Pairings: Harry/Snape, past Harry/Ginny
Warnings: DH SPOILERS, including the epilogue.(Snape didn't die). Profanity, brief scenes of violence.
Summary: When his son James is wounded, Harry goes to Severus Snape for help. Snape, of course, has a price. Harry pays it—and Snape finds himself paying his own price in worry, doubt, awe, and something very much like love.
Request: (from gingertart50):Harry/Snape, Plot and characterisation, UST, romance, angst is ok as long as there is a happy or hopeful ending. unusual career choices. Post-epilogue romance with the children as matchmakers (sort of, in a backhand manner), one of the characters (or a family member) has a major problem, overcomes his pride and asks for help, and ends up with much more than he bargained for.
Disclaimer: Characters are the property of JK Rowling, et al. This was created for fun, not for profit.
Author's Notes: This was written for the hdsbeltane exchange on LiveJournal.
"I suppose that's it, then."
Harry, blinking in the sunlight outside the London solicitor's office and trying to get his bearings after what felt like a long fall, nodded slowly. He stared up at the sky for a moment, almost amazed that it could be an ordinary, steely September day, clouds edged with rain, when he and Ginny had just got a divorce.
Ginny put an elbow into his ribs, making him grunt and look at her. She was grinning at him, holding out a hand. "No need to look like your Crup just died," she said softly. "We both agreed to this, remember?"
"I do." Harry gripped her fingers firmly, and felt a surge of emotions more like what he'd expected to feel, a combination of relief and regret. "And we'll both be happier in the long run."
"There's that." Ginny hesitated, studying him, then leaned in and brushed a quick kiss across his cheek. Harry patted the back of her head instead of trying to return the gesture. "Take care of yourself," Ginny murmured as she pulled back.
Ginny gave him a firm nod, then turned and strode away. Harry watched her go for a moment. She walked with her head up and her shoulders straight, but also with a lightness in her step he hadn't seen for a long time. This had been the right decision for them to make, he thought, in so many ways. They had grown apart, and though they had tried to keep up an interest in each other's lives and come together again for the sake of the children, they both kept forgetting, caught up in their more exciting individual activities and relationships with friends. When Ginny had finally sat Harry down two months ago and had an honest conversation with him, Harry had to agree that divorce was really the best thing for both of them. At the moment, they were trying to pretend the sexual aspects of their lives didn't exist; they didn't want to touch each other, but neither were they interested in infidelity. And that wasn't fair to either of them.
Harry had explained things to the boys—James was at Hogwarts for his third year and Al for his second—whilst Ginny took over the task for Lily, who would spend most of her time with her mother but be free to see her father. James had accepted the news easily, as he seemed to do with everything; Lily had shed a few noisy tears, then learned that her parents hadn't divorced because of her and promptly seized the opportunity to try to get twice as many birthday gifts. Al, the sensitive and shy one, had required more reassurance.
But all of that was in the past and Harry was—
Free? Not the right word. It represented his marriage as an unwelcome burden, and it hadn't been, even as he had come to realize that he and Ginny were friends, nothing more.
Not a husband, maybe, he thought. It's the only way to say it that's strictly true. And he began wandering up the street, his hands in his robe pockets. He wasn't expected at the Ministry today; he could use the time to think and make up his mind about how he felt.
Severus narrowed his eyes. The frame of bones and skin stretched on a network of silver strands in front of him looked correct, but there was a flaw somewhere in the design. Unlike his work with potions, the art he'd taken up after his near-escape from death in the war did not reveal wrong details he could pick out at once. He was still learning, even after eighteen years of practice, to see his creations as less than a complete whole.
He paced around the web, slowly. The silver strands were strung between two ivory poles; ivory was almost the only material that wouldn't react with the complex spells Severus had to use to create the artificial bones and skin in the first place. An extra leg behind each pole supported the entire apparatus on the smooth wooden floor of Severus's cottage.
