Severus wrapped the final piece of artificial skin around the hand and stepped back to study it by the light of the globe-shaped lamp hanging over his desk. Then he nodded sharply. That would do. The outer casing of the hand was fully sculpted, and it only remained to form the hand into one that would work with the human body, instead of as an independent artifact.
And that he could not do until he received more information from Potter and his son.
He turned away from the table and then started, his hand going to his wand up his right sleeve, whilst his lips wrinkled back in an involuntary snarl. Potter was leaning against the doorframe, the door itself open to the air beyond the house, smiling. Severus had not keyed him into the wards so that he could drop whenever he wanted.
"Watching you work teaches me more about you than your testimony in front of the Wizengamot ever did," Potter whispered.
Whispered, Severus thought uneasily. Has someone come with him? Is this the start of a threat, an attack? He did not know why Potter would try to attack him with his son's hand still unfinished, but then, many of the things Potter did had no logical sense to them. He leaned a hip against the table so that he would not seem frightened, and drawled, "You understand that your comprehension of me is not a personal goal."
"Not your personal goal, no." Potter stepped fully into the cottage, and the additional hump of his wings, following his bowed shoulders as naturally as a cat's tail followed its body, took Severus by surprise again. When will I get used to them? I am the one who affixed them there. I am the one who should be thinking about them daily, when the Kestrel project consumed so much of my time for three years. "But I think it might be one of mine."
"What has got into you?" Severus demanded, stepping back so that he shielded the contents of the table from Potter's prying gaze. It was not impossible that Potter had finally given in to the multiple stresses of his life and simply cracked. Stranger things had happened, many of them in Severus's own experience.
"I flew today."
Severus felt as if the house had become two sizes smaller. He cleared his throat and tried to respond gracefully, but in the end his voice fell as limply into his throat as his hand, which he had raised, fell back to the table.
And Potter, damn him, had come a step closer, his body posture tilted slightly to the side to accommodate the wings, his eyes so brilliant that they actually appeared to be glowing. Severus shook his head slightly, knowing it was nostalgic memories of Lily that made him think such things, and not reality at all.
You have been waiting for this moment for three years, and you're standing and staring at Potter like a lovestruck idiot?
Severus shook his head a second time, and firmly forbade himself to think at all about the fact that he had paused for so long or the way he had just worded his thought to himself. "Well, come with me!" he barked, clapping his hands. "There are notes I need to take, experimental procedures I need to conduct—"
He paused, because Potter was smiling, and that smile was another thing that had descended in a straight line from father to son. Severus could never see that smile without feeling he was about to be made fun of.
"Do I amuse you?" he asked.
Potter shook his head. "Not you," he said. "Just—I thought that was exactly the way you'd react, and now you're reacting the way." He rubbed the back of his neck, between the wings, and his smile grew into a smirk. "It's sort of soothing, I suppose, how I could predict what you did. And God knows I need all the soothing I can get, after this thought."
Severus told himself that there were no suggestive vibrations in Potter's voice. If he heard them there, he was simply hard up, as he had indeed been many times in the past twenty years, and would get over it. Because, though he looked differently and moved differently and spoke with a sharp spark in his voice that had never been there in his mother's voice or his father's, he was still a Potter. And he wore the Kestrel wings. Severus should be more interested in the wings than in the man.
With an effort, he forced himself to be so. He went into his bedroom, took out his file of notes on the project, came back out, and cleared a place for Potter to sit with a flash of his wand, since it seemed Potter was capable only of gazing forlornly at the covered floor. Potter smiled and sat down, lifting the wings like a woman's skirts to keep them out of the way so he wouldn't crush their edges. Severus told himself the gesture was silly, certainly not worth staring at the way he was currently doing.
"Now." Potter looked up at him, leaning on one elbow, his eyes still brilliant with that shine Severus was imagining. "What would you like to know?"
Severus asked the driest question he could under the circumstances, and enchanted the quill to record the answers so that he could watch Potter. In this strange mood Potter was in, laughing at his expense and indulging in silly suggestive remarks, Severus was not about to take his eyes off him long enough to look down at the parchment as the quill wrote. "How long did you fly?"
Harry could not describe the emotions tumbling in and playing through him. There was the soothing effect of Snape's absolute unpredictability he had already described, but there was also amusement, and something he would have called affection if he was feeling it for a different person.
He's done and said everything I thought he would from the moment I stepped through the door. It reminded Harry of the early years of marriage with Ginny, when her fussing over the way he'd spoil the children and her tendency to sleep with her head under the pillow instead of atop it were familiar and welcome eccentricities, without the boring edge they had developed later.
And if that isn't the strangest comparison you've made all night, I don't know what is.
"About five minutes," Harry said, realizing that Snape had looked up with a raised eyebrow and was awaiting his answer. "The wings supported me because I fell off a building—"
Snape closed his eyes and folded his arms over his chest, tightly, as if to keep out cold. Harry was delighted to find that he recognized the gesture from Hogwarts, the silent questioning of a professor as to why he had been saddled with the supervision of dangerously irresponsible teenagers.
"And why did you do that, Potter?" Snape asked. A faint noise drifted up from the general vicinity of his mouth. Harry knew before he identified the sound that it would be Snape's teeth grinding. "If you would explain, please."
"Ron and I were escaping from a nest of criminals we'd accidentally stumbled into," Harry explained. "We were on the roofs of a pair of buildings and, well, we weren't familiar with the geography."
