Title: Phoenix at Rest
Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.
Warnings: Angst, AU, preslash.
Summary: Severus will go to the ends of the earth for his ingredients. But the top of a very high mountain is preferable, even if Harry Potter is living there.
Author's Notes: This is a one-shot written in response to a request by zilentdreamer for a Snarry fic with the following plot prompt: Snape will buy the best when it comes to his potions supplies. Now if only the only man made phoenix roost in the world wasn't owned and run by Harry Potter...
Phoenix at Rest
Severus stood at the bottom of the mountain, and looked up. His breath misted in front of him, and he sighed and tugged his cloak more closely around him before he began to climb. Clearly, his Apparition coordinates had been for the bottom of the path only, rather than the top.
His contact had claimed that no one he knew had the coordinates to the top of the peak. Severus doubted that. He had learned early in life that everything could be had for a price.
That didn't mean that he was always willing to pay the price. But he still preferred to know what it was, so that he could consider it and reject it at his leisure.
The path consisted of ancient stone steps; who had carved them, Severus could not tell from a cursory inspection. They lurched and wriggled up the side of the mountain, turning in a torturous course, and Severus perforce followed them. He ended up with his head bowed against the wind, listening to the song of the snow particles as they flew past him, counting the steps out of habit and to distract himself from the cold that penetrated all the Warming Charms that he could come up with.
Then, abruptly, he stepped from snow into fire, and as he gasped, a familiar voice burned his ears.
Severus snapped his head up, aware that he was gaping, unable to help it. The owner of the phoenix roost, the only one in the world created by the hands of humans rather than nature, was a recluse according to his contacts, someone who had never shown his face during the negotiations that had set up the terms by which Potions masters could come to him and request ingredients.
He wasn't showing his face now, standing there in a long white and heavily silver-trimmed cloak as he was. But Severus knew the voice.
"What is this, Potter?" he snarled. "Don't tell me that you've got yourself taken on as apprentice to a phoenix-breeder." He was soothing the ruffled waters of his mind at great speed, telling himself that surely his first conclusion couldn't be correct. Surely the fates wouldn't laugh at him to the extent of making Potter the owner. He was an apprentice, or a servant. Or someone who had a voice that merely sounded like his was.
For a moment, the figure stiffened. Then it seemed to melt and flow, and turned towards the perches again. "You're mistaken," said the voice Severus couldn't forget if he wanted to, not when he had heard it shouting twenty incantations in a row on the field of the final battle, chanting the linked spells that had put an end to the Dark Lord's Horcruxes. "Though I'm flattered, of course, that a war hero like you would mistake me for another war hero. Which kind of feathers have you come for, adult or juvenile?"
Severus was not to be denied or taunted. He took a step forwards, grabbed the trailing edge of the hood, and flung it off.
The figure stiffened again, and then turned to face him, as if to say that he still had the courage Severus had both admired and despised in him.
It was Harry Potter, yes; the lightning bolt scar, faded in the center of his forehead, and the wild green eyes and scraggly black hair proclaimed that. But the rest of his face was different, skin flushed and glowing with a bright, sharp red that made him look as if he had been through a very selective fire. The red ran over the ridge of his nose, surrounded his eyes, and tugged up the corners of his mouth. Severus stared.
"How did this happen?" he whispered.
"Voldemort cast that final spell that most people thought consumed me at first," Potter said, his voice calm and inflectionless, as if he had practiced this story many times. Every time he was in front of a mirror, for starters, Severus thought, still peering at Potter with a fascination that almost killed his dislike. "I didn't die, of course, but I did have to choose between casting the spell that would save my life but have some aftereffects, and doing nothing. I decided that I would rather make an ugly human being than a pretty corpse." He nodded to the perches beyond him. "And now?"
Severus turned away from the mask of Potter's face to study the roost. It was as he had been told: ranks of perches, cages, nests in large boxes stuffed with leaves and grass that bore the glints of fireproof enchantments, large pens that were walled with wire but open to the sky to protect the immature birds from ground-walking enemies, and a frozen pond that served as a kind of landing area. Even as Severus watched, a large phoenix, feathers drooping in a way that indicated it was nearing the age of death, coasted down and landed on the pond, skidding its way across, claws carving grooves in the ice. Potter crooned to it and knelt, holding out one arm so that the phoenix could climb up on it.
He seemed entirely undeterred when it caught fire. Severus took a step back despite himself, and studied Potter's hands for signs of the same fireproof enchantments that surrounded the nests. He didn't see them. "How do you do that?" he asked.
Potter grinned at him over his shoulder, or at least his lips made a movement that could have been considered a grin if one had less exacting standards than Severus. "The spell that I performed had some advantages," he said, and lifted the small pile of ashes in his arms, placing the resulting remains in one of the nests. Severus leaned forwards to observe the process-it was not one he had studied in any detail with Fawkes-but Potter turned and put his body as barrier between him and the nest. "Now, what did you want?"
