Chapter 24 – The Burly Man

That afternoon the weather in London was dank and drizzly, typical for November. Harry made his way around to his friends' apartment. The front door was opened by Ron, of all people.

"Hey," Harry nodded.

"Alright," mumbled Ron.

"Is, er-"

"She's in, yes," Ron stood aside to let him in. As Harry passed Ron cleared his throat awkwardly.

"Listen, um, I'm...about Ginny. I was angry 'cause she's my sister...you know?"

Harry bit his lip. "I understand...don't think I don't feel crap too. I love Ginny loads...but...as a friend."

Ron sighed and hung his head. "Mate..." he whispered.

"Is that you, Harry?" Called Hermione from within.

Ron gestured for Harry to lead through, and he did. As they entered the living room Hermione smiled warmly at them both. Privately, Harry wondered if she'd hassled Ron to answer the door and say something. He hoped not... but perhaps she had...

After fetching a couple of Butterbeers from the fridge, Ron took his armchair and Harry the sofa. Hermione had the spell cabinet open and various potions ingredients lined up along the sideboard, several large, dusty tomes on the table. The back of the flat wall had been transfigured into a fireplace (the flat did not originally have one – Hermione preferred to disguise the place as a regular Muggle dwelling most days.) A small pewter cauldron was brewing on the hearth, giving out little wisps of silver smoke.

Harry took a sip of his Butterbeer. "What's brewing?"

"I'm restocking the medicine cabinet, really," explained Hermione. "Some of these elixirs have really gone up in price since the war, it makes sense to make them at home now."

"Yeah, I guess it does."

Hermione stirred the cauldron three times anticlockwise. "And how are you, Harry?"

Harry swallowed another gulp of his beer then swirled the liquid around in the bottle, staring at it. "Fine. I think."

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Which means...?"

Ron shuffled in his armchair like he suddenly wanted to be anywhere else but the living room.

Harry took another slow gulp of beer. "Have been better," he mumbled.

"What's up?" Hermione was frowning now.

"I erm..."

"I..." Harry gave a small snort of laughter, shaking his head. "I don't know...I don't know what to say really..."

"Well surely you should? Is it bad?" Hermione said, a little impatiently.

"Well...no...not really. But at the same time, it is."

"You shagged a bloke?" Ron said bluntly.

Harry's eyes shot to Ron, stunned. "How'd you-"

"I'm awkward, mate, not stupid!" He said gruffly. "Hermione said you told her you're gay, and Ginny was wondering months ago, anyway...so okay...I can deal. It's cool. I mean I'm straight as a Quidditch flagpole, me, obviously... Of course it's none of my business who you...er...scored with obviously, and...that's all I want to say," He added, red-faced.

Harry gave a relieved smile. "Thanks Ron...and yeah, you guessed right. I did score."

"So...are you still...seeing this guy?" Enquired Hermione more delicately, giving the cauldron another final, precise stir and a wave of her wand.

The smile on Harry's face withered. "I...I don't know. It's...a bit..."

"You like him, don't you?"

"Yeah...I do...but," Harry trailed off.

"Harry," Hermione said, crossing the room to sit beside him on the sofa. "No one needs an unhappy relationship. If it's no good you can walk away, you know?"

Harry sighed. "Well it's neither unhappy or happy. You don't understand...it was me who started it. Perhaps it was really stupid, perhaps I shouldn't have but if I didn't I would have always wondered what if, you know?"

"So, what if?" Hermione looked at him pointedly.

Harry gave a sideways glance at Ron, who was currently staring fixedly at the wall.

"Hermione; before I forget to tell you...I opened the book Dumbledore warned me about opening. I opened the book and turned one of the pages."

Ron looked around with a perplexed frown then. Harry kept his eyes fixed on his witch friend; he watched her recall a past memory...comprehend...then look a little shocked...

"Oh...!" she exclaimed suddenly, putting a hand to her mouth as she stared at him.

"What book's this?" Said Ron, his gaze darting.

"A...Potions book," replied Harry carefully.

"What...?" Ron made a face. "Thought you couldn't stand Potions?"

"Well...this book's a bit different..."

"I...think I know the one you're on about," cut in Hermione. "It's been republished, hasn't it?"

Harry looked at her. "Yep. Earlier this year, infact...it's got a new cover design now...kind of shinier..."

Ron stared at the two of them with an odd expression. "Is it just me or have you two gone bloody mental?"

Hermione turned her face away from Ron, then, Harry could see she was trying her best to hide a smile. "Oh Ron," she managed finally.

"I really hope you two aren't taking the piss out of me," scowled the red head.

"No, Ron, honestly mate," returned Harry quickly. "It's just, I have been trying to go back over some potions so I'm looking at this book again...and...well, yeah, it's much harder than I thought..." he shrugged lamely.