"That will do for details, then," Snape said. "I hardly see the need for a long story on the matter to be entered into my notes on the Kestrel project."
"Really?" Harry knew he should just accept Snape's declaration, but, well, Ginny and Ron and Hermione had all accused him over the years of not knowing when to leave well enough alone, and Harry was sure his children would do it in turn when they grew old enough to realize that he was neither all-knowing nor all-wise. "But what if you forget them?"
"I am unlikely to forget anything associated with the Kestrel project," Snape said, sounding driven to the end of his patience.
"Oh, good," Harry said, and caught Snape's eye, and smiled at him. "I would hate to think that I wasn't memorable."
Snape stared at him with open, honest confusion for a flicker of a moment. Then he sneered. "Of course, Potter. I had forgotten how much your fame meant to you."
"Look at a picture of me with Lockhart sometime, and tell me that I'm enjoying it." Harry folded his left arm over his knee. "I meant that I would like certain people to remember me, and you're one of them."
Again Snape stared at him. Again Harry stared back, and added a smile.
What are you doing? his practical, Ginny-polished side demanded of him.
You'll regret it.
And that's not enough to keep you from doing it.
Snape shook his head after a moment, and returned to his questioning. "And how you be sure that you spent only five minutes in the air?"
"Well, it felt like five minutes." Harry shrugged. "And I didn't actually have time to cast a Tempus charm." Snape glared at him, as if to say that Harry was stupid for explaining something to him he could have figured out on his own. Harry smiled innocently back. "I certainly felt the wings extending their fibers into my lungs and lightening my bones, just as you said."
"Hmmm." Snape nodded. "And how maneuverable were you in the air? How fast could you fly?"
"The wings made me hover at first." Harry closed his eyes, recalling the sensation of empty air hanging beneath his boots and his body's absolute conviction that he was fine. His shoulder muscles had been rather sore afterwards, but at the time they had worked with the wings as if they had been doing it all his life. "That's probably—"
"A natural method of kestrels in flight, yes." Snape pushed impatiently past a moment Harry would have liked to linger on. "But I am still surprised that you gained control of the wings so fast. They are not supposed to bond to a human body for at least two weeks, and you have had them for less than one."
Harry opened his eyes, since it was perfectly clear that Snape did not want him to stay in the memory and recall details more clearly. "Have you used them on a human before?"
"No." Snape frowned at him fiercely. "I could never find anyone who would agree to take them on, for obvious reasons."
Harry ignored the aspersion cast on his sanity, his common sense, or his desperation to save James. The last was not something Snape could insult him about, and he was well-used to a ribbing from Ron and Hermione on the first two after all these years. "Then you don't know what's actual," he said. "You only have the notes, the predictions of what you think might happen. Obviously, practice is different from theory."
"That is a conclusion of such triteness and of such low value that I am not surprised you came up with it, Potter."
"If that's my general way of speaking, then I'm surprised you've consented to trust my words about anything." Harry drummed his fingers on his knee for a moment. "Do you want me to put the memories in a Pensieve for you instead?"
Snape jerked, as if the words had been a personal insult. Harry blinked. Well, it was true that Snape probably still remembered Harry's intrusion into his Pensieve less than fondly, but the mere absence of people wending to Snape's door in the past few years to taunt him about that should have reassured him Harry had kept the memory of his humiliation quiet.
"I would never trust you near a Pensieve, Potter," said Snape, in a dangerous tone Harry had heard only once or twice before—for example, when Snape suspected he was not putting his full effort into Defense Against the Dark Arts during his sixth year. "No. We will do it this way. And you have not answered my other question. How fast could you fly?"
Harry shrugged, stung, though he knew he shouldn't be, by Snape's continuing distrust of him. The circumstances under which they were working together didn't really make them compatriots or friends. Probably Snape saw him, and James, only as experimental subjects at best, and at worse was looking for shades and hints of Harry's father in every single one of their acts. "I don't know speeds, either. I hit one woman in the chest with my feet and knocked her down. So it was fast enough to build up that kind of momentum."
"You idiot, Potter." Snape looked up sharply from his notes, which he had started to stare at some time in the past minute. "Your bones were lighter than normal. You might have cracked a leg pulling such a stunt."
"Would you have cared, as long as the wings weren't damaged?" Harry snapped back. Snape's eyes widened, and only after a moment did Harry realize he had mantled like a hawk, encircling his head and shoulders in a storm of feathers. Harry coughed and shifted his position, hoping not to look too embarrassed. "They weren't, and neither was I."
"There is too little detail to be gained from your responses," Snape said. Harry frowned. Was he breathless? Surely not. Perhaps he had had another idea. Intense academic excitement took Hermione like that sometimes. "Stand up and turn around. And remove your robes and shirt," he added after a moment. "I do not wish to be distracted by them when I examine the place where the wings have bonded with your skin."
Harry snorted and began undoing the laces that tied his robes and shirt snugly shut around the wings. He'd managed to make do with his own magic and a few (dozen) books on clothing Transfiguration a few days ago. Ginny had been the one who knew all those sorts of spells in their marriage. But now that Harry was living on his own, he would have to get used to some of the inconveniences that affected a bachelor existence. "Perhaps even my body will lie to you," he said mockingly, and then peeled the fabric down his sides, turning to present his back to Snape.
The moment he touched the bare skin of Potter's back, Severus knew he had made a mistake.
