Title: Requiem At Dusk
Author: It Came Upon a Clear…
Word Count: ~49,000
Pairing: Severus Snape/Harry Potter
Disclaimer: They belong to Jo, not me.
Summary: Harry would do anything for his son, even follow in Orpheus's footsteps.
Author's Notes: A huge thank you to my two betas and to the mods for their patience. Much gratitude also Neil Gaiman, Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis and the Greek, Celtic and Norse myths that inspired them as well as me.
He stands at the edge of the cliff, watching. The cold wind catches his dark hair, longer now than it once was, and ruffles the thick, lank strands. He's spent twenty-one years watching, the last thirteen waiting for this moment.
There are times when he is certain his entire existence has consisted of waiting. And watching.
A ferry crosses the water below, bobbing small and shadowed against the wide swathe of the River Acheron. Severus can see miles from up here, across the thick, forested stretch of the Erebian Isle to the first of the nine glittering curves of the River Styx. It's a familiar sight; Severus spends most evenings sitting at the top of the cliffs, looking out over Hell's entrance. Some nights he can see past the waters, through the mists and into the world above. Tiny windows shine in the night sky like stars, each with their own particular view into a still-living soul. It's a gift, Albus says, this ability to see between the worlds, to observe fragments of another's life, and one not even he's been granted. But out of the hundreds of millions of shimmering souls Severus's mind can see, only one is clear and focused.
The grand irony of Severus's afterlife is that even in death he is still tethered to Potter, damn it.
"Bit of a relief, it finally happening, one might think." A small man, wiry and thin, walks up next to him, ambling with the uncertain gait of a sailor still not quite used to land. His leather trousers are stained and worn; he tugs at the fraying cuffs of his wool coat.
Severus snorts. He knew the moment the boy stepped through the damned Veil and into Erebus. "It's never a relief, Pish." His mouth thins as the boat docks, almost haphazardly. The scrape of the mildewed bottom across the rocks echoes in the chill silence, and Severus can remember the terror of his own journey over the black depths of the river, neck still oozing blood from that damned snake's fangs. His fingers brush the raised knots of scar tissue on the curve of his throat as he grudgingly gives the boy his due credit for crawling out of Charon's rickety boat on his own shaking legs. He's seen too many of them over the years who've been dragged away screaming, Cerberus's sharp teeth ripping at their ankles as they still reach for the slick, slimy sides of the boat as if they could stop their fate. Instead the dog stands silently at the foot of the cliff, guarding the steps to the Gate. His three heads are cocked, eyeing the boy in approval.
"They'll be coming soon for him," Pish says. He shakes his head, mouth pursed, and strokes his short, grey-white beard. "Hell of welcome."
"Yes." Severus pulls his black cloak tighter. The wind has picked up, chilling him to the bone. A pain twists in his chest, a deeper, more sorrowful ache than usual, and it disconcerts him. He tells himself it's merely a spot of indigestion. Pish's potato soup is wretched at best. He misses the groaning tables of Hogwarts, piled with slabs of rare roast beef and new potatoes hot in their skins and crockery thick with treacle tart and steaming pots of Earl Grey. Oh, how he misses the tea.
Severus hasn't had a proper cup in eight years. Not since his last visit with Albus. He goes to Elysium only when he's summoned. He's yet to forgive the meddling old fool.
The boy stands shivering in the twilight, the wind whipping at his navy overcoat. Severus's breath catches when he looks up. A flash of light against round glasses, a shock of unruly black hair. It's as if twenty-six years have disappeared in a heartbeat. Lily's brat. He shakes himself. No. Not Potter, but Severus's namesake, watched after since his Naming--which Severus recalls being disrupted by his angry squalls, much to the Weasley girl's embarrassment. Severus's mouth twists to one side. The boy has intrigued him over the years. Inquisitive, curious, intelligent. Entirely unlike his father in every way possible, or his mother for that matter. He has his grandmother about him, her spirit and her intelligence and perhaps even a quiet, uneasy rebellion Severus recognises all too well.
Severus nods slowly, in some form of greeting, he supposes, or sympathy, and the boy's mouth moves. The wind carries his words away, twists them into a dull blur, quickly drowned out by the clang of metal against stone. The boy's head jerks around.
The Tartaruans tread down the left path, their booted footsteps echoing off the cliff face, along with the snuffles and grunts of their lieutenants' horses. The latter shy as they're forced down the Cliffside; the creatures are never fond of this proximity to Erebus. The line of crimson cloaks--the uniform of
"Overkill, I'd say," Pish mutters, glaring down at the Tartaruans. "A dozen men for one boy barely thirteen? What the hell do they think he's going to do?"
Severus drums his fingers against his elbow. "One never knows given his parentage," he says grimly. He waits. Watches. His penance for Lily's death continues.
With a shout, the boy reaches for his wand, but it's no longer in his pocket. Severus sighs. Magic exists on this wretched plane, but the boy will have to relearn it. If he has time, that is, which Severus rather suspects he does not.
Much to Severus's surprise, the boy turns and runs. "How very un-Gryffindor," Severus murmurs. A small smile threatens to curve his thin lips. It will do the boy no good, of course. There is nowhere along the narrow stretch of rocky shore to hide. But it smacks of a strong self-preservation streak that the boy will need, and Severus is pleased. Finally, a Potter with a modicum of common sense.
The Tartaruans' lieutenant shouts a command, and his troops chase after the boy, cornering him between two stones higher than a man's head. The boy struggles viciously, screaming obscenities that would make his mother blush, Severus is quite certain. One of the Tartauans raises his sword and clubs the boy roughly across the temple with the hilt. He slumps against the rocks. Severus can see the crimson smear across his pale cheek, and his mouth tightens. His fingernails dig into his palms.
Pish winces. "That'll hurt when he wakes up. Least it won't kill him. Donn'd have their whole kit served for breakfast if they did." He looks at Severus, worried. "Right?"
"One would hope." Death in the realm of the dead is a terrifying prospect for many. Nothingness, it is, some whisper. Others claim it to be pain and solitude, fire and ice, for as long as the tree grows, feeding this realm and the one above and the gods' house above that.
Severus's sincere wish is to have the opportunity to discover the truth himself.
The Tartaruans throw the boy's limp body over the rump of one of the horses. A lieutenant pauses, allows the others to pass by him. He looks up at the cliff; the hood of his scarlet cloak falls back. The fading light shadows a hooked nose, thick black hair streaked with grey. The man meets Severus's gaze evenly, then spurs his horse on, his wide fists jerking at the reins.
Severus looks away. Even after so many decades he can still feel the dull ache of his father's knuckles against his jaw, taste the sharp tang of blood against his lip. He'll never allow those memories to fade. Severus touches his mouth with shaking fingers. They come away dry.
A falcon circles above in a widening gyre, then plummets towards the river. Things fall apart; the center canna hold; mere anarchy is loosed 'pon the world… His father's voice echoes in his head, his rough
Pish's hand is on his arm, pulling him back from the memory. His face is anxious; the wind lifts his short fringe from his forehead. "You all right?"
Severus blinks slowly, then nods. "I'm fine." He shivers, wraps his arms around himself tightly. It's cold on the cliffs. It always is.
A sceptical grunt, but Pish has the common sense to leave it be. He's silent for a moment, then he sighs. "And now what do we do?" he asks quietly.
Severus hesitates and looks up at the darkening sky. The stars are beginning to gleam. He curses Albus and his wretched plots. "And now you visit his father as planned."
He leaves Pish standing alone at the edge of the cliff, staring pensively down at the churning black water of the River Acheron.
The waves of the River Thames slap against the stones of the Victoria Embankment. Harry leans against the railing, watching the rain churn the water below. He's not bothered with an Impervius; instead the cold raindrops soak his hair and his brown herringbone wool coat and spot his his glasses, blurring the world into a damp grey smear.
A few dead leaves break free from the branch above him they've been clinging to. They swirl lightly past him, the last remnants of autumn dancing on the wind, brown and slick and wet, and drop into the river. A wave pulls one of them under with a soft suck.
Harry wonders what it would be like to slip beneath the water, to feel it pulling at his clothes, tugging him under. He wonders what the first swallow would taste like, muddy and cold, filling his mouth, his nose, stealing his breath.
A shudder wracks his body. He runs his palms over his face, pushes his fingers beneath his glasses. His fingertips press against his closed eyes. He breathes out slowly, a hot huff against his hands. It's been five months, he thinks. It should be easier now.
Burying a child is not an experience Harry'd ever wanted. He's yet to escape the sick dread that settled in his chest when he woke up in St. Mungo's to Ginny's anguished face. She's never forgiven him, he knows, and it's destroyed what little was left of his marriage. They knew it the night of the funeral, both of them, as he held her while she sobbed, but they'd tried anyway. For Jamie and Lily.
Then a month past, he'd come home late again, the hem of his Auror robe still muddy from the paths of
So Harry had done the only thing he could do: he held her again as she cried into his shoulder and he kissed her temple, her mouth, and then he had stepped away and let her go.
He's thirty-nine years old. He has a hundred years of guilt ahead of him.
"No use thinking like that."
Harry jerks, nearly knocking his glasses into the river below. Gnarled fingers catch them and hand them back to him. Harry slides the glasses on his nose, blinking through the rain-splotched lenses. "Excuse me?"
The old man next to him raises an eyebrow beneath his black knit cap. The tufts of hair poking out above each ear are thick and white; his grey-white beard is neatly trimmed. "I said," the man says, enunciating each word slowly, "no use thinking like that. Bollocks guilt, I always say. Never does a damned bit of good, blaming yourself or someone else over things that can't be controlled."
"Right." With a frown, Harry pushes away from the railing. He's been too lax lately; Ron would have his balls if he knew. Fucking security breach, Harry, people being able to look into the Head Auror's mind. What, you want someone to actually see the Plans for Ministerial Evacuation and that sort of shit? We might as well throw the fucking doors to the Ministry wide open. Christ, mate, look, I know you've been through shit lately, I really do, but you need to pull your fucking self together. Harry drops his Occlumency shields into place. Snape would be surprised he'd actually managed to learn control over the years.
The man chuckles. "I reckon the bastard would at that."
Harry takes a step back, his eyes narrowing.
"No use trying to hide it all from me," the man continues cheerfully. "I'm too damned old to be bothered with being proper."
"You don't look that old." The railing bites into Harry's side. His fingers curl around his wand in his pocket. The strange old man isn't a Muggle, that much is obvious, but Harry's not so certain he's a wizard either.
"Five thousand, eight-hundred and nine years. They wouldn't allow me up here if I weren't older than dirt, believe me. I'm one of the few old Cerberus lets pass." Elbows on the railing, the man stares out over the river, smiling faintly. A barge passes, headed for the Channel. "Anu, but I miss the water some days." He sighs, then turns his head. Dark brown eyes glitter at Harry. "And that piece of wood you're reaching for ain't going to do a thing to me, just so you know."
Harry draws his wand anyway. He feels safer with it in his hand. "Who are you?"
The old man pulls a tin of black currant drops out of his pocket and flips it open. "Utnapishtim at your service, but most folk call me Pish. Sweet?"
"No," Harry says automatically. A breeze ruffles his wet hair; the clouds break slightly, letting a few watery rays of sunlight filter through before closing up again. He should walk away from this strange little man, he knows. He's learned to trust his instincts in the past twenty years, and every single one is screaming at him to run. To go back to his stuffy, claustrophobic office in the Ministry and lose himself in the dull pile of paperwork waiting for his return.
Pish pops a drop into his mouth. "Best part of coming Aboveworld, if you ask me." He sucks on the sweet. It bulges in his cheek for a moment. "Do you believe in Hell, lad?"
Harry hasn't been called that in years. It makes him smile for just a moment before he shakes his head. "Not really," He turns to leave; he rolls his wand hilt between his fingers. The wood is smooth and slick against his skin.
"Lucky you," Pish says. The black currant drop cracks under his teeth, and he leans back against the railing. "You ought to."
A religious nutter, Harry thinks, and he starts to walk away. "Thanks, but I'm not interested."
"Your boy's in trouble," Pish calls after him.
Harry stops, his shoulders tensing. He looks back. Pish is watching him, his face sober and drawn. Harry's hand tightens on his wand. "You stay away from my kids--"
"Oughtn't be worrying about me." Pish crosses his arms over his chest. The thin black wool of his coat pulls and puckers at his shoulders. "And it ain't the ones here that need looking after." His eyes are gentle. "It's your Albus Severus."
The wand in Harry's hand shakes. "Don't," he whispers. "That isn't funny."
Pish touches his shoulder, squeezes it lightly. "There's something you need to see."
Dad, he hears Al whisper, and Harry's knees buckle. The world around him blurs into wet greyness.
And then the pain comes.
Al hurts. He's been walking for two days but it feels like longer. His hands are bound behind his back, and when he falls, they jerk him up again, nearly pulling his shoulders from the sockets.
He's cold, and he's hungry, and he misses his mum and his dad and Lils and even Jamie, the great giant prat. Somewhere deep down inside he knows he's not going to see them again--at least not any time soon--but he won't let himself admit it. If he does, he's afraid he'll cry, and he's fairly certain his captors wouldn't care for that.
They're men of some sort, he supposes, or demons. He's not certain. He saw a glimpse beneath one's helmet once. He's no desire to look again. He prefers the leaders in the hooded cloaks. At least they're fully human. He thinks.
One of the helmets ties him to a poplar when they stop for camp that night. Al's arms are loosed, then fastened to his sides. Still, it eases the ache in his shoulders slightly. After a while, a tall man with a hooked nose, the only one of the cloaks who's even been slightly nice to him, brings him a small bowl of rabbit stew. He spoons it into Al's mouth. Al eats it eagerly, not even caring that it tastes gamey and nothing like anything Mum--or Gran for that matter--has ever cooked. He licks the thin gravy from the corners of his mouth.
"Thank you," he says when the bowl's empty. The man nods. He looks curiously familiar, like someone Al thinks he should know. "What's your name?" He doesn't expect an answer; he's asked twice already, only to have the man walk away without a word.
This time, the man hesitates. He drops the spoon back in the bowl. "Tobias," he says after a moment. He stands.
Al nods. "Thanks," he says, and Tobias just grunts and walks away. But he watches Al from across the campfire until the embers burn low, and as Al's eyes drift shut he can still feel that dark, familiar gaze on him.
He's not certain whether it comforts or terrifies him. Both, perhaps, he thinks, and then he sleeps.
When he dreams it's of screaming metal and shattered glass and Dad's hands holding him as he shouts for Al to stay with him, damn it, please, but there are other hands pulling at him, fingers twisting painfully in his hair as they wrench him away from his father.
