I will endeavor to remain cognizant of both my insecurities and my propensity for extreme recklessness, and I will work to exercise good judgment, as well as recognize that my tendency to question my self-worth stems from the abuse I have survived.

Harry shook his hand out for what had to have been the fifth time in the last ten minutes. He cast a murderous glare up at Snape, who had both brows arched from his place reclining on the couch. He looked as though he were about to say the exact same thing he'd said not twenty minutes before, and twenty minutes before that.

You are not obligated to complete those tonight. You are welcome to take a break and resume tomorrow.

Except Harry wasn't going to take a break. He was going to finish these damned lines and be done with it. And get back to dueling. But mostly, he was going to wipe the slate clean and put that whole broom stunt behind him.

It would have been a great deal easier if Snape had not decided to assign an entire essay as a line to copy. Or a paragraph, at least, studded with a whole bunch of unnecessary fluff.

"You realize that I will only watch you torture yourself for so long before forcing you to stop, yes?"

Harry grit his teeth, determined not to show his weakness again. "I'm fine. Just stretching my fingers."

"I intended you to complete this over the course of your grounding, not in a single night. Give it up and fetch the chess board. Or the cards, if you prefer I skunk you in a hand or two of cribbage."

That was no longer a mere scathing comment or a suggestion. That was an order, and Harry knew he would be disobeying at his own peril. "I just want it done and behind me. I'm almost halfway."

"And you are certainly not staying up much later to copy lines. Why this foolhardy determination, Harry? I won't lift the grounding any sooner, regardless of how many nights it takes you to do those."

Harry very nearly clammed up. His every instinct screamed at him to show no weakness, to give nothing away of what he really wanted, because if he did it would be turned back against him and wielded like a weapon.

But beneath that instinct, like a faint undercurrent, he knew that this was Snape, not his relatives, and that the man had changed. That if he expressed his reasoning, and his desires, they wouldn't be exploited as weaknesses. Not anymore.

He drew a deep breath and set the quill down for a moment. His hand was starting to cramp again anyway. "I know. But… I really want to get back to dueling, and you said…."

"Ah." Snape sounded—intrigued? Sly, somehow. It made Harry nervous. "I did say that we would not resume until you had completed your lines, didn't I? But that sounded dangerously close to a request, Mr. Potter. Do try phrasing it as one for me."

Ask me, Snape was telling him, and Harry couldn't help but blush as a mix of emotions stirred deep within him. "Can we please resume dueling, even though I'm still doing my lines?"

Harry darted a shy glance over at Snape, who looked rather pleased, smirking over whatever musty tome he'd been perusing that evening. "Because you asked so directly, yes, I will make an exception, just this once, on the condition that you stop trying to overwork yourself with these silly lines."

"Why'd you have to make them so complicated, anyway?" Harry groused as he reached for drying sand to sprinkle over the parchment he'd just filled.

"You have atrocious penmanship," Snape replied enigmatically.

"So, what, you thought the longer the better or something?"

"Tell me what is particular about your line, and how it is related to penmanship, and I will knock fifty lines off of your total."

Harry studied the sample Snape had written out for him earlier that night, drawing his finger slowly over each word as he tried to parse out whatever mystery lay there.

"The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," Snape supplied, as if that clarified anything.

"Did you inhale potions fumes or something?"

Snape rolled his eyes. "Your English education is sadly lacking, I believe. I should add that to your supplemental lessons this summer…. And that begs the question, how are your other Muggle subjects? Should we review basic arithmetic as well?"

"No! And weird codes about foxes and dogs is definitely not covered in standard English—"

"I said you need practice with penmanship. I have given you a long and varied sentence to copy. Tell me, how did you first practice your penmanship?"

"What, at Hogwarts? Well, it was hard to get used to a quill, first of all. It was awful, but after a bit we became friends with Hermione, and she suggested I practice copying out a sampler—you know, with all the letters… wait." Harry read the sentence again, this time hunting out the individual letters, mouthing the children's song as he went along all the way through to zed.

"My, I think he's catching on."

"How long did it take you to come up with this?" Harry grumbled. Stupid Snape, thinking he needed handwriting practice.

"Come up with what, Mr. Potter? A suitably long sentence to properly chastise you?"

"A sentence with every letter of the alphabet in it."

"Very good. Only three hints and a bit of leading." Snape was smirking far more than he needed too, and Harry wished he could think of something to wipe the smirk right off the man's face. "So your remaining total, less fifty lines, is…."

"Three hundred eighty," Harry grumbled.

"Oh, surely you've made more progress than that." Snape set his book aside and rose to look over Harry's shoulder.

Harry, of course, tried to cover his paltry work—but not in time.

Snape heaved a dramatic sigh. "A review of arithmetic as well, then, I see."

"What? Why?"

"In what universe, Potter, is seventy lines half of five hundred?"

Harry tried to beat the blush down, but it was no use. "I said almost half."

"Oh, pardon me, how remiss. Allow me to rephrase. In what universe is seventy almost half of five hundred?"

"I was rounding up, okay?"

"Clearly. Put them away."

Harry dipped his quill one more time. "I'll do just a few more—"

"Now, Harry."

Harry felt his cheeks blaze a bit hotter. Over the past few weeks he'd learned the levels of Snape seriousness, based on how the man addressed him. There was the teasing "Potter", frequent when Snape was making derogatory comments or doing his best to discomfit Harry. "Harry", then, when he was serious, but not in a firm way—in a sober and level way. The angry "Potter" when Harry had done something stupid, of course, and Snape was furious. And then the final stage, the point of no return: the quiet, steely "Harry". The tone that brooked no arguments, that left no room for any possibility other than immediate and complete compliance.

They had reached the final stage. So Harry was done with lines for the night. He didn't meet Snape's eyes as he corked his ink and rolled up his parchment, and still kept his gaze averted as Snape settled onto the couch over the coffee table, deck in hand, the cribbage board set out just where they'd left it last. And he did not look up until Snape very pointedly tapped the six cards dealt out to him.

"You've gotten your duels back. I fail to see why you are still so intent on scrawling your hand into oblivion."

Harry pretended to consider his hand, but Snape's unrelenting gaze and sharply arched brow led him to give up after a few pathetic seconds. "I just… I want to move on. And I can't until… you know, until I'm done…."

"Being punished," Snape supplied, a musing note in his voice. "I don't appreciate these wheedling attempts to reduce your punishment."

Panic shot through Harry. "No, I'm not, I swear. I'll do my lines. The full set, even, with the fifty you took off—"

"Unfair of you to argue that I have punished you excessively and unjustly in the past—the recent past, even," Snape continued, just as if Harry had never spoken. "You're not wrong, unfortunately. Very well, I concede. We'll consider the lines finished, but the grounding stands until I am prepared to lift it. That seems a fair compromise, yes?"

Harry blinked stupidly at the man, unsure of what was going on. Since when in the hell did Snape ever just—cancel a punishment? "I… I meant it, really. I know I messed up, and I'll do the lines—"

"Is it any wonder the hat put you in Gryffindor?" Snape muttered, rolling his eyes. "So very honorable, Mr. Potter. And utterly impractical. No cunning, no subtlety, no sense of how to push every angle to your advantage…."