It was too much: the turmoil of being forced to see Potter differently in the embrace of the wings, the way Potter had approached him—only as the set-up for a prank, of course; Severus thought he had learned to recognize the emotions and actions of Potters by now—and the mixture of feelings he had been forced to entertain since Potter had saved his life a few days ago. Even if Severus had actually been the one who saved his own life, because he had known where the antivenin was, and even if he had the sneaking suspicion that Potter wouldn't actually try to claim this life-debt.
And there was one more factor, one he had forgotten. He had worked on the Kestrel wings for three years. They recognized him, in the same dim way that a fish might recognize a person who fed it regularly. Their magic reached out for his the moment his hands settled on Potter's back, covering a few of the pinfeathers.
Severus gasped and half-closed his eyes. He could feel it, the wings he had constructed and slaved over vanishing seamlessly into human flesh, the sensation enhanced by the magic thrummed around his fingers. The sudden incarnation of his dreams made him forget, for a moment, who wore the wings. He spread his hands further, letting them explore, figure out the places where the wings blended into the skin and where they stood free, which parts of Potter's back were still bare and which were covered completely.
Potter began to shiver violently. Severus felt gooseflesh spring up in the wake of his trailing fingertips.
He didn't open his eyes. So long as he didn't have to meet Potter's gaze and remember how much his loss of Lily had done to produce the young man standing here, this wasn't real. He was learning, exploring. Potter was just a project.
He touched the bottoms of the wings, ignoring the way the feathers stood on end in protest. They were strong, flexible, just the way he had always imagined them. Of course, their joining was not the same as the joining of a kestrel's wings to its body, because they attached to the shoulder blades instead of replacing the upper limbs, but he was able to ignore that as he traced the curving, blurred edge where magic-created artifact became living muscle.
The right wing started and flapped back against him, filling Severus's mouth with dust briefly and making him cough. No, that wasn't right, was it, to think of them as artifacts? They were real and alive now.
He let his fingers explore further, running up towards the collarbone. The body beneath him sucked in a tense breath, and the wings bated for a moment, as though readying themselves for flight. Severus reminded himself to breathe. His hand strayed down, around the muscles of the torso, trying to gauge how much the reaching tendrils of the wings had altered the body they attached to when that body was not actually in the act of flight.
He brushed over something that made the man in front of him tremble violently, and Severus paused. Had he found an anomaly? He had never completely disregarded the possibility that the wings could cause harm to the person he attached them to, though he had spent a year specifically working to make sure the most obvious injuries could not happen. This was such an unusual experiment, however, with so few precedents, that he could not—
Potter jerked in a breath, and Severus's neutral illusions about "the body" fell to pieces. Of course. He was touching Potter's nipple, which would be one of the more sensitive parts of his chest.
Severus resisted the temptation to jerk away. He was not a teenager, nor someone who could afford another loss of dignity where Potter was concerned. He pulled his hand slowly back, his fingers spread wide and his mind frantically calculating the direction so that he could not accidentally touch Potter's other nipple. Only after a moment did he realize that this meant five points of trailing sensation where his fingers were in contact with Potter's flesh.
Potter was shivering helplessly by now, and the wings pulled themselves open and shut in odd contortions against Severus's chest. Severus pictured to himself, firmly, the image of the wings as they had been when still on their canvas framing.
But it didn't work, because his hands had convinced him firmly that the wings were indistinguishable from their living setting now. The image twisted and became one of Potter surrounded by his wings in the infirmary at Hogwarts. And then it blended entirely into the realm of fantasy and dream, became Potter naked, encircled by his wings only, body striving for the skies—
Severus jerked away then, and to hell with dignity. He pulled so far and so sharply that he stumbled and slammed his back into a cage filled with hissing cockroaches. They madly scrambled and, of course, hissed, whilst Severus straightened his robe. Surely Potter would begin mocking him for his clumsiness any moment, and that would give them the much-needed prod to move on from this incident.
But Potter did no such thing, much to Severus's embarrassment. Instead, he wheeled around, mantling again, his eyes narrowed and his mouth pursed so tight in fury that Lily in a rage couldn't have done him better. "What did you think you were doing?" he hissed.
Severus looked up, and his answer died with the breath he had drawn to speak it. Half his last vision was true, there. Potter, scarred and battered and beginning to run to fat, to gray, nevertheless looked too much like a falcon, a warrior, an angel, framed in the halo of his agitated wings.
Wings Severus gave him.
You did this.
"Well? I'm waiting for an answer." Potter moved a step forwards, his face still set. His nipples were standing out from his chest, Severus noted with fascination that he immediately wished he didn't possess. "What made you have to touch my chest when you were supposed to be exploring my back?"
Severus stood still. Aside from the fact that he would probably bump into another artifact if he took a step away again, he refused to look like a coward in front of Potter. None of the insults James Potter spewed at him had ever been true; he would not make this boy's long-ago taunt on the night he had fled Hogwarts after killing Dumbledore come true. "I was checking for anomalies," he said. "The wings might have altered the shape of your chest when they bonded to your lungs. Some of the possible changes could be dangerous to your health. I had to make sure none existed." He was quite proud of himself for how calm and sure he managed to sound.
And then Potter laughed sharply and said, "Bollocks."
