What You Don't Know
by Cayce Morris
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
Harry Potter stood without moving in the great white room, thinking that in spite of the peculiar things he'd seen there, it still reminded him of King's Cross station on an extremely clean, quiet day. The hideous child-thing still lay under a seat, nearly hidden from view. It had quieted some, but still thumped softly now and then. Harry found it didn't frighten him quite so much as it had at first.
He was ready to go back, ready to face whatever was to come.
He watched the bright mist descending, obscuring the figure of Albus Dumbledore as it did. Then the fading figure seemed to have second thoughts. "Oh, Harry," said the increasingly ghost-like form in a distinctly non-ghostly voice, "there is one more thing."
"What's that?" Harry asked, peering into the mist, trying not to lose sight of his former headmaster, fearing that it might, in fact probably would, be the last time he would ever see the man.
"Just this." The figure paused and kept fading in and out of the mist, making Harry worry that he might disappear completely before he was finished speaking. "You have paid a great price for your participation in this conflict, and others have as well. You must know that I'm aware of that. We are all aware of that."
"I know, sir." Harry sighed. He was very tired, but resting at the moment wasn't remotely possible. "There isn't anything for it now."
"But there may yet be, my dear boy. There may just be. I am trying to arrange … things, you know, so as to make it up to you, and to others, at least in some small way, for what you have sacrificed. To settle up my accounts, so to speak, with those who have given the most."
"You've arranged … er, what kinds of things?"
"Yes. Well. I can't go into too much detail right now, and of course I'm never entirely sure how these sorts of things will work out, as you well know, but I have every reason to hope for the best."
"The … I'm sorry, sir, the best in what?"
"Just trust me, Harry, if you still can. And do remember, will you, as you go back and face your future, to be aware of the sacrifices others have made? There is one other, especially, who has lost nearly everything for our cause. We owe him a great deal, but I'm afraid his sacrifices are not widely appreciated."
"Snape." Harry said the name in a whisper.
"Severus, indeed. I'm so glad you understand. And as I said, I am trying very hard to settle my accounts, to fix what I've left in disarray, but I will need your help in finishing the job, if you are willing to give it."
"I … of course, sir. What do you need me to do?" I haven't even finished what you expect me to do with Voldemort. How am I supposed to see beyond that? But he knew this was not the question to ask of Dumbledore, not now.
"It is tremendously important, Harry, that you demonstrate your gratitude for the sacrifices of others. Make them know that they are appreciated, because you realize, my boy, it will be you who gets most of the attention for everything that has happened. And beyond that, if you would try to help them, the others who have lost so much … try to determine what each one needs, what will help each person the most, and then, if you are able, give it to them. It's quite simple, really. Do you think you can remember to do those things?"
"All right, sir. I will." Harry said the words, though he was not entirely sure what he was agreeing to do. Be grateful for the sacrifices of others? Give people what they need? Um, sure. "I'll remember."
Dumbledore seemed pleased. "Excellent, excellent. You've no idea how helpful it will be, if you can do those things. It will help me make things right, for you and for … others, as much as I can. And I might even … " he cackled softly, "be able to induce them to help you as well." He laughed again, more crazily. "Though I suppose," and he laughed quite madly at this point, "if the two of you straighten these things out for me I will be in debt to both of you yet again, and this time with no further way to repay you … ho, ho."
Harry wondered if the man had finally slipped a widget, but he said nothing. Finally Dumbledore stopped laughing and gave one little hiccup. Then he said, "Thank you for humoring an old man. I'll let you be on your way." He turned away, then looked back over his shoulder. "Good luck, Harry."
The mist grew thicker, and somehow also brighter, as Dumbledore walked away. As Harry looked around him, the white room itself seemed to be receding in all directions, its walls fading away into a great formless light that surrounded him. He closed his eyes, and could feel himself slipping out of that lovely, warm light back into darkness, back into the sharp-edged pocket of pain and fear that defined, for the moment, the entire compass of his real life.
X X X X X
The snake bit, and the Dark Lord left abruptly.
The snake's bite had hurt; that did not surprise Severus. Sharp teeth in one's flesh generally did. The thudding fall to the shack's filthy wooden floor had carried its own unpleasant repercussions, literally. He had heard more than felt the thump of his knees hitting first, and then a louder but dull—as if cushioned by the tender grey matter inside—crack as the right side of his skull hit, with his shoulder crunching down close behind and a final undignified flop as he rolled to his back in a stable, not to say comfortable, position.
The boy and girl appeared, and sat with him for a moment, and heard his last gasping words, just before the creeping paralysis tightened its net and became complete. They caught his memories. The boy looked into his eyes, and for a brief moment Severus saw again the love of his life. But she was gone, and then they were gone, and he stayed where he had fallen. He closed his eyes, and found he could not reopen them.
Severus Snape lay still and alone.
During the first hour or two, he knew that he was going to die. The poison carried by the snake's bite would surely finish him off quickly, for if the Dark Lord had wanted him to die slowly, he would have stayed around to enjoy the spectacle. If, on the other hand, Voldemort had simply wanted him out of commission for a while, then perhaps … but that was ridiculous. That was not how Tom Riddle worked. If you were useful to him, he kept you close at hand; if you were in his way, he destroyed you, utterly and mercilessly. Snape expected to die. The best he hoped for was to avoid an excess of pain on the way out.
Time passed, however, and he did not die. He was in considerable discomfort, lying there on the grotty floor with his legs twisted under him and a throbbing head, but it seemed meager pain indeed considering what the Dark Lord might have inflicted.
Severus lay there in complete confusion for the third and fourth hours after falling. He could feel against his chin, where it pressed against the floor, the warm dampness of his own blood that had pooled there after dripping from his neck. It had seemed like quite a lot of blood at the time. After four hours, however, his sensitive nose told him that the scent from it was more that of a dried crust than a still-damp puddle, so he assumed there had not been so much as he'd thought. He began to wonder if perhaps he was not to perish this day after all, and if possibly he might even regain the power of movement eventually.
Another few hours went by—it was becoming understandably more difficult for him to judge their passage—and still he lived, and ached, and could not move. He felt no closer to death than he had been, but neither did he feel closer to getting up and moving on. It began to grow dark outside, which he could see even through his closed eyelids, and he began to wonder what the bloody fuck was going on. He had been prepared to die. He had been prepared to live, if it was required of him, and to get on with trying to keep the blasted Potter boy alive, to do what he could to protect the damned castle where he was now loathed and feared more than ever, to do all the things he had sworn years ago to Albus that he would do. But this, this useless, motionless, defenseless state, he could not cope with. And so he moved past his initial terror and on into a bizarre and unexpected realm of what was, for him, even worse.
It was boredom: abject, near-unto-death boredom. He had never been so tediously, unrelentingly mired in ennui.
Severus Snape did not do boredom well. His mind was not suited to it, and had frequently managed to get him into trouble when it was not productively occupied. He needed continuous brain fodder: books to read, spells to master, potions to optimize, students to terrorize, anything that could soak up some of the endless fire-hose blast of mental energy that filled his head. With no outside stimulation, he was lost. So he lay there, still aching, and now increasingly miserable as his thoughts pinged around the space inside his throbbing head, looking for something to light on, finding nothing, and pinging away again.
It was around hour twenty—though he had by then given up trying to gauge how much time had passed—that he began to wonder if the Dark Lord had actually intended this to be the agony in which he would die. Awful though it was, this idea gave him something to think about, and so he ruminated almost gratefully on it for an hour or so, after which he began to slowly transition back to terror at the horrifying prospect of dying—eventually—from boredom.
X X X X X
Around hour twenty-five, Severus slipped free of both boredom and terror, and slept, and began to dream. At first he thought he might have simply died and moved on to some new and even more surreal place; then he considered the possibility that what was happening might be real. Calling it a dream, however, seemed the simplest way to explain it. He didn't care what it was, really; it gave him something to think about.
Albus came to him in the dream, Albus, who had been dead for a year by Severus' own hand. The old man spoke to him, sounding quite alive, and with, of course, another unpleasant assignment. "I must ask one more thing of you, Severus, my friend," Albus had said, looking infuriatingly comfortable with his somehow-not-yet-quite-dead state, far more comfortable than Severus was feeling at that moment. "I need for you to return to Hogwarts, do a little more teaching. There is unfinished business there, some accounts that only you can settle for me now, I'm afraid. But don't worry, I'm sure you'll enjoy it." His eyes twinkled in that maddening way they had, always making a joke out of the most aggravating things.
Severus tried to refuse him. What did it matter what Albus wanted him to do, anyway, when it was certain that one way or another, he was going to die right here in this miserable shack?
"But Severus," the former Headmaster had said in surprise, "your death isn't certain at all. Not at all, no, no. You can choose. Didn't you know? Oh, dear, did I neglect to mention that? So sorry, I hope you'll forgive me, I've been forgetful of late."
"What do you mean, I can choose?" Severus found that in this peculiar dream, he could speak, though he still lay unmoving on the hard wooden floor of the shack.
"Why, just that, of course. You can die, right here, and go away, or choose to live and return to the world. It's quite simple, really."
"But how, exactly?"
"Well, it's magic, of course. Old stuff, very old. Some spells I can … ah, let us say, help you with, from this side of things. If you see what I mean."
Severus wondered if Albus realized he was being even more maddeningly obscure than usual. "Are you telling me that I'm actually dead, and you can bring me back to life?"
"Send you back is more like it, I think, as I won't be coming with you. But yes, it's something I can do for you, if you so choose."
Severus considered this, and then he remembered. "What about Potter, your sacrificial lamb?" he asked, his voice refreshed with anger. "Does he have a choice, or are you going to send him to the slaughter as planned?"
"Why, yes, as a matter of fact, he does have a choice."
"You will allow him to live?"
"I already have," Albus said, nodding. "I need him to help settle my accounts as well."
The boy did not die, then, Severus thought in wonder, but he said, "Bloody hell, Albus. Haven't you done enough to him? Why don't you just send him back and leave him alone?"
Albus seemed mildly hurt by that. "Why, Severus, my boy, I'm trying to fix things. For him, and for you … you two, who have sacrificed so much. Surely you can't fault me for wanting to make it up to you, if I can."
And as Albus must have known he would, Severus finally agreed. He agreed to come back, to return to the living, to teach yet another year's worth of untalented young witches and wizards, and to settle Albus' accounts for him, whatever the bloody hell they were; Albus was rather vague on that point, promising only that Severus would know what he needed to know, when the time was right. And somehow, Severus knew, it was going to involve Harry bloody Potter, the Boy Who Was Going To Live Yet Again.
It occurred to Severus only after Dumbledore had faded out of the dream, leaving him still paralyzed and in pain on the floor of the shack, that he had accepted this final assignment far too quickly. What if he didn't want to do Albus' bidding anymore? What if he despised teaching? What if he wanted something more from his life? What if, just possibly, he would have preferred to die, to rest, to find some peace at last?
Perhaps, he told himself, he was simply too spineless to deserve anything more, if he couldn't even stand up to the old man now, when he was dead, for Merlin's sake. Perhaps he was destined, doomed even, always to act out the part Albus had written for him, and occasionally to pass along stage directions to Potter. Their little drama had certainly taken some startling twists, here at what was supposed to have been the finale. With a wave of Albus' hand, the final act had been rewritten. The play, evidently, was required to go on.
Severus lay where he was, wallowing motionlessly in pain and fury. Damn you, Albus. And Potter, the bloody little sod. Why couldn't you just leave him out of it?
X X X X X
Severus had been lying still as death, in a twisted mass of hurt, for well over a day when he heard the door of the Shrieking Shack open. His brain had lapsed into a sort of intellectual fever state, and he did not immediately associate the sound of the door with anything at all. What small part of him was still lucid rather imagined the sound to be an hallucination.
After the door sounds came footsteps, drawing quickly nearer to him. He did not yet register their meaning.
The footsteps stopped, very close. A thought thrust itself determinedly through the fog in his mind: Someone is here. This seemed at first like a very bad thing. Dumbledore, when he'd come to Severus in the dream, hadn't made any sound of footsteps. Who else could it be, now, but the Dark Lord after all, come to finish him off?
"Oh, Snape." The voice was not Voldemort's sickly croon. "I'm so sorry." There were more footsteps, and then a soft thump on the floor and a stirring of air next to Severus. Hands were touching him gently, turning him, probing. He felt pressure on his neck, which hurt quite a lot; then he could sense something warm, very close to his face. "Professor, my God … are you … in there?" The voice, with an accompanying puff of warm breath, came from near his left cheek. There was a pinch above his left eyelid, and his eye was opened. He looked out on the world through the opened eye, and his fevered, pinging brain recognized that Harry Potter was looking down on him.
"Can you hear me, sir? It's Harry. I've come to take you home." Potter put his hands on either side of Severus' face and opened an eyelid with each thumb while cradling the head carefully with his fingers. Severus could see, through the haze of his own considerable confusion, an uneasy mix of emotions on the boy's face.
"Bloody hell, I thought you were a goner. I'm so sorry, I couldn't get back before now. I'd have sent someone for you sooner if I'd had any idea … " Potter let the eyes close, and Severus felt his head lowered gently back to the floor.
He felt the hands on him moving, sliding gently down his body, running quickly over his left side, which jutted slightly above the rest of his body in his awkward position. The hands went to his knees and began more serious repositioning, lifting the knees to reach the booted feet cramped beneath them and slowly—excruciatingly, for Severus—unfolding his legs. When that was completed, Severus felt Harry take him by the left shoulder and hipbone and lower him to a flat, supine position.
"There you go. That's a bit better, anyway." Harry took up Severus' head in his hands again and very gently shifted it to lie better aligned with his body. "I don't know if you can hear me, sir, but if you can, don't worry. I know you must be uncomfortable. Er, at the least. I'll get you back to the hospital wing as fast as I can."
Severus felt his stomach clench—with muscles over which he had no command at all—at this thought. Surely Hogwarts was the last place he'd be wanted now. Once they got him in the hospital wing it would be a short trip to Azkaban for sure. But he could not speak, could not protest, could not tell Potter to just bloody leave him to his fate here, which though it had been sending him round the bend with boredom was surely better than imprisonment in that miserable, soul-stealing place. All he could do was fret and twist up inside, and he did so, desperately.
Potter, impossibly, seemed to sense it. He stilled for a moment, putting a hand gently on Severus' arm, a reassuring touch. "Professor," the boy said quietly. "If you can hear me, really, you don't need to worry, do you understand? I've explained things. To Professor McGonagall. She knows what happened. We'll make sure that the Ministry, and everybody, understands … the things you did. It will be okay."
He patted Severus' arm and kept speaking, comforting words but with just a little edge of anger, of grim determination in spite of something not quite defined, behind them. "I wouldn't take you back there if I thought it wouldn't be safe for you. I promise." He laughed. "Yeah, I know that probably reassures you a lot. Harry Potter has promised." He patted the arm again, a bit awkwardly this time. "But I mean it, sir. Everything is under control." He gave the arm one tiny squeeze, and Severus wondered if the boy had lost his mind under the stress of battle, but then he continued, "I'm going to get you out of here now. It might be a rough ride, so just, er, hang on, if you would."
Severus heard Potter shift position, and felt a shimmer of magic ripple over him like warm water. Cloth rustled, and he felt a soft, heavy warmth drop over him; it was Potter's cloak, he surmised. Severus hadn't been wearing one himself, and he suddenly realized that he was cold, as well as aching and throbbing. He felt the boy reach underneath his shoulders and lift him up to a sitting position—as easily as if he weighed no more than a child—and wrap an arm around his back. His head lolled helplessly over Potter's arm. "There now, that's no good," Potter said softly, and Severus felt his head lifted gently and leaned against the boy's chest so that all of his upper body was tucked in close. Potter next slipped an arm under his knees and gathered Severus up, then lifted him bodily and stood, wobbling just for an instant under the magically lightened load. Severus panicked as he was raised into the air, then realized there was nothing he could do, so he abandoned himself to the embrace of the wiry arms around him. He felt as though his limbs were hollow reeds, strung-together joints of a marionette whose strings had been cut, and they flopped limply, aching from their long immobility.
Severus had assumed Potter would cast a spell to levitate him so he could be floated, more or less at arm's length from the boy, back to the castle. He had not expected to be held like this, protectively in Potter's arms, and under his cloak, and with his head snug against Potter's chest. He could hear the boy's heart beating madly as he began the long walk back to Hogwarts.
X X X X X
It took nearly an hour for Potter to get them out of the mouldering shack, through the woods and down the path, and back into the castle. It was indeed a bumpy ride, but Severus didn't care. Potter kept up a murmured commentary on their progress, "Stairs, here, Professor … ooh, sorry for that bounce. And back onto the path … there we are, should be smooth going for a bit now. We're getting there, sir." When the boy wasn't speaking, Severus listened to his heart beating and felt his chest rise and fall with heavy breathing, and he felt soothed.
At last they were in the castle, and a few more minutes took them through the corridors and up and down several staircases, until finally they reached the hospital wing. Everything became a blur then; Severus could feel himself being taken out of Potter's arms, and many hands were on him as he was moved here and there, prodded and turned and rearranged, and eventually settled in a bed. He heard Potter's voice occasionally and knew the boy had not left him. Pomfrey and McGonagall's voices were also in the mix, though he found he was too tired to pay attention to everything they were saying. No one seemed to be calling for Dementors, at least.
Finally the room quieted. "All we can do now is wait, Mister Potter," he heard Pomfrey say. "This should help him sleep … " and Severus smelt a pungent herbal mixture, which was apparently being held under his nose. Valerian, passionflower, skullcap … a reasonable mix, he decided, though he would have preferred direct ingestion of something stronger: belladonna, perhaps. "The only treatment is supportive therapy," Pomfrey continued. "His body has to fight off the poison by itself, I'm afraid, and it's going to take some time. He's a strong man, though. If anyone can pull through this, it's Severus." He wished he could laugh in her face at that.
"You should get some rest yourself, Harry," Pomfrey said in a gentler tone. "You look as though you need it. Have you slept at all since … ?"
"No. I'm all right, though." The boy sounded suddenly exhausted, and Severus wondered how long it had been since … whatever it was, exactly, that had transpired at the castle. The Dark Lord had been vanquished, apparently, or surely they wouldn't be free to coddle him like this.
"You are not. Go on with you, get something to eat and then off to bed. I'll keep my eye on Severus; you've done all you can."
"I will, okay. I just want to sit with him for a minute, may I? You can go, I won't stay long."
"Hmm. Very well. See that you don't fall asleep in that chair." Severus heard her shoes tapping off to the door, and then she was gone.
He could feel Potter's presence just beside him. He also felt the herbal sedative mixture working its simple magic on him, making him drowsy. He was giving in to the drowsiness with enormous relief when the boy spoke softly once more.
"There's some things I wanted to be sure that you know, Professor." There was a long pause, as if he was choosing his words carefully. "First, that I'm … grateful to you. For sharing your memories, and for everything you've done. I understand now, or at least, I think I do." A shorter pause. "And also, I'm sorry. For all of it."
Potter went silent again, and Severus thought he heard a sigh. The boy's next words were very soft. "I know you may still hate me when you're, um, better. But I'm going to try to make things up to you. I promise." He laughed, but it was a sad, rueful sound. "I know, promises from Harry Potter. Like a hole in your head, right?" Severus felt his arm being squeezed gently, and the fingertips lingered, as if reluctant to let him go. "But I will, Professor. I will."
He was drifting off again when he heard Potter's voice, a few beats later, from across the room. "You get better now, do you hear me? Don't get any ideas about dying or anything. I mean it." There was the sound of a door opening. "And I meant everything else I said, too." There was a pause. "I'll see you soon, Professor." Severus heard the sound of a door closing, and then soft footsteps, moving away.
Only the shallow know themselves.
Severus did not, in fact, see Harry Potter for some time, though he was told much later that the boy had looked in on him every every single day, checking his progress, expressing concern, wanting reassurance that he would indeed be his old self again soon.
He spent what he later calculated to be nearly a month in a sedative-induced sleep, interrupted occasionally by hazy periods of light dozing. It was confusing and not especially pleasant, but at least it was an improvement over the panicked boredom he'd endured before being brought back to the school. He was frequently aware of his limbs being moved vigorously by other peoples' hands, and supposed this was some sort of therapy, but the movements seemed sometimes to be part of dreams so he wasn't entirely sure.
At last, in a brief spasm of coughing and twitching, he came fully to himself and found that he could move of his own volition again. It was a magnificent, though humbling, discovery. He could move, yes, but he felt nothing like the strong man Pomfrey had claimed he was. He could, with assistance, sit up in his bed. With more assistance, he could stand. But it was days more before he could, again with considerable help, simply walk across the room and drop, exhausted, into a chair. He wondered if he would ever feel normal again.
Frequently during those weeks, as he was drifting back to a sleep induced first by potions, and later by exhaustion, he heard an echo in his head of the last words he'd heard Potter speak to him. "I wanted to be sure you know that I'm grateful to you ... for everything … and I understand now." He wasn't sure why these words mattered so much, but he found that his mind clung tightly to them, as if they were the one fixed point in his world, the one thing he now knew, for sure, to be true. Nearly everything else—life, death, and the exact details of the memories he remembered giving to Potter, which, though he recalled their essence, had left an odd-shaped, fuzzy-edged sort of empty spot in his mind—seemed to be up for grabs.
He was glad that Potter hadn't seen him again in his pitifully weakened state. It would have been mortifying.
He wondered, later, if Potter had known he'd prefer it that way.
X X X X X
It was a warm July day when Severus presented himself in the Great Hall for breakfast for the first time in nearly a year. He walked in slowly, with a cane in his right hand to help overcome the residual weakness in his right leg, which had lain under him for all those hours and absorbed more than its share of poison.
There were only a few staff members present at this time of year, and they filled just two tables in the cavernous space of the hall. Severus had been preparing himself to deal with them. He had been pardoned, and they all knew it. He had in fact been credited—by Potter, who evidently had told the Ministry quite a tale—with various heroic deeds he'd rather no one mentioned any further. He'd accepted an offer of continuing employment at the school from Headmistress McGonagall—who almost seemed to know of his final promise to Dumbledore, though he'd not spoken of it to anyone—so he knew they'd be expecting to see him eventually. But still, there would be resentment, anger, and murderous glares when he first appeared before them, he was sure.
He had steeled himself before entering the hall, reminded himself that the walk was doing him good, and hobbled in, only to have the room fall silent around him. He grimaced and pushed on, determined not to let the idiots get the best of him. He crossed the room slowly and stopped behind an empty chair, about to pull it out and lower himself stiffly into it.
And then the applause began. It was soft at first, then crescendoed to as much sound as such a very small crowd could make in such a very large room.
Severus stood there, flabbergasted. This had not been in his program for the morning at all. He was standing there, blinking, when suddenly Harry Potter was at his side. Harry was grinning, pulling out his chair, and resting a hand on his arm, very gently and from behind, as if trying to be available to assist Severus without being seen doing so. "It's good to have you back, sir," the boy said quietly, from closer to his ear than Severus had quite realized he'd been standing.
"What are you even doing here?" Severus asked with a sideways frown at the boy, still keeping his eyes on the small clapping crowd. "Aren't you done with school? Shouldn't you be off saving the aurors from themselves? Or attempting to impregnate a Weasley, perhaps?"
Potter laughed softly, apparently not offended. "Nothing that exciting, I'm afraid. I'm here for another year. I kind of missed the last one, you know." The hand behind Severus' arm pushed, very gently, as if to remind him that he should sit down. He remembered his lame leg, and sat. The applause died away. "I'll leave you to your breakfast, Professor," Potter said. The grin sparkled again, and the boy was gone, off to where he'd been sitting at the other table. Severus felt oddly empty.
He ate his breakfast quietly, listening to the conversations around him. No one forced him to participate, but they gave him looks that were far more welcoming than he'd expected. Perhaps, he thought, teaching again wouldn't be so bad after all.
He began to feel, for the first time, somewhat glad to still be alive.
X X X X X
Severus spent the rest of the summer in quiet recuperation. He slept a great deal, something he'd never been inclined to do before, and made it a point not to miss a meal though he'd often done so in the past. He read for hours every day, a delightful luxury. At first he spent these hours in his rooms, but the dank, muffled silence there became irritating after a while, and he began to frequent the library. He found a comfortable spot with an overstuffed chair in front of a shaded window, and began keeping a stack of books there as if to mark his territory. Neither tidying house-elves nor officious librarians moved the books, so he assumed they'd ceded the area to him. He found this little conquest satisfying.
He allowed himself to spend a certain amount of time simply sitting in his comfortable library chair, pondering the events of the past and considering where he wanted the future to take him. Having been relieved of all the onerous responsibilities of his former life—aside from teaching, of course—he realized that he'd never been able to ask himself such questions before. He'd been Dumbledore's spy, the Order's shadow operative, the Dark Lord's plaything. Now, for the first time, he could be his own man, but he didn't know exactly what kind of man he wanted to be. He found, after pondering for a while, that he knew only two things for certain, these days:
First, he'd had enough of brutality in his life. It seemed the snakebite and its associated terrors had taken a certain zest for nastiness right out of him; he no longer felt any great desire to terrorize students, or antagonize other staff, or do all the other things that had been expected of him as the resident nasty git. He found that for the most part, he simply wanted to be left alone.
Second, Potter appreciated all that he'd done. He repeated this to himself like a mantra, over and over, every day. And then he would think, it was not in vain after all, and would feel pleased and still a bit surprised. He lived. Harry Potter lived.
Potter ghosted through the library from time to time throughout the summer as well. Severus watched him browsing shelves, examining volumes with thoughtful care, and accumulating his own piles of them, which he sometimes carried out with him and sometimes took to what Severus deduced was Potter's own spot, across the vast stacks room. From his spot Harry could look out his own window, on the other side of the library tower. Severus wondered what the view was like from over there. From his spot he could see the boy, by looking over tables and through shelves and past a pair of potted trees. Sometimes when his attention to his own book flagged, Severus would let his gaze drift around the room to land on Potter, and he would watch the boy's quiet concentration for a while.
From his library window, Severus also discovered that he could watch Potter flying every afternoon; apparently hours in the library were not sufficient excitement for a young man, after all. He told himself that the boy was insane, out there flinging himself around in the summer heat without even a snitch to catch, and no doubt coming in sweaty later, and smelling of athletic uniforms and dirty socks. He found himself looking forward to these little shows every day, nonetheless. The boy could fly like a bird, Severus had to admit, and the sheer joy he took in flight was something worth watching in itself.