Mine, a voice nothing like his father's whispers in his ear before the darkness comes, swallowing Al's screams.
The rain stops and gives way to the wind, which twists down the near-empty Embankment, skipping choppily across the water. Harry leans forward on the bench they've found, runs his shaking hands over his face then drops them into his lap with a groan. He glares at Pish.
His stomach lurches at the thought of Al alone and scared. "He's only bloody thirteen--" Anger flares in him. None of this is fucking right. "Where is he? Who fucking has him?" His voice rises sharply. Harry fights back the panic that tightens his throat.
Pish shakes head. "It's a long story, and I've not time to be explaining. Severus'll take care of all that when you arrive. He's better with such than me anyway. I'm just meant to start you on your path."
"That's not an answer." Harry's shoulders ache. He rubs his palms over his knees. The soft wool of his trousers scratches against his callused fingers. Pish shrugs and stands up. He suddenly seems taller, older than before.
"Didn't say it was," Pish says."It's the way of things Beneathworld--you know what you're supposed to know and the rest comes along when you need it. You'll get used to it." A snap of Pish's fingers and an ancient leather satchel is in Harry's hands. It's curiously light, despite the corroded bronze buckles. "Fill it with food and water," Pish says. "As much as it can hold and trust me when I say the bottom's a long way off. You'll need sustenance when you go Below, but since you're not dead, if you swallow anything from there--even the smallest bite or the tiniest sip--you'll never cross back home. That's the rules." His mouth tightens. "You understand?"
"I think so, yes." Harry runs his fingertips over the satchel flap. The leather is soft, supple.
Pish grunts. "Best be sure. A long time ago, a damned silly girl ate one pomegranate seed and we still can't be rid of the heifer." He scratches his nose. "Right then. The rest is up to you, I reckon."
Harry catches the old man's arm as he turns away. "It's been five months. How can Al have just arrived in --" He can't bring himself to say the word. "--there?"
Pish gives him a pitying look. "Time don't work the same way Beneathworld," he says gently. "And he didn't know where he was going, now did he? Takes a while to find the path, unless you know it beforehand."
"But I don't."
"You've been almost dead once, laddie." Pish meets Harry's gaze evenly. "Not that hard to find your way from where you were." He turns away, then stops. "Nearly forgot."
A glittering gold coin arcs towards Harry; he catches it without thought.
"You'll be needing that for the ferry," Pish says and with that he's gone.
Harry looks down at the coin in his palm. Its edges are rough, irregular. A head is carved in the center, but years of hands have worn it down so that the features are unrecognisable. "Fuck," Harry murmurs, and he closes his fingers around the bit of gold.
"He'll come." Severus sits on a rock on the edge of the cliff. His knees are drawn up to his chest; his black cloak pools around him. The dark sky glitters above him. He stares intently at one star, willing it to open. It cracks slightly, just enough. Potter's whisper rushes over him, unintelligible. Severus pushes harder.
Pish frowns down at the river. "Most men would run like mad from this hellhole."
"Most men aren't Potter," Severus says. He feels the star-window give more. Potter can be bloody resistant at times. "He's a Gryffindor." The word nearly curdles in his mouth.
The star bursts open and Severus can see Potter's assistant closing the door behind him. A fresh robe and a change of clothes hang on the back of the door. The trousers swing gently against the walnut. They've been a recent addition, Severus knows. Only since the boy showed up Below.
Potter sits at his desk, the satchel, now bulging, in front of him. He stares at the clutch of photographs that lean against his inbox. His wife is in one, red hair and freckles and wide white smile. The others are filled with children of varying ages, from infant to teenager, all candid shots, taken in surprise judging by the reaction of the brats.
A laughing, dark-haired boy fills one frame, pressing his fingers against the glass before running off into a far corner. He comes back and grins up at his father, waving his hand. Potter picks up this picture and stares down at it. He strokes his fingertips against his son's palm, then sighs and sets the frame back down on his blotter.
Potter pulls the coin from his pocket and rubs his thumb against the face. He looks up at the clock on his wall. The second hand hovers between time to go home and mortal peril. Potter reaches for a quill and a scrap of parchment. He dips his quill in the ink and hesitates for just a moment before setting the nib to the paper.
Gin, he scrawls at the top, in the nearly illegible handwriting Severus recognises from six years of essays.
Severus smiles thinly. "He'll come," he says again, and Pish sighs.
Harry stands in the bowels of the Ministry, in front of a locked door that he hasn't seen in twenty-four years. He closes his eyes.
He can still hear the screams, the screech of metal on metal as the train brakes failed. They haunt his nightmares every night. It'd been too quick; he hadn't had time for magic other than a quick cushioning charm as he'd grabbed for Al, pulled him close. The Muggle train had crumpled in on them like an aluminium can, rivets popping as the cars twisted together.
A steel plate, ripped free from one of the seats, had gone through Al before Harry could stop it. All Harry can remember is the blood and the look of shock on his son's face. When he'd woken in St Mungo's they'd told him there wasn't anything magic could have done. Al had died instantly, wrapped in his father's arms. The steel had punctured Harry's abdomen, stopping a quarter-inch in. He'd lived. His son hadn't.
Harry can never forgive himself for that. He pushes the door open.
The Veil glows faintly on the dias. Harry can hear the whispers. They're louder than they were when he was fifteen. More distinct. He can hear his mother's voice and his father's, murmuring his name. If he listens harder, he's certain others join them. Sirius. Remus. Tonks. Fred. Al.
His throat tightens as he walks up the dias steps. A faint breeze curls around him, pulling him closer to the thin Veil, and he shivers, shifts the satchel on his shoulder. It's almost weightless, despite being filled with months worth of food and water.
The whispers brush past his temple, stirring his hair. Harry takes a deep breath. He's done his best. He's left three notes on his desk--one for Gin, one for Jamie, one for Lily--trying to explain what he's doing and where he's going. Just in case. He bites his bottom lip and rubs his sweaty palm across his jeans. He'll come back if he can, he's promised in the notes. But he wants them to know he loves them. Needs them to know. He hopes they understand. He can't not do this. Not if there's the slightest chance Al needs him.
Harry. The whispers retreat, curling back into the Veil, save for one. A soft murmur slides over his skin, curls around his hand. Harry drops his Auror robe. It puddles on the stone steps.
The Veil parts, and Harry falls.
White mist roils around Harry. He sits up, his shoulder protesting with a twinge. He'd taken a tumble from his broom a year ago trying to show Jamie the right way to do a Wronski Feint and it's bothered him ever since.
Harry looks around. The room is familiar with its smooth white floor and vaunted glass ceiling. He pushes himself to his feet and turns slowly. He's in a cleaner, quieter, whiter version of King's Cross Station. It hasn't changed since he saw it last, the night Voldemort killed him.
Footsteps echo through the mist. Harry almost expects to see Dumbledore walking towards him in a midnight blue robe.
Instead a woman strides towards him, her green cloak swirling around her ankles. Her dark hair--pulled back from her face in a loose chignon--is only beginning to be touched with grey at the tempers. Wisps curl around her cheeks; they do nothing to soften her sharp features. The only wrinkles on her pale, sallow face are a deep furrow between her arched brows and a few faint folds pulling down the corners of her mouth. She eyes him with cool, black eyes, and Harry shifts uneasily. She unsettles him.
"Hullo," he says, but she just crooks her finger, summoning him to follow her.
The mists drift past them; the room is silent save for the quiet thud of their footsteps. It seems like an eternity before she stops in front of a blank white brick wall. She presses her palm to the brick, tracing a quick pattern with her other hand around it. The wall groans and shudders, then with a trickle of glittering dust, a doorway opens.
A gentle breeze ruffles Harry's hair. Trees stretch past the opening, a fir branch curls over the edge of the brick.
"Go through Erebus," the woman says quietly. Her voice is rough, with a Northern lilt. "Find Charon. He'll give you passage for the coin."
"Thank you," Harry says. The fir needles crunch beneath his trainers.
She nods, barely, and as she raises her hand, the bricks close behind him. The last one slides into place with a thud and the wall disappears, leaving Harry surrounded by a forest of trees.
He settles his satchel on his shoulder and walks.
The forest is thick and dense and dark.
Harry passes the same rock three times before he finally accepts that he's lost. He stops by a mossy, narrow stream and pulls a bottle of water out of his satchel. He's drained half of it when a bright laugh causes him to lower the bottle.
A girl--barely more than a child--sits cross-legged on a fallen log across the stream. She's pale, almost as if she's never seen the sun, and leaves and berries are threaded through her long red curls. Patches of moss twist up the skirt of her brown robe. She reminds Harry of his daughter in her younger days, draping herself in whatever she could peel from the trees and bushes of the back garden and cheerfully deeming herself a proper princess.
"You're lost," the girl says. Her voice sounds like the rustle of leaves in wind.
Harry nods. "I'm looking for Erebus."
She laughs and gestures around. "This is Erebus." She tilts her head and studies him. "No one stays here for long, though. At least not your kind."
"I suppose not." Harry caps his water bottle and tucks it back in his satchel. "I'm to find Charon."
The girl nods approvingly. "The ferryman."
"Yes." Harry stands and hefts his satchel to his shoulder again. "I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a hurry…could you point me the right direction?"
She twists a curl around her finger, a feral glint in her eyes. "Maybe." Her gaze drops to his satchel. "I like presents." She smiles, a charming flash of white teeth. "I'm Leuce."
"Harry," Harry says, and he hesitates before opening his satchel and digging out a box of
Leuce's eyes brighten and she scrambles off her log. "I can take you to the edge of the forest," she says, reaching for the
"I'm not dead." Harry follows her through a thicket of thorns. They scratch at his face and he hisses at the sting.
Leuce ducks beneath an arched poplar. She strokes her fingers over the bark almost reverentially. "What are you here for then? It's not really a holiday." She waits for Harry to catch up and digs out another
A cut on his cheek burns. He rubs the back of his hand at it; sticky-warm crimson streaks his skin. "My son," he says, and he pushes his hair back out of his eyes. "He needs me." Harry hesitates. "He looks like me, a bit, except he's only thirteen. You wouldn't have seen him, perhaps?"
"A boy?" Leuce asks as she takes a log over a small ravine. Her feet crunch through dead leaves on the other side. She frowns. "A lot of people pass through Erebus, you know."
Harry's heart drops. "His name's Al. Albus Severus actually. He's thin, a bit scrawny, not very tall, bit of a swot…" He trails off, swallowing hard. His eyes burn.
"My sister might have found him." Leuce rolls her eyes. "Best be glad you saw me first."
Harry steps on a twig; it cracks loudly beneath his weight. "Why?"
Leuce swings around the trunk of an ash tree. Her skirt swirls at her ankles, almost blending with the forest floor. "Echo likes her pranks. She thinks it's great fun to hide in the trees and lead people a merry chase through the forest to catch her. Awfully mean, I say, to poor people who've already died. You ought to show more respect, I tell her, but she never listens to me." She wrinkles her nose. "She's the baby though, so what do you expect?"
The forest begins to thin. Harry stumbles over a flat rock. "Did she mention Al? Would she have helped him?"
"I suppose. Eventually, in a few days after she'd got tired of playing." Leuce shrugs. A smear of chocolate is on the corner of her mouth. "All we're meant to do is make certain people find Charon properly. Wouldn't want a bunch of dead folk lingering around, cluttering up the forest, you see."
Oddly enough, Harry thinks perhaps he does. They walk in silence. The springy, mossy ground gives way to firmer footholds, and light begins to filter through the canopy of leaves, casting speckled shadows across them. A cobweb in Leuce's hair glitters for a moment like spun silver. A raven caws in the branches above--Harry swears it sounds more like want than any bird call he's heard--and Leuce glares up at the raven.
"Hush, you. He's not yours."
The bird flies off in an annoyed flap of ruffled wings. Leuce presses her lips together. "Watch your liver," she says primly. "The birds like to take them."
Harry blinks. "Er, right." He shifts the satchel in front of him and peers up into the thickly leaved branches. "Thanks."
Light glints through the trees in front of them. Leuce stops. "This is as far as I can go," she says. She looks at Harry, and suddenly she seems far older. Taller. More careworn. She reaches up into her hair and tugs a thin silver cord from her curls. A black spider scurries up the cord, then hangs from the end, a tiny carved jet bead. Leuce drops it into Harry's hand. "A present in return for yours," she says softly, curling his fingers around it. Perhaps it's a trick of the shadows, but Harry swears her tawny eyes turn dark in her pale face and thin streaks of white curl through her red hair. "I have sisters across the river. If you need their help, tie this around a poplar branch and they'll find you."
A toss of her head and she's a girl again, smiling widely at him. "Find your son, Harry." Leaning up on her tiptoes, she brushes her mouth against his cheek, and then she's gone, leaving behind the echo of her laugh. Harry slips the silver cord into the pocket of his jeans, bemused.
He doesn't quite know what to expect as he crosses the treeline. There's a part of him that wouldn't be surprised to see the towers of Hogwarts waiting for him. Instead he finds a wide river and a pair of towering cliffs.
The riverbank is weedy on this side, and the earth sucks at his shoes with each step, slowing him. The ferryman leans silently on his staff, watching him. A grim smile curls his thin lips. His black robes are filthy and tattered; his grey beard hangs unkempt nearly to his waist.
"Charon?" Harry asks, and the ferryman nods. Harry swallows, unsettled. "I need to cross."
A breeze rushes across the river, stirring the weeds. "Do you now?" Charon says. His voice is rough and rusty. The tendons in his throat flex and stretch. "No one crosses without the fare." He looks Harry up and down. "And no one crosses what's still living."
Harry pulls out the gold coin Pish gave him. "This should pay my way," he says, meeting Charon's gaze.
The ferryman blanches, and his hand shakes as Harry drops the coin into his palm. "Been years since I've seen one of these." He rubs his thumb over the worn face and shivers. He hesitates, staring down at the coin, then sighs and frowns at Harry. "Get in."
Water laps coldly at Harry's feet as he splashes through the river. The chill spreads through his body, making him shudder as he climbs into the boat. He settles on a wooden plank seat, his satchel firmly between his knees. He grabs hold of the edges of the boat and nods.
Charon pushes off.
The cold in Harry's bones deepens; fog curls in around the rocking boat. The voices come first on the tendrils: his mother's frantic not Harry, not my son, Sirius's shout of rage that had echoed through the Department of Mysteries, Ron screaming at him in the middle of a cold forest, we thought you knew what you were doing…we thought you had a plan!
He can see the battle again, taste the smoke, hear the wails of the dying. Snape looks up at him, the light fading from his eyes as he hisses look at me.
Ron's face pales when Fred falls, and he screams no, his eyes anguished.