Severus hesitated, and then told himself that curiosity had its places, and this was not one of them.
"Feathers from an adult female who has just laid eggs and is still in the broody phase of her cycle," he said.
Potter nodded. He didn't state the obvious, that Severus would have found those feathers the hardest to acquire of any he was looking for, and simply turned and threaded his way through the perches. When he paused by one of them, a magnificent golden phoenix peered down her beak at him and gave a single chirrup like a cough.
Potter imitated the sound, nearly shocking Severus into stepping off the mountain. Then he reached out and drew a feather from her tail. She turned her head away and settled her wings with a single shake. Potter looked at Severus and lifted his eyebrows, holding up one finger before changing to two.
Severus held up three in return. Potter drew out two more feathers, so smoothly that they didn't look plucked at all. The phoenix hunched in on herself a bit, but made no motion. Potter came back to him with the feathers and handed them over.
Severus nodded. "How many Galleons do I owe you?"
"I take payment in trade," Potter said. "Owl me three bottles of Firewhisky, and we'll call it even."
Severus narrowed his eyes. "That is a ridiculously small price for what you have given me. I would prefer not to leave a debt behind."
Potter shrugged. "The bother that it saves me isn't small."
Perhaps not, Severus conceded, when one lived atop a mountain and far from any wizarding village civilized enough to serve Firewhisky. "Very well. Expect the owl to arrive within a day."
Potter nodded, and then tugged up the cloak and turned away. When Severus glanced back at him, he saw Potter already bent over the eggs in a nest, apparently counting them, while a pair of phoenixes fluttered over him, uttering low, fluting tones.
Severus turned to Apparate home. He made sure that the feathers were tucked close to his skin and assembled the list of ingredients he needed in his own head. Next, he would travel to the Forbidden Forest to look for willingly surrendered unicorn blood.
There was a price for everything.
"Back again, Snape?"
Potter's voice had no inflection, which made Severus wonder which emotion he might have worked to strip out. He watched Potter turning eggs in silence. He would not list the ingredients he needed until Potter was looking at him, because otherwise the insufferable boy would take every chance he could to twist his words around and misunderstand what he wanted.
Potter stood back up, shaking his hair behind his shoulders and closing his eyes as if communing with himself. He didn't bother wearing the cloak this time, Severus noted as he approached. The red flush of his skin had deepened, and Severus could see auburn tinges in the dark hair.
It reminded him so strongly of Lily that he could not help the sharpness with which he spoke. "What do you hope to prove by isolating yourself up here?"
Potter blinked, his eyes flaring open. "Sorry?" he asked, gaze still distant, like someone who had heard but wasn't really interested in getting one to repeat the question. "I hope you've come for claws or feathers instead of eggs. There aren't many at this season anyway, and a wind-wolf took two of them last night."
Severus might not find anything to fault in the boy's attitude beyond the melodrama of living alone on a mountaintop with phoenixes around him and a general lack of attention to Severus-fewer problems than he had been accustomed to find in that attitude during Hogwarts-but that did not mean he would let Potter get away with babbling nonsense. "Wind-wolves are a legend, Potter."
"Yes," Potter said. "Like me." He turned away before Severus could express what he thought of this. Perhaps a good thing, Severus thought. He would have needed some time to make Potter understand what he meant without spitting, and that would have reduced his dignity.
"There are plenty of people who remember you," Severus said, following him to a section of the roost where adult phoenixes slept on snowy perches with their heads under their wings. Potter cast a spell that created a series of miniature suns hovering in front of the perches, and the snow began to turn to slush. "There is no one who has ever seen a wind-wolf."
"Except me," Potter said. "Now, did you come for claws or feathers? Or eggs?"
Severus sniffed and told himself not to bother with further clarification. The boy had gone mad up here, he thought, isolating himself to prove something in his masochistic Potter way, but as long as he could still tell one part of a phoenix from another, Severus did not think he need be overly worried. "Two claws," he said. "They must be from the left foot of a male phoenix hatched at least ten years ago."
"Does it matter if it was more than two hundred years ago?" Potter turned to glance at him again, and Severus saw odd, scintillating red flecks in his eyes. He made a mental note to check them out. They resembled the effect he was trying to create with his current potion, although that effect would take place in water only.
"No," Severus answered, grudgingly impressed that Potter had thought to ask such a question. "But he must not be younger than ten."
"Then Ruth is the best one," Potter said, and whistled. The sound seemed to melt into the wind, but before Severus could open his lips to blast Potter for issuing a sound so weak that no bird alive would have responded to it, red wings flipped open on one of the far perches, and a large phoenix came soaring over to his shoulder. It flamed, but the flames cascaded harmlessly around Potter, making him look as if he were wrapped in a fiery cloud.
"You named a male phoenix a human female name?" Severus asked, because it was something he could say.