Then it was August, and Potter disappeared. Severus did not see him in the library one morning, and there was no aerobatic performance that afternoon. He wondered if the boy was ill. He was missing the next day, and the one after that as well. At last, on the fourth day, Severus gathered his nerve—all the while telling himself he cared not a whit—and asked the Headmistress about him, with studied indifference, at breakfast.
"Mister Potter is off to the Weasleys for the rest of the month, Severus," Minerva said cheerfully. "He'll be back for school in September, with Ginny."
"I see." Severus frowned. "Why was he here this summer at all?"
"Well. We couldn't very well send him back to the Dursleys, now, could we? This is his home, I expect, for as long as he wants to stay. He seems happy here, don't you think?"
"I suppose he does." Severus felt unsettled, by both the fact that Potter now apparently lived at the castle, and the fact that at the moment he was not within it. "Why didn't he just go straight to the Weasleys?" he asked irritably. "They've nearly adopted him already."
"Well, actually … " Minerva said, and then paused and gave him a look of amusement, "I believe he was hanging about Hogwarts to keep an eye on you."
"On me? Why in the world would he do that?"
"Don't be dense, Severus. He rescued you. He's concerned about you, and wanted to make sure you'd got over your injuries."
"That's quite ridiculous. The irritating child was never concerned about me before, back when I was saving his bloody life regularly."
"Well," she said matter-of-factly, "he is now."
Severus gave up and finished his breakfast in silence. Afterward he gathered his cane and his legs under him, and stumped up to the library, pounding his cane on the floor a bit harder than necessary with each step. He finally reached his overstuffed chair, by his stack of books, and sat stiffly in it, looking out his window at the empty meadow below, for the rest of the day. He neglected to go to lunch, but was reminded of dinnertime by his unhappily rumbling stomach. With a sigh, he pulled himself painfully to his feet and hobbled down to eat.
"Severus," the Headmistress said cheerfully to him as soon as he'd sat down next to her again, "I was thinking. Perhaps you could do with a little change of scenery yourself. A bit of seaside atmosphere, sunshine, that sort of thing." Severus looked at her skeptically, but she continued. "I'm serious. There's a cottage in my family, nothing fancy, but comfortable, and you'd be welcome to use it until school starts. If you'd like." She gave him an encouraging smile.
He was ready to refuse, ready to scoff at her for even suggesting such a silly thing—Why would I want to take a bloody holiday by the sea? he asked himself—when she put her hand on his arm. "It might be good for you," she said gently. "Get you away from here for a bit. Somewhere you don't have to think about … school, you know, at all."
He considered this for a moment. It might be nice, he decided, not to look out on that empty meadow for the rest of the month. "All right," he said gruffly. "Thank you." The words sounded forced and not very gracious, but he thought she'd get the idea.
He left the following morning, with a trunk full of long black clothing entirely inappropriate for the seashore, his stack of books from the library, and a plan to think of nothing to do with Hogwarts for as long as possible.
X X X X X
Harry Potter returned to the castle the day before the Hogwarts Express.
Severus learned this when he went to dinner on the last evening before the mayhem of the students' arrival. He'd just arrived back from Minerva's family cottage himself, and was not looking forward to re-entry into the social atmosphere of the Great Hall at mealtime. That evening he walked slowly, though fairly smoothly after weeks of rest and gradual rehabilitation, into the hall and had to hide his surprise at seeing the boy already seated there, laughing and looking delighted to be back.
There was an empty chair next to Potter. As Severus stared at him, the boy looked up, and their eyes caught. Potter immediately smiled at him, then looked guardedly hopeful, and motioned to the empty chair in a kind of genuflecting manner that suggested he of course would not be offended if Severus declined to sit with him.
As it happened, it was the only empty seat remaining. Severus gave a stern-faced nod and walked carefully to the empty chair, which Potter quickly pulled out for him. He sat heavily and placed his cane on the floor beside him.
"Mister Potter," he said gruffly. "You have deigned to return to us, I see."
"Um. Yes, sir. Thought I'd get here a bit ahead of the crowd, get settled in before things get too wild." Why, Severus wondered, was the boy smiling at him like that, as if actually happy to see him?
"An interesting decision." Severus had always particularly hated the arrival of the students in September. It brought so many new, depressingly tender young minds that had to be broken in, to be terrified into submission as efficiently as possible, and returned so many older ones who'd thought up new ways to be irritating over the summer. These often had to be reminded of the venom carried by Severus' sharp tongue and the misery of detentions in his presence. He wondered suddenly if Potter would need to be so reminded, and decided to begin the process at once. "One I'm sure will enable you to get into mischief even more quickly than usual this year."
The boy looked surprised and stung. "No, Professor, that wasn't what I was planning. I was going to help Hagrid bring the first-years from the train, and show them around a bit. Kind of play big brother, you know."
"A role you are ever so well prepared for," Severus said with a sneer.
"Well. Not really. But I'll do the best I can."
"Naturally." Severus drew out the word with an ironic sort of lilt to it, and then looked away before Potter could respond. He wanted time to sort out his thoughts a bit. He sensed Potter next to him turning back to his meal, still looking hurt. They said no more to each other as they ate, though Severus was sure he saw—out of the corner of his eye—the boy looking at him frequently, sideways, and surreptitiously. Severus himself made a point of engaging in conversation with the other teachers at the table, forcing himself to be cordial to them so as to make more obvious the fact that he was ignoring the ingratiating Boy Who Lived sitting beside him.
At last dinner was over. Severus was tired and relieved, as shunning the boy had taken more energy than he'd anticipated; clearly he was out of practice. He nodded to the rest of the table and said smoothly, "If you will excuse me … " as he stood. His leg ached, and he had to quickly put a hand on the table to steady himself. Potter was on his feet beside him before he could step away, with that damnably discreet hand behind his back again, ever helpful, ever a reminder of Severus' weakness. "If you will excuse me, Mister Potter," he said in a low, dark voice. "I will be going now." He pushed backwards against the hand and very deliberately moved away from the table. The boy looked gratifyingly stunned, and sat back down. Severus turned from the table, making his leg twist awkwardly, and walked away, gritting his teeth and trying to leave the hall with as smooth a stride as he'd used to enter it. He succeeded, but just barely, and with considerable pain.
He heard a voice from the table behind him as he walked away, saying, "You'd think he'd be nicer to you now, Harry, after all that's happened."
And then there was Potter's voice, answering calmly, "It's no big deal. He's not feeling well, I think."
Then the first voice came again, just before Severus moved out of earshot: "The bloke's never feeling well, as far as I can see. He oughtn't treat you like that … " Then it faded, and Severus reached the doorway, and he gladly left the Great Hall behind.
It was a long, slow walk back to his rooms, and by the time he reached them his leg was so sore it was all he could do to slam his door shut behind him, cross his sitting room, and fall onto his couch, cursing and scowling and wishing he never had to get up from it again.
It was only then that he remembered his resolution to eschew brutality. You haven't the stomach or the stamina for it anymore, he told himself irritably. Did his rudeness to Potter count as brutality? He supposed, in the broadest possible sense, it did.
It occurred to Severus that the coming school year might turn out to be more difficult than he'd thought.
Perplexity is the beginning of knowledge.
The school year began with predictable hubbub. The Great Hall was packed for the welcome feast, the students were unruly, Headmistress McGonagall was—in Severus' opinion—not nearly stern enough in her welcome speech to keep them in line, and Harry Potter was, somehow, everywhere at once.
Severus watched him from his chair at the head table, where he planted himself just before the students' arrival, intending not to move until he had to. First the boy was beside Hagrid, escorting a flock of astoundingly small eleven-year-olds in from the boats they'd ridden across the dark lake. Hagrid left Potter to herd them to their places while he took his own seat at the head table, and Severus watched with amusement as the little ones scurried in front of him, looking like nothing so much as brainless, frightened lambs.
Then the older students arrived, ones who already knew Potter, and he was in the doorway to greet them with smiles and hugs and handshakes, at once one of them and somehow, not. He eventually seated himself at the Gryffindor table, but at the far end, not in the midst of it where he'd always been before.
When the meal was finished, Potter was the first one on his feet, rounding up stray students again and helping send them all to the correct towers. The smile never left his face as he chummily punched the shoulder of a fifth-year boy, leaned down and pointed out directions for a trembling first-year girl, and earnestly consulted with the Headmistress about some issue or other.
Severus found the entire performance unnerving. Why was he being so helpful? The blasted boy must have some devious plan, he thought to himself later, as he descended the stairs stiff-legged to greet and growl at his Slytherins in their common room.
The following fortnight, during which Severus watched Potter intently, only increased his irritation with the boy. He saw Harry Potter do far too many nice things for any normal teenager to think of by himself. He hugged sobbing first-years. He carried books for girls. He rushed to the aid of the harried young DADA teacher when a crateful of nimbly-legs burst out of confinement, immediately quadrupled in size as they were wont to do when given enough space, and threatened to overrun the classroom. Potter had them back in hand—in fact, literally eating out of his hand—in moments, giving the teacher time to calm the students, who had wisely ducked under their desks at the sight of the six sharp hooves whirling underneath each of the shimmering, greyhound-sized creatures.
And it went on. Potter helped Madame Hooch give flying lessons to the first-years, taking the most incompetent ones literally under his wing and coaching them personally. He broke up fights between fourth-year boys, and enforced dueling rules when a fight seemed unavoidable. He helped Hagrid wrangle creatures of all sizes and dispositions. The only Parselmouth at Hogwarts, he single-handedly cleared out an infestation of snakes in one of the dungeons, and then entertained a large group of Slytherins by hissing in conversation with them for nearly an hour.
Even worse, it became painfully clear early in the autumn term that Potter was up to something devilish in potions class. The boy was polite, and punctual, and tidy in his brewing habits. He turned in remarkably succinct and accurate essays, did well on examinations, and was unfailingly helpful to other students in the class, regardless of House. He had become a model potions student, and it made Severus furious.
None of these things made the slightest bit of sense. They did, however, make Severus mad with curiosity about what the hell the boy was up to. He'd always been a decent student, certainly, and a reasonably helpful and pleasant child—even Severus had to admit this—and he had defeated the Dark Lord, an act of courage and goodness so profound that just contemplating it made Severus slightly nauseous. Still, even that was really no precedent for this completely selfless, practically saintly behavior, which the boy seemed determined to carry through to the smallest details. It wasn't normal. It wasn't logical. There must, Severus decided, be some reason, some secret motivation, inducing Potter to act so strangely.
And on top of it all, Severus found that in spite of Albus' promise he did not in the least enjoy his teaching. In the privacy of his own rooms he cursed the late headmaster regularly for this broken promise, alternating that with ranting complaints about Harry Potter and the Devious Hidden Agenda. He found that he had plenty of negative energy to sustain these private sorts of nastiness.
It began to look like this would be a very long and tedious year.
X X X X X
After a month Severus had moved past irritation and on to grim certainty that something was very wrong. He began to confront Potter openly, to try to draw some bad behavior from him. He called on Potter frequently in class, testing him, throwing out taunts that should have had the boy roaring. He caught his gaze in the Great Hall just to glare at him. He criticized Potter's work constantly during class in the potions laboratory, which was a considerable challenge as the boy was doing so well. Every day, Severus poked and probed the boy's mental state, looking for weaknesses, hoping to find meanness, sure there was something dark underlying the lightness with which the boy walked through the school these days. It took all the bitterness he could muster to sustain this confrontational posture, and it exhausted him.
But there was nothing. He caught no hint of any ulterior motives, any underlying naughtiness, or even any weariness from all that smiling, in the boy's manner. It was uncanny, is what it was. It must be something even worse than he had imagined. Perhaps the boy was profoundly disturbed and needed some kind of help re-orienting himself to the post-war wizarding world. Surely that would shock no one. Harry had very nearly been born and bred to battle the Dark Lord, and now that battle was over; what did he have left to live for?
Severus fumed and grumbled through the early autumn, irritated at Potter, frustrated with his still-painful leg, and wishing he could find again the peace he'd experienced in the summer, reading in the library while Potter soared back and forth past his window. Summer, of course, refused to return; eventually Halloween approached, and the Scottish countryside grew cold and barren, scoured by wind and rinsed to a grey-green clean by cold rains. Severus was unhappy to discover that the harsh Scottish weather left him perpetually aching and cold. His whole body, not just his bad leg, had been seared by Nagini's poison and thus made more sensitive to chill and dampness. The discomfort, predictably, made him even more cross than usual.
At last he could take it no more. It was his duty, he decided, his responsibility as a teacher, to determine what the bloody hell was wrong with Potter. So he cornered Minerva McGonagall at lunchtime one day, towering over her as she sat in her place at the staff table, and asked her if she, too, hadn't noticed the boy's extremely odd behavior.
"Odd behavior?" she replied, looking up at him with an infuriatingly innocent expression.
"Yes, odd. Very odd. Don't tell me you haven't noticed." Severus glowered in irritation. "He's being too bloody nice. And he does it everywhere."
"Too … nice? I'm sorry, Severus, but is there a problem with that?"
"Of course there is!" he said, exploding at her. "No teenage boy can be as helpful, as friendly, as ridiculously pleasant as he's been the last two months. He should be off brooding or getting into trouble, or something. Isn't that what eighteen-year-old boys do with themselves?" Well, that and wanking, he thought, but Minerva probably would not want to discuss that; besides, he had no reason to assume Potter wasn't meeting that particular expectation.
"Ah." She nodded, infuriating him further, and then gave him a positively exasperating smile. "I think I understand. He wouldn't have told you in so many words, of course."
"Told me what?"
"Well, to begin with, he was devastated when he thought you had died. When he told me he was going to retrieve your body, he was … quite emotional about it. He said he felt he had a great challenge ahead of him, trying to live up to your example, to honor the sacrifices you'd made."
"Live up to … " He gazed across the expanse of the room, now filled with students busy eating and chattering. Potter was in that sea of black robes and bobbing heads, somewhere. Severus thought he'd rather not see the boy just now. He clenched his jaw and frowned, drawing his brows together, thinking, wanting this to make some sort of sense.
Harry Potter thought him someone to live up to. But that was ridiculous. Potter hated him. At least, Potter once upon a time had hated him.
"But of course," Minerva was continuing, "then we discovered that fortunately, you hadn't died after all." She smiled happily at him, and he looked away.
They'd not died, neither of them, though they'd both been intended to all along. And here they were, both having lived to glare at each other, and insult each other, for another day and indeed another year. Except that Harry was no longer properly acting out his side of their little drama, and that left Severus confused and unsure of the part he was supposed to play now.
"So do you understand?" the Headmistress asked.
He realized suddenly that he did not yet understand. Potter appreciated the sacrifices Severus had made, bloody good for him. It was about time someone did. But why was he being so nice? How did that connect? "No, I do not understand. Why is he being so damned helpful? What does that have to do with sacrifices I've made?" he demanded.
"Why, just this, Severus." Minerva's smile had become sad, just a little. "He's doing it for you. He is, I think, trying to impress you, because you've become such a hero to him. He wants you to know he appreciates all you've done." Her eyes gleamed through the sadness. "He wants you … not to hate him anymore."
Severus felt his jaw tighten further, and there was a warmth in his chest that riffled around the edges. He looked away and could not speak.
"I told him you'd never hated him to begin with," she went on in a soft voice, "but he didn't believe me. He can still be a stubborn young man."
He can be, at that, Severus thought, looking out over the sea of black robes again. The warmth riffled a little harder, and he blinked.
"Severus," Minerva was saying gently. "Severus, dear, have you had lunch? Perhaps you should eat something." She was patting his arm, which no one but she ever did—except when Potter had—and that got his attention.
"Yes," he said, waving her off. "Yes, I'll eat." He reached for the serving dish closest at hand and scooped a large ladle of potatoes onto his plate, and began eating them mechanically, putting forkfuls into his mouth, unseeing and untasting. Some moments passed, in silence.
"Perhaps," Minerva said quietly, interrupting his thoughts, "you'd best not tell him I spoke to you about this. He might be embarrassed, you know."
He gave Minerva one brief, unsmiling look, then turned away, back to his plate, from which a small, unappetizing pile of cold sliced potatoes stared back at him. As if I could ever … He shoved his plate away and got to his feet, willing himself to ignore the ache in his leg. "Thank you for that information, Headmistress," he said stiffly. "I have … work to attend to."
He knew her eyes, still full of concern tempered with that sentimental gleam, were surely following him as he walked, as smoothly as he could but still heavily and haltingly, from the Great Hall.
Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion,
follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.
Autumn term passed, one grindingly unpleasant day at a time. Severus tried hard to ignore the respectable work Potter was doing. He tried, in fact, to ignore all his students, but irritatingly, they kept turning up in the dungeons and he had to pass the time with them somehow, so he snarled through one potions class after another. Each evening he nearly collapsed, alone in his private rooms, and tried to clear his head of the sight of all the little brats, the sounds of their chatter, and the noxious fumes of the incompetent brewing most of them did.
Halloween passed, and winter blew in, not officially by the calendar, perhaps, but unmistakably in the brittle cold, the long hours of darkness, and the grim mood of the students. Severus' leg pained him acutely, and his whole body ached all the more as the dungeons grew chillier.
He stopped baiting Potter, as he now knew he would not get the desired response. The boy had withdrawn entirely from the confrontational dance they'd been doing together for so long. Severus knew what he was about, now; at least, he knew what Minerva had told him. Still, he was perplexed and unsettled by the whole situation, and needed to think, and watch the boy some more, and determine what, exactly, he had grown into.
It occurred to him sometime during November that he was spending an enormous amount of time worrying about a problem—that is, his lifelong, ongoing conflict with Harry Potter—that it appeared he no longer had.
X X X X X
The school term was nearing its end and the students were in a frenzy of catching up on all the studying they'd put off as long as possible. Tempers were short, Severus' especially, but there was also the promise of the Yule season in the air, making anything—even salvaging a passing mark in a class one had neglected—seem possible.
The entire castle grew cold and damp, as Scottish castles generally do in winter. That, plus the end-of-term workload and its accompanying sleep deprivation, felled a number of students with colds, sore throats and the usual ailments boarding school students are prone to everywhere. For most of them these were a minor inconvenience, but as happened most school years, a few became seriously ill.
The first one to succumb was an eleven-year-old Slytherin by the name of Nathaniel Jenkins. He was a small boy, even for eleven, and rather meek, and it had been a bit of a mystery at first as to exactly why the child had been sorted into Slytherin. Severus had decided it must have been due to a particularly devious quality he detected in the boy's thinking, and he'd found him to be, in addition to devious, one of the more intelligent and serious in this year's clutch of new little serpents. He only hoped the little fellow would grow a bit, and soon, so as not to present such an obvious target to the larger, older bullies in the school, most of whom were rather more than simply devious in their ways of thinking.
At any rate, Nathaniel became sick, and then sicker, and then sick enough that he'd been sent to the hospital wing. Madame Pomfrey immediately funneled potions into him and put him to bed, where he'd lain coughing and sweating for a day and a night. Severus thought he'd best visit the lad before classes began the next morning, intending to assess his condition and give him a sober, you-don't-want-to-fall-behind sort of pep talk. He was in the hallway outside the ward where Nathaniel was ensconced when he heard voices, voices both unexpected and punctuated by giggling, coming from the room. Frowning, he turned at the doorway and prepared to step in, but stopped in surprise at what he saw.
Young Nathaniel, pallid and damp-looking, was propped up in his bed on pillows and laughing weakly. At the foot of the bed, Harry Potter sat cross-legged, shoes off and dingy white socks slouched around his ankles. Potter was sitting there with his right hand raised and wearing a puppet, a green snake puppet, a very smiley and un-Slytherin sort of snake puppet, and the puppet was hissing at Nathaniel, while Potter made it gyrate comically as if it were flying back and forth through the air above the bed.
Severus stood very still. Neither boy had seen him, engrossed as they were in whatever it was, exactly, they were doing, so Severus simply watched silently as Potter put on an elaborate little show for the sick Slytherin. The snake puppet spoke in a human voice for part of its performance, a voice traceable to Potter's but somehow not actually like his at all.
It told a story, the gist of which Severus was able to grasp in a moment or two, about a snake trying to save his family from some kind of disaster. Every so often the snake would grow irritated with human speech and resort to hissing—which Severus supposed was Parseltongue, though he couldn't be sure—making Nathaniel laugh until he coughed, at which point the snake would pick up a glass of water in its mouth and pass it to him, making him laugh still more. Then the story would continue, with the snake miming actions of flying and crawling and battling with its foes, which led to the laughing-coughing-glass of water cycle being repeated.
Finally the snake dramatized—to the extent that a plush creature with no arms, legs or moving facial expressions can dramatize anything—its discovery of magical friends who helped it and its family slither to safety. The slithering was especially athletic, requiring Potter to waggle his arm and himself all over the hospital bed, and ended with an affectionate, though very un-snakelike, cuddling of the soft puppet against the younger boy's neck. It occurred to Severus, a bit eerily, that the younger boy was interacting with the puppet itself and not with Potter at all.
The show appeared to be over after that, and Nathaniel began petting the snake puppet's head while Potter chittered quiet nonsense to him in the snake voice. Severus allowed a hint of a smile to curl his lips, and then he clapped his hands, softly and slowly, from the doorway. Both boys looked up at him in surprise, with Potter's look turning to a smile while Nathaniel's turned to terror. Silly boy, Severus thought, what does he think I'm going to do, give him detention for being ill? He realized uncomfortably that Nathaniel might think exactly that.
"Quite a performance, Mister Potter," he said, tilting his head in grudging approval while ignoring Nathaniel's shocked expression. "I had no idea you possessed such talents." Potter blushed, and Severus was struck suddenly by how lovely that guileless look was on his face, not at all in keeping with the supposed sophistication of an eighth-year man-child. "Come, come, no need to be modest about it. I am … impressed." He planted the word deliberately, and it had the effect he'd been looking for; Potter beamed, and Severus knew for sure that what Minerva had told him weeks ago was true. The boy wanted to impress him. Merlin save him from that pathetic goal, he thought, but there it is.
"Didn't see you there, Professor," Potter said. "Sorry, I'm sure you found that too silly for words." He pretended embarrassment, but Severus could tell he didn't mean it. He was clearly thrilled that Severus had walked in, delighted to have been on display for him.
Gryffindors are always such show-offs, Severus told himself, but the thought didn't have much punch behind it. Potter's little performance had, in fact, been entertaining, in a sweet way that Severus usually would have found cloying but that in this case seemed simply … generous. Potter was willing to put on this childish act in order to cheer up one of Severus' Slytherins, to whom he owed no House loyalty or comradeship at all. It was startling, and impressive.
"On the contrary, I enjoyed the show," Severus said, raising an eyebrow at Potter, trying to radiate an ambiguous irony that he wasn't sure the boy would catch. But no matter. "Mister Jenkins, what did you think of Mister Potter's dramatic skills?"
"He's very good, sir!" the boy squeaked, and then coughed. The snake handed him his glass of water, and he took a gulp before speaking again. "I like the snake. He's nice." The boy still looked at the puppet, Severus noticed, and not at Potter. "Will you do another story?" he asked in a hopeful voice.
"Maybe tomorrow," Potter answered with a glance at Severus. "I'd better go now. I think Professor Snape wants to talk to you." At Nathaniel's forlorn expression, he added, "I'll come back tomorrow morning, if you're still here. I promise. We'll do another story then, all right?"
"Yay! Thanks, Harry!" The boy finally looked at Potter as he jumped off the bed and shoved his feet back into his shoes.
"No problem, Nate. You get better, hear?" Potter gave the boy a grin and headed for the door, his snake puppet under his arm.
"Mister Potter. If you can spare the time, I would like a word with you. I'll only be a moment here with Mister Jenkins."
"Um. Sure, Professor. I'll, uh, wait for you in the hall." He ducked out of the room, looking hurried and suddenly uncertain.
Severus nodded. He stood stiffly by Nathaniel's bed and gave his little pep talk, which seemed inconsequential in comparison with Potter's show. "Do get as much rest as you can, Mister Jenkins, and make sure you follow Madame Pomfrey's instructions to the letter, or I shall hear of it," he finished, feeling distinctly untherapeutic. "And attend to your studies if you feel up to it. I will look in on you tomorrow, as well."
"Yes, sir," Nathaniel answered nervously.
Severus hesitated. "And do … relax, Jenkins. I do not, on principle, disapprove of puppet shows."
Nathaniel looked frightened, puzzled, and—just slightly—relieved, in quick succession. "Yes, sir," he repeated. "Thank you, sir."
Severus nodded to him once more and left the room. Potter was standing in the hall, looking not entirely sure of himself or of why he'd been asked to wait. Severus kept walking, and Potter jumped to match strides with him.
"Thank you for your efforts on Jenkins' behalf," Severus began. "I'm sure he's quite bored, and a little distraction will do him good."
"Ah, yes, sir," Potter answered, sounding surprised and pleased. "I hope so." He was taking long steps to keep up.
"You should know, Mister Potter," Severus continued, "that all your … efforts around the castle have been observed. You have been remarkably, almost suspiciously, helpful this entire term, in every situation where you could possibly be of assistance." He looked sideways, almost accusingly, at the boy, trying to encourage him to talk.
"Well. I just do what I can, you know."
"Every possible thing you can, apparently."
Potter smiled at that. "Should I stop?" he asked innocently.
"Not at all. I merely wanted to make sure you knew that your activities have been … noticed."
"That's good, sir."
"One might ask why, of course."
Potter's face suddenly was serious. "So others will see that I'm grateful. For everything they've done. And that I'm trying to … live up to the example they set."
They had reached a confluence of corridors, one where Severus knew their paths must diverge for their respective morning classes. He paused, just for a moment, and looked down at the young man who had stopped beside him. He looked very earnest—surely I never looked that earnest, Severus thought—and innocent at that moment, in spite of all the pain he'd endured that had grown him up, so quickly, into a man.
Severus looked at him, trying to make his gaze gentle, just this once; then he said softly, "You may rest assured, Mister Potter, that they do." He closed his eyes for an instant and bowed, ever so slightly, then turned and walked away.
X X X X X
By the next week, Nathaniel Jenkins had returned to health and the Slytherin dormitory. Severus understood, from furtive conversations he overheard in the Slytherin common room, that a few more puppet shows had occurred after the one he'd witnessed, and that their content had become more exciting and perhaps even a bit racy. He was just as glad not to know the details.
Late that week, which was the second in December, Harry Potter had begun organizing the younger students into examination study groups—mixed-House study groups, no less—and conducting review sessions for them in the large sitting room all the Houses shared near the Great Hall. Severus noted that Potter didn't seem to be attempting to coach anyone on advanced subjects—he'd have needed Granger to help him with that, and she was at Oxford—but he was welcoming all comers, and questions on all topics, through fourth-year courses. Severus wondered how Potter was getting his own studying done, but he supposed it would make little difference since the boy had never studied very much to begin with. Coaching other students was probably as good a study method for him as any.