Harry wanted to fire back that he had plenty of experience sneaking around and lying and in general exercising all the traits that Snape seemed to value so much. But he had a feeling that a rebuttal including a litany of incidents involving him out-of-bounds, and even engaged in illicit activities, would not end well for him.

So instead he retorted, "The hat wanted to put me in Slytherin, actually. I had to talk it into Gryffindor."

Snape snorted. "Certainly. And Albus nearly made me head of Hufflepuff, but he decided I was far too soft."

"It did! I'm not all reckless disregard, or whatever you think Gryffindor means. Maybe I'm thinking about the long game here, you know. Making sure you know that I'm not some brat who thinks he can clever his way out of consequences—"

"Clever is not a verb. And when I am offering you a clear out, the sensible and expected thing to do is to take it." Snape stared at him pointedly, as if he were an imbecile needing instruction in a simple task. "Now, let us try this again. No more lines, you are still grounded from your broom. Fair?"

Harry bit his lip. Snape was right. The sensible thing would be to just accept that he was getting out of a tedious punishment for whatever reason—because Snape felt sorry for him, he supposed. But there was a niggling doubt in him, something that held him back from taking that out. "I don't mind the lines."

Snape said nothing at first. "You… do not mind the lines," Snape echoed dubiously. "The very lines you were just bemoaning. Are you trying to tell me that I should come up with a more effective punishment, because lines are apparently not miserable enough for you?"

"No! They are. I hate them. And I'd rather not do them."

"So don't," Snape suggested very reasonably.

"But I should. And I know I should. And I will."

Snape said nothing for a time again, merely watched Harry squirm and do his best to appear nonchalant.

Then, very quietly, very gently, he stated, "You wish to be punished."

Harry flinched. Dumb thing for Snape to say. It made Harry sound like some simpering masochist, and he wasn't. He just understood the way things worked. He'd messed up and upset Snape, and now… now he should have to pay for it somehow. Show he was sorry, really sorry, and wouldn't do it again, and that he hadn't meant to make Snape mad. That he wasn't some unruly snot who thought the rules didn't apply to him. Definitely he wasn't looking to be miserable.

Aren't you? a little voice asked, accompanied by the ghost of hunger pangs and body aches and the sweltering hot sun bearing down on him.

"No," he denied hoarsely, and even to his ears it sounded weak at best.

"Perhaps, then, you simply believe you deserve to be punished?"

Harry flinched again, harder this time. "No. I'm… I'm not messed up like that—"

"It would not be messed up. It is how you were raised. Punishment is the expectation instilled into you. Inappropriate, excessive punishment. I imagine it feels like you are getting away with something when you are not punished excessively."

"Right. Well, I got away with plenty at school, and I don't think I ever felt so bad then—"

Snape set his cards down and reached for Harry. Harry strained away, back against the couch, but whatever his body had expected—a hand around his collar, or a grip on his ear, or something worse—never came, and instead Snape's larger hand laid carefully over his own.

"That will not work, Harry."

Harry thought about pulling away from the contact. He'd been an idiot, and now he was taunting Snape for some insane reason, and he definitely didn't deserve that patience or comfort. But he couldn't move his hand. "What?" he demanded instead, and flinched once more when he heard how belligerent and grating his tone was.

"Attempting to provoke me. I'm not going to lose my temper tonight." Snape's hand squeezed lightly.

Harry knew he should pull back. Deny that he was trying to do anything. Find some way to prove to Snape that he wasn't falling apart yet again. But he couldn't. He remained there, frozen, on the cusp of breaking, as Snape stared at him so seriously, with such steadiness that Harry could hardly stand it.

"You made a mistake," Snape told him. "We've moved past it. I've made one or two myself, you know."

Harry wanted to accept the attempt at humor. He wanted to smile a bit and say "fair" and get on with the night. He struggled for an interminable few seconds, trying to force a light-hearted response past his lips.

Instead of breezing on, though, he shattered. "I'm sorry," he babbled, "I… I don't know what's wrong with me. I—I should be thanking you for cancelling the lines, and in-instead I'm…." Harry couldn't force the words out. To his horror, his throat had tightened too much, and he could feel tears in his eyes.

Snape's hand moved to his back, warm and heavy. And slowly, slowly, it began to move in circles.

And that made the tears so much harder to contain.

"Breathe, idiot boy," Snape muttered, and his hand changed from wide circles to rubbing up and down Harry's spine.


"I'm going to get a jar," Snape threatened, even as he continued to massage Harry's back, "and charge you a knut for every unnecessary apology you utter this summer. I'll be rich before term resumes."

Harry almost apologized again, but just barely managed to catch himself. "Habit," he offered instead, wishing he could say more without irritating Snape. "Thank—"

"And unnecessary thanks will be a sickle," Snape added. "Keep it up, Potter, and I'll be working in solid gold cauldrons."

Harry managed a weak smile for the man, though he was sure Snape could tell just how forced it was.

"Tell me why that useless pile of scrap cloth nearly put you in Slytherin."

Harry glanced up at Snape, startled by the abrupt topic change. Snape stared levelly back. And Harry sensed that he was being offered another out. "The Sorting Hat? Um… it said I would be great there. Something about finding friends to help me along the path to greatness, and, um… ambition."

"But I take it you'd heard the lovely rumors that the only greatness Slytherin House has produced is of the dark sort."

Harry forced himself to take a deep, shuddering breath. The peak of his emotions seemed to be passing, easing into exhaustion. "Well, I had heard that a bit. Hagrid said something. But really, I was just thinking that Malfoy was in Slytherin, and I couldn't stand that little ponce—er, sorry."

"For?" Snape inquired innocently.

"Insulting Malfoy?"

"Hardly your fault if the truth is unflattering," Snape replied breezily.

"I thought you liked him."

Snape rolled his eyes and, withdrawing his hand from Harry's back, resettled on the couch so he was facing Harry. "I cater to him for political reasons. I'm certain you can surmise why."

Harry couldn't stop himself from smirking a little at that thought.

"So. You declined your initial placement because you did not like one of your potential housemates. Perhaps you belonged in Gryffindor after all."

"Well, you glaring at me from the Head Table wasn't exactly giving me a warm fuzzy feeling either," Harry muttered.

"Was I so obvious?" Snape picked up his hand and began sorting through his cards.

Harry took the cue and did the same. "Pretty much. I… I always did wonder, why did you hate me so much right from the start? I mean, later I get, there were at least reasons, but…."

Snape did not look up, and Harry saw that his lips had gone very tight.

"You don't have to tell me, though," Harry added quickly. "I don't really need to know—"

"You deserve to know." Snape's eyes finally lifted from his hand. "It was… unconscionable of me to hold assumptions and allow past grievances to color my opinion of you. You have surmised that your father and I had something of a history, yes?"

"Yeah. But—I mean, what did he do to you? Because… well, you just… you don't seem the type to hate someone for no reason."

Snape's lip curved up just the slightest, just for a brief moment. "I believe there is a compliment buried somewhere in there."

"No," Harry disagreed, "just a fact. Either you have a reason to like or hate someone, or they're beneath your notice. Um, I think."

Snape snorted in amusement. "A fair assessment. Perhaps there is some Slytherin lurking in you yet."

