It was icy cold and snow was falling softly when a dark figure appeared with a pop in the middle of nowhere.
The man looked up into the starlit sky, then down to the banks of snow that were sneakily creeping towards his feet. Glad that he'd chosen sturdy boots and a warm cloak, the man shuddered once, then directed his steps towards the distance, where the silhouettes of a few warmly lit houses were shining the promise of shelter into the night.
"Damn it," he grumbled to himself. "Why do these things always happen to me?"
But he was all alone in the darkness, and the house where this – and many other complaints, as far as he was concerned – would be answered was still far off in the distance.
So through the snow he trudged, and a secret observer would have found him very quaint indeed, not just because of the litany of complaints that poured from his mouth into the icy darkness, but also for the nature of his words, which were strange and entirely unsuited to the inhabitants of this harmless place.
"…but does anyone listen to me?" He grumbled. "Merlin, of course they don't. I told them this line of research wasn't viable, right from the beginning, but naturally those brainless idiots had to go and waste a pound of powdered unicorn hair. A pound! I can't believe I'm stuck with brains the size of flubberworms. I could have stayed at Hogwarts for all the difference it makes…"
Despite the irritated tone his voice held, there seemed to be freedom in the way he vented his grudges, even a dark kind of amusement, as if he was secretly laughing at his own complaints. They seemed less born from frustrations past and present, or from a burden too heavy to carry wordlessly, than from the conscious choice to confront the world with continuous, ill-tempered prickliness.
"Dragon's balls!" he cursed when his foot hit an unexpected pothole and went down into the cold, sluggish embrace of inches of snow. "Why couldn't the blasted man have chosen a civilised place for once?"
He seemed ready to turn his back on the whole enterprise for a moment. But with a deep, beleaguered sigh, he withdrew a wooden stick from his pocket instead, swished it in the direction of his wet foot, and trudged onward.
Then, finally, the black-mooded man reached what passed as the centre of civilization in this quiet part of the world, a few two-storied houses, hunkered down in the snow like grandmothers huddled into their wool-capes. Yellow street-lamps illuminated the old-fashioned signs that marked their trade – a bakery, a village shop, a pub, a tiny hole-in-the-wall selling newspapers and fishing gear, and a newer sign, situated over generous windows through which golden light painted patterns on the snow: Community Bookshop.
"Merlin," muttered the dark man in a tone of deepest, resigned disgust.
Then he drew his cloak closer around his shoulders, crossed the road and opened the door to said bookshop. He began to automatically clean his boots, realized what he was doing, gave another sound of disgust and stepped into the warm shop, his eyes lighting with satisfaction on the little piles of snow he left on the polished wooden floor.
Inside, it was warm and dry, but there was none of the humid and smelly air that usually constituted the atmosphere of shops on a cold and wet afternoon. In fact, even as he stepped further into the room, the dark-clad man could see the snow from his boots melt and the puddles disappear, leaving the floor as pristine and warmly golden as before. The man grunted again.
"Not even bothering with subtlety anymore," he complained quietly.
His quick eyes had mapped the interior and its inhabitants even before entering, but now he took his time acknowledging them. Instead, he let his gaze glide over the low ceiling, the shelves crammed with books to the bursting point, the boxes with paperbacks and piles of picture books, the simple table at the other end of the room that carried an old fashioned till. Only after all this had undergone a careful examination did he turn his attention to the man and the woman that filled the small shop with chatter.
They had looked up at his entrance and nodded a greeting, as one is wont to do in small village shops, but they were too engrossed in their own discussion to spare him more than that cursory politeness.
"But I'm sure he will like it, Mrs Walden," the young man, a shop assistant with dark, slightly untidy hair wearing a crumpled green cardigan, was saying. "These books are all over the place, everyone's reading them now. There's action in them, political commentary, even a good bit of philosophy. Jimmy will love them."
"But they are girl books," the old woman objected, though the way her fingers held the stack of three paperbacks betrayed her wish to buy them – and maybe read them herself. "Our Jimmy would never be seen with girl books. He'd think I've finally gone round the bend if I give him these."
"They're not girl books," the young man disagreed, a hint of passion creeping into his voice. "They're about a girl, true, but they're also about integrity, and courage, and being forced into something you never wanted. They're good books."
"And there's a good deal of archery in them – Jimmy's newest obsession, if I've heard correctly?"
The old woman sighed.
"Robin Hood is his hero," she declared with a resignation that spoke of endless teenage rants about the Merry Men of Sherwood. "Alright then, if you're sure, dear. But if he hates them, it'll be you I'll hold accountable."