Examination week arrived. Students were tense, nights were sleepless, and Harry Potter was making the rounds of the Great Hall tables every morning, wearing a smile, patting backs, giving encouragement to the worried and comfort to the distraught. He's like a bloody cheerleader, Severus grumbled to himself. But it didn't seem to be hurting anything. Exams came and went, and everyone survived. They had reached the official holiday season, and the train would arrive the next day to carry the little buggers home. In Severus' opinion, it couldn't arrive soon enough.
Some of his own little serpentine brood, however, were not in such a hurry. A number of them would happily have stayed on a few more days if they'd been allowed.
And it was all because of Harry.
Severus learned of Potter's popularity within his House on the night after examinations had finished. Students usually spent this last night in their House common rooms, celebrating and gadding about, freed form the responsibility of homework. When Severus entered his own common room after dinner, however, he found a large and disturbingly quiet crowd of Slytherins gathered, rapt, in a circle. In the center of the circle, he discovered to his utter lack of surprise, sat Harry Potter with his snake puppet.
Fascinated, and not yet seen by the students as he'd come in through a side door partially obscured by a curtain, Severus stood very still and watched Potter perform again. He had to stifle a chuckle when the boy produced another puppet, an owl with its own voice and personality, which began interacting with the snake.
The story was similar to the snake family rescue dramatized in Potter's earlier show, but with some added twists thanks to the owl. The snakes were trying to escape from a flood this time, apparently; the owl was trusted to fly with the snakes, one at a time, in its beak; the snakes were happy to make a new home in the owl's tree; some sort of bat—not represented by a puppet, as Potter had only two arms—was credited with helping the snakes in some way. And always, there were the voices, like Potter's and yet not, and occasionally, to the delight of the Slytherins, hissing in Parseltongue. It was ridiculous, and it was one of the funniest things Severus had ever seen. Where had the boy learned to do this, he wondered?
Severus looked over the crowd of his young charges, all of whom seemed captivated. He judged from the size of the group that nearly every member of his House was present, even the seventh-years. It should have been impossible for anything to entertain all of them, but there they sat, and there sat Potter. Severus shook his head in disbelief.
Potter spied him then, as he made that small motion, and he sat up straighter in his chair and gave Severus a wide smile. "Hullo, Professor," he called, forcing Severus to come out from behind his curtain and reveal that he'd been watching.
"Mister Potter. You do seem somehow to be everywhere these days, I must say." He tried for a jousting tone, to see what he could get the boy to say in response.
"Yes, sir!" Potter answered cheerfully.
It wasn't much to work with, but Severus tried again. "Your energy and talents are … admirable, but I must say I don't recall ever seeing you in the Slytherin common room before."
"No, sir, I don't expect you have."
"And could there be a reason for that, perhaps?"
"Well, I don't think I've ever been invited before."
"I see. And you were invited tonight, I assume?"
"Of course." Potter smiled at the circle of first-years at the front of the crowd surrounding him, all of whom turned to Severus with panicked expressions.
"We invited him, Professor!" they piped. "Please let him stay, sir! The story's not over yet!"
"How remarkable. A Gryffindor invited by Slytherins into their own common room. What would the Headmistress think?" Severus was just managing to keep from laughing out loud, but he didn't want to give up his gravitas quite yet.
The little snakes were ready with an answer. "It's just Harry, Professor Snape! He's okay, isn't he? It's just Harry!"
"Oh, well, then, if it's just Harry … " Severus said slowly, as if reluctantly allowing that Harry was special, while he rolled his eyes at that very same Harry,rightover the heads of the younger students. "Do tell me, Mister Potter, have you more to share with us this evening? Or should I insist that these younglings take themselves off to bed at once, and allow you to return to your own common room, where others, no doubt, are also clamoring for your presence?"
Potter played along very seriously, though Severus could see that he was barely controlling his own laughter. "Don't worry about the Gryffindors, they've seen it before. This is the first time I've been invited … er, to perform somewhere else." He gave Severus a sly smile, and added, "Sir," with a tiny nod. Then he continued, challengingly, "As I understand it, there's no actual rule against a student being in another House's common room. As long as he was invited, of course."
"I believe you are correct," Severus replied. "Though Merlin knows, even if there were a mere rule I wouldn't expect it to stop you." He paused to allow a little tittering of laughter to pass through the crowd. "Pray continue, Potter. I'm sure we would all like to see … how things turn out. For the snakes, that is." He waved a hand at the boy, as if granting him the stage once more.
"Right, sir." He looked back at the Slytherins and gave them a broad smile, his performing face, turning his head as he did to take in every one of them from the smallest first-year girl to the seventh-year boys larger than he was. And then he dropped back into character again, his voice compressing itself into the thin, sibilant rattle of Parseltongue and immediately capturing the attention of everyone in the room.
The story continued. The snake puppet took over for a while, speaking now in an extremely peculiar Parsel-tenglish hybrid language that made the creature entirely understandable, but that Severus was sure he'd never heard the likes of before. The snake first finished the story of his family's rescue by the owl and the bat and various other animals who should have been uninterested in helping him. Then he spoke directly to the young students sitting closest to Potter, posing them riddles, telling them very bad jokes, and generally engaging in sassy repartee that seemed, to Severus, unlikely for any snake to bother with. The students, of course, loved it. They laughed, talking and hissing back to the snake, and the youngest ones seemed to be edging closer and closer to it as if they were desperate to touch the fuzzy, un-reptilian little thing. And through it all, Severus saw that just as Nathaniel had, they were speaking directly to the puppet, and not once to Potter. It was as if the boy was not even there, or at least was not nearly as real as his puppets.
Why in the world, how in the world, was Potter doing this, Severus wondered? He watched the boy closely, trying to understand. It was as though some real part of him was coming out through the puppets, something he didn't have to force, something so honest that the children of Slytherin House couldn't stop themselves interacting with it.
Potter the Puppet-Master, he thought with amusement, but the words immediately cast such a dark shadow that just thinking them made Severus queasy. It was just a puppet show, he told himself. There was no reason to impute some deeper meaning to an innocent children's entertainment.
Still, he could not push it from his mind, and he frowned more than smiled at the remainder of Potter's little performance. When the story was finished, Severus let his little snakes pet the puppets for a few moments—knowing that if he tried to tear them away without allowing this he would have a revolt on his hands—but stepped in before they could begin begging for another story, and gave Potter a severe look to indicate that he should remove himself and let the Slytherins get on with their packing and preparations for going home on the morrow. The boy looked startled by Severus' sternness but gathered his puppets quickly enough, wished the Slytherins a good-night, and took himself away.
The rest of the end-of-term evening passed as quietly as such an evening could be expected to. Severus kept aloof from the students, letting them finish their packing and settle up their business on their own. He did not know if puppet shows were occurring in other Houses, nor did he care. He did not know if Harry Potter would be leaving on the train the next day, and he would have said, at the time, that he did not care about that, either.
This last, however, was far from true.
X X X X X
The Yule holidays passed in peace and quiet. Potter removed himself to the Burrow for the hols, and Severus found himself wondering, from time to time, what the boy was up to with his surrogate family. The first time he caught himself doing so, he scowled so hard that the other staff members eating lunch with him at the time inquired worriedly as to whether he was ill. He took this opportunity to turn his general and perpetual irritation on them, which silenced them promptly. There were no further inquiries as to his health after that.
It was probably a good thing that the other teachers left him mostly alone, he decided, because he was sure no one really wanted to hear the truth about how cold and sore he felt nearly all the time. It was all he could do to warm himself up enough to sleep at night, with blankets and a fire and warming spells piled on top of warming spells.
Severus did allow himself to think about Harry Potter on one occasion. When final marks had all been reported, Severus let himself surreptitiously into the Headmistress' office and saw in the school record books—even before Potter himself did—that the boy had gotten high marks in all his subjects. Puppetry, he noted, was not among them.
Everything you know is wrong.
-Weird Al Yankovic
Winter term commenced, and the long, slow slog through the school year continued. Climatic conditions in the castle reached their nadir, and Severus was miserable.
Through each chilly, ache-filled day and frigid, restless night, Severus kept watching Harry Potter, kept thinking about Harry Potter. He thought he understood better what the boy was up to now—though the puppet shows were utterly baffling—but still didn't quite believe it. He remained alert for lapses in the perfect behavior, thinking they would release him from the pressure of being a role model. Sometimes he wished that he and Potter could go back to their accustomed rituals for hating each other, which at least he'd understood.
He looked surreptitiously out from under his eyebrows while grading papers at his desk, as the boy and his classmates were busily working. He looked down his nose at Potter as he entered and left the classroom. He watched the boy outside the classroom, too, trying to catch him in some sort of suspicious liaisons. The most he ever got for his efforts was a shy, sometimes blushing smile when Potter's eyes caught his, as happened more frequently than was strictly proper during what was meant to be an undetected surveillance. The blush, Severus thought, made it look as though he had in fact been caught in the middle of something, but Severus could never discern exactly what mischief he had interrupted.
As the term's weeks passed Potter began arriving in the potions classroom early, taking his seat and then organizing his tools and supplies, usually while smiling silently to himself. Severus realized sometime late in January that the boy was more and more often the last one to leave as well, always finding something that needed fixing or storing away that was not really his responsibility. He would still be smiling to himself as he left the room, usually not looking at Severus but somehow making him feel as though the entire rest of the world had its eyes on him, and as though the entire world was judging Severus to be up to no good, Severus to be the one causing trouble.
Early in February, Potter took to sitting at the end of the Gryffindor table closest to the staff table during meals. Severus, thinking something new must be afoot and wishing to keep a closer eye on it, took to sitting at the end of the staff table closest to the Gryffindors. If anyone noticed their mutual changes in seating habits, no one remarked on it. Severus managed to glare or sneer at the boy several times during every meal after that, and Potter managed to smile in improbable innocence at his teacher just as often. Severus began to see that smile in his dreams at night, as if it were mocking him, defying him, daring him to solve the riddle of what its owner was really up to.
X X X X X
Then one cold February Sunday he got another glimpse of what Potter was doing, and suddenly, it all began to make sense. Harry Potter, he saw, was trying in his own small and peculiar ways to do nothing less than reshape the magical world.
It was a very dreary afternoon when it happened. The weather was ghastly, with grey skies and sleet falling sideways and the eerie voice of the wind whistling everywhere. The older students were quiet and sullen; the younger ones were on edge. Everyone had too much schoolwork. No one had had enough sleep. And Harry Potter, for his own inscrutable reasons, was organizing a collaborative puppet show. Or something.
Severus came upon the Boy Who Lived To Play Puppet-Master in the shared sitting room, the same room in which he'd coached dozens of nervous youngsters before exams in December. Potter stood in front of the fireplace with a large group of first-year pupils. He had a sack of puppets in a nearby chair, and was handing them out one by one to the eager bunch. A larger-than-life raven puppet was given, surprisingly, to a Gryffindor called Henry. A brown-and-grey owl went to Jan, a Ravenclaw girl. Slytherin Nathaniel Jenkins, bouncing on his toes at the front of the pack, was given a fluffy white dog. And finally, the now famous Parseltongue-speaking snake puppet went to a very small, timid Hufflepuff boy named Thomas Brown, who looked as though he might faint when Potter handed him the long, fuzzy green thing.
"But Harry," the little boy said in a shaky, squeaky voice, "I can't be the snake. Shouldn't you give it to Nate?"
"You'll do just fine, Tom," Potter replied. "Give him a hug, why don't you? Snakes need hugs, too, you know." Thomas Brown stared gravely at the snake puppet for a long moment, then suspiciously back at Potter, for an instant … and then closed his eyes and hugged the puppet, hard, to his chest. When he opened his eyes again, it was with a smile. "He likes me, I think," he whispered happily.
Potter smiled back at him, and then moved on. Severus lurked in a doorway, silently watching, as he organized his little troupe for its task. "Here's what we're up against this morning, ladies and gentlemen," the boy said, in his best Dumbledore's Army voice. "We've got a problem, a problem with these puppets."
The faces of the assistant puppeteers fell, and they looked at the puppets they held with dismay. The faces of the audience—those not holding puppets—looked worried. Were they going to see a show or not?
"I have to report to you," Potter said very seriously, "that they've been fighting."
Fighting? came the murmur from the crowd.
"Yes, fighting. Right in their bag. I've had to pull some of them apart every morning when I wake up, they've gotten into it so badly during the night."
The young faces looked horrified.
"And if they keep fighting, I'll have to put them in my trunk. They won't be able to do any more shows. They won't like that." Potter looked grim with promise.
His young assistants were distraught. "No, Harry!" came the general cry. "Tell them not to fight!"
"Well, I've told them. But they don't listen very well. So we have to figure out a way to keep them from fighting. And that's where I need your help." Potter put his hands on his hips, a general addressing his troops before battle. "How should we keep them from fighting?"
The suggestions covered a wide range of awful:
"Tie them up!"
"Lock them in separate bags!"
"Cane them!" Ouch, thought Severus, from his doorway. Best to be careful with that child.
"No, no, those things are no good. Would it work if somebody did those things to you?" Potter asked. There was an uneasy silence. "That's what I thought. Can't we come up with something not so … mean?"
There was a long silence and much deep thinking. Finally little Thomas Brown said, "What if we just made them be friends?"
"Ah," said Potter with a smile. "But how would we do that?"
The children looked at one another.
"Put them in the same House," said one.
"Tell them they have to share a cookie."
"Make them sleep in the same bed." Severus barely restrained himself from snorting out loud.
"Let them just play together."
"Wait, I like that one," Potter said, pointing at the child who had made the suggestion. "What should they play?"
"Chess!" shouted the little girl who'd suggested sharing a bed. Severus made a mental note to keep an eye on that one as she grew older.
"We've got too many players for chess. What else?" Potter asked gently.
"Hide and seek?"
"I think we'd need a much bigger room. Try again."
"Hmm. Outdoors only for that, I'm afraid." Severus shuddered with relief. Minerva would not have been pleased about balls flying around the nicely furnished, very dignified sitting room.
Nathaniel Jenkins was hopping up and down. "I know, I know, Harry!" he shouted. "We can play Seven Up! Or … " he looked around at the four assistant puppeteers. "We could make it Four Up."
"That's the way to think, Nate," Harry said. "The puppets are the four, eh? They can play every round, but you lot," he gestured at the children, "take turns. Sound good?"
They jumped and clamored. Severus assumed that was an affirmative response.
"Right, then. You four, you can start. Come up by the curtain. The rest of you sit on the floor, heads down, thumbs up. Ready? Everyone quiet? Go!"
So the game began. The children holding puppets circulated among the crowd on the floor, each quietly pressing down the thumb of one sitter. Then the chosen sitters stood and tried to guess who had picked them. Round after round it went on, all somewhat randomly as far as Severus could tell, but the children seemed to have no problem keeping track of what was what. They kept quiet, and politely took turns guessing, and passed each puppet to its next handler willingly. After a few rounds, they seemed to be managing the game on their own, and Potter the Puppet-Master stepped away to watch.
Severus slipped into the room and spoke quietly from behind his back. "You continue to amaze me, Mister Potter. Whenever I think I have you sorted out, you pull some strange new trick out of your bag and astonish me again."
The boy did not jump, but merely smiled at the sound of his teacher's voice. He didn't turn to look at Severus as he replied. "I'm glad I can keep you on your toes, sir. I wouldn't want you to get too … comfortable. With thinking you understand me, that is."
"Is that your actual goal, then? To keep me on my toes, keep me up nights, wondering what you might do next?"
"You could say that. Sir." The boy gave him a sidelong smile, one eyebrow lifted suggestively.
Is he teasing me … or Merlin help him, flirting with me? This shocking possibility hit Severus like cold water in the face. Does he even understand … but Potter did seem to understand exactly what he was doing these days, even when his motives were impenetrable to others. Still, the thought of the boy having amorous thoughts about a teacher, and a male teacher at that, was patently ridiculous, so Severus put it out of his mind.
"I'd be ever so grateful, Potter," he said, determined to show no reaction, "if you'd spare me one sleepless night and elucidate the purpose of this particular little … event for me."
The boy's expression became serious. "It's about what happened to you, sir. I want to try to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Severus found this a mystifying response. "What happened to me?"
"Yes. Others too, of course. You were caught between Houses, caught between friends. You had to choose, and so did they. And it cost you." He looked down, biting his lip for a moment. "It cost us all."
"I see," was all Severus could think to say.
They stood next to each other in silence for a few moments, watching the children. At length Severus spoke again, to ask the question he simply could not puzzle out an answer to. "I think I am beginning to comprehend. But puppet shows, Potter? How on earth did you come up with this particular … medium?"
"We were all puppets once, weren't we?" Harry said quietly. "Just like these puppets … we were all made to play in games we didn't really understand. Puppets don't know what they're doing, or why." He looked at the floor for a moment, and Severus could see his gaze shifting from his own dirty trainers to Severus' polished black boots, and then back again. Finally he looked up again, his face carefully emotionless. "I rather like the idea of finding a more innocent sort of puppetry to play at."
"I applaud your initiative, Mister Potter. But I must disagree with you on one point."
"And what's that?"
He looked into the boy's eyes as he spoke, catching and holding him, so that he would be sure to understand. "Some of us knew, at least, the why."
"And that was?"
He allowed his expression to soften minutely. "Some of us," he said slowly, "had promises to keep. People to look after. Allowing ourselves to be used as puppets was, at times, the only way to keep those promises." He held Harry's eyes for a long moment, until the boy blushed and looked away. Severus closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
They stood side by side, elbows not quite touching, and watched the children playing for a while without speaking. Then Severus said quietly, "I have another question, if you'll indulge me once more. How, exactly, did you get started doing … this, whatever it is that you're doing?"
He shrugged. "I saw some puppets in the window of a toy shop last summer. I thought they were cute, you know, a snake puppet seemed like a funny idea. And it just sort of … fit. A little girl was in the shop when I put it on my hand, just for fun you understand, and she watched me, and then she wouldn't leave me alone." He blushed. "It was kind of awkward at first. She really wanted to talk to the puppet, and I just had to kind of go along with her. But it worked, somehow. It was fun for me, too, once I decided not to be, you know, embarrassed about it."
Of course, he would be an entirely natural puppet-master, Severus thought to himself. As powerful as he is … why would I even be surprised?
They stood together and watched the rest of the game. The children declared that the owl was the winner, though Severus couldn't see exactly why, and he shared his prize—a bagful of tiny toy broomsticks—with all of them. The puppets had a party, and pretended to eat ice cream. All the children got a chance to cuddle a puppet for a few moments, and all the puppets would need to have ice cream cleaned off their faces later.
It was one of the most bizarre events ever to have taken place at Hogwarts, Severus was sure.
But as he slipped quietly out of the room, while the children of wizarding Britain ate real ice cream together—obligingly supplied by house-elves who still considered Harry Potter their personal champion—he thought that perhaps he finally understood.
Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.
-Dr. Benjamin Spock
Severus continued to watch Harry Potter, and to think about Harry Potter. Some days, it seemed to him that he thought of little else.
These were not particularly unpleasant days.
Potter took up a new habit sometime in the middle of February. He began to bring Severus coffee in his office, early in the morning, with absolutely no precedent, invitation or discernible purpose other than simply being friendly.
Too friendly, Severus decided immediately. "What is this?" he asked the first time Potter appeared in his office with a coffee cup.
"Coffee," the boy answered helpfully.
"I can see that. But why?"
"I thought you might like some." Potter dashed out, grinning, before Severus could sputter a response. He was alone again in his office, and against his better judgment, he drank the coffee. It was very good.
"This is unnecessary, Potter," Severus said the next morning.
"Really, you shouldn't be doing this," he said the third morning.
"This is quite inappropriate, Mister Potter," he said sternly, the fourth morning.
"Harry. Stop," he said in desperation, the fifth time Potter barged cheerfully into his office with a steaming mug and a smile.
Potter stopped in his tracks. But he kept on smiling.
"Why are you doing this?" Severus asked in a pleading voice.
"Because I feel like it." The smile brightened. There were dimples, Severus noticed for the first time.
"Shouldn't you be eating breakfast?"
"Don't you have another class to get to?"
"On my way." And off he ran.
Then it was the weekend, and for those two days Severus decided to keep to his rooms with an ear cocked toward the door, in case the little brat showed up there with coffee, too. But he did not. By late morning Saturday, Severus realized he'd got used to the stuff and wanted some. This did not help his disposition.
On Monday he was ready for the damnable boy when he popped in with his bloody mug of liquid cheerfulness again. "Potter," he snarled, standing up behind his desk, "sit down."
He sat quickly enough, in the straight chair in the corner of the office, and smiled up at Severus. This didn't help matters.
"Why are you doing this? And where are you even getting the bloody coffee?" It was irritating, that it had to be such good coffee. "Answer me, Potter. A real answer, please." He crossed his arms and tried to loom.
"I won't tell you where I'm getting the coffee. Sir." He smirked annoyingly. "I have to have some secrets, you know, to keep you guessing. Remember?"
"I remember," Severus said petulantly. "Why, then. The truth, boy. Out with it."
"Okay, okay. Look, you're not sleeping well, right?"
Severus opened his mouth to argue the point, but Potter waved at him and went on. "Don't say anything, I know you're not. I can tell. And I know the cold bothers you. Because of the snake-bite."
Severus drew back, bemused. How?
"I just wanted to … you know, help a bit, if I could. And I can't make it warmer around here, though I would if I could," and he gave Severus a very strange look, "but this is Scotland, after all. So I thought hot coffee in the morning would, um, kill two birds with one stone. So to speak. That is, it would be hot. And it would wake you up. After you, ah, don't sleep. That is." He seemed to run out of words, and went back to just smiling.
Severus stared at him for a long moment, but finally sat back down behind his desk. His bad leg was starting to throb. "You are a very strange young man," he said, then gave up and took the coffee mug. Potter beamed at him.
"I'm just sorry I didn't think of this sooner," Potter said.
"Please try not to think of anything else, will you? And get to class; you're going to be late." He drank as Potter trotted off, looking happy.
He did not sleep any better, with Potter bringing him coffee. His classes did not go any more smoothly, and the students were no less imbecilic than before.
But the mornings, he had to admit, were looking up.
X X X X X
Then there came a particularly cold and snowy late winter day on which some cretin or other in every single one of Severus' classes managed to blow up something flaming or caustic or putrid, a day on which he cursed Albus Dumbledore for sending him back to teaching, a day when the effects of Potter's coffee lasted not nearly long enough. That evening he collapsed in his rooms, exhausted, aching and already cold. It promised to be a beastly unpleasant night.
It was, unfortunately, not.
It turned out to be a dangerously, horrifyingly pleasant night, indeed—at least, for as long as Severus remained asleep, and dreaming.
He dreamt, in the deepest hour of the darkness, from within the sheltering softness of his bed in which he had finally, finally got warm, that the softness keeping him warm was not his duvet but was instead Harry Potter, who was somehow right there in the bed beside him. He dreamt that the boy was holding him close, just as he had while carrying Severus from the shack those long months ago. Potter was also, inexplicably, kissing him like a lover, and then—oh, Gods, Merlin, someone, help me, he heard himself moaning as the dream, and the boy's lips, progressed—sliding down his body leaving little wet kisses along the way, finally reaching Severus' groin and swallowing his heavy, needy cock straight down that lovely slender throat, and sucking so hard and suddenly that Severus climaxed with a deep groan and awoke, sweating, sticky and completely disoriented.
He sat up shaking in his bed. I do not … he told himself sternly, when he could think clearly enough to put words together, I do not lust after students. I will not. Not even in my sleep. I cannot allow myself … But at that he put his head in his hands and groaned again, this time with dismay instead of satisfaction. A terrible truth was dawning on him, one he did not want to accept.
He got out of bed and cleaned himself up, wiping his cock—now slumbering happily against his thigh—roughly with a wet cloth as if to chastise it for betraying him. Traitorous thing, he thought angrily, plunging into that boy's mouth like you were meant to be there, as if he could ever want you there, as if I would ever put you there ... But it was no use; the facts of his situation were staring him in the face, and Severus believed himself to be a man who did not run from difficult truths. So he put on a clean nightshirt and dressing gown and poured a drink of the strongest stuff he owned. He turned up the fire in his sitting room with a wave and sat in the big old chair in front of the fire. He sat there very still for a moment, his leg aching and his heart pounding. Finally he looked into the fire's depths and drank, swallowing swiftly, not tasting, simply trying to achieve a modicum of numbness before turning his full attention to this most challenging of realizations.
He had fallen for Harry Potter. No, be completely honest with yourself, he thought savagely. Do not mince words. You are in love with the boy. He, Severus Snape, who had truly loved no one and nothing since Lily died, was definitely, nauseatingly, horrifyingly in love with her son, a boy who nearly could have been his own son … At that awful thought he gave up trying to numb himself and threw the glass into the fire, feeling a mean pleasure at the sound of it shattering. He covered his face with his hands, choking back a gasp that was not a sob.
I don't understand, he thought despairingly. Why him, of all people? Why now, of all times?
Irritatingly enough, he answered his own questions immediately. Because, you fool, he is more beautiful, and has proved himself more worth loving, than anyone else you have ever known.
Truthful words kept rolling up out of his brain, forcing him to hear them. You are such an idiot, such a pathetic excuse for a man. And now you will only make yourself more pathetic, by fawning on him, goggling at him, acting strangely every time you are in his presence …
He sat, numb and horror-struck, in his chair until morning.
Prudent, cautious self-control is wisdom's root.
Winter term blustered on. There were occasional puppet shows. The four school Houses were getting along splendidly. The only thing students fought over these days, as far as Severus could see, was whose turn it was to play with the snake puppet.
Severus felt pathetic, and endured.
Finally the Easter holidays arrived. Severus had thought he could not last another day, forced as he was to watch the object of his bloody-minded affections strolling casually through the corridors, or working earnestly at his potions bench, or worst of all eating in the Great Hall, his lips sliding along his fork, throat muscles working … And the infuriating boy took every opportunity to smile at Severus, always very prettily and unselfconsciously, making it clear that he had no idea what that smile was doing to Severus' insides.
Potter took himself off to visit various Weasley households again this holiday. Severus, thinking perhaps he needed another change of scenery, took himself back to the seaside cottage where he'd spent the previous August, begging its use again from Minerva. She was delighted to send him back to it, agreeing with him that he did seem over-tired and under strain recently. "Crisp salt air, that's what you need," she'd said brightly as she handed him the key.
