Title: Kinder, Kindler, Kindlier
Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.
Warnings: Threesome. Slightly AU from DH in that Snape survives. Profanity, sex, angst.
Summary: The third law of motion does not apply to relationships.
Author's Notes: This started life as a tiny one-shot, but didn't stay there. It will probably end up being posted in seven or eight parts, perhaps a bit more or a bit less.
Kinder, Kindler, Kindlier
"I don't know why I come here."
Severus could hear the mutter well enough, even from across the shop. Potter often seemed to believe that it was his ears and not his throat that Nagini's bite had injured.
Severus pressed his teeth together and continued sorting through the ingredients that needed to be arranged on the shelves. He had believed, before the war ended and his life changed, that it would be a simple thing to keep an apothecary's shop. He could organize the ingredients, the vials, and the cauldrons better than half the poor fools he had seen in the apothecary's shops of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
And then he had opened his own, and realized that his perfect vision had assumed one thing: that all customers were as neat as he was. Instead of tidy perfection, Severus found that wizards and witches entered his shop who seemed to have no concept of the words "privacy," "cleanliness," and "don't touch that." They picked up and fingered rare weeds and flowers, half-crushing them and rubbing off the texture or pollen that the potions which used them depended on. They dropped vials. (Severus would have thought that sharp glass shards, or the possibility of encountering same, was a deterrent to careless handling, but it seemed rather to be a challenge). They tried to bargain down the prices for rare scales, feathers, and eggs, or sneak out with them under their robes, and some of them assumed that his status as a former Death Eater should somehow entitle them to free use of his products.
Severus had learned to deal with them. He had his freedom and the ability to make a living, and that was more than he had dreamed of when he opened his eyes in St. Mungo's for the first time after the war. Compared to customers who knew what they were doing and did it anyway, with a spark of contempt in their eyes that dared him to stop them, Harry Potter was not even an annoyance.
Potter chanted several rapid words under his breath, and Severus felt the air of the shop flicker and change as the wards strengthened. "There," Potter said aloud. "You should be safe from attacks of any kind for the next month, including flung stones, Muggle bombs, fire spells, werewolf bites…" His voice was bored as he listed all the things his specially crafted defensive magic would hold up against. Severus had the impression that he had done this many times before.
He turned around so that he could see Potter more clearly. Potter stood beside the window in the front of the shop, scanning the street with an alertness that Severus knew was more habit than real belief that danger would come along. Three years of Auror training had created a mark on him, after all.
He didn't wear the scarlet robes of the Aurors. At the end of those three years, Potter had astonished most of the wizarding world by declaring that he didn't want to serve the Ministry after all and going his own way to set up a business that specialized in dense and efficient wards for hard-to-protect buildings. Rumor was that even the Ministry had turned to Potter's Protection Agency, though they denied the rumor hotly.
Potter wore Muggle jeans and a large, battered green jumper that Severus didn't wish to inquire into the origins of. He held his wand in one hand, his tongue in more situations than not, and boredom in the corners of his eyes.
Severus cleared his throat. Potter turned to face him. Despite the mutter Severus had heard from him earlier, his expression was smooth and neutral. "Yes?" he asked.
Severus looked at him again. Potter had spoken up for him at the Wizengamot trials. He had been behind—Severus believed, though he could never prove it—a donation of Galleons to Severus's Gringotts vault that allowed him to start up his shop. He regularly came in to renew the wards on the shop and charged much less than Severus knew his work was worth. Throughout everything, he never showed anything but passionless competence, as if he knew that Severus would despise a display of personal emotion. What he felt about Severus's return from death thanks to the antivenin floating in his veins, he had never disclosed.
Despite his past, Severus did not like to think himself an ungrateful man. And he had never thanked Potter.
He took a deep breath and said, "I—appreciate it."
Potter blinked at him. "Appreciate what?" There wasn't even a quickening of interest in his eyes. He seemed to assume that he had misunderstood.
Severus growled, disliking the fact that Potter would force him to speak the words straight out. But he managed to wrestle his tongue under control. If he spoke sharply now, then Potter would turn around and leave the shop, and probably never believe any attempt that Severus made in future to clear the debt between them.
"Thank you," he said. "For—standing up for me. For working for me at a price that I know is discounted." He pondered thanking Potter for the donation, but reminded himself again that he had no absolute proof of that, and Potter would probably resent being thanked since he'd chosen anonymity on his own. "For helping me," he finished, "though you have no reason to do so."
