A/N: This story was written for the 2009 Snarry-a-Thon on IJ and LJ. My deepest thanks go to Accioslash for organising the fest and for making it such fun. Thank you also to atypicalsnowman, Rakina and Cyndie Bell for the beta read.
Warning: This story involves character death of the main pair. That said, it idoes/i end happily.
I take nothing away from JK Rowling whose characters and situations I use in this fic.
Seven Steps to Heaven
~ STEP ONE ~
"That is the last straw, Potter!" Severus yelled. "It is not 'like' anything. What the hell is the physical form of 'angry', may I ask? I do not look like I am angry, I look as though I were angry."
The boy shrank into his chair, sliding under the table as much as he could without actually hitting the floor. Good.
It had been some few months since Severus had felt such intense rage—anger, certainly, but this explosive fury? No. And while a small part of him knew he was acting unreasonably, he couldn't help himself. At the moment he just wanted to lash out, to hurt something or someone. The pleasurable irony was that there was only one thing he could hurt: Potter.
"Twelve months, Potter," Severus growled through clenched teeth. "Twelve months of being pulled hither and thither, a constant witness while you indulge your 'woe-is me' act. I have had enough. I refuse to be a victim to your every inane whim; to have to listen to you rail against the mortification of having Severus Snape constantly at your side." He sneered at the twerp. "Poor Harry Potter, having to suffer me watching him enjoy everyone's touch and attention while I stand by, ignored. Having me sit twiddling my thumbs while he laughs and drinks himself into a witless stupor with his friends. Having to submit while he decides where he will live, when and where he will walk next, and what he will do when we get there.
"May I remind you, Potter, uncomfortable though this situation must be for you, you are in fact alive whereas I am dead! That makes for no contest in the 'life-is-shit' equation, I assure you!"
"Fine!" Potter finally yelled. "Yes, you're dead and I'm alive, but that's not my fault. You think you have it bad, well what about me? What chance do I have of a normal life with you trailing after me all the time? Already everyone thinks I'm off my head, talking to thin air and bumping into invisible objects. And what is it about this life you think is so bloody wonderful? I'm not part of anything out there." He thrust a hand in the direction of the front of the house, his other clenched into a fist. "Everyone pawing at me, ripping pieces out of my clothes, demanding, all the time demanding things from me. I have no life! And my friends?" He snorted in derision. "My so-called friends avoid me half the time and spend the time they're with me avoiding any talk of battle or wars. And how am I supposed to make my own way with you snarling at me, scoffing at everything I say and do? What chance do I have of having any fun with you standing over my shoulder every minute of the day? What do you expect me to do, for Merlin's sake?"
Through the frustrated anger of Harry's tirade could be heard an undertone of desperation and hopelessness.
Severus banged a hand on the table; however, the gesture quite lost its menace without the accompanying sound effect. "If I am damned to spend my death within a ten foot radius of you, you blasted brat, then I demand a modicum of compromise."
"Hey!" Potter yelled back, his own temper flaring wonderfully. "It's not my fault, you hear? I didn't ask you to haunt me, so I don't see why I should have to compromise on anything!"
Severus's rage seethed to white-hot, his vision narrowed to one five foot ten inch by three foot iniquitous area. He smirked, sidling around the table to loom over said iniquity.
"My memories, Potter, remember?" Severus asked in a deceptively silky voice. "The Resurrection Stone tucked into your pocket. Hmm, remember that little gem?"
Finally the boy's temper failed completely and he leapt up and shoved Severus back into the Welsh dresser. "How was I to know that would happen?" he screamed.
Severus shoved him back, hard, and Potter's hip struck the table. Luckily, though, any pain the boy felt was numbed by anger so Severus ignored the twinge of guilt trying to flutter into acknowledgement.
The boy's chest heaved and his eyes flashed. Severus appreciated the picture but was not about to allow him leeway on this. This child, this brat, was not the injured party here. He, Severus Snape, was, and it was about time he pressed that fact home to the idiot. "You should have thought about the consequences before you took my memories and then pranced about in them!" he snarled.
"In case you forget, being dead and all," Potter snarled, his face livid now, "I didn't ask for your memories. That was your doing."
Potter pushed Severus again and before Severus could interrupt, continued his rant, his voice climbing even higher. "If you remember, Dumbledore told me nothing, and I did the best I could with that nothing. How was I supposed to know you were going to force-feed me your memories, or that the Snitch had the fucking Stone in it? I had just watched my friends die—you die - and time was a little thin on the ground. Exiten—existentialism was not top of my list. I'm sorry you're dead and tied to me, but I did the best I could. It is Not. My. Fault!"
Both their chests were heaving now, and with barely an inch separating them they engaged in yet another battle of wills.
Suddenly, Severus felt tired, drained. Who would have thought his death would be like this, facing off against the bloody Boy Who Vanquished Evil. He was all too unexpectedly weary of the constant belittling and conflict between them. It had only been a year and, if they continued as they were, they wouldn't get far into the next with both of them still in one piece.
The crux was that it looked as though no one was ever going to believe Severus still existed in some form and was still here. When Potter had tried to tell his friends, Granger and Weasley, and even Bill Weasley, they had dismissed it all as post-battle fatigue. Harry, with Severus' help, had tried harder. Potter had explained in painstaking words Severus' theory that the combination of the Stone and his memories, with a side dish of tincture-a-la-dying-Severus, had created an existential phenomenon. After that, their faces had formed into permanent expressions of pity and concern.
Severus cringed when he thought about those first few months. Minerva had listened to Potter explain, with Severus' help, with expressions of compassion and complete disbelief. Patiently, and with small words just short of using hand puppets, she had told him how impossible it was for a ghost to be visible to just one person, and further, for a ghost to have a corporeal form with all its physical abilities intact.
Well, that wasn't quite Severus' case. While he could touch, and be touched by, Potter, he had only limited power over things that were not Potter. Like banging the table, for example. While he could touch it or sit in a chair at it, his physical interaction with it fell short of being able to affect its substance. They had found he could only move things when in a temper - which luckily was quite often—but even then with minor impact.
No, Minerva hadn't even listened to half of the speech he'd prepared. And since then, the old cat had twice tried to trick Potter into St. Mungo's for a check-up. If it hadn't been for the sadness and regret in her eyes each time Potter mentioned Severus' name, he would have used her to test his post-existence mechanics for hexing.
After this morning's repeat performance, with Shacklebolt in the leading role, he felt they were now on their own. If they pushed any more, it was likely they would have Potter pyjama-clad in Janus Thickey before you could say 'Gilderoy Lockhart'.
Severus closed his eyes. That was the point, if he would just admit it. If they were to avoid the imposition of the wealth of people who cared for Potter's mental stability, the boy needed to pretend he didn't live with a dead Snape. That effectively left the two of them isolated. Such isolation was not a happy prospect considering the number of times per day they were at each other's throats.
Decision made, he stepped to the side and tilted his head in a slight nod. "Point, Mr Potter."
Thrown, he could almost see Potter's anger crash-dive with nowhere to go. His limbs, however, were still rigid with tension and the boy fell clumsily back into his chair, his mouth open in surprise.
And a bonus point for me, Severus thought with an internal smirk of pleasure.
Joining Potter at the table, his chair already helpfully pushed away so he could slide into it, they considered each other. Or rather, moments stretched as they glared warily at each other. Severus tapped a finger against his lips and deliberated on how to construct a detente.
"To ensure my time is not spent devising means to kill you, Mr Potter, and yours peering at that advertisement you keep for Everard the Exorcist, would you do me the favour of making my… existence a little easier?"
The boy scrubbed his face with his hands and then seemed to collapse in on himself; once again sliding down the seat of his chair. Severus watched and waited.
Finally, the boy lifted his head from the table.
"Okay. What do you want from me?" he asked.
Severus released the breath he'd been holding. Hm, he thought, exactly how long had he held it? Did he in fact still need to breathe? He would wait until Potter was otherwise entertained—reading a comic book, perhaps, or playing with Lego or crayons—and experiment. At best, it would serve as something he could actually do for himself without Potter's help, at worse it might send him on the journey to the hereafter… thereafter.
But that was for later. He leant over the table, hands clasped in front of him, and tried to adopt a friendly, congenial mien. The boy winced.
"Once in a while I would like to be able to debate, partake of a discussion if you will; one that exercises my mind and animates me. I would like to be able to hold a conversation that is not trammelled by disjointed, ineloquent language and aberrant slang. I would like once more to experience the enjoyment found in research and in working with potions… "
Severus paused. There was something else he needed, especially after the embarrassment of seeing Potter's open-mouthed shock when the boy had woken up and caught him at it. But could he ask? Turning to look out of the window he debated with himself. This certainly was a need. A healthy need, and by acceding to it, they would both benefit. It had been such a long time, though. While some might think the life of a spy was filled with shadowy and illicit exploits, erotic encounters, heroic deeds and excitement, the reality was that the accompanying terror, the constant occlusion and near misses placed one's libido under a concrete slab. Now it was stirring from passivity—and wasn't that an irony: that his sexual desires which had been dead in life were alive in death. Severus did not want them tramped back into dormancy by worrying whether he would have an eighteen-year old audience mid-tug.
But to express his wants… The view of the tangled scrub that was Grimmauld Place's back garden held him in impersonal reverie.
Finally he made up his mind. "I would also like to experience some of those things I neither had the leisure nor the… inclination for when I was alive. Personal things."
He heard the boy draw in a deep breath and waited for the ensuing ridicule.
A wild rose of some sort had almost smothered the coalhouse, but at the top of the basement steps, the old washhouse was free of plants and moss. Severus imagined it would make a good drying room for potions ingredients. The rest of the garden was beaten completely into submission by brambles and vine weed, needing an overhaul of epic proportions. If they stayed here, then he would ask Potter to grant him oversight of it.
The boy cleared his throat.
"I agree to improving how I speak and being your hands in the lab… " He stopped.
When he didn't carry on, Severus drew his eyes back to the boy and prompted him with, "I sense an exception trailing your words."
Potter looked up hesitantly into Severus' intent gaze. "An exception?"
A sigh. The boy really was an imbecile. "In other words, a 'but', Potter."