Ron squinted at him.

"Tell you what, Harry," Said Hermione, "I've got a copy of the old text upstairs, what say we take a look at it. Or, even better go for a coffee somewhere and discuss it? And while we're at it we can chat some more about this man of yours, too, eh?"

"Yeah..." said Harry slowly. "That would be good. You want coffee? I think I know just the place..."

"Are you coming as well, Ron?" Hermione looked at her man questioningly.

Ron gave an unimpressed sniff. "Er, if the talk's going to be all potions and new boyfriends...no thanks..."

"Sure?"

"Yep, pretty sure." Ron gave a firm nod.

Hermione gave a smile. "Right. Fair enough. I'll just go get this book then Harry and you can lead the way!"


The pair were soon reclined on soft sofas in Harry's preferred coffee shop. A slice of toffee and walnut cake sat in front of Harry on the table, untouched. He peered at the people walking past outside.

A waitress approached with two full cups of coffee and placed them down on the table in front of them. Once she'd walked away, Hermione cast a muffliato spell around them and leaned in closer.

"Harry...what on earth is going on...? I thought Snape was having some fling with Justin Finch-Fletchley? Is he still-"

"No...he isn't."

"Thank God for that at least...!" She exclaimed, shaking her head in disbelief. "But still...I bet Professor McGonagall has been going spare..."

After a pause Harry began to confess all that had happened since she had last seen him, apart from his conversation with Dumbledore about his feelings for Snape...for some reason he wanted to keep that quiet. Once he'd finished, Hermione looked a little pale.

"Well..." She began, after a steadying sip of coffee. "Firstoff I can understand your being nervous about this; Merlin's beard, Harry! However, looking at it plainly I can see that – rightly or wrongly - you were the one who made the first move here. You followed him, you initiated the whole thing, right?"

"Well...yeah..."

"And...from what I can gather, this morning's conversation between you and Snape was awkward from the moment you woke up, so you got nervous and left in a hurry?"

Harry nodded.

"Well...!" She exclaimed. "If you want an honest opinion; if you acted that way around me I would be pretty darn annoyed!"

Harry looked guilty. "I know...I feel bad...But God, Hermione, I wasn't actually expecting him to respond..! I thought one kiss and he'd just hex me out of the dungeons arse first like he's always done...and that would be that, end of stupid crush. But no... he grabbed my arms and didn't let me go... " Harry flushed. "Long story short, I ended up staying...and this morning I freaked out. Now I don't know what to do..."

Hermione blinked. "Goodness me... Well... Obviously we know he's not the easiest person to get along with, but he's proved himself to be damned brave and loyal, and we know he has a heart somewhere, which is why I wanted to give him another chance. I think I get why you're...crushing on him..."

Harry grimaced. "Merlin...I hate that word..."

"Don't you think it is crush? It worries me that's all it is..."

Harry sighed, wistful, avoiding his friend's worried gaze. "I don't know any more Hermione. I mean...yeah nice body and that. But the first kiss; it just felt...right...better, you know? Nothing in my life has ever..." He looked back up at his friend, searching for a word. "Nothing has ever...come close to feeling that good before..."

The witch looked on with a concerned expression. "While I think it's great you've found all this out...you've got to think about this seriously, Harry... Don't forget for a minute the man behind this nice body is two decades older than you and has more baggage than a Hogwart's Express full of Boggarts..."

"Yeah...and if you recall I had half of that baggage chucked at me when I was a student..." said Harry wryly. "Wish it'd made more sense back then like it does now..."

Hermione didn't seem amused. "Another thing in relationships is that sometimes you just have to live and let live – if, say, the man never wants to play Quidditch again then you've just got to deal with that, too."

Harry gave a shrug. "Maybe he won't, maybe he will. He enjoyed himself for all of ten minutes when he was up there, it's an annoying shame he doesn't give a shit about what talent he's wasting. Perhaps he'll come round..."

Hermione sighed. "But he might never come round, might never use the talent...and that's just life Harry. There's no point idealising or having an unrealistic picture of someone in your head and getting annoyed if they don't live up to it. I mean...in your case...do you think Snape could ever respect and care for your own interests, and care for you in turn...say, in a romantic way?"

Harry snorted in amusement. "Romantic? Oh give me a break Hermione... Snape wouldn't recognise romantic if it sat up in his bloody cauldron...!"

"Well, that's probably because he's never had anything like that or had cause to behave in that way?" Hermione said defensively. "I don't think being romantic is a natural behaviour anyway, it's learned and picked up...and some are better at picking it up than others. I mean...look at Ron, bless him, I love the man, he helps me out with all kinds of things, but the only bunch of flowers I've ever had was when I reminded him it was my birthday - twice..." Hermione rolled her eyes.