Potter's eyes widened, and continued widening, until Severus thought he was going to faint. He did put out one hand on the wall as though to catch himself, and lightly shook his head. "Why would you do that?" he asked, his voice distant. "You hate me."
"I do not hate you," Severus corrected carefully. It was something he had thought of before, when he wondered why he let Potter return to the shop the next month to renew the wards, instead of refusing or at least insisting on paying full price. (He would be stupid to give up Potter's services completely when he was the best in the business). "I have disliked you, yes. But you have fought for me and benefited me since the war. And you know some of the secrets I would not willingly have shared if I were not close to death, and yet you do not mock me for them." Severus felt his face burn. He had panicked when he thought that his memories of Lily might die with him; it would be like her suffering a second death. So he had called them forth from within his head and given them to Potter.
It had been a mistake, but he had not suffered for it. That was a kindness he had not expected.
Potter spent some time considering Severus's face with a methodical gaze, as if he assumed that this would turn out to be a trick or a trap any moment. Then he nodded. "All right," he said, and he was almost as blank as he had been before. "Thanks for letting me know. I'll see you next month."
He slipped out the door, leaving Severus to stare after him. He wondered why he should be so disappointed. Surely that was the best reaction Potter could have to the statements Severus had just made. An emotional one would have embarrassed them both; one of scorn or hatred would have made Severus regret speaking at all.
Then why did he feel as if he held out a hand to a wild bird and watched it fly away?
It's stupid to focus on something so small. Go to sleep.
And Harry should have. He should have shut his eyes and slipped immediately, blankly, into dreamland. It wasn't hard. He had a lot of practice at being blank during the day when he was casting the same wards over and over again, or listening to the high-flown dreams of people who wanted something they could never afford, before he knocked them back down to what was practical again.
But instead, he lay there with his eyes shut but his mind racing and dancing and, God help him, practically sparkling over Snape's words.
Harry hadn't done what he'd done for Snape because he expected thanks. He'd done it because he'd been wrong, horribly wrong, and this was the only way he knew to make up for it. Snape wouldn't want gifts, or apologies, or deep heart-to-heart talks about his mum, which Harry might have tried if he'd thought there was any chance of it working; he still wanted to know so much. But instead, he'd handed over what he thought Snape would take, and he'd been right. Going to his shop every month was just a duty like so many others, like going to the Burrow for dinner once a week and checking all the post he got for poisons or Dark spells.
But now, Snape had spoken.
It was a tiny bit of kindness, but Harry didn't care. His life had faded into mindless, meaningless routine, with the only blessing the fact that at least no Dark Lord was trying to kill him. He had tried to date, and only ended up making idle conversation and perfunctory love with the women he took out. He had tried to get up some new adventure with his friends, but they were settled down into marriage and work, and didn't have time. So Harry had resigned himself to the state of the world and had expected things to continue like that until he was found dead of boredom someday.
If this had changed, though, what else might not change?
Harry saw his life as if through clear glass for the first time since he'd broken free of the Ministry, and despised himself. What the fuck was he doing? He could have reached out and swept away all the cobwebs and obstacles at any time, but he hadn't wanted to. It had seemed like too much effort. He wasn't depressed; he wasn't undergoing any trauma. He was just continuing.
Well, tomorrow, I'm going to stop.
"You ought to eat something."
Draco winced, but kept his face calm and still as he stared out the window. "I'm not hungry," he said.
"The ending of one love affair isn't the ending of the world, you know," his mother said in a slightly superior voice, as if she thought that Draco might not know that. Draco heard her shoving cups and plates around on the table behind him, where she was setting down another large tray of food he wouldn't eat. "Especially the ending of a love affair with someone who would be an utterly unsuitable candidate for marriage."
Draco set his teeth and said nothing. Yes, of course he couldn't have married Pansy, who was already married and who had just moved to France with her husband. But his parents' intense focus on marriage and grandchildren made Draco want to run away to France and show up on Pansy's doorstep just to spite them all.
"You ought to eat something," Narcissa said. "Then you ought to go out and fly on your broom. That would get some blood running through your veins again." And get me out from under your feet, Draco thought, silently supplying the words she would never say. "But remember to stay away from the front of the house."
"What's happening at the front of the house?" Draco asked listlessly. There was a small blue flower extending climbing tendrils around the edge of the window he looked out. He thought about clipping its vine so it would fall backwards and learn something about the hopelessness of hope, but it seemed like too much effort.