"I know what the word means, Snape!" The boy swept together a few crumbs that had escaped Kreacher's notice and began to make swirling patterns, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on them. "But, erm… What do you mean by 'pers…onal things'?"
Oh. Well, this is going to be embarrassing.
"By 'personal', I mean that I find I have certain needs still. Sexual needs, to be exact. As it is unlikely I will ever be able to touch another man other than you, I would ask you to make some accommodation for my needs."
Oh, Merlin, the twit still blushes. Faint, yes, but definitely a blush.
Potter shuffled in his chair, twitching his hips almost as though he were… . Ridiculous!
"Well?" Severus demanded. "Do we have an accord?"
Back to stirring the crumbs, this time into an S-shape, the boy muttered. "Erm… You want to have sex with me?"
What the fuck?
"You blithering idiot! No, I do not want to have sex with you. I merely want your promise of time alone; preferably with a solid wall between us." Severus reached over and swept the crumbs onto the floor; a clear sign he was back to 'angry'. "Did you think I panted after your little, lily-white arse? That the thought of buggering you had me restless and wanting? For your information, Potter, I do not lust after children, so you are quite safe from adding a second martyr string to your harp."
The boy was damn well priceless! He would take no resistant body to his bed, however appealing and acquiescent the vehicle. Though many of his past actions were of dubious strain, he had never added sexual abuse to the list.
"I am a fucking adult, Snape, not a child," Harry growled. "And for your information I am not straight or a bloody virgin!"
Merlin, don't say that, Severus' mind screamed! An expression born of pure, unadulterated sexual frustration and over-eager teenage hormones bloomed on the bespectacled face opposite. The concrete slab slid aside and his libido waved a tendril, calling for immediate attention. He kicked it back down into the hole.
"I see." Severus cleared his throat to rid the small squeak. "However, I will not require the use of your body for my gratification. I ask only for consideration to attend to my own needs rather than having to wait until you are asleep."
Severus closed his eyes as the boy's expression flashed alternating relief and disappointment.
"Er… right. Agreed, then… " He grabbed the pepper pot and poured out some more distraction onto the table.
"Is there something else enacting a tap-dance on your brain, Potter?"
"Yes, actually." Taking a deep breath, he looked up. "I agree we need to learn to… live with each other. And I will try and make things easier for you, but I need something from you, too."
"And what would that be, Mr Potter?" Snape sneered. Oh, he should have expected that, as a Potter, the boy would extract some mileage. "Do you require my complete silence outside those occasions you have already agreed to, always to stand behind you, out of sight? Should I expect a leash to the end of your bed or to don a boob-tube and ra-ra skirt? Will I be exp—"
"No!" Potter yelped. "No, I just have things that I need too. The first is that I need to be free to be me, Harry, just as much as you do… you. I will do what I said I will, the discussions and lab things, but to do them I have to remain me. And part of being me is Harry—I mean, I know I am Harry, but I would like you to know it too. To call me Harry for a start and to stop thinking I'm a clone of my dad; and not try to turn me into a clone of you. That's all I want."
Snape sneered again. "I do wonder whether you would be so free with your name if your parents had opted for Bernard, which, I have faith, will have been on the list."
Defeated, the boy held up his hands. "Okay, I get it. First thing is to teach me how to express myself clearly." He lowered his hands again and met Severus glare for glare and Severus acknowledged one lesson, albeit unintentional, had been learnt. "So. If I give you what you want, are you going to start calling me Harry and wade through a lifetime—literally—of grudges and get to know me?"
Snape tapped his lip again for a count of twenty-two seconds.
"Very well… Harry, we shall start afresh." He held out a hand across the table, inclining his head as he did so. "My name is Severus."
~ STEP TWO ~
Severus scanned the crowd of Ministry representatives and, right at the back, members of the wizarding world, and smirked. He sat down in Harry's vacated chair between Granger and Longbottom and settled in for some amusement. Watching the boy, with his plush dress robes and scrubbed face, he had to admit Harry had grown inordinately well over the last year. Gone were the remnants of soft lines, transmuted into a square, neatly shaved jaw. Gone was the uncoordinated lurching of knees and too-big feet and instead was a confident stride of lithe limbs. Gone was the reticence, to be replaced by the beginnings of savoir-faire tempered from sophistication by a no-care attitude.
At the moment, a flush coloured the boy's cheeks. No doubt nerves were sending frogs back-flipping in the boy's stomach. He saw Harry take a few deep breaths and smooth out the creases on his speech with the flat of his hand. Severus smiled. If the boy won this bet, he would win himself a month free of Grimmauld Place's potions lab, to while away his time playing Quidditch and having lazy lie-ins. If he lost, he would spend that month at Severus' beck and call, elbow deep in Flobberworms and newt's eyes. Either way, Severus didn't care. Oh, he would regret the time lost to further his research, but he couldn't deny he would gain much pleasure if Harry's speech went as planned.
He switched his attention to the podium as Harry began.
"Thank you for coming here today, on this second Phoenix Memorial Day, to remember all those who sacrificed their lives in the long war against Voldemort. Many brave wizards and witches gave everything in order to counter one of the greatest evils of our time." Drawing in another breath Harry glanced to the left, to the row of Order members. Finding Severus' black eyes boring into his, his Adam's apple bobbed. "They, with the support of the Ministry fools—I mean, foiled, the overthrow of Britain, rescuing her from a terrible darkness."
Severus sniggered slightly and Longbottom shifted in his chair. He could see one or two faces in the crowd twitch, wondering whether it really had been a slip of the tongue. Then, remembering, he unfurled one long, slim finger from his fist to lie straight against his black-clad thigh. One.
"Without the dashing and epic courage of the Order of the Phoenix and the help of the Ministry idiots… " Harry coughed and, amongst the crowd, a few feet shuffled, "…the Ministry, idiots who blindly followed the mantra of an egocentric madman and Voldemort…" —two and three—" …would have prevailed, and our world would yet be in heavy chains and under a blanket of day-by-day terror. It is thanks to those determined heroes of the Order of the Phoenix, with the Ministry asses—assistance, that we emerged damaged but triumphant and truly free for the first time in over thirty years."
More shuffling and a few giggles. Severus sympathised and joined in with a low chortle. Longbottom flinched and, eyes a bit wild, looked fearfully for the source of his discomfort. Ignoring him, Severus unfurled a fourth finger onto his thigh.
"Now, thanks to the brave deeds of the Light and the twits of the Ministry - I mean, the wits of the Ministry"—Severus laid his whole hand flat—"we have garnered a true peace. Thanks to those who didn't stop to heal their own wounds, but instead moved forward to heal those of this country, we are whole again. And thanks to all of us, everyone from the Order of the Phoenix and those who rose at its call, we have a bright future. It is my great honour to open this day of remembrance and celebration, and I ask you all to pause and think of those who gave their lives so that we might have ours."
Visibly breathing a huge sigh of relief, Harry stood back from the podium in the wake of the applause and glanced once again at the crowd. A few faces from the Ministry were almost purple, but Harry didn't appear concerned. When he turned around, however, apprehension made a sudden appearance. Walking back to his seat, Harry's eyes repeatedly darted towards the Minister, who was seated in the middle of the row of Order members. Severus did the same, trying to gauge Kingsley Shacklebolt's reception of the patent insult to his Ministry. Far from appearing insulted, Kingsley's brown eyes were crinkled in amusement and his mouth was trembling on the edge of a laugh. Harry's worried face eased into a smile when the Minister winked at him before standing to make his own speech.
Sighing with relief, Harry carried on towards his seat. Severus raised a brow and his lips twitched, but otherwise he didn't comment as Harry stopped in front of him. He could see the twit was disappointed by the lack of a compliment, but he should know better by now not to expect anything other than acknowledgement of a successful acquittal of a challenge.
"Harry!" Hermione hissed from Severus' right. "Sit down, for goodness sake!"
She grabbed the sleeve of his robes and tried to pull him into his chair, but he could hardly do that while Severus was still in it. Jerking his arm free, Harry glared at Severus. Who glared back. They both ignored Hermione's second hissed "Harry!" in favour of another challenge in narrowed, unblinking eyes. Severus knew he would win this one, especially when the eyes of other members of the Order focussed on the boy and they started whispering.
Strangely, Harry ignored them this time. Not even a hint he was going to back down. Severus felt a glimmer of unease rumble in his chest. This would not do. The boy already had much to counter as a result of Severus' invisible presence; any more might further incur unwanted attention.
Severus rose, slowly and elegantly, and stepped aside.
Bowing his head slightly in acknowledgement, Harry sat down and focussed all his attention on Kingsley's words. Well, not all his attention. When Severus moved to stand behind his chair and rested a hand on Harry's shoulder, he felt the boy lean into it. Harry would know this gift as the compliment denied him earlier.
~ STEP THREE ~
"Now, add a small pinch of the hempseed… A little more… That's it." Severus kept his voice low so as not to intrude on Harry's concentration. However, he still felt the young man shiver and so he stepped back and gave him more space.
"Take the glass rod and stir—slowly—three times clockwise… wait for the potion to settle… now seven anticlockwise… Good." Severus nudged Harry aside so he could waft a hand over the potion and breathe in the fumes. "Perfect. Turn off the heat, Harry, and allow it to cool before beginning the next stage."
Harry stood back and wiped a hand over his brow. They'd been down here only two hours and already, with several cauldrons brewing at once on an unusually hot May day, the heat of the potions lab was stifling. A thin line of sweat trickled down the side of Harry's throat and Severus watched as it disappeared below the collar of the work robes.
The young man looked at him.
"Well, Mr Potter, it seems you can be taught after all," Severus said blandly.
Harry's face brightened and Severus had to agree that, while not exactly a rousing endorsement, it was probably the nicest thing he had ever said to him. Because of that smile and the consequent glow of pride, he forgave Harry for still holding the glass rod and dripping Vine Vanishing potion onto the clean floor.
Finally noticing the mess he was making, Harry laid the rod onto the workbench and Evanesco'ed the floor. Standing, he wriggled and then worked the waistband of his jeans loose. Obviously, not being able to use a cooling charm while brewing, he was feeling the heat badly.