Two more turns, and he stopped and raised his eyebrows. A wonder I did not see it before. The curvature of the spine at the top of the design, the place where it would expand into the neck and support for the skull, was entirely too weak. Severus reached out and carefully adjusted the direction of the bones, bending them back and forth several times, then pausing, then adjusting the outermost vertebra one more quarter-turn. There.
Satisfied that his commission for Mrs. Waverley's broken back was nearly complete, Severus turned to the front of the cottage where his daily dose of antivenin was bubbling. He passed, along the way, numerous crates of metals, stones, and gems; racks across which gleaming furred or feathered or hairless hides were stretched; cages where live animals scrabbled in panic or dull curiosity; complete skeletons and smaller, free-standing studies of human anatomy; and several collapsed frames and easels that held the remnants of finished projects. His great horned owl, Daedelus, preened himself importantly near the one window; he never seemed inclined to go to sleep when the sun rose, but instead slept in odd snatches in odd corners of both space and time.
Severus gazed once into the cauldron of antivenin, snorted, and then picked up the glass stirring rod that lay on the nearest table and swirled it twice around the surface of the potion. The green liquid calmed, the bubbles that had been rising subsiding back into the depths. Severus nodded sharply and laid the stirring rod aside. Acceptable, though if he were truly as skilled as he'd always thought himself, he would have brewed the antivenin so that no instability existed at this late stage.
He only allowed admission of his own weaknesses in private, even now. He might be fifty-eight years old and compelled to swallowed a dose of antivenin every single day to counter the lingering effects of Nagini's poison in his veins, but that did not change the fact that no one else had the right to see into his soul.
Two people had once had that right. Both were dead.
Severus touched the side of his throat, as he did whenever thoughts of the past threatened to consume him, and fingered the new skin he had devised for himself to cover the scars of snake fangs. It flexed, wrinkled, felt, and smelled like ordinary skin. No one could have told the difference with a casual glance; Severus had challenged potential patrons who doubted his skills to examine his neck for themselves, and an extended investigation produced no ability to distinguish between the real and the artificial, either.
He had begun his labors of necessity; the last thing he had wanted when the Ministry finally pardoned him was to be disfigured. But the business had grown beyond that, until he was replacing entire limbs—something ordinary mediwizardry had never been able to do well; witness Alastor Moody—and repairing broken bones or wounds inflicted by Dark magic, which were much harder to heal with simple potions. It was not the work he had once envisioned himself doing.
On the other hand, which of your own visions of the future has ever turned out to be true? Albus struck closer than you managed.
So he had his life, isolated save for owl post, and an occasional fitting when he needed to look at a client's wound in the workshop instead of in hospital or a private home. It had quietude, grace, beauty, the solitude he desired, and an occasional…more artistic…detail as well.
Severus turned to face the bedroom at the back of the cottage, wondering if this was a propitious moment for him to retreat and work on the Kestrel project. The antivenin would not be ready for another hour, he could do nothing with the backbone project for Mrs. Waverley until tomorrow—
And then an owl swooped in through the window, hooting urgently and making Daedelus turn his head and stare with offended dignity. Severus sighed, caught the bird on one heavily padded shoulder, and took the letter from the owl's leg. His gaze went as a matter of habit to the signature; there were some people he refused to work for no matter what the inducement, since they might take the chance as one for revenge.
A moment later, emotions he had almost forgotten, among them hatred and choleric passion, slammed right back into his heart, inspired by the signature Harry Potter. The owl barely went fluttering in time, and the cauldron of antivenin didn't survive the blast of the curse that followed. In instants the floor and walls were soaked with thick green liquid that stank of moss and toadstools.
Severus stood in silence for a short time, staring down at the ashes of the letter. Then he turned, slowly, methodically, and began gathering up the ingredients he would need to create a second batch of the antivenin.
"How is he?"
Harry turned and smiled wearily up at Hermione. She was still clad in an Unspeakable's hooded gray robe, but the hood was back to show her face. She looked worried enough before he smiled; after he did that, she came up and hugged him tightly.