"Oh, Potter's there, putting up wards," his mother said, and pushed something aside on the table, probably a dish cover. Draco smelled a tantalizing scent of fruit and meat, but he kept his back stubbornly turned. "I know you don't like each other," his mother lightly chattered on, "so I thought I should lessen the chance that you'd meet."
The name called up old hatreds for Draco, but it had been so long since they had seen each other that they were dusty, faded things, like some of the tapestries in the back rooms of the Manor no longer used for guests. Draco tried to remember some of the things that Potter had done him to him in Hogwarts, and discovered that those had faded, too. He shook his head.
Definitely too long since he's been around to add some kind of variety to my life. I need to visit him and renew those memories.
Draco turned around and reached for the plate of food. No sense in falling over in the middle of a confrontation with Potter, who would be quick to pounce on such weakness.
"There you are," his mother said, and gave him a restrained smile before she headed out of the room. "I knew this couldn't last forever," Draco heard her murmur.
Draco smiled nastily to himself as he ate the delicately baked chicken and followed it with a fresh bowl of strawberries and whipped cream. Don't count on that, Mother. As soon as I've heard a few new insults from Potter's lips, I plan to return to feeling sorry for myself all I like. And you won't even be able to complain, because I'll have done a few things you wanted me to do.
"You're lucky that we don't require a better standard of dress in our servants, Potter."
Harry blinked and looked down. He was standing on a ladder to reach the higher windows that had to be warded; he had offered to come up the stairs, but the Malfoys had utterly refused to let him in the Manor. Harry once would have accepted that calmly. Since the change Snape had made in his life, he rolled his eyes and whispered sarcastic comments to himself.
And he wasn't about to tamely bear the insults from Draco Malfoy, who stood below the ladder, eying his tattered grey jumper with disdain.
"I wasn't aware that you gave your servants clothes at all," he called back. "So I'm almost certainly exhibiting better taste than they are."
Malfoy blinked, as though he hadn't thought it likely Harry would talk back and so had no retorts in place to deal with that. Harry turned back to the work he was doing and drew the line of a ward from one side of the window to another. Light followed the line. Harry focused on it and cast the spell that would endow the light with defensive properties.
The ward flashed as its purpose entered its "brain," and then grew as bright as a meteorite before fading into nothingness. Harry smiled. He enjoyed the way that wards seemed to learn what he required of them in a set of stages, rather than being cast all at once and finished. That was another thing he hadn't allowed himself to think about in a long time, he realized. He would think about the idea and then dismiss it, telling himself that the wards weren't alive and so couldn't learn.
"Did you knit that jumper yourself," Malfoy said, apparently deciding that now was as good a time as any to add more of his irrelevant words, "or did you steal it from a homeless Muggle?"
"That's a third-class insult, Malfoy." Harry squinted, and decided that the wards he'd already cast sheltered this window sufficiently. He waved his wand, and the ladder rose and shifted sideways, while Harry clung to it to ensure he didn't fall off. The next window had older glass than the first one, and Harry studied it with an expert eye. It would be a bit harder to protect. Wards set up certain vibrations in the objects that they were attached to, and were likely to shatter anything exceptionally fragile. Harry adjusted the mental list of spells he would have to use and began to cast.
"My insults are always first-class, Potter." Malfoy's voice had frozen. "And my spells, too."
A moment later, Harry felt the ladder tremble beneath him. He held onto it firmly with his left hand and looked down.
Malfoy was hurling hexes at the base of the ladder. Harry watched with a smile and waited for him to notice the truth.
Finally, Malfoy stopped casting, stared for a minute, and then cast a detection spell. When it finished and showed him its results—invisible to other eyes—his jaw dropped, and he looked up at Harry with a betrayed expression. "This ladder is warded," he said.
"Of course," Harry said. "I always do that, since the time I had an encounter with a Crup who wasn't fairly trained to accept strangers and thought the fastest way to bring me down was biting through a piece of wood." He shrugged and turned back to his work.
Malfoy didn't leave, to Harry's surprise. The Malfoy he remembered from school, or thought he remembered, would have sulked away. But he didn't speak for long moments, either. When he did, it was about something entirely different.
"Why did you come here and help us?"
Harry glanced down again. Malfoy stood a sufficient distance from the foot of the ladder that Harry thought he wasn't going to try tampering with it again. But he had his arms folded, and a bored expression on his face. Harry wondered if perhaps the question wasn't a distraction from some new tactic of getting to him, as he had thought, but a genuine one.
Because you pay me was the answer on his lips, but he stopped and thought. No, his real reasons were closer to the reasons he had for helping Snape. And he thought Malfoy deserved to know that.