"How do you cope with the heat all the time?" He looked Severus up and down, envy of Severus' cool demeanour apparent. "Doesn't it affect you because you're dead?"
Severus curled his lip and crossed his arms over his chest. "Your delicacy and tact never fails to move me, Harry. To answer your too-rare query into my current state, yes I do feel warmth and cold. However, even were I alive I would not be feeling the discomfort because I have dressed accordingly."
Changing his clothing was something Severus had accidentally found he could do. Last winter he'd been bemoaning his lot and wishing hard for the fur-lined cloak he had splashed out on with his hard-earned wages, when, out of the blue, he found he was wearing it. Of course Harry hadn't noticed and Severus hadn't drawn attention to it. He had just stroked the thick wool and soft, grey-fox fur and revelled in its warmth.
Since then, he had made minor adjustments to his clothes, most too subtle for the boy to observe and others that had only resulted in eyes widened in question. Now, whenever they ventured out on a cold day, he conjured scarf and gloves; when retiring to bed, he donned nightgown and robe, and when in the lab he dressed as he used to do.
Shaking his head, he stopped his woolgathering and redirected his gaze to Harry. Which was a mistake.
Confusion was not a good look and it irritated Severus no end that anyone could reach this age and still not possess the vaguest concept of wizarding practice. That said, it was not only Harry, it was his entire jeans-wearing generation.
Harry was looking closely at Severus' robes, trying to discern the difference. Severus smiled inwardly. They were the same—the same ankle-length black robes, long sleeved and buttoned to the throat. Anyone with even a modicum of intelligence could see that.
"What's different?" Harry asked.
Mm, perhaps he could derive some pleasure out of the twit's ignorance. Severus forced down the twitch at the corner of his lips. "The difference is not peripheral," he lowered his voice to a husky drawl. "I, like most Potions Masters, wear nothing beneath my work robes."
Harry gulped. "N-nothing?"
The twitch twitched again before Severus could stop it. "Naked as the day I was born." He blinked slowly, very slowly, and just the once.
Gleefully he saw Harry's eyes dart to the part of the robes that covered his groin and then, not so gleefully, he felt an answering nod from beneath. He focussed on watching Harry. His imagination catered to his thoughts and a hundred-and-one uses for a horny youth were suddenly available for his immediate perusal.
Harry looked up at Severus, his eyes brimming with hormones. Trying for a casual manner, he waved a hand at Severus' robes, his expression one of embarrassment when he noticed his fingers were pointing at the star turn.
"So, comfort first, huh?"
Severus looked over the young body in front of him. The robes were too dense to see whether Harry was aroused, but the eyes and the voice spoke of it too clearly for Severus to think otherwise. A spike of pleasure arced into his stomach, tightening his groin and making his cock swell.
"Indeed," Severus said, his voice low and husky. "May I suggest, for your own comfort of course, that you adopt the same practice?"
"Right. Yeah. Good idea."
Harry continued to look at him, forcefully denying his eyes transit southwards. Severus met this gaze with expectation.
"Erm, you mean now?" He gulped again when Severus just raised a brow in answer, waiting.
They stared at each other; a challenge clear in the black eyes and frank discomfiture in the green ones. Though more accurately, and Severus did so appreciate accuracy, the discomfiture warred with yelling arousal.
It was not the first time Harry had looked at him in that heated way and Severus was almost sure the lack of an alternative was making him more of a sexual possibility. However, his own iron control in all aspects of his life hadn't slipped at all since he'd died… so to speak.
Aside from the odd look quickly hidden and the longer gazes that lingered on his arse whenever Harry bent down, Severus hadn't allowed himself to take advantage of the lures Harry had presented to him.
At this point in time, yes, Harry's life was a sexual desert. However, the drought would not last and, though Severus still disliked him at times, he did not want Harry to be uncomfortable or guilt-ridden when it came time to turn Severus aside for the much better offer. That said, the libido-dampening effect of having a perpetual gooseberry in tow was an awkward predicament for which they had not yet managed to find a solution. Hence the current sexual desert.
So, rather than give in to the rather clumsy suggestion that they share Personal Time, Severus had pretended not to have understood. Whether or not Harry was pleased with this turn of events, they continued to allow one of them sole use of the bedroom while the other stood in the corridor twiddling their thumbs—or, in Severus' case, twiddling with his cock to the image of Harry stark naked and spread-eagled on the other side of the door, touching himself.
Of course, the fact that he might be misreading the situation, and setting himself up for a lifetime, or death-time, of mortification and derision played at the back of his mind, not to mention on his suddenly not-so-sure prick. Still, this scenario was barely a stride away from one of Severus' recent fantasies; the anticipation of whether Harry would dare undress in front of him had become one to catalogue and cross-reference. Whether it progressed in reality mattered not, it would, for certain, during Severus' Personal Time.
Therefore, brow still lifted, he continued to hold Harry's eyes.
A deep breath and, almost visibly taking his vaunted Gryffindor courage in hand, Harry hesitantly unbuttoned the black robes.
Severus' breathing quickened as the robes were folded onto the stool. Next, he watched as Harry grabbed his t-shirt by the hem, pulled it over his head, and then began to unfasten his jeans.
Merlin, he was going to do it!
More than that, now the robes were off, Severus could see a bulge in the front of his jeans. Either Harry adhered to the maxim of a clean handkerchief —or two—or he was clearly hard. And that chest. Beautiful smooth lines and angles under peerless light-tan skin. A feast of masculinity barely touched, laid out for Severus' delectation.
His fantasy cache recorded the new information.
Toeing off his trainers, Harry looked up and Severus saw insecurity there. However, he couldn't risk losing face whichever direction this went, so he made certain his own eyes were intent yet level, disguising his considerable arousal. His cock twitched and he thanked the Potions god and robe designers for the thick folds.
Harry was gazing at him expectantly, cheeks slightly flushed below half-lidded, glittering green eyes. Severus nodded and the heat in his body increased when he was rewarded by the sound of a zipper and then of fabric being pushed down against skin.
Harry stepped out of the jeans and Severus' heart raced when fingers slipped into the waistband of his boxers. He looked again at Severus, pleading writ large. Suddenly Severus recognised the boy's courage and that the potential for extreme humiliation went both ways, which was now making Harry hesitate.
Severus adjusted his stance to lean back against the workbench, hips jutted forwards, giving Harry a clear view of his long, lean body, the line of his robes disturbed and tented.
Harry's breath hitched and then he looped the waistband over his prick and shucked them off. Then he just stood there for a moment while Severus raked his eyes over his body, his body language screaming for Severus to make the next move.
That made Severus hesitate. What was his next move to be? Never before had he been offered a platterful of such youth, such new ripeness. If he were to take Harry in his arms now, the young man would regret it. Certainly he wanted an outlet for his frustrations, which was all too understandable at that age. But what of the time when the hormones were satisfied? Would he welcome the memory of being touched by his hated ex-professor? Severus very much doubted that. No, Harry would wake up one morning with disgust in his eyes and, as Severus was here to stay, that would be an unending mistake to make.
Tamping down his own desires, and castigating himself for dying with conscience intact, he pushed off the workbench and walked towards Harry. Ignoring the heaving chest and wrap-me-up-and-eat-me cock, he focussed on Harry's face, his walk made uncomfortable by his cock that was as yet unwilling to be so summarily dismissed. It swayed as he moved and he felt a hysterical rush when he realised that Harry's eyes were fixed on it and he was swaying in harmony.
He could feel the heat from Harry's body, now. Could feel his breath on his throat and the tremble of his body. Then a moan low in his chest. Severus reached behind and picked up the robe from the stool. Draping it to cape over the trembling, flushed shoulders he then stepped away and walked back to the workbench.
"Oh!" Harry breathed.
"I think you will find yourself much more comfortable now," Severus said, cursing his voice for its hoarseness and emotion.
From behind, he heard the rustle and snap of fumbled fabric. He concentrated on the wall in front of him, counting the glass jars lined up on the liquid-based ingredients shelf until he heard feet scuffing into rubber-soled shoes. He should not have let this go so far; he was a fool and had indulged his own sick urges in the face of Harry's undisciplined and desperate ones. The young man, so nearly still a boy, would find as much comfort from his own hand—in fact, probably more—than from Severus'. Tomorrow he would wake up and be thankful Severus hadn't acquiesced.
After a few moments, Harry walked past him to retake his place at the workbench, resolutely ignoring Severus' eyes.
"So. Is this cool enough, or shall I make a start on the bases for your test mediums? If you'd rather, I could clean up here a bit first and—"
"Harry," Severus spoke softly, moving to stand behind him but at arm's distance.
"What was that next stage you wrote? I could work on preparing the ingredients for that and then—"
"Just tell me what you want, Snape." Harry gripped the edge of the bench and squeezed. "Just tell me what you want!"
Severus sighed. It did not matter a jot what he wanted, all that mattered was what was right. And while he may have enjoyed tormenting Harry Potter in the past, he no longer felt that driving animosity, and he would never have gone to these lengths to humiliate him. One thing he had always prided himself on was his honour and it was no less so now. Much might have changed in dying, but that was not one of them.
"What I do not want is to take advantage of you." Severus kept his voice low and, tentatively, stepped closer. "Much as I appear to ignore the fact, I do realise how hard it is for you having an unwelcome and constant shadow in your life. The lack of privacy, the difficulty in forming a relationship, compounded by the needs of your twenty-year-old body… I do understand."
"You wouldn't be taking advantage of me… it would be a two-way… advantage thing," Harry whispered. His voice broke the moment Severus cupped the tops of his arms.
Severus' grip tightened. So much temptation. He had to drum reality into that brick-like brain. "You would willingly touch me?" he asked mockingly, adding quieter yet, "Want to touch me and welcome my touch in return?"
Twisting out of the grip, Harry turned to face Severus. "Merlin on a broom! Yes!" And Severus' erection, which had wilted at jar number twelve—the doxy brains bobbing in saline—reared again.
Severus narrowed his eyes and searched Harry's for a moment.