"Maybe." But Harry wasn't about to be distracted. "So what did my father do to you? Or, what made you hate him?"

"It is far more complicated than a single act. I did not appreciate your father's demeanor, and he did not appreciate my house associations. We were adolescent boys with flashpoint tempers, and I'm sure you can imagine just how we resolved our differences on numerous occasions."

Now it was Harry's turn to snort, and in disbelief. "So what, some kind of rivalry? It had to have been more than that. You're not stupid; you wouldn't carry a grudge over a few fights when you were in Hogwarts."

"Either you underestimate the power of seven years of antagonism, or you are far more forgiving than I could ever imagine. Tell me, if you were to encounter Malfoy the younger's son a few years after Hogwarts, how would you feel toward that child?"

Harry tried to imagine it. He didn't like Malfoy, sure, but he couldn't imagine that feeling carrying over into a completely separate person. "I don't think I'd care. If he was just like Malfoy, yeah, I probably wouldn't like the kid, but… I mean, he'd be a lot younger than me, too."

"Then you are far more forgiving than I am. And I don't believe you and Mr. Malfoy have reached the same heights of animosity as your father and I did." Snape seemed to draw in a deep, bracing breath. And then he added, "And perhaps I have always nursed a resentment that you survived when your mother did not."

Harry flinched back from that confession. It wrenched up something unbearably miserable in him, like a rake dredging up muck from the bottom of a still pond. And with that came the urge to share it with Snape, to echo just the same sentiment. "I wish she hadn't died for me," he breathed, and the creeping ichor of that fervent, dark thought seemed to flood his veins, filling him full of the weight of his knowledge. That his very existence had ended the lives of both his parents. That he had only been a curse to them. That it was unfair that he should survive them.

Harry had expected a vague hum of acknowledgment, perhaps one of those steady, serious nods that Snape liked to give.

Instead, he felt the man's gaze spear him with an intensity he'd yet to encounter. "What do you mean by that?" Snape demanded quietly.

Harry stared at his lap, at his bloodless hands where they tangled and gripped each other for dear life. "Just… that I wish it had been me. Not…I mean, I don't want to throw myself in front of a speeding lorry or anything, but—"

Harry found his chin jerked up almost painfully to meet Snape's scrutiny. He closed his eyes, not wanting to see whatever was on the man's face now.

"Look at me, Harry."

Harry tried to shake his head, tried to find an out for himself. He wanted to retreat now. Go to bed, sleep, let the terrible thoughts settle back to the bottom of his being and rest there where they wouldn't intrude much on his waking thoughts.

"Harry. Please. Look at me."

Please. It undid him every time. He let his eyes squint open, just enough to be considered compliant.

There was an unhappy crinkle around the edges of Snape's eyes, and a deep furrow to his brow. And when he spoke, his words were slow and careful. "Your mother loved you with everything she had. She gave her life for you because she loved you so deeply. And listen to me very carefully now, Harry. You deserve that love."

Harry found himself instinctively shaking his head and shoving the notion away, just as he had so many times before. When her love had manifested in the magic that scorched Quirrell, when Dumbledore had told him about the wards that kept him safe from the worst of Voldemort's followers after the war. When he'd first seen her in the Mirror of Erised, arms wrapped around him, her face glowing with a devotion and joy that he'd never before seen directed at him. The love that had felt like water after a lifetime of thirst, that even as a child he'd known was a fantasy he'd never experience. That perhaps he didn't deserve—

"Yes, you do. You are every inch worthy of that sacrifice because you are her child, and you are worthy of that love. And I will tell you as many times as you need to hear it. So shake your head all you like, but that is the truth. Your mother loved you to death, in the literal sense, and there is nothing you can say or do to change the fact that you are deserving of it."

Harry squeezed his hands together tighter, dug his nails into his palms, shuttered his eyes against the emotion rising fast and hard in him. "Can I go?" he croaked. "Please. I… I need to be alone."

Harry heard Snape inhale sharply, to deliver what he was sure would be an "absolutely not". A few seconds passed. And then Harry heard Snape's long, slow exhale. The grip on his chin eased.

"Yes. But my door is open, and… just come to me if you need anything."

Harry nodded jerkily and scrambled to his feet.

"Anything, Harry, any time, day or night. Do you understand?"

Harry nodded again, and choked out a strangled "good night" before darting off up the stairs to his room, where he once again wedged himself between the bed and the window. He managed two deep breaths. And then he fell apart.


They did not speak about the previous night at breakfast. Harry was content to pretend it had never happened. And for once, Snape seemed happy to acquiesce.

Harry did not much notice his revoked flying privileges. Snape kept him very busy with supplemental lessons and mandatory study periods for his summer homework. Between brewing (which Harry was starting to appreciate, though he would never admit it) and dueling (which Harry begged for as often as he thought Snape would tolerate it), and Occlumency lessons (which he strangely looked forward to as a retreat each evening) he hardly had time to wonder what to do with himself. Snape had even taught him a few household charms to assist with the re-roofing, which, with Snape's help and magical aid, only took one more afternoon to complete.

Between lessons one afternoon, Snape had tossed him a well-worn paperback and snidely suggested he work on his reading comprehension. So some afternoons, Harry would walk down to the park (with Snape's explicit permission), set up under the shadiest tree, and slowly work his way through a few chapters of The Hobbit. Which Harry found he rather liked, odd as it was. And completely inaccurate, Snape assured him, as far as it related to magical creatures, but amusing nonetheless.

He received letters nearly every day, or every other, from Ron and Hermione, who were able to tell him a scant bit more about how things were going at Headquarters. Mrs. Weasley, it seemed, had corralled most of her brood into assisting with cleaning the place up—dispelling dark magic, disposing of dangerous objects, and removing infestations of magical pests. Harry was unsure if, from Ron's descriptions, it would be a good romp, or as tedious as dealing with muggle pests. Sirius, too, had taken to writing him short notes that said nothing important, but were somehow jovial and warm and often made Harry laugh.

It was the letter from Remus that startled him. He hadn't taken the man's offer at face value when he'd offered to write to him—he thought Remus had meant he'd make an effort to keep in touch. But just a few mornings after his visit to Grimmauld Place, Snape had sorted through a small bundle of letters delivered with the morning post and tossed the envelope with Remus' precise, clean script on the outside down in front of Harry just as he was making his way through his porridge.

Dear Harry,

it read.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Remus Lupin, and I was one of your parents' closest friends.

Harry nearly choked on his spoonful of porridge at that bizarre opening, which earned him a dirty look from Snape. After he'd clear his throat and regained some of his composure, he read on. And he found out that Remus had meant what he'd said quite literally, as the letter went on to detail everything. How he had met Harry's father and Sirius at Hogwarts. How they'd taken him in and made him feel like a part of something. How they hadn't abandoned him when they found out why he was sneaking out to the Shrieking Shack of the full moon, but instead had become even more protective. Had all learned to become Animagi just to be there with him when he wasn't even in his right mind. How later, he had been cut out of their lives—subtly, carefully—when they'd suspected him of turning traitor. How he'd seen Harry once as a baby, and precious little after that.

Harry lost his appetite as he read on after that.