"Quite," he'd muttered, taking the key and wishing that any sort of air was, in fact, all that he needed.
The crisp salt air did turn out to be bracing. It also turned out to be devastatingly hard on Severus' aching muscles, since at this time of the year it was not only wet and salty but cold, nearly as cold as the highland region around Hogwarts. But at least the cottage was isolated, and there Severus didn't have to endure a moment of unavoidable gazing at Harry Potter, during which he had to remember to keep his mouth from hanging open, and to will away the arousal that always accompanied too long a gaze.
Severus spent the holiday thinking. He pondered and brooded on long, hobbling walks down the grey sand beach, while trying to ignore the throbbing in his leg. He ate simply and in solitude, with only a book for company. He slept long hours, under all the blankets he could find throughout the cottage, and occasionally was even warm. Only once was he awakened by the consequences of an erotic dream, though it was such a vivid one that he wasn't immediately sure it hadn't been real. Trying desperately to awaken fully, he had stumbled from the cottage out into the black starlit night, his chest heaving in the cold air and his sweaty nightclothes chilling him instantly. Finally alert, freezing and aching, he staggered back inside and curled up with a single heavy blanket in front of the fire, feeling wretched, too cold and too discouraged even to wash up. He woke in the morning agonizingly stiff and sore but feeling that he had properly chastened himself.
By the end of the holiday fortnight, he had formulated a plan. It wasn't much of a plan, really, but it was all he could manage, and it was this: to survive, by whatever means necessary, the remaining school term. After that Potter would leave, and though Severus was sure he would still be breathless for the sodding idiot boy, once he was gone at least there would be less chance of humiliating himself due to the boy's simple presence.
He devised a list of tactics to employ in accomplishing his goal of surviving. First, he would begin to take his meals privately, in his rooms. No more watching Harry Potter lick his silverware. And no more morning coffee. He would work in his personal sitting room rather than his office before class, where Potter—he hoped—could not get to him. If it seemed necessary, he would find his own source for decent coffee.
Second, he would pointedly not attend any quidditch matches, or for that matter, any all-school functions. Potter, always a social animal, could reliably be counted on to attend all such events; therefore Severus would not.
Third, he would establish a new practice of encouraging—or rather, forcing—his most senior classes to work with greater independence, fostered by Severus leaving the room entirely as they brewed. He would retreat to his office, in which he could do his own work in privacy; he would be close enough to hear any major disturbances but would be unable to see Potter, who likewise would be unable to see or smile at him.
It was, he admitted to himself, not much of a plan. But there were only a few months left to the school year. All he had to do was get through them without losing either his sanity or his dignity. He owed it to Dumbledore, he told himself, not to disgrace himself, and not to do anything foolish that might get him sacked. If that happened, there would be no way for him to continue teaching so as to eventually settle up the old man's accounts, whatever the hell they turned out to be.
He returned to Hogwarts for the spring term with muscle aches worse than he'd had when he left. He carried inside him a new resolve, however, to survive.
X X X X X
Spring term began, still dressed in the ratty, threadbare remnants of winter. It was cold, damnably cold, and the wind blew itself hoarse at all hours. Then the snow changed almost overnight to rain, and though the sky was still the color of dirty gravel the air warmed considerably. The pain in Severus' leg persisted, but the general achiness of his body was muted a bit. He tried to be grateful for the slight improvement.
Severus kept himself almost entirely to his private rooms and, except for early in the morning when he carefully avoided it, his office. He remained in the classroom with the younger students, but for the oldest ones he gave very brief lectures and instructions—mostly with his back turned, directing a magicked stick of chalk on a self-cleaning chalkboard—and then disappeared, leaving them to work out on their own what to do next. He found, to his surprise, that most of the older students performed better while working this way, and he wondered why he hadn't thought to try it before.
He discovered that the house-elves were, on request, capable of making decent coffee.
He managed to avoid all but the briefest of peripheral glances at Potter in this way, though he was dimly aware of the boy's eyes on him, as if trying to get his attention, like soft, persistent wings beating at the edges of his awareness. As long as he escaped to his office quickly, however, he found he was able to fend all this off and stay in control of himself, more or less satisfactorily. Every day the pressure of the boy's gaze seemed a little more intense, but Severus had his hands full; Potter would have to take care of himself.
The first month of the term went quietly enough, and he began to relax minutely. Without the constant stimulation of Harry Potter in his line of sight, he was able to cautiously resume the normal routines he'd lost interest in over the previous several highly distracted weeks. He caught up on his professional journals, and even read a book or two just for pleasure. He graded papers in a timely manner. He slept better, and at least in this first month—he drew a hasty rune in the air with his hand as he thought about this, so as not to curse himself unintentionally—he'd had no more dreams of himself and Potter rutting shamelessly together. Things, he told himself, were improving.
The weather turned distinctly better. The students' moods perked up, and with them Severus' own. He began to consider whether he might release himself from his self-imposed exile. Potter will be looking forward to the end of the school year, he told himself, he will have forgotten all about aggravating me. Or smiling at me. Damn him. He shuddered, and had to cut off that train of thought quickly, as he could feel it tugging him down a familiar path on which he knew he'd end up hot and aroused, imagining what the boy's skin would feel like, what his naked body would look like, oh, it would no doubt be so smooth and lovely … He shook his head and cursed silently. Clearly it would not be safe for him to venture back outside his private spaces, not until Potter was entirely gone.
So as April blew past, with its weather sometimes rainy and windy, sometimes mild and sunny, Severus kept to his strict isolation routine. His leg throbbed frequently, his entire body ached intermittently, and he was still cold all the time. Dungeons, he noticed for the first time, are slow to warm up in the spring. Only a few more weeks, he told himself.
He was in the process of enduring one evening, doing prep work alone in the laboratory, when there was a tentative knock at the great wooden door. "You may enter," he called out, though in a voice that was anything but inviting.
The door opened slowly, as if the person on the other side thought something might jump out from behind it. "Severus?" he heard in the distinctive brogue of Minerva McGonagall, just before her stern grey-haired head leaned around the door and into view. She gave him a disingenuous smile. "Ah, good. You are here."
"Where else would I be?" he asked testily.
"Now, now. No need to get temperamental. We've seen little to none of you lately, and I thought I'd best take a look for myself, to make sure you're all right."
"I'm perfectly fine." I am surviving, and that's enough, he thought grimly.
"I'm very glad to see that. But you might put in an appearance at meals, say, now and then, don't you think? At least pretend to tolerate our company? It would keep people from asking questions, you know, which I'd think you would prefer." She looked at him sternly, her eyes narrowed.
He gave a scoffing snort. "I can't imagine many people are asking after me, and I'm sure you can take care of any idiots who are."
"Well, ordinarily I would say yes, that is true, but you see, I'm having rather a difficult time with Mister Potter. He seems to have acquired the notion that you are quite ill. Even, perhaps, that you are suffering some long-term effects from your, ah, injuries last year."
"Potter thinks I'm ill?"
"He's convinced of it. He's asked after you every day for the past week now, and he acts extremely concerned, Severus, really. Perhaps you could just speak to him, set his mind at ease? I'm afraid I can't continue putting him off. At least, not without knowing for sure that you are all right."
"My personal health or lack of it is no concern of Potter's," Severus said curtly, hoping this tone would cover any panic that might creep into his voice. "And neither is it his business where and how I spend my time."
"Of course not, but those things are to some extent my business, as Headmistress. I don't wish to intrude upon your privacy, but … surely you understand Harry's concern, don't you? He does take a bit of a special interest in you now, and you can't blame him … "
"I do not wish to be the subject of Potter's interest, Minerva. I do not wish, truth be told, to deal with him at all. As far as I'm concerned he should have left me where he found me and gotten on with his life. We would all have been better off."
She looked horrified. "You don't mean that."
"I do mean it. I didn't ask the boy to drag my body home," though of course he didn't drag me, did he; he had to carry me in his arms where I could smell him and feel the warmth of him, and hear his heart beating, "and I do not welcome his concern for me now. You can tell him that the next time he asks after me."
"I will not. You can tell him yourself, if you're so determined." She gave him a hard look. "If you didn't want him to change his opinion of you, you shouldn't have shown him so much of the truth, in your memories."
"You know I didn't expect either of us to live when I gave them to him. If I'd had any idea that I'd still be dealing with the consequences, I would never …"
"Yes, well, it's too late to take them back, isn't it? You've just got to cope."
"Coping is what I've been doing, Minerva, and it's all I can manage. I will not deal with the boy any further."
"Oh, but you will, Severus. I don't know when, but Harry is going to come to you himself before long, I'm sure, and when he does, I expect you to be civil to him. He saved your life, and if he wants to worry about you now, you're going to bloody well let him."
She spun sharply and walked to the door, then turned back to him before exiting. "And Severus. Be aware that the staff as well have noticed your absence, and we are all concerned about you." Her voice softened. "It's been a difficult year for us all, you know. So many losses. Let's not make it any harder on each other than we have to, hmm?"
She was halfway out the door when she spoke to him once more, her voice at its gentlest, though he had not answered her. "Perhaps I'll see you tomorrow, then? Think about what I've said, please. Good-night, Severus."
Then she was gone, and he sat down heavily at his desk and closed his eyes. He stayed that way for a long time, considering what to do next. He could not defy her or put her off indefinitely, that much he was sure of. And if she was correct about Potter, and the boy would be knocking on his door personally before long … and that would be a problem. It would not do to have him in here alone, especially if he came in the evening as Minerva had, when there was no press of students moving in and out of the room.
It was not that Severus didn't trust himself, not exactly. He simply dreaded all the emotional twisting and wrenching he would go through if he had to actually speak to the boy again at close quarters. It would be even worse if Potter looked worried about him, if those lovely eyes turned to him in concern, if it looked like the little fool might be thinking of doing something completely ridiculous. Snakes need hugs, too, you know, he could hear Potter's voice saying.
He could not leave things to happen by chance, or at Potter's whim. He would have to take preemptive action.
It it not good to see people who have been pretending
strength all their lives lose it even for a minute.
The next morning Severus took his breakfast in the Great Hall. He sat in his most recent accustomed seat, near the Gryffindor table, and made himself both plainly visible, and visibly healthy. He arrived early, ate heartily, spoke to numerous other teachers, and even tried to smile occasionally, an effort that was unpleasant but seemed to make Minerva—who he could see was watching him closely—remarkably happy.
Then Potter arrived, walking in close to but not quite with his Gryffindor cohorts. His eyes lit on Severus quickly enough, and a hesitant smile opened up his face. He walked right past the Gryffindors and straight to the head table, stopping on the other side of the table from Severus and quickly putting his hands behind his back, as if to keep them out of trouble. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, uncertain. He stared at Severus, his smile gradually shading into a look of concern. Finally he said simply, "Welcome back, sir."
"I never left, Potter. Don't be dramatic." To force this little conversation with the worried boy was exactly what Severus had intended; now his task was to keep it from running amok.
"I just meant, we haven't seen you at meals for a while."
"I have not gone unfed, I assure you. I've been … working, that's all, and taking my meals in my rooms for convenience."
"Ah. That's good, then." Potter gave him a thorough going-over with his eyes. "I was worried … " he hesitated, " that you might be sick. Or something."
"So I've been told."
"You … you've been told?"
Severus, you idiot. Just get rid of him before you say something truly stupid. "The Headmistress," he said, trying to keep his words to a minimum.
"Oh." Potter looked around, processing this, then looked back at Severus with the faintest of smiles. "You've been working, you said?"
"Yes." No more words than necessary, no more words than necessary … Severus tried not to stare into the boy's eyes, tried even harder not to stare at the messy black hair, which looked soft and shiny, and begged for a leisurely brushing, or at least for fingers to run through it and smooth it down … He managed to stop this train of thought just in time, and scowled.
The boy flinched at the scowl, but recovered quickly. "Anything you, um, need help with?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, I could help, if there was, you know, anything that you needed, uh, help with." He gave up and stood there, looking oddly helpless.
"I do not require any 'help,' Mister Potter. And I prefer to work alone." He caught the boy's eyes with a glare. "Shouldn't you be eating your breakfast?"
"I … yes, sir. I'll go do that." The boy was all twitches and nervousness for a moment. "I just … it's good to see you back." He swallowed visibly. "I'm glad you weren't ill." He nodded once, deferentially, and darted to his seat. Once there he looked up at Severus, who was dismayed to find himself still staring back, and their eyes locked.
Severus took a deep breath, his gaze still holding Potter's, and found—not entirely to his surprise—that he could not look away. The boy's eyes were practically begging him for something. But what?
He was still staring, perplexed and fast becoming aroused in spite of himself, when one of the boys across the table from Potter laughed, very loudly. Potter jerked his eyes away, releasing Severus, and made a face at the laughing boy. He looked as though he was trying to be a good sport about something. Severus continued to watch, fascinated, as one by one the other boys at the table elbowed each other and also began to laugh, all but Potter himself, who was clearly tolerating but not enjoying the joke, whatever it was. They are laughing at Potter, Severus realized with surprise and unease, about something he does not find entirely funny.
The joking continued for some moments, with the boys egging each other on, making new comments—which Severus strained unsuccessfully to hear—and laughing harder at each one. Potter was apparently trying to ignore it all and was looking down at his breakfast. At last the laughter seemed to be quieting, and Severus was startled when Potter shot a quick glance at him, as if he'd been aware of Severus watching the whole scene. That quick glance, however, set the jokers off again, and they began sneaking looks at Severus as well, then looking at Potter again, and finally huddling down over the table and whispering something they seemed to find hilarious. Potter was blushing now and kept trying to eat his breakfast, until one last verbal assault seemed to push him too far and he stood up, looking as if he was struggling to keep a grimace of a smile on his face, and walked quickly out of the Great Hall.
Severus watched all this in amazement. What in the world, he wondered, was all that? He looked back to the table where Potter had been sitting, and saw the boys remaining there look up at him, their faces expectant and naughty, as if daring Severus to contradict them.
Challenge me, will you? Severus thought savagely. I think not, gentlemen. With that he turned his most disdainful sneer on the tableful of boys, expecting to see them look away in defeat, but they did not. They turned their faces away from him, true, but then they huddled together again, and he could see them snickering, not at all repentant. Whatever it was they were laughing at Potter about, Severus knew he was somehow, at this moment, part of the joke.
Severus decided he'd had enough of breakfast, enough of these irksome students, enough of the whole bloody situation. He stood abruptly and stalked out, not granting the Gryffindors another glance.
As he walked the corridors back to the refuge of the dungeons, he considered what he had seen. He felt the sting of the other boys' laughter on Potter's behalf. Those idiots, he thought, He is the bloody saviour, after all. And he's spent the entire year trying to heal wounds he had no part in inflicting. Can't they show him some respect? The more he thought about it, the more irritated he became. Potter had looked truly upset as he'd left the Great Hall, and Severus felt a wave of protectiveness toward the boy rising in himself. It made him want to shake some sense into the heads of the jokers.
Then he remembered Potter's eyes, searching his, asking for something, though for what, Severus had no idea.
He sighed. The war was over, the Dark Lord and Albus both were dead, and Potter was eighteen years old, for Merlin's sake. He had no further obligation to look after the boy.
But it seemed he couldn't keep himself from wanting to.
X X X X X
Severus came out of hiding completely, if reluctantly, after that. He began eating all his meals in the Great Hall again, and though he continued to let his advanced classes struggle on without his help most of the time, he hovered nearby, watching, keeping Potter especially in view.
The boy seemed grateful for his presence. He gave Severus a cautious smile at least once at every meal, though he looked away quickly every time, usually before his comrades caught him at it. He glanced at Severus occasionally in the laboratory, as if in recognition of his teacher's new watchfulness. But he did not speak to Severus at all, not even to ask questions in class, and Severus noted that he did not arrive early or tarry late anymore. He was in and out with the rest of the boys, catching Severus' eyes briefly every time—and Severus made sure that his eyes were always there to be caught, following the boy's every move in case he should look up—but never allowing his gaze to linger once they had.
The teasing continued and even intensified, and Severus watched it closely, but he couldn't do much to stop it. It was just teasing, after all. He realized he could never justify disciplining the other boys, unless things progressed to a more dangerously physical point; they were boys, after all, and were expected to wind each other up occasionally. He knew, too, that intervening might cause Potter more grief than it would save him, if the guilty boys chose to take their own punishment out of Potter in turn.
Potter's response to the teasing didn't always make sense. Sometimes it seemed to upset him, as it had when Severus first witnessed his persecution, but sometimes he seemed able to fend it off or jolly his tormenters onto some other topic of conversation. He still seemed friendly enough with all of them, which baffled Severus, who had never tolerated teasing well as a teenager himself. He supposed, thinking on it, that this was just one of the many differences between himself and Potter.
Predictably, watching Potter deliberately every day again undid all the progress Severus had made in defusing his attraction to the boy, though it did seem to have successfully prevented a private confrontation in the dungeons. He discovered, however, that the nature of his fantasies—unwanted as they still were—had changed subtly. Before, he'd imagined straightforward, physically erotic scenes between them. Now, though, he'd had this startling new flavor of protectiveness toward the boy awakened in him, and it seemed to color his dreams with a new tenderness, as if the sex in them was a manifestation of his protective impulses.
I am his teacher, for Merlin's sake, he told himself miserably as he lay in his bed at night trying but unable to sleep. Having sex with him would not be protecting him. And he would groan, and rub his face with both hands to pull himself out of whatever fantasy he was in the grip of, and get up to fix himself a drink, hoping alcohol might slow down the mental engine that simply would not stop churning out horribly inappropriate thoughts. These nights were long, but the days were as well, as the school year rolled relentlessly on at its own plodding pace, a pace that refused to respond to Severus' pleas for it to hurry up and end before it killed him.
Finally the spring term waned to its last few days. Mercifully few responsibilities remained, but they were onerous ones; there were several unpleasant social events to chaperone, and a week of examinations to give and grade. As these last days passed, Severus settled into a watchful, tense routine. He kept his eye on Potter during the day, always from a distance, but prepared to fly into battle at once if the harassment escalated beyond what he considered reasonable. At night, he fought off his own torments in the form of dreams, both waking and sleeping, about the bloody irritating boy he had promised, all those years ago, to watch over.
Not to have control over the senses is like sailing in a rudderless ship,
bound to break to pieces on coming in contact with the very first rock.
- Mahatma Gandhi
Severus did not like, indeed had never liked, school dances.
He also at the moment, more specifically, did not like loud music, noisy crowds, punch and cookies, and erotically-overcharged teenagers pawing each other right in front of him, as if his presence were no more than a nuisance, as if he didn't have erotic needs of his own, as if it wasn't ruddy awful enough watching Harry Potter literally waltzing around the Great Hall on every possible arm, it seemed, but Severus' own.
There. That should cover it, he thought, having thus catalogued his miseries of the moment. He did not want to be here.
Minerva, though, had been exceedingly clear about her expectation that all staff would be attending this last all-school event of the year. It was intended to be some sort of cheer-leading, team-building experience for staff and students alike, apparently, and to send them all off for the summer hols with happy thoughts about all the other Houses in their heads. "Remember that we're trying to help them learn to live with each other, to be friends, not to fall into those ridiculous and dangerous House disputes of previous years," she'd said as she lectured them at the staff meeting a few days previous. "How are they to see what we expect if we don't model good, cooperative, all-for-one-and-one-for-all behavior among ourselves?" Severus had rolled his eyes at this, sure that he, at least, would not be quickly accepted into the jolly camaraderie she was imagining. But he had known when not to pick a fight—she had seemed very determined on this one—and here he was.
It gave him an opportunity to keep an eye on Potter, of course, for which he was always glad, if also irritated. But a dance, of all places … he'd known it could be more than usually awkward and frustrating to watch the boy in this situation. He'd had no idea, however, just how bad it could get.
He grown so used to Potter's peace-keeping and friend-making activities around the school that he'd stopped really noticing them. They weren't all happening under his nose, most of the time, so he didn't actually have to keep count of how many sobbing first-years Potter had picked up off the sidewalk, or how many hormone-crazed fifth-years he'd diplomatically kept apart. But here …
Potter wasn't the best-looking male student in the place, Severus told himself sternly. There were others, among the older ones, who were taller, more muscular, more classically handsome. But it seemed that all the girls, every last simpering one of them, wanted him as her dance partner. Severus suspected that a few of the boys might even have the same designs, but heaven help any of them if they laid a hand on the Saviour; Severus planned to be instantly in the middle of any such attempted liaison.
He couldn't touch the boy himself, of course, but that didn't mean any other male had a right to. Not that Potter would ever be interested in such a thing. Though Severus wondered if he had considered the potential value of an alliance between two powerful boys, in his efforts to keep peace between Houses. He fervently hoped not.
At any rate, Severus found himself on the night of the dance sitting alone at a table in the corner of the Great Hall, ostensibly as a chaperone for the entire crowd, but actually intent only on watching Harry Potter. As the evening crawled by, he was calm as he watched the boy dance in the early hours with first-year girls who giggled and seemed to clutch his bigger hand very tightly. His eyes followed more suspiciously as the hour grew later and girls got older, and were positively narrowed when the mature and obviously determined seventh-years took their turns with him. They put their hands on him in ways that Severus did not like at all, though he supposed Potter probably liked it quite a bit.
Potter, though, he had to admit, handled himself with grace and restraint through the whole evening. He seemed to dance with every girl present—and even a couple of younger staff members, the unfairness of which made Severus seethe—without showing any favoritism at all. He was the universal dance partner, almost as skilled, Severus thought bitterly, as a gigolo, in appearing to love them all without giving himself to any.
And when, Severus wondered, had he even learned how to dance?
Severus sat at his table, undisturbed by any of the other staff members with whom he was supposed to be setting an example of camaraderie, drinking punch that he wished was stronger and watching Harry Potter cavort. It was miserable, except when it was lovely, such as when he got a good look at Potter's smiling, sweaty face as he whirled past this corner of the room, some foolish girl in his arms. After three hours of this, however, Severus was ready to throw himself off the astronomy tower.
He decided, as a momentary distraction, to refill his punch glass. A bit more sickeningly sweet, alcohol-deficient drink was just the thing, he thought, to keep him awake for the last hour of this nightmare. He was walking toward the refreshment table, staying carefully off to the side of the dance floor, when he realized that Harry was headed in the same direction. This could make for a sticky moment, he thought, but it seemed less conspicuous to keep walking than to inexplicably turn around and retreat to his table. Throwing back his shoulders and lifting his chin, he walked the remaining distance without allowing himself to so much as glance at the boy.
"Evening, Professor," Harry said as Severus approached the table. He was already in front of the huge punch bowl, ladling a bit of the frothy orange stuff into his glass.
"Potter," Severus said stiffly.
"Having a good time, sir?" the boy had the nerve to ask, with a look that was far too knowing for Severus' comfort.
"Ah. Sorry." He grinned.
"Just great, thanks. Good music, don't you think?" Severus snorted, but said nothing. "Not your taste, eh?"
"Suppose that's why we haven't seen you dancing yet?" The boy's grin was positively evil.
"I do not dance, Mister Potter, a fact that I'm sure will not surprise you."
And then Harry Potter, a boy who did extraordinary things all the time, did one of the most extraordinary things Severus had ever seen him do. He looked Severus right in the eye, with a calm, not-quite-smiling gaze that carried just a hint of naughtiness, and said softly, "Pity." Then without asking, he took Severus' empty punch glass from his hand, deliberately allowing their fingers to brush as he did so. He refilled the glass, but in a sloppy manner that allowed the luscious-looking, bubbly liquid to drip almost obscenely down its side. Finally he handed it back, this time with a an unmistakable press of his fingers, which Severus felt but could not see as he was looking at Potter's face, where one corner of his mouth was curled in a mockingly tempting smile.
It was all Severus could do to keep from dropping the glass. He tried to speak, but found his mouth hanging silently open, no words at the ready.
"You really should think about dancing, sir," Potter said, as softly as he could and still be heard over the painfully loud music. "I think you'd enjoy it." He sidled up as close to Severus as he could without leaning against him, and said, even more softly, "I know I would." Then, while Severus stood there with his mouth refusing to speak and his brain refusing to click into gear, the boy was gone, across the floor and into the middle of a crowd of fourth-years that opened to him with cheers and hand slapping.
Stunned, Severus managed to get himself back to his solitary table without spilling his punch. He dropped into his seat and took a deep, gasping breath. What was that? he wondered. I know he seemed to flirt with me once before, but this … With tremendous effort, he pushed the thought aside, and with it a whole cascade of devastating mental images that he knew would ruin him if he gave in to them. He sternly forced himself to reason through what had just happened: He's just playing with me as he is with everyone, that must be it. He's being the good host, the good gigolo, to the entire bloody school tonight.
Besides, he reminded himself harshly, even if he actually were flirting with someone, that someone would never, under any circumstances, be me.
He sat numbly with his frothy cup of punch as the lights were dimmed for the last few songs. He groaned. This would be either a good thing or an awful one, he was sure, as he wouldn't be able to see any maneuvers being attempted on the boy, but would therefore fret even more that they must be happening.
To his surprise, he realized Harry wasn't in the dancing crowd anymore. He appeared without warning at a nearby table, sitting with the Headmistress and looking to be in serious conversation about something. He seemed to be asking her questions; she seemed to be giving him encouragement. All very chummy, Severus thought, wondering what they were talking about.
He glanced around the dance floor again. He found his eyes had adjusted to the light, and that he could see what was happening there, after all. And without Potter out there with the dancers to absorb his attention, he noticed something he hadn't before. It was perhaps a small thing, but Severus imagined Potter wouldn't think so. It was this: nearly every couple dancing was a "mixed-House" pair. Where in previous years, the Houses had traditionally stayed mostly segregated from each other, sometimes rigidly so, now they were commingled until even Severus had to stop and think, to remember each student's affiliation. They appeared to have chosen dancing partners with no consideration for House status whatsoever.
This, Severus thought, was what Potter had been aiming for all year long. He had wanted the walls to come down, and it appeared that they had, though without any destruction required. They had simply melted, and the children of Hogwarts had reached across them and joined hands.
What if it had been like this in my day? he wondered. Perhaps Lily … And then he scowled and rebuked himself. Too late for that, you bloody fool. And look at you, making an arse of yourself, mooning after a boy, her boy.
It was in that state of mind, choking on bitter thoughts and mixed-up jealousy, that Severus watched Harry Potter as he returned to the dance floor. This time he was escorting the Weasley girl, he saw, and it made the bitter herbs in his heart begin to heat up, soon reaching a simmer that needed just a nudge to erupt into a full boil.