"Better than he could have been," Harry said softly, staring at the Hogwarts hospital bed that held his eldest son. James was pale and sleeping, his face drawn tight with lines of pain. His hair looked as though he'd got into a spectacular fight. His left hand was curled limply on his stomach, but half-closed into a fist anyway, as if he'd fight his enemies off in his sleep.
His right hand—
Harry glanced away, swallowing queasily.
"I saw Hagrid," Hermione said after a few moments in which they held each other and said nothing. Madam Pomfrey had vanished into the back of the hospital wing for more potions, hoping to find something that would heal James's hand completely, and no other students, for a miracle, occupied any of the beds right now. Harry was grateful. It gave him the ability to break down without worrying what gossip might find its way into the papers tomorrow. Maybe the news of his and Ginny's divorce would beat out even this, he thought tiredly. "He was practically in tears."
"Well, he deserves to be," Harry said bitterly. Later, he would feel sorry about yelling at Hagrid, but for now, his thirteen-year-old son was curled up in bed with a right hand like a limp and shriveled glove, all because Hagrid had given into James's excited demands to be allowed to touch an Ashling, the hybrid between a Runespoor and an Ashwinder Hagrid had created with his own experimental breeding. The Ashling had locked its fingers into the palm of James's right hand and pumped in venom that burned up all the nerves, bones, and flesh from the inside out.
Hermione sounded exactly like she had twenty years ago when Harry suggested skiving off Herbology. Harry choked back a little sound—whether it would have been chuckle or sob, he never knew—and sighed. "I know, I know," he said. "I'll apologize to him tomorrow, Hermione. I just—it's hard, right now." He thought the sensation of a swooping fall when he opened the letter from Hogwarts and recognized James's name and the phrase regret to inform you your son has suffered an accident was still affecting him.
His children had had their share of falls, accidents, childish perils, and illnesses since they'd been born, but none of them had ever been wounded this severely. Harry stared at James and had to grit his teeth against the wave of helplessness that came over him. He could fight Dark wizards and rogue werewolves and escaped lunatics, but how could he protect his son from this? At thirteen, James was crippled. Nothing Madam Pomfrey had tried had been able to counter the Ashling venom. The only mercy was that it had stopped spreading at James's wrist.
Hermione spoke his name, quietly, and Harry realized she had probably been trying to get his attention for some time. "Has Ginny been here?" she asked, when he looked at her, his eyes aching around the rims.
Harry nodded. "Yeah," he said softly. "She was here all night, and when I got here this morning she went home to get some sleep. And of course Lily needs her. She and I'll alternate for a while, I suppose." Arrangements like that could hardly hold his attention when James moaned a little and tossed his head back on the pillow. Harry took one arm away from his embrace of Hermione to reach out and touch his son's forehead, just above the place where the lightning bolt scar might have rested if Voldemort's curse had skipped a generation. James relaxed, but his left hand had clenched completely into a fist now.
"Have you tried contacting Professor Snape?" Hermione asked, in the same ginger tone with which Madam Pomfrey had suggested amputation.
"I did," said Harry bitterly. God, I'm nearly forty, he's nearly sixty, and still he can't get over his old grudges. Or his new ones. Harry had shown some carefully edited memories to the Wizengamot and finally managed to persuade them that Snape had been acting on Dumbledore's orders all along, but Snape might well feel that he'd rather have gone to Azkaban than owe his life and his freedom to Harry. "No response to the first letter. The second one got a Howler that told me exactly where I could shove my Galleons. Woke James up, too, the bastard."
Hermione bowed her head and was quiet for a few moments. Harry blinked, hard. He must have slept at some point last night, just because he didn't feel like falling over today, but so far as his brain was concerned, this was an endless nightmare.
"Well," said Hermione at last, "I have heard that Snape might agree to accept—other prices."
Harry turned his head to look suspiciously at her. "There was a dramatic pause before other prices," he said. "I heard you. What does that mean? If you think I can somehow persuade Snape to be interested in my soul, my flat, or my Auror career, think again."
Hermione shook her head. "We've investigated Snape a few times, just to make sure he wasn't using any Dark magic," she said.
Harry snorted. "Or any artifacts the Department of Mysteries might like to have for itself."