Grief is no excuse, I know, Harry. But losing your mother and father, and seeing Sirius carted off to Azkaban, believing Peter to be dead—it was too much. Lily and James died believing I was a traitor, and I knew then that I would never get a chance to prove myself otherwise. In my mind, Sirius deserved nothing but my deepest contempt, and Peter was just another weight of grief to bear. I cannot tell you how hollow and alone I felt just then. I am ashamed to say I did not spare a thought for you. Albus assured us you would be cared for by Muggle relatives, who had kindly requested limits on visitors from the wizarding world, as not to overburden them. I felt I had no place in your life.

I wish now, desperately, that I had reached out. I wish that I had thought what you, who never had the chance to know your parents, must feel like, growing up with only the pale memories your relatives could offer. Nor did I consider how much a contact in the wizarding world might mean to you. I am truly and deeply sorry, and I can only hope now that you will allow me a chance to rectify my mistakes.

Harry ran his fingers over the paragraph where Remus had poured out his soul, effectively, and laid his pain bare for Harry to see.

I felt I had no place in your life.

Harry had not thought much on what it must have been like when his father and Sirius had suspected Remus of betraying them. Hell, he hadn't even really understood what it must have been like for Remus to cope with his transformations at Hogwarts. How could you get close to anyone, after all, without them noticing you disappearing on the full moon? But his dad and Sirius hadn't minded (he refused to think about Peter, the conniving little rat). The opposite, in fact. They'd gone to the trouble of illegally mastering difficult magic in order to support Remus as fully as they could. And to have that ripped away by suspicion, in the middle of a war….

It hurt, definitely, that Remus had left him for twelve years at the Dursley's without ever bothering to check in. But Harry understood it now. And understanding it, he could do nothing but forgive it.

"Lupin is trying to make amends, I take it?" Snape inquired, breaking into Harry's thoughts.


Snape snorted contemptuously and gave his copy of the Prophet a hard shake. "Don't let him take you in with maudlin sentiment. He is not the only one to have faced obstacles and adversity in his life."

Harry rolled his eyes. Trust Snape to think that Remus was trying to con him or something. Snape's relationship with Lupin was so… odd. Clearly there was animosity there, but like with Sirius, Snape had strongly encouraged Harry to make amends with the man. So either Snape thought there were redeeming traits in him, or he believed that Harry was so in need of support that even those Snape disapproved of were viable candidates. "I already forgave him. He's got nothing to gain from me."

Snape peered at him, eyes narrowed, over the paper. "You forgave him? After one conversation and a paltry apology?"

Harry was strongly tempted to roll his eyes again. "Yeah. Because I don't need leverage over him, or whatever you would get out of the situation."

"Forgive too easily, Potter, and people will walk all over you. Honestly, if there ever were Slytherin instincts in you, they have been entirely overridden."

"Forgive doesn't mean forget, you know. You don't have to carry a grudge around to stay wary of people."

Snape's expression soured and he turned his attention back to his paper.

And Harry realized something. "You honestly don't think that, do you? No, I think you do."

"Do I?" Snape replied, his tone bored.

A deflection if Harry ever heard one. "You absolutely do. You hold grudges for eons. And it's stupid and pointless."

"Oh, please, do dispense your wisdom. I realize I have better than twenty years of experience on you, but clearly that is meaningless in face of your great universal truths."

Harry felt a stab of annoyance lance through him. "I forgave you, you know. You think I should stay angry instead?"

Snape said nothing to that. Harry waited, but it seemed that the man had no response.

Something clicked for Harry. "You do."

"It does not matter what I think—"

"Why? Why should I? I told you I know you've changed. And… you've kind of proven it, you know. That's all that matters. Staying angry doesn't do anything for me."

Snape exhaled heavily, and gradually lowered his paper. "You should not accept that kind of treatment from anyone. As I said, the way I have treated you has been unconscionable—"

"I don't accept it. You were a right arse, and I know that. And now you're less of an arse, and outright decent most of the time. And if you start being an arse all the time, I'll be more than happy to tell you off. But right now I forgive you and that's all that matters."

Harry studied Snape carefully. The man had his eyes cast over to the side, and his expression was too smooth, too blank. But Harry didn't fail to notice the way the man's shoulders relaxed a bit, the way his hands unclenched from around the paper.

"I am sorry, for what it's worth," he said quietly.

Harry felt something unclench inside him as well at those soft words. "I know."


The end of July came faster than Harry could have imagined. The days on the calendar, which most summers he painstakingly crossed out as they crawled by, miserable and sluggish, held very little meaning now that he and Snape had established a routine. Now the weeks slipped by, no weight to their passage, and somehow Harry missed his midnight vigil the night of the 30th. Instead, he'd completed Occlumency exercises that night with Snape and fallen into a deep, mostly dreamless sleep that carried him seamlessly into the morning.

He did not realize what day it was until after he'd shambled down, half asleep, to the kitchen, where Snape settled a full English in front of him, snapped open the Prophet, and casually announced that they would be heading over to Grimmauld Place shortly.

"Brewing?" Harry asked. "Or a meeting?"

Snape peered at him skeptically over the paper. "I was under the impression that your obnoxious friends and a pair of flea-bitten mutts were interested in seeing you today."

"Oh." Harry scooped some beans onto one of his slices of toast and bit into it. "I just saw them a few days ago."

"Chew then talk, before I hex your lips closed." Snape turned the page of his paper. "They were quite keen on seeing you today. Last day of the month. I believe there was mention of a cake."

"It's my birthday," Harry realized stupidly. "I… I've never forgotten before."


"Well, when I was little, before primary, yeah. I didn't know when it was until one of my teachers did a birthday board with all of us…." Harry blushed, abruptly realizing he'd revealed a lot more than he'd wanted to.

Not that Snape couldn't already guess. Still. It was one thing for the professor to guess at how awful his relatives had been, and another for the man to know the gritty details.

"Just… seems weird, that I'd forget now, is all." Harry shoveled a few more bites of food into his mouth, hoping that Snape wouldn't want to wait for him to answer and would just move on with the morning.

"I'll need to step out today to see to some things. I'll be back to collect you by early evening, if you haven't fled your companions by then." Snape folded up his paper, set it aside, and downed the dregs of his coffee. "You're welcome to use the floo if you feel the need to escape before that point."

Harry tried to offer some witty response, but he was too busy nursing the strange, unexpected stinging in his breast.

Snape was going to be busy. He was just dropping Harry off. Of course he was, if there was going to be a birthday party of any sort. What had Harry expected, that the man was going to hang around, have a piece of cake? Chat up Mrs. Weasley while Harry and his friends found their own fun?

So why was Harry disappointed? He wasn't a child. He didn't need Snape there for any reason, and Snape definitely didn't want to be there. The man had probably only known about his birthday because the Weasleys had pestered him about bringing Harry over. Better for all involved that he went off and did something practical.

"Go shower and get dressed," Snape ordered absently as he dropped his mug into the sink. "I told them ten sharp, and I don't want a gaggle of redheads pouring through my fireplace in search of you."

"Can't have that." The reply sounded weak even to Harry's own ears. "Back in a minute."

