Harry only kept himself from falling because he had his back against an oak already. He turned around with a little hiss, squinting. He didn’t want to light his wand because the magic might disrupt the natural magic of the plants he was here to harvest.
Apparently the owner of that unforgettable voice had no such qualms. “Lumos.”
Harry rolled his eyes a little when he saw Severus Snape standing in front of him, staring at him darkly. “Hullo, Snape,” he said, and turned to glance up the oak again. Yes, right overhead was a clump of the mistletoe he had come to harvest. He grunted and hefted the golden sickle in his right hand. That had been difficult to create in just the right way—not quite forging, since he’d been working with conjured fire and melted gold and shaping the whole thing with magic instead of a hammer, but near it.
“What are you doing here?”
“You’re the Potions master. See the sickle?”
Snape stared from the sickle to Harry and back again. He had the strangest expression on his face. Harry just stared back and tried to keep his own face as blank as possible. He had rescued Snape from the floor of the Shrieking Shack—it had turned out that Snape had pumped his own veins full of experimental antivenin potions, enough to keep him alive and even slow the blood loss—testified for him in front of the Ministry, and made sure he wasn’t harassed by owls by raising extensive defense spells at Spinner’s End. At the end of it all, Snape had been as rough and ungrateful as ever. Harry had given up on thinking that he would get anything more out of Snape.
“You cannot have forged that sickle.”
“You cannot have made the appropriate sacrifices.” Snape shifted, and Harry glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. Snape had no sickle, but a glittering, straightsilver knife and a box made of glass.
“I did.” When Snape only continued to stare at him, Harry flicked a finger in his general direction, then checked the stars. The hour was still propitious for the harvest, but it was passing quickly. “The white calf and the jeweled star and the blue quartz.”
Snape hissed out slowly, and now he was looking as though he’d like to harvest Harry instead of the mistletoe. “What do you need it for?”
“None of your business,” Harry said peacefully, and aimed his sickle carefully at the lowest-hanging clump of mistletoe. He didn’t need much; harvesting it in accordance with the rituals and magic that Harry had delved into was much more important. “I’ll take one clump. You can have the rest.”
“It is more magically powerful if one harvests it in the manner that you have done.”
Harry sneaked a look at Snape out of the corner of his eye. “What do you mean?”
“Harvest the whole thing.” Snape took a step back, his arms folded across his chest as though he was trying to promise he wouldn’t draw his wand and hex Harry. “Then tell me what you would like for the rest of it that you don’t need. What payment,” he added, a sneer slipping back into his voice, when Harry continued blankly staring at him.
“Fine, Snape,” Harry said, and aimed his sickle again at the mistletoe. Snape’s appearance had broken the calm mood he’d been in, and he spent a few minutes easing himself back into it. The Latin chant about mistletoe, the same one he’d used when he was forging the sickle to time some of his movements, came back to him, and he sang it in his head, gaze fixed on the clumps in the tree.
Viscus magnus, viscus aureus, viscus honestus, viscus magicus…
When he’d got through most of the litany of praise of the mistletoe, he reached up and carefully turned the sickle from side to side, shearing through the clump. He gathered more than he’d intended, because Snape wanted it, and let it slide down and wreathe the handle of the scythe as he eased the scythe further and further into his hands. When he at last touched the strands of the mistletoe, he sighed out.
Amazingly, Snape had stayed silent throughout this. He cleared his throat now, though. Harry’s eyes came back to him, and he had to admit how little he trusted the Potions master. Maybe he would just take the mistletoe now and go, and let Harry think of some payment in a few weeks.
He didn’t, though. “Name your price. Make sure it is complementary to the amount of time you spent forging the sickle and completing the other preparations for the ritual.”
Harry stared hard at Snape for a minute, and then smiled. He knew what he would say. “Admit I was right to rescue you from the floor of the Shrieking Shack instead of leaving you there.”
That had been what hurt most, even more than the way Snape had turned his face away during the trial, refusing to acknowledge Harry. Snape had opened his eyes in the Hogwarts hospital wing, stared at Harry, and then shuddered. “I should have died. You should have left me there. Better that than owing you a life-debt.”
Now, Harry didn’t need the charm on Snape’s wand to see the deep plum color his face turned.
“You ask for what is impossible,” Snape said, and his voice was a low snarl.
Harry twirled the scythe a little. “Then you don’t get any of this mistletoe,” he said. He looked up at the high branches, and nodded. “I think there’s some more up there. You might as well go up there and harvest it.”
“You said you only needed a little. What will you use the rest for?”
“I could probably sell it at a nice profit, if what you said is true.”
Snape folded his arms. Harry had ceased to find that intimidating years ago. He simply waited.
“I must—have one question answered,” Snape said finally, his voice strangled. “Why did you help me?”
“Because it was the right thing to do. When you’d helped me and the war and Dumbledore so much—”
“That cannot be the only reason. No one makes decisions because of reasons like that.”
Harry threw up his arm that didn’t hold the sickle. No way was he going to put that sickle and the mistletoe in danger after everything he had gone through to make and harvest them, respectively. “Well, some of us aren’t Slytherins who need sixteen different motivations to make it through breakfast. Take it or leave it. And the mistletoe,” he added. Now that he’d moved a little and was closer to Snape, he could see the way the man’s eyes glittered in greed. And they were looking at his harvested clump, not at the one still in the tree.
Snape straightened his chin and his arms as if he was facing execution after all. Harry sighed. He wouldn’t enjoy this much, would he? Even if Snape admitted he was right.
“Forget it,” Harry said, before Snape could do something he obviously considered degrading. “Take it without payment. I don’t want to see you humiliated.” He reached towards the sickle.