The shop assistant nodded, accepting this threat humbly, then turned towards the till to ring up her purchases.
"So," Mrs Walden, satisfied now her choice was made, reached for a box under the table and extracted a plastic bag for her books, then began to wrap them up carefully. "How are you spending the holidays, Harry? With family?"
The young man chuckled absently, his fingers carefully pressing the till's drawer, persuading the old machine to open.
"You could say that," he answered amusedly.
From his place near the entrance, the newcomer, who had remained silent until now, grunted. It was a sound that held many things, but most of all indignant protest.
The young man looked up from the till, and his face lit up in a smile that was young and bright and without the slightest reservation.
"Good to see you made it!" He greeted his second customer.
The dark man sneered.
"Have you got nothing better to do with your time than peddle young adult novels on a night like this, Potter?" He asked harshly.
Mrs Walden drew in a surprised breath, her hand clutching the bag with her purchase closer to her bosom. But the young shop assistant just half-turned towards her, encompassing her in his smile and somehow making her part of a joke she hadn't noticed.
"Mrs Walden, this is a good friend of mine, a former teacher. Professor, this is Mrs Walden, a retired primary school teacher. She heads the reading group over at the church."
The dark man opened his mouth, and the assistant's eyes somehow sharpened while the smile on his face stayed the same, and something passed between them.
"Charmed, I'm sure," the dark man said, and even Mrs Walden, who did not know him at all, had a vague feeling that this was a courtesy rather unsuited to him. But she in turn was courtesy personified, and so welcomed him to the village with words as warm as this bookshop was.
"A teacher," she then commented, perhaps a tad disbelieving. Her scepticism was understandable if one considered his dark, dramatic cloak, his obviously handmade boots and his forbidding face. "I would have pegged you for a colleague of Harry's."
"Colleague?" For a moment, the stranger seemed thrown, perhaps even suspicious.
Mrs Walden laughed.
"A writer," she explained. "Though dear Harry refuses to reveal his pseudonym, we all know that's what he does. Perhaps you'd be willing to betray his secret, Mr…"
"Mrs Walden!" The young man protested, as if scandalised by her daring, and her laughter turned into a delighted giggling that seemed to strip the years from her.
"Then I'll leave you to it, dear," she announced, the ritual of curiosity dispensed with. "It's good to know you're not alone on this of all nights, Harry. The Lord bless you!"
"And you, Mrs Walden," the shop assistant replied good naturedly. He watched her leave in silence, then turned to his other customer.
"Can I tempt you into buying anything, Professor?" He asked with the gentlest kind of mockery. "We have an excellent selection of cookery books."
The dark man's reaction to this apparent witticism was another of his trademark grunts.
"You could only tempt me with one of those if you promised to stand still while I clobbered you with it, Potter."
The young man's grin reappeared.
"What a waste of a good book," he mused, then closed the till with a snap. "I just need a few moments to tidy the shop, then we can be off. You won't mind waiting, Professor, will you?"
The Professor's face didn't hide what answer he would be giving, had he bothered speaking.
But as he watched the much younger man tend to his tasks - lock the doors, count the money in the till and safely depositing it in the backroom's safe, switch out the light so that the interiors of the shop would be all but invisible, then clean floor, shelves and desk with just one lazy flick of his magical fingers – something else played across his face, something he didn't seem to notice and probably would have denied fervently if asked about it.
Something like tired, soft exasperation, like worry and patience and understanding.
Something like tenderness. Something like pride.
None of these things fit his face very well, that sallow plane of harsh angles and jutting edges, and yet, somehow, they made him look free in a way he hadn't before, all the more himself for seeming so alien to him.
There was no evidence of this strange bundle of emotions when the young man finally joined him at the door, gestured that he would follow him into the cold, clear night, then locked the door behind them.
They walked side by side through the darkness, falling into step easily, as if this silent companionship came to them like breathing. Only when they had cleared the last houses and were entirely alone, snow beneath their feet and black sky above them, did the older man finally open their conversation.
"A writer?" he asked. The occupation sounded like a dangerous disease the way he pronounced it.
The other man chuckled.
"It's their latest theory," he explained. "Obviously I'm not posh enough to be a rich heir. There was a theory about retired SAS a while back, but I made sure that rumour wouldn't spread, and so it's writing now, probably fantasy, considering the weird things I carry around on myself sometimes."
Turning to the other man, he asked: "An how's your new job?"
"A nightmare," he was answered succinctly. "They squabble like children, are unable to share their research productively, and expect me to continuously clean up after their messes."
The young man grinned.
"Yes. It really, really is."