Severus narrowed his eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
"Something's changed between us since I got these things." Potter gestured back at the wings, which swayed together and waggled their tops as if excited to hear themselves spoken about. "You're saving my son from a life of pain without most of your usual sniping. I saved your life. And then you touched me like that." His voice deepened, and Severus could not name the emotion in it when he spoke the next words. "I just want to know what's going on. That's all."
Harry watched Snape draw himself up, nostrils and lips both thin, his eyes hooded. Harry had seen the same expression whenever the bastard was hiding a secret, whether it was as important as the secret of the Philosopher's Stone in his first year or a potion recipe he'd given to the Slytherins ahead of time.
And by that, Harry knew that whatever emerged from Snape's mouth would be a lie.
In sheer frustration, and maybe instinct—many instincts seemed to have been added to his mind since he had first flown—Harry spread his wings, flapped twice, and launched himself hard at Snape.
His feet left the ground only a few inches behind, but that was enough to make him a solid burden when he slammed into the older man. Snape grunted desperately, his arms flailing as he tried not to fall backwards or touch Harry. Harry felt a moment's bitter amusement that even now, he would still do anything rather than grab someone else to keep from falling.
In the end, he didn't have a choice. Harry swept his wings forwards and surrounded Snape, yanking him in so that they rested chest to chest. The contact was considerably more stimulating to Harry, of course, given that his bare chest was pressed against scratchy cloth. He shivered and rested the urge to reach out and part Snape's robes, digging for the warm flesh he had felt only on Snape's hands so far.
And by that, he finally understood what his body was trying to tell him.
Harry took a moment to be stunned by the realization, and then shrugged the surprise away impatiently. What had he expected? His marriage with Ginny had failed in part because they became too familiar, with obligations between them not expected of friends. Snape's compelling strangeness had made Harry obsessed several times over the years with ferreting out mysteries that involved him. That the fascination with Snape's difference had twisted into a weird sort of attraction was a natural development.
Harry decided he would worry over where this might have come from later. For the moment, he was more concerned with the fact that his closeness to Snape might provoke an honest answer, if only out of frustration. And Snape was straining against Harry's confining wings, but not very hard. He probably didn't want to damage them, Harry thought.
"Answer me," Harry said softly. "What's going on?"
"Nothing, Potter," Snape said, speaking harshly enough that flecks of spittle darted from his mouth and flecked Harry's cheeks. "You have imagined things that do not exist and imputed equally fictitious motives to me. Now, I will thank you to let me go."
"No," Harry said. He couldn't be the only one feeling this. He hadn't invited Snape to grope him, after all.
Snape was as stiff as one of the dry reeds he'd used to build James's new hand, now. "I hardly think," he said, every word creaking, "that what you wish to discover, or make up, is appropriate, considering that you have a wife at home."
Harry snorted. "So observant, and you miss that?" He turned his hand over, revealing the absence of a wedding ring. "Ginny and I got divorced a few days before James's accident."
Snape said nothing; his only response was to go even stiffer. And Harry, who'd had to maneuver carefully to bring his hand into the tight, enclosed space created by the wings, became aware of how close they really were. Their breaths mingled. If he tilted his head forwards, he could rest his brow against Snape's, his scar against Snape's unmarked skin.
If he leaned forwards in a different way…
Harry shivered and let his hand drop to his side. It was really only natural, wasn't it, to be this close to someone and wonder what it would be like to kiss them? Harry had done it with Ginny all the time, and once or twice with Hermione when she was comforting him after a particularly bad case, and even with Ron, though those times he had all been drunk.
Snape was none of them. Snape was different.
Harry was rapidly approaching the point of not caring, as the air between them tightened and grew stickier, like a strand of spiderweb stretched taut.
The moments passed, quiet and endless. And then they didn't seem to pass at all, and Snape had looked at his lips, Harry knew he had, that quick and guilty flicker of his eyes suddenly away from Harry's eyes could mean nothing else—
Snape looked at him, not having much choice.
Harry held his gaze as he leaned in and touched his lips to Snape's, just to see what it would feel like, just to reassure himself that the difference between them was not great enough to become a permanent source of fascination. It really wasn't, he reassured himself. Not really.
Snape's lips were dry and gnawed, bitten many times, and that was a change from Ginny's perfectly smooth lips. They trembled once, then firmed against Harry's mouth, closing him out, and that was different, too; Ginny either initiated their kisses or relaxed easily enough to let Harry in.
But Snape didn't lean away.
Harry smiled. The motion of his lips against the other man's must have been unmistakable, because Snape did rip his mouth rudely away just then and stare off to the side. His face was flushed dully, with what could have been arousal or rage. Harry wouldn't have blamed him for feeling either emotion just then.
"What do you mean by this, Potter?"
Harry paused. Snape's voice was not enraged, after all, but simply and plainly weary. He could not torment someone who sounded like that. The bullied boy had had a voice like that, in the memories Snape had shared with Harry when he thought he was dying.
"Something important," Harry said gently. "If I let you go, will you talk to me, instead of cursing me or ordering me out the door?"
"This is nothing more than the expression of feelings that are not real," said Snape.
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Not real?" If the emotions could be expressed, that was real enough for him.
"In my case, the feelings I had for Lily, which I never got over, and seeing her eyes in you," Snape said, still staring away. "In your case, loneliness and probably some urge for excitement, after decades of marriage to the same woman. I will not indulge either one of our childish fantasies, Potter."
And Harry almost believed him. He probably would have pulled away completely, except for two things.