Teddy, solemn and quiet as a six-year-old can be, looks up at him and asks him why his Mum and Dad didn't live, and all Harry can think of is Remus and Tonks lying pale and still beneath the starry-black ceiling of the Great Hall.
And Al. Pale and bloody, his empty eyes staring past Harry--
"My fault," Harry chokes out, his face wet. "all my fault…" He can still smell the rotting, acrid stench of death.
The boat thuds against the shore.
Harry throws himself over the side. He lands on the pebbled beach, shaking, his satchel next to him. He crawls up, away from the water, and lies curled on the stones, breathing hard and fighting the bile back down. After a moment he pushes himself to his feet and reaches for his bag, draping it over his shoulder. Charon watches him silently from the boat.
A growl from behind him causes Harry to turn slowly. A three-headed dog that reminds him of Hagrid's old pet bares three sets of sharp teeth at him.
"Fuck," Harry murmurs. He tries to edge past the dog; one of the heads snaps at him, barely missing his side. Harry runs a hand through his hair. "I don't reckon your name's Fluffy, eh?"
The dog narrows six eyes. The scaly ruff of serpents on the back of his neck stands up and hisses as one. Yeah, Harry thinks. Definitely not Fluffy.
Go back, live one. You cannot enter. The snake heads twist and writhe above the dog's ears.
Harry licks his bottom lip. The last time he's spoken Parseltongue was to the garter snakes in the back garden, and they were fat and lazy and far more interested in discussing the mice in the cellar. Please, he hisses back. I'm looking for my son.
The snakes jerk back in surprise. You speak serpent.
Yes. Harry ignores the dog's barks and concentrates on the snakes. Please let me through.
The dog growls and takes a step forward. The snakes eye Harry. It's been two decades Aboveworld since one passed who spoke serpent. He was of the dead though. They hesitate. You seek your son?
Harry nods. He's in trouble. Utnapishtim sent me--
At Pish's name, the snakes draw back with a hiss. Utnapishtim, one murmurs. He once saved our family from drowning. They look at each other, considering, then nod. Go. Run for the cliff steps. We'll stop Cerberus. The dog lunges forward again, only to howl in pain as one of the snakes sinks his fangs into an ear. Go, boy, the other snakes hiss, and Harry runs for the cliffs, the angry yelps of the dog at his heels.
Halfway up the steps he pauses, looks down. Cerberus is at the foot of the steps, two heads biting at the snakes on his shoulders, the other howling at Harry in frustration. "Sorry, mate," Harry whispers regretfully.
He's breathing hard when he reaches the top of the cliff.
"Well-played, lad," Pish says, clapping him on the back. Harry collapses against a rock. He stares out over the forest he's just crossed. He can see the curves of another river just past the treetops.
"You might have given a bloke a hand," he says finally, when he can breathe. He's been behind a desk for too damn many years. He pulls his bottle of water out and finishes it off.
Pish snorts. "Every man's got to make his way past Cerberus. Be glad he didn't take a bite out of you. Severus still has the scar."
Harry wipes his arm over his brow. "I thought Fluffy gave him that one." At Pish's puzzled look, he shakes his head. "So where is Snape?"
"I'm to take you to him." Pish starts down a dirt path; Harry shoves himself off the rock and follows.
"The snakes," he says, jogging to catch up. "They said you saved their family. That's why they helped me."
Pish grunts and doesn't turn around. "Might have done. A long time ago. Helped a lot of creatures some."
Harry glances over at him. "How?" The older man squints off into the afternoon sun.
"Took 'em in from the rain, I reckon you'd say." He nods as they turn a curve in the path. "There she is." A river stretches before them, a shimmering ribbon of blue that curls and twists across a green plain. Pish grins. "Nothing prettier Beneathworld than the River Mnemosyne, I say."
At the moment, Harry can't disagree.
Pish leads him to a boat, flat and wide, that bobs at the shore. It smells of animals, and bales of hay fill the stern. Harry wrinkles his nose; Pish pushes the boat from the shore with a long pole before grabbing the rudder.
"It'll be better when we're downwind," he says, and a sail furls, catching the breeze. "The animals still like to ride with me when they pass over."
Harry raises an eyebrow. "There are animals here?"
Pish chuckles softly and squints into the sun. "Everything dies, Harry. Where else would they go?"
A squirrel scampers across the deck, stopping to look up at Harry curiously. It pokes at Harry's leg. Harry jerks back in surprise. "Jesus--"
The squirrel squeaks, annoyed, and rears up on his back legs. His whiskers tremble in indignation.
"Odin, would be more accurate," Pish says and he bends down to pick up the squirrel. It runs up Pish's arm and perches on his shoulder, eyeing Harry. "Ratatosk here likes to stowaway now and then."
"Oh." Harry studies the squirrel. His grey fur is clean and shiny. He sniffs at Harry, then chatters in Pish's ear. The sounds are oddly human. Harry can almost imagine standing at the edge of a fjord, cold mist rolling in off the water, wrapping around the huge tree behind him--
"English, lad," Pish says to the squirrel, amusement tingeing his voice. "I don't think our friend here speaks Norwegian." He raises an eyebrow at Harry who shakes his head, dumbfounded.
Ratatosk squeaks. "Tell him to stop staring at me, Utna Pishtim," he says, and Harry blinks.
"He's doing no harm." Pish leans against the rudder.
The squirrel's nose flares. "How would he like me to stare at him, the big oaf?"
Hary dips his head, cheeks flushing. "Sorry. I've just never actually met a talking squirrel. Well, outside of my kids' books, at least." He tilts his head to one side, a thought striking him. "You're not an Animagus, are you?"
Ratatosk's eyes narrow. "I'm a squirrel," he squeaks indignantly, his tail poufing. "Not a…" His lip curls. "Whatever that is. And only a few of us speak human. It's a gift from the gods."
"My apologies," Harry says, biting back a laugh.
Ratatosk humphs, then settles down on Pish's shoulder. His tail lashes lightly against Pish's wool cabled jumper. "Humans."
Harry perches on a bale of hay, legs crossed. He digs in his satchel and pulls out a jar of almonds he's tucked away. Ratatosk's whiskers quiver at the smoky smell of the nuts; Harry tips a few onto his palm. The squirrel hesitates for a moment, then leaps from Pish's shoulder to the hay. He takes a nut from Harry and sniffs it, holding it between his paws before he bites into a corner.
"Perhaps not entirely an oaf," he mumbles grudgingly through a mouthful of almond and Harry grins.
"I have my uses."
Ratatosk snorts and settles next to Harry, curling his sleek body around the nut.
The riverbank passes slowly at first, until the wind picks up. The river curves, and Harry catches sight of another stream, sparkling in the distance. "What's that?"
"The River Lethe," Ratatosk says. "You really are an ignorant lug, are you not?"
"Hush now." Pish tugs gently at the squirrel's tail. "Not everyone takes this trip as often as you." He looks over at Harry. "River of forgetfulness. Bad business that. Makes you careless of who you were before." Pish shakes his head. "No, I prefer the Mnemosyne here. Bit harder to navigate in parts, but at least I remember her curves well enough."
Harry looks out over the passing fields, dotted with white poplars and swathes of red poppies. Every so often they pass a road, a small village. The people move slowly, almost as if they're in a dream. "It's peaceful."
"Aye," Pish says with a sigh. "It's better for them, really. An easy afterlife, I reckon, but they don't often remember anything from one day to the next."
"Is that what death's like?" At a crossroads, Harry watches a child tug at the hand of her father who blinks sleepily and then looks down at her with a faint smile.
Ratatosk snorts and peers over the side of the boat. "Only for the cowards."
"Too harsh, you." Pish shakes his head. He looks at Harry. "The bad apples are sent to Tartarus--or Tartarus comes for them, depending. Everyone else is supposed to find their way to Elysium, to the city there or roundabouts. Houses of silver and streets of gold and stuffed full of happiness, or so I hear." He snorts. "I reckon there's a lot of tall tales about the place."
"Heaven?" Harry asks.
"Of sorts. 'Cept not exactly like your priests and all think it is. Any matter, it ain't an easy journey for some folk." He looks out over the fields. "They get tired. They stop. They drink from the Lethe, and they stay here."
The father and daughter fade into the poppies. "That's sad," Harry says.
"Not that bad." Pish shrugs. "They're happy, most of them more than they were when they were alive." He looks pointedly at Harry. "That's sad."
Harry leans against a barrel. He props his foot on the seat. The rubber sole of his trainers squeak against the polished wood. "Why aren't you there then? In this Elysium? Why isn't Snape?"
"Severus has his own reasons, I reckon." Pish turns the wheel of the boat. Spray splashes over the stern. "As for me, well, I can't."
"Why not?" Harry studies the older man curiously. "Were you cursed?"
Pish doesn't answer for a moment. His fingers tighten on the wheel. "Could say that."
A shout from the riverbank catches their attention, and Pish swears. "Who is that?" Harry asks, staring at the four riders keeping pace with them. Their horses kick up clods of soft mud; their red cloaks billow in the breeze.
"Fucking Tartaruans," Pish says tightly and he tries to pull the boat further across the river. "Get down."
"Just do it," Pish snaps and Harry slides down behind the barrels. Ratatosk leaps up on the barrel above him, chittering loudly in a language Harry doesn't understand. "You're going to need more than Thor's fucking hammer against those bastards," Pish says and the squirrel glares at him.
Harry can hear the shouting from the shore. His fingers curl around the hilt of his wand. He peers over the barreltops. The river narrows in front of them; Pish swears again and spins the wheel.
Two of the Tartaruans are standing on the saddles of their horses. They leap, one landing in the prow of the boat on his knees, the other catching the side with one arm. He clutches at the wood; Ratatosk bites his fingers, teeth ripping over rough skin. The Tartaruan screams in pain. Blood streams over his knuckles. Ratatosk bites again, barely missing the Tartaruan's other hand slamming against the rail. Pish jerks the boat to the left again, scraping against a large rock. Another scream and the Tartaruan's hand is gone, leaving behind a bloody and smeared palmprint.
It doesn't stop the other one. He pushes to his feet and unsheathes a heavy sword, stumbling forward as Pish sends the boat careening to the right. Harry's stomach roils.
Sunlight gleams off the polished brass of the Tartaruan's helmet. He holds his sword tightly; with one quick sweep of a booted foot he sends Ratatosk skittering across the deck. The squirrel lays still, a crumpled heap of fluffy tail and grey fur.
"Oh, fuck this," Harry says, and he jumps up, his wand out. "Stupe--"
The sword slams into his side, the flat against his ribs. Harry doubles over, gasping for breath. He grits his teeth against the pain and raises his wand again. "Stupefy!"
The sword glitters in the sunlight. It makes a smooth arc. Harry drops down, rolls to one side. "Stupefy," he screams again. Not even a spark from his wand.
Boots thud against the wooden deck.
"Look out, boy," Pish shouts, and Harry scrambles out of the way just as the point of the sword slams into the planks next to him with a vicious thud. His wand goes the opposite direction. The sword quivers for the briefest second before the Tartaruan jerks it from the wood with a roar.
Harry shoves himself up, throws himself at the Tartaruan. They stumble together, careen into the side of the boat. The Tartaruan's helmet falls open and Harry freezes.
The face is smooth, bleached bone; the eyes glow a too-bright blue in the deep sockets. The jaw moves, slightly. Harry hears the faintest whisper. Help me.
And then the Tartaruan twists beneath him, crushes him against the railing. The wood digs deep into Harry's back. Splinters stab into his skin. Harry gasps as he's shoved harder over the side of the boat, his boots sliding against the worn deck. He's bent at an impossible angle; riverwater splashes up against his cheek. A sharp agonising spasm shoots through his spinal cord. Harry claws at the red cloak, twisting his fingers into the thick wool, and with all his strength, he jerks, pulling the Tartaruan off balance.
The man stumbles, slides against Harry, and with a desperate flail, slams his leather-gloved fist into Harry's temple.
Pain explodes through Harry's head. Blood streams down his cheek, thick and warm. His vision blurs, darkens.
Help me, he hears again, and the Tartaruan is against the railing, pulling at Harry. And then Pish is there, jerking him away, shoving Harry back against the barrels before throwing the Tartaruan over the side of the ship.
The splash is distant. Far away.
Harry stares at Pish. The man looks enormous, looming over him, his eyebrows furrowed in concern.
"Harry?" he asks but Harry can barely hear him.
He staggers back, slides down to the deck with a thud. He tries to talk, tries to say thank you through the blinding pain.
Instead he lets himself fall into the darkness.
It's almost a relief.
A gentle stroke of a wet flannel over his face wakes Harry. He aches in ways that he only vaguely recalls from too strenuous Quidditch practices in school. Water cascades over his temple, warm and sweet-smelling. Rosemary and lemongrass, Harry recognises. The flannel follows again, wiping the excess dampness from his cheek.
His eyes flutter open slowly. The light hurts at first; he blinks once, twice. The world's still blurry.
"You're awake." A hand moves across his face, dragging the flannel with it. Harry hasn't heard that velvet voice in two decades. He's never forgotten it.
"Snape." His throat closes; he licks his bottom lip.
"Well, it's about time the big oaf woke up," Ratatosk says. "Lazy bastard, lying there."
"Quiet." The long, oddly graceful fingers move away and his glasses slide onto his nose. The room snaps into focus.
Heavy black timbers stretch across the white wattle ceiling; sunlight filters through an arched window across the room. The leaded diamond panes blur the world outside into a muted splash of blue and green. Harry's stretched naked across an iron bed, a crisp pale green and lemon quilt draped over him. It smells like lilacs.
"Where are my clothes?" Harry asks, cheeks warm.
Snape looks younger, Harry thinks before he realises Snape had only been thirty-eight when he'd died. It's a strange thought, his professor being younger than him now.
Ratatosk sits next to Harry's shoulder, eyeing him with bright brown eyes. The squirrel tilts his head to one side. "You know, really, someone ought to give that hair a good grooming, and since Severus rather appreciated undressing you--"
"Out," Snape says, a tight edge to his voice that even after all these years still makes Harry's shoulders tense, and the squirrel chitters at him. "Now."
With an irritated flounce of its tail, Ratatosk leaps off the bed and darts for the door. "I never," he mutters, "well, really, the cheek. I should tell your mother--"
"Out," Snape snaps and the squirrel humphs and slips through the narrow crack between the door and the doorjamb. Snape drops the flannel into a bowl next to the bed. "Ratatosk can be…" He hesitates, frowning into the water. "Infuriating."
"He is a bit odd," Harry says faintly. He licks his bottom lip. "The whole talking thing for one. Very weird. Really."
Snape snorts. "You become used to it. Eventually."
"Do all the animals talk?" Harry asks. He doesn't know what else to say.