Harry did his best to rally himself as he scrubbed off under the stream of hot water, and then as he tried to put together an outfit that was comfortable and casual, but a little special too—before realizing he had no idea how to do that, and went instead with a comfortable t-shirt and jeans. He was excited, certainly, but beneath that there remained a stubborn bit of melancholy that refused to budge.

It was ridiculous. Snape would be so damned embarrassed if he knew that Harry was upset that he wasn't going to spend his birthday with him. Definitely, he'd rethink this whole arrangement with Harry getting so unnaturally attached. He was fifteen today, for Merlin's sake! Well past the age of pouting on his birthday.

He shoved the feeling down. He wasn't going to acknowledge it. He'd bury it beneath all the fun he was sure to have, and with any luck it would dissipate into nothingness in no time.

Snape was waiting for him at the fireplace, a broom in hand. Harry's Firebolt. "I have it on good authority that there is to be a game of pick-up Quidditch in the backyard."

"I… can fly today?" Harry ventured cautiously.

"Consider your restriction lifted, until you take leave of your senses again and find some other way to give me a heart attack while airborne."

"I'll be good," Harry promised, and tried to muster a cheeky smile.

"I'll believe that when I see it." Snape passed off the broom and threw a handful of Floo powder down. "Don't dawdle. I have appointments to keep as well." He shuffled Harry forward, passing off Harry's broom just before pushing him into the fireplace.

Harry found himself choking and hurtling through the Floo just as his brain landed on the conclusion that Snape lifting his punishment was more of a birthday gift from the man than he had any right to expect.


The party at Grimmauld Place was just fine, Harry concluded. Mrs. Weasley fussed over him, and Mr. Weasley clapped him on the back. Fred and George gave him a whole box of their prototypes, Ron got him enough candy from Honeydukes to rot his teeth, and Hermione gifted him with a fascinating volume on the merfolk of the Black Lake.

The cake was delicious, and Harry managed to blow out the candles after a few puffs, which the twins told him was luck of the worst sort, but Mrs. Weasley reassured him that it granted him a wish all the same. Remus had gotten him a second-hand erumpet hide wand holster, and Sirius had gifted him a penknife on the sly that would open any lock, supposedly.

Pickup Quidditch had been a ball, especially since Remus and Sirius had taken to the air as well. The twins had claimed Harry as seeker and, more reluctantly, Ron as keeper, and argued that three-on-four was fair since Remus and Sirius had a few decades of experience on them. Sirius, it turned out, made for a decent chaser, and put more than half a dozen quaffles through their transfigured, not-at-all-regulation rings before Harry managed to snatch the snitch from right beside Remus' ear. A shuffle of teams saw a much closer match of Weasleys versus Harry and godfathers, and a surprising loss when Ginny managed to nab the snitch out of a stellar, heart-pounding dive.

Objectively, it was Harry's best birthday to date. And yet….

And yet he was still stupidly pining over the fact that Snape had dropped him off for the day. Even though he knew it shouldn't bother him. Even though Snape had no reason to celebrate with him, or even care that it was Harry's birthday. And Harry didn't need the man to acknowledge him, definitely, because that was beyond childish and petulant. That was something Dudley would expect.

It niggled at him, though, and it took a great deal of effort to plaster on a contented grin when he went to meet the man to floo home for dinner.

"You enjoyed yourself?" Snape inquired evenly as Harry extracted himself from several hugs and pats on the back.

"Yeah. It was nice. Thanks for bringing me over. And, um, for letting me fly again."

"Merely preserving my sanity, Potter. I'd rather not be the recipient of Howlers demanding to know what kind of unspeakable abuse I'm inflicting on you by depriving you of your broomstick."

Normally, Harry would have enjoyed Snape's wit. Today, though, it grated. So he said nothing as they spun their way back to Spinner's End. And when he went to put his broom away in the closet where Snape had kept it, he began desperately trying to quash down his irritation. There was no reason for it. The day had been great. Spectacular, even.

"What's for din—oh. Are you, uh, going out again?" Harry asked at the sight of the leather jacket Snape now had slung over his arm.

"We are, yes. Go wash the soot off your face, and comb your hair. You look like a hooligan."

"Where are we going?"

"If I wanted you to know, I would have told you. Go do as you were told."

Harry's heart skipped a beat. He didn't want to get his hopes up, but it was awfully suspicious of Snape to be taking him out now, and to refuse to answer Harry's questions. In short, to be keeping a surprise. So Harry turned to rush up the stairs, rolling his eyes at the predictable call for him to walk, not run ringing out behind him.

Ten minutes later, Harry stood at the foot of the stairs, facing Snape's inspection—and feeling suddenly inadequate, seeing that snape had donned a dark muggle suit, complete with waistcoat and emerald green tie. The sight was positively bizarre.

"No," he declared loftily, "far too casual. They won't let you in the door. Slacks at a minimum, a button-up, a tie—not a school tie." Snape tilted his head thoughtfully. "A blazer to go over the top, as well. Best not to take any chances. My transfiguration isn't precise enough to produce haute couture on demand."

"Bless you," Harry muttered, fighting the urge to roll his eyes.

"French, Potter. Consider expanding your linguistic horizons. Now hop to—we have a reservation."

Harry felt a giddiness bubbling up in him, and he felt like an absolute child for it. It was just dinner. Snape had probably chosen a fancy restaurant, and he was doing this just for Harry, just to celebrate his birthday, but it was still just dinner.

But in spite of Harry telling himself to calm down, to reign it in, his pulse was still racing and he found himself bouncing a bit on the balls of his feet as he swapped clothes out. Dark slacks, a cobalt button-up, black waistcoat and blazer, and a black silk tie. A glance in the mirror told Harry that he looked far too posh for his liking, but nothing to be done about that now. He made a half-hearted attempt at taming his hair with the brush in the bathroom, but it still looked a mess. Harry wondered if Snape would make him slick it down.

The next time Harry made his way down to the foot of the stairs, Snape only gave him a quick once-over before offering a brief nod of approval.

"We'll Apparate to King's Cross and take a cab from there."

"Because King's Cross is so busy?" Harry ventured carefully.

"Yes. That should obscure my signature well enough. Likely an unnecessary precaution, but I'd rather not take any chances. Come here."

Harry tried to remember the last time he'd apparated with Snape. Had it been before the trial? No—when he'd gone to get clothes? Had to have been. Long before Harry had started to trust the man, definitely. Because now, with Snape wrapping an arm around him and tucking him close to his side, Harry felt his gut unknotting in a way it never had before. He wasn't fond of Apparition, but Snape would see him through it. And that small assurance meant far more to him than it should.

"Deep breath," Snape warned him in a murmur, and he waited until Harry had complied before dragging both into the twisting ether of magic.


The restaurant was a lot more than Harry could have possibly imagined. Then again, he didn't know quite what to imagine, never having been anywhere more luxurious than the Three Broomsticks. Snape had chosen an upscale place downtown London, of the caliber that simply did not accept walk-ins. Reservation only, impeccably dressed waitstaff, low lighting and high-vaulted ceilings, and a circular water fountain in the middle of the main dining room that cascaded pillars of water. Harry had to snap his jaw shut as the tall, well-built server in a tailored black suit ushered them to a quiet corner of the place.