One, Snape hadn't been able to meet his eyes when he was feeling Harry's chest.
Second, Harry still trusted his instincts; they had saved his life yet again when he flew. And his instincts were insisting that these were actual, legitimate emotions, not some mere reflection of his love for Ginny.
"Come outside," he said, and pulled his wings behind his back. Snape staggered from the sudden loss of support, caught himself with a hand on a crate, and then stared at Harry.
"Come outside," Harry said. He thought for a moment of putting his robes and shirt back on, to make it a little easier for Snape, but his wings snapped decisively, and he rejected the idea. The clothes would only interfere with his movements, anyway. He glanced over his shoulder at Snape and put what he hoped was the right smile on his face. "Come and watch me fly."
And Severus followed Harry the same way he had followed Lucius Malfoy on the night that he had gone to commit himself to Voldemort and the Dark Mark, with the same sense of heavy, dream-like slowness in his limbs.
He knew he was walking towards something that would change his life, and most probably for the worse, but he was unable to turn back.
He stepped through the cottage door and looked about himself. The sun was setting behind the tangled thickets and pine forest to the west. Forest loomed in all the other directions, as well. Severus had chosen an isolated cottage on purpose.
Granted, he had never expected to be glad of the privacy for the confidence it gave to Harry Potter as he strode forwards, his wings booming out around him, his arms rising as if to gauge the distance to the top of the sky. He paused once, glanced over his shoulder at Severus—to be sure he was watching, Severus thought, still dazed—and began to run.
In the midst of one of the steps, he writhed and shuddered a little, bowing as though over a wound, though he did not cease his run. Severus knew he would be feeling the wriggling pain as the wings' tendrils changed his lungs and his bones, something he'd probably been too busy falling to feel the first time it happened, if that ridiculous story he had told was true.
The ridiculousness of that story might be an anchor, if Severus could only use it, to drag himself out of his ridiculous emotion of dazed awe.
But Potter took flight before he could clutch at that anchor. He had nearly crashed into the thicket in front of the western trees, but had not slowed down once. His feet left the ground with a smooth suddenness, and he was rising like a stork or a heron, his legs trailing behind him, his wings beating madly.
Severus craned his neck back, and was lost.
Potter put his arms by the sides of his face, aiming straight ahead, to reduce wind resistance. He began to spin, bearing straight still but rolling over and over in the wind, a motion Severus did not think kestrels were capable of. From the laughter that trailed down to where Severus stood, he was doing it for sheer joy.
Potter reached the far end of the clearing that held the cottage and turned back with a delicate flutter, then crouched and sped higher. The sunset light, gold and red and peach, rippled over the muscles of his bare chest. The idiot still hadn't put his shirt back on, Severus realized absently.
Up, and up, and up. The wings worked as they always had in Severus's dreams, beating in the motions of a small hawk but suiting those motions to the considerably greater weight and bulk of the human body. He had judged the proportions the wings would need to increase in size to a nicety.
Potter halted, aimed downwards, and began to drop.
Severus found himself clenching his fists, torn between screaming for Potter to stop and shouting encouragement. Potter made a perfect low dive, going down like a hawk stooping for the kill, and then spread his arms, skimming along so that the grass touched his chest and probably stimulated his nipples, his head and his legs tilted back whilst he laughed and laughed and laughed.
Then he turned back upright again and began to hover in place, the wings working fast but perfectly, turning from one motion to the other, blurring, fast beyond human sight. Potter hung motionless in the middle of them, his eyes shut and his face slack with smiling.
He's showing me all the motions the wings are capable of, Severus thought, and that thought was another one that should have pulled him back to reality and reminded him of the proper distance between them.
It didn't. Nothing could have moved his feet at that moment. Nothing could have disturbed his focus on Potter. He could feel the pain in his neck from being strained back so long and sweat trickling down his face, but those were distant, minor pains and irritations.
From the same part of his mind that was actively taking note of the sensations of his body, he thought that this was the oddest seduction he had ever been witness to.
Potter stopped hovering at last, and settled to the ground with a hand braced in front of him, his eyes shut, panting lightly. The sun had descended further in the time he'd flown, the shadows shifting, so that now strips of red and copper lay directly on his face. Severus scrutinized his face slowly. Even with his eyes shut, his wings lying limply along his shoulders, he still could not see any more likeness to James Potter in that man's face.
That did not mean he understood what was happening, or the pull that appeared to be drawing him to Potter. There were no words for it in his experience, and most of the time, things he did not understand sent him retreating behind walls, physical if he could not, but emotional at least.
He did not move. He had no more than a vague interest in moving. He just stood there, watching, until at last Potter drew himself to his feet and opened his eyes.
"I wanted to show you that," Potter said.
The statement was so simple that Severus half-wanted to leave it there, not questioning it. But reality was returning in small trickles of cold water, washing common sense and common understanding of the world back to him. "Why?" he whispered. "You flew too fast for me to get more than a general sense of what the wings can do."
Potter half-smiled. "Then I'll have to show you again and again, won't I?" he whispered. "Until we both get it right."
Severus shook his head and did take a step back now. He hadn't quite awakened from the trance the flight had thrown him into, but he was aware enough to think of consequences. "None of this makes sense," he said quietly. "Not that you would want me, not that you would take gratitude and transform it into—something else."