"Only the annoying ones." Snape reaches for the flannel. "Various rodents for the most part. The occasional serpent, though they tend to be dull conversationalists, I'm afraid."
"Why only them?"
A shrug of narrow shoulders. "They're the only ones who can go between worlds easily."
Harry studies Snape as he wrings the flannel dry. His black robes are gone, replaced by a plain white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and black wool trousers. Snape's hair is longer, nearly falling to his shoulder blades, and he's tied it back with a thin black cord. It's still black and thick and lank. Small wrinkles line the corners of Snape's eyes--Harry supposes he never noticed them when he was younger--but when Snape turns to him, his gaze is just as dark and cold as Harry remembers.
"Where's Pish?" Harry asks. He's afraid of the answer.
"Downstairs imbibing what's left of my whisky, I'm certain." Snape eyes him, a flicker of amusement twisting his mouth for the barest moment. "Surely you didn't expect his tragic demise?"
Harry glares at him. "I don't know what to expect any more. Where's my son?"
"In due time."
"Now," Harry says tightly. His chest aches.
Snape is silent for a moment. He stares down at the glass bowl of water, slowly folds the flannel into a small, thick square before setting it aside. Flecks of fresh herbs float at the top of the water, catch on the sides of the bowl. With a sigh, Snape walks to the window and pushes it open. Harry blinks at the bright flare before his eyes adjust. He can see a glint of water, a swathe of green branches.
"Welcome to Hell, Potter," Snape says without turning around.
"I always heard Hell was a lot darker and hotter."
Snape snorts. When he looks back over his shoulder, a faint smile curves his mouth. It's not entirely pleasant. "I daresay you'll find that Hell is many things. Whatever one wishes to make of it, really."
A wave of pain rushes over Harry as he sits up. He fights back the bile in his throat and breathes out slowly. He's had worse than this when he was out in the field. When the pain numbs to a dull throb, he looks up. Snape's leaning against the windowsill, his arms crossed over his chest. The sunlight catches in his hair and disappears.
"What about Heaven?" Harry watches him. "I also heard you couldn't have one without the other."
"So the C of E would have you believe."
"Are they right?"
Snape's mouth twists into a familiar sneer. He doesn't answer; he just half-turns and stares out the window.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" Harry asks quietly. "I've come a hell of a long way, Snape."
After a long moment, Snape looks back at him. His face is shadowed. "Do you know what heriot is, Potter?"
Harry shakes his head. He ignores Snape's rolled eyes.
"The right of heriot," Snape says, in the patronising tone he used on only his thickest students, "allowed a feudal lord to claim a tribute upon the death of one of his serfs. Usually an animal or something with some token of value." He pauses, eyeing Harry.
Because some sort of acknowledgment of understanding seems necessary, Harry nods. A decade of helming Auror task force meetings has taught him when and where to ask questions. Snape continues.
"Eight hundred and twenty-three years ago, there was a boy, aged thirteen, who was deathly ill. He was his father's only son in a family of twelve daughters. Do note the significance of the thirteen and thirteen, Potter. The supernatural does appreciate balance."
Harry notes and, with a quirk of his eyebrow, waits for Snape to go on.
"In defiance of all logic of the time period, all twelve daughters lived, hale and hearty and very much in need of dowries, much to their father's dismay and the detriment of the family coffers. The boy, however, died in the middle of a storm, late at night." Snape sniffs in disgust. "Typical, of course, of how these maudlin tales must go."
Snape eyes him suspiciously for a moment, then snorts. "Yes. Suffice it to say the distraught father like a damned fool went out into the middle of the bloody deluge and screamed at the heavens to release his child. Melodramatic and rather stupid of him, in my opinion. It would have served him damn right to catch pneumonia and follow his son, but alas, the world has no justice. Instead, the imbecile had given up and was lying in the muck and the mud when a rider appeared." Snape looks up. "He wore a crown of human bones."
Harry shifts in the bed. He's curious, though he'd hate to admit it. "And?"
"The rider told him his request would be granted." Snape shrugs. "On a condition of course. These sorts of stories require such."
"What condition?" Harry pushes himself back against the pillows. His side twinges.
Snape is silent for a long moment. "Heriot," he says at last, not meeting Harry's eyes. "His payment for returning the son and sparing the family line was to take one from the next generation, at the same age."
"Thirteen," Harry says quietly.
"Yes." Snape pushes himself away from the window. He walks back to the dresser, trails a fingertip through the bowl of herbed water. "The second son of the eldest girl was the tribute the rider wanted. It was a fair request in that age, designed not to impugn any progenitary rights."
"And the father agreed." It seems an impossible decision to have made, Harry thinks. To know that what you were attempting to stave off would be visited on your daughter's child instead. His stomach twists. "Fucking shit."
Snape watches him out of the corner of his eye. "He kept his heir. And there were so many girls, after all. It was not what one would call an enlightened time."
Harry shakes his head, still sick. "So the rider came back."
"Fifteen years later, yes." Snape smooths his hand over the still surface of the water in the glass bowl. It twists on itself, curling into a tight funnel before disappearing with a soft pop. "And then eighteen years after that. And another seventeen later." He dries his fingertips on the folded cloth next to the bowl. "The rider never intended his tribute to be a one-time payment." Snape looks up at Harry, his eyes shadowed. "That's not how a king of Hell thinks."
Snape's eyes meet Harry's. Harry looks away first. "The father's name," Snape says, almost gently, "was Beagan Weasley."
"And Al…" Harry trails off, understanding dawning.
"Died two days after his thirteenth birthday, I do believe."
Harry is silent. He picks at the quilt on his lap, running his thumbnail across a brown calico leaf. A thread loosens. "They would have told me," he says finally.
"It's been forgotten over the years."
Harry looks up sharply. "How do you forget something like that? This is my son we're talking about--"
"Ask yourself, Potter," Snape snaps, "why it is that until Ginevra's birth there were no Weasley daughters for generations?" He moves closer to the bed, his eyes glittering. Harry shrinks against the pillows; he suddenly feels eleven again. "After two hundred years of heriot, Ignatius Weasley discovered a way to cheat Hades himself. Contraception charms. Spells of protection. He eliminated the entire female line to protect his children and their children."
"But Ginny," Harry says. Snape runs a hand through his hair. He looks tired.
"Is the one glaring anomaly in nearly six hundred years." Snape leans against the dresser, his knuckles pressed against his mouth. He scowls. "Perhaps the Prewett fertility overcame the charms. Or Arthur's sperm count--"
Harry wrinkles his nose. "That's disgusting."
Snape snorts. "A thirty-nine-year-old-man with three children to his name considers the discussion of conception to be, and I quote, 'disgusting'?"
"I don't want to think about my father-in-law's semen," Harry protests.
A sneer curves Snape's mouth. "Oh, do forgive me for offending your delicate sensibilities."
"Arsehole," Harry mutters. Snape glares at him. Harry sighs. "So you're telling me that my son's been taken as a tribute by the king of Hell."
"A king of Hell." Snape drums his fingertips against his elbow. "Semantics are important, Potter. Beneathworld, as certain residents call it, remains caught in a primitive feudal system of sorts, governed by a High King--you should know him as Hades, though I rather doubt your History of Magic classes have held--with various sections under the control of lesser individuals such as--
"Fine," Harry interrupts. Snape has an obsessive glint in his eye that Harry remembers from too many dull lectures. "By a king of Hell. Brilliant. You know, I don't believe in Hell."
Snape looks around the room pointedly.
"Okay, I didn't believe in Hell," Harry says. "Who has my son?"
"A rather nasty so-called lesser diety known as Donn." At Harry's confused frown, Snape sighs. "Two Ns. The Irish believed him to be ruler of the Otherworld; in reality he was nothing more than a megalomaniac warlord with a rather vicious reputation who had the misfortune to drown at the start of the Goidelic invasion of
Harry falls back against the pillows and runs his hands over his face. "I always end up against the nutters."
"You do seem to have a talent in drawing them to you."
Harry can almost swear Snape smiles, but the moment's gone. Snape looks away. Harry drops his hands. "What I want to know is how the fuck I can get my son away from him."
"It's difficult. Some would say even impossible."
Harry holds Snape's gaze. "You sent for me. You must think I can do it."
"I have my doubts, do believe me," Snape says. "However, you are the boy's father and you have touched death already. If there is the slightest possibility that young Albus can be freed, it rests in you."
A long moment's pause, then Harry says quietly, "Why? Why do you care if he lives or dies?"
Snape doesn't answer. He picks up the bowl. "You should sleep. You need your strength if you are to go after him. It won't be easy."
"Snape," Harry says. Snape gives him a sharp, almost frightened look. Harry leans forward. "Why?"
"Because," Snape answers slowly, the words faint and distant, "I made a promise to myself when your mother died." His fingertips brush Harry's forehead lightly. "Sleep."
Rubbish, Harry thinks as his eyes close. He sinks back against the pillows, his limbs suddenly leaden. Utter load of rubbi--
The kitchen is warm when Severus enters.
"You sent Ratatosk scampering out of here like his tail was on fire." His mother eyes him from the hearth, a small smile curving her thin mouth.
Severus rolls his eyes. "That bloody wretch ought to be grateful I didn't skin him there."
"Well, he's out at the tree when you're ready to apologise to him." Eileen ladles vegetable stew into a bowl and hands it to him. His mother has never been a pretty woman, but in the years since Severus's crossing of the river, she has settled, begun to wear her age well. Gone are the hunched shoulders and the worried eyes. She's young still, Severus knows, only a few years older than himself, caught for eternity at the age of her death.
Pish watches her from his seat at the table. He nurses a mug of beer, the foam already flattening. Severus wonders sometimes how long it will take his mother to notice the way the old bastard looks at her. There is a part of him, he realises, that hopes she never will.
"How's the boy?" Eileen asks. She wipes her hands on a rag and sits at the table next to him.
Severus scrapes his spoon over a potato. "Alive."
"Scrappy little brat." Pish thumps his glass onto the table. Beer sloshes over his hand; he licks it off. "Ought to have seen him take on those Tartaruans."
"Potter always was a reckless fool." Severus chews on a carrot, then swallows. "He's sleeping. We should leave by tomorrow if we want to catch them."
Eileen rubs at a scratch on the tabletop. "You're certain of this, Severus?"
"No." Severus has never been certain of any of this. For all he knows, he's called Potter in on a fool's errand. His hand shakes and tomatoey broth sloshes out of his spoon. Lily will never forgive him if he has.
Lily. He's only seen her once since he arrived. He can still remember the sadness in her eyes as he turned his back on the comfort and rewards of Elysium, but he had no damned intention of watching her play happy families with James bloody fucking Potter for the rest of eternity.
Only Albus understood his decision; since then he's made certain in their few meetings over the years that neither of the Potters were anywhere near Severus. The barmy old fool owes him that much.
"You'll need horses to get through Tartarus," Pish says over the rim of his glass.
Severus drops his spoon into the bowl. It clatters softly against the thick china. "Eventually. After a detour to Albus's."
Pish looks surprised. "Elysium's the other direction."
"We'll circle around." Severus rests his chin on his fist. He's tired. He wants this done with and any and all Potters out of his afterlife. At least for another hundred years. "The bastard insists Potter be brought by to collect the damned sword."
"Be easier to have just given it to you." Pish strokes his beard thoughtfully.
"Albus Dumbledore seldom accepts the easiest course." Severus pokes glumly at his stew. "In fact, I daresay he goes out of his way to choose the most loathsome course for me."
"Maybe. Maybe not." Pish leans his elbows on the table. "You're going to lose track of the Tartaruans, you know."
"Not if you follow them." Severus meets Pish's gaze. "He'll mark the path. He's promised."
Pish snorts into his beer. "Your father ain't exactly what I call reliable, boy."
Severus's mouth tightens for a moment, but he knows what Pish says is true. He has no reason to trust Tobias Snape. The fact that he does even the slightest bit is a mystery to him, but intellectually he knows the danger his father is placing himself in even with the small amount of information he has passed along, particularly given Donn's current advisors. Betraying them would only leave him more exposed and there is no doubt in Severus's mind that Tobias Snape would take his own self-preservation into consideration. His father would have made a fine Slytherin if not for his unfortunate Muggle antecedents.
"He'll leave a trail," Severus says, as if the venom with which he says the words can will them into actuality. "Follow it. You know how to get word to me."
"Right." Pish stands and stretches. "Watch after yourself, Severus," he says gently, then nods to Eileen.
The door latches shut behind him.
Eileen studies her son in the silence. "You're frightened," she says after a moment. "But not for yourself."
Severus is silent, then he sighs. "The boy was Named for me. You know what responsibility that is."
"And Albus Dumbledore holds just as much, if not more," his mother snaps.
Severus glares at her. "Albus Dumbledore lives in his own esoteric ivory tower untouched by those messy notions of duty or honour. He waged a war, for God's sake, with the fool upstairs at the epicenter. A child, Mother. He placed the weight of our entire world on the shoulders of a child, with every expectation of the boy's death." He spits the last word out.
With a sigh, Eileen slumps in her chair. She looks older, more tired. "Someday," she says softly, "you'll have to stop hating him, Severus."
"Someday," Severus agrees. Just not today.
His mother pushes her chair back and reaches for Pish's empty glass. Her hand is gentle on his shoulder; when she steps away he feels oddly empty. Guilty.
Eileen moves to the sink, pours water from the bucket into the stained porcelain. He can hear the clink of glass against china, the soft splash and suck of a wet rag.
Severus takes another bite of stew and tries not to think of the boy--the man--sleeping upstairs.
Al wakes up when the horses stop. He raises his head and blinks. He's wrapped in a fur-lined cloak and slumped against Tobias's back.
Tobias had insisted he be allowed to ride, he remembers, but only when he was too tired to put one foot in front of the other. He'd kept falling, skinning his knees on rocks and gnarled tree roots which only made it harder to stumble on, stiff and in pain.
He'd always thought dying involve a lot more lying about, eating crisps and fish fingers without Mum nagging about proper meals and all that rot. Not this. He hates it. He wants to go home--he stops thinking that. There isn't any going home. He's dead.
It makes his stomach hurt.
Al slides off the horse. The cloak is too long for him; it trails on the filthy cobblestones of the courtyard. High stone walls tower above him, black-grey against the blue sky. He shivers and pulls the cloak tighter. This doesn't feel right.
Tobias pushes him forward; he starts to walk towards the heavy arched wooden door, following the other cloaks. The helmets--the Tartaruans, Tobias has told him to call them, rather--silently lead the horses away.
The hall is warm. Too warm, Al thinks as the fur lining of the cloak scratches his neck uncomfortably.