"And who'd have thought that heading the Wizengamot's secret international potions research centre would be so much like teaching at Hogwarts," the younger man mused, only to have the other whirl around to him, brows clenched in a thunderous frown.
"Who told you that? Our work is secret for a reason, Potter!"
Potter shrugged. He looked embarrassed, but also very amused.
"I have my sources," he simply offered.
"Sure you have," the other fairly growled. "Should have known."
Then, he in turn chuckled, a rusty, sardonic sound.
"Minerva's going spare trying to find out what I'm doing with myself. Offered to double my salary and can't understand why I could afford to tell her where to shove it, that harpy."
"She'll be a good Headmistress."
The older man hesitated, then nodded grudgingly.
"She will. Has the right type of meddlesome self-righteousness for the job." He paused for a few deep breaths of winter air. "And you're back to working in a book shop, I see."
"Part-time," was the exceedingly vague answer. "The community bookshop is a fairly new project. They've been trying to open one for ages, and now that it's become possible, I thought I'd lend a hand."
"Now that an anonymous benefactor has made a substantial donation? Subtle, Potter."
"A deduction worthy of your sharp mind, Professor. Or did Shadow simply tell you over a glass of whisky?"
"Just because I happen to share a drink with your mother-hen-vampire once in a while," here, the old man lowered his voice, as if wary of sharp ears listening. "Doesn't mean that we limit our conversation to the tawdry subject of your misadventures. I happen to have a life far more interesting than that."
Any hint of mockery left the younger man's face, and his hand came to rest on the older man's shoulder, just for a moment.
"I know," he said quietly. "And I'm glad for it, Professor."
"You're insufferable, that's what you are," came the gruff answer. "And I'm not a professor anymore, so stop calling me that."
The complaint was perfunctory, as if even he himself didn't expect it to have any effect anymore, and the silence that answered him was expected.
"Speaking of interesting lives," he continued after a moment. "You haven't actually gone after the group that tried to kill you, have you?"
There was much in the question – and in the silence that followed it – that reached beyond this moment, beyond the black sky and the white snow under the feet, beyond the now of the two men.
Memories of Potter, standing alone in a meadow, armed with only a stick, and Snape locked inside, condemned to helpless watching. Memories of that same young man, barely recovered enough to stand without help, calmly and perhaps a bit sadly stating that 'they' – whoever 'they' were – had become a danger to others and would have to be dealt with.
There had been many strange and unexpected moments in those first days after the memories had run their course, those days Snape had taken to calling 'post-survival' in his head.
He should have known what would happen, after having spent weeks with Potter. Indeed he had foreseen pars of it: The way Potter had surfaced from his memories and from Snape's chambers to take back control over his life, as if he hadn't fought against being healed with everything he'd had, the calm, unerring, unwavering climb back to health. How he'd eaten sensibly, slept enough, undertaken light exercise according to Mme Pomfrey's regime, and had meanwhile talked to every single party that made up the chaos of Hogwarts' invasion, had talked again and again, enduring and ignoring the vampire's outrage over how he'd been treated, the teachers' constant questions about his past and health, Ayda's delight in causing mayhem.
He' brought them to one table, every single one of them, even Dumbledore, whom Snape couldn't even bear to look at, much less talk to, and somehow, he'd hammered out a solution to their problem that would leave Hogwarts whole, its reputation untarnished, and all their dignities intact.
Harry Potter, it had turned out, was one hell of a diplomat.
But that much had been obvious long before, from his successful interactions with both Shadow and Ayda, from his respectful immersion into centaur culture and also, if Snape was entirely honest, from the way he had with Snape himself. So no real surprises there.
What had been less expected was the sudden harshness he'd displayed in that one, short moment, the coldness of a man who'd dealt out death sentences with just a hint of regret. Only once before had Snape met a shadow of that man, back in the very beginning of their journey together, when Potter had spoken about killing Voldemort. He wasn't sure he wanted to meet him again.
But curiosity had always been the one thing capable of killing this very careful Slytherin, and so he asked again, despite the silence that had lengthened, indicating that Potter wasn't at all interested in answering.
"Have you?" It came out more worried than he had meant it to sound.
And Potter, gentle, serene Potter, turned his head towards Snape with a smile.
His face changed. Snape couldn't have explained how it was that his face turned cruel, his eyes darker and infinitely more knowing. There wasn't any physical change. But suddenly, Potter looked like the most dangerous man Snape had ever known, and it was obvious from the pockets of black amusement hiding in the shadows of that face that he knew it, and knew that Snape, in turn, knew.
"Oh no," Potter said lightly, his voice soft, as light as a snake's tongue tasting the night. "I just let them come to me. They were so very eager."