He saw the Weasley girl's arms go around Potter's neck, just as naturally as if she put them there every day. Potter held her close, and they smiled at each other and leaned together, seeming to whisper, as if sharing the secrets and confidences that Severus knew Potter would never whisper into his ear. The music was slow and sensuous, and watching them, listening to it, Severus felt himself beginning to unravel.
You have to deal with this, he thought furiously. They are simply dancing. There's nothing wrong with it. It's not like you're going to dance with the boy in her place, are you? There's nothing for you there, Severus. Even if he seemed to be flirting with you earlier—his heart raced at the thought—it was nothing, just a game for him. He isn't interested in you, isn't interested in men, surely you can see that from the way he's holding her … and what could you possibly offer him even if he were interested? You're his bloody teacher, an old man …
Severus began to twist his hands together, knotting his fingers and then tugging them apart, trying to somehow release the tension inside him. He feared he was losing ground, and the tension was rising dangerously high, when the song that was playing ended, and to his horror he saw Harry and Ginny hold each other closer … and then exchange a kiss, a brief one, but real, with a full press of lips on lips.
He was sure that he heard his own heart breaking, with a sharp little popping sound, inside his chest.
He bolted from his chair, knocking the table and rattling his punch cup in the process. Without a word or a look at anyone, he practically swooped from the room, arms swinging, cloak snapping, boots pounding the stone floor in a way that suggested no one ought to get in his way, and no one did.
He strode just as firmly through the entrance hallway and down the wide stairs to the dungeons. The entire school was at the dance, so he encountered no one on his way back to his rooms, no one who could stop and stare, and look frightened at his terrible expression.
He stormed into his rooms, knowing exactly what he was going to do. He did not even bother to remove his cloak. He kept storming all the way to his bedroom, fists clenched, face angrier with every step. He went to his bedside, opened the small chest there, and rummaged through it with hands that shook, but what he wanted was not there. Desperate now, he stood up straight again, and waved a hand at the front of his body, undoing in an instant all the buttons of the various layers of Victorian repressiveness with which he clothed himself. He dug a hand into those layers and pulled his cock, hard and equally angry-looking, free of them, then put his hands together in front of him and whispered, "Manus unguere."
His hands immediately grew warm and slick from the magical substance that had materialized between them. He growled with satisfaction at the sensation, then put both hands on his cock and began pulling and stroking, trying to find release from the agonizing want within him. He put his hands everywhere, all the places that felt good, all the places he wanted so badly for Harry to touch him, getting the oil all over him, all over his clothes, and not caring a bit. He rubbed his chest and pinched his nipples, imagining Harry sucking them; he cupped his balls and squeezed them, a bit too hard, wishing Harry were mouthing them; he stroked his own thighs and saw in his mind's eye Harry's cheeks rubbing against them as he swallowed Severus' cock. It was a glorious, maddening fantasy, but he let it go on only for a few moments, because he had to come, damn it, or surely his head would explode instead, from longing.
Harry, he thought to himself, stroking smoothly, faster. "Harry," he whispered, imagining he saw Harry's mouth nearby, ready to kiss his. "Harry … " he said with a deep groan, looking inside himself and seeing a naked Harry poised over him, ready to fuck him or impale himself, waiting for Severus to choose …
He came, almost painfully hard, right there standing on his feet in his bedroom. It seemed to last a long time, and he stroked himself through it, feeling as though he was collapsing inward as the climax emptied him out. Finally, exhausted, he leaned on folded arms against his bedroom wall, his head buried in the crook of one elbow and sticky, greasy hands further soiling his jacket and cloak. His breath came in shaky gasps, filling him with relief and misery.
It was the first time he had ever done this, pleasured himself while thinking of Harry, deliberately and while wide awake. His desires had overcome him in his sleep many times, leaving him feeling disgusted with himself but at least not entirely responsible. This, though … this, he thought, feeling more pathetic than ever before, was the act of a man truly out of control.
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding.
But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.
As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.
This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.
The last day of school arrived. At last.
Formal examinations had been completed. Trunks had, for the most part, been packed. All that remained was one final meeting of each class, and in the case of potions this was simply for the purpose of cleaning and storing equipment and ingredients for the summer. This was a mostly mindless set of tasks, which was fortunate as most of the students seemed to have left their minds elsewhere. Anticipation of the train to London the next day was high, and distracting.
Severus was very intent on surviving.
He did not, at the moment, like the atmosphere in his classroom. He knew something odd was going on when he saw Potter and three friends gathered around the last cauldron to be cleaned, which still simmered with a cleaning solution at the back of the room. The boy's friends were sniggering and gesturing at each other, and at Potter, who was smiling but shaking his head. Severus pretended to scan the classroom with his gaze, turning his head this way and that, frowning, nodding occasionally. But he kept his eyes aimed at Potter and the little gang around him.
Part of him was filled with relief at the thought that after today, after this hour, he would be able to put Harry Potter behind him for good. The boy would be gone, just a memory—though a deep and vivid one—and Severus was confident that with enough time, and perhaps a certain amount of alcohol, he would get over the little swot. Part of him, however, recognized that this getting over period was not going to be pleasant.
There had never been anyone quite like Potter in Severus' life, no one quite so irritating, so baffling, or so idiotically determined to right the world's multitudinous wrongs. He'd never felt about anyone what he felt for Potter, either, though he'd had lovers—a couple of women, a handful of men—in the years since Lily's death, and they'd met his needs at the time, he supposed. He couldn't help but think, however, as he allowed his eyes to rest on the boy for a bit too long, that none of them had been so carelessly, needlessly lovely. All these things had made for an ordeal the last few months, an ordeal that Severus did not care ever to repeat.
His attention was brought back to the classroom by a wave of giggles off to his right. He turned vigilantly that way and saw a pack of girls gathered around a newly clean workbench. Some were looking at Potter, some at Severus, and one was apparently busy sending signals to a boy across the classroom.
Severus looked all around, for real this time, taking in all the students in the room. What he saw did not please him. There was clearly a conspiracy of some kind connecting every one of the bloody lot of them, as they were passing looks and giggles and whispered words madly back and forth. Left out of the conspiracy, as far as he could tell, were only Potter and Severus himself.
Suddenly a whispered word rose above the muted buzz suffusing the classroom. It was soft but distinct, and Severus heard it all too well. Queer. It was only one word, but that was enough.
Severus shot to his feet and swept his robes around him. He strode heavily to the front of his desk, ignoring the pounding ache in his leg. He towered, he glared, and then he roared at the stunned class. "We are finished here. Get out."
The students scurried to do so, grabbing their bookbags and fairly running from the room, but trailing giggles and knowing backward glances behind them. Within a moment only Potter and his three trouble-making friends remained, and they were hurriedly draining their cauldron and shoving supplies into drawers. They were still chuckling, or at least the three friends were; Potter was smiling slightly, but blushing and shaking his head, and he seemed to be trying to hurry the others along.
"Gentlemen. I said out," Severus reminded them in a softly dangerous voice. They didn't answer, but the cauldron was finally put away and they strolled—at a defiantly leisurely pace—toward the door. At last, laughing out loud by then, Potter's friends took their exit from the room, and the door thudded shut behind them.
Severus sat down at his desk again. Though he was not facing the door, he knew, with a special sense that seemed tuned only to Potter, that the boy had not left the room. "Didn't I tell you to leave?" he said.
Potter walked quietly from the door back into the classroom, to stand in front of Severus' desk. "You did, sir. But I didn't want to leave just yet." His voice was low and respectful.
"You didn't want to leave?" Severus edged up the threat level in his voice a notch.
"No, sir. Not yet. We need to talk."
"I'm afraid we have nothing to talk about, Mister Potter. And regardless of what you need to do, I need to prepare for the class that will be arriving in just a few moments. So if you will excuse me and go away … "
"I'm sorry, sir. I can't, not yet. And don't worry about your next class." As Severus watched, Potter pointed his wand at the classroom door, which bolted itself. He turned to Severus and smiled, incongruously. "They'll wait."
Severus just looked at him, astonished. "You are out of line, Mister … " he began, but gave up. He felt a faint sense of horror. Had his desk not stood between them, he knew he might very well have reached out and pulled the boy into his arms. The thought was heady, and he could not force it away. "Very well. What the bloody hell do you want, Potter?"
The boy leaned against the front of Severus' desk, half-sitting on it, and looked up at him. Severus could see how long his lashes were, and that the deep green eyes behind them were shining earnestly. "Just this, sir," Potter said. "I wondered if you would like to … that is, if you would consider … having a drink with me, sometime. Like, maybe tonight. Um, after the leaving feast. Or we could skip the feast, if you'd rather." His eyes gleamed with the suggestion of this minor mischief, rather strangely given the major impropriety he'd just committed by asking his teacher out for a drink.
Severus realized he hadn't truly understood what it meant to be astonished, before now. "A drink? You mean, as in alcohol? With you?"
"That's right," the boy said, looking happy that Severus had understood. "A pint. Or a dram. Or … whatever it is, for whatever you like to drink. I'm guessing you're a single malt man, but I could be wrong."
Severus' standard for measuring astonishment kept inching up. "You're mad," he said simply.
"I don't think so. I've just had more time to think about it than you have, that's all. Not being, you know, tied up in rules and stuff, that teachers have to follow."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the fact that we can spend time together now, and no one can say anything about it. I was actually hoping we could have dinner, too, but I thought I'd start with just asking you out for a drink, in case you were, you know, skittish." He gave Severus an alarmingly coquettish grin, of the sort that seemed entirely reasonable after saying such a thing.
Severus felt his mouth hanging open, and closed it sharply. "You are now far, far out of line, Mister Potter, and I suggest that you leave this very moment, before you find yourself in more trouble than you can imagine." That is, before I yank you over here and shut you up by shoving my tongue into your mouth.
Potter sighed, as if Severus was trying his patience. "There won't be any trouble, Professor, because I'm not your student anymore, as of about two minutes ago. And we've waited long enough, I think. Everyone else has noticed what's going on. It's time we did something about it."
"I cannot imagine," Severus said, trying to keep his voice icy as he melted inside, "what in the world you believe is going on."
"What do you think they were whispering about today?"
Severus glowered at him. "They were making highly inappropriate personal comments about me. Students do that, you know, they can be idiots. That has nothing to do with—"
"It has everything to do with. I'm sorry they were making jokes. I tried to get them to lay off, I've been trying for weeks, but they wouldn't listen. Some of them are idiots, you're right about that. But they know a couple of things that you apparently don't."
"Well, first, that they were making jokes about me, too. Because I'm … um, queer. Like they said."
Severus could only stare at him.
"Of course," Potter continued. "You thought that they were only talking about you. Not surprising, I guess, since you are, after all, queer. Or at least, you're part-time queer. Um, or whatever you want to call it. But they were talking about me, just as much as you. They've been making fun of both of us, I'm afraid. They don't mean any harm, really. They're just idiots, like you said." He smiled sweetly, as if nothing he had just said was the slightest bit surprising.
But Severus was having none of it. "You are gay? Not possible. I would know."
"And you're saying you don't? Doesn't the fact that you're attracted to me tell you that you did know? And doesn't the fact that I've been throwing myself at you for most of the year tell you something?"
The words were so startling that Severus didn't immediately recognize the correct response. "But you were with the Weasley girl, I saw you together … " Only then did he realize, to his dismay, just how much he'd given away.
"That was a long time ago," Potter said with a shrug and a small, wise smile. "And it's just in the last few months I've figured out I like men, mostly because I figured out that I like you."
"But you were dancing with her, you kissed her ... "
"Just for old times' sake, nothing more. She understands that. I think she even understands that I like you. Why can't you understand?"
Severus felt faint. "This is not happening. You cannot possibly 'like' me. That would be idiotic."
"Why can't I like you?"
"Because … because you don't know anything about me. I mean, any of the things you'd need to know, before you decided," he felt his face growing hot, "that you could even begin to … " Severus, you fool, he thought furiously, just shut up.
"I know you looked after me for years. I know you saved my life more times than I can count. I know you're a hero, even though you refuse to act like one." He smiled, and it was too bloody beautiful. Severus felt himself begin to sweat. "I know you've been watching me all year, so don't even think of arguing about that. And apparently you've been too stubborn to see it, but I've been watching you all year too."
Oh, I saw it all right, Severus thought in horror. I simply never believed … He felt his control begin to disintegrate. "Potter. This is ridiculous. My next class will be arriving at any moment, and you cannot—"
"No. I won't go away, not until you say you'll let me see you later. You can't imagine how long I've waited, how hard it's been." As Severus watched in utter shock, the boy reached across the desk and took his hand. He held it gently, stroking the palm with his thumb. "Severus. Please." He turned the hand palm up, then bent and kissed it very softly. His eyes closed, and he gave a pleased little sigh.
Severus stared at him, speechless and aroused past all reason, feeling his self-control ebbing. It would have been so simple to just yank Harry close, to shove their mouths together, to pull the ridiculous child into his lap and rub against him until …
And then the awful truth dawned on him.
All at once Severus felt that warmth inside him turn into a cold, hard knot. He'd been swept along by Potter's enticing little act, none of which had made any sense … until just this moment, when suddenly he could see clearly what was going on. It was all too good to be true. It was too bizarre to be true. It played far too well into his own fantasies ever to be real. There was only one rational explanation.
"Mister Potter," he said, his voice deadly soft. Potter opened his eyes at the sound, startled. "I believe I understand your little game now. And it's over, do you understand? Over."
"What?" Potter looked confused, disoriented, as if awakened at an inopportune moment from an erotic dream.
"I know what you're doing, you little whore. You were put up to this, weren't you? On a dare, or a bet, perhaps." His horror grew. "Or is it something you've been planning all year?"
The boy was frowning, his pretty lips pursed in dismay. The look was both beautiful and maddening, and it made Severus furious. But he simply said, "Take your hands off me, boy, before I hex you so that you'll never touch anyone again." Potter jerked his hands away and stepped back from the desk, looking as if he'd been struck.
Severus could tell he was slipping out of control, and the floundering sensation he felt covered up, somewhat, the pang of losing the boy's touch on his hand, the soft lips on his palm. He charged ahead, speaking what he now knew was the bitter truth. "You told your friends that you could make your ugly potions master do something embarrassing, didn't you?"
Self-defense reflexes were kicking in throughout his mind and body. All his memories of Potter's bravery, and helpfulness, and ridiculous cheerfulness, were pouring out of him like sand from an hourglass, and choking him as they drained. Potter, wanting to impress him? Potter, looking up to him? It was preposterous, as it had been all year long. Potter was out to destroy him, to publicly humiliate him, as all Potters had been and always would be, for all time.
"It's what you've wanted all along, isn't it? To take revenge on me, for your father, and now even more for your mother, as well. And finally you've got your chance, and the backing of all your nasty little classmates." He practically spat out the words; he was seething, boiling over inside, hating himself even more than he was hating Potter.
"You've got it all wrong," the boy was protesting. "Why would I want revenge on you? And I'm here on my own, no one dared me. Why can't you believe—"
"Get out of here. Now. And do not come back." Severus stood and leaned threateningly toward him, knowing there was madness in his eyes, knowing it didn't reveal half of the madness inside him.
"No, sir, if you'd just listen to me—"
Why will he not give up? He has lost his bet, failed at his dare. "I said, get out." Severus drew back an arm, not knowing quite what he planned to do with it. The boy saw and seemed to understand, however. With one last heartbreaking look at Severus, he grabbed his bookbag and ran from the room.
As soon as he had unlocked the door and bolted through it, the confused students outside began to stream in, chatting with each other, moving to their seats, as if nothing unusual had happened except that they'd found the classroom door temporarily barred.
Severus sat back down with a heavy thud in his chair, completely spent. He stared at the incoming class without seeing them, only now really hearing the utter viciousness of all the things he'd just said.
I've won, he thought miserably.
Any fool can know. The point is to understand.
Severus did not attend the leaving feast that evening. He knew Minerva would question him about it later, knew that he was violating a tradition viewed by some as sacred. The sending off of the seventh-year students into the world to seek their fortunes was a ritual, the recognition of an important milestone. He didn't care.
Instead he ordered dinner in his rooms from a house-elf who inquired, politely, if he wouldn't rather attend the feast instead. The little creature squeaked in terror at his savage response, and popped away immediately to fill his request. He planned, actually, to partake of a mostly liquid dinner, and had ordered food only to reduce the severity of the hangover he knew he'd have tomorrow.
He'd have that proffered drink this evening after all, he thought viciously, just not with Harry fucking Potter. With that he poured himself a glass of whisky and drained it, then sat by his fire, staring into the red and orange flickerings, until he imagined he saw green eyes staring back at him. "Damn it all," he thought, rubbing his eyes. He poured another drink.
He couldn't guess what Harry would have reported to his compatriots about their after-class encounter. Would he tell the truth, or make up some story of conquest, of Severus' shameful acquiescence to his advances? He wondered glumly whether the story, in whichever version Potter chose to tell it, had been passed all the way round the Great Hall yet.
And then there was the now-solved mystery of Potter himself. What had Severus been thinking, he asked himself angrily, to have believed Minerva's silly tale of the boy's humility, to have been taken in by his concerned-and-caring act this entire year? How could he have thought Potter might actually have grown up?
How could he ever have fallen in love with the irritating child?
How could the irritating child have deceived and betrayed him so devastatingly?
Severus ate his solitary dinner and drank more whisky, and passed the evening in grim, nearly silent brooding. At some point, as the hour grew late, he stretched out on the long leather sofa in front of his sitting room fireplace with a book. The words muddled together a bit, probably due to the whisky, he thought, but that didn't matter; the book distracted him for a while from sulking about Potter, about Harry, insufferable Harry Merlin save me from him Potter.
When the evening began to drag and Severus grew sleepy, he dropped his book to his chest and closed his eyes. Instantly he saw Potter's face in front of him, with that smile that looked so genuine, that had kept Severus stringing along for so long. He felt a familiar tightness at his groin, and moaned softly, rubbing his cock with long, lonely fingers. He was aroused in spite of himself, full of wanting, and needing … Fuck, he thought. It was no use. He couldn't turn his mind off, couldn't stop thinking about the boy, couldn't stop desiring him, even after the anger and mortification of this afternoon's little scene. He sat up, adjusting his clothing around his discomfort, and put his chin in his hand, ready to brood indefinitely. The night ahead looked to be spectacularly awful.
For a short and terrible time he considered whether he should perhaps have simply taken what the boy had offered, potential embarrassment and other consequences be damned. It couldn't, he was sure, have left him feeling worse than he did at this moment.
He'd been brooding for some time—eventually leaning back again into the comfort of the sofa, one arm and his head thrown back and one hand slowly, and deliberately unsatisfyingly, stroking his unhappy cock—and was considering whether he should move this whole pathetic little show off to his bedroom, when there was a knock on his sitting room door.
No one should have been knocking on his sitting room door at this hour.
Minerva would be upset with him, this he knew; but she would have waited until tomorrow, at least, to confront him about it. No other staff members would have dared bother him here. And no student should even have been able to find his door.
He groaned and sat up on the couch. His leg hurt. His cock hurt. He looked at the old walnut mantle clock above the fire; it was midnight, quite an un-neighbourly time for anyone to come visiting. With another, deeper groan, he rose and walked stiffly to the door.
As he approached it, there was another knock, a bit louder than the first. "I'm coming," he said in a hard and gravelly voice. There was no answer; evidently his visitor knew it was late and was afraid to risk irritating him further, for fear he wouldn't open the door at all.
But open the door he did. And on the other side, standing there in pyjamas and an aggravatingly Gryffindor-ish scarlet dressing gown, was Harry Potter.
Harry Potter, the Boy Who'd Lived To Make Severus Miserable, One More Time.
X X X X X
Severus' breath caught in his throat. Then he slammed the heavy door shut. He stood there in front of it, trying to breathe normally again, finding this difficult. There was another knock, and he managed to find his breath at last. He hoped he could dredge up one last drop of bile with which to fend the boy off.
"I told you not to come back," he shouted at the door.
"I didn't come back, not to your classroom. I came here."
Severus frowned fiercely. Foolish, idiotic … "You know what I meant."
"I do. You meant that you were really angry, that you didn't want to talk anymore just then. But now you're over it, and you're wishing I'd come back. Aren't you?"
Severus gaped, glad that Potter could not see his face. "I am not wishing you'd come back. I was, in fact," he added nastily if untruthfully, "just thinking how glad I am that you're bloody leaving in the morning, and I was wishing, to be honest, that you'd have left tonight!"
"I don't believe you."
"I don't care, do you hear me? I DO NOT CARE!"
"It wasn't a set-up, by the way. This afternoon. I meant everything I said."
"Then you are even more mad than I thought. Now go away." But Severus let the boy's words ping around in his head, just for one vertiginous moment, as he scowled and shouted at his front door.
"You're just delaying the inevitable, by not letting me in."
"You know you want to let me in."
God, Severus thought in utter fury, I hate it when people say that. "I DO NOT!"
"DO NOT CALL ME THAT!"
"All right, all right. Professor Snape. Please let me in?"
"Look, there's something else I have to tell you. It's important."
"It's too late, Potter. I've been your teacher for seven fucking years, if you haven't told me by now it's not going to happen."
"Professor. Do you really want to send me away now and never know this one most important thing I have to say to you? I promise, I promise it's something you need to know."
"I don't care."
"Snape." There was a pause. "When I carried you out of the shack … do you remember that?"
There was a long silence, during which all the rage puffed out of Severus like air from an untied balloon, leaving him feeling shriveled and sorry-looking. He took a deep breath. "I remember," he said dully.
"I made you two promises. First, that things would be okay, that you'd be safe. Did I keep that one?"
Severus sighed. "You did," he said quietly. Then, "Yes, you did," a little more loudly so Potter could hear him through the thick door.
"Very good. Now, the second promise was that I'd try to make it up to you, for all our, um, disagreements in the past. I'm still working on that one. Are you aware … did you know, all this year, that I've been trying to do that?"
He leaned against the door, beaten. "You told me once. No, twice. Do you remember that?"
"I do. I'm glad you do, too."
Severus closed his eyes. He remembered Potter's gentle words at his bedside, and then he saw himself walking down the hallway with the boy, after that silly little show he'd done for Jenkins. Then he saw Potter half-sitting on his desk that afternoon, holding his hand. He took a shaky breath and rubbed his temples, waiting as his nerves gradually disentangled themselves from the wraith of his anger. After a moment he called out, "What's all that got to do with anything, Potter?"
"You can trust my promises, Professor. And I promise you that I wasn't kidding around this afternoon, and that you need to know what I'm going to tell you."
He waited again. Then he heard Potter's voice, very small, from the hallway. "So, will you let me in now?"
This is not a good idea, Severus heard an even smaller voice saying, somewhere inside his head. "Too bad," he whispered to himself, very softly. "He's won, and I want to see him one more time regardless. The little sod." He shook his head, and opened the door.
Potter stood there, smiling up at him in his ridiculous red dressing gown. "Good evening," he said cheerfully.
Severus ran a hand through his hair. "Don't stand on my doorstep like a foundling, Potter. Come in." He ignored the puzzled look the boy gave him as he walked cautiously over the threshold, and then closed the door after him.
They stood there, face to face, just inside Severus' door. He made no move to invite the boy farther into his rooms; to do so would only court disaster. "So, here you are," he said firmly. "What do you have to tell me?"
"I need to ask you another question first, Professor. May I?"
"You said you had something to tell me, not something to ask me."
"I know, but this is part of it."
"All right, you've got me standing here captive. Ask your question and get to the point."
"Okay, okay. This may sound strange, I know." He paused. "When you, um, were bitten. And you almost died. Did you, er, see Professor Dumbledore?"
"That is a very bizarre question."
"I know. But did you?"
Severus gave the boy a severe look before answering, but finally he said, "Yes. I saw him."
"I knew it!"
"Is there a point to this?"
"There is, there is! Did Dumbledore say anything to you, about, uh, what I think he called 'settling up accounts' or something like that?"
Startled, Severus gave the boy a very long look. "He did." Potter clapped his hands together like a delighted child, and Severus rolled his eyes.
"Then I'm right!" the boy exclaimed. "I knew it!"
Severus sighed. "Right about what?"
"Just this: we are his accounts. He's trying to fix things up for us."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't you see? He knew. He knew!"
"Knew what?" Severus felt very tired, and slightly sick. All this riddling and arguing on a stomach full of whisky was not a good thing.
"He wanted us to, er, be together. He knew that we would end up wanting to be together."
Severus ignored the little ripple of shocked surprise that went through him, and simply said, "Mister Potter. 'We' do not want to be together. And even if we did, how would Dumbledore have known that? He's dead, boy, have you forgotten?" Then a stupidly obvious question occurred to him. "Wait. Are you saying that you saw him, as well? After he died, that is?"
"Well, of course. When I, ah, when everyone else thought I had died. Didn't you know?"
"How would I have known?"
"Oh." The boy looked stumped for a moment. "I guess I never told you about that."
"You did not."
Potter shook his head. "You know, we should have been talking a lot more this year."
"I hardly think so."
"Well, it doesn't matter now. What matters is that this is what he knew would happen. We were supposed to live, and come back, and … um, be together."
"That is quite ridiculous." It was the most insane idea he had ever heard, and breathtakingly close to his own heart's desire. The oddest sensation of by the Gods, what if he's right began to gnaw and nibble away at the edges of Severus' mind, but he tried to push the feeling away.
"It is not ridiculous. He told me he was going to try to make up to me, and to others, to you especially, for all we sacrificed. And that there were these … accounts, or whatever, that he needed to settle up, and that we had to do it for him. And he meant you and me. He wanted to take care of us in some way. I'm sure of it."
They stood there by Severus' front door staring at each other for a long time. "How, exactly, did you reach the conclusion that he intended for us to be … whatever highly inappropriate thing it is that you think we should be?" Severus asked at last.
Potter looked very sure of himself. "Because of exactly what Dumbledore said. What he asked me to do."
"And that was?"
"Well, first he said to show my gratitude for what others had sacrificed. That's why I took it so seriously, trying to make up with you. It wasn't just my idea, it was Dumbledore's."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Look, don't be sore about it, okay? I didn't understand all you'd sacrificed until I saw your memories."
"I'll grant you that. What else did he tell you to do?"
"He said … 'Try to find out what others need, what will help them the most, and then, just give it to them.' That was it."
He'd been doing that with a vengeance, Severus had to admit. All the hugs and hand-holding, coaching and puppet shows, had been about doing what Albus wanted done. It was what Albus wanted, and Albus always got his way. "Of course," he said.
But Potter wasn't finished. "That went for you too, you know. I had to figure out what you needed most."