Hermione didn't bother trying to deny the accusation. "We've learned that sometimes he accepts clients too poor to pay the rather exorbitant prices he demands," she said. "Usually, he wants to experiment on them. Try out some new technique or new replacement on them that hasn't been sufficiently tested yet and which there isn't much demand for."
"If you think I'm going to let him experiment on James—"
"I wasn't thinking about that." Hermione shivered a little, and her hand clamped hard on his arm. She flicked a glance at James, then looked quickly away. Harry doubted she would have suggested what she did next if she hadn't known how desperate he was to save his son. "He might be open to experimenting on you, though, Harry."
Harry paused, recalling the hatred in Snape's eyes after the Pensieve incident in his fifth year, and then again when the Wizengamot had given Snape back his wand under Harry's supervision. If Snape had grudges, why wouldn't he want to settle them? Howlers and silence were so inadequate, compared to what he'd probably like to do.
And was there anything he wouldn't do to save James? Harry couldn't imagine it if there was.
"Yes," said Harry. "I think I'll ask him." He pulled his arm gently from its resting place on Hermione's waist. "And just to make sure he can't tear up another letter, I'll go in person. I hope he makes tea enough for two."
Severus took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He had to calm down. It seemed as though, every time he settled back into the detached, serene state of mind he used to work on his best projects, some recollection of Potter's inane requests would smash into that serenity like a stone into a pool and destroy everything.
But Potter was not here, and he hadn't sent another letter for nearly twenty-four hours. Surely he had at last accepted that there were some things he was not meant to have, no matter how many worlds he saved.
Severus realized he had been overestimating Potter's intelligence and good sense when someone knocked smartly on the door of the cottage. He knew who it was without looking. The intense revulsion that curled his tongue as effectively as the smell of cat piss would told him.
He lifted his wand to cast a spell that would seal the door shut, but it opened before that could become practical, and Potter ducked in. He was bent as though to escape a flying curse. Severus snarled in spite of himself; at least Potter knew him that well.
Then Potter straightened up, and they looked at each other.
Severus was sure of what Potter saw: some old monster of his schooldays, tinged and softened, if at all, with the muddy hues of guilt. He himself saw what he had expected. Oh, Potter was taller than he had been, solider, with a bulk around his waist that told of a developing ring of fat. There were traces of gray, and even a strand of white, in his dark hair. But he still wore an expression of irritating hope mingled with self-righteousness. He had the right to take, and take, and take, that look said, until he had scraped everything good down to bare ashes.
Just because, once, he had volunteered to die, when that was obviously the right choice to make.
Choking on hatred of this man who had never known any ambiguity, Severus pointed his wand at Potter's chest and said, "I will hear no talk of debts between us. You are still a child if you think your heroic reputation carries any weight with me. Therefore, there is no reason for you to remain here."
Potter raised his eyebrows instead of his wand. Severus hated the gesture immediately. So confident that he cannot suffer pain?
"I'm willing to pay the price," Potter said quietly.
The tone calmed Severus, and reminded him that he did not need to lose his dignity in front of an enemy simply because he wished to assert himself. He lowered his wand enough to make it less of a threat whilst making it clear that he could raise it again at any time, and took a moment to calm his breathing. Potter brought so much of their shared past into the cottage with him, into a place where, for many years, Severus had succeeded in shutting the past out.
"For what?" he asked, running his gaze up and down Potter's body and sneering. No doubt James Potter would have hoped for his son to become some paragon of manhood, some hearty and glorious homage to physicality and Gryffindor courage. But Potter was utterly ordinary. It was only the famous face that would have made anyone stop and turn to stare. "You seem to have all your limbs. Do you plan to commission something that you might someday need? I'm afraid that even I have never yet managed to create the functional mind which is your most pressing lack."
Potter took a deep breath, and then said evenly, "It's for my son. Not for me. One of Hagrid's creatures bit his right hand, and none of the Healers who've looked at it can do anything to reverse the effects of the venom. It's amputation or—or one of your creations."