“Do not touch it, Potter.”
Years had passed, but that tone still had the power to freeze Harry’s hand in place. He stared at Snape, who raised his eyebrows a little and spoke in a clipped voice. “Mistletoe this magically potent must be paid for. It will be made worthless if surrendered without a worthy coin in exchange.” He smiled thinly. “Not all of us are Gryffindors who can’t spend sixteen days studying Potions theory.”
“You mean,” Harry, who had indeed studied Potions theory, said at last, “that your sense of being in my debt would affect the mistletoe’s magical potency. And that would mean you couldn’t use it in potions.”
Snape opened his mouth, but Harry cut him off. “It’s not me who would affect it. It’s you. Your bloody perceptions that nothing is ever worthwhile unless it’s paid for, and that you don’t want to be in debt to me, and—”
Rage stopped Harry’s mouth. He shook his head and turned away. “I’ll leave some of it on the tree,” he snapped over his shoulder. “That ought to be enough for you. It’ll still have been harvested with a golden sickle by someone who prepared with all the right sacrifices. And that could partially counteract your own beliefs affecting how well it will work in the potion.”
Only his name could have stopped him then, Harry conceded as he swung around. Snape’s ordinary means of addressing him never would have done it.
And Snape knew that, of course, and was using his name as one more means of manipulation. Hatred tore and flamed through Harry like the path of a comet across the night.
“What is wrong with you? Take the mistletoe and leave!”
“I was wrong,” Snape said clearly, without faltering, his eyes never leaving Harry’s, his hands open at his sides.
Harry gaped at him. He knew it looked ugly, or maybe just stupid, from the way Snape smirked before he looked away. But then his smirk faded, and he went on talking, sounding almost as if he was talking to himself.
“I didn’t want to live. I didn’t want to go through all the complexities that I knew would happen when I opened my eyes on the world. You proved me a hero. But it took suchwork. I didn’t want to sit in an Azkaban cell or get spat at and reviled for as long as I knew it would take.” Snape glanced back at Harry. “But now it’s done, and I’ve walked free and been able to do whatever I wanted for the past five years. Maybe I only feel that living is worth it now because I’m here, and the work is done. But that doesn’t mean you were wrong. I wouldn’t have wanted to never know this feeling.”
Slowly, slowly, Harry let himself nod. “Thank you for telling me that,” he added, when Snape just looked away instead of looking convinced. “And I meant what I said. The mistletoe is yours. You’ve paid for it, now.”
Snape turned back to face him. Then he reached out and scooped up the clump of mistletoe that hung towards the outer edge of the sickle. Harry was watching him closely, and saw how deliberately Snape nicked a finger on the edge of the sickle. He could have avoided it, but it clearly never occurred to him to do so.
“What—I don’t need your blood.”
“But you could use it in some potions,” said Snape, his head turned so he was looking into the darkness or maybe up at the tree where the rest of the clump still lingered. “The blood of someone who paid for the mistletoe. Maybe even in the potion you’re brewing.” He glanced at Harry. “The Mens Acclaro Potion?”
Harry winced a little. It was an illegal potion even though it was also a powerful one, and he hadn’t wanted anyone to know he was brewing it. “Yes. The nightmares—”
He fell silent, and then he noticed something else. Snape had only taken about as much mistletoe as Harry had originally intended to gather. His eyes widened.
“You are not the only one who has the same kind of troubles and complexities with living, Potter.” Snape straightened and slowly inclined his head. “But you are the only one here who went through the trouble and pain of forging a golden sickle and obeying the old rituals to ensure you would have a peaceful night’s sleep.”
“How much of that was down to you not being able to afford gold?”
From the sharp snap of Snape’s head sideways, Harry knew he had offended him. He winced, but stayed silent. He couldn’t blame Snape if he stormed off now.
Snape was examining him, instead. He murmured, in words that might have been meant for Harry’s ears and might not have, “You have grown more clever as well as more painstaking since I last knew you.”
Harry shrugged, not knowing what to say to that.
“I think,” said Snape, in the tone of someone who could barely believe he was suggesting this at all, “that we might profitably—collaborate in the future. What do you say, Mr. Potter?”
Harry couldn’t help the smile that stretched across his face. He could only hope that Snape didn’t take it as mocking.
Then again, maybe he should also trust Snape’s cleverness and ability to tell one thing from another. He nodded. “I’d like that.”
“Happy night of the new moon, then, Mr. Potter.” Snape gave him a strange salute-like gesture, rippling one hand away from his forehead down towards his chest. He paused when Harry just looked at him. “You don’t know that one.” His voice was almost a purr of delight.
“Well, no,” Harry admitted, deciding he would think about the way Snape’s voice sounded, and his reaction to it, later. “What does it mean?”
“I think,” said Snape, his voice sounding like the murmur of wind in the oak’s branches now, “we shall save that lesson for later. Good night, Mr. Potter.” He turned and walked out of the oak grove before Apparating. Harry listened to the cracking sound fade, and looked at the clump of mistletoe twined around his golden sickle.
He felt the shifting of the magic as the stars turned out of the alignment of the true hour. He thought of the sacrifices he had made to come this far, and again his mind filled with the chant and the twining of the molten gold as he had forced it into sickle shape.
He thought of nights of the new moon that might be shared in another way, with Snape standing behind him and chanting in a steady voice, and what hands might feel like as they glided over his chest and hips. What Snape’s voice would sound like in the aftermath of other rituals.
Harry smiled, and saluted the invisible moon, and went home to begin.
The Latin chant Harry uses means: Great mistletoe, beautiful mistletoe, virtuous mistletoe, magical mistletoe…