"You've figured that out, have you? Tell me, won't you, I'd love to know."
The boy wasn't smiling as he said, "You need me."
Severus snorted. "Please."
"It's true. I'm exactly what you need. Someone who's a little less serious, a little more playful. A little younger, maybe. Someone you can … teach, maybe boss around a bit. But powerful, so you can't boss him around too much." He smiled then, hopefully. "And I think you know all this, and you know I'm what you need, and that's why you've been watching me."
Severus laughed to hide the uproar of conflicting thoughts inside his head. Someone entirely too beautiful, someone I'm mad for ... "You've made up a lovely scenario there, Potter. I'm sorry to have to shatter it, but—"
"No, wait. There's one more thing. I know what I need most, too. It's you. When I realized that, I was sure of what Dumbledore meant for us to do."
It made a very peculiar sort of sense, Severus thought reluctantly. Albus had always been the meddling sort. To set up a romance between two highly unlikely male partners … well, it would have appealed to his sense of whimsy, that was for sure. Not to mention his own tacit but definite homosexuality. And he had said he needed Severus' help to settle accounts that somehow involved teaching, and had made the improbable promise that Severus would enjoy it …
Teaching? Albus, could you really be that devilish? Severus considered this for a moment, and decided that the dotty old headmaster probably could. "Mister Potter," he said slowly, trying to make the tone and pace of his words give the impression that he had more control over the situation than he actually did. "I have a question for you. You have stated that you now believe yourself to be a homosexual. Is that correct?"
Potter gulped. "Yes. Sir."
Severus looked sternly down his nose at the boy. "And are you at this point sexually experienced, would you say? With men?"
Potter's eyes widened. "No. That is, not at all. Sir." He seemed to be getting Severus' point, and also resisting a grin. "I imagine Professor Dumbledore took that into consideration, don't you?"
Severus crossed his arms. "Yes, I suppose he would have. He was always a thorough sort. Not one to leave things to chance, when he was meddling around in other people's lives."
"Um. No. But he meant well."
"Of course." He studied the young man standing in front of him, thinking how lovely he was, and how undeserving of such loveliness Severus himself was. It was madness to imagine them in bed together, sheer madness, no matter how much Severus wanted it. Could Albus actually have planned this?
Then an astounding thought occurred to him, a way to make this all work itself out in his head. A way for everything to make sense. But first he had to be sure.
"Mister Potter," he said softly. "Harry," he said more softly still. "Tell me exactly why you think that I am what you need most."
The boy stepped a little closer, and Severus' breath caught. "Because you balance me. You're more serious, and older. And powerful, someone who can boss me around a little bit. If I need it." His smile grew hungry. "And you're someone who can teach me … teach me about being gay. I really don't know the first thing about it, about what, um, exactly to do. And you're the only one I trust, Severus. You're the only one I trust to teach me, and I think you're the only one Dumbledore trusted, too."
And then Severus knew, for sure. This was one last way he could watch over Potter, take care of him, keep him safe—and possibly even happy—as he ventured out into the world. This one time more, I can teach him what he needs to know. Some things I wish I'd known as a young man, to smooth his way, as he acquires … he winced at the surprisingly painful thought … other lovers.
And, he thought with a twinge of simple sadness, I can give him a good memory to take away with him, if I do this very carefully, to perhaps replace the bitter ones he has of everything else that has passed between us.
He could have this night, this once chance, however brief, to possess Harry Potter, and to give himself up as well to this beautiful, maddening boy. I know I cannot keep him, Severus thought. But if he really wants to be taught, I can do that for him. That, at least.
They looked at each other for the time it took to draw a few breaths, deep breaths full of longing and anticipation. I will have this, Severus thought. Just for tonight, he will be mine. He sucked in one more breath, a shaky one this time, and then reached to take one of Harry's hands. Harry began to blush, looking pink and lovely.
"Suddenly bashful?" Severus asked. "After all the bold things you've said?"
"I just thought maybe you were finally going to kiss me."
Severus sighed deeply. "Oh, I am. Just not quite yet, and not standing here in front of my door. If we're to do this right, I need to think for a moment."
He led Harry across the room and motioned for him to sit on the sofa, but did not sit beside him. Instead he walked to the fireplace and leaned heavily on the mantle, trying to decide exactly what to do next. Here we are, he thought, looking at the boy nervously smiling up at him from his sofa. It suddenly felt very weighty, this idea of doing things right, of creating some sort of idyll for the boy to remember him by. How do I consider myself qualified to teach him about sex, of all things? What credentials do I have on the subject? And there was so much between them already, so much awkwardness and difficult history that he was afraid Potter would not be able to forget, no matter how eager he appeared. It seemed impossible, unacceptable, unforgivable even, for Severus to simply reach out and begin to touch him with no preamble.
He was standing there stewing, frowning at the fire and anguishing over how to begin this properly, when Harry startled him by moving very close and taking his hand again.
"Professor Snape," the boy said softly. "Severus. Can I call you that? It's how I've been thinking of you." He smiled gently. "There are some other things I'd like to tell you, if you'll let me. Will you?"
"Yes," Severus whispered, unable to imagine saying anything else.
"Good. There's nobody else like you, Severus. I suppose you know that." Severus shivered, from the touch of Harry's hand, from the sound of his name on Harry's lips, and from the echo of his own thought reflecting back to him. "You're the bravest man I know, but I've seen how fiercely you can love, too. Now that I know that much about you, how could I not want to … to touch that, to get to know a little bit more of who you really are?" Severus felt himself die a little inside, so sweetly painful was this thought.
The boy was murmuring on. "But you don't understand yet, I can see that. Let me tell you how it's been for me." He slipped a little closer, and Severus felt his throat closing; it seemed very difficult to breathe. "You really gobsmacked me last year, when you gave me your memories. I … I still can't thank you enough for that, by the way." Harry leaned closer still, and gently stroked Severus' forearm.
"Of course I couldn't keep on being unpleasant to you, after that. There was so much more to you than I'd ever imagined. And I kept thinking about you, kept wondering what you'd be like to know, really know, as a man. Not as a teacher, and not as a boy like you were in your memories, but … as a man." He was pressed against Severus' side now, whispering up at him.
"I know you loved my mum. But I could tell from your memories that you … that you wouldn't refuse me, just because I was male." Severus started to frown, to make some sort of noise in protest, though exactly what he was protesting he didn't know; the boy was right, after all, but the memories Severus had given him had certainly contained nothing to suggest … but Harry shushed him by slipping adroitly under his arm. He still held one hand, and Severus could feel the boy's breath on the hand , tickling and teasing him, as he held it close to his face. "You didn't have to say it in so many words. I could feel it. I don't know how, exactly; it was just very clear."
Severus felt as though he was trapped in a tunnel, so that all he could see was a narrow view of Harry and the fireplace in front of him. His senses were full of the touch of Harry's hands and body. He could not find his voice, could not say the words to make him stop touching so that Severus could think again.
And still he kept speaking, kept that soft voice flowing, pouring gentle words into Severus' ear, keeping him on edge and wanting more. "So I decided to come to you, like I did this afternoon. I knew I had to wait until school was finished, because you'd never have done anything improper while I was still a student. Stubborn git." The voice carried mock annoyance, and affection, and he squeezed Severus' hand. "You don't know how it's been, all year. Seeing you, every day. You're so sexy—you don't even think about that, do you?—but so damned buttoned up all the time." He began playing with the hand he held, rubbing the palm lightly, kissing the fingertips. Severus felt dizzy.
"Even here," the soft voice was saying, as he began to make long, feathery-light strokes along Severus' forearm. "Even your arms, your hands. So much clothing, all that black covering you up. It looks good, mind you, but it just made me want to see what was underneath, see your body. Do you know how it feels, to want that?" Severus knew exactly how it felt, and wondered if he might faint to escape from that feeling, but his body refused; it seemed, stupidly, to be enjoying this intimate torture.
"Even your hands," the voice continued, "such lovely hands, but always covered up with these silly long shirt sleeves, these ridiculous cuffs, they're very nice but Merlin, what are you thinking about when you dress yourself every morning … you won't even let me see your hands." With that the boy smoothed the sleeve of Severus' frock coat down to his hand, then kept petting along the cuff that extended nearly to his thumb.
"It's supposed to look that way," Severus said in a tight voice, remembering the devastation the silly boy had wreaked on him by kissing his hand that afternoon, "it's the style, it's supposed to be modest, repressive even, it's intended to preserve my privacy … " It was no use. Harry just smiled up at him, holding Severus' eyes as he lowered his mouth to the black-clad arm and kissed along it slowly.
"You shouldn't hide from me," Harry said, with lips that were doing far too thorough a job of rendering Severus helpless. He watched, fascinated, as Harry slowly and exquisitely peeled the frilled, foppish cuff back from his left hand, his movements as erotic as a striptease, revealing … only his wrist, nothing more. But the boy seemed delighted. He lifted the partly-exposed limb to his lips, turning it so he could kiss the pale skin on the inside of the wrist, his eyes closed and a look of ecstasy on his face.
Severus watched him, mesmerized. He realized with a squeeze deep in his belly that Potter was probably going to kiss his mouth next, as they were so close now it would be nothing for him to turn slightly, then move the last little distance and press their lips together.
"Who, exactly, is in control here, Mister Potter?" he asked in a choked whisper. "For one who claims to want teaching, you seem startlingly … advanced."
"I just thought," Harry said softly, "that you might like to be seduced, just a bit, at first. To be worshipped a little. Because you always have to be the teacher, always have to be in control, and now I've asked you to be that again for me, and maybe … I just thought, maybe you'd rather not be, all the time." He giggled unexpectedly. "You seemed kind of afraid you might break me, or something. So I thought, what the hell, I know what to do right now. It's just when we get a bit farther into things that I've no idea what I'm about, so you're going to have to take over soon."
Severus wanted to laugh at the boy's brazenness. What a Gryffindor, no doubt about it, he thought. Always ready to leap in whether he can see his way to the end or not. But he found, to his happy surprise, that as he listened to the boy's quiet confession his hesitancy had vanished.
He gathered his courage and turned Harry around in the curve of his arm so they were facing each other, then took control of their joined hands, fondling the boy's hand gently, all the while looking into Harry's eyes. After a while he brought the hand to his lips and kissed the palm, then licked it delicately with just the tip of his tongue. He could feel Harry shiver.
"Ooh," the boy whispered hoarsely. "Now you're going to pay me back."
"Not at all," he answered smoothly, still holding the deep green eyes. "I'm going to teach you, Harry. If you're sure that's what you want."
"Yes, I … please, Severus … " The boy's control and assurance had melted away as Severus' touch grew more confident. His words were stammered, but his eyes were begging, and Severus gave him what he wanted. He steadied Harry's face with his free hand and bent to kiss him, just the briefest, gentlest touch of lips, a mere taste. Then he pulled away minutely.
"Still sure?" he whispered. Harry nodded frantically, and Severus leaned back down to kiss the little fool deeply. Their arms slowly wrapped around each other, their mouths opening in welcome, their tongues finding each other, first hesitantly and then firmly.
Harry was gasping when Severus pulled back the next time, but he reached out wildly and tried to pull Severus close again. "Wait," Severus said, holding the boy slightly away. "Talk to me." Harry nodded wordlessly. "You want me to teach you." Harry nodded again, looking desperate. "Do you really understand what that means?" His whisper was fierce, and Severus pressed himself against the boy's stomach, to make sure he could feel the hard cock that wanted him so very badly.
"Ye—yes, Severus. Please. That's what I want." Harry closed his eyes and clung to him, so Severus' cock was held even tighter between them.
"And have you any experience at all? With men?" Severus asked. Harry shook his head, looking chagrined.
Severus sighed, releasing the pressure of his arms that held their bodies close, and leaned in to kiss Harry gently, along his neck this time, with tiny kisses that punctuated the words he said: "So I am required, once again, to instruct you in every—single—thing—thing you need to know?"
"Should I have let someone else teach me? Before I came to you?"
Cheeky brat, Severus thought. "No," he said darkly. "This is infinitely preferable." And he demonstrated his preference, kissing the boy yet again, taking charge, his hands everywhere. The young body in his arms was as he'd dreamed of it, lean and muscled but not too much, small enough that Severus could wrap him up entirely and hold him close, safe and enveloped at last.
Harry let himself be surrounded, and leaned his head on Severus' shoulder with a deep sigh. He murmured, "I'm sorry I'm so short. I know it makes things more difficult."
Severus stilled abruptly in surprise at this. "Oh, no. Don't say that. You're perfect." And he is, he thought with certainty, as he began to kiss the boy's perfect neck, working his way around to the little depression at the front of his collarbone. He licked the soft spot very gently until Harry cried out, then sucked it firmly, feeling Harry tremble in response.
"Good, very good," he whispered before putting his mouth to work on the tender area again. As he did, he began to undo the loose buttons of the boy's pyjamas, and he felt Harry's hands immediately move to work on his own more numerous buttons. "Yes, Harry, yes," he coaxed. "Don't be shy. Touch me, undress me. I want you to." Harry groaned and moved faster.
In a moment Harry's dressing gown and pyjama top had been pushed gracelessly to the floor. Only thin pants, which hid no sins and little of anything else, still covered him. Severus waited as Harry clumsily undid his waistcoat and shirt, then quickly shrugged out of them. When Harry began fumbling with his belt, he reached down to assist, undoing the buckle and his trousers and pushing them roughly down. They both stepped and kicked their way out of shoes and slippers and undergarments and finally stood naked together, looking at each other. Severus felt a thrill deep in his body; Gods, the boy was even more beautiful than he'd imagined, more perfectly muscled, and his chest dusted with black hair that promised to thicken as he got older …
Harry, too, could not seem to stop looking. He was staring at Severus' dark erection as if he'd never seen such a thing before. Never one inspired by him, Severus thought. The boy didn't seem cowed by the sight, however; if anything he looked hungry, and as if he might be just managing to hold himself back from taking Severus' cock in both hands and devouring it.
"Are you still sure, Mister Potter?" Severus asked huskily. "It becomes increasingly difficult to … stop the train, as it were, from this point on. Though," he added quickly, thinking his words had sounded rather more like a threat than he'd intended, "that's not to say we can't stop, if you find that you—"
He had to trust that Harry understood what he was trying to say after that, as he found himself unable to speak, what with his mouth being full of Harry's lips and tongue, and his chest pressed hard up against the boy's, and his thigh being assaulted by a very eager cock that obviously had no desire to stop anytime soon. "Yes, then," he mumbled into the softness of the boy's mouth, closing his eyes and allowing himself to feel it all.
They stood kissing and caressing before the fire for some moments, Severus wanting both to give Harry time to become comfortable with their new intimacy, and to give himself time to look the boy's naked body over, every inch of him, all pale bare skin that glowed golden and seemed to flicker in the firelight. His hair looked even wilder than usual, and Severus was finally able to run his hands through it and press wavy strands of it to his mouth worshipfully. His hands and mouth roved over the boy, trying to make up for the lonely months he'd only dreamed of doing this.
"Take your time, Harry," he said softly. Harry had begun to explore all over Severus' body, touching urgently everywhere he could reach, and breathing heavily. "I've no intention of sending you back to your dormitory anytime soon." He stopped, suddenly caught by the fear that he had overstepped, had been mistaken; perhaps Harry wouldn't fancy spending an entire night wrapped up in bed with him. But Harry looked up just long enough to give him a feverish nod, then bent to resume his serious study of Severus' smooth chest. He was nuzzling so hungrily it made Severus smile again, and kiss the top of his head tenderly.
"Come to bed with me?" he murmured.
"Yes, Gods, yes."
Severus held his hand again and led him to the bedroom that was the most interior of his private rooms. No other student had ever been inside this room, nor had any of his previous lovers, as Severus' romantic adventures had all been, sadly, of the brief and transient sort. It seemed very right to him that Harry should be the only one he would bring here.
He went to the large, soft bed—one of the few comforts he allowed himself—and drew back the heavy covers. He climbed in and slid to the far side, and Harry crawled right behind him; as he turned, the boy was in his arms, and they were lying together, pressed close from nose to knees. Severus imagined that if he hadn't felt such a great responsibility to teach in this bed tonight, he might have allowed himself to climax quickly, just like this, from the glorious feeling of simply having Harry, finally, in his bed.
They lay together for a while, rolling back and forth a bit so Harry could experience some of the many sensations and positions possible with an adaptable lover. Severus pulled him on top and let him rut, panting, against his belly, then steadied him as they rolled over so Severus was on top, keeping control with his limbs and his mouth and relishing the look of delight on the boy's face at feeling himself possessed. This sort of teaching was intoxicating stuff.
He kept them on top of the blankets as they played so they both could see every sensuous thing they did together. It occurred to Severus, as they rolled and petted, that he was warm, despite being nude and uncovered. More incredibly, his leg did not hurt, even though it was getting a bit of a workout. He decided, thinking that he might not feel so in control of himself soon, that this was the time to begin Harry's lesson, the details of which had been organizing themselves in his head during their foreplay. He leaned back on the bed, supported by pillows, and tried to adopt a no-nonsense tone of voice.
"Mister Potter," he said to the boy, who was at that moment trying to attach himself permanently to Severus' right nipple. "There are a few basic principles you must learn, if you are to be a proper lover, of either men or women. Will you pay attention, please?"
Harry looked up, startled, but then sat back obediently. His lips were reddened and damp, and they smiled. "Sure. What do I need to know?"
"Just this: there are three rules you should follow." Harry was nodding; Severus was pleased to see that he did seem to have shifted his attention from the nipple to the words he was speaking. "The first rule is this: if you are wise, you will put your lover first in everything."
Harry frowned slightly and looked puzzled. "Do you mean … I should always let him come before me?"
"That is sometimes part of it, yes. What I really intend you to think about, however, is how to put your lover's needs before your own. Think about what he needs, and wants, and make those things your first priority, over your own preferences. Or what she needs," he added, "I don't mean to suggest any bias in this."
"So … okay," the boy said with only a slight hesitation, "I can do that. I guess. What else?"
"The second rule is that when your lover is trying to please you, you must always be gracious and appreciative, whatever he, or she, may be doing."
"Even if it's not … um, what I like?"
"Even if. Attempting to please you is more important than succeeding."
"I … yeah, sure, I can do that, too. And … there were three?"
"The final rule is that if there is any confusion over what to do next, or which rule takes precedence, always refer back to rule number one. Put your lover first. Period."
Harry was nodding again, looking serious and thoroughly distracted from what they'd been doing just a few moments before. "I think I understand. But … how do you know … that is, when is it time to stop pleasing your lover, and let him please you? I mean, you can't both be doing both all the time." His puzzlement was genuine.
"As I said, when there is any question, refer back to rule number one. When it is clear that your lover wants to take care of you, then allowing him to do that is putting his needs first at that moment. There's nothing worse than a lover who is a boor about such things, never giving up control."
"Oh. I guess … that makes sense." Harry was clearly thinking this over. "Um. How did you learn these rules?"
"They are my own rules," Severus admitted, "gained through … let us say, painful experiences over the years."
"But you must have had some good experiences, too, right? To show you the right things to do?"
"Some, yes," he said carefully. "But the rules result more from seeing the results of my own mistakes, and those of others." He kept his face serious and businesslike, and tried not to recall those mistakes in too much detail.
Harry leaned in and kissed him then, suddenly. He put a hand on Severus' cheek and took his time with the kiss, making it gentle and thorough. When he pulled away Severus realized with a jolt that he'd entirely lost his focus on the instructions he was giving, and he tried to get back on course. "That was certainly … distracting," he said with a reproachful smile. "We were in the middle of a lesson, you know."
"I know. It just seemed like what you needed, right at that moment," Harry said. He smiled as well, not a merry expression but one of tenderness. "You've been a bit too busy being a spy and everybody's teacher and such to have much of a … well, a love life, haven't you?"
Startled, Severus nodded before he could think not to. "It wasn't so much of a loss. I'd probably not have had much of one, anyway."
Harry frowned. "Why do you say that?"
"I'm not exactly a crowd-pleaser, Harry."
"But you've got all these rules worked out, you know all the right things to do … "
Severus arched his eyebrows at the boy, trying to look stern and to cover up the perplexing emotions roiling inside him: affection, worry, sadness. "Yes. And you'd best remember them, as I'm sure you're going to have plenty of opportunities to implement them." Which I never had. "I don't ever want it said that I taught you poorly, or sent you out into the world ill-equipped to be a courteous lover." He forced himself to chuckle at that, to cover up the stab of sadness he felt at the thought of Harry leaving for good, in a matter of hours.
But Harry seemed ready to argue over something. "Send me out into the world! What, don't you … " He fell silent abruptly, pinching his lips together and frowning sadly. He kissed Severus again, and said, "I'll remember. Is there any more to this lesson?"
"For the moment, only for you to practice what you've learned." He lay down and drew Harry on top of him, kissing him and running his arms up and down over the boy's body, feeling skin against his own from head to toes.
"How do I know, again," Harry asked between quick kisses from atop him, "whether I'm supposed to be pleasing you or letting you please me? And which of us is supposed to, you know, be the one putting the other first?"
"The system does break down slightly if both parties are conscientious," Severus admitted, licking gently behind Harry's ear. "What do you want most right now?"
"I want to know what comes next," he answered immediately. "How exactly we're going to … you know, how we do it. All the way." He grinned and blushed.
"Ah." Severus held them still for a moment, with lips nearly but not quite touching. "So you think you're ready for that, eh?"
"Yes!" the boy answered, letting go of Severus and rolling off of him and onto his back. He flung his arms out and his head back as if to relinquish all control of his body. Severus laughed and propped himself on one elbow next to him, the other hand continuing to explore him intimately. His fingers circled Harry's heavy balls with gentle strokes, then slid down behind them, seeking with feathery touches for the taut opening he wanted so much to breach. Harry whimpered happily.
"I'm afraid we must make time for one more lesson, then, before we proceed," Severus murmured. "There is a certain spell," he continued, keeping his voice soft and deep, his hand cupping his young lover's testicles, now growing tight with excitement from the teasing Severus was giving them. "It will help … prepare you for me."
"A … spell?" Harry whispered, rapt.
"A spell," Severus agreed, "that a wizard needs to know, especially if he intends to … love other men. A very important spell." Harry's eyes were wide. "It's a spell a young man should learn from his first lover. Though, of course, if he is unwise enough to choose another virgin for his first experiences … they must fumble along as best they can." He raised an eyebrow significantly.
"I'm glad I chose you," Harry whispered.
"So am I," he whispered back, gratified. He kissed the boy gently, and was startled when Harry clutched at him and kissed back hard. "At any rate … " he continued, trying not to be distracted by Harry's lips, and the warm, sweet puffs of breath issuing from them, "this is a spell that homosexual wizards take very seriously. We do not joke about it or use it casually, because it can have profound effects and could cause great harm or humiliation if abused. Can you promise to treat the spell with respect?"
"Yes," Harry said. "But I haven't any idea what spell you're talking about."
"You wouldn't, not until I show it to you. As I said, it's not used in any context but an intimate one, and men are generally reluctant to discuss it in any other situation."
"What does it do?"
"It will cleanse you inside, and apply a soothing lubricant," he said, trying to keep his voice suggestively silky, "to prepare you to be penetrated. It will make penetrative sex more comfortable, less likely to cause injury. And make it easier, and more exciting, for the man who penetrates."
"Oh. Are you going to cast it on me?" Harry sounded breathless.
"If I may."
Harry nodded quickly, looking both eager and terrified. Severus looked into his eyes solemnly as he intoned,"Lavare insinuo."
A warm ripple passed through the air around Harry's genitals, powerful enough that Severus could feel it with his hand. Inside the boy, however, its power had more impact than Severus had intended. He watched in amazement as Harry closed his eyes, then groaned and twitched, and finally came hard, spurting all over Severus' arm.
Severus felt his own arousal surge at the supremely erotic sight of Harry twitching and moaning as the orgasm wracked him. Forcing himself to stay in control, he chuckled, very softly. "Perhaps a bit too well prepared, are we?" he said, taking the opportunity to rub his hand over the boy's cock, still erect and pulsing, so he could feel the warm liquid running down it. As Harry made noises of mixed satisfaction and frustration, Severus stroked him through it, gently and patiently. When Harry opened his eyes, Severus made a little show of lifting his now wet, sticky hand and slowly licking the boy's ejaculate off his fingers, smiling suggestively as he did so. "I take it you appreciate the power of that spell, then."
"Yeah. Wow. It wasn't … supposed to do all that, was it?"
"It generally does not, no, though as I told you it can have significant consequences and must be used carefully. It is intended only to prepare you for penetration, but a certain amount of magical penetration is a necessary part of the process … and it appears you are quite, shall we say, responsive to penetration."
"Is that good?"
Harry's eyes gleamed and he smiled, then he reached up to put his arms around Severus' neck. "I think … that is, I'm pretty sure I can come again," the boy whispered, nodding his head against Severus' cheek.
"I have no doubt of that." Severus rubbed his sticky hand up and down Harry's body, then leaned over him to lick the areas he had touched. "Mmm," he hummed between licks, making Harry giggle. He pressed his tongue more firmly against the boy's belly, making him squeal and try half-heartedly to roll away.
Severus wrapped one arm around Harry's shoulders and the other under his knees to gather him close. "Enough silliness, now. I need to take the next step, to prepare you further," he said, sitting up and still cradling Harry against him. "You must be stretched, very gently. This is something else you will need to know how to do for your future lovers." Merlin, don't think about that now, it will destroy you utterly … Clearing his throat, Severus continued, his voice a little rough. "I'll use my fingers, if you think you can tolerate that. It may hurt a little, but not for long, and I'll be exceedingly careful. Ready?"
Harry nodded and clutched at Severus' chest. It felt very nice, Severus thought, holding him like this, much as he'd been carried by Harry from the shack so near to a year ago. But the boy he held close was in no way paralyzed. As Severus reached underneath him and slowly pushed a finger into his tight, hot opening, already slick from the spell that had undone him, he made urgent noises and began to writhe in Severus' arms.
"Settle yourself, now, that's the way," Severus said soothingly. "Does this hurt?" He knew it must.
But Harry replied, "No … just feels strange. But good-strange." He groaned. "This is … just to get me … loose enough for you to fit inside me?"
"Mmm. Yes." Severus nuzzled the boy's smooth neck as he carefully worked his fingers back and forth, pulling gently, urging the tight muscles to relax.
"If you weren't … so big? Would it be easier?"
Severus laughed. "I'm not so big, Harry. It's all a matter of perspective."
"If you say so," Harry said dubiously. "Ungh. Hey. That feels … pretty good."