Steps echo down the shadowed hallway. In a moment a small man appears. His pinched face reminds Al of the rats Teddy keeps in the stockroom of Uncle George's shop to test charms on.
"Good, good, this is the boy then?" the man asks, turning watery eyes on Al.
"As requested," one of the cloaks says. He's the leader, Al's determined. He's heard the others call him Macnair.
The small man looks disturbingly familiar. He catches Al's chin in his thin fingers, turning Al's head one way then the other. "The resemblance is astounding, really." His voice is high; his vowels squeak.
Tobias moves closer to Al.
The man falls back a step, his hands fluttering. "Yes, well," he says, "you'll put in him one of the upper cells. He'll be wanted later."
Macnair grabs Al's arm. "Please," Al says, looking at Tobias desperately, but he turns away, not meeting Al's eyes. "Please, help me."
"Now, boy." Macnair digs his fingers into Al's skin. Al wants to jerk away, to run out the door and back to the safety of his room and his books and his piles of Quidditch Weekly. He cries out when Macnair twists his arm behind his back, nearly sending Al to his knees.
Tobias grabs Macnair's wrist, slams him against the wall. "Don' hurt th' lad," he says roughly, his jaw tight.
Macnair pushes him away. "Attached are you?" he spits out. His eyes narrow. "You're not wanting a taste of his pretty arse, are you, Toby, old boy? Decide to follow your pervert son's footsteps, have you?"
His head jerks back as Tobias's fist connects with his jaw. The crunch of bone echoes in the silent hall; the others stand still, watching.
"Take th' rod out of your arse, Walden," Tobias says quietly.
Macnair spits on the floor and glares at Tobias. "Fuck you."
"He's is a special one. Donn's been waiting for him." Tobias gives Macnair an even look. "If I were you, I wouldna give him a chance to slap you daft, you damned twonk." Without a glance Al's way, he disappears into the shadows along the hall.
"Fucking Muggle," Macnair mutters, rubbing his jaw. "Thinks he knows everything, the shit." He grabs Al and shoves him forward. "Walk."
Al's shoulder throbs as he staggers down the hall, followed by the others. He has the distinct feeling he's absolutely buggered.
He really wants to go home.
It's just dawn when Harry wakes, his heart pounding.
"Al," he whispers, but the dream's already fading, leaving behind only the sick, nauseous fear of a nightmare. Harry sits up, his hands shaking as he pushes the quilt down.
His clothes are on the foot of the bed, neatly folded, and he slips into them. His jumper smells faintly of lavender.
The rest of the cottage is silent, dark when he slips downstairs. He's starving; he hasn't eaten in over a day. Maybe longer. His bag hangs from a hook next to the door. Harry digs in it and pulls out a packet of cauldron cakes and a bottle of water.
It's only when he gets outside that he realises that his side doesn't hurt any longer. He lifts his jumper. The bruise is gone. Completely. He touches the pale skin gingerly. No pain.
"Well, fuck," Harry says, and then he drops his jumper and turns the corner of the cottage. He stops, blinking.
Water stretches in front of him, a small lake really, but bright and glittering in the early morning sun. Two rivers twine down from the hills in the distance, both feeding into the upper stretch of the lake, one easing into the water, the other tumbling over high rocks, forming a small waterfall. The land around the cottage is a meadow, high grass and wildflowers, with the exception of an oak tree only steps from the front door.
The tree is enormous. Gnarled roots as thick as Harry's waist dig into the ground; the trunk itself could fit five or six men plus Hagrid. The branches stretch high into the sky, the clouds hiding their tips.
"What are you staring at, boy?"
The hiss is soft, barely audible above the rustle of the leaves. Harry blinks, then sees the snake, twisted around the trunk of the tree, its scales blending into the bark. It lifts its huge head from one of the lower branches.
Harry bows, just enough to be polite. "Just admiring your home."
The serpent eyes him before settling its head on a coil draped across the branch. "It is pleasant."
"Would you mind if I join you?" Harry shifts slightly, looking up at the huge snake. It's larger even then the basilik from his third year.
The scales ripple slightly. "Do as you wish." The serpent yawns, a wide stretch of its hinged mouth. The fangs sparkle bright in the morning light; the head disappears in a thicket of leaves. They shiver, then still.
Harry sits next to one of the roots, curled against the trunk, and opens his packet of cakes. It's peaceful here, with just the soft caw of birds in the upper branches and the splash of the waterfall into the lake. The sky is pink-orange, fading into a grey-blue at the edges. The unease left by his dream starts to fade, finally. It was just a nightmare, he tells himself, brought on by his worry for Al. Nothing more.
"I see you've found Yggdrasil."
Harry looks up in surprise. The woman from the white room is standing next to him. She touches the coils of the snake gently. It hisses softly at her in welcome. "Good morning, Nidhogg," she says.
"Yggdrasil?" Harry asks.
The woman sits next to him, tucking her robe neatly beneath her legs. She holds her hand out. Harry offers her a cauldron cake. "The tree. Ratatosk's fond of its branches, at least the one Nidhogg allows him on." The serpent snorts and hisses something that sounds rather like wretched rodent. She bites into the cake, then closes her eyes as she chews. "Merlin, I've missed these."
Harry shifts. "I don't mean to be rude," he says, "but who are you?"
She laughs. "You may call me Eileen. I'm Severus's mother."
"That explains a lot," Harry says dryly.
"I would say so." Eileen settles against the tree and the snake. Her hair catches on a scale. "I like coming out here at sunrise. It's quite peaceful."
"When my sleep isn't being disturbed," Nidhogg mutters from the branches above.
They're silent for a moment. "You're awake early," Eileen says finally. "I would have thought Severus's charm would have kept you out for another hour at least."
"Is that what that was?" Harry picks a crumb of cake off his jumper. He drops it onto the ground. Within seconds ants swarm it, rolling it towards the tree root. "I thought magic didn't work here."
"Not in the way you expect it to, but there's some still that lingers." Eileen tucks a loose lock of hair behind her ear. "There's no difference between Muggle and wizard, though. Not down here. Dead is dead, and we all can touch the magic if we wish."
Harry snorts. "I bet Voldemort's narked by that."
Eileen's mouth twitches. "I would suspect so."
The leaves rustle above them. "He's here, isn't he?" Harry says finally.
With a sigh, Harry hunches his shoulders. He pulls at a thread on the hem of his jeans. They're frayed and worn and faded. He's had them since Jamie was a toddler.
Al had been a baby. Harry'd been so scared that he wouldn't love Al as much as he loved Jamie. That he couldn't because how was it even possible that he could find any more love inside of him? Jamie was his world. And then the mediwitch at Mungo's had put Al in his arms, swaddled in a thin receiving blanket, a thick thatch of messy black hair poking out from under the blue jersey. Al's eyes had been so big and such a dark, clear blue staring up at him. In that moment Harry had realised that his heart could swell, that loving Al didn't take any love away from Jamie, that it never would. They were both his. They always would be.
Al's eyes hadn't turned green until he was nearly one. His hair had never been tamed. Now it never would.
"I dreamt about him last night," Harry says quietly. He rubs his thumb over the frayed denim. "Pettigrew was there. And Macnair." He swallows, licks his bottom lip. "Voldemort's with him, isn't he?"
Eileen smiles and looks at Harry. "Did you know the branches of this tree stretch throughout the underworld? They lead to every corner, and the uppermost ones reach the world above." She peers into the densely leafed branches.
"That's not an answer."
"No," she says simply, her dark eyes on him. "It's not."
Harry pulls his knees to his chest. He takes a ragged breath. "Is this tree how you found me? In the white room?"
"Yes." She looks back at him. "Only the lower branch supports a human's weight, and it only leads to the in-between space. It's all we can reach, those of us unfortunate enough to be dead."
"Pish came to me--"
"Pish is a different matter." Eileen leans forward, rests her elbows on her knees. "He's neither part of this world or your world. He lives outside of time."
Harry furrows his brow. 'Don't tell me he's the Doctor."
Eileen laughs, a sharp, heavy bark of amusement. "I'm afraid not." A wistful look crosses her face. "My husband was fond of watching that on his television." She's silent for a moment, then she sighs. "No, Pish was given a different gift back when he was still human, a reward of sorts for service above and beyond the call of duty one might say. But that's his story to tell, not mine."
"You brought me here," Harry says quietly. "Why?"
Eileen shakes her head. "I set you on your way."
"Snape's way." The cauldron cake tastes dusty, dry. Harry swallows, then wraps the rest in the brightly printed cellophane and shoves it in his pocket. He takes a sip of water. "I don't understand why he gives a damn, you know."
"I know." Eileen is silent for a moment. She smooths her palm over the navy wool of her skirt. A small cuff of delicate lace edges her wrist, a curious, unobtrusive flounce of femininity in the plain serviceable cut of her robe. "I can assure you he does."
Harry twists his bottle of water between his hands. He scrapes his thumb over the label that swears this is the finest product the springs of
"He loved her," Eileen corrects, gently. "There's a difference."
"I don't see much of one."
Eileen smiles faintly. "Then you've never really been in love."
Harry lifts the bottle to his mouth. "Maybe you're right."
They sit silently for a long a moment, staring out over the lake. A breeze has picked up and the water ripples beneath its touch.
"I don't trust him," Harry says finally. "No offence."
Eileen looks over at him. "None taken, though I do reserve the maternal right to ask why."
Harry shrugs. "He keeps things too close, I reckon. And he's hated me since I was eleven. It doesn't make any sense why he'd keep helping me after he's dead."
"Severus is not helping you," Eileen says. Leaves rustle above them; a bird trills softly. "He's helping your son."
"But why?" Harry rests his bottle of water on his knees. He runs his thumb over the condensation. He's still confused; Snape's never made much sense to him. "There's no reason--"
"You named him," Eileen says sharply. Her mouth thins; for a moment she looks remarkably like her son. "You gave him Severus's name and therefore his protection."
Harry stares at her. "I just wanted to remember Snape--"
"And you did." Eileen brushes a stray lock of hair back behind her ear. "Severus takes that responsibility seriously. He's watched over you both for years." She looks at Harry. "He gave you his memories. He gave you himself so you could understand him, so you could know your mother. Didn't you think that meant something?"
Harry's throat tightens. He can still see the small boy on the playground, dressed in a too-large smock. "I didn't know."
"Now you do. Twenty years he's watched." Eileen stares out across the lake. "I've told him to stop, but he needs that link to the world." Small wrinkles crinkle the corners of her eyes. "He died too young."
"I know." A tiny, filthy shack. A spreading pool of thick blood, black against the dusty floorboards. Harry shudders. He still has nightmares about that night that have only been surpassed by the dreams that have haunted him since the day Al's coffin was lowered into the ground. He takes as shaky breath. This is too much. All of it. He's not supposed to be here. Al's not supposed to be here. "Voldemort," he says again. "Does he have my son?"
Eileen gives him a long look and then she stands, holds out her hand. "Severus will be awake by now, and I'm sure you're ready to be on your way."
"Yes," Harry says, and she nods. It's all the answer he needs.
He follows her back to the house, his fingers curled tight around a dead woman's palm.
They start out on foot.
By , Severus is surprised Potter hasn't complained. The boyish wiriness Severus remembers has been softened. Potter is older now, of age with Severus, with the faintest brush of grey just beginning at his temples.
Not that Potter's gone to fat, Severus admits, watching him surreptitiously. His hips are narrow, his shoulders strong, his waist only slightly thicker due to five years behind a desk and a predilection for a pint or two after work. The scar on his forehead is faint, but still hidden behind a shock of messy black hair. The black spectacles have been swapped out for more sedate wire-rimmed frames, and Potter's jaw, while still angled and sharp, is solid. Masculine.
He is most definitely no longer a boy.
Severus shifts his pack on his shoulder and frowns, displeased with the train of his thoughts. He is not a monk, nor has he ever been, no matter what his students might have thought. Nor was he required to procure all of his partners through business arrangements the way those damned Weasley twins liked to infer. He was not opposed to prostitution per se and had at times employed the services of a reputable Knockturn girl when necessary--during the school term in particular it was far easier than trolling the pubs for a suitable man or woman agreeable to a discreet one-off--but it was incredibly naïve of the fools to think that simply because they thought of him as a greasy old bastard, the entirety of the sexually active wizarding world agreed. Or Muggle world for that matter. Summer holidays at Spinner's End had provided very few opportunities to interact with wizards and witches after all.
Even dead he has managed a few partners here and there. His self-imposed isolation from Elysium makes it more difficult but not impossible. Not even death can stunt the human need for a few hours of false intimacy through the primitive, physical release of intercourse, he's found.
Severus does find it unsettling, however, that he seems to be sex-starved enough to even idly consider the possibilities of Potter as a partner. It's been too damned long…at least three Aboveworld years, he thinks, judging from what he recalls of Potter's life at the time--and it is disturbing enough that he should mark time by Potter. Severus shudders and decides to find someone in Elysium to tumble. Half an hour will be all he needs to take at least an element of the edge off. Judging from the flush of warmth that throbs through his balls at the sight of Potter's narrow hips, his masturbatory habits do not seem to have been effective enough as of late. Then again, his primary companions for the past year have been limited to a man old enough to be his hundredfold great-grandfather, a squirrel and his mother. Far from fertile elements of fantasy.
Unlike the rather intimate activities he has watched Potter indulge in both alone and accompanied over the past two decades.
He walks faster, the grasses of the meadow brushing against his shins, refusing to think either of the swell of Potter's cock or the curve of Ginny Weasley's breast. The Fields of Asphodel stretch between Tartarus and Elysium, past the Lethe and Mnemosyne to the banks of the Phlegethon in the north. Small villages have sprung up along the various rivers, clusters of the dead who have given up on the journey to the city or who, like himself, have no desire to join the teeming throngs.
"So how long will it take us to get to this place?" Potter asks from behind him.
"Elysium," Severus says, annoyed. "The city is fifty miles to the west. Given that the average idiot can walk three miles an hour, I would estimate two days if you don't dwaddle. Three at the pace you seem to be capable of."
The sun is warm on Severus's skin. The meadow route is more physically difficult than using the wide roads that twist around the curves of the piedmont, but it's quicker, Severus has found, and they're less likely to be seen. Not that Severus expects them to go unnoticed. Donn has his spies everywhere. Even among the fields.
Potter huffs and catches up with him. "And then what?"
"Then we go to your son." Severus hates stating the obvious.
Potter sighs heavily. "How do I get him home, Snape?"
"We'll have to take him from Donn's territory through that of another Tartaruan king." The meadow inclines; Severus slows slightly. "There's a bridge across the River Cocytus that leads Aboveworld. Or so they say."
"They say." Potter shifts his satchel over his hip. "You don't know?"