"Me, Severus Snape, ugly, hook-nosed and nasty?" he scoffed. "You would have me believe you would welcome being touched, being pleasured, by my hand… my body?"
"I'm not going to say you're my ideal partner, but… hell, Severus! I do find you attractive."
"Mm, tempted though I am to bask in your expressions of admiration, I must point out that even an apple shared with a worm is a banquet to a starving man." He sighed. "Harry. If you allow your hormones to tint those glasses of yours with a rosy hue, how will you feel when they are sated, by me or someone else? Will you relegate me to a box as though I am a toy no longer wanted and try to erase that it ever happened?"
There. There was the doubt in the green eyes. No, Harry hadn't thought that far ahead.
"I just… " Harry rubbed his hand across his forehead, making the latent scar there even whiter. "I just thought that instead of releasing tension by the solo method, we could get more out of it together. Yes, until better things came along."
Severus forbore to mention that as Harry was the only solid being in Severus' existence he could interact with, sentient or otherwise, there were no better things on Severus' horizon. Putting that to the back of his mind, did he want to be a stopgap? Would having tasted mutual release with Harry create a vacuum impossible to fill once permission was rescinded? He didn't know. What he did know was his pride would not suffer being touched by someone only after having swallowed his reluctance.
He tried to communicate this point. "If you were attracted to me before, even slightly, it would be different, but you were not, were you?"
"Yes, damn it, I was!" Harry growled, and then emphasized his generosity of spirit by punching Severus on the shoulder. "I admit it was in a scary, attracted to the nasty Death Eater, kind of way, but I did think about you in that way from the end of sixth year… when I found out you were the Half-Blood Prince." His voice had tapered off to a mumble by the end, and Severus had to play it back to be sure of what he'd heard.
One second Severus had stepped back and the next you couldn't pass a hair between them. Severus crushed their lips together and pulled Harry tight against his body. When he tasted bergamot on a moan, he wrapped his arms around Harry and thrust his hips. Harry's hips gave an answering jerk, and jerked again when his cock met Severus' on the first hit.
Severus allowed the kiss for a short while, covering Harry's soft mouth with his more demanding one, before need stoked the fires. Pushing Harry away, he tugged at the front of his robes. "Let me see you!" he demanded. When he was certain Harry was complying, fingers twisting and tugging at the buttons, he attended to his own.
As soon as the last button was ripped open, Severus snatched Harry's hands away and pulled aside the edges of the robes, and stared. Flushed and heady with excitement, he drank in the view. His hands itched to touch, but he had to maintain some measure of control and the last thing he wanted was to spoil it all by pushing things further than Harry wanted to take them.
So he continued to drink. He drank in the sight of the smattering of black hair around dark brown nipples. Drank in the sculpted stomach and pristine trail leading to a solid wedge of dense curls. Drank in the outward curves of two muscled thighs, which joined slim, sharp hips in a defined 'V'. Drank in the thick, dark cock that twitched against a firm stomach, proud and erect above heavy balls.
Hands brushed his own robes apart to tuck behind him, revealing his leaner, scarred body for Harry's inspection. He didn't care if his body was less than perfect, which it was, being too much on the thin side, but he felt no ignominy for the long, thick, hard length currently dripping with need. It was an angry red and hungry for Harry's touch. Seemingly loath to disappoint, Harry reached down and grasped the shaft, squeezing lightly.
Severus's breath left his body in a long, throaty moan. Gads, but that felt good! He thrust into the soft grip a couple of times, then recalled this was a cooperative enterprise. He opened his surprisingly closed eyes and pulled Harry in against a hip with one arm, while the other snaked between them to attend to Harry's cock.
Harry grunted, a little whisper of a grunt Severus had heard through the bedroom door several times. This time that noise was his. All his, and he lapped up every bit of it. Having someone else touch him after so many years, more years than he liked to count, was absolutely divine. The sweetness between his own practiced hand and this one, with its very different manner of twist and pull, was just like losing his virginity all over again. It was perfect in its imperfection.
All too soon, merely a minute or two, and both their breaths came faster, shallower, and then they were coming. Thick spurts slicked their hands and stomachs and they held each other through the after-shocks.
"Did you enjoy that?" gasped the thrice-benighted twit, hanging onto Severus as though for dear life.
"Potter… you mistake… if you believe me a hen-witted damsel… who requires conversation and reassurance… after sex," Severus panted. "The evidence in your hand… plus my breathless state… should suffice as evidence."
The brat laughed into his neck, or more accurately, somewhat of a cross between a gulp and a laugh.
"So. Severus. What happens now?"
"Now, we add the moonwort," he replied.
~ STEP FOUR ~
"Come on then, flash the ring." Harry pulled Granger into a one-armed hug and with the other beckoned for her left hand.
"It was her grandmother's. Special, like," Weasley blurted, his face scarlet with embarrassment.
Standing behind the redhead, Severus saw Harry raise his eyebrows in confusion.
He coughed and said, "Your friend, Ronald, might have some difficulty buying a ring of some value while only a junior Auror. I suggest he is trying to hide his pecuniary inadequacies by emphasising sentiment."
Harry twisted Granger's hand to catch the afternoon sun on the glittering stones in order to redirect his smile. "I think the pathos beautiful and touching." He looked up in time to see his friend frown.
"Your mother said it was a diamond," Weasley accused.
Granger pulled out of Harry's embrace and took Weasley's hands in hers. "It is, silly. I think you'll find pathos is his word of the week."
"Actually, it was almost a year ago, but we shan't quibble," Severus said, heavy on the graciousness.
He was worried how this change in their dynamics would affect Harry. True, there had been so much loosening of ties that one more wrench might not be noticed. Nonetheless, it was still a significant underlining of how Harry had yet to move on in life.
"Git!" Weasley said over Granger's head and then grinned. "Great, though, innit?"
And then Harry laughed and Severus relaxed.
It looked good, like old times. Weasley with his familiar toothy smile and Granger, her face smooth and relaxed, like the three of them had been before, at Hogwarts. It had been too long since Harry had felt comfortable enough with his friends to relax into honest laughter and Severus basked in the sound.
"You bet it is. Come on, this calls for a celebration," Harry said happily.
The couple shared a glance and shuffled a bit.
"Erm, we'd like to, mate, but we're on our way to the Burrow. Mum's made a cake and… well, you know," Weasley had the grace to look embarrassed. "Had to come and tell you, though, eh?"
"Yeah. Of course." Harry tried to force the hurt away with an overly wide smile, and Severus' heart ached for him.
Ever since Harry had screamed at Fleur not to put the baby on the chair where Severus had been sitting, the Weasleys' unease had grown. As the initial disquiet increased with each similar event, Harry had been invited to family events less and less. Their disquiet was further compounded by Harry's failure to retain a job, serving to distance him from the hard-working Weasleys. It made Severus' blood boil to see their shared looks and misgivings marring the happiness Harry had once found only in their company. Without the haven the Burrow had offered from the persistently adoring wizarding public, even after four years, Harry was tied more and more to Grimmauld Place.
But too many enterprises only wanted a piece of Harry Potter; wanted his name or his face. Repeatedly, whenever he tried to exert an effort to make his mark in whichever job he had taken on that month, he was patted on the head and offered a more comfortable chair.
No one knew how difficult it was being the Boy Who Vanquished more than Severus, who had to stand there and seethe as Harry was treated as though a pet.
Eventually, after Harry had spent months spiralling into depression, Severus had broached the subject of selling potions under a pseudonym. At first reluctant, Harry had had to admit that with Severus instructing his every move they had a better than fair chance of success. This surmise was helped by the fact that they'd worked themselves into a routine whereby Harry had become a highly efficient lab assistant—more than that, if one accepted all the physical work was done by him. And it was. While Severus had learned to channel residual energy into forcing basic physical effects from his surroundings, so far it was limited to turning the pages of a book, lifting light ingredients, or handling a stirring rod.
He still needed Harry to do the bulk of all their work, though. Harry said it didn't matter, that the best use for Severus was in applying his brain. That they worked so well together, already becoming quite well known, under the name of Efficax, said reams about their ability to coordinate their effort.
But this was a different problem, one that had been long coming. While Severus wouldn't wish everyone to stall their lives in order to accommodate Harry, Weasley and Granger's engagement would be a bitter blow.
"Harry, my sunny personality will always be here to delight you," Severus deadpanned at the same time as Weasley said, "You know we'd prefer to be here with you, mate, don't you?"
"Yeah, I know I'll always have you," Harry said through a smile.
Weasley looked over his shoulder at the mantelpiece to a point a few inches to Severus' right. When he turned back to Harry, Severus knew That Look was on his face by the smile dropping from Harry's. That look that said he thought Harry was acting a few twigs short of a broom, to use the ignoramus' parlance.
"You all right there, mate?" Weasley asked, in a too-bright manner.
Granger stepped between them. "I'm so sorry, Harry," she said softly, love carried on every word. "It's not a criticism of you. We all love you. But while Fleur is still so protective of Victoire, Molly has to bow to her whims. Perhaps when you're feeling more like your old self things will get back to where they should be, hey?"
"Sure, Hermione," Harry snapped on his 'Everything is Fine' face, but the chit wasn't fooled.
On tiptoes, she leaned in and kissed him softly on the cheek. "Love you, Harry."
"Yeah, mate. The same from me." Weasley tugged on Harry's shoulder before taking Granger's hand and leading her through the front door.
The rift caused by Harry's friends not believing that he, Severus, was to all intents and purposes still here, was fracturing his relations with them. While the public thought Harry's inopportune laughter and fixed glances on a person they couldn't see, were endearingly eccentric, and only fitting for a Dumbledore replacement, it made Harry smart under their patronage. Worse, his friends all thought he'd left part of his sanity in the figment Kings Cross.
Severus was beginning to suspect they were not far from the truth. Oh, Harry was sane, certainly. But over the last few years, Severus had noticed Harry seemed thin, more insubstantial than he should be. Kreacher avoided him to the point where they rarely saw the wizened house-elf anymore. It was the same with the house-elves at Hogwarts on the few occasions they'd visited.