"It's not a female name," Potter said, and reached up to touch Ruth's left leg, whistling what sounded like a question. Ruth bobbed his head gravely and said something in the fluting warble that Fawkes had sometimes used right before letting Severus touch him. His bright eyes rested on Severus all the while that Potter reached into a pocket of his cloak, picked out a pair of clippers, and held them to the edge of the shining claws.
"Say when," Potter said.
After another moment, Severus realized that Potter was asking him how long he wanted the claws, and he nodded. "That will be fine."
Potter snipped, twice. The claws fell into his cupped hand, two of the most precious Potions ingredients in the world, and he held them out to Severus as if they were apple parings.
Severus closed his hand around them and cast a few spells immediately that would keep them warm and protected for the Apparition back to his home. He had never encountered evidence that Apparition had an averse effect on Potions ingredients, but phoenix claws were too rare to be much-studied.
"What do I owe you for this?" he asked, expecting Potter to ask for a regiment of potions at the very least.
"A Pensieve," Potter said. "Send me one." He turned away, Ruth riding his shoulder.
Severus watched him and remembered what else the word "ruth" could mean. He wondered how Potter could know it, and what he meant to express with that name. And why that particular phoenix?
And why a Pensieve?
But it did not pay to be too curious about the source of one's ingredients, Severus had found. He drew his cloak close around him and Apparated.
Severus Apparated to the mountain on the third occasion when he needed ingredients from one of Potter's phoenixes to find the boy walking out of a fire.
The fire blazed alone in the center of a circle of melted snow, so bright, so brilliant, so white, that Severus could not see the other nests, perches, and ponds he had noticed before. He fell back a step and brought up one hand to shield his eyes. Then he lowered it and forced himself to stare into the heart of the flames. The only audience here might be Potter, but that was an important audience.
The center of the fire became darker, and Potter stepped out from it, shaking his head once. The cascade of flames around his shoulders settled down, snapping into silence a few seconds later. Potter checked the cloak that he wore around his body, his only garment, and then nodded, presumably in approval of the fireproofing spells that Severus could feel from here.
"Are you quite done playing about?" Severus asked. "Or will you insist on turning and marching back into the fire a second time?"
Potter looked up at him. "I thought it might be you when I felt someone Apparate in," he said. "Do you need eggs this time? I have quite a good crop of them. Of claws and feathers, too, of course."
Severus saw no need to keep his words behind his lips. "Why do you give me such valuable ingredients for such low prices?"
Potter shrugged. "Price is set by the person asking for the item, and so is value." He turned around and led the way around the fire towards his phoenix roost. Snapping his teeth in irritation, Severus followed.
He watched Potter as he walked, for the lack of anything better to do. The boy had been jerky, from what he remembered in his school days, constantly moving as though someone had stuck a stick up his arse and was manipulating his limbs from the inside. That was one of the things that most attracted Severus's attention and therefore his disapproval. Potter had heard of the word "elegance," but he had then killed it and flushed it down the loo.
What Severus saw now was the grace of someone who had settled into his body. Unnaturally flushed skin and odd resistance to fire or not, Potter walked with light, skimming steps. When he knelt down to pull back a wisp of straw and reveal a clutch of gold-banded crimson eggs, he made it look like the only way that someone should perform the gesture.
Severus put the information away in the back of his mind and fixed his thoughts on prices and agreements as Potter turned around to look at him. "What did you say you wanted?" Potter asked. "I was thinking eggs because you hadn't contradicted me when I said that, but that was rude of me."
And he smiled. The smile was full of phoenix fire.
Severus felt the cold image of Potter in his mind trying to melt. He fixed it once more in ice and nodded. "Two eggs," he said. "Infertile ones. If you have any," he added, looking around and trying to convey his disdain for the feathered abundance that Potter seemed to both breed and encourage.
"Most of the eggs laid are infertile," Potter corrected him absently. "Phoenixes have to mate and lay at a certain point in their birth-and-death cycles, or the eggs never hatch. And an immortal lifetime means that the right point doesn't come around often."
A distant expression took over his face at that; he tucked his hands into his robe pockets and turned away as if forgetting Severus was there. A phoenix who seemed to be female from the length of her tail feathers swooped over him, crooning a golden note that Potter replied to with a faint whistle. Severus took a step forwards, intending to remind him who the paying customer was here, but then saw that Potter was heading for a nest, after all. He held his tongue and followed.
Potter rolled the eggs between his fingers, touching and tapping the shells in the way that Severus had once seen his mother do to make sure that eggs had boiled. "Do you need them of a particular size?" he asked over his shoulder. "A particular age or hardness?"
Severus cleared his throat. He was unused to being asked these questions, he thought. Everyone else he dealt with was so different from Potter, either obsequiously eager to please a Potions master or loftily above him and requiring him to scrape and beg, because he needed what they had to sell far more than they needed his custom. He had no idea what emotional tone would be appropriate, and so fell back on none and the facts he had looked up from the old books he was studying. "Two large eggs," he said. "Larger than the extended flower of a lily. And preferably young, and gold in color."