Harry's excitement had turned to nervousness by then. He was keenly aware that he had no business being in a place like this. All the people seated at tables here—women in cocktail dresses and men in blazers, lifting glasses of wine or delicately mincing up bites of their elegantly-plated food—they lived in a different world than Harry. They knew how to dine in a place like this, how to posture themselves, what to order, which utensils to use…. And Harry knew none of that. He was going to embarrass himself.

And Snape. Snape, who'd been good enough to arrange for this, who probably hadn't given a second thought to Harry's boorish manners and general ineptitude when he'd made these plans….

Harry startled at the light tap to his elbow, and whipped to face Snape. Harry had stopped to gawk without even realizing it, and now the waiter had turned back to allow him to catch up. Harry flushed in embarrassment. But Snape merely arched an eyebrow at him, and tilted his head slightly, not a trace of irritation on his face.

Not wanting to make even more a fool of himself, Harry hustled to the waiter's side.

They were led around one final partition in the back, to a secluded alcove. And then Harry had to shake himself out of shock once more.

There, seated primly in a long-sleeved light pink dress, a matching old-fashioned cloche hat perched on her head, was Mrs. Applewhite. She was fiddling with her reading glasses and peering at a menu, a small frown creasing her brow. But she looked up as soon as they approached, and the frown melted into a broad smile that warmed Harry through and through.

"Harry, dear," she exclaimed, "come here!" And she pulled him into a tight hug. Her head only reached his shoulders, but Harry found himself stooping down a bit at the unexpected force of the embrace. "Happy birthday! My, you're looking well. And so handsome! Very smart, young man."

Harry felt himself blushing with embarrassment, but he didn't mind. Oddly, it was comforting to have someone embarrass him by doting on him. "Thanks, Mrs. Applewhite—"

"Tillie, love," she interrupted. "Just a moment, dear, you get settled. I need a word with the garçon here. Excuse me, do you have any of these that are legible? The script is very pretty, but how in the devil am I supposed to make out what I'm ordering?"

Harry was fairly certain Snape loosed a derisive chuckle, which he quickly covered with a cough.

The waiter seemed a bit flustered, and between profuse apologies was promising to see if they had any alternative menus.

Snape, in the meantime, pulled a chair out for Harry, and gestured with a jerk of his head for Harry to sit. Which he did, gracelessly, his knee knocking into the table and jostling it. Snape sat as well, reaching out to steady the wobbling candle votive as he did so.

As soon as the discomfited waiter had made his exit, Mrs. Applewhite turned back to Harry, a full smile stretching her lips once more. "Well. Your father doesn't do anything by half measures, does he?"

Harry couldn't keep a blush from warming his cheeks. Right, they were back into the father-son routine, weren't they? Though, he was finding that the charade didn't bother him nearly as much as it had before. "No, guess not," he murmured shyly, and stole another peek back at the massive water fountain in the main dining area behind them. "This is… a lot."

"Well," Snape murmured, taking up his own menu, "I wanted to ensure we celebrated properly."

Mrs. Applewhite cast a reproving look at Snape, but didn't reprimand him. Harry would have bet a hundred galleons that she had been about to make a snide comment about there being a first time for everything.

It was a relief when she didn't, though. Harry didn't want to spend any time dwelling on what he hadn't had in the past. There was no changing that.

"It's pretty and all, but what on earth do we need all these forks for?"

Harry turned to Snape, preparing to absorb as much table etiquette as he could. At least Mrs. Applewhite didn't seem to have any inherent knowledge of how high society cut their meat, either. That made him feel a bit better.

Snape just offered a wry smile. "No idea. But I imagine that, as we're paying, we can use them for whatever we please."

Harry found himself gaping at Snape for a moment, unable to believe the man was so flippant about table manners.

Snape quirked a brow at him. "Issue, Harry?"

"No," Harry mumbled, diverting his attention back to the folded cloth napkin placed neatly on the white place setting. "I just… figured you'd know exactly what to do. For, uh, you know—fancy dining."

Snape just smirked and moved to unfurl his own cloth napkin. "I'm adept at following suit and adapting myself to the etiquette required for a given situation. I was not raised with 'fancy dining', and given my modest salary, I doubt I will become accustomed to it any time soon."

Harry opened his mouth to protest the cost of the meal, but the sudden sharp look Snape gave him made him rethink that.

"This is, however, a very special occasion, so I wager we can please ourselves and not worry what Britain's wealthiest think of our decorum. Yes?"

Mrs. Applewhite snorted derisively. For a moment Harry thought she was about to tell Snape off, but she surprised him. "Don't know why it matters so much to them, honestly. Doesn't matter what bloody fork you use or what plate it comes off of, it all comes out the same the other end."

That startled a chuckle out of Harry, and an amused cough from Snape.

As Harry was recovering himself enough to at least sit properly at the table, Snape slid him his menu and tapped near the bottom.

"They do a porterhouse, if you are still interested."

Harry turned to stare at Snape, feeling all too much at once. The man had remembered Harry's stupid off-the-cuff demand. And he had somehow—Harry suspected memory modification—arranged for dinner at a restaurant where even Malfoy might feel out of place.

"Though lamb in mint sauce is their signature dish, I believe," Snape continued. And subtly, he dropped his hand beneath the table and gave Harry's elbow a brief squeeze.

Harry swallowed back his feelings. He would process them later. When they weren't in public. "What do you recommend?"


Dinner passed amiably. Mrs. Applewhite seemed to enjoy having the server read the entire menu aloud to her, and commenting on each item—that onions gave her horrible runs, that poached chicken was always too bland, that she would never touch seafood—listeria, don't you know—and so on. She cast Harry a sly wink halfway through, and it was all Harry could do to keep a straight face. She finally settled on a venison cutlet, threatening that she would send it right back if they overcooked it.

Once the frazzled server had left, she'd shared with Harry and Snape, with an air of satisfaction, that she'd overheard the man snickering about her attire on the way back from the loo.

"Called me 'the doddy old lady', too," she sniffed. "Unprofessional, if you ask me."

The food was exquisite. Harry did enjoy the porterhouse, seared to perfection. Snape had elected for a plate of seared scallops with some sort of side salad of elegantly spiraled root vegetables. And Mrs. Applewhite kept the server on pins and needles as she slowly chewed her first bite of venison.

"Bit cold," she commented. "Do they not call you when the food's up from the kitchen?"

Harry knew he shouldn't find the tick in their server's jaw so satisfying. But Mrs. Applewhite looked lovely in her dress, and he figured the poor man was only getting his just deserts.

They finished their main course. Harry tried not to let on how much he relished having both Snape and Mrs. Applewhite offer him portions of their dishes for him to try. He'd never dined out in a restaurant, let alone with people who would be fine sharing food from their plates with him. The experience left him warm, and strangely enough, feeling less alone.

They ordered dessert as well—or, Mrs. Applewhite and Harry did. Snape opted for a small cup of strong black coffee, which he sipped contentedly as Harry savored his crème brûlée especially the delightful crack of the caramelized sugar on the surface, and Mrs. Applewhite nibbled at half of a towering piece of opera cake—half of which she passed to Harry with an indulgent smile, and insisted he help her finish it.