There was also the new aura about him and the change in Harry's magic. Still strong, it nevertheless manifested in a way Severus hadn't come across before. It was hard to pinpoint how exactly it was different, it just was. He wasn't the only person who had noticed, either. He had seen both Minerva and Ollivander look askance when Harry cast his magic, while people like Bill and Charlie Weasley, the Granger girl and a few others, frowned as they felt a strange curl in the air. Whatever had happened when Harry had 'died', he had emerged from the Forbidden Forest slightly different.
In an ideal world, Harry would sit down and explain Severus' presence and they would believe him; in an ideal world, these people would look more closely at this altered Harry; in an ideal world, Severus would be able to smack these idiots round the head until they listened or bled.
Harry had wandered over to the window, pulling Severus with him when the ten-foot threshold of their invisible string was reached. Luckily, it also brought him in range of his favourite chair and he sank into it gratefully, pondering how to cheer Harry up. He was fond of him, more than fond if he was honest. That said, the range of party tricks was rather limited when one was dead.
He did have one up his sleeve, however, to employ a pun, and he gave it full rein now.
"Harry, what would you like to do today? A walk, perhaps?" When all that garnered was a shrug of the shoulders, he swallowed his distaste and ventured the trusted favourite. "Or a broom ride?"
Harry turned away from the window, a smile on his face; a smile that first fell in shock and then widened into full-blown glee.
"What the fuck is that?" he asked before shoving a fist into his mouth.
Severus smirked. "What, this old thing? Why, I've had it for ages," he said with a raised brow, and then unfolded himself from his chair and made his way towards Harry.
Some five feet away, he grasped the draping fabric of his robes and twirled, to Harry's delight.
Above his hand, Harry blinked in the vision that was Severus. Instead of the long black robes of old, the formal trousers and shirt, he was dressed in flowing and shimmering lilac robes. The cut, the colour, everything about them shouted 'Albus Dumbledore', and it was obviously straining Harry's ribs to see Severus in them.
"Merlin, blind me, please!" Harry gasped, followed by a snort.
Fortunately, Merlin had long since disowned both of them and so Severus had the pleasure of hearing Harry laugh... through his nose, as his hand was clasped over his mouth again.
"O, fuh!" he mumbled.
Severus strode slowly closer to Harry, running a finger along the edge of a silver-trimmed collar. "Do they please you, Harry? Are they becoming on me?" Severus hooded his eyes in brazen invitation.
"Severus, you look bloody terrible!" Harry laughed. But as Severus' steps faltered, he let his hand fall, his grin vanishing into a look of amazement.
Foolishly, Severus had dropped his guard and allowed hurt to seep from behind his normally implacable eyes. Having wanted to amuse, it was churlish to balk at being ridiculed, but it still hurt. He quickly replaced his mask.
"Don't!" Harry reached out and cupped Severus' cheek. "Don't hide from me. Please."
Severus peeled Harry's hand from his face and allowed it to fall. "You are being ridiculous, Harry," he sneered. "There is nothing to hide… and, indeed, nothing to hide from."
"Severus, I'm sorry," Harry whispered. He again lifted his hand to touch Severus' cheek. "It's just such a shock to see you in anything other than black and white. That's all." Tentatively, and gauging how near Severus would let him come, he leaned in to place a gentle kiss on his lips.
Drawing back again, he checked his reception in Severus' eyes and then kissed him again.
This was new. This was touching outside of Personal Time and Severus felt himself flail at the unexpected exhilaration, the strength of the blaze that scorched in his chest. Most of all, he felt masks and safeguards were overrated. And that lilac was really not his colour.
~ STEP FIVE ~
Severus watched as Harry leaned back on the park bench, a visual treat for the eyes. Arms up and bent at the elbow, cupping the back of his neck and head, legs stretched out in front of him. The burgundy robes caressed the slender lines of a perfect figure, the rich colour suiting Harry's dark skin. Eyes closed, Harry presented a pretty picture of a typical man of means whiling away a late spring day in the fresh air. Of course, appearances can be deceiving.
"I am sorry, Harry," Severus said quietly.
"Forget it, Severus," said Harry. "It's not your fault the guy was a loser."
"I was not apologising for the idiot being an idiot, rather for the rest of it."
"Well, it wasn't your fault there was an audience, either." Harry hadn't yet opened his eyes.
"Harry, stop being obtuse. I am apologising for once again allowing my presence in your life to feed the gossip mongers."
Severus sat down sideways on the bench, an arm along its back, fingers less than an inch from the long, raven hair. Not for the first time, he wished he was brave enough just to stretch out a hand and take what he wanted. Reach out and touch that hair, touch Harry.
"I am saying I am sorry my words provoked you into answering where others could hear, even though the cad deserved every invective… both yours and mine."
Harry turned his head to the side to peer under black lashes at Severus, his mouth a wry smile. "Cad, Severus? Who describes someone as a cad in this day and age?"
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Rapscallion?"
"Bounder," Harry countered.
"Mountebank." Severus smirked.
"Debaucher," Harry said.
The businessman heading for the next bench, executed an abrupt about turn and made for the park gates, shooting looks at Harry from time to time over his shoulder.
"Well done, Harry," Severus' mouth twitched. "Twenty points to Gryffindor for that last."
He rested his head on his arm and followed the line of Harry's profile. Not exactly the most classically proportioned, it was nevertheless a pleasingly seductive face. The line of the chin squared off and rose sharply and piercingly to the ear; it was a masculine face. The smallish nose was neat without being overtly effeminate. Severus loved tracing the shadows and angles of this face. He had come to find much solace in it, a deeply woven pleasure in its myriad expressions.
"You're staring at me again."
"Well, if you would use your handkerchief to better effect, I would not have anything to hold my attention," he replied.
"Merlin," Harry said between snorts of amusement, "you're disgusting sometimes."
Turning on the bench, Severus pulled his eyes away from Harry and instead looked to see what had caused Harry's smile to soften.
Over the far side of the park, a group of Muggle children were playing, watched over possessively by their chattering mothers. Severus watched the girls bounce and jump after small stones, giggling and urging each other on in the game.
"Are you very disappointed?" Severus asked then, holding his breath against an answer he didn't want to hear. He waited.
"Nah!" Harry said. "He looked good, pretty damn sexy actually. At least little Harry thought so. But the rest of him was a real tosser. No brains and all charm. Not really my cup of tea."
Severus let his breath whistle out in relief.
It was a glorious day. Precious few clouds marred the expanse of blue, the ones there listless and lonely-looking. Birds twittered to each other from their perches in the avenue of high-crowned trees, waiting out the afternoon heat. It was a good day, Severus considered, despite the inauspicious lunch.
One of the girls screamed, running in a circle, round and round, while her friends chased her. Then they all screamed their laughter until a mother scolded them and they fell quiet, but no less eager for the game. They lined up, gentle pushes and shoves of elbows and bottoms, and started all over again.
"Why would they do that?" Severus asked.
"No. I am referring to their game. What is the point of it?"
Harry looked at him with a mix of pity and humour. "There is no point, Severus. Play just is."
Severus rolled his eyes. "The concept of play is not alien to me, Harry," he corrected. "This game they are playing, however, appears to be without the element of fun and yet they are gleefully pursuing its end."
"It's called hopscotch." He rushed on when Severus narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth for a cutting remark. "The real game isn't in picking up the stone, it's in the hops and the skips needed to get to it. Didn't you ever play it?"
Snorting, Severus dismissed the very idea. "Of course not," he said. "Play for me consisted of games of chess or draughts with my mother and solitaire card games when she was busy elsewhere."
Harry looked at him sadly. "You missed out on a lot, then. Even I got to play hopscotch."
Severus considered the girls and tried to picture what was so fun about hopping and jumping. It didn't look fun. In fact, it looked disappointingly too short-lived to be considered fun.
"Can you discreetly mark out a template of that grid?" Severus asked after a few minutes.
Harry stared at him in bemusement. "What, here? Why?" he asked.
"Yes, here," Severus said, trying for a casual manner. "I wish to discover if you are correct in your summarization."
Harry bent a leg onto the bench and shifted sideways so he could see Severus' face. "Let me get this right. Do you want me to just draw out a grid so you can look at it?" He bit the inside of his lip. "Or do you actually want to play hopscotch?"
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Winner dictates the next Personal Time?"
They measured each other for a moment: black eyes challenging, the green eyes brimful with amusement.
"You're on!" Harry said.
He cast a few glances to make certain they were not being observed, then took out his wand and pointed it at the footpath in front of the bench.
After a few muttered charms, a line of blocks appeared, interspersed with two lateral blocks and ending in a semi-circle; all numbered one to ten. Harry pointed to the semi-circle and, grinning, informed Severus that this was "plum pudding, or homebase".
Next, Harry Accio'ed a small, round stone and held it out to Severus.
Severus rolled his eyes. "As the novice, I suggest you precede me."
Harry grinned again, then stood at the start of the court and dropped the stone into the first square.
"All single squares in the court are hopped into and the two side-by-sides are jumped, except the one with the stone, which is hopped or jumped over," Harry instructed. "Plum pudding is where you turn, and on the return trip you pick up your stone. Next turn you drop the stone into the next square and, hey presto, instant game."
To demonstrate, he hopped into the second square, and then hopped and jumped the course, turned and hopped and jumped back again. When he reached the first square, he bent down, wobbled a bit, picked up the stone and with a final hop landed in front of Severus, grinning madly.
"See. Easy," he said.
Somewhat regretting he'd made this stupid challenge, Severus stroked his chin and studied the 'court'. There didn't appear many options for tactics or advantage, just coordination and springy knees. He briefly considered forfeiting, but Severus didn't think his nerves could take another breakneck ride on the back of Harry's broom so soon after the last one. What the hell had he been thinking of, wanting to play this confounded game.
Although, what did it matter? There was no one to see, no one to laugh and jeer at him… except Harry, and that didn't count. What would it matter if he lowered himself to play at being a child? After all, he had little play in his history.
Harry held out the stone to him.
With eyes closed, he delved deep into his mind, shutting off all else except the smells he could trace on the air, the sounds made by the birds and the earth under his feet. He concentrated. The scents became stronger, the sounds louder and the ground harder. When he felt the telltale hum in his skin, he forced each cadence of the separate sensations into a single stream of energy, pushing it outward into his hand.