Harry mulled over her point. "I get what you're saying. But then...I don't know if I need all that kind of stuff...I like to be with someone, but I just found Ginny a bit too...clingy, to be honest..." He frowned and picked listlessly at the piece of cake.

There was a long pause wherein the pair sipped at their coffees glumly. "Ginny's a decent woman, I thought you two were settled, so did Ron..." Commented Hermione finally. "But I guess it just wasn't to be. You deserve someone who'll treat you just as well. The trouble with Snape is he has..."

"-baggage," cut in Harry, rolling his eyes. "But then, who hasn't got baggage?"

"Well," sniffed Hermione, "I like to hope I'm fairly baggage free..."

Harry picked up a sugar lump, plopped it in his coffee, and stirred it using magic. He didn't normally take sugar but it was a distraction. His gaze wandered out to the crowds in the street and the raindrops snaking down one corner of the window where the rain was leaking past the awning.

"Do you know, Hermione..." he began carefully, as if measuring every word. "The thing is...me and Snape... We both have what you're calling baggage. I mean...our childhoods weren't really a bed of roses for a start. Snape's father was like a nastier, alcoholic version of Uncle Vernon. I was shut under the stairs for hours, days... Snape was beaten as a little kid. While Snape made friends with my Mum when he was a kid, the Dursleys ensured I didn't have a single childhood friend at all, not 'til I met you and Ron on the train. And if I'd not met you...Merlin knows what could've happened to me..."

"You would have probably still made the right choices," reassured his friend. "You have an unshakeable belief in fairness, and are a good friend, Harry, you're a really decent man."

"Thanks. It's nothing short of a miracle, considering..."

"Well, then, thank goodness for miracles!" said Hermione.

"Then there's Dumbledore, that night in the horcrux cave..." Harry continued. "He was done for anyway, but that poison I was ordered to give him, I started what Snape finished...that night. We were both part of his final plan. I still get nightmares about Dumbledore screaming and pleading at me, you know Hermione...It was..." Harry shuddered looked at Hermione with a haunted expression.

"Terrible...I can imagine," said Hermione, her eyes misting with tears. She placed a hand on his. "You deserve someone decent and good, Harry, and I just hope you'll find that person, I'm just not that convinced that person is Severus Snape though...I'm sorry..."

She trailed off as she realised Harry was staring at something intently out of the coffee shop window. She craned her head round. "What can you see?"

"Who can I see, you mean? That's Felix Avery out there, he's a first year Slytherin that got expelled a few weeks ago, for nothing, basically."

Hermione spotted the small boy on the other side of the street, he was standing outside a bank, near to the cash machines. He looked around eleven or twelve years of age.

"He seems to be waiting for someone, or something, and looks pretty nervous about it, too." Harry moved to a chair closer to the window to get a better look.

Just then a large, burly man appeared in the entrance of the bank, looked to his left, nodded at Felix. The boy looked back up at him, seeming to shy away a little. The man put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a small push to start walking. They crossed the street then and walked down the road to the side of the coffee shop, presumably on their way to Diagon Alley.

"Who's that man, a relative of the boys?" Hermione wondered.

Harry frowned "I don't know...I've not seen him before..."

Just then a strikingly familiar face walked right past the coffee shop window; Harry jumped, turned away and swore, flushed in embarrassment as he recognised the features of the person he was kissing only the night before.

"Shit!"

"Merlin's beard...Snape!" Hissed Hermione. "Looks like he's heading in the direction of Diagon Alley, as well. Do you think he's been following them?"

Harry frowned. "I don't think so...well, he's not said anything if he has..."

"Don't you think we ought to follow him?"

Harry's heart was racing and his cheeks felt flushed. "I guess..." he said, doubtfully.

Hermione looked cross then. "Oh this is no time for silly embarrassment Harry; I really don't like the look of that boy's relative, and if Snape's trailing him it might be worth keeping close by, just in case!"

"He probably doesn't need my help," said Harry, looking down. "He never did before."

"Well...you could say he never needed my help in the Shrieking Shack eighteen months ago, but he got it..." Replied Hermione hotly. "You told the man you were his friend, so are you, or are you not?"

Harry shakily pushed his coffee cup to the centre of the table, then stood and looked his friend in the eye. He took a deep breath. "I am," he said.

"Good! Well, let's go then!"

The waitress looked up as the young couple left the shop, began to frown as they had not asked for the bill. She hurried up to the shop entrance to call after them, but just as she did she heard a clatter of coins. Turning, she saw a small pile of change had appeared on one of the saucers on the table.

Or had it been there before? Perhaps it was time she took her break...