Harry found he quite liked it, and was especially surprised to find that the rich, slightly bitter note in it that he particularly enjoyed was coffee.

Mrs. Applewhite surprised him after dessert. Harry was feeling the lethargy of a good meal setting in, and felt quite replete both physically and emotionally, when Mrs. Applewhite began rummaging around in her purse. At first Harry thought she might be looking for a mint or a compact mirror, but then she produced a square little package wrapped in generic birthday paper, a white field with colorful little clusters of balloons and dots of confetti.

"You didn't need to get me anything," Harry started, but Mrs. Applewhite was already waving him off.

"Psh, first time you've had a proper birthday as far as I'm concerned—of course I got you something. Go on, open it up. Not much, I'm afraid, and broken to boot, but I hope you'll still appreciate it."

Harry carefully undid the wrapping paper, and lifted the lid of the little cardboard jewelry box, to reveal nestled inside a compass. And not just a compass, Harry saw, but an old, intricate brass compass, the metal sides of which were carved with burnished symbols that Harry couldn't quite distinguish. Harry instinctively brushed a finger over the metal work, and felt a bit of warmth spark in him as he did so.

"Needle goes all over the place, I'm afraid, but it's a nice piece. From the eighteen hundreds—early, too, if I remember correctly."

Harry swallowed hard, throat painfully tight. "It's too much—"

"No, I'll not hear it. You deserve better than a dodgy old compass, but I don't have much more to offer, I'm afraid."

"No," Harry protested, tracing the face of the compass again. The glass was cool and smooth beneath the tip of his finger. Or was it crystal? His hand tingled a bit—maybe from the thrill of receiving such a valuable gift. "It's just… it's an heirloom. Don't you want to keep it in the family?"

Mrs. Applewhite shook her head sharply. "Don't have any children, myself—my sister, either, before you go there. That was my ex-husband's—ex, after I found him in bed with the deacon's wife. Shameful little weasel, he was. I told him he could get right out of the house, and don't bother coming back. Didn't like that—but he didn't say a word when I offered to mention his daytime activities to the whole congregation. Slunk off like the miserable bastard he was. And now that—that, I said, I'd keep and give to a man worthy of a piece of history like that. And now here you are."

Harry felt his cheeks heat. "Thank you," he mumbled weakly, because he figured it would be impolite to continue to refuse.

"My ex-husband got it off a broker who said something about a legend that went with it. Sales gimmick, no doubt. Said it was owned by some famous someone-or-another, an explorer, who got lost off—oh, where was it? The arctic? Overseas? Somewhere. Anyway, story is that this whoever was so desperate to get back to his pregnant wife that the needle stopped pointing north and pointed home instead. Bunch of hooey, if you ask me, but there you have it—a little story you can tell your grandchildren someday."

"It's great. Thank you, Mrs. Applewhite—"

"Tillie, dear."

Harry smiled down at the compass. Maybe Hermione could help him look up the legend about it, if it existed somewhere, so he could tell his children properly someday.

If he lived to have children.

Harry shook his head a little to clear away that sudden, morbid thought. Where had that even come from?

Harry heard Snape clear his throat softly, and turned to see the man sliding him a small black box tied with silver ribbon. And he began to shake his head to refuse, because Snape had already done more than enough for him.

"You arranged this whole dinner—"

"Open the damned gift, Harry. You know I'm not going to take it back, no matter what you say."

Straight to the point. Harry offered the many a shy smile, and received another little squeeze at the elbow in return. "Thank you—"

"See what it is before you decide to thank me."

Harry obliged him, pulling away the silver ribbon great care before lifting the lid to the box. Inside, on top of a spooled silver chain, was a delicate ruby pendant roughly the size of a teaspoon. It was not, Harry saw, a single ruby, but rather multiple carefully cut and fitted gems spiraling out from the center. A rose.

"It was your great-grandmother's, and it is a long story as to how it came to be in my possession, one I will tell you another day. White gold, the ruby for her birthstone, and the rose for her name."

Harry found he could care less why Snape had this, or why he was giving it to Harry only now. His great-grandmother's name was Rose. This was her necklace.

"A courting gift from your great-grandfather," Snape continued. "There are no legends about it"—a disdainful grimace and a slight eyeroll there—"but it is an Evans family heirloom, one that is rightfully yours."

"Can I thank you now?"

"I'd rather you didn't." Snape offered him a small, crooked smile. "But you are welcome."

"Well." Mrs. Applewhite clapped her hands together. "Two heirlooms. Not exactly the most exciting of birthday presents for a fifteen-year-old, I imagine."

"No," Harry protested. "They're brilliant. I couldn't ask for better, honest." Harry inhaled deeply to steady those whirling emotions once more. "Thank you. Both of you." Harry turned specifically to Snape, deciding that the man could just deal with his thanks. "And thank you for arranging all this. I…."

"Thought I didn't care, yes. I would have mentioned plans, but I did not want to ruin the surprise."

"Shame he had any reason to think you wouldn't care," Mrs. Applewhite muttered, casting a small glare toward Snape.

Harry opened his mouth to defend his professor, but the spoke before he got the opportunity.

"Yes, it is," Snape replied solemnly. Harry heard regret there, and he wondered how much of it was real and how much of it was for show.

A glance at the man's shadowed eyes answered that for him. There was no artifice there, just remorse. Enough to pacify even Mrs. Applewhite, who seemed to let her hackles down as she settled back into a softer posture.

"Well. I trust you'll keep faith with Harry going forward—else we'll have words." For all that the threat was valid, it sounded less like an admonition and more like a tentative vote of confidence.

Snape did not hesitate, did not bat an eye. "I most certainly will," he returned.


Mrs. Applewhite insisted on driving the pair of them back to Spinner's End herself when she heard they planned on catching the train. Snape had tried to make excuses, but there was nothing of Slytherin cunning, it seemed, able to persuade Mrs. Applewhite when she'd taken an idea into her head.

"Absolutely not. Those trains are unreliable at best, and I won't have you returning at midnight. And don't start on the cost of petrol, I won't hear it."

Snape had tried, very reasonably, to point out that she herself would be returning late, and driving at night, if she undertook such a long trip.

To which she replied that she was an old lady, scarcely slept five hours a night, and her vision was perfect, never had an accident in her life, thank you very much.

Harry swore he saw Snape's wand slide down from his sleeve for just a second, as if he were planning on a Confundus or some kind of compulsion charm. But in the end he acquiesced, and offered a few polished words of gratitude.

So they piled into Mrs. Applewhite's little wagon, Harry in the front and Snape, strangely, in the back, and for an hour and a half listen to stories about everything from Mrs. Applewhite's eccentric sister to her mother's harrowing escape from Germany, interspersed with stretches of listening to various radio stations—always with the older woman's jovial, and often cutting, commentary.

Harry found he enjoyed the experience immensely. He'd never taken a car trip that wasn't intensely uncomfortable or downright miserable. The Durseleys did not have a very pleasant range. At best, they were obnoxious—Petunia and Vernon fawning over Dudley, Dudley throwing tantrums and generally being petulant. And that was a rarity, because Harry's presence in the car always induced outright hostility.