Opening his eyes, he allowed the energy to focus on accepting and holding the stone. Rubbing his thumb on the cold, rough surface for a moment, Severus almost lost himself in the texture of it. It was so different from the objects in the potions lab and elsewhere around their home. He looked up at Harry and smiled. Then, before he could change his mind again, Severus tossed the stone into the first square where it bounced a bit.
Just as he was about to launch his dignity into a hop, Harry stopped him with a hand on his chest.
"Harry! You're cheating!" he accused.
Harry laughed. "Sorry, Severus, but your stone is out of bounds."
Severus looked at the stone, resting half in the second square. "That is unreasonable!" Severus said crossly. "You failed to mention that little rider when reciting the rules."
"If you were any other person I would let you throw again," Harry said without rancour, "but any other person doesn't train their chess pieces to hobble their opponent's. So. My turn again."
Harry and Severus battled for the stone for a second or two, the former grunting and stumbling backwards when the latter abruptly released it. He muttered something but Severus only picked up "… gamesmanship… curmudgeon… git… " before Harry was hopping up the court and hopping back again.
This time, and shooting a warning glare at his fellow player, Severus carefully dropped the stone into the first square. It landed dead centre and he preened at Harry.
Bending one leg, he hopped over the first square, landing with a jar in the second. Well, that was unpleasant, he thought. Bracing himself, he hopped into the next square, paused, and then hopped again to land feet spread in the two lateral squares. His left shoe slipped a little and a rush of adrenalin shot up his spine into his chest. Now that was decidedly unpleasant, he thought.
He hopped into the next square, feet planted in the next laterals and then hopped twice more before turning in the semi-circle. Harry was standing at the bottom of the court, watching Severus with no small amount of happiness on his face. Standing there, arms loose at his sides, Harry looked like a young man again. At twenty-two, burgeoning on fifty, he rarely relaxed enough to enjoy his youth, always having to look over his shoulder and bracket the constant pressures laid on him with small snatches of normality.
Severus' chest constricted with emotion, but he pushed it down, ensuring no sign of it reflected in his eyes.
Robes flaring and falling and arms spread evenly either side, he hopped and jumped in neat, precise moves towards Harry and home, wincing as each meeting with concrete jolted his bones. By the time he landed in front of a laughing Harry, Severus no longer wondered why the girls had screamed. That they continued to play, however, was a puzzle.
Harry caught the stone Severus tossed him and then shot off up the court again, landing heavily yet surely in every square. Severus didn't envy Harry's abandon, instead he relished the less graceful moves: the arms that turned windmills and the bent leg that bounced erratically with every jump.
He smiled; Harry looked so happy.
Severus whirled around to see a wizard and a witch heading their way. Turning back to Harry, he saw the laughter slide from his face and his expression close.
"Harry Potter!" the witch called in a pitch so high it scratched the nape of Severus' neck. The wizard tried to pull her away, but she swatted his hands from her arm and strode on.
"Hallo, child," said the middle-aged woman in a motherly tone. "Do you need help getting home?"
Harry's whole body went rigid. "Thank you, but I am quite fine on my own," he said through a polite smile that displayed gritted teeth.
"Of course, dear," said the woman as though talking to a lost Kneazle. "Let Marjorie take you home, sweetheart, and then you'll feel even better, won't you?"
The polite smile cracked at the edges. "Thank you again for your concern, but I do not need to be taken home," Harry said slowly, enunciating every word. "Please, do not let me detain you."
Severus went to stand beside Harry, not touching him and keeping quiet so as not to enflame the situation.
The wizard muttered something to his wife, which she, from the look of exasperation on his face, ignored.
In fact, the indulgent smile didn't fade a whit. "If you don't want Marjorie to help you, is there anyone she can Floo-call for you, dear?" she asked, clasping her hands in front of her. "Marjorie doesn't like to leave you on your own, and neither does Bertie."
At that, Bertie took a step back, hands raised and palms out towards Harry and Severus. Shaking his head, he mouthed a loud 'No'.
Severus heard Harry count to ten under his breath before hitching up the smile, saying, "I suppose it would be rude of me to tell you to piss off, so I will bite that back and just ask you to leave me the fuck alone." He finished with an angelic smile, and then an added, "Please."
Marjorie's smile waned and Bertie gave Harry a double thumbs-up. Taking advantage of her surprise, the wizard grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her away. A final mouthed 'Sorry' and they were round the bend of the path.
"You know, Severus," Harry said, staring at the spot where the couple had disappeared from view, "the Cad looked just like you."
Severus felt his chest expand and warmth spread to all points. With a start, he realised something: he could feel happy too.
~ STEP SIX ~
Severus narrowed his eyes in concentration, focussing on the curtains. A faint surge of energy glowed in the dark room, which he wound round his hand and then used to pull the curtains apart. He looked over to the bed, but the small rhythmic snorts reassured him Harry was still asleep; the sheet pushed down to crumple at his waist.
He settled into the cushions of the window seat and turned back to the window. It was a beautiful view, with the orange and cream light of a bright day dawning, bathing the back garden in a golden glow. The hydrangeas were in full bud now, their pale green clusters of stars turned towards the weak warmth. Summer was a slug pellet away; the roses, Canterbury bells and lisianthus ready to rupture with it.
Perhaps later today Harry would agree to harvest the last of the lily of the valley and white asphodel for him. Or if not, he would ask him to put Kreacher onto the task. Yes, that was a better idea. They had several commissions that had just come in and which would need the greater part of their day to fulfil. These were the latest in a growing list subscribing to Efficax's—Severus and Harry's potions firm—Anima Nostrum. Anima Nostrum was a reinforcing tonic useful in treating the aches, pains and magical fade suffered by elderly wizards and witches. However, Severus had created it with just one purpose in mind: to bolster Harry's ever-decreasing physical ties to life.
It was not as though Harry were ill, far from it. But the insubstantiality Severus had seen in Harry, through his post-existence eyes, had increased. Countless times over the last six years he had tried to persuade Harry into seeing Poppy, but the stubborn twit had refused, saying he felt fine. Hard to argue with that when physically he was as strong as the next man.
No, it was not quite physical, more like an almost imperceptible aura surrounded Harry, as though he were wrapped in a pale, watery gauze. Despite the lack of similar phenomena in other people, Severus was sure he wasn't imagining it. No, he definitely wasn't, even though no one else seemed able to see it. He suspected some could sense it, such as Ollivander, Lovegood and Minerva. But being able to develop that sense of difference, of peculiarity, into a definition, or even merely perceiving it, was too abstract a task.
He snorted. It was futile blaming others when even Severus only saw the aura in a certain light or when Harry was tired. His main basis for belief was more of the same feeling, the sense of wrongness the others felt. Only, along with these things he could add the fragility of Harry's ability to interact with the outside world and the way dust motes swirled around his tranquil body.
So, working from the unaccountable yet absolute certainty that Harry was somehow not fully alive anymore, he had devoured Grimmauld's library in search of an explanation. After a frustrating and fruitless two-year search for answers, Severus had closed the last book and allowed instinct to guide him. Now, after Harry being a year on the tonic, the intangibility had slowed.
"Severus, you're staring again."
Severus jumped, startled. He had noticed neither that Harry had woken nor that he was no longer looking at the garden.
"I was merely waiting to hear whether there was a tune behind the odd noises you were making," he said.
"I see… " Harry yawned and then stretched, cat-like. "Morning."
Unable to resist, Severus stood and walked languidly over to the bed; the body laid out before him was a warm, breathing repast for the eyes, too luscious to deny.
Harry was watching him and with each step Severus took, his eyes darkened until they showed the colour of the deepest lagoon.
For perhaps the thousandth time Severus wished he had the courage to reach out and take what he wanted. Instead, he sat on the edge of the bed and concealed his increasing desperation for more. More touches without immediate gain, more kisses without being broken in release, more Harry without the frantic play of hands. That was how it was between them.
Outside of Personal Time they rarely touched each other. Inside it, always they adhered to the set parameters of a hasty bed-time meeting of hands on skin in the convergence of mutual release. It was sex—certainly nothing more and sometimes less.
What he really wanted was to treat his senses with slow caresses and soft kisses sprinkled amongst the usual fare of demanding and eager hands. He wanted to use his mouth, touch everywhere that was Harry. And, yes, he also wanted to claim him. But even if he knew how to ask for these things, he was not the type of person to do so.
At least, he hadn't been when alive.
Shaking his head slightly, Severus thought about all the times he had wanted and yet held back. Put his wants aside either through uncertainty, low self-esteem, or the journey to forgiveness. How many desires had he swallowed only to have them fester into resentment, envy, or hatred. His mother; Lily; the Marauders; Lucius… . The list spanned his life.
But, he was dead now. Was the slate wiped clean?
He peered into Harry's eyes, held them as they held his, and searched them for permission. While not there, there was nothing forbidding him.
Cautiously, watching for the rejection, he laid a hand on Harry's bare stomach just above the crisp white cotton sheet. Harry didn't move, but his eyes fluttered and so Severus spread his fingers and stroked.
A hiss and Harry arched into the touch.
Hand trembling, Severus let out a long breath, and then braved a longer caress, letting his fingers glide over firm muscles and jutting bones.
Another hiss and Harry's eyes closed.
Shifting on the bed, Severus used his other hand to mirror the first. Suppressing the urge to exclaim at his welcome of this liberty, he ran both hands from waist to chest and back down to stomach. More urgent now, he seared his touch into Harry's body, his heart racing as his fingers sketched out each twitch and arch of Harry's body.
For fear that Harry would decide to stop him, Severus hurriedly threw the sheet to the bottom of the bed and returned both hands to Harry's chest with barely a pause in his stroking of the slender waist. Severus' cock hardened, heat rushing into his stomach and thighs, as he noticed Harry's sleep pants were tented.
Throughout, Harry had remained still; the spasmodic movements of muscles the only indication he was aware of Severus' touch. With the sheet fully removed, though, Severus could see the proof of Harry's arousal. Some of his tension, the fear of being pushed away, was released and Severus sighed with pleasure.