"It's not just the gratitude." Potter's voice was thoughtful, and Severus had the feeling he ought to laugh. It was not possible for the man in front of him to analyze situations the way he appeared to be doing now. But he did it anyway. "I think it started from that. But more than that, it's the sense that my life has changed completely in such a short time. I'm not married anymore, though I hope Ginny and I will always be friends. James is going to have to get used to a new hand, and I'll want to help him do that. I have these wings, and they're not going anywhere." He lifted his wings and flapped them once, causing a cool breeze to spring up and stroke Severus's face. "And there are already mutters at work about the wings, though Ron told me they'd been kept quiet so far because everyone is trying to give me some space to deal with what happened to James. Why not follow the change one step further?" He looked directly at Severus, and Severus had to turn away, because no good things happened when someone looked at him with an expression on his face like that. "I find you interesting. I want to know how you've changed. Watching you work, which I haven't got to do enough yet, is fascinating. You're helping me and James in spite of—everything." Severus was glad that he had not named specifics. It would have ruined the last remnants of the mood between them. "Isn't that enough, to start with? I can't promise some grand resolution to this, because I don't know what it is yet. But I want to know you. I meant that. I'd like to start it, and see what happens next."
Severus shook his head several times. What surprised him more than anything else, even the words Potter spoke, was that something in him recognized and responded to those words—and he did not think it was the same part of him that would have reached out if Lily had spoken the words.
Lily was dead. She was. And all his work to come to terms with that and what it meant over the last few years had not gone to waste, after all.
That does not mean I will not see her ghost in her son.
"What you ask for is impossible," he said at last, clearing his throat.
"Why?" Potter asked at once, in the tone of someone making an entirely reasonable request.
Severus turned around and stared at him incredulously. "Can you really be asking that, Potter?" he demanded. "You know what happened between your father and me, between your mother and me. You know that I only agreed to help in the first place because you took on the wings. No friendship, no love affair, between us, could possibly be anything but tormented and awkward and prone to break." He had said "love affair" aloud to remind himself of how ridiculous it would sound. To his dismay, it did not sound as ridiculous as his own refusal of the hand reaching out to him.
"We don't know that," Potter said steadily. "Not with you as different as you are, not with me as different as I am. I'd like to try. Like I said, I don't know where we'll go next, so I can't ask for more than a chance."
Severus turned his back, but said nothing more. He walked into his cottage and shut the door. He did not put up wards, but that was because Potter would probably barge through the door if he did. He sat down at the table and began to work on binding the hand together once more.
He felt his spine stiffen when Potter opened the door, walked in, and spent several minutes clearing a piece for himself among plates of porcelain and silver, shifting them carefully away from one another before murmuring the incantation that conjured a chair. Then he sat down and was perfectly still for some minutes.
Severus waited until the tension mounted enough to interfere with his work, then glanced over his shoulder.
Potter was leaning on the back of the chair, wings spread wide and then coiled with the tips in his lap, his mouth open, asleep. The flight must have exhausted him, Severus thought. Or maybe the thinking had.
He turned back to his work, unsure at first what was troubling him.
Even when he figured it out, he frowned down at the reeds he held and shook his head. Someone must have opened a door that he put between himself and the outside world before, Lily or Albus. That he could not remember it happening did not mean this experience was unique. He would not let it be unique.
Harry woke slowly, to small, regular, tapping sounds that he was surprised hadn't awakened him before. He blinked and rubbed a hand across his face. There was sleep crusted in the corners of his eyes, and he spent a few dreamy moments picking it out before he realized that he still wore his glasses, that his neck hurt horribly from drowsing in a chair, and that he had fallen asleep at Snape's house.
He remembered what he had said, and flinched inwardly. Obviously, Snape wasn't keen on paying attention to any portion of his pathetic plea. The arguments he was using made sense. The arguments Harry was using didn't, not really.
But the same stubbornness that had made him open the shut door and come in made him open his eyes and look around for Snape now, rather than try to depart without catching his eye. He kept himself from speaking, though, when he saw that Snape was bent over a glittering object on the central table, his eyes narrowed on it, a small silver hammer in his right hand. The hammer fell on the glittering object in slow, regular taps, and each time sparks of pure white light arched outwards.
Harry knew it was James's hand, but he had never imagined it would look anything like this. The fragile construction of reeds and powder and other ingredients he'd glimpsed so far had changed, become something like a piece of molten metal taken directly from the forge. He sat and stared, afraid to move, hoping only that the pressure of his eyes wouldn't provoke Snape into covering the project up.
Snape seemed to have forgotten he was in the room, however. The hammer rose and fell too regularly for that. The hand contorted as the hammer fell again, and then twisted around like a snake, losing its shape. Harry clenched his teeth to keep from hissing in shock. Had something gone wrong? Was the hand going to lose its shape and dissolve into its component parts any minute now?
But Snape leveled his wand at it and spoke several sharp, stern words. The shape, flashing blue and white, gold and yellow, now, coiled obediently inwards, and Snape waved his wand once more. Harry thought he was guiding it, because it uncoiled and turned in the same direction as the wand.
And now Harry could see that the projections he had thought was the hand extending into a new shape were fingers, instead.
Magical fingers, still, flexing open and shut of their own free will, shatteringly brilliant, not anything Harry could imagine attached to his son's hand. But still, existing.