"Not in this nest, then," Potter concluded, and stood and led him once more across the snow. Severus cast another Warming Charm-the flashes of heat as he drew near the birds were not enough to keep his hands from freezing in the snow and the bitter wind-and then followed.
Potter again moved with that calm competence and grace that Severus had noted, locating one nest out of a row of them that Severus would have had to examine carefully before he could determine their contents. And, he realized, he would have no method even then of determining the age of the eggs. His book never had mentioned how to do that. Severus frowned and shifted closer.
Potter gave no visible sign, however, other than splaying his fingers over the eggs and sighing deeply. The phoenix circling above his head settled on the nearest perch and bent her long, graceful neck down, tilting her head to one side so that she could look directly at Potter. He looked up, met her regard, and seemed to exchange some silent communion with her before he nodded and stood, eggs balanced in the center of his palm.
"Here they are," he said. "They have a tendency to change if placed too near a fire, so keep them away."
Severus accepted them, wordless for a moment, and then decided that displaying his odd reaction in front of Potter shamed at least him, if not them both. He cast a Containing Spell on the eggs that he had devised himself, one that would surround them both with a thick wooden box, bound in brass and capped with lead. When he had tucked the box into his cloak, he had recovered, and even felt a faint shimmer of curiosity as he asked, "And what price will you ask this time?"
"There's a book that shouldn't be hard to find in the Muggle world," Potter said. "By an author named Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Send me a copy that's relatively undamaged; God knows it'll have enough trouble resisting the snow and fire up here."
Severus paused. He had at least imagined what the Firewhisky and Pensieve might be for, but he could not imagine what need of Potter's this book would fulfill. "Why do you want it?"
Potter shrugged with a shoulder and an eyebrow at once. "Does it matter? I do."
"Of course it matters," Severus said, but managed to hold down his voice below boiling level. "It is a matter of some trouble and inconvenience to myself to venture into the Muggle world, while the rest of what you wanted were ordinary wizarding items."
Potter's face might have brightened a shade with his flush. "I'm sorry," he said. "I forgot. I live so far from both wizarding and Muggle worlds. The book...I want to read it. A friend told me that it might help me to think about the war in a different way."
"How should you think about the war in a different way?" Severus asked, with a faint sneer that he was disappointed he couldn't better. But Potter's answer was not at all the one he had expected, and he had to admit some disconcertment at that. "You won. That is the only thing that matters."
"Oh, no," Potter said, and seemed oblivious to the interest that this answer had sparked in Severus. "If you can't bring the book to me, then I'll ask for another bottle of Firewhisky instead. I think I'm almost there."
"I never said that I could not bring the book," Severus said. He disliked this new Potter, he told himself, who could turn aside curiosity and questions with a touch and who acted as if nothing was less important to him than the good opinion of a man without whom he would not have won the war and whom he had never properly apologized to. Severus did not count an owl as a proper apology, even if the letter had been seven pages long. "I said that I wanted to know why."
Potter nodded. "Now you do." The phoenix called Ruth, or one like it, alighted on his shoulder then, and Potter listened to its whistling and clucking with a faint frown before he nodded again. "Very well, I'll come." He gave Severus a half-tilt of his head and walked away through the snow, appearing to converse with Ruth using various warbles and chirrups.
There was no reason for Severus to feel ignored, or to Apparate with unnecessary force. But he did.
For his own reasons, he made sure that the copy of The Art of War that he found to send to Potter was spotless, and already covered with enchantments to guard against fire. For this, he received a letter delivered by a phoenix, a sheet of parchment dedicated to a single scrawled word, Thanks, and Potter's initials.
Not even courtesy enough for a salutation, Severus thought, crumpling the parchment in his hand and throwing it against the wall.
Brewing two potions that afternoon, including the one that he had needed the phoenix eggs for, scarcely soothed him.
The snow hit Severus in the face with a blast that he had to steady himself against. He looked around with a frown, wondering for a moment if he had Apparated to the wrong place, though such distrust in his own coordinates with not like him. But neither was it like him to have Apparated into the middle of a snowstorm when he had meant to see the perches and the cages of Potter's phoenix roost.
The shout was distant, and as Severus drew breath to answer-breath that prickled in his lungs and nearly froze them from the inside-the snow fell to the ground, the wind stilled, and the clouds that Severus could see pressing close at the edges of his eyes vanished. He found himself in the middle of what looked to be a completely undisturbed circle of drifts, with the usual accoutrements around him.
Potter stood in front of him, Ruth or a similar phoenix on his shoulder, his eyes watching Severus with fewer shadows and more flame than normal. As Severus watched, however, they dropped and the shadows seemed to gather again. Potter wore only tattered robes, proofed against fire and snow. As Severus watched, his chest rose and fell in a long, weary sigh.