Harry's eyes were almost closed now, just a thin sliver of green behind a screen of lashes. Uneven breaths made a whistle as air was drawn in and puffed out past teeth chewing on his lower lip. The lashes fluttered open when Severus' hands stilled. Hesitantly, Harry reached out, covered one of Severus' hands with his own, and pushed it down towards his waistband.
At the gesture, Severus' cock twitched beneath his night robe. Almost heady with need, he nodded slowly. Harry smiled and then raised his hips to allow Severus to lift the pants carefully over Harry's semi-hard cock and down his legs.
Beautiful, Severus thought.
Severus slid his hands up the inside of thighs and into the dips below the hip bones. Using one hand to cup the heavy balls, he curled the other around the thickness of Harry's cock.
"No!" Harry gasped. "No hands. I want you inside me."
Severus closed his eyes and stored those words for an eternity of evocation.
The bed dipped and bounced. "I want you, Severus." Hands pulled at his nightshirt. "I need you! Only you."
Severus added them to his treasure.
With a growl, he ripped the shirt over his head and, at the same time, pushed Harry back onto the bed. Following him, he covered Harry's body with his and pressed soft kisses along throat and jaw, and then sank into the bliss that was Harry's lips. Greedily, he licked and nibbled and swept his tongue to taste, to savour, to consume Harry. He ground his hips and grunted when Harry writhed and rutted against him.
A jar of oil was thrust into Severus' hand and he quickly gathered enough energy to be able to grasp it. He lingered for a moment, biting and sucking throat and neck. Coating both fingers and cock at the same time, he reached down between Harry's widespread thighs and opened him. Desperate to touch as much of his body to Harry's as possible, he sucked and laved at perked, brown nipples; licked the line of heaving ribs and circled the dip of his navel.
Harry squirmed, uttering small hisses and huffs of breath as Severus worked his fingers into him. Then a tiny grunt when the fingers were removed.
Positioning himself between Harry's legs, Severus grasped one at the calf and lifted it high before leaning in and pushing his cock slowly into Harry's arse.
Severus stilled in the overwhelming heat and tightness, waiting until Harry lifted his bottom for more. Pushing further in, he kept his eyes on Harry's. Kept them there until there was no pain, only fire and longing. He couldn't look away, though. Riveted to those eyes, he rocked and then thrust. He pumped and ground his hips into the back of Harry's thighs to the sight of green eyes.
With no words and barely any noise, only pants as breath was forced out and gasped back in, they moved together.
Too soon he felt his climax coming; piercing fire licked his stomach and his balls tightened. Panting, he wrapped a hand around Harry's cock and pulled and twisted. Harry arched and hissed as he came, Severus following a second later, and they collapsed in a heap on the bed.
Severus rolled onto his side and looked into Harry's smiling face. He reached over and brushed sweaty strands of hair from Harry's face so he could see more clearly every twitch, every play of emotion there.
"I think..." Harry wheezed, "we should change that to... 'Together Time'."
Severus could not have agreed more.
~ STEP SEVEN ~
Severus circled the table Harry had secured for he and his friends, and then stopped behind the wizard hunched over the next table along. Hands clasped behind his back, he leaned over the man's shoulder and scanned the lead stories of the open Prophet, which happily was turned to its political section.
"Er, mate... you know I love you and all, but you're really nuts." Weasley mock-punched Harry on the arm before sitting down at the table. "You do know that, don't you?"
Severus sneered at Weasley's notion of love. Thinking hard, he tried to recall the last time Weasley had stepped foot in Grimmauld Place. He couldn't. His wife had, arriving with a basketful of Molly's homemade cakes, Arthur's lethal apple wine, and a tub-load of excuses why no blood-Weasley accompanied it this time.
Accepting the beer with a nod of thanks, Harry looked up at his friend. "Which part, exactly? That you love me or that I'm nuts?" he asked a bit too loudly, and tensed when he heard Severus' low, gravelly chuckle from behind.
Out of routine and necessity, they each checked the faces around the bar of the Leaky. Satisfied no reporter lurked within earshot, Severus saw Harry's shoulders relax.
"Both, mate," Weasley said. "I mean, what you did last week. Insulting the Head of Sports and Games in a speech? That has got to be some sign."
"What, you expected me to compose a panegyric for a man I met only once ten years ago?" he scoffed.
Hermione dropped her handbag onto the floor and sat down. Lifting her own drink, she cocked her head to one side and considered him.
"Is that your word of the week, Harry?" she asked.
Harry shrugged and drank heavily of the cool ale and Severus' mouth watered in lust for it. Or for Harry's mouth. Really, he would like either, although the combination would be heavenly.
"No, it was one from last month. This week it's 'plenary', which means complete," Harry said.
Severus couldn't help another snort of amusement and Harry aimed a glare over his shoulder. However, Severus had quickly dropped his eyes to the newspaper, so the glare missed its target. He heard Harry huff and smiled.
He gave it a moment or two before he let his attention return to Harry's table.
"So. What's been happening with you two?"
Severus watched as Harry's two best friends looked at each other speculatively. There followed a silent conversation, consisting of pursed lips, slight jerks of the head—towards Harry—and wiggling of eyebrows. Fascinated, Severus watched them until, with a sigh, Hermione turned her eyes back to their friend. It seemed Weasley had won the argument with that last twitch of his nose.
"We are more interested in you, Harry—more concerned."
Harry stiffened, as did Severus. He stood up and slid over to stand behind Harry's chair.
"What about me?"
Hermione sighed again at his defensive tone and held out a hand in a placating gesture. "We're not going to hound you for answers, Harry." She laid the hand on his and gently stroked the soft skin between his thumb and forefinger. "We do understand that the last few years you've wanted space and solitude. It's just that we think, perhaps, it's time you talked about what's going on in that wonderful head of yours.
"We love that you have a singular personality, that you find delight in the smallest thing and feel carefree." Her fingers curled underneath his and caressed his palm. "But some of the things you do are not exactly... conventional. We thought they would lessen after a while, but... well, we're becoming worried about you."
"And just why should I be conventional, Hermione? My life has never been conventional! Why start now? And whose business is it, anyway, how I choose to live my life?" Harry was visibly agitated.
Weasley leant forwards, his elbows on the table. "It's like this, mate. We love that you have these in-depth discussions and laugh a lot. But you have to realise that when the other party in the discussion is a wall and you laugh at fireplaces, it's pretty bloody crazy—Ow!"
While Weasley rubbed his bruised shin, Hermione again focussed her intense gaze on Harry. "Will you answer a few questions?"
Severus knew Harry would be planning something like mimicking a heart attack, or perhaps making a break for the door; anything rather than have to go through this torture once again. They had thought such persecution long past, in fact had just recently discussed the distinct lack of questions from the usual suspects. Harry, he knew, had thought himself safe.
Severus squeezed his shoulder to halt the rising panic he could feel there. Harry looked up at him, imploring him for help. Giving him what he needed, Severus dropped his habitual mask. Reflected back at him in Harry's glasses, Severus saw his normally impenetrable black eyes looking soft and reassuring, and a small smile playing on his lips.
"Just think hard before you speak, Harry," Severus said softly. "They are your friends and wish only the best for you." He lowered his head and pressed a sweet kiss to Harry's cheek.
Taking a deep breath, Harry turned back to his friends, who were back to conversing in tics.
Severus squeezed the shoulder again as Harry took a fortifying gulp of beer and then sat back, pulling his robes to overlap across his chest.
Severus carefully studied the moods of the couple sitting opposite them. He looked first at Hermione, with her patient and warm eyes, then at Weasley, whose eyes were open and trusting but with more than a hint of concern creasing his brow. He sighed. They loved Harry.
"Okay, fire away. However, I reserve the right to refuse to answer some questions," Harry said.
Relief seemed to launch Hermione into pouncing mode, but before Harry could take back his words, she closed her eyes briefly and reined herself in.
"Okay. Firstly, are these little foibles," she directed a pointed glance at Weasley, "because they are really you, or have you adopted them because you want to become more like someone else?"
Severus rubbed a thumb on Harry's shoulder. "Consider your answer carefully, Harry," he warned. "While they may feel they deserve your honesty, I assure you it is yours to give as you choose."
"I am me," Harry said, which earned another glance between the two opposite.
"Yes, but, Harry... Are these things you do because you want to be—want Harry to be, more like a certain someone?"
The shoulder underneath his hand tensed. Severus thought he knew where this was going, but how would Harry answer to avoid it? He moved his hand to stroke the back of Harry's neck.
"Is it so wrong to change oneself?" Harry asked her.
Hermione leaned in eagerly. "That's just it, Harry! 'Oneself.' You would never have used that word before. You wouldn't have used 'ought' or 'shall' or any other word like that. You speak in a cross between the Harry of before and, well... well someone more learned." She paused. "And this 'word of the week' thing. The words chosen don't seem to be random. It's as though you think… as though someone were teaching you; teaching you new words, expanding your vocabulary."
She sat back, holding his gaze. Severus frowned. Although her expression was set as a query, Severus knew her of old, and Harry even more so, and they both knew she was leading up to something. This was not just another attempt to get Harry to explain his life—his seemingly odd quirks. Taking in the resolution in both the friend's faces, Severus knew dissembling might not be enough this time. They knew something.
This was serious. And it could ruin everything.
What would be a good enough answer to satisfy them? That, yes, Harry had been under a programme of sorts? A self-imposed one? They had tried that the first time, and the second and the tenth, and right up until they'd dropped the questions altogether.
Harry shifted in his seat and Severus held himself ready to intervene.
Despite Harry's initial annoyance and periodic spates of rebellion, he had come to enjoy learning the new words Severus gave him. He had come to share Severus' appreciation, if not the passion, for the grammatical rules that arranged them into fluid, almost poetic, speech. Harry had learned the beauty of language and actively sought to broaden it outside of Severus' lessons by reading some of his non-potion-related books. Surprising them both, Harry had come most to enjoy the more archaic books; those they had sneaked out of Severus' dungeon rooms and Spinners End and which contained copious marginal notes in Severus' slanting script.
Ah! Yes, that would suffice.