Severus felt a brief stirring of interest, which he quickly Vanished to the outer void of his mind. He would not become involved in this. But curiosity won out over hatred enough that he could ask, "My namesake?"
Potter shook his head. "My older boy. James."
Severus didn't need to speak. He let his disgust show in his eyes, and began to turn away. Of course, Potter stood there, shifting from foot to foot, instead of taking the hint and getting out, so Severus had to speak up after all. "Potter, not even if you presented me with a hundred thousand Galleons and two basilisk scales would I—"
"I'm offering to let you experiment on me."
The words stopped Severus as ably as though the brat had just conjured one of Hogwarts' walls in front of him. Severus stared at a cage that held a small winged rat and tried to control his breathing. He knew at once what he would want to do to Potter; the image sprang fully-formed into his head, much the way the original Kestrel project had when he'd conceived of it three years ago.
Potter was willing to reduce himself to an animal. How that must bite and sting at his pride. And if his father could see his son doing that, how he would roll and writhe. Severus shivered in almost sensual pleasure as he pictured the look of revulsion on James Potter's face, how he would plead with Potter to reconsider—
And what would Lily say about your experimenting on her son?
Severus Vanished that thought, too. One thing he had come to accept in the last few years was that Lily was dead, beyond recall. He might hold precious memories of her—handed back to him by the idiot behind him, who had no doubt thought he was doing Severus some great favor by returning his own property—but she would never return despite anything he might do to atone for causing her death.
Lily would have understood, he thought, no one better. Here was a parent offering to make a sacrifice for his child. How could she disapprove?
Severus turned back to face Potter at last. The man's muscles were tight and coiled with waiting, and Severus toyed with the idea of keeping him balanced on that edge of agony, not knowing if his offer would be accepted or rejected, for a few moments longer. But in the end, he wanted to see how Potter would look when he realized what he had got himself into.
"I accept your offer," Severus said quietly, and Potter immediately bowed his head to hide his face. Coward, Severus thought idly. But then, Gryffindors always bore pain better than the threat of mere humiliation.
Harry bowed his head and took a deep breath, so that his relief wouldn't blast him backwards and leave him a mere stain on Snape's wall. Then he looked up. "What information will you need about the injury?" he asked. It cut him to refer to James's hand in such impersonal terms, but mentioning his son's name—his father's name—in front of Snape right now didn't seem like the best idea.
Snape shook his head. His eyes had gone intent in a way that Harry supposed should worry him. But with the image of James so still and pale in his head, he simply didn't have any more room for extra concern. Snape had agreed. That was all that mattered.
"This way," Snape murmured, and led the way towards the back of the cottage. Harry followed, ducking under grotesqueries that he thought would have made Dumbledore proud. He paused at one point, caught by a spluttering bowl of the clearest purple liquid he'd ever seen, but a growl from Snape hastened him along.
Harry edged carefully into a small, dingy room—a drying rack occupied half the doorframe—and then stopped, staring. Snape had no doubt planned the effect, since the one window was unshuttered to let dim rays of sunlight fall through the dusty glass and directly onto the thing in the center of the room. The man himself stood off to the side, his arms folded, smiling in a way that Harry thought he'd probably looked down at his victims in the days when he'd been a sincere Death Eater.
But he couldn't worry about that, either. The thing he stared at had taken the place in the center of his mind that worry over James held just a moment ago.
It was an enormous stretch of gleaming blue canvas, tinted the exact color of the sky on a fine summer's day; Harry thought he could see even the outlines of clouds. In the center shone a pair of jointed wings, narrow in the middle but pointed and expanding rapidly as they traveled outwards, until their plumed tips brushed the walls beyond the edges of the canvas. The feathers were gray near the ends, with a series of paler gray markings notices along the sides that looked almost unnatural. Closer in to the middle, the markings turned into black spots on a white background, intermixed blotches like drops of paint.
"They are even more magnificent from the back," Snape said, his voice soft, caressing. Harry shot him a startled glance, and then realized he was looking at the wings. That makes sense. God knows I'll never attract that tone from him. "Brown, evolving into a color almost coral in the middle."