"This time?" Potter asked. "You've already used feathers, eggs, and claws. I wondered if you would come for something else."
"A beak," Severus answered, tearing his eyes away from Potter's chest and refastening them on his face. That was better; so unnatural was the flushed red color of Potter's cheeks that it reminded Severus of what places they both held and what he was here for, forcing him to think of the present and not the past. "I know that phoenixes shed flakes from them. I want the whole beak."
Potter went still for a moment. Then he said, "You're mistaken if you think that a dead phoenix leaves a beak behind. They burn to ashes and don't come back when they're ready to go-I've seen that once-or they ascend into the sky and the sun and continue to sing until you can't hear them anymore. I've seen that twice."
Severus shook his head. "A beak from a living one would do just as well."
"What makes you think I would sell that to you?" Potter asked in honest bewilderment.
Severus leaned back on his heels and waited. Potter continued to look at him, however, and to say nothing, and at last Severus resigned himself to being the brat's professor once more. "Because you run a phoenix roost," he said. "You sell the parts of phoenixes to the people who need them to brew potions. I assume that you would not do such a thing if you had ethical objections."
Potter shook his head. "They don't mind giving up infertile eggs, or feathers or parts of claws that they can regrow. But I promised them that I would never kill one of them as long as I maintained the roost, and I won't."
Severus frowned as he considered Potter. Granted, phoenixes were not ordinary magical creatures, in the same way that unicorns were not; Severus would never dream of taking unwillingly offered unicorn blood because of the curse that accompanied it. But Potter spoke as though phoenixes were on the level of wizards. "You believe that they can understand what you say? React to it."
"I know bloody well they can." Potter's eyes were so bright they were painful to look at. "And besides, if I did kill one of them, the rest would leave me behind. I can give you flakes from the beak of a living phoenix. Not the whole thing."
"My potions would progress faster with a whole beak," Severus said.
"You think that matters to me?"
Not the fiery defiance Severus had been half-expecting, and half, as he realized now, craving. Just a steady, flat incredulity, as though Potter couldn't understand why Severus had bothered to offer that information. Severus inclined his head in a bow from one master duelist to another, and said, "Flakes will be acceptable. What price will you demand for them?"
"Not demand," Potter murmured, turning away so that he faced a perch and holding out his arm. A large phoenix with more orange in its feathers than most others Severus had seen flew over and alighted on his arm immediately. Severus had to admit that such trust was unusual, and might account for why Potter was the only human so far to establish a phoenix roost. Might. "Ask."
Severus paused and then told himself to remember that distinction and the way that it was evidently important to Potter. "Very well. What price will you ask?"
"A block of marble, and two chisels," Potter said.
Severus shook his head. "You will need more than that, if you intend to create sculpture that you might sell."
"More marble, or more tools?" Potter asked, twisting his head back and staring at Severus as if seriously considering his words. On his arm, the orange phoenix was scraping his talons up and down his beak, sorting out flakes that drifted into a pile on Potter's skin like strange dandruff.
"Both," Severus said. He felt unreal, standing and talking to Potter like this. Strange. Since the war, he had not had much need to judge his own unreality.
"Just as well that I don't intend to sell it, then," Potter said.
Severus saw no point in asking more questions. They would be to gratify his own curiosity, and his curiosity should not have a root in Potter's life. Things would be much easier if he were not interested in Potter at all, as a matter of fact. He held out his hand, and Potter carefully sifted the phoenix beak flakes into his cupped palm, diving after the small pieces that fell into the snow.
Severus stared at him as he straightened back up, holding out a finger to which a stubborn piece clung and swatting at it. It was almost easy to get used to the red color of Potter's face, at least when one had learned to expect it. (Severus thought it must be easier for him than others; he had never expected Potter to look like a normal, or exceptionally handsome, human being). This close, Severus could see that his scar had faded to a brown color, like that of old blood, and that his lips pursed as he counted the flakes. When he stepped away again, nodding, his green eyes made an impact on Severus like a blow.
"A block of marble and two chisels, remember," he said.
"I will," Severus said, already counting the cost in his head of having a winged horse and rider deliver the materials. He knew the block of marble would be too heavy to send by owl post.
Potter turned away and said something to the two phoenixes on his shoulders that made them utter a high-pitched sound like children's laughter. They both flew away, and Potter crouched down next to a nest in the snow, turning over the eggs buried in the straw and counting them.
Severus waited several minutes before he Apparated, but Potter never showed any self-consciousness or other sign of realizing he was still there.
The first thing Severus saw the next time he Apparated in was blood on the snow. He backed up at once and cast a protective charm, heart seizing. If the phoenixes had attacked Potter, he must be prepared for an attack on himself.
"Snape? What are you doing?"
The honest perplexity in Potter's voice made Severus look up. Potter cradled his left arm, holding a cloth against what looked like a long, deep wound. A beak or claw could not have made it, Severus thought, unless Potter had stood still to let it happen. Blood had soaked the cloth and dripped steadily down around Potter's feet. Potter didn't seem to notice.