And Snape danced them across the table like a conductor guiding an orchestra, making the fingers open and close, pick up small objects and juggle them, close into a pinching shape and spread wide whilst the hand turned to balance something invisible on its open palm. In a procession of moments Harry saw a procession of movements, all the things he could do with his own hands but hadn't ever thought about.
In that moment, he began to grasp, dimly, how complex the task he had asked of Snape when he asked for the artificial hand was. He shivered, awed and dismayed and humbled.
And he has changed, he thought to himself. This was an immense amount of work. I don't think he would have decided to put in this much work for the son of someone he hated if he really hadn't changed.
Harry stole a glance at Snape's face. It was set with concentration, but not in the way Harry had seen when he glimpsed Snape brewing in the classroom. Then, he had always been tense, as if years of supervising students left him unable to picture all the ways the potion could go wrong. This concentration had confidence behind it, the sturdy pleasure of a master craftsman who had done his best over and over again, and knew that this attempt would work, too.
The wand snapped to the left. The hand rose on its fingers and danced. The wand snapped to the right. The hand flipped over and over, then scuttled to the edge of the table. For a moment, Harry feared it would jump off. But it turned around and came back to Snape, and he picked it up. The white light surrounding it dimmed and died in a moment, and Harry beheld the hand whole for the first time, exactly the size and color—at least to his inexperienced eyes—that it should be to fit James's wrist.
Snape cradled the hand, staring down at it. His face was more open now. Lines still surrounded his eyes; Snape was almost sixty years old, Harry knew, and nothing could change that. The gray hair dangling down to his shoulders reinforced the impression. But his face in that moment wore the expression of someone who could have suffered trial after trial and setback after setback in those sixty years, and could still try and rise to get over them and go on.
Once, Harry would have scoffed at that description of Snape. Snape didn't get over things; Snape didn't forget his grudges.
But there was a difference between forgetting one's grudges and forgetting how to live. Snape had at least taken an active part in the world and the war even after Lily died, instead of locking himself into a single room to brood. Harry had seen too many examples of that after the war; George Weasley had done it for a time, and now and then the Aurors still got a request for help from someone who wanted them to dig out a reclusive relative. Harry had seen more self-made prisons than he cared to count.
This house was not a prison, not Snape's replacement for Azkaban. He had managed to step past that, to accept that he lived when he should have died yet again, and to do something that would benefit the son of his worst enemy.
This was what Harry had seen in Snape. This was the quality he wanted to find and follow, and hopefully draw into the open. He could only hope that Snape would give him that chance.
He cleared his throat.
Snape didn't start, much less drop the hand, a consequence Harry had envisioned only after he made his sound. He uttered a dry chuckle and laid the hand on the table. "I knew you were watching me," he said.
"Yes." Harry didn't hesitate. Snape had left a door open again, even if he didn't realize it. "And I like what I see."
Snape froze. Then he turned to face Harry, slowly. Harry held as still as he could, though his wings shifted a bit; he wanted to clear them out of the way so he could rise quickly from the chair, if need be.
Snape spent some time staring. Harry looked back. He had no idea what Snape might be deciding at the moment. The only thing he could do, as he had done since the beginning of this, was to keep reaching out and see what might happen.
The tension stretched until Snape cleared his own throat and said, "Breakfast first. The antivenin. And then we will take the hand to Hogwarts."
Harry nodded and stood up. His emotions were unbalanced, shifting back and forth between hope that the hand would fit James and worry that it would not, hope that Snape would decide in favor of Harry's extended hand and worry that he would not. But at least he could bear the oscillation better on a full stomach.
James Potter sat up when he saw them come into the infirmary. Severus didn't miss the way the boy's eyes immediately went to the pouch that Severus had created to keep the hand safe on their journey.
He was thirteen. He had lost his hand, and knew it, and knew there would be little hope of recovery. Then he'd been given a chance, but hadn't known until this moment that that would work out, either. So the storm of emotions that flew across his face were expected. He turned his head away a moment later, pressing a hand fiercely against his eyes and nose, as if sheer pressure could keep him from sniffling or crying.
But those emotions performed the same function for Severus as the wings had where his father was concerned. He could feel the likeness to James Potter the first changing and fading and becoming wispy in his mind. He sat down on the chair beside the bed without a word and undid the pouch, holding the hand out to the boy.
James didn't look until Potter—or Harry; there were too many Potters in the room, Severus thought in distraction—put a hand on his son's shoulder and whispered to him. Then he held out limp right hand, slowly.
Severus drew his wand and severed the useless leather glove at the wrist with a single Cutting Curse. Before Harry had the time to curse him, before James had time to cry out, Severus had fitted the artificial hand into place.
Magic arched, spitting, around the wrist. Severus sat back, shielding his eyes from the glow but not closing them; this was the moment when something was most likely to go wrong, and he had to observe to be sure that nothing did.
A coruscating glow of red and gold and blue sprayed from the boy's wrist to illuminate the far corners of the hospital wing. It flung odd shadows on James's face, odd lights on Harry's. He had his wand drawn, but luckily he did not use it. Severus did not like to think of the mess that would have caused.
Red for the grains he had embedded in the hand's wrist to help fight the poison. Gold for the physical melding as the hand joined the body it had been made for. Blue for the transformation, as the magic fought to make James's body understand and accept that this replacement was a good replacement, not something for the body to reject.
James was white as he leaned against his father. Harry was motionless as he held his son.
And then the magic flared red one final time—defeating the last dose of the Ashling venom, Severus hoped—and died out altogether. James looked down at his hand and spread his fingers.