It took Harry several attempts to find his voice. "What kind of bird are they meant to resemble?" And then he coughed, because he sounded awed, and he didn't want to.
Snape snapped his gaze towards Harry. "A kestrel," he said. "An adult male common kestrel, specifically. I created a pair of wings meant to be worn by an adult male human. So far, I have not found a willing test subject."
Harry could see why. The wings were beautiful, but why would anyone who simply wanted to renew a lost limb or replace burned skin—Snape's two more frequent sources of business, he'd heard—what to wear something so alien? And from the way Snape said "test subject," the wings would induce changes in a human body beyond the obvious.
Harry cleared his throat. "You want me to wear them."
Snape curled his lip. "You are an adult male human," he said. "You offered yourself for an experiment, and I led you here. Yes, Potter, that is the natural conclusion to come to. Well done."
I can't let him get to me. This is for James. Harry nodded shortly, once. "How do they fit on? Do you bond them to the back of your test subject?" No, Harry, face this. If you'd only had the courage to tell the truth to Ginny long since, you might have made her and yourself happy earlier. "To my back?"
Snape shook his head and gestured with his wand at the center of the wings. Harry peered at it, and saw what the colors and the size of the apparatus had distracted him from noticing earlier. There was a hooked steel harness that consisted of a collar and a pair of straps leading back into the wings.
"I will attach it to your neck," said Snape. "The harness and the collar sink beneath the skin, and there is no sign of their having existed—fortunately for you, or otherwise someone might easily catch at them and yank them away."
"If they sink beneath the skin," Harry said, turning back to stare at Snape, "how are they meant to come off?"
Snape's lip curled a little more, but this time it was in the direction of a smile. "They're not."
Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath. So this would last the rest of his life, and probably have unknown magical effects on his body, not to mention the physical differences having a pair of wings would induce. Could he do this?
What a stupid question.
"All right," he said, opening his eyes. "Are the wings attached only by the harness?"
Snape inclined his head. "At first," he said, his voice warm as he reached out to touch the flight primaries of the nearest wing. "Then they root themselves."
"Shall I explain the etymology of both those words, Potter?"
"I don't know," Harry said through gritted teeth, "how they would root themselves. They're wings, not plants."
Snape simply looked bored, as though Harry's objection had no logic to it. "They extend fibers, or tendrils if you will," he said. "They sink into your skin, tying the wings on these curves." He tapped the edges of the enormous curves which began to bulge just past the harness straps. "The fibers root themselves in your bones and your lungs. Most of the time, they simply coexist with your magical core. When you are ready for flight, they will lighten your bones and add extra air sacs to your lungs."
Harry would have dropped his wand if he'd been holding it. "Flight," he said dazedly.
"It is fortunate," Snape said, not quite under his breath, "that the Kestrel project depends on none of the functions that are normally assumed to be present inside the skull."
Harry hissed under his breath, but said only, "I didn't assume you would want whoever wore these to fly. Just to wear them." He looked at the wings again, tried to imagine what it would be like to carry them on his back and perhaps feel the tendrils Snape talked about probing into his lungs, and then shook his head. Oh, he'd had his dreams of flying as a child, the way everyone did, but since he'd come into the wizarding world, those had become dreams of flight on a broomstick. In some ways, magic narrowed his vision of the possible.
"If you are unwilling, Potter," Snape said, so close to Harry's ear that he started, "so say now. Of course, then you and your son must go a-begging."
Harry set his jaw, determined not to show anything, fear or nervousness or irritation. "It's fine," he said. "Tell me what I have to do to put them on."
Severus felt a stab of disappointment go in under his ribs like a dagger. He had hoped that whoever wore the Kestrel wings would regard them with the same wonder and delight he did, not look on them as a chore. But of course Potter was only doing this for the sake of a James Potter, the same way Lily had turned away from Severus for the sake of one.
I will never escape that name, that face, Severus thought. He had seen no photographs of Potter's elder son—a small story had run in the Prophet about the younger when he was unexpectedly Sorted into Slytherin—but he knew without asking that he would carry his grandfather's features.