"What happened to you?" Severus said, emotions he wouldn't name letting go of his tongue with a sharp snap.
"Oh?" Potter looked down as if noticing the blood for the first time. "Oh," he repeated, with more definitiveness in his voice. "The chisel slipped."
Severus shook his head, so exasperated he could barely speak, and not truly understanding his own exasperation. He Summoned the useless cloth that Potter was holding against the wound, spelled it clean, and spelled it to stick to the wound in a way that wouldn't result pulling off blood or a dried scab when removed, then tossed it back to Potter.
"Thanks," Potter said, cradling the cloth against the injury again and still looking bemused. "That is easier."
Severus clenched his teeth down, but his emotions spilled into midair in spite of himself. "Exactly what do you think you are doing?" he demanded. "Do you wish to kill yourself with a chisel and leave your body here on the snow, your roost unattended?" He paused, wondering if his words were truer than he knew and he had unwittingly given Potter the tools of his suicide.
"Of course not," Potter said, with a faint smile. "The blood is only temporary anyway. Look." He lowered the cloth and closed his eyes, seeming to concentrate, before Severus could order him to put it back on.
The blood leaking from the wound burst into fire. Severus controlled himself hastily on the verge of stepping back. Do that and he would give ammunition to Potter in any battle they might have from now on. He forced himself to stand and watch, instead, fingers locked tight in his sleeves.
Potter, eyes closed, guided the flame back and forth by invisible strings across the wound, cauterizing it. The flames remained that shockingly bright red color of the blood on the ground. Severus let his sleeves go when he realized the fire did not seem to be hurting Potter. Any time a spark fell on his skin, it simply melted away like a snowflake.
Finally Potter opened his eyes and shrugged. "You see? It's been like that since the spell I cast to defeat Voldemort. I have to let it bleed for a bit, because I change the blood itself into fire and I have to have enough to make a good job of the burning. But then it's fine." He nodded to Severus as though he had just shown off a rather clever trick and Severus should be as pleased as he was with himself.
"You could die here," Severus said, "and no one would know."
"The phoenixes would," Potter said dismissively. "And someone always comes, you know, although you're my most frequent visitor. Someone would ensure that my friends knew about what had happened and take care of my body. What did you come for?"
Severus resisted the temptation to snap that that didn't matter. Of course it mattered, and he saw no reason why he should pay Potter to ignore his business, when it had taken time and inconvenience for him to come here. He took a deep, slow breath, let it out, and then said, "I need scales from a phoenix's foot. You are the only one I know who might be able to provide them without killing the bird."
Potter cocked his head. "I didn't know you cared about that."
"Say that you have inspired me with your morals."
"I won't," Potter retorted, "since I know that's not true."
"Say, then," Severus said, beginning to wonder why he was standing here in the snow and conversing with someone he knew was mad, "that you have inspired me with your convenience."
Potter nodded. "I don't know how many other people would call a mountaintop roost that you can barely Apparate to convenient, but it is compared to wild phoenix roosts, I suppose." He turned away and held out his arm, releasing a long trill that made Severus look automatically about for the bird although he knew it was coming from human lips.
The phoenix who alighted on his wrist was the largest one Severus had seen yet, and watched Potter with bright, sardonic eyes even as it gripped Potter like a hawk. Potter gave out more burbles, which seemed to be the way he communicated with the birds, and the phoenix bowed its head and turned it sideways, applying the sharp edge of the beak carefully to the scales on its legs.
Severus watched hungrily as they fell. If he could make this potion well enough, it would allow bilocation, if only for a few moments, and then he could send his double to pick up the other ingredients he might need while he remained safely in his laboratory.
Potter collected the flakes in a shallow leather pouch that he had produced from nowhere, and "said" something to the phoenix that made it caw like a particularly melodious crow before it sprang upwards. Potter rattled the scales in the pouch about, considered them, and then turned around and held out the pouch to Severus.
"Is this enough for what you need to do?" he asked politely.
Severus made a show of examining them, although he already knew that there were more than enough. He was hard put to it to keep his hands from trembling with greed, in fact. He looked up at Potter and nodded solemnly, reaching into his own pocket for Galleons.
"I told you, you don't pay me with money," Potter said, giving Severus the look that he might have given a particularly stupid student. "This time, I'd like a copy of the Daily Prophet."
"You could have that delivered to you," Severus said, blinking.
"Not without someone knowing where I am," Potter said, and now his voice had gone patient. "I want to see how the world has changed since I've been gone, though, with a view to rejoining it someday."
"You would abandon your phoenix roost?" Severus felt a charge of energy in his gut that he knew came from the thought of Potter going elsewhere and Severus losing this particularly convenient source of ingredients, because it couldn't come from anywhere else.