"Because I didn't think many other people would," he answered, drawing the first line of the new ward around the window he was standing next to. "I know how badly the defenses were damaged here during the war. I thought you probably needed new ones." He could have said something about how they'd held out against contacting him much longer than he'd thought they would, but decided that was also something likely to cause an argument.
And, wonder of wonders, he wanted to talk to Malfoy more than he wanted to argue with him. Snape's kindness was a new thing. Harry would try extending that kindness to Malfoy and seeing what happened. It would at least be new.
"Won't your friends hate it that you helped us?" Malfoy sounded a bit hopeful now, perhaps because he was thinking of the Weasleys' reaction and assuming it would be painful for Harry.
"I don't think so," Harry said. "They're more mature than that. At least, I hope so," he added, thinking with a sigh of some of the things Ron had said about Malfoy in the last fortnight. Ron was still an Auror, and Harry didn't think he'd come into contact with the Malfoys since the trials that had set Narcissa and Draco free and put Lucius under house arrest, but he still ranted about them at times.
Malfoy laughed. "You hope. You should have chosen a different set of friends if you wanted to fulfill that hope."
Harry rolled his eyes. "As if you were much better," he said, and drew the second line. The wards sealed themselves in a circle, flashing red and gold. Harry waited until the last possible trace of light died away before he started drawing the third line. When he didn't, there were flaws or breaks in the wards themselves, and that could be deadly, given a place that was already vulnerable.
"I told you," Malfoy said, sounding injured, "I always had a better class of insult. And I never started the fights we got into."
Harry stared down at him. "Right," he drawled, and then found that one word seemed to have used up all his incredulity. He laughed instead. "You started at least half of them," he said. "Why were you so obsessed with following us around and finding out what we did, anyway? It's not as though we were planning to hurt you."
"Most of the time," Malfoy corrected. "I seem to remember a time when Crabbe and Goyle suddenly turned into you."
"We still weren't trying to hurt you." Harry set up the final ward and smiled as the glass in the window shook lightly, then settled back into place. That was a sign that it was well-protected. "We thought you were the Heir of Slytherin, actually, and we were trying to find out what you knew about the Chamber of Secrets."
Malfoy said nothing. Harry looked down to see why and found him staring up with an absurdly flattered look.
"You thought I was the Heir of Slytherin," Malfoy murmured. "Really? The Heir?" He was obviously trying out the title to see if it fit.
Harry raised his left hand from the ladder to clamp it over his lips, trying to look as if he was stifling a yawn. He suspected that laughing maniacally right now would destroy whatever chance he had to make peace with Malfoy.
Malfoy shook himself out of the trance at last and stared up accusingly. "Well, that time you meant to hurt me," he snapped. "If I was the Heir and you'd found out, you would have reported me to the Aurors and let them put me in Azkaban."
"Besides the fact that I don't think they put children in Azkaban," Harry said, clutching the ladder again as it floated across the front of the house towards the next window, "yes, of course we would have reported you if it had been you. You were Petrifying people and trying to kill them."
"It was in the service of—" Malfoy began, and then shut up.
Harry looked down again, and saw that Malfoy had turned the color of the kind of smelly cheese Hermione was always trying to make Ron eat, and was staring at his hands.
"Yeah," Harry said softly. "It's not so easy to speak up for Voldemort's ideals when Voldemort tortured you, huh?"
Malfoy lifted his eyes in what Harry supposed he could see as an appeal if he wanted to. And he could choose the way he wanted to answer it. He could turn back to his wards and go on with his work, as he would have done yesterday. Before Snape had shown him a bit of kindness and changed the world.
He cast the spell that let him slide swiftly down the ladder instead, and landed right beside Malfoy. Malfoy started away from him, and kept a careful eye on Harry's wand.
Sensible, Harry acknowledged. More sensible than what I'm going to do. He reached out and put a hand on Malfoy's shoulder. "It's all right," he said quietly. "We've both grown up since then, but we both lived through it. I saw visions of Voldemort when he wasn't careful. I saw you through my scar. I know that you didn't want to torture them, that you only did it because it was them or you."
Malfoy stared at him with his mouth wide open, the expression he'd had when Harry came to the Manor the summer after the war to return his wand. Then he whirled and ran away into the house.
Harry blinked after him, then shrugged. He reckoned that not all the reaching out he might do would be as successful as Snape's.
But I'll get better with practice, he thought as he floated back up to the ladder to his former position. Maybe it's time to start dating again.