Seeing the wings come to life at last would have to be enough, without sharing the emotions he had wanted to go with them. Severus laid his hand on the front of Potter's throat. The shiver that coursed through the younger man put him in a slightly better mood. He knows that I can snap his neck even now.
"Remove your robes and shirt," Severus murmured. "The harness must touch only your bare skin at first. Cloth would interfere with the development of the magic in ways you do not want to contemplate."
Potter stood rigid for a moment, as if he would defy Severus's orders for the mere sake of disobedience. Then he grumbled under his breath and began disrobing. Severus moved around him and towards the canvas, waving his wand to levitate the Kestrel wings gently from its frame. The feathers shifted and shivered as them moved. Severus rotated them slowly so that Potter might glance up and see the brown and coral colors on the back of the wings, if he cared to glance up from the apparently absorbing task of undoing his robe buttons.
He did not. Severus told himself it did not matter, not when he could admire the results of his own artistry.
At last Potter said, not quite snapping, "I'm ready."
Severus guided the wings behind him, using the pretense of being entirely focused on their movement to sneak a glance at Potter's bared torso. He was pleased to see he'd been right about his thickening middle, but displeased at the amount of scars—from claws and curses and blades—scattered along the softly curving muscles and between the brown nipples, peaked slightly from the cold. James Potter would have been pleased with his son after all. Even after sixteen years in the Aurors, Potter felt the tiresome need to play hero.
The collar snapped into place around Potter's neck, the wings falling behind it to rest on his back. Potter's throat bobbed as he struggled to breathe, and he raised a hand.
"Do not," Severus said, not loudly, but with enough bite in his voice to make Potter freeze just short of touching the harness. "Contact with even the skin of your palm might prejudice the magic unduly." He stepped behind Potter and reached for the straps of the harness, circling them under Potter's arms and binding them to his shoulder blades. The warm, sweaty skin under his fingers broke out in goosebumps when he touched it. At least Potter looked fit from the back; Severus would have hated to see the Kestrel project wasted on an inferior physical specimen.
He kept his hand on the skin just under the curve of one wing, watching. Potter tensed and said, "Why can you touch the harness and the collar, but I can't?"
"It's getting used to the back of your body, and did not need your hand interfering," Severus said. He could feel the gathering magic, and now small trails of bright black and white sparks raced along the edges of the harness. "Anyone else can touch it freely after it is fastened to you and—ah."
Potter jumped as the collar and harness suddenly vanished. For a moment, Severus saw the shadows of them under the skin, and then nothing. He nodded, pleased.
Of course, a moment later he had to duck Potter's elbow as he reached frantically up and felt around the sides of his neck and the backs of his shoulders. When he encountered the wings, his touch slowed and softened, but he was still groping as if he hadn't listened to a word Severus said about the way the wings would be fastened to him.
Severus rolled his eyes. "For life, Potter," he said. "In time you will be able to move the wings, but not now." He spoke carefully, to control his sudden excitement. "Now. Turn about and let me look at you."
Potter locked his legs. Apparently he had to consider each simple request and decide if it was worth answering. In the end, though, he turned to face Severus, his head tilted back and his green eyes as nervous and angry as Lily's before a Potions exam.
Severus looked at Harry Potter, who by some strange twist of luck had become the bearer of the project he had spent more than three years perfecting.
And all resemblance to James Potter in the living man was forever destroyed for him in that moment.
Harry Potter clad in the wings of a kestrel was a stranger, a wild creature wandered in from the night to briefly warm itself by the fire. His tangled hair was not his father's artistically disarrayed mess anymore, but looked like ruffled feathers to Severus's eyes. His face had to be considered in the midst of a fan of primaries, pinfeathers, plumes, instead of through the mists of hateful memory.
And his eyes, for the first time since Severus had nearly died twenty years ago, were Lily's.
Severus became aware that he was staring when Potter folded his arms and looked away, a florid blush coloring his cheeks. His voice tried to be sharp, but didn't manage it. "If I'm that ugly, you could just say it, you know, instead of staring at me."