"Oh, in time the phoenixes will be able to negotiate with humans for themselves," said Potter dismissively. "They still have some of the language to learn, and they'll need a fair medium of exchange, but they've always been able to read human hearts. I think they'll drive many excellent bargains."
Severus blinked, feeling a bit faint. "Potter, are you well?"
Potter sighed and touched his healed arm. "I told you, I'm not going to bleed to death as long as I can cauterize the wound."
"I meant well in the head," Severus said through gritted teeth. "You cannot teach phoenixes to run their own roost and drive their own bargains!"
Severus tried to find words, could not, and ended up falling back on a simple shake of his head. "Because you cannot. Other wizards would never accept magical creatures bargaining with them," he added, finding at last an objection that had the force of good sense, at least to his own ears.
"They accept centaurs bargaining with them for territory in the Forbidden Forest," Potter said. "They don't touch unicorns without permission. They made a bargain with the merfolk to participate in the Triwizard Tournament, and the goblins run the bank in ways that most wizards couldn't imitate. No one questions that. Oh, yes, there will be a few surprised people at first, and some of them might try to cheat the phoenixes, but eventually they'll accept it as normal, just as the accept the goblins taking care of their money as normal." He turned back to the nearest nest, studying it with a frown before he reached down with his unwounded hand to rearrange the straw.
Severus did not understand his own feelings, and, as usual when that happened, he did not intend to think about them long enough to do so. He snorted. "I will bring you a copy of the Daily Prophet," he said. "Much good may it do you."
"Oh, don't bring it," Potter said, without turning his head. "Just send it."
Severus vanished with a pop, unable to explain why he was offended, why he felt angry at the very thought of Potter leaving the phoenix roost, and why he had not constructed an adequate argument that would rebut Potter's ridiculous ideas.
"This should be your last visit, if I'm judging the progress of your potion and my own rehabilitation correctly."
Severus ground his teeth. Those had not been the first words he wanted to hear when he reappeared on the top of the phoenix roost. "My potion has not progressed as I hoped," he announced. "I obtained it from an ancient book, and it seems that cautionary notes or a list of necessary ingredients have been lost to time. It does not work."
Potter, who was holding up a slate on which numbers were written in front of the large phoenix Severus had seen before, turned to him with a blink. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "Well, I hope that you'll be able to deal with them when I go home. I think they'll give you good bargains. Ruth knows you, and he's taught the others to have something like tolerance for you."
Severus took a stiff step forwards. "You cannot do this-" And then he stopped, because he could come up with no adjective monumental enough to describe Potter's stupidity.
"Why not?" Potter gave him a glance that, while not amused, had enough of that emotion in it to make Severus want to throw something. "I had to come to terms with a lot of things, which is why I ended up running the roost in the first place, and doing it for this long. But it was never going to be permanent. I'm sure that you'll be able to deal with the phoenixes. I told you, I think you'll have an advantage over the other buyers because you've come here so often. Just don't do something stupid like trying to kill a living phoenix for its beak, and you'll get on fine." He turned back to the bird and tapped the slate towards the side, warbling what sounded like a question. The phoenix tilted its head to one side and, after long moments of a critical stare, voiced a sharp trill that made Potter blush, for some reason, and lower the slate.
"I should have remembered that he isn't good at addition," he murmured. "My own fault." He reached for his wand and spelled the slate clean.
"What problems did you have to overcome?" Severus asked, immovable. He wasn't about to let Potter get away with what sounded, in the end, like an excuse, both for leaving and for having spent as much time here as he did. "I am sure the wizarding world would have welcomed a hero who could bleed fire back with open arms."
"I'm sure they would, too," Potter said, destroying the anticipated tale of self-pity that Severus had built up in his mind, which was both disheartening and disconcerting. He had once understood Potter better than this, Severus thought. "But I wasn't able to accept myself. I had to think."
"Why?" Severus demanded.
Potter gave him a puzzled look and the phoenix a pointed one. "Why does it matter to you?" he asked softly. "My friends know the truth, and a few Healers who examined me and confirmed what I'd suspected about that spell I used, but you're not among those privileged few."
Severus could imagine a time in his life when he would have laughed in relief to hear that statement. That time was not now. "I want to know," he said.
Potter regarded him steadily, then shrugged. "What does it matter? You can always perform a Memory Charm on yourself later," he muttered. "The spell gave me some of the traits of a phoenix. The coloring, the change in my blood, the ability to communicate with me, and I suppose a personality that was acceptable to them, or they wouldn't have come to me when I tried to establish the roost."
"None of that sounds hard to come to terms with," Severus began, grateful that Potter had exaggerated the situation as usual.
"And immortality," Potter said. "That was the hitch."
Severus stopped, and looked at him.