Severus shrugs. "Things change down here. There once was a bridge and it supposedly allowed escape from this damned hellhole. With any luck, it'll still be there."
"And if it isn't?" Potter demands.
"We'll deal with that if necessary." He glares at the idiot.
For a blessed moment, Potter remains silent. Then he pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and glances over at Severus. "Why aren't you in Elysium? If it's such a great place--"
Oh for God's sake. Severus's nostrils flare. "Frankly, my idea of paradise does not revolve around an eternity spent with Albus bloody Dumbledore or your fucking arse of a godfather."
"Sirius is there?" It appears to be the first time Potter's considered this possibility. Severus sighs. Potter looks at him eagerly. "Remus too? And Tonks?"
"Yes, and yes, although I still have no damned idea how Nymphadora can tolerate those two together."
Potter hesitates. "What about…" He bites his bottom lip and stares down at the grasses swishing past his knees.
"Your fool father is about as well. Yet another reason I stay as far away from the damned city as I'm able." Severus hesitates only a moment, going on before Potter can ask. It's difficult for him to get the words out. "And, yes, Lily."
The brightness in Potter's eyes forces him to look away. His heart clenches. He knows that look. It's the same one that was on his mother's face when he found her. The same one he knows was echoed on his own features.
"Will I get to see them?" The hesitant hope in Potters voice burns.
"I have no damned idea," Severus says shortly. With any luck, no. He doesn't want to see Lily. Albus tells him he's a fool every time, but Severus can't. Not until he's made proper amends. He thinks perhaps that might take all of eternity. It doesn't mean he misses her any less.
They've nearly reached the woods at the end of the meadow. The path grows steeper here as they enter the foothills of the
Potter stumbles, catches himself. He looks over at Severus. He's breathing hard. A trickle of sweat rolls down his temple. "So you've stuck yourself and your Mum out in the middle of nowhere just because you're still narked with my dad and Sirius?"
"And Albus." Severus stops for a moment. He wraps his arms around his chest. "Drink some water. I've no desire to throw you over my shoulder if you collapse."
"I didn't know you cared." Potter pulls a bottle of water from his bag and uncaps it. He tilts it up and swallows. Severus does his best not to notice the smooth, pale stretch of his throat. Potter lowers the bottle and wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. "Seems like a stupid reason to isolate yourself."
Severus starts walking again, slower. He pulls his own flask from his satchel and drinks from it. The water is cool against his tongue. "Perhaps," he admits after a moment. "I have my reasons." He stares up at the sky. A bird soars above them, wings outstretched.
"Why are we going now?" Potter asks. He slides the bottled water into his bag, eyeing Severus curiously. "If you hate them all that much."
"To see Albus." Severus's mouth thins. Potter doesn't notice.
"Because the bloody Headmaster requires us to, and I am utterly incapable of refusing him, it seems," Severus says bitterly. "In other words, Potter, I don't fucking know, but I do as I am told." His jaw tightens. "It's a wretched habit, I'm certain."
Potter doesn't say anything for a long moment. "You don't like him much." It's soft, a quiet statement rather than a question.
"No. I do not." The woods are cooler. The branches from the poplars arch over them, forming a dappled canopy. "I disagreed with his methods."
"We wouldn't have won the war without him." Even Potter doesn't sound convinced of that idiotic lie.
Severus whirls on him, his fists clenched in the strap of his bag. The woven cotton digs into his skin. "You won the war, Potter. You. Not Albus Percival Wolfric Brian bloody Dumbledore." He can feel the muscle in his cheek flutter. "You were a child and Albus used you. He meant for you to die, you realise."
"I know." Potter is calm, his eyes meeting Severus's. Sunlight glints off his glasses. "But I wouldn't have been able to do what I did without him." He's quiet for a moment. "Or you."
With a snort, Severus starts walking again. A twig cracks beneath his boot. "You're an idiot."
Potter doesn't answer. They walk on in silence.
"It really bothers you, doesn't it?" Harry asks much later.
They've stopped for the night, on the opposite edge of the forest, Snape's said. A fire crackles in a dirt pit Snape dug. It's not big, but it warms them enough. Snape pulls two blankets out of his satchel and tosses one at Harry. He settles on the ground, his back against a log. Dried leaves stick to his black cloak.
"I've no idea what you're on about," Snape says.
Harry sighs and wraps the blanket around his shoulders. The fire cracks and pops. "Dumbledore. And me."
Snape doesn't say anything for a moment, then he shifts and digs into his trouser pocket. He pulls out a hand-rolled cigarette and lights it with one of the strikers he'd set the fire with. He takes a long drag and breathes out, sending a thin stream of smoke into the black sky. "You were a child."
"I was seventeen," Harry points out. "How old were you when you took the Mark?"
"Seventeen," Snape says dully. He rolls the cigarette between his fingertips. "A child." He looks up. "Your oldest boy. Sixteen, yes?"
Harry pulls his knees to his chest. "Almost."
"And do you consider him an adult?" Snape lifts the cigarette to his mouth again.
"Point taken." Harry smiles faintly. "Jamie's…temperamental."
Snape blows a perfect smoke ring. It fades into the shadows above his head. "I know. Unsurprising, given his heritage."
"Do you watch him too?" Harry rubs his thumb over the rough edge of the wool blanket. "Like you do Al?"
"Sometimes." Snape taps the cigarette against his boot. Ash sifts to the ground. He raises it to his mouth and exhales Harry's way.
Harry breathes the smoke in. It's sharp and acrid and heavy and it makes Harry ache for a cig of his own. He tamps the urge down. "Do you watch me?"
Snape hesitates. "Sometimes," he says again. He looks uncomfortable. "I see through your eyes."
"Oh." Harry feels his cheeks warm. "Everything?"
"No," Snape says, somewhat too quickly, and he doesn't look at Harry. "Not everything. Only fragments." He shrugs and takes another drag off the cigarette. "Time's different Beneathworld."
"So I've been told." Harry studies him. Snape's not as terrifying as he once was, or as terrible. Harry wonders if Snape's changed that much or if he has. Perhaps, he thinks, they both have. He leans back against a tree trunk. "You know about Ginny then."
Snape shrugs. He stares into the fire.
"I tried," Harry says quietly. A log breaks in the flames and tiny orange-blue sparks drift up, then settle in the dirt. "I'm bisexual, you know. I figured that out a long time ago."
"I know. I saw." Snape takes another drag from the cigarette. "I will admit to being surprised."
Harry's mouth twists to one side. "That the Saviour of the Wizarding World got some Muggle blokes to suck him off?"
"No." Snape meets his gaze. His eyes are shadowed and dark. "That he paid them to do it and then lied to his wife. Not quite Gryffindor ideals, Potter."
"Yeah." Harry hunches into the blanket. He rubs his hand over his face, pushing his glasses up on his forehead. He'd tried so hard to resist. It'd been easy at first, when things were good between him and Gin. He'd loved her. He had, he knew that. She'd loved him. But then things had gone sour once both the boys were off at Hogwarts. Harry's throat tightens. They'd started arguing, late at night after Lily was in bed; Harry'd spent more nights sleeping downstairs on the lounge in his study than in bed with his wife. Some nights he'd stayed late at work, claimed that he needed to be in the field on an investigation. Ginny had stopped protesting after the first few times.
A year ago he'd found himself in an alley in Muggle Soho, paying a boy barely older than Jamie to suck his prick. It was the first time he'd actually been with another man. He hadn't come home until half two that night, and he'd showered the smell of the boy away before he slipped into bed with his wife. Ginny had just slid to the edge of the bed, away from his touch. In the morning, they'd gotten up and he'd gone to the Ministry, she'd taken Lily to school. They'd never talked about it. Harry doesn't think they ever will.
"I think she knew," Harry says softly.
Snape snorts. "One thing Ginevra Weasley is not is a fool."
"No. She's not." Harry settles his glasses back on his nose with a sigh.
A moment's silence, then Snape says, "She knew of your proclivities."
Harry looks at him sharply. "Yeah." He hesitates, glances away. "I knew before we were married. That I was attracted to some men. Ginny actually figured it out first. She's the one who told me I fancied Cedric. And Remus. We laughed about it. She thought it was hot." He doesn't look across the fire at his former professor. "She liked it. She used to ask me sometimes when we were walking through Diagon if I thought some bloke was interesting. It never bothered her. It…" He stares down at his hands. "She enjoyed it. A lot."
Snape raises an eyebrow. "Did you ever bring one home?"
"No!" Harry's cheeks burn. "Never that. We just…talked." But they'd definitely worked his curiosity into their sex life. The night he'd come home to his wife standing in the foyer completely naked save for a strap-on cock had been the most erotic experience of his life.
"She always knew she came first," Harry says after a moment. "That I wanted her more."
"Until you didn't." Snape grinds the cigarette against the log and flicks it into the fire.
"Yeah." Until Harry'd found that an hour in a filthy hotel room with his dick in an unknown rentboy's mouth was more exciting than fucking his wife against the headboard of their bed, her fingernails scratching his shoulders, her gasps echoing in his ear.
"Sometimes," Harry says, his voice raw, "I think Al was taken from me because of what I did to Ginny."
Snape snorts. "That's rubbish."
"That's what Hermione says." Harry still doesn't believe her. He licks his bottom lip. "But I can't help thinking if I'd been a good father, if I'd been a good husband, Al would still be alive. Heriot or no bloody heriot." He could have saved his son. He knows he could have.
The fire flickers between them, casting long shadows across Snape's face. His eyes glitter blackly in the light. "You do realise that's an entirely idiotic rationale given what you know at the moment."
"Yeah." Harry's hand shakes as he pulls the blanket tighter around his shoulders. His throat aches; he blinks back hot tears and looks away. "I'm tired," he says, and his voice is raw, rough. "I should sleep."
Snape doesn't say anything, just watches him with those curiously dark eyes.
Harry turns away from the fire, curls up beneath the blanket. He stares blankly into the dark forest. Al. Harry swallows hard. The only Ravenclaw in the family. Quiet, shy, lost in his books. The one of his children who has always secretly been Harry's favourite. Jamie is the rambunctious one, with his mother's spirit and vigor. Always in trouble, always in detention. Jamie's all Weasley through and through. Lily is Lily, bubbly and bright until her brother's death. She's subdued now, worried about her mother. But she's always been strong, Lils has. That's the thing really, Harry thinks. Jamie and Lily, they'd never needed him, not the way Al had. They knew who they were. They always had.
Albus Severus, however, had always been different. A little adrift. Harry's understood that. It's the way he was at Al's age.
Harry misses him. He'd do anything for his son. Anything.
The flames crack and pop behind him, shadows dance across his shoulder. The fire burns down to orange-black embers.
"Sleep, Potter," Snape murmurs.
Harry doesn't answer. Long after he hears Snape's steady breath, he finally closes his eyes.
It starts to rain mid-afternoon, cold, fat drops that splatter through the arched branches above and send wet leaves tumbling down on them.
Harry trudges after Snape, his shoulders slumped. He's exhausted and cold despite the blanket he's wrapped around his shoulders. His hair is soaked flat against his forehead and his glasses are so rain-spotted he can barely see out of them. He blinks rain from his eyelashes.
They've been walking for hours through the forest, nearly silent save for the few times they've been forced to converse. Harry hasn't minded. He's not been in much of a chatty mood today.
He'd barely slept and what few hours he had were haunted by dreams of Al, curled in a corner of an empty, flagstoned room, a bruise purpling his cheek.
Harry shudders. He just wants to go home now, with his son, and leave this fucking place behind. He misses his flat; he misses his job; he misses his kids. He even misses Gin.
Snape hadn't mentioned his moment of weakness last night, talking about his marriage. About sex, for God's sake. With Snape. Christ. Harry's cheeks warm. The man must have thought him mad.
He stumbles over a root and lurches forward, trying to catch his balance. His foot slips on slick pine needles, sliding into a dip in the ground. Before Harry can stop himself, he's on his back, staring up at the grey sky filtering through dark leaves. His ankle throbs.
And then Snape's squatting next to him, his hands already unlacing Harry's trainer. "Honestly, Potter," he snaps in exasperation. "If you've broken your leg…"
Snape's fingers are cool against Harry's skin. "I'm fine," Harry protests, trying to sit up. Snape just glares at him before turning his attention back to Harry's ankle. Harry winces as Snape moves his foot efficiently, one direction, then the next.
"That's painful?" Snape frowns.
"I just said ow," Harry says, not bothering to hide his irritation. His foot fucking hurts. The ground is wet and soft beneath him.
Snape presses hard against Harry's toes, pushing his foot up towards his leg. Harry hisses.
After a moment Snape sighs. "A sprain, not a break, thank God." He rocks back on his heels and scowls at Harry. "But this will slow us."
"I'm fine.." Harry sits up. He flexes his foot; his ankle protests. "How far away are we?"
Snape hesitates. "An hour or two's walk." He watches as Harry pushes himself to his feet. "You're not seriously considering going on at the moment."
Harry takes a step. Pain shoots through his shin. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," he mutters under his breath before looking up at Snape defiantly. "I'm getting my son and I'm taking him home and I don't really give a fuck whether or not it hurts to walk for another hour." He pulls the blanket back around his shoulders. "I can do it."
"You're mad." Snape watches him for a moment, then pulls his cloak hem up and takes a long, dangerously curved blade from a sheath on his belt. Since when did Severus Snape start carrying a short sword, Harry wonders. He's the presence of mind not to ask however. It doesn't seem wise to annoy a man holding a weapon.
Snape cuts a long strip from the bottom of his cloak. "Sit down, for God's sake. If you're determined to be a fool, you may as well take precautions."
It's not a request, Harry knows. He lowers himself back to the ground; Snape reaches for Harry's foot and gently removes his shoe. Harry bites his lip. Fuck.
Snape's silent as he wraps the strip of wool tightly around Harry's ankle, tying it above the edge of Harry's trainer. He slips the shoe back on and then laces it. When he's finished he looks up at Harry. "Rest for a moment," he says. "Eat something. You'll need it if you intend to go on."
Harry nods. He pulls a tin of Heinz beans from his satchel and opens it. There's no need to heat them; he's gotten used to them cold.
"An hour or so then?" Harry asks. He tries to ignore the steady ache in his foot; it doesn't work. He can feel the blood pulse angrily through his ankle.
Snape shrugs. "Thereabouts." He's pulled a bread and butter sandwich from his pack, keeping it under his cloak, away from the rain. He tears off a corner and pops it into his mouth. "I've papers for you when we arrive."
Harry lowers his spoon. "Papers?"
"Elysium is not an open city." Snape takes another bite of his sandwich. Rain rolls off the hood of his cloak. His cheeks and nose are wet. "If everyone was allowed to enter wily-nily there'd be no point in it, now would there? Anyone unable to produce papers when stopped by the Guard is brought before the judges to determine whether they are allowed to stay."