Severus was glad, then, that he was not in the habit of speaking soft words. It allowed him to put away what he would have liked to say, sneer, and murmur, "I am incapable of finding the work of my own hands ugly, Potter. Your physique leaves something to be desired as always."
Potter snapped him a glare, said, "Some of the work of your hands is hideous," and turned to fetch his clothes. But Severus didn't miss the way his right hand crept up to touch the nearest edge of the wings.
Severus smirked, and didn't bother to hide it when Potter abruptly whirled around and demanded, "How am I supposed to wear clothes with these things?"
"Your problem, Potter," Severus said, and slid past him whilst Potter was still spluttering, no doubt expecting Severus to take care of his problems as he had always done. So some of their relationship remained. Severus was glad; any care he would take in the future around Potter would be for the wings and not the man wearing them.
"Leave a summary of the details of your son's injury on the table," he told Potter over his shoulder. "I will visit him in Hogwarts in three days' time."
After much struggling and swearing, at Snape and himself and the wings that swirled around him like a heavy cloak, Harry finally managed to Transfigure his shirt so that it would cover his chest and most of his lower back, with the upper part left bare beneath the wings. The robes were a total loss, and he folded them over his arm.
Then he tried to take several fast steps out of the bedroom to find quill and parchment, and encountered another problem.
The wings had changed his center of balance. Now he had to keep his head cocked and his shoulders slightly strained back or lifted, both to stop the wings from trailing on the floor and to make them lie comfortably along his sides. The extra weight beneath his shoulders functioned like a pack, causing him to haul against it. And the large feathers on the very edges caused a constant and irritating brushing against his calves, just light enough to tickle through the cloth of his trousers.
His life had changed so much, in the space of a few minutes—and Harry already had the feeling he would have more trouble dealing with the small things like this than with the larger ones like explaining to his boss why he couldn't wear regulation robes anymore.
And James's life changed in a moment, too. If he can bear that, young as he is and without your resources, you can certainly bear this.
Harry forced himself to relax. He could soldier through this just as he had through the times when he'd feared for his children's lives, the three years of Auror training, and the week before he'd married Ginny, when he'd been so nervous that he'd constantly needed to vomit. Snape was going to create a hand for James, and he had no end of satisfied customers. That was the important thing.
Awkwardly, he waded into the middle of the main room of the cottage and found a sheet of parchment, an inkwell, and a quill on a small table. Harry shot a glance at Snape, about to thank him for the kindness, and found him engaged in brewing a potion, as though nothing had happened.
He probably just put them here so I'd get out of his house faster, Harry thought, and bent down to write. The trailing edge of his right wing promptly knocked the inkwell over. Swearing, Harry caught it with his left hand just in time and dragged it out of the shadow of danger.
Snape apparently never looked around.
Harry described everything he could remember about James's injury, from the burned-out leather glove his hand had become after the bite to the details of breeding Ashwinders and Runespoors Hagrid had tearfully confessed to him a few nights ago. When he reached the end of a page and a half of parchment, he stared blankly for a moment, trying to remember anything more, then sighed and stepped away.
In the doorframe, he did pause to ask Snape, "The wings will still let me Apparate?"
"At the moment, they're only accessories, Potter, no more alive than clothing," Snape said in an excessively bored tone, not bothering to look up from his cauldron of thick green mush. He's inventing some replacement for peas, I'll bet, Harry thought, wrinkling his nose. All the color and stench and none of the nutrition. "You can take them with you just as you can take anything you're holding when you Apparate or use a Portkey." He measured a small amount of white powder into a spoon and dumped it into the potion. "I would not recommend Flooing with them, however, before or after they bond with your body and come to life. Singed feathers can be rather unpleasant, and you probably won't be able to fit into most fireplaces anyway."
Harry nodded curtly and let the door bounce shut behind him. Childish, maybe, but it was only too clear that Snape's personality, rather like his appearance—save for the acquisition of an iron-gray mane of hair in place of a black—had not changed at all.