"Ah. Then what about … this?" Severus murmured, twitching his fingers against the firm little nub deep inside the boy's arse.
Harry gave a yelp. "What did you do?" he gasped.
"I touched your prostate gland. Feel good?"
"Yeah." Harry tossed his head back. His eyes were looking increasingly wild, and his hair stuck to his forehead, damp with sweat. Severus wondered how much more he could take before going over the edge.
He thought suddenly that he was close to the edge himself, and that he'd never seen such a lovely thing as that face, which was sweaty, excited and just slightly nervous. All pedagogical intentions flew from his mind and he leaned down to kiss Harry heatedly, really believing for the first time that they were actually in bed together, that this night was happening, that this wonderful, ridiculous boy wanted him.
Before he realized what he was doing, he had slid Harry out of his arms, laid him flat on the bed, and rolled on top. He felt the smooth body beneath him and was inflamed; it seemed he could not stop himself from pressing his mouth everywhere, wet and open and hungry. He began sucking sharply at each kiss, knowing he was leaving marks, and he held Harry firmly and rocked his pelvis hard again the boy, exalting at every thrust. Very soon he was trembling with the need to push inside, to feel Harry around his cock and claim him, make sure all the world knew that Harry was his, and that he was Harry Potter's lover, and his teacher, in this above all other things … he pumped more fiercely, feeling their hipbones knock together on each stroke, wanting to lose himself in the surge of sensations.
He heard a soft gasp from underneath him, and stopped moving. "Harry," he whispered, stunned, not entirely sure what he was doing. He realized he was leaning far too heavily on the boy, and immediately hiked himself up on his elbows, loosening his grip on Harry's shoulders. "I … I apologize," he said, appalled. "That was … far too rough. I never should have … " He pushed himself off of the boy and sat up, breathing hard. There were vague red marks on Harry's shoulders and chest and smaller, sharper ones on his neck. Seeing them, Severus hissed softly, furious with himself.
"What happened?" Harry said, sounding panicked. "Don't stop! What's wrong?" He sat up next to Severus and put an arm around him. Severus tried to pull away, but Harry slid right after him. "What did you … you weren't too rough. I liked it. What did you stop for?" His voice was pleading.
Severus looked up and over at him. Except for the red marks, some of which were fading quickly, he did not actually look damaged. "I'm sorry," he said. "I was losing control. I did not intend to man-handle you like that."
Harry smiled. "Is that what you call it?"
"It was far too rough, especially for your first time." Especially from someone who has spent half his life trying to protect you.
"It wasn't rough. It was … sincere. Please, come back over here? Please?" Harry lay back down and tugged at Severus' arm.
Severus reluctantly allowed himself to be drawn back, settling next to the boy and propped up on one elbow again. "I'm afraid that was a very poor example of sexual behavior. I did not intend to let things get that … uncontrolled." He felt miserable. What had he done, and how could he possibly explain it to Harry? And how could he even pretend to be teaching the boy when he couldn't control himself?
But Harry was dragging him closer, his arms around Severus' neck. "You're all about control, aren't you? You like things to go just so."
"I do," Severus admitted, letting himself be coaxed closer. Those green eyes were so beautiful, and so full of trust … how had merely seeing Severus' memories earned that trust, so different from the antipathy of their early years together? "In the distant past," he said carefully, "I've been … less concerned about such things. As a very young man I was quite, ah, aggressive, in sexual situations. It seemed to be what people expected of me." He knew he was talking too freely, but somehow he didn't want to stop. "They imagined I would be a rough, uncaring lover. I never wanted to be so, but somehow … "
He cleared his throat, and tried to finish the thought. "There has been enough brutality in our lives, Harry. I want to be done with all that, now more than ever. I particularly don't want it to be a part of this … whatever this is, between us."
"You're really serious, aren't you?"
"It's very important to you to be a … a gentle lover? For me, especially?"
"You weren't actually hurting me, you know."
Severus shook his head. "I would have, if I'd gone any further."
"But what if I liked it, all that roughness? What if that's what I want?" He gave Severus a cautious look. "I'm not saying it is. But what if it were?"
He stared at Harry, the desire to please him and the desire to maintain control battling within him. "I realize," he said, his mouth dry, "that I have already told you to put a lover's needs before your own. I had not anticipated that you might want … that is … "
He realized uncomfortably that there was no way around this. "Harry," he said finally. "If the degree of gentleness and control I want are not to your taste, and you really want me to handle you roughly, I suppose I could manage it. I certainly demonstrated that I still have the potential for that, a moment ago." He flopped onto his back, irritated with himself for setting up this impossible situation, and frustrated by the thwarted desire still throbbing in him. He wished he'd had more time to think things through before taking the boy to bed; perhaps then he'd have done it right.
But Harry was giving him a puzzled look. "Does anyone else know how you feel about all this?"
"No." Who else does he think I would have told?
"Not even Dumbledore?"
"How would he know such a thing? You're not suggesting … " He looked at Harry, appalled. "Really, Potter. Dumbledore?"
Harry laughed. "I'm not suggesting anything. I just wondered if he knew, if he'd guessed how you felt, somehow. Because if he did, then you have to figure he took it into consideration. You know, in deciding on the 'accounts' he wanted us to settle." He raised an eyebrow at Severus.
"You think he knew the way I would teach you? And for some reason wanted you taught that way?" Severus considered this for a moment. "Wouldn't that make us simply his puppets again? I thought you'd had enough of that."
"No," Harry said firmly. "It's like you said. Sometimes, when we have our own goals, doing what he wants just happens to be the best way to achieve them. There's nothing wrong with that."
"But why would he want this?"
"Because he agrees with you? Because he thought it would be good for me? Because he thought it would be good for you, maybe?"
"That's quite a lot of complicated meddling, even for Dumbledore."
"Maybe he thought he had a really good reason to meddle. You're teaching me what you like, encouraging me to be like you, to be gentle. Maybe he was worried that I would become too aggressive, too rough, if you didn't show me another way." He looked very serious. "Maybe he thought that would be a really bad thing."
Severus stared at him, considering the temptations that would, indeed, be strong for a very young man with very great magical powers. One who had just destroyed the most powerful dark wizard in several centuries. One who might suddenly be slightly adrift in life, without a clear path to his future. "I suppose that could be true." He shrugged. "Though no matter what I do with you, if you wish to be a brute, or consort with brutes, you may certainly do so in the future. I will have no control over that." He felt a sharp pang at that thought.
"But you will. You'll always be the first." Harry gave him such an artfully coy smile that Severus blinked. "You get to set the standard."
Severus snorted at that. The conversation was becoming maudlin. "For what it's worth, yes, I do. But I'm sure you'll manage to forget what I teach you tonight, just as you always have."
The boy looked hurt, and Severus realized that now he'd been too rough verbally, as well. "I—damn it, Potter. Harry. I don't know what Dumbledore intended for us to do together. I frankly don't think it was any of his business, but if he had a hand in making this happen, then I suppose I owe him my thanks. And yes," he continued, sitting up and crossing his arms, working into a perversely oratorical mood, "I want to be gentle and controlled in bed, and no, I've not always been that way, and yes, perhaps he wanted me to teach that to you. I don't bloody know. But I do know that sitting here discussing this is not what I want to be doing right now." He tried to scowl, but it was hard to produce much venom while staring at the beautiful naked body in front of him.
Harry seemed to have got past his hurt quickly, and he snuggled close, pulling Severus back down to the bed. "It's all right. Now we're here, let's just do what works for both of us, all right? I thought everything was going pretty well, until you got mad at yourself." He grinned. "Remember, I wasn't mad. I liked everything you were doing." He gave Severus a soft kiss on the lips. "But I want you to do it the way you think is best. Show me how good gentle can be, will you? Please?"
Harry wriggled, and suddenly he was back on top, and their bodies were in full contact again. Severus' felt his cock pulse in response to the body pressing down on it, and also in some annoyance at him for forgetting about it. "If you're sure," Severus murmured, relieved and instantly hard again. Harry nodded eagerly, and Severus began to kiss carefully along the line of the boy's jaw, remembering with all his senses how wonderful touching him had felt and thinking how stupid of him it had been to interrupt them.
"Very sure." Harry took Severus' face in both hands and kissed him thoroughly. His weight on Severus' chest was unsupported, but Severus didn't care. It felt wonderful, heavy and warm and comforting. Harry pulled back just far enough to speak, their mouths still nearly touching. "But maybe sometimes," he whispered, "you could tell yourself that it's okay to lose control. Just a little bit." He looked at Severus tenderly. "With, you know, someone who really cares about you."
That tender look, and those gentle words, were all it took. Severus wrapped his arms around the boy and took control from him again, but this time with exquisite gentleness. He rolled them to the side and they kissed for a while, then Severus rose to his knees. Harry sprawled in front of him, eyes wide, and he crawled in between the boy's legs, explaining softly, "I want to see your face while we make love. And … be able to kiss you." Quite ridiculous, he thought, but entirely true.
Harry gave him a frantic, encouraging smile, and he resumed his preparations. "A mostly wordless lesson, now, I think," he said in a low, sultry voice. "Just watch, and feel what I'm doing." With fingers that shook slightly at first, he explored the boy's tight, smooth arse again. The entrance was still slick with the magical, penetrating lubricant, and the muscles seemed loose enough. Merlin, Severus thought in surprise, he does seem ready for it. He probed gently for a moment, just grazing the prostate once and earning a moan from Harry. It was time, he decided. He wants it. I want it. Hell, even Dumbledore apparently wants it. Who am I to fight this any longer?
Severus had a plan, a choreographed ideal version of their love-making that had been working itself out in his mind as they talked. He would redeem himself for his regrettable roughness. He would make this good, and an example of all he was trying to teach the boy. Care. Deliberateness. Gentleness. All important, all things he was determined to demonstrate, right now.
He lifted Harry's legs carefully and kissed each one in turn from thigh to knee, as if asking permission from them for what he was about to do. Then he pushed them carefully up and back, rolling the boy's arse until it was angled slightly up. He positioned himself against the lovely backside facing him, his own knees acting as wedges supporting Harry's lower back, and gradually scooted himself closer.
Harry's eyes were goggling as if they'd never seen him before, and they opened wider when he clasped his hands together in front of him for a moment and muttered, "Manus unguere." A familiar warm, slippery substance spread between his palms and he tingled with anticipation.
He looked down at Harry and smiled, and held his hands out to the boy, palms up. Harry looked puzzled for a beat, but then got the idea and took the hands in his own. Severus brought their hands together and rubbed the lubricant onto Harry's, then with a deliberate look, making sure he had approval to do so, he put Harry's hands onto his own cock and moved them slightly, encouraging him to finish the luxurious oiling task himself. Harry took it over willingly, and Severus leaned back slightly and closed his eyes as the boy's warm, slick hands stroked him. Heavenly. It wouldn't take much of this at all to end things prematurely, however, so before long he pushed Harry's fingers away.
Holding himself up with one hand on the bed, he moved his slippery, aching cock to press against Harry's entrance. Harry grunted softly. Severus teased for a while, rubbing gently with his cockhead, probing and caressing with his fingers, spreading the magical lubricants further.
Harry wiggled, and moaned, and seemed desperately ready, and finally Severus could wait no longer. He positioned his legs just right, and pushed the sensitive tip of his cock just inside; Harry gasped, not surprisingly. Severus pushed farther in, intending to move slowly, but Harry moved toward him and Severus found his hips thrusting against his will, and then they were joined; he fell on his hands, to either side of Harry's shoulders, and stared down at him in wonder.
"Are you all right?" he asked in an anxious whisper.
"Just—fine," Harry puffed, though he didn't look entirely fine.
"I know it hurts … " Severus began, but Harry interrupted him.
"No, no. It's not that. It's full, is all, but it's good. It's just that … " and he looked up at Severus in some confusion. "You're really inside me."
This seemed obvious. "I am," Severus agreed, prepared to be encouraging, no matter what the newly fucked boy might say.
"No, I mean … " He stopped, and looked perplexed, and seemed to try to look inside himself, as if to see where Severus was. Then he looked up, and tapped a finger on the side of his head. "You're inside me. Here."
"I am?" Then Severus knew, all at once, that he was. "Oh … " he said slowly. "I am … " He could feel Harry's mind all around him, welcoming him. It was begging him, in fact, to stay, to touch. To move inside him and bring pleasure to them both. It was begging, with no shame at all but rather a childlike certainty that Severus would provide, no matter what Harry asked for.
And Severus understood. He had to take care of Harry, in this, as in everything, as he had always done. So he began to move, at first sliding in and out only half a stroke, excruciatingly slowly, holding himself back with heroic effort. Harry moaned appreciatively, and he lengthened his thrusts a bit, and heard himself—though it seemed as if the sounds came through Harry's ears—making rather animalistic little grunting noises. Harry's thoughts surrounded him and filled him, and he could feel that the boy's pleasure level was rising, not falling. He hoped this meant that the sex wasn't hurting Harry too badly.
"Still all right?" he said, definitely panting now. He wanted desperately to move faster and harder, but would not. Gentleness, care, deliberateness, he reminded himself.
"Fantastic," Harry answered, seeming relaxed now. He gave Severus a knowing look, and Severus realized with a start that Harry could no doubt tell what was in his mind, too. He could very possibly feel the building tension, the barbaric instinct telling him to let go of himself, to pound at the boy like a savage. As if to confirm this suspicion, Harry said quickly, "It's all right, Sev. Go ahead, do it hard. I want you to."
"No, I … can't … " Severus managed to gasp. Maintaining his control was requiring at least as much exertion as hard fucking would. "Don't want to … hurt you."
"You won't. I promise. It's good, really good. Do it, Severus. Let me feel what you really want. I know you want to."
"Don't say that," Severus snarled in a micro-burst of anger. Harry quickly raised his arms and circled them around Severus' neck.
"Okay, okay," he soothed. "Then … see if you can … hit that spot, inside me. Can you do that?"
"I can," Severus said firmly. He sat back for an instant and shifted Harry's hips higher on his own wedged knees to change his angle of approach, then slid back inside and pushed for it, tilting his hips, brow drawn tense with concentration as he tried to aim at an invisible target with a highly sensitive weapon that had a mind of its own. After a few thrusts Harry gave a little cry of pleasure.
"Oh, yeah," he said, eyes closing. "That's it. More, more … " He lay underneath Severus, yielding entirely to him, his whole body making giant twitches from the force of Severus' thrusts.
It was nearly too much for Severus, just that quickly, and he stopped moving to regain his control. Harry's eyes opened and he looked up in alarm, but Severus shook his head, saying, "Had to stop. For a bit. Too good." He closed his own eyes, letting the blackness in front of them replace the vision of Harry lying under him waiting. He opened them again, and the vision was still there, and it was more arousing than ever; he leaned down to kiss the boy, and moved as slowly as he could within him as they kissed. "You are … extraordinary," he whispered, pulling his lips away at last. "I have never … never … " and he really had not, ever, experienced sex like this before, but he couldn't get out the last words because Harry had begun to pant rhythmically, and he knew the boy's second climax was near. "Yes, Harry," he said, louder, hoarsely. "Come now."
And Harry did, of course, those last words not surprisingly pushing him over the edge quickly. Severus felt the hot slippery stuff shoot out between them, making their bodies slide together even more smoothly. He kept moving. He wanted to make this last, and watch the boy's face relax while he continued to thrust into him, slow and deep and controlled. In truth, he wanted it never to end. He though he could manage the pleasure; he thought his age gave him enough sensate insulation that he could draw this out for as long as he liked, taking all he could from this one night, this one taste of ecstasy, that he was to be allowed with this boy.
That is what he thought.
He had thought, too, that Harry might moan as he came. He might sigh deeply afterward, or moan a bit more, or give a heartfelt exclamation of, "Wow!" or, "Fuck!" or, if Severus was really lucky, perhaps something like, "That was good, Sev!" He might even, Severus knew, fall asleep as Severus continued to thrust into him. It had been known to happen.
He did not expect what actually occurred.
He was moving slowly, gloriously in control and riding a wave of bliss, for perhaps a moment, while Harry's breathing slowed. Then came an instant when their eyes met, and Harry reached both hands up, took Severus' face in them, and pulled him down for a long and very thorough kiss. Afterward, with Severus motionless inside him, stopped and held by the innocent magic of the kiss and with their faces nose to nose, Harry whispered, "That was incredible."
And then he smiled and said, very softly, "I'm so glad I fell in love with you."
That was all it took—all it took to undo Severus' illusions of what control was all about, of what this night was all about, even of what sex was all about. Still holding himself perfectly still inside Harry, he felt the familiar waves of heat and tension building in his thighs, and within seconds he was coming hard, shaking and panting, clutching Harry's head and shoulders and burying his face against the boy's neck as he emptied himself.
It was over, he thought almost immediately. His one night was now, for all intents and purposes, at an end. Harry might stay around for a bit, cuddling casually as he regained his breath, but soon the boy would no doubt push him—politely perhaps but nonetheless firmly—off to the side and go back to his dormitory. There he would sleep off the sex or possibly just lie awake exulting in his first triumphant conquest. Either way, now satisfied, there was no chance he was going to require any extended post-coital interaction. That wasn't how young men did this, Severus knew. They tended to be in a hurry, finish fast, move on, to whatever was next in their paths.
Which for Harry would not, Severus told himself with certainty, be another older man. It would certainly not be a pathetic former dark wizard, one still nursing his wounds and harboring a silly fantasy of fastidious gentleness. Now that he knew what he was about, Harry would surely seek—and easily find—a sturdy young lover who could drive into him hard, and take the same in return, enough to satisfy his needs, the needs of a young man.
Severus was still clinging to Harry's shoulders, waiting for his breathing to slow and trying to stave off the descent into despair—it's really over now—that he knew was coming, when he felt Harry's lips against his neck. "It's all right, Severus," he was saying quietly. "I know. It's all right."
Trying to pretend he hadn't heard the comforting words, Severus rolled himself off. For just a second he turned away from Harry so that he could compose his face. Harry was immediately right behind him, nudging up close. Startled, Severus turned back to face him, and opened his arms to let the worried-looking boy snuggle up tighter.
"Thought you might be getting out of bed or something," Harry whispered.
"Ah. No." Severus frowned, surprised, and stroked Harry's back gently. They lay there in each other's arms for some time, gradually calming. Severus tried not to think about the moment, now approaching very fast, when Harry would hop from the bed and leave him forever.
"I'm a little bit cold," Harry said against his chest. "Could we get under the covers?"
"Of course." Severus sat up and dragged the covers out from under his pillows, and they both crawled underneath. When they were settled again, warmer now, Harry spoke again.
"I don't want to, you know, be a nuisance or anything. But do you think I could … maybe, sleep here? Just for a few hours? I'm awfully tired."
"Naturally. Climaxing twice will take it out of a man, even one so young as you."
Harry grinned. "I guess it will."
"You may sleep here, of course. If you wish."
"Thanks." He looked at Severus sharply. "You'll stay, too, won't you?"
"I … yes, certainly. If you wish."
Harry snorted. "What else would I wish?"
"I'm sure I couldn't guess."
"This is what I wish. That's why I'm here. I thought we were clear on that." He drew Severus closer within his arms and nestled his head against Severus' chest. "You want it too, don't you?"
"I … yes, I do."
Suddenly Harry giggled softly and looked up at Severus with a grin. "Then does this count as you pleasing me or as me pleasing you?"
"Both, I suppose."
"That's good, then." He wriggled a bit, tucking himself even further into Severus' arms. "Let's sleep, huh?"
"Whatever you want, Harry," Severus murmured back to him. He ran his fingers through the boy's now completely wild hair, trying to memorize how it felt to do so, acutely aware that he'd been offered one last chance to fill himself up with these lovely sensations. "Whatever you want." He kept stroking softly, aware of every spot of contact between his hands and body and this magical creature with whom he so unexpectedly lay.
Then they slept.
Love withers with predictability; its very essence is surprise and amazement.
-Leo F. Buscaglia
It was five o'clock in the morning by the old wooden clock on Severus' bedroom wall when his eyes opened again. At first he was utterly confused, by the dark, by the unusual warmth of his bed, by the oddly comforting funk in the air. Then a swirl of sensations around his body and under the blankets resolved themselves, and he realized Harry was still here, and was touching him in intimate places he'd thought the boy was finished with, as of several hours ago.
"What are you up to?" he asked, louder than he'd intended, and in spite of the fact that he could tell perfectly well what Harry was up to.
An arm appeared, and it swept the blankets down to reveal Harry's head pressed against Severus' belly, which he had been kissing thoroughly. He gave a mischievous smile, and said, "Wake-up call."
"I see," Severus said dryly, trying to hide his shocked delight, and aware that his arousal was already far past concealing. "A word of advice. If you're planning to do what I think you are, you might want to utilize a cleansing spell first, given our activities of last night."
Harry's face went flat. "Oh. I guess you're right." He looked apologetic. "Uh, what spell should I use?"
Severus raised one knee so that his foot was flat on the bed, better exposing the area he now knew to be Harry's target. He smiled suggestively, hoping it wasn't too unattractive a look at this hour of the morning. "Lavare delicatius," he said, and felt the rush of tiny magical currents over his cock. They left him well cleaned and even more aroused. "Are you sure you're ready for this?"
"I don't know what I'm doing, if that's what you're asking," Harry replied. "But I want to do it. I wanted to wake you up with it, but I must have jostled you too much getting down there." He gave that coquettish look again, the one Severus had seen for the first time in the classroom the day before. Severus had thought he really couldn't become any more aroused, but at that look, found that he'd been wrong.
"I appreciate the gesture," he said, and meant it. "Perhaps we could … undertake this endeavor together." He pulled the blankets back farther, revealing Harry's well-toned body, pink from warmth and sleep, and with a hard cock the equal of Severus'. "If you think you could … share." He turned himself around on the bed so that his head was beside Harry's thighs. "What do you say?"
Harry nodded eagerly. "Show me how to get started?"
"My pleasure," Severus said smoothly. He took the boy's cock deep into his mouth with one firm suck.
Harry yelped with pleasure. "Oh. God. That's amazing," he said, gasping. Severus didn't answer, but began moving his mouth up and down, twisting it slightly from side to side, running his tongue around and around the cock as his lips stroked it. "Oh. Oh," Harry kept saying. Then, "Uh. Stop. Just a bit." He panted, and Severus held still, looking at him expectantly, his eyes wide and his mouth still wrapped firmly around the cock. "Let me … " the boy said, taking a deep breath, "try to catch up to you, eh?"
He bravely took Severus' cock in hand, and then, closing his eyes, into his mouth. He took just the head at first, and moved his lips and tongue around it gingerly, but more firmly as he apparently got used to the taste. Severus moaned, sincerely but also wanting to be encouraging. Harry opened his eyes and smiled, and took Severus' cock deeper. Severus' moan deepened, too, becoming a heartfelt groan soon enough. Then Harry seemed to decide he was fully ready for this after all, and began swirling his tongue and stroking his lips enthusiastically.
Severus got back into action as well, still not quite believing this was happening but willing to take it on any terms. He put a hand on Harry's knee and raised it as he had his own, so he could lean his head on the boy's other thigh as he sucked. Soon they were moving in tandem, each responding to any change the other made, to any new kind of pleasuring the other attempted. It was controlled, but barely; Severus knew that one very hard suck or an eager swallow could push either of them over the edge instantly, but he hoped Harry didn't know about those things. He wanted to keep this glorious flow of sensation going for as long as possible.
Harry, again, had other plans. Or perhaps, he had no plans at all, and thus remained the one with the real power. He exercised that power, possibly without meaning to, by slowing and then stopping the motion of his mouth—though he kept Severus' cock safely within it—and reaching out his hand, languidly, to take Severus' and squeeze it affectionately. Their eyes met, and he smiled again, still from around Severus' cock, which was desperate for him to restart his movement. Then as Severus watched, he closed his eyes and began stroking with his lips again, in a slightly different movement, letting the cock slide in and out while also tilting his head back and forth. It made for a startlingly effective up-and-down, in-and-out sort of stroke that was new, and unexpected, and brilliant, and between the stroking and the tender hand-holding Severus was torn apart. He gave a shudder and came.
Harry hung on, letting the semen fill his mouth and dribble out a bit, and to Severus' surprise—to the extent that he was able, as he throbbed out his orgasm, to be surprised at all—he climaxed as well.
It was some moments before they both stopped shaking, and managed to swallow all they could. It took another moment to wipe their mouths on the bed, and then look up at each other in exhausted satisfaction. Severus turned himself around again and lay next to Harry, so that they were chest to chest, hands clasped and faces close. He gave the boy an inquiring look, to which he responded with a smile and a kiss. Evidently, Severus decided, he didn't object to the taste of either of them.
"I must say you have turned out to be a quick study, Mister Potter," Severus murmured at a moment when their lips were not touching. Harry promptly kissed him again.
"I owe it all to your great teaching," the boy whispered back happily.
Severus snorted gently. "I never thought I'd hear you say those words." He felt temporarily suspended in bliss, even though he knew that the specter of Harry's leaving was still waiting, just outside his bedroom door. He'd managed to stave it off—well, hadn't really staved it off, but had at least pushed it slightly farther out in the orbit of his consciousness—but now the moment must be near. He tried to hold onto the bliss. With Harry's mouth so near, it was, for the moment, easy to do.
Then he looked at the clock on his wall. Half past five. This was my second chance, and it lasted only thirty minutes, he thought, and sighed. But now … it is time. No point in delaying; it will only make this more difficult, for me at least.
He coughed once. "Harry," he said gently. The boy looked at him from inches away with such a warm smile that Severus' mouth was momentarily filled with cotton, but he coughed once more and tried again.
"Harry. If we had more time … " Harry looked so eager that Severus thought his heart would break, knowing what he had to say next. "Do not imagine that I'm eager to be rid of you, but … " Harry's expression changed to a tragic one, and Severus knew he couldn't bear to look at it for long.
"Don't make that face, please," he said, trying to sound stern. "You should … " he couldn't quite say, 'leave,' he found, "return to your dormitory now, before all your fellows are awake. You'll have to answer fewer questions that way." You do not, he continued in his head, want to walk in looking and smelling the way you do, if they're up and about. They'll know beyond a doubt that you've come from someone's bed, though surely they'll not guess it was mine. It occurred to him suddenly that perhaps, given the teasing he'd witnessed, someone might guess correctly. It was an unsettling thought.
Harry looked for a moment like he wanted to argue, but then he sighed and seemed to give up. "You're right. Of course." He gave Severus one more kiss, soft and undemanding, then sat up, stretched, and rolled smoothly out of bed. "I'll just go get dressed, shall I? Be right back."