And burst into noisy sobs, turning so that he could bury his head against his father's shoulder.
Severus sat back in the chair, satisfied. It would take some time still for the boy to gain full command of the hand, let alone become skilled enough to wield a wand with it or catch a Snitch, but that control would come; the magic in the hand itself would work with him, as the magic in the wings had worked with Harry.
Harry had swept his wings forwards, Severus noted now, and was cradling James in them. He had tears sliding down his own cheeks, but they were silent, and few, as if he had done all his mourning earlier in life.
Or as if he were concentrating his sorrow for the sake of being able to do things, said a charitable part of Severus's mind he had only ever applied to excuse his own actions.
He turned when he heard the scuffle of a footstep behind him and found himself watching a slender boy with messy dark hair, wide green eyes, and a Slytherin tie edge into the infirmary. He stared at James for long moments, and then his shoulders slumped and he took a long, harsh breath. Severus, though he had never known what it was like to have a brother, was certain those simple gestures taught him more about it in a few moments than he could have learned from months of explanations.
The boy seemed to notice him then. "You're Severus Snape?" he asked. "Dad told me you were helping."
Severus nodded. "And you must be Albus Severus."
The boy grimaced as if he'd bitten into something sour. "Call me Al." He looked at the bed again, then away, sucking on the inside of his cheek. "And James is going to be completely better? I mean, I thought he was, but Dad has tried to reassure me so much that I thought he might not have told me the truth."
Severus smiled a little. He liked this boy. "He will be fine now."
And would you be fine, I wonder, if I did accept your father's invitation and try for—something else? Something different?
"I'm glad he'll be fine," said Al, studying his brother and his father with wide eyes. "Everything's so changed, and I tried to be with James, but I have classes most of the time. And Dad tried to be there for me, but he had to be there for James, too, and there was his job, and there was you." At that, Severus glanced sharply at the boy, wondering what he knew, but Al's face was innocent when he looked back at him. "I'm named after you"
"I had noticed, yes."
Al had the grace to blush a bit, but the steady gaze of his eyes never changed. "My dad said when I went to Hogwarts last year that it didn't matter if I got into Slytherin, because I was named after the bravest man he ever knew, who was a Slytherin, and that was you."
It took Severus a moment to extract sense from the sentence; he had long ago allowed his brain to lapse out of its habit of comprehending teenagers. When he did understand, he said the first thing that came to his head. "He might have been lying."
Al jerked away from him, offended. "He wasn't," he said. "Dad doesn't lie. I got put into Slytherin, and I was all right with it. But I don't know if I like you so much." He stared coolly at Severus for a moment, then walked over to the bed and nudged at his father's side with an elbow. Potter reached out without looking and wrapped a wing around his second son. The boy leaned on him and sighed.
Severus swallowed. He had no place in such a family. It would be best if he left now, quietly, and only contacted Potter by owl to get updates on how the wings were bonding with his body.
But now he had proof that Potter had changed his mind about him as early as last year—from a biased source, true, but still, the information was not something Severus was eager to pass up. And perhaps he had truly changed his mind twelve years ago, when this son was born and he had decided to give the boy a name that most people would assuredly not understand.
Severus leaned back in his chair and waited.
Harry walked slowly towards the doors of Hogwarts with Snape. Madam Pomfrey had pronounced James as in good health as she'd ever seen him, and would release him to go back to classes tomorrow. Harry had contacted Ginny and told her the good news. She and Lily were with James now; Al had had to go back to classes.
His son would have a life back again. Not the same life as before—Harry would never have wished the pain James had gone through on anyone, let alone one of his children—but a life. He would be able to write, to cast spells, and to fly. Harry's relief was so large it did not seem quite real.
And he would have a life, one that might be quite different from before, but probably better, thanks to the wings.
And maybe something else.
He looked up at Snape and waited until the other man felt the pressure of his steady gaze—or more probably, decided to stop ignoring it—and turned around. Harry raised an eyebrow and held out his hand.
"Well?" he asked. "Can I visit you?"
Snape stared at the extended hand with fathomless eyes for long moments. Then, his whole body as tense as though he were about to leap off a cliff, he leaned forwards and touched his lips swiftly to Harry's.
The gesture was small, ended almost as soon as it began, so Harry didn't really get to taste Snape's mouth, but it lasted long enough for his wings to flutter up along his sides like an excited fledgling's. Harry realized the importance of this, too. Snape had finally made an answer, if an uncertain one, to all the reaching he'd been doing.
Harry knew he was grinning like a fool, but he didn't really care. He stretched luxuriously, both arms and wings, the latter rising almost high enough behind his shoulders to touch the ceiling of the corridor. Snape's eyes followed them, but returned to Harry's face quickly, perhaps to make sure his smile actually existed.
"It will not be easy," Snape said.
"I know that," Harry said.
"You might regret this."
"Your children, and others, are sure to wonder what you have done."
Harry nodded, thinking of the way that James would react, and Lily, and maybe Al, who had developed a form of cool analysis during his time in Slytherin that he applied to everything his parents did. They would probably wonder, at least a little, if Harry had wanted to divorce Ginny because he wanted Snape.
But then he thought of Ginny and her friendly tolerance, Hermione and her ability to offer suggestions, the way that Ron had decided Harry's wings were brilliant when he had seen them save his life, and he smiled.
"We'll get on," he said.