There was no apology in his words, no hint of regret, and for a moment, Snape's throat closed with fear. This was the man Potter might have turned into, the man with eyes the colour of the Killing Curse, the man who had clawed his enemies to death.
Had he been wrong? Had the treatment changed Potter in unexpected ways? Was something new hiding under that mask of a gentle and mild man?
Potter's smile widened, deepened as an abyss, sharpened like a knife. He knew Snape's thoughts, his smile whispered, knew them as well as if he had spoken the words. Had deliberately shown this side of him, inviting them in.
And then, just as deliberately, Potter wiped the smile away from the slate of his face.
"They made the same old mistake," he said calmly, "confusing my choices with helplessness."
Snape's breath misted the air in front of him. He felt strangely light headed.
"I see," he said, and he did.
His journey through Potter's memories had brought many things for Snape, directly and indirectly – conflicts with old colleagues, painful questions, unsatisfying answers, but also, he had admitted to himself during the past months of quiet reflection, more freedom than he'd ever had, from others, but also from his own past and constraints. He was, perhaps, more himself now than he'd ever been before, and he was too honest a man not to realize that this was down to the things he'd seen in Potter's company, the events he'd had a chance to witness.
But while it had been obvious that said journey had fulfilled its primary function for Potter, having healed him, he had never before seriously considered that Potter might have benefited in any other way.
Until now. Until he saw a man no longer afraid of his dark side, a man finally willing to allow his own power out. A man fully in control of himself, and free in that control.
"Thank you," Snape said. "That's good to hear."
Potter smiled gently.
"You deserved to know," he said quietly, and the moment fell away. "And you'll also be very satisfied to hear that I took your advice in other areas, too."
"What, have you gotten rid of that insufferable wreck you call your brain?"
Potter had the gall to chuckle. Was it impossible to insult the man?
"No, Professor. But I did re-initiate contact to a few former friends from the wizarding world. Luna's still very much herself, and Neville was delighted to hear of me."
"He'll learn," Snape grumbled, and Potter chuckled again.
"We're here, Professor," he then said, and as Snape followed the outstretched line of his arm, he saw warm light blazing out over the snow, the whitewashed walls and dark roof of a well-known cottage.
A cottage that had disappeared without a trace from the rocky ground of a Scottish island, giving him one last, mocking wink, only to reappear in the middle of Cornwall without so much as an as-you-please. It wasn't natural.
"Is this a joke, Potter?"
"No, Professor, this is my house." The answer was so bland, so entirely without humour, that Snape was sure his insufferable former student was holding his belly with laughter on the inside.
"You transported your house?"
"I simply told it to make the move. Come on, let's get you reacquainted." Potter stepped closer to his home, and by invisible hands the front door opened invitingly. They stepped through.
Never in a thousand years would Snape have admitted that he was wary about a cottage, but he was. No wizard should be forced to put up with winking houses, that was his personal opinion, and if Potter disagreed, well, that was his problem. One of his many problems.
"No, Potter, I will not stretch out my hand again so that your cottage can sniff at it like a mangy dog," Snape barked, only to have the front door snap closed right behind him, nipping at his heel. He heard the rafters above his head shift, like a dusty, dry snigger.
"This house has it in for me, I swear," Snape grumbled, watching the corridor with something like trepidation.
"Nonsense," Potter disagreed warmly. "It's just as glad to see you back here as I am. Afraid I can't speak for my other guest, though…"
Even warier, Snape followed him through the house, noting that Potter had enlarged the living room, putting up even more shelves for his muggle books. The air was warm and fragrant, and holly and ivy lined the walls, giving the place a festive glow.
Delicious smells hit his nose when he entered the kitchen, and Snape saw that although the table was enlarged, too, it still held barely enough space for the feast Potter had prepared. There were soup and roast and vegetables and puddings and muffins, and sitting right in the middle of that splendour, spoon and knife erect like the caricature of an impatient guest…
"I should have known," Snape said with a heartfelt sigh.
"Finally!" Ayda looked at him sternly, as if he was a recalcitrant boy that had returned home too late.
"I would have started without you," her old, cranky voice told him, holding nothing but petulance. "But Potter, the brat, put a spell on the food."
Snape examined her critically without saying a word, then turned back to Potter, one eyebrow raised and lips preparing a sneer.
"I'm only putting up with this under protest," he said. "And I think it's a rotten idea. Just so you know."
And Potter's smile widened, as brilliant and all-encompassing as the night sky, smoothing away all the lines of worry and illness and tiredly that made it look older than it was.
"I know, Professor," he said, his voice soft and teasing. "Merry Christmas to you, too."