"If they're not?" Harry licks a splatter of tomato sauce from his thumb.
"One only has one opportunity to prove one is worthy to stay in the city. If that is impossible, the Tartaruan guards are called."
"What about babies?" Harry frowns. "They can't prove their worth."
"Children are exempted." Snape rolls his eyes. "Even theologians offer children a pass to eternal reward, Potter. It's merely the rest of us who wait upon another's judgment of our lives."
Harry doesn't say anything for a moment. "That's why you don't want to live there."
Snape just looks at him. It sends a chill up Harry's spine. "There are restrictions," Snape says finally, "that one agrees to in order to experience the rewards of Elysium."
A nod. Snape brushes crumbs from his hands. "Elysium residents are also required to stay within the perimeter at all times. Leaving the city without the proper Council approval forfeits one's citizenship. Returning after that would be incredibly foolish."
"You'd be sent to Tartarus," Harry says.
"At best." Snape pulls his cloak tighter around him. "At worst, death."
Harry raises his eyebrows and scrapes his spoon against the side of the tin of beans, catching the last few. "You're already dead."
"The dead can die again, Potter," Snape says, his voice weary. "Our death leads to oblivion. Nothingness. The sweet blackness of nonexistence."
"That's not fair."
Snape snorts. "Nothing in life or death is fair." He runs a hand over his face, pushing his hood back slightly. He looks tired, Harry realises. Dark circles shadow his eyes; the wrinkles at the corners are more pronounced.
And then Harry understands. "You told them to sod off, didn't you? When they offered you a chance to live there. They told you what you'd have to agree to and you said no."
Snape nods slowly, the barest tilt of his head in acknowledgment. "Albus was not best pleased."
"And you use fake papers to get back in when you need to see him."
A half-smile curves Snape's mouth. "You are not quite the fool you were as a child."
"I hope not." Harry drops the empty bean tin into his satchel. The spoon follows, clanking against it. "If they catch you…"
"Tartarus, if I'm fortunate," Snape says calmly.
Harry just looks at him.
"Pish assists," Snape says. He picks up a dead leaf and shreds it. The scraps drift back to the ground. "And Ratatosk. For different reasons, the two of them exist outside the restrictions of Elysium and Tartarus. They carry messages between Albus and myself when necessary. I prefer to remain outside of the city as much as possible obviously."
Harry pulls his glasses off and wipes them against his jumper. The rain on them just smears across the lenses. He settles them back on his nose. "But you're going back in now."
"It's a necessity." Snape stands, mouth tight. The subject is closed, Harry's quite aware. "Are you capable of walking?"
"Yeah." Harry pushes himself to his feet. He winces, but the binding around his ankle seems to help when he takes a step. He limps forward, jaw tight against the pain.
"Oh for God's sake," Snape says from behind him, and Harry finds himself pulled back, Snape's arm around his waist. "Lean on me, you idiot. The last thing you need is to wrench your ankle again."
Harry slips his arm over Snape's shoulder. The pain eases slightly as he leans against his former professor. Snape's steady, strong, his hand firm on Harry's hip as they step forward. Harry lurches against him; his stomach flops.
"Careful," Snape snaps, and his breath is warm against Harry's cheek. "I have no intention of being brought down by your clumsiness, Potter."
"Sorry," Harry mumbles. His fingers dig into Snape's shoulder as they take another step. Snape humphs, but doesn't say anything in return.
Harry swears he'll never take a healing charm for granted again.
They start down the path again.
Walking is slow and laborious.
Severus is oddly silent, only complaining when Potter stumbles into him. He insists on taking short breaks when they find an appropriate boulder or log for Potter to rest on. It is disquieting to touch Potter in this manner, he thinks.
Potter is heavier than Severus expects, and he realises there is still some part of him that expects Potter to be the too-thin boy he remembers, not a grown man a year older than him.
Severus finds that particular fact incredibly disconcerting.
Potter stumbles again; Severus catches his hip, holds him steady. "Thanks," Potter murmurs, and Severus finds himself caught by green eyes flecked with gold. Lily, he thinks, for the hundredth time, and he wonders what Potter will make of his mother.
He looks away, and his hand slips from Potter's hip to the small of his back. Potter looks oddly disappointed.
The rain stops finally, and they trudge through the forest, their feet slipping through slick leaves and thick mud. The sun has nearly set when they break through the treeline,
Potter's gasp causes Severus to smile grimly. The great city of the dead is quite a sight, especially at dusk when the lights are beginning to shine from kitchen windows and lounges, twinkling across the valley in a wide swathe of tree-lined avenues and pitched-peak houses that follows the shimmering blue curves of the River Phlegethon.
The far northern reaches of the city are built on the lower mountains of the Tartaruan range. The Scandanavians and Siberians and Swiss and Scots prefer that region with its cold, snowy ridges and houses that cling to stark cliff faces. The wide, warmer eastern and southern stretches are filled with those from southern climes. Here the flat streets are loud and bright, laughter and music spilling from the open windows of the houses that line them.
In the centre of the city is
Rhadamanthys holds power over them, ruling fairly (or it's said) with the blessing of Hades himself. Severus has always been sceptical of that claim. It's been his experience that power, without fail, corrupts, and that any individual who is responsible for determining the fate of another should be severely mistrusted.
Then again, Severus freely admits, he does have certain issues with the concept of authority figures, most certainly due to the machinations of two megalomaniacal men which resulted in his damned death, thank you very bloody much.
And he truly, truly loathes Elysium.
With a sigh, Severus digs into his satchel. He pulls out two sets of papers and hands one to Potter. "Should we be stopped," he says, "do attempt to keep your damned mouth closed."
Potter scans the documentation. "Goyle?" He wrinkles his nose. "You gave me papers for Goyle?"
Severus smirks. "Consider it prudent, Potter. You are not likely to encounter one of Gregory's relatives in this part of the underworld."
"Right." Potter rolls his eyes and tucks the papers into his jeans pocket. "Well, at least it gives me an excuse to be dumb." He hobbles a few steps, then looks back at Severus. "Well? Are you coming or not?"
"Twit," Severus mutters, glaring at him, but he helps Potter down the path towards the city.
It takes another half an hour to reach the banks of the Phlegethon. It's the easiest unobserved entrance to the city, Severus has found, though bypassing the gates involves crawling through a storm drain that empties into the river. It gives him no small amount of pleasure to hear Potter behind him, cursing under his breath.
The drain opens in an alley behind a row of shops. Severus climbs out first, then helps Potter extract himself from the narrow hole in the ground.
He emerges damp. With a glare at Severus, he pushes his hair back out of his eyes. "That was disgusting."
Severus lifts one shoulder expressively, his lip curled. "A price to be paid," he says and he leads Potter through the curving avenues, past the tall glass towers favoured by the newer Muggle residents of the city and into the old town of
Albus lives in the shadow of the castle. Severus despises the neighborhood. It's packed with wizards, old and young, and each foray into it is an exercise in caution and discretion.
He draws his hood up over his head. There's nothing to be done for Potter; his only hope is that twenty years of aging have made the boy less visible in the man. Somehow he suspects not.
Potter limps along next to him, breathing hard. Severus slows. He doesn't apologise. Potter doesn't comment. Instead he nudges his shoulder against Severus's. Severus follows his gaze.
Two of the Guard stand on the corner. They wear no insignia, only plain navy cloaks over their clothes.
"Surprisingly good eye," Severus murmurs.
Potter snorts. "I'm head of the Auror Department, Snape. I'm fairly certain I can pick out a patrol."
Severus inclines his head. Point taken.
The guardsmen catch sight of them. Severus nods. It doesn't stop them from approaching, much to his frustration.
The taller of the two eyes him. "Coming home from work?" he asks.
"Attending dinner at the home of a friend," Severus says smoothly. "Albus Dumbledore. Perhaps you've heard of him."
The guardsmen exchange glances. "Two of those lot then," the shorter says, his lip curling. "Better not touch, Dickie. Never know what the pillow-biters been up to."
Dickie draws back, his distaste written clearly on his face. He hesitates.
Severus sees their opportunity. He slides his arm around Potter's waist and pulls him close, willing the idiot to go along. Potter tenses at first, then relaxes against him. "We've papers in order," Severus drawls, leaning his head against Potter's. "If you care to see them."
He moves to draw his out of his satchel; Dickie holds up his hand. "No worries. Get on with yourselves then."
Fucking poofters, Severus hears him whisper as they walk away. He keeps his grip on Potter's waist until they turn the corner.
"What the hell was that about?" Potter says as soon as Severus drops his arm.
"Two men terrified we were about to bugger their arses, I do believe."
"I got that," Potter says, his nostrils flaring. "But Dumbledore?"
Severus stares at him for a moment then throws his head back with a roar of laughter. Potter looks at him, perplexed.
"Oh, please, Potter," Severus says after a moment. "It's not as if the old bastard ever tried to hide it. Purple robes indeed."
The furrow in Potter's brow deepens. Severus rolls his eyes. "Albus is a flaming poof. Always has been and the idiot never cared what others thought. Why on earth do you think Fudge loathed him so much?" He shakes his head. "Do believe me when I say he's quite well known for certain indulgences now that he's dead. Everyone in this damned quarter knows of his proclivities."
"Oh," Potter says. His face flushes. "I didn't know--"
"That you were naming your son after a flaming queer?" Severus raises an eyebrow.
Potter's mouth twists to one side. "That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Good." Severus studies him for a long moment. What the hell. He crosses his arms over his chest and glares at Potter. "Because in actuality you named him after two."
It takes a moment for the shoe to drop, then Potter's eyes widen. He blinks behind his smudged glasses. "I thought you--" He breaks off, licks his bottom lip. "You and my mum…you told Dumbledore you loved…"
Severus snorts. "Oh, for God's sake, you twat. There are different kinds of … " The word chokes in his throat. "Of that."
Potter doesn't look convinced. Severus brushes past him. "Follow me," he snaps. He doesn't wait for Potter; instead he turns down a narrow alleyway. He can hear Potter stumbling behind him to catch up, swearing beneath his breath. Severus just smiles thinly. Serves the wretch right.
The last time he's been through these streets was a decade ago in Aboveworld time. It feels like yesterday. He recognises the twists and turns of the alley, the brightly coloured doors set into dark stone facades.
Albus's arched doorway is Gryffindor crimson, the knocker and knob a polished brass that gleams in the lamplight. At least the bastard has had the decency to forgo the cliché of a lion's head, Severus thinks uncharitably as he drops the heavy knocker against the wood hard enough to mark the paint beneath.
The door jerks open before Severus can drop his hand.
"Where is he, you bastard?" Black roars, and he pushes Severus out of the way to lurch towards his godson, arms outstretched.
Potter stands still, his eyes wide. "Sirius," he breathes, and Severus tamps down a surge of infuriated irritation as Black envelopes Potter in far too enthusiastic an embrace for a godfather, in Severus's damned opinion.
"No need to look so sour, Severus, lad," Albus says from behind him, and Severus turns his glare on his former mentor.
"Had I been aware that Black was to be waiting," he begins, but Albus waves him silent, his eyes twinkling over the rims of his spectacles.
"Don't deny the boy his welcome," Albus says. "There are others inside waiting for him as well."
Severus's heart drops. He meets Albus's even gaze. "You didn't."
"Oh, he did," a voice pipes up. Ratatosk leaps on Albus's shoulder. "I told him you'd shout, though. Fair warning and all."
Albus chuckles. "Indeed." He strokes the squirrel's tail.
"What are you doing here?" Severus asks Ratatosk, eyes narrowed. He ignores Potter and Black behind him.
The squirrel rubs a paw across his nose and sniffs. "Pish sent me. He says you're to meet him outside the city in the morning. He'll have horses for you both, and information too."
"I had wished to leave tonight." Severus presses his lips together, annoyed. It's a lie, but the last thing in the world he wants is to be forced to endure the Potter family reunion he's quite certain Albus has set up, damn the sentimental old fool.
Albus touches his arm. "You'll need food and rest, Severus," he says gently, and Severus knows he's right. He doesn't have to like that fact though.
Potter turns to Albus, his face alight. Black's arm is draped over his shoulder. Severus has a distinct urge to knock it away. "Sir," he says and Albus beams at him.
"It's been far too long, Mr Potter." Albus squeezes Potter's hand. "And I do believe there are some people sitting in my lounge who are quite eager to see you again."
Black brushes past Severus as they enter the house. "Snivellus," he says, his lip curled. Severus narrows his eyes at the bastard, but keeps his tongue. A house filled with Gryffindors is not the safest environment for him to indulge his fantasies of kicking Black's face into a pulpy mess of blood and bone.
They've barely stepped foot in the parlour when a blur of blue wool and red hair launches from the sofa across the room with a cry of Harry.
Severus watches Potter's face closely as he sees his mother for the first time in decades. Lily doesn't even notice him standing by the doorway; her eyes are only for her son. She barely comes up to Potter's shoulder, and Severus is struck again by how very young she looks. She's forever caught at twenty-one.
The same realisation is dawning on Potter, he can tell. Potter studies his mother's face for a long moment before he asks, almost hesitantly, his voice cracking, "Mum?"
And then Lily has her arms around him, pulling him close. Tears stream down her face; her fingers stroke lightly through Potter's greying hair. "Harry," she whispers. "My Harry."
Severus's throat tightens.
He looks away.
Harry sits on a sofa in Dumbledore's blazing hot parlour, flanked on both sides by his parents. His hands are still shaking.
They were all there. Sirius. His mum. Remus. Tonks. His dad.
He'd still had his arms around his mother when he'd looked across the room, seen a man--a boy, really, barely older than Harry's own sons--standing, his hands in his pockets, watching him quietly. It'd been like looking into a mirror, and his mother had pulled back with a laugh and turned to the man, holding one hand out and saying, "James, come here."
James Potter had been hesitant, studying Harry carefully as he walked across the room, and Harry couldn't blame him. It'd been strange, seeing his father and his mother, realizing how young they were. They'd been five years older than Jamie when they'd died. He was old enough to be their father, not their son.
But when his father had caught his hand, Harry was eleven again, staring into the Mirror of Erised, wanting so badly to see his mum and dad on either side of him. And then Remus was there, and Tonks with him, asking about Teddy, if he was well, and Harry found himself telling them about his godson and how he was working for George now, testing charms and spells, and they'd all thought he'd settle down with Bill's Victoire, until she decided to break it off so she could accept an apprenticeship with an ancient runes specialist in Quebec which had nearly broken Teddy's heart until he'd taken up with Lee Jordan's daughter who'd just left Hogwarts.
