, leave Potter a note, and get the hell out of there. Potter wasn't a complete moron, he'd sort it out, Apparate back to his camp.
He put his arm back around him, resting his head against his back because the futon was so narrow there was nowhere else to put it without giving himself a massive crick in the neck. Potter's back rose and fell, a slow steady rhythm that was almost peaceful.
Potter twitched and muttered something in his sleep. Dreaming, most likely. Without warning he cried out and thrashed so hard Severus lost his grip. Potter's hands found Severus, gripping his arm like a lifebelt as he buried his face in his chest. His breathing slowed.
Well. Now this was just getting awkward and yet....
He'd known so many sleepless nights. Tossing and turning on a bare mattress under a tattered blanket with his hands over his ears so he wouldn't hear his father's shouts and his mother's muffled screams. Punching his pillow in the boy's dormitory, chest hammering with rage, stiff and sore from Potter and Black's hexes. Nights alone in the headmaster's study, desperate to forget Minerva's cold fury, Sprout's fear, Flitwick's quiet disappointment. Keeping himself awake so he wouldn't have to face the next day.
He'd never fallen asleep next to someone.
He wished he were more dignified than this. That he were the sort of person everyone thought he was, the one who didn't need anyone.
He was too damn tired to fight. Potter turned over and Severus pulled him closer, his face against his neck, his chest against his back, close enough to smell the oily funk of his skin. And he was Lily's son, his unsought sanctuary, his reason for living and the bane of his existence. He wasn't meant to survive, any more than Severus was, but tonight he was alive, they were both alive, and they would wake up and they would go on another day.
Someone kicked him in the shin and Severus swore under his breath. He opened his eyes and saw Potter lying beside him, stirring in his sleep. What the hell?
Severus let go of him and felt his face. Sharp cheekbones, too large nose, long hair. He was himself again. Time to bloody act like it. He sat up and tucked his half of the blanket around Potter. He hadn't come with anything, so there was nothing to pack up. He pulled a quill and a piece of parchment out of his robes and told the boy where they were and that he could easily Apparate back to his camp.
He went straight to the door but paused with his hand on the doorknob and took a long last look at Potter like some sentimental fool. He was stirring, his breathing shallow, the knitted had still on his head, hair falling into his eyes, chin coated in stubble. Too vulnerable, too fragile. Severus hurried out the door.
He stepped out onto the trail beside the shed, gazing up at the trees. He stood there a long time. He didn't want to go back to the castle.
The door creaked open. Severus had seconds to Disapparate.
Potter stepped outside, and looked across the clearing, too far away and not far enough. Severus allowed him the briefest glimpse and spun into the air.