"Harry!" he bent down to speak into Harry's ear. Although the other two would not have heard had he shouted, it would be less of a distraction for Harry. "Tell her about the books in the library—no need to say where they all came from. Just tell her the books you enjoy reading and about the previous owner's instructional notes."
Harry fixed on his blandest expression and nodded: both for Severus' benefit and Hermione's. "You're correct, I have been taught. You've seen Grimmauld Place's library, Hermione, but have you noticed that many of the books have notes in the margins?" He held up his hand, preventing her from speaking. "These books are mainly historical, old wizarding customs and rituals, or biographies. I learnt my lesson with the Half-Blood Prince's book."
Before he could stop himself, Harry looked up at Severus.
Severus was certain Hermione noticed, but other than narrowing her eyes, she didn't comment. He let out the breath he was holding and gave Harry a reassuring smile.
"Not exactly having a job," Harry continued and Severus sneered at the almost-lie, "I've had plenty of time on my hands and I used it to go through the books. I used them to consciously expand my vocabulary as well as to take in what's in them. It doesn't mean anything."
Hermione looked at Weasley, who unfortunately was busy eyeing up the waitress straining over one of the tables, wiggling her backside as she wiped. Having been brought back to attention with a judiciously aimed elbow, he sheepishly nodded his encouragement.
"Pull out a chair for me, please," Severus hissed while Hermione's attention was on her husband.
Harry, ever the bad actor, made an elaborate show of stretching out his legs to the side of the table, pushing the spare chair out enough so Severus could slide into it.
Severus rewarded the performance with a mocking "Bravo!" and then a stroke of Harry's cheek with a long, slender finger. This time Harry was successful in not reacting to the gesture, which was lucky as Hermione and Weasley both turned their attention back before Severus had fully felt the loss of contact.
"Okay, we can give you that you just woke up one day and decided on a course of self-improvement, but what about the other things? Your clothes, for instance." She pointedly eyed today's bottle-green robes, which even Severus admitted erred on the side of traditional. "Why the change from jeans to robes?"
Severus saw Harry had opened his mouth to blurt out an answer and laid a hand on his thigh in warning.
Harry affected a ponderous look and tilted his head away as though to consider his answer. Really, though, he was looking at Severus, wondering at the alarm, no doubt.
"Think, Harry," Severus leaned further into the centre of the table so Harry's eyes on him would be less obvious. "It was your choice, yes, but that choice was driven by wanting the freedom they afforded in the potions lab."
Severus saw the twit's cogs working and slight panic in the widening of the eyes.
"I don't think this is a rehash of past questions, rather that your friends have something specific to say," Severus said. "I suggest instead of defence, we advance. Demand she tell you why, after all these years, the renewed interest."
Harry tapped his finger to his right lens, meaning he understood.
"Tell me, Hermione," Harry demanded, "why, after all these years, the renewed interest?"
Severus rolled his eyes.
Hermione hesitated, her mouth hanging open slightly; Weasley studied the ceiling.
"Okay, Harry," Hermione said. "I admit we need to speak to you about something."
Although Severus didn't know what she hoped to find there, she glanced at her husband. After all the time she had known him, one would think she would have waved the white flag and begun to act accordingly.
On cue, Weasley decided a contribution was in order.
"Harry," he said, leaning over the table. "The other week we were doing one of our routine apothecary checks, where we get a list of a firm's bulk-buy customers and check for illicit brewing. And something came up. One of the guys in the team was saying he couldn't follow a customer's trail, name of Efficax, because it ended being bounced off strong wards. He passed it on to me, to see if anyone else could do it. Lucky, that." Weasley narrowed his eyes at Harry. "Cos there were no wards, just a very strong Fidelius. Which I strolled through."
One of Harry's more puerile phrases came to mind and, for want of an immediate alternative...
"Fuck-a-doodle-doo!" Severus said in his velvety smooth, Home Counties voice.
…he opened his mouth before he could complete a fuller inventory.
"Ronald!" Hermione snapped out. Reaching over the table, she picked up Harry's hands and held them, soothing them. "It's all right, Harry. Ron reported back he'd found the customer and everything was above-board." When she saw Harry's panic increase, she hastened to add, "He didn't mention Grimmauld Place, just the Owl Box number. But I think we deserve an explanation."
"Bloody right we do!" Weasley muttered.
Ignoring him, Hermione carried on. "At first I couldn't believe Efficax was you, not with your history with potions. I knew you'd been making up everyday things for yourself, but on this scale?"
She waited a moment for Harry to deny everything or confess. When all he gave her was an ambiguous "Go on", she smiled softly.
Severus rubbed Harry's thigh.
"Then I thought about the products Efficax makes—you make—the sheer brilliance of them, and that brought to mind when you used to say Snape's ghost was with you. And now, especially with what you've just told us, it's all making sense. Everything makes sense now, Harry."
Severus would have jumped up for joy and danced a tango if it were not for the look of abject pity in Hermione's expression, and the lowered eyes and suffused red in Weasley's face.
Harry's hand stroked the one Severus still had on his thigh, and he realised he'd been squeezing it painfully hard. Easing his grip, he faced Harry.
"Do not be too ready to rejoice, Harry," he cautioned. "Let her play out her hand a bit more."
However, the look on Harry's face, the relief and sheer elation at the prospect of an end to seven years of repudiation, told Severus his words had little impact.
It therefore pained him to see that wonderful, exquisite face first twitch in doubt, and then crumple into hurt with her next words.
"Remember back in sixth year, when you told us you thought of the Half-Blood Prince as a friend? And that you had learned so much from him? Remember how you were almost obsessive about that book of his—of Snape's?" She took a deep breath. "Harry, this belief you have of Snape being with you all the time is the same thing. You watched him, your friend the Half-Blood Prince, die, and your mind conjured him for you. You dress like him, pick books to read with notes in them, and you sometimes even speak like him. Like Snape."
"No. No, that's not it," Harry said quietly, shaking his head. Absently, he tried to pull his hands free, but she held them tight.
"It is, Harry. You need help." She brought one of his hands up to her lips and kissed it. "I've not mentioned any names yet, but I have spoken to a mind healer at St. Mungo's and we have agreed you need treatment—you need to be admitted."
"Please," Harry begged her in a whisper. "Please, don't do this to me."
"I am so, so sorry, Harry," she said. And she meant it.
Severus' chest clenched in fear. Real fear; fear he hadn't felt in years. They couldn't do this to Harry. It was unthinkable, and it was all his fault. Breath coming in pants, he tried to steady his whirling mind for something, anything to stop this. What she was thinking was unimaginable; it would devastate Harry, completely and utterly crush him.
That could not be allowed to happen.
Closing his eyes, he once again absorbed the physical around him. He used the clunking of pewter tankards on wood, the smell of pipe-smoke, and the hardness of the wood of his chair. Most of all, though, Severus concentrated on the warmth under his hand, the twitch of a nervous muscle, and the familiar contours on a much-loved body.
Feeling the energy he needed hum and eddy inside him, he drew it into his hands and opened his eyes.
"For my sake, Hermione, don't do this," Harry was saying.
Fixing his focus on Hermione's left hand, still clasping one of Harry's, Severus reached out and covered it with his own.
"Harry, if I could think of any other option, I promise you I would have..." She broke off to stare, open-mouthed at her hand.
Severus stroked her fingers, trailed across knuckles and along veins, and then he curled his hand to enfold hers.
"Oh!" she breathed.
Willing the energy to sustain his needs, he released her hand with a light pat and trailed his forefinger along her arm and across her shoulder. Wide, brown eyes followed its path.
When his fingers brushed her jaw and then moved to cup her cheek, her eyes fluttered and she leant into the unseen touch. A tear fell, deflected by his hand to run into the corner of her mouth.
"Oh! Harry!" she said, the tears flowing freely now. "Forgive me... Please, forgive me."
The flow of energy was strong, stronger than any other time, but fading quickly. Beginning to feel drained and wraith-like, Severus let his hand fall from her face. He breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully it would be enough.
"Hermione?" Weasley asked, patently at a loss.
"You believe me now?" Harry asked, with obvious unease.
"Yes, I believe you," she said with awe. And then she smiled. "Hallo, Professor."
"Hermione!" Weasley exclaimed.
Harry's face once again broke into a genuine smile.
"Give her my regards and my respect, Harry," Severus said.
Harry passed on the message and Hermione's face took on an eager light.
"Oh, Harry," she said. "Do you know what this means? What an opportunity this is? I felt him, Harry! Felt him!"
Harry stopped her with a stern look and squeeze of her hand.
"No. This stays here. Between us," he said, and Severus, watching Weasley's village idiot impression, wondered how long it would be before the twerp blurted it out to all and sundry.
"Yes. Yes of course," she agreed, stroking his hand in apology. Various emotions played across her face and Severus sensed she was recalling moments from the last seven years.
Finally, she asked him, "Is there anything I can do to help you?"
Harry shook his head. "No, Hermione." He looked at Severus, into his eyes. "I have everything I want; I love my life."
Severus smiled. "As do I, Harry."
Severus stood there and waited, watching Harry stumble uncertainly, his back towards him. He waited, arms crossed over his chest, the white-grey mist curling around his ankles while the twit figured it out.
It felt strange, after all these years, to be at such a distance from him, not to have the ten-foot cord between them.
Finally, instead of continuing in his normal haphazard yet unidirectional manner, Harry turned and saw Severus. Immediately the uncertainty, the fear and the grief were replaced by a beatific smile, and he rushed into Severus' arms; arms that enveloped and pulled them into a wonderful, familiar embrace. Arms that, like the rest of his body, now had the same watery, gauze-like aura he had seen on Harry these last years, and just like those forming a nimbus around the huddle of figures standing not too far away, waiting to welcome them.
Severus breathed in the smell of bergamot, rubbed a cheek against the soft silk of the raven hair, and clasped him tighter still.
They stayed like that for a moment, just being. Then Severus grabbed a hand and led them away through the mist, towards the huddle of familiar figures waiting for them.
"As I was saying, before the interruption," Severus chided, "dragon's blood requires careful handling lest it ignites."
Harry flashed him a beaming, unapologetic smile.