He was indeed back a moment later, and sadly, he was fully clothed in pyjamas and dressing gown again. Severus realized he'd missed the chance to take one last look at that so-very-lovely nude body, and cursed himself silently, but there was nothing to be done about it now. He pushed the covers off himself roughly and got up, turning away from Harry in sudden self-consciousness, sure that his naked older body wouldn't bear examining this early in the morning.
In spite of this effort at modesty, Harry was immediately round the bed and in his arms, pressing rumpled cotton and soft flannel against his bare skin. Severus held him tight, his cheek against the untidy mop of hair on top of the boy's head. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, taking in the warm smell of this body that was still full of him, Severus knew, still working out the dark biochemistry of what, exactly, to do with the product of his passion, secreted deep inside it the night before, and then again this morning. This thought was oddly comforting, and after one final tightened embrace he let go and stepped away.
At once he realized that he was cold again. And his leg ached. Already, he thought miserably. Without looking at Harry, he quickly pulled on a nightshirt from his bureau drawer, and over it a dressing gown. He wrapped the gown tightly around himself, covering his body completely, before turning to see the boy again.
Harry looked forlornly up at him. "Guess I'd better go, huh?"
"You should." Severus couldn't help himself; he reached up and ran his fingers through the boy's hair once more, then dropped the hand back to his side with finality.
"Train leaves at noon," Harry said, watching him, and Severus nodded. "Will you be there?"
"I think not."
"Okay, then." Harry put his hands in his pockets, separating himself from Severus, with that motion, in some intangible but very real way. He looked at Severus with a mildly questioning expression. He seemed fairly calm about this leave-taking, which confirmed Severus' understanding that it was only he who was making such a sentimental event out of this; regardless of whatever foolish things the boy might have said last night, in the considerable heat of the moment, to Harry this was just a one-off. It was a triumphant one, perhaps, as it was his first, but still, there seemed to be no risk he would be getting truly emotional about the whole business.
Regardless of Harry's emotions, Severus was suddenly aware that he wouldn't be able to take much more himself. He'd better get this over with, and quickly, before it turned into a mawkish spectacle. He met the boy's eyes, one last time, and said quietly, "Good-bye, Harry." He did not reach out to touch, and he did not smile. He knew that if he did either, he would fall apart.
Harry did smile, and it was a look of calm with a just a tiny measure of sadness woven inextricably into it. "Good-bye, Severus," he said, equally quietly, and then he turned away, and did not look back, and walked from the room.
Severus stood there, afraid to move, until he heard the soft thunk of his front door closing, and he knew Harry was really and truly gone. He looked down at the bed, with its supremely rumpled covers and the visible Harry-and-Severus-shaped nest dug into the featherbed. There were two pillows, both mashed and shoved up against the headboard. The sheets bore visible stains. The air in the room was close, and it smelled strongly of sweating men, and semen, and very faintly of the things men use to try to conceal their odors: antiperspirant, shaving cream, aftershave.
Severus was sure his self-control was going to fail if he stayed in the room any longer, looking and smelling and remembering, so he went to the door. As he did he glanced up at the clock again, just as the hands reached six o'clock, and a tiny magico-mechanical owl popped out of an equally tiny door and opened its mouth to hoot at him, as this was his usual awakening time. The little owl looked at him, surprised to see him already out of bed, and Severus glared murderously at it. It made a minuscule choking sound and retreated back behind its door without a single hoot. Severus gave a little snort of satisfaction, then left his bedroom and closed the door behind him.
He walked to his sitting room and, looking around, found to his relief that it seemed slightly less full of potent memory triggers. He tried very hard not to look at the exact spot where they'd stood in front of the fireplace when he kissed Harry for the first time, that kiss for which Harry had blushed in anticipation. Then he saw a small, white something poking out from underneath his sofa. Bending to pick it up, he realized it was one of Harry's socks, with its mate lying crumpled next to it. He held both socks up and stared at them. He must have dressed so hurriedly, he realized, that he put on his shoes with no socks. Severus momentarily wrinkled his nose in distaste; going sockless was far too informal and unsanitary for him, but he knew students did it all the time. Still, to leave the socks here … had it been accidental, or was the boy trying to prolong his torment?
The awful weight of Harry's leaving hit him again, and he sat heavily on the sofa, the socks clutched in both hands. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, and remembered…
… Harry tossing the socks aside as he undressed in this very room last night, and then flinging himself back into Severus' arms…
… Harry sitting cross-legged on Nathaniel Jenkins' bed in the hospital wing, socks slouching down onto his ankles and that ridiculous green snake puppet on his arm…
… Harry flying crazily and happily back and forth over the meadow outside the library every afternoon last summer, after which Severus had always imagined him returning to the locker rooms smelling of sweaty socks and athletic clothing...
He opened his eyes and looked at the socks for a few moments, seeing them back on Harry's feet, following his mind's eye up from there over the taut lines of the young man's lovely form, covered when he'd left by that horrid loose, sloppy teenage clothing that now bothered Severus more than ever. It symbolized all the many things, including their relative ages, that would keep him apart from Harry now and forever.
He allowed himself one long, melancholy sigh. Then he lay down on his sofa, tucked the socks against his chest, and tried to go back to sleep.
The only real wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.
It was still only seven o'clock when Severus woke, chilly, uncomfortable, and with an aching leg, on his sofa. Harry would be up for real now, probably, with his friends. He might be in the showers, or dressing. Severus groaned at the thought. He tucked Harry's socks safely into the pocket of his dressing gown, and got up stiffly.
The students would be at breakfast shortly, which meant that Severus would not be going anywhere near there. He pulled his rumpled dressing gown around himself roughly, and muttered a summons for a house-elf.
One appeared scant seconds later, popping into his sitting room with a nervous squeak, adjusting its flowered terry-cloth dress with tiny trembling fingers as it looked up at him. "P-p-professor Snape is wanting something?" the little creature asked immediately.
"Breakfast, elf," he replied shortly. "Please," he added in a strained voice, determined to remain civil even though he was crumbling into tiny bits inside.
"Is the Professor not wanting to go to the Great Hall, sir?" the elf asked helpfully. "Because there will be lots of breakfasts there, sir, and peoples will be wanting to see him?"
"I don't imagine anyone wants to see me just now," Severus said with ominous smoothness. "I will have breakfast in my rooms, if you don't mind."
"No, sir, Professor sir, of course Jemmy isn't minding," the elf said quickly, "but someone else might be minding, sir, and Jemmy just thought … "
"Why are you arguing with me?" Severus roared, his patience evaporated. He was hungry, and lonely, and angry at the world, and knew he was perilously close to taking a strong drink of something even though it was only seven in the morning, and he wanted his breakfast before he got started with that, damn it.
"Ah," the elf managed to chirp, then it closed its mouth and looked terrified. "Jemmy just wondered, Professor sir," and the little elf glanced around the room, suddenly looking for all the world as if she could see what had taken place there the night before, "if you wasn't wanting to have breakfast with … with … " She turned her face up to Severus, her eyes looking as if they might pop when she saw the dull red fury on his face. "With Harry Potter, sir," she finished, speaking extremely fast, as if trying to get the words out before Severus throttled her.
"No, Jemmy," he replied in a voice of deadly, artificial calm just this side of hysteria. "I will not be having breakfast or anything else with Harry Potter. Now will you please bring me something to eat, or will I be forced to make a meal out of you?" He imagined that was going beyond an acceptable level of nastiness, even for him, and the elf might well report him to somebody for such a threat, but he didn't care.
"Yes, sir, Professor, sir, right away, sir!" the elf said, waving her arms as if to fend him off. She vanished with a pop, and Severus was alone again.
He felt very, very alone indeed. More alone, probably, than he had ever felt in his life before. Scowling, he wrapped his arms around his chest and hugged himself, realizing that he was cold again, and his leg ached. What you bloody deserve, you old fool, he thought, trying to be scathing, trying to wound himself for a change, but he found the thought cut bloodlessly. He'd been drained by Harry, it seemed, who had taken all Severus' vital energy away with him. There's nothing left of me. I'm just a shell, a husk, a shade. The thought was surprisingly untroubling. With Harry gone, there seemed no need to be particularly energetic.
He sat back down on his sofa, and waited for the elf, and his breakfast, and tried not to think of the hordes of stampeding, holiday-intoxicated children somewhere overhead, rushing through their own breakfasts and chattering happy nonsense to each other, eager to get to the train, eager to get home, eager to begin the summer.
Severus couldn't imagine he'd ever feel eager for anything again.
X X X X X
When his breakfast arrived a few moments later, Severus chased the delivery-elf off with a single look, and then wolfed the food down. All that sex had made him hungry, evidently, a realization that nearly made him lose the food he'd just consumed. He managed to keep it down, wondering with a certain comforting abandon if this might be all he'd eat today.
After eating, he considered washing and dressing and getting to work in the laboratory, as though he was having a perfectly normal beginning to the summer hols. He considered this plan for perhaps five minutes, after which he poured that drink and gave up on the day.
As promised, he did not see the train off at noon. Indeed, after the elf left with a squeal, he saw no one and nothing but the depressingly dark walls of his rooms, his still unmade bed, and the dregs of the various bottles of alcohol he cobbled together from his liquor cabinet to get himself good and soundly drunk.
He spent the afternoon huddled in the head-splitting, nauseatingly greenish-grey realm somewhere between "drunken" and "hung over." Morning drinking, he decided, was a revoltingly bad idea, which was why he was going to drink through the afternoon, to get it right. He did feel moderately numbed, at least, which had been the point, so he decided the morning hadn't been a total loss.
The afternoon, in spite of Severus' fear that he'd never get through it, passed. Remaining numb seemed to require continuing doses of alcohol, with which he willingly supplied himself. He napped here and there, a few sodden moments at a time. He tried to read, and failed, but was able to content himself for a while with looking at a large picture-book of art objects that he pulled off his shelf in a desperate search for distraction. He'd always been fascinated by muggle art history, and how they'd managed to create some astonishingly subtle effects with what seemed to be rather ham-fisted techniques. After a while he realized, however, that he'd been staring at a single photograph for a long time time, a photograph of a marble statue, a statue of a beautiful, nude young man, a young man with tousled hair and a cryptic smile …
He slammed the book shut and threw it on the floor, then poured himself another drink. Damn it all, he thought helplessly.
The hours continued to pass, one minute at a time. Severus went to the loo, and on returning to his sitting room found a tray of sandwiches and fruit, and a large pot of coffee, balanced somewhat precariously on his sofa. "Bloody elves," he muttered, but the food did look rather appealing, so he sat down and ate. The coffee was of the nearly-as-good-as-Harry's variety, which almost made him pitch the cup into his fireplace; he thought better of it as the first sip of hot liquid filtered through him, warming him inside and taking just a microscopic edge off his dismal mood.
He finished everything on the tray except for the coffee, of which there seemed to be enough to get him through several hours of careful sipping. He sat on his sofa, and stared into his fireplace, and sipped, carefully. He felt himself mellow slightly, and become—very slowly—almost philosophical about the whole situation. Perhaps this was all meant to teach him a lesson, he thought. Perhaps even Dumbledore, somehow, had intended it to teach him a lesson. Perhaps he was supposed to learn that his newly-adopted gentleness was a bad idea. Perhaps the world needed nasty gits, just a few of them, to keep everyone else in line. It seemed like a reasonable possibility. If that was the case, he decided on the spot, then he'd renounce that gentler Severus Snape who had fallen in love with Harry; he'd disown that Severus, recognize him as a bad bit of business and not worth the trouble he'd caused. Forget about the lessons of war; the lessons of love were ever so much more painful.
He pulled this idea around him tightly, like a cloak, and clung to it as the hour grew late, and his eyes went again and again to the clock on his mantle. Just let me get through this night, he thought. If I can do that, then tomorrow I can begin to change, back to my old, stronger self. Just let me survive until tomorrow without seeing him, touching him, kissing him. He began to sniff softly as he thought about this. Just one night, he begged. I made it through the whole year, tormented by him in one way or another. Can't I just forget about him for one night, and count myself better off?
He resolved to try to sleep. He considered going to his bedroom for this, but decided the unmade bed was still too full of memories for him to fit back into it. It would have to be the sofa, for tonight.
He could at least get himself a blanket, he decided. He went to his bedroom closet, pointedly not looking at the bed, took down the warmest covering he could find, and went back to the sofa. Thinking he'd be more comfortable sleeping without his dressing gown on, he removed it, but as he did so he couldn't help seeing Harry's socks, still snug in the pocket.
He took the socks out and stared at them, feeling all the progress he'd made during the evening slowly washing away, as if carried by a tide he'd forgotten would be coming back in, one far too powerful for him to fight. He tried to tell himself that Harry had never been his to begin with, so there was no reason to feel as though he'd lost the boy, but this didn't help; Harry was just as surely gone.
Finally he took one deep, tremulous breath and allowed himself to indulge in a moment of real, if silent, mourning. It was a very long, painful moment, but after it was over, after he'd forced his heart to shut down and pushed sentiment firmly aside, he at least felt tired. So he pulled his blanket up to his chin and hugged Harry's socks to his chest, and closed his eyes. He was cold, sore and miserable, but he willed sleep to come in spite of all that, and blessedly, it soon did.
He who has perfect knowledge may have perfect control,
and so may he who has perfect control have complete power.
Therefore better to accept that you shall have none of these,
and instead choose to find joy
in the unintended,
and the uncontrollable.
-Xia Shenfu, 19th century Chinese scholar
Severus was dreaming.
In his dream he was lying in the Shrieking Shack once again, paralyzed, frightened, and in pain. He was just beginning to flail mentally at the dream, thinking—as he had, some of the time, when it was really happening—that it must be a dream, and that if he could just stir enough he'd wake himself up and escape.
He was working up to a good, vigorous, mental thrashing around when he heard a sound from another part of the shack. It was the same sound he'd heard when he was really there—footsteps, muffled ones, coming closer. Harry, he knew immediately, though of course he hadn't, when the footsteps were real. It's Harry, he thought excitedly. He's coming to get me.
He stopped thinking and thrashing for a moment and listened. The footsteps were no longer coming closer. They were slow, somehow hesitant-sounding, and moving away from him, which wasn't right. "Harry!" he tried to shout. "In here!" But there was no sound, and the footsteps continued to recede. "Harry!" he was sure he screamed, but still no sound came, and he was terrified again, afraid that this time no rescue would come, and he would lie here alone forever, until he died of boredom or loneliness … "Harry!" he cried, but the cry remained a silent one, as if his voice were mocking him.
"Severus?" It was Harry's voice, soft but surely no farther away than the next room of the shack. Severus was overjoyed to hear the footsteps coming closer again.
"Harry, I'm in here … " he called desperately, and was surprised to hear his own voice, unmistakable though it sounded weak and raspy. But now surely everything was all right. Harry would pick him up and hold him close. Harry would take him home. He thrashed for real, on the sofa, not really wanting to leave the dream now that Harry was in it for sure. "Come and get me, Harry," he said, thinking Harry must be close now, just across the room, perhaps, and surely he'd see the boy soon.
"Severus." Someone was shaking him gently. "Severus. It's me. Are you all right?"
Severus shook his head, eyes still closed. "Where's Harry?" he whispered.
Someone giggled. "I'm right here, silly. Wake up and you'll see me." There was a pause. "What are you doing with my socks?"
Severus' eyes flew open. Harry Potter sat next to him, on the edge of his sofa, and was patting his arm and looking down at him with concern and some amusement. "Harry," Severus whispered again.
"Yeah, it's just me. Boy, what were you on about in that dream? It sounded like something awful was after you."
"Harry," he repeated, a bit louder. He blinked. "I've had far too much to drink. I'm hallucinating."
Harry giggled again. "You're not hallucinating. I'm right here. You can pinch me, see?" He took Severus' hand in his and put the fingers on his own arm, motioning for him to squeeze them together.
But Severus did not want to pinch him. His hand wrapped itself around Harry's slender wrist and held it tight. "You can't be here. You left. On the train." Severus found it difficult to keep his thoughts straight; nothing was making sense.
"Er, yeah. About that."
Severus tried to sit up, wanting both to clear his head and to get a better view of Harry. But his head pounded and the world spun as he came upright, and with a small moan he let his head drop forward to rest on his hands. "Ugh," he said simply. "Head. Not good."
Harry put a hand on the side of his head and stroked it gently. "Sorry, old man, looks like you're having a serious morning after. Except … " he hesitated, then sounded puzzled, "it's not morning yet." He continued petting the long dark hair for a bit, and then said, sounding cautious, "Severus. Have you been drinking all day?"
"That's none of your business," Severus blurted out sharply, before he could think, then he looked up in horror, his sharp words reverberating painfully inside his head. "I … I meant … " But his head ached too much to figure out what to say next.
Harry seemed to understand. "Okay. It's all right." The hand began stroking Severus' hair again, and then stopped. "Does this bother you? Make it worse?" he asked.
"No." A simple spoken answer seemed preferable to shaking his head.
"Can I get you a headache potion?"
"Yes." He tried to gather the strength to accio the bottle, but found he couldn't. "In the loo. Summon it for me, if you would," he whispered.
"Sure," Harry said immediately. "Accio Snape's headache potion," he said in a firm, clear voice. Severus heard the small thump when the boy caught the flying bottle in his hand. "Here it is," he said. "Have I got the right one?"
"Give it to me," Severus said, gasping slightly at the pain when he moved his head. He squinted at the label, decided he'd rather trust Harry than focus his eyes enough to read it, pulled out the stopper, and drank it down. It was bitter, and after swallowing he fell against the back of the sofa, scowling.
Harry took his hand and squeezed it gently. "Give it a few minutes. You'll feel better." Severus nodded slightly, trying to relax into the sofa, and he sighed when Harry took his hand and began to stroke his forearm, very gently. "Does that bother you?" the boy asked, sounding worried.
"No," Severus whispered. He found he had the strength to add, "Don't stop."
They sat like that, Severus trying to keep breathing and let the potion work its magic, Harry holding his hand and stroking his arm, for some minutes. At last Severus felt his neck muscles begin to unknot, and the thumping drumbeat in his head begin to soften, and he opened his eyes to slits. Harry really was there. It wasn't any ghost or golem sitting beside him, it was Harry, unlikely though that seemed. As Severus was marveling at this, Harry turned his head and saw his open eyes, and smiled. It's really him, Severus thought. But how? "Potter. You're not supposed to be here. You're supposed to be…" Where, exactly? On the train? In London? What bloody time is it, even? His head throbbed as he tried to figure this out.
Harry gave him a guilty smile. "Yeah. Well." He cleared his throat. "I'm not actually … leaving. The Headmistress gave me a job." The smile turned happier.
Harry nodded. "Working with Hagrid, this summer. And next year, coaching quidditch, too. And maybe … teaching something, sometime. Not that I'm actually qualified to teach anything yet. But sometime." He looked apologetic, now, about his happiness, as if he were unqualified for it as well.
"Why didn't you tell me any of this?"
"It just got worked out a couple of days ago. I didn't want it to influence you. I'd been planning for weeks to come to you after my last class, just like I did yesterday, and I was afraid you might be more likely to say no if you knew I'd be hanging around."
"So you deliberately deceived me?"
"No! Please, don't take it like that, I have it all figured out. And there's no pressure on you, there never was, if you don't want me in the castle, I'll stay with Hagrid, he won't mind. And … if you don't want me anywhere near here, I'll leave. I will, I swear to you. I'll tell McGonagall something came up, or whatever. I'll do whatever you want me to." He paused in his desperate rambling, and swallowed hard. "I owe you that much. I'm sorry I surprised you with this, truly I am."
"Are you?" Severus found his aches had calmed enough for him to think again, but he wasn't quite sure what to think about this. What, exactly, did the boy want? Could he possibly want what Severus himself did? "You sound more than willing to stay at a distance from me," he continued, "but if that is so, why are you here now?" Another irritation occurred to him. "And how did you get through my wards?"
"Um. Yes. I had a little … conversation, with your door, when I left this morning. Just in case."
"Yes." He gave a guilty-looking smile. "I know a few spells, too, that need to be treated with respect."
"Obviously." Severus found he didn't have the energy to glare. "So. Continue. Why, exactly, are you here?"
"I meant to stay away, for a while at least. I didn't want you to feel any pressure, like I said." He stared at the floor. "But it's been kind of a long day, and you didn't turn up for any of it, and it was awfully lonely after everyone else left, and I wondered if you were all right, and I just … " He looked as if he might be about to cry. "I missed you. All day."
Severus imagined he might be feeling his heart skip a beat. Surely this was what it would be like, this dizzy giddiness. Though some of it might still be the alcohol, he realized. "You missed me," he said quietly.
Harry looked into his eyes. "I did. I really did."
"And you are staying here, at Hogwarts. For the foreseeable future."
Severus took a deep breath. I have to be sure, he thought firmly. It is extremely unlikely that he actually wants what I do. "What, exactly, do you want from me, Harry?"
In a very small voice, Harry said, "I thought you knew."
"I do not."
"But I told you. What Dumbledore said. What we both needed, and … everything."
"Need and want are not the same thing."
"But they are. I want to … be with you." He seemed confused by the probing questions.
"You've been with me. Last night, as I recall, you were rather spectacularly with me. That was not enough?"
"No! I don't think Dumbledore believed that we needed each other just for one night."
"I don't give a bloody fuck what Dumbledore believed about any of this, Potter. He is gone, and we are left to clean up the messes he left behind, of which this," and he waved his hand between them, "has now become one. What do you want? On your own behalf, just for you?" His heart was pounding now, as wildly as his head had been. I need to hear him say it, he pleaded silently, I have to be sure he wants to be with me, to stay with me, before I let myself imagine …
"Please don't send me away, Severus." Harry's voice was soft and sad, but the words were not yet quite right.
"Damn it, Harry, I'm not sending you away. I'm asking you to tell me what you want. For the future. I need to know, if I am to make appropriate plans of my own."
"Plans?" Harry practically squeaked. "You're not thinking about leaving or anything, are you?"
Throwing his hands out in exasperation, Severus stood up from the sofa quickly; far too quickly, it turned out, as the hammer started up in his head and the world started to spin again. He caught himself against the arm of the sofa, and as he twisted toward it, Harry's socks tumbled to the floor from where they had been caught in the folds of his nightshirt. He looked up quickly, his head still whirling, to see if Harry had seen.
He had, and gave Severus a questioning look. Severus tried to frown back at him, though it rather hurt his eyes to do so. It occurred to him that he looked ludicrous, standing there bare-legged and rumpled.
"Why were you sleeping with my socks?"
"I was doing no such thing."
"You were. You were sleeping with my socks."
Severus harrumphed. "That's quite ridiculous."
Harry was smiling slightly. "It is. But you were doing it."
"I found them under the sofa, and didn't wish for them to get lost again. I was planning to owl them to you."
"You never asked where I was going to be living."
"Minerva would have known." Indeed, Severus thought, she would have.
"You wouldn't owl socks."
"And why not?"
"Because it would be … silly."
"Well, I certainly didn't want them myself. What else would I do with them but send them back to you?"
"Well, evidently, you'd sleep with them."
Severus crossed his arms and tried to look stern. At least he found he could remain on his feet without wobbling; that seemed like progress.
But Harry was looking delighted, as though he'd just solved a very difficult puzzle and was waving his puzzle-book in the air for all to see. "You were sleeping with my socks!" He laughed, and suddenly he was in Severus' arms, which felt extremely good, so good that Severus couldn't organize another rebuttal to the socks argument. "You missed me too, didn't you?" Harry asked, but then he looked around the room, and frowned. Severus knew he was seeing the several assorted liquor bottles scattered there, wherever he had dropped them upon emptying. "Did you really drink all of these yourself?"
"I've had no other guests to drink with me, if that's what you want to know," Severus snapped. "And most of them were nearly empty to begin with."
"Still." Harry looked up at him. He wasn't cross at all, Severus realized; he looked relieved, perhaps. "You haven't been out all day, have you? You've been lying here on your sofa, in your nightshirt, drinking. With my socks."
Severus let go of a breath he felt as though he'd been been holding for a very long time, and gave up. "Is that so hard for you to believe?" he asked.
Harry leaned in closer. "I want to believe it."
Harry was stretching up to kiss him when Severus had an unpleasant thought. "Harry," he said quickly, putting a hand over his mouth. "Wait. I've drunk too much, and had an entire pot of coffee, and I haven't bathed, really, you shouldn't … "
But it did no good. Harry grinned, and reached up to pull Severus down to him, and kissed him, long and thoroughly. Severus closed his eyes and kissed back, firmly, going purely on instinct, doing what felt right, and what Harry really did seem to want.
It was some moments later when Harry pulled back, just a bit. "So," he whispered, his hands tangled in Severus' hair, "we can keep doing this, then?"
"If you can handle kissing me just now, I don't expect I can frighten you away with anything else. So I suppose the answer is yes." He studied the boy for a moment. "That is what you want, then?"
"It is. I want to be with you, to stay with you. I never meant for it to be only the one night."
Severus leaned down to start the next kiss himself.
More long moments passed, equally pleasantly. Then Harry asked, "Could we go to bed, maybe? It's kind of late." He grinned, and blushed. "And your bed is so comfortable." Severus looked at the clock on the wall. It was midnight again, already; surely the last twenty-four hours had been the most extraordinary, and full of more elation and more misery, than any he had ever spent.
"I suppose we should. Not that we have to sleep immediately, of course."
"You'll probably need to, though, won't you?" Harry asked, sounding instantly and irritatingly solicitous. "Don't take this wrong, but I think you're still a little drunk."
"I'll have you know that I am not drunk any longer, Mister Potter, and I am perfectly capable of staying awake for as long as I wish." He thought about trying to look seductive, decided he was too rumpled to pull it off, and settled for simply raising an eyebrow. "Besides, we have work to do. Surely you can't imagine I taught you everything I know in just one night?"
Harry laughed. "Of course not. Let's go then." He put an arm around Severus' waist and leaned in close, and they started toward the bedroom door. "I guess there's always more to learn, isn't there?"
Severus put his arm around Harry's shoulders and held on as they walked, realizing but not admitting that the floor did still seem to waver a bit, though perhaps it just seemed that way because he was dizzy with happiness. "For all of us, I think," he said.
Far away—or perhaps by other means of reckoning not so far away at all—an entirely sane old man, long dead but only now at peace, cackled contentedly.
Severus paused for a moment, thinking he'd heard an oddly familiar sound, but as he listened it faded away to nothing. He pulled Harry a little closer. Then they passed over the threshold into the bedroom, and he closed the door softly behind them.
Many thanks to fantastic betas OperaQueen and psi!