But this—this was amiable, odd as their group was. Even if he knew it wasn't true, and that this was just a fleeting moment, that he might not see Mrs. Applewhite again after this summer, it felt right then as if they were a family of a sort. Not a real family, but a sort of cobbled-together one that was good enough for Harry. If he didn't squint too hard, or think too much about how tenuous their connections were, Harry could pretend just for this day, just for this night, and be content with that.

Snape enjoyed Mrs. Applewhite's company, Harry suspected. He caught a snort of laughter here and there, and whenever Harry glanced back, he would find Snape leaning casually against the door, not a trace of tension or formality in his posture. And he suspected Mrs. Applewhite was starting to warm up to Snape as well. She hadn't made a single blaming remark toward the man the whole night, apart from her comment at the end of the meal, and she addressed Snape just as much as she did Harry as she drew them into her conversations.

The time passed quickly. The woman also drove like a demon out of hell, made liberal use of the horn, and would pause in her story to spit curses at other drivers fit to make a sailor blush—but Harry and Snape wisely made no comment on that.

Soon enough she'd rolled up the dreary street of Spinner's End, and parked under one of the flickering lamplights just at the end of Snape's front walk. She insisted on walking them up to the door to bid them goodnight, as was proper—and Harry didn't miss Snape's grimace of annoyance as he carefully slipped his wand out again and muttered a soft, Latinate incantation—likely a modification of the wards to allow the woman in.

"I'll ring again shortly," Mrs. Applewhite had promised at the threshold, "to check in on you. We can plan a tea sometime, make sure he's feeding you proper."

Harry expected Snape to make some vague excuses, or to brush the woman off, but instead he nodded thoughtfully. "Call anytime. We will be away at the end of the summer, and the school Harry attends in Scotland is rather old-fashioned, but if you care to write him, I will provide you with the address."

Warmth swelled again in Harry's chest. Why it should matter that he could stay in touch with Mrs. Applewhite, he had no idea. But it was… nice. Maybe because she didn't know he was famous, or have any political feelings about him. Maybe because she liked him just because she thought he was nice, and deserved to be cared for. But it mattered a lot, and it mattered even more that Snape was facilitating the whole thing.

Mrs. Applewhite smiled brightly at Harry. "Well, if it isn't too bothersome for an old woman to pester you with letters—"

"No," Harry cut her off quickly, "not at all. It—it'd be really nice, actually." Uncomplicated. Genuine. Comforting. It would be a lot of things for Harry.

"Good. I'm sure we'll sort the details before you go, then. Happy birthday, dear." Mrs. Applewhite patted his hand gently, gave his fingers a brief squeeze, and then was ambling back to her car.

Harry and Snape watched her go from the doorway. "Thanks again," Harry murmured, casting a glance over at Snape. "It was really nice you invited her along."

"She cares a great deal for you," Snape returned quietly, uncrossing his arms enough to offer the woman a brief wave as she peeled away from the curb. And then, turning, he ushered Harry into the dark house.

A flick of Snape's wand did not, for some reason, flip on the electric lights. Snape cursed under his breath and, with another wave, had conjured a small globe of light. "Bloody electricity's out again. Stay here a moment, I'll spell a few lights for the rest of the evening."

"I can just cast a Lumos for myself for now," Harry offered, shifting the gifts in his hand to withdraw his wand. "It should be back on tomorrow or so, right?" The occasional rolling blackouts Harry remembered at the Dursleys' hadn't lasted too long, to his recollection. In retrospect, at least—at the time, the darkness and the claustrophobia of his cupboard had made the time stretch to infinity.

"I'm not having you stub toes, or Merlin forbid, fall down the stairs, because there are no lights in the house. Just stay there a moment." Snape waved his wand, and left Harry with a single floating ball of light, roughly the size of a tennis ball. A few experimental gestures and steps told Harry that Snape had also spelled it to follow after him.

Harry rolled his eyes. Snape could be so ridiculously overprotective. "Okay, Dad," he muttered to himself, and found himself blushing a moment later hearing the words aloud.

He's not. He's your temporary guardian, and he looks after you and cares about you. And he's a bit anal about your safety. That's it.

Just another emotion to shove down. He could manage that. Harry drew in a few breaths, found the stillness in his thoughts just as Snape had taught him, and with a final deep exhale swept away the discomfort, the longing, the pain.

And then he turned himself to a practical task: conjuring floating orbs of light to satisfy Snape. He knew he wasn't great at controlling the size, or their buoyancy (previous experience had his either flying up to the ceiling like helium balloons, or dropping the floor like lead weights). But Snape would say he just needed more practice, so Harry lifted his wand, and concentrated on the precise movements as he uttered the incantation.

The front door creaked behind him just as the tear-shaped glowing gob began to drift upward, like the molten substance of a lava lamp. Harry whipped around, wand out, a shout on his lips.

He expected Death Eaters, or, more benignly, a visitor from Grimmauld Place.

Instead he found Mrs. Applewhite shuffling through the open door, holding something dark and clothlike out in one hand. "Harry, dear, you forgot your—oh, my."

Harry's thudding heart began to accelerate rapidly in his chest. Panicked fears began to fly by his mind's eye in horrendous visions—swaths of Aurors, an Obliviation, Harry's wand snapped in two….

Mrs. Applewhite's eyes continued to track the little ball of light, the glow reflected in the lenses of her wire-framed glasses. "Well, that explains a fair bit." And then she proceeded to fix him with a charming, warm grin. "Pair of wizards, are you? You sly devils. Well, now I can tell you that Edna's dealt with worse than chickens. Tried to make friends with her garden gnomes one year. Makes me glad the little beasts don't come by me. Don't bother with non-magical households, bless them. Now here, I'll put the kettle on, and we can catch each other up properly. Where's your father?"


"Harry, come here—I've respelled the toilets to—ah."

Harry wished he had a camera to capture the look of bewilderment on the professor's face when he emerged from the sitting room into the entryway.

"Harry forgot his jacket," Mrs. Applewhite explained cheerily.

Snape opened and closed his mouth, and turned to Harry. Harry shrugged. Snape blinked hard.

"So." Mrs. Applewhite clapped her hands together. "Tea?"

A/N: Hello all-apologies again for such a long time between updates. Unfortunately the delay is partially health-related. I found out I have narcolepsy, and have been struggling hard with it for the last year. Needing to sleep all the time has put a bit of a damper on my writing plans. But! I am diagnosed and figuring out treatment! And some day, I might even get some of this "restorative sleep" I keep hearing about.

I will keep plugging along on my works as life allows. C&P remains my top priority, then Snape's Promise, then the others I have long neglected. I've said before, it may take a while, but I have every intention of finishing everything I've started. Even if I'm old and grey by the time it happens. Sorry I can't be one of those awesome authors who update every week, or every few days (I love you people).

I hope you enjoyed this extra-fluffy chapter (more angst to come). We're hitting the home stretch. I'm guessing we have seven or eight chapters to go? And a planned sequel that will carry us through the schoolyear. All in good time.
Hope you are all well and staying safe and healthy! Thank you again for your comments, I read every single one of them, but limited spoons prevents me from showering each of you with the gratitude and thoughtful responses you deserve. So thank you again, you keep me going. Be well, take care of yourselves, and hang in there!

Cheers, ~Mel