Potter nodded, his face glowing with what looked like a reflection of distant fires. "Yes. I obtained the spell to kill Voldemort from Dumbledore's portrait." His voice contained no accusation, though perhaps it helped that he wasn't looking at Severus. "He'd adapted it from something he learned about Fawkes, and he thought it would enable me to survive because I had an innate goodness that Voldemort lacked." He sighed. "I think he was wrong about how good I was, but he had taught me another spell in case the first one went wrong. It did, or at least Voldemort's fire came for me and I didn't know how to fight it off. The second spell I cast gave me these phoenix-like characteristics. I survived, but not the way I had been."
"There is no Healers' test I know that will prove immortality," Severus said, to fill the space in the air with words.
"They nearly killed me, draining my body of its blood," Potter said simply. "What remained of the blood turned to fire and made my body go up in flames. When the flames died down again, the cuts had healed. They think the same thing would happen with any wound I've taken." He made a vague gesture that Severus thought was probably meant to encompass his body. "And then again, I haven't changed since I came here. I can look at my face in the mirror, and I know that it hasn't grown a day older. I think that's pretty conclusive proof. That was what I had to come to terms with, knowing that I'll live out of my own time."
Severus wanted to say many things. There were those who would think of immortality as a gift. There were those who would be willing to conduct other tests to assure Potter that his fears weren't true, or to accept him among them as essentially a king and a prophet, because they would want to learn from him how to live forever themselves. Potter hadn't needed to shut himself away on a mountaintop like some Muggle hermit to think.
But he had, and the gaze he turned on Severus now was clear and distant.
"Anyway, that's what I had to come to terms with," Potter said, as simply as if he hadn't just changed Severus's conception of him by tearing it to shreds. "So. What did you need this time?"
Severus reached after his voice, and then after the right tone. The first wouldn't come for long moments. The second didn't come at all. "You could do much more than you have," he said at last, and his voice was hoarse.
"Oh, I know," Potter said. "I did think about setting up a safe reserve for phoenixes, but the advantages that the spell gave me are all part of my body; I can resist fire, but there's no way I can construct wards that a wizard wouldn't ultimately find his way around. So-"
"I did not mean that," Severus said, leaning forwards and fighting the desire to pound the arrogant boy to shreds the way that he would a flawed snakeskin in a pestle.
Potter blinked at him. "So, what did you mean?"
"I meant," Severus said, "that you could-show others-" He stumbled to a halt. It was easy to say, in his head, that Potter could become a phoenix trader with more power than any other the world had seen, that he could perhaps show others the path to immortality, that he could exhibit his changes to others for a price, but the words would not come out, faced with those eyes.
"Oh, I know," Potter said. "And perhaps someday I'll want to do that. But not now. Now that I think I can live with people without feeling sorry for myself or dwelling on the war too much, I'm going home. That was always the goal, Snape. To rejoin the world, not to separate myself. I chose a mountain because I knew that most people wouldn't come here and because it would be easier for the phoenixes to live, but it's a home for them. Not for me."
Severus shook his head, wordless. There were many words that he might have spoken if he were participating in an argument between Potions masters or careless students, but none that he could think of which fit this particular situation.
"It's all right, really," Potter added, stepping towards him enough to lay his hand on Severus's arm. "You'll do better than anyone else, negotiating with the phoenixes. You've been here often, and they know you better than the others. It might take them a while to trust you, but then, I expect them to drive hard bargains anyway." His smile flashed. "They need to do it to protect themselves, if for no other reason."
Severus laid his hand over Potter's, and held it there when Potter would have stepped away. Potter peered back at him. "Snape? Are you all right?"
Severus cleared his throat. All the words in his head sounded stupid. So perhaps it was time to speak words that came from somewhere else. "I do have a first name, and I wish you would use it."
"Severus?" Potter spoke it as though it were a word in a foreign tongue, with that expression of confusion on his face Severus used to loathe. He didn't loathe it now. "All right. But-" He looked at Severus holding his hand captive, then back up at his face, and the expression of confusion began slowly to change into something else.
Severus bent his head. He was still not sure what he would say, what would happen. But again the words were there, if untempered by the cold reason that he had thought he would use. "You say you are going home. Where is that?"
"Um." Potter blinked rapidly, raising one hand and touching his glasses as if he thought them fogged. The red color on his face looked almost natural now, Severus thought. "To Britain, of course. I don't know where I'll live yet. Probably in Hogsmeade, or get a flat in wizarding London. I might stay with Ron and Hermione for a while."
Severus nodded. "I have a house in Hogsmeade. A stone one, hard to see, on the outskirts of the village, but visible once you look beyond the wall covered with snapdragons that surrounds it. It also contains several gardens and an outbuilding for dangerous or surplus ingredients. If you step up to the gate and touch it with a flat palm while saying 'Aconite,' you will find your way in."
"I'll-I'll remember that." The confusion was almost gone now. As Potter stepped away, his gaze remained on Severus, speculative. Then he cleared his own throat. "You never did tell me which ingredient you came for this time."
"I have it," Severus said, and Apparated, thinking of fires.