Dumbledore had opened a bottle of wine and brought out sandwiches that everyone but Harry devoured, and for the first time in over twenty years, Harry was surrounded by the first family he'd known.
It made his chest ache.
And now they sit quietly around him, watching Dumbledore as he takes his seat next to the fire. Lily clutches Harry's hand tightly between hers.
"This is ridiculous," Snape snaps. He's leaning against a wall, half-covered in shadows, his arms across his chest. He's barely said a word since they entered the house; he's just stared at Lily who studiously ignores him. Harry feels a stab of annoyance twist through him at his mother's snub of her old friend. "There's no need for all of these idiots to be here," Snape continues. He curls his lip at James and Harry's moment of irritation on his behalf dissipates.
James casually flips two fingers towards Snape. "Drop it, Snivellus. This isn't your family in trouble."
Harry frowns at his father.
"James," Lily says quietly, still not looking Snape's direction. "Stop."
"What?" James shoots a bitter glance at Snape. "He's brought Harry to us; he can sod off now and we'll take care of the rest, right, lads?" He grins at Sirius and Remus. "Nothing a bit of Marauder savvy can't fix, I say--"
"Here, here," Sirius shouts from the armchair he's sprawled across, dirty boots and all. He raises a half-empty wine glass. "Up Gryffindor!"
Snape's nostrils flare. "Oh, really," he sneers. "Do tell how you intend to leave the city and return undetected? Not that I give a bloody damn if the lot of you are caught and thrown into oblivion for eternity." He pauses, thoughtful. "A cheerful prospect, actually. For me at least."
"Fuck off, Snape," James says pleasantly at the same time that Remus sighs and says Jamie. James looks at him. "It's true, Moony. We could help--"
Remus shakes his head. "Snape's right." His fingers slip through Tonks's. "We're caught and we're buggered."
"You're not afraid, Moony." Sirius leans forward, a furrow pulling his eyebrows together. He twists his wine glass between his fingers. "We've been through this--"
"Stop." Dumbledore steeples his fingers and presses them to his mouth. He eyes them all. After a long moment, he sighs. "Severus is correct. Your positions in Elysium would make it very difficult for you to easily slip out and the Council would take days to agree to your passage papers."
Tonks tugs on a lock of bright pink hair. "But we could." Snape snorts and rolls his eyes. Everyone ignores him but Harry. He glances away at Harry's long look, his arms tightening around himself.
"You could," Dumbledore agrees. His eyes fall on Harry. "Your opinion?" he asks lightly.
Harry licks his bottom lip and pulls away from his mother. He rests his elbows on his knees, laces his fingers together. He stares down at them for a long moment. "It doesn't make sense," he says finally. "It'd be too big of a group; we'd lose the element of surprise." He looks at Snape again. "How difficult is it to get into Duinn?"
Snape seems taken aback. He hesitates. "It's well guarded from what I know. It'd be impossible to enter through customary ways."
"Which means?" Harry asks, holding Snape's gaze.
"It would be easier to enter at an unguarded point." Snape's eyes are dark, unreadable. "I would suggest making use of the sewage system."
"You would," Sirius mutters under his breath. He's ignored.
Harry nods. "I'd have to see castle schematics to agree completely but I think it's a sound offence." He looks back at Dumbledore. "Doing something along those lines would require a smaller party."
"So what does that mean?" James demands. His mouth turns down at the corners. "Are you telling me I can't go after my own grandson?"
Harry hesitates for a moment. "Yeah," he says finally. He can't look at his father. "I think it'd be best if just Snape and I went. We can get in easier, we don't have to worry about punishment--"
"You don't," Snape says dryly.
Harry gives him a steady look. "Are you worried?"
One corner of Snape's mouth tilts. "No."
"I didn't think so." Harry looks back at Dumbledore. "Strategically speaking, it's better if it's just the two of us. It's the way Ron and I used to do things, when we were partners on the Auror force. It was more efficient with just two. And backup if we needed."
Tonks nods. "Harry's right, sir," she says to Dumbledore. "Hestia and I did the same."
"Traitor," Sirius snaps at his cousin. He turns to Dumbledore. "You're not seriously thinking about this. We're supposed to trust Snivellus to rescue Al?"
"Sirius." There's a note of warning in Dumbledore's voice that causes Sirius to fall silent. Dumbledore ponders for a moment. "You're certain of this, Harry?"
"Yes," Harry says evenly. He's come this far with Snape. He knows he can trust him. He's no doubt of that now. He can put his son's life in Snape's hands.
Dumbledore nods slowly. "I concur."
There's an outcry from James and Sirius. Dumbledore holds up his hand; they fall silent. "Harry, Severus, come with me." He pushes himself out of his chair. "I wish to speak with you alone."
He leads them into a room up the stairs and down a corridor, filled with books from floor to ceiling. "Sit," he says, motioning to two wide leather chairs across from a desk.
Harry takes a seat, curious. Severus follows him.
Dumbledore leans against the corner of the desk. "How much has Severus told you about your son's capture?"
"Only that he was taken by someone named Donn as a tribute." Harry shifts uneasily in his chair. The leather creaks softly beneath his thighs. "Why?"
"He knows what you requested he know," Snape says stiffly to Dumbledore. "The rest I left for you. As you wished."
Harry narrows his eyes at Snape. "You didn't tell me everything?" Snape doesn't look at him. Harry turns back to Dumbledore. "What aren't you telling me?" He tenses in his chair. "It's Voldemort, isn't it? I saw Pettigrew and Al in a dream--"
Dumbledore's eyes widen slightly. It's only a brief flicker of interest, but Harry recognises it even after all these years. His mouth tightens.
"A dream," Dumbledore says lightly.
Snape glares at him. "You never mentioned that to me."
Harry shrugs, almost petulantly. "I don't have to tell you everything. And it's not like you've been completely up front with me either, it seems."
Snape leans back, his fingers drumming against the worn leather of the chair arms. "You're dreaming of His Lordship."
"No." Harry's jaw tightens. "I said I dreamt about Pettigrew. I…" He trails off, not certain how to explain it. "I've had dreams since Al died. At first I didn't think anything about them. I thought it was just guilt, right?" He twists his thumb in the hem of his jumper, staring down at it. "For weeks after we buried him, I dreamt he was wandering. Alone." He laughs bitterly. "I thought it was just my guilt, but I guess I wasn't exactly wrong. And then…" Harry trails off, staring blindly at the rows of books lining the walls. He's almost positive he sees Hermione's edition of Hogwarts: A History on one of the shelves, but that would be impossible. He thinks.
"And then?" Dumbledore repeats.
Harry runs his hand through his hair. "And then, when Pish came for me…he said there was something I should see." He looks up at Dumbledore, his brows drawn together. His head aches. "He touched me and the next thing I knew, I saw Al. Next to the cliffs."
Dumbledore exchanges a long glance with Snape. "And you've seen your son in dreams since."
"Only a few times." Harry tugs at his fringe. "Once with some men, traveling, then another when he was brought to a castle. Pettigrew was there. And Macnair." He chews his lip. Panic rises in him again at the thought of those bastards anywhere near his son. He tamps down the urge to do something. Years of Auror training have taught him that planning is better than reckless action. It's a lesson that Ron still struggles with; it's what pulled them apart as partners, what had caused Harry to rise in the ranks. As good as Ron was as at his job he'd never learned that sometimes running into situations half-cocked got Aurors killed.
Harry tries to remind himself of this now. They'll use Al against him, he knows. The shits aren't stupid. Calm, Potter. That's how you'll get him back. Calm. Think. Plan, damn it.
"Were there other times?" Snape asks. His legs are crossed; he leans back in his chair with a casualness that Harry's aware is far too studied.
"Nothing significant," Harry says. Snape's fingers twist in the sleeve of his shirt. His tension is palpable. Even Harry's not obtuse enough to not realise what he's thinking. Voldemort. "The last one was just Al. Trying to sleep on the floor of a…" His voice cracks. "A cell of sorts."
Snape's hand stills. "No one else was around?"
"No." Harry shakes his head. "Why am I dreaming about Al?"
"You have a connection with your son," Snape says in exasperation. "Obviously. Pish allowed you to deepen it in order to see him Beneathworld and it has continued."
Harry doesn't say anything for a moment. "What's happening to my son? What are they going to do to him?"
Another glance between Snape and Dumbledore. Harry was starting to get annoyed. "What?" he snaps.
"You need to tell him," Snape says, his eyes fixed on Dumbledore. "He deserves to know everything."
Dumbledore sighs. The firelight from the hearth flickers across his face; he looks old and frail.
"Tell me what?" Harry leans forward. His fingers dig into the chair arms.
"He's met the Tartaruans already." Snape's voice is quiet, even. "Tell him. This isn't one of your games, old man. I did as you asked. I brought him to you. If you don't tell him I will."
A moment's silence passes. Harry looks between the two men, staring each other down, one angry, one resigned. Dumbledore looks away first. He draws a shaky breath.
"I do believe I need a whisky," Dumbledore says. He moves to a sidebar and pulls out a crystal decanter. "Severus?" Snape shakes his head, and Dumbledore turns to Harry with an apologetic smile. "Do forgive me, my boy. I would offer you some, but given the restrictions on what you may imbibe here…"
"It's fine," Harry says tightly.
Dumbledore pours a glass with unsteady hands. Drops of whisky spatter across the polished mahogany. He turns, taking a sip, and leans against the sideboard. Harry waits for him to speak.
"I knew of the heriot before my death," Dumbledore says finally. "There were papers in the Hogwarts library that documented Ignatius's work. Restricted Section, of course, in tomes that not even Miss Granger would have found of interest."
"You didn't tell them?" Harry's jaw tightens. "Ginny--"
Dumbledore looks at him then. His eyes are oddly hard. "What could they have done, Harry? Once Ginevra Weasley was born there was nothing to be done. And given the solidity of Ignatius's research, I had no reason to suspect before the happy event of her birth there would be any need for concern. Afterwards…" He sighs. "I sincerely hoped Miss Weasley would be childless."
"But she and I--"
"Many Hogwarts romances end with seventh year." Dumbledore lifts his glass to his mouth. "And I had no assurance you would live past yours."
Harry's stomach twists at Dumbledore's calm manner. "You could have told me that night. In the white room."
Dumbledore's eyes soften. "There were other things to discuss, as I recall." He twists his glass between his palms. "I knew that I would do what I could from this side of the veil. And when I spoke to Severus after his arrival, he agreed to help."
Harry glances at Snape; his former professor stares silently into the fire, his knuckles pressed to his mouth.
"This isn't just about Al dying, is it?" Harry asks quietly. "Something's going to happen to him."
"Yes." Dumbledore sets his glass down. "There is a cauldron that resides in Diunn. It is filled with water drawn from the five primary rivers of the underworld, from the
A lock of lank hair falls across Snape's cheek. He pushes it back with a sigh and a glare at Dumbledore. "The cauldron is called Souleater," he says. "New souls, fresh ones, recently crossed and denied entrance into Elysium, are given to Donn to be boiled in the waters. The result is the Tartaruan guard."
Harry breathes out slowly. "And they have my son."
"Yes." Snape meets Harry's gaze. "He was marked by the heriot. They took him as soon as he entered."
"They haven't--" Harry can't bring himself to say it. "He's still himself. Not…" He can still remember the rancid breath of the Tartaruan on the boat, the muffled plea to be helped. His throat tightens. Not his son. No.
"He may never be turned," Snape says. "Donn allows each man and woman given to him to prove themselves, usually in combat or by some sort of service. If they do so, he spares them and gives them rank as a lieutenant in his guard." He hesitates. Dumbledore touches his shoulder; Snape pulls away. "My father was one who survived." He looks away. "I'll take that whisky now, Albus."
"Your father." Harry feels as if he's been turned inside-out. He won't let this happen to Al. He won't.
"Tobias has been looking after young Albus Severus since his arrival. Keeping him safe." Dumbledore pours another glass. A drop of whisky rolls down the side, catching on the curve of his thumb. He hands it to Snape.
Harry frowns and turns to Snape. "I thought you hated your dad."
Snape's mouth thins. "I do." He lifts the glass of whisky and drains it.
"So they want to turn Al into one of those…" Harry's stomach twists. "Things."
Dumbledore and Snape exchange a long look. Harry's breath catches. No. No, no, no, no, no.
"What are they going to do to my son?" he demands.
"We have reason to think the Dark Lord wishes to use Albus Severus," Snape says tersely. He sets his glass on the small mahogany table between his chair and Harry's.
Harry stares at him in horror. "Use him how?"
"To return Aboveworld," Dumbledore says gently. "It seems he's convinced Donn to indulge him in his quest once he discovered the connection between the Donn and the Weasley family and by extent, yourself."
"Which is why we need to get to your damned son before His Lordship implements whatever idiotic scheme he's devised this go 'round," Snape snaps. His fingers go to the scar on his neck. "I should rather not have my utterly useless death be entirely for naught."
"When?" Harry shouts, jumping to his feet. Furious, he reaches blindly for Snape's glass. Before he can stop himself he's thrown it across the room. It shatters satisfyingly against a bookcase, scattering glittering shards across polished wood planks and soft carpets. He clenches his fists at his sides, breathing hard.
The room is silent.
"When?" Harry asks again, and his voice is quieter.
"Pish will have that information for us tomorrow," Snape says. He pushes himself out of his chair and moves towards Harry. He stops half a foot away, his eyes dark and intense.
Harry can almost feel him. He wraps his arms around his chest, his fingers digging into his elbows. Calm, he tells himself. You have to know what you're up against. Emotion will just cause you to make mistakes, and that won't help Al.
Harry turns. Snape's watching him, his eyes inscrutable. "You trust your father to keep him safe."
Snape hesitates, then nods.
"I want to leave early in the morning," Harry says. "I'm not fucking around with Al's life."
"Agreed." Snape leans against the desk. "Albus?"
Dumbledore is across the room, kneeling before a chest. He lifts a long object wrapped in black velvet from it, then stands, turning towards them. He holds it out to Harry.
It's heavy in Harry's hand; he unwraps the velvet carefully to reveal a sword, the hilt adorned with stones so dark they look like onyx in the shadows. Only when the firelight hits them does Harry realise they're emeralds. Harry pulls the sword out slightly from the silver scabbard. The steel glows, pulsing with light as if it's alive.
"I left you Gryffindor's sword, when I died," Dumbledore says. "It's only right you should wield the father."
"Nuada's sword," Snape breathes, staring hungrily at it. He moves to touch it, then drops his hand. "I've been waiting to see it."
"Who's Nuada?" Harry asks. The sword feels odd against his palm.
"A high king," Snape says, distracted by the gleam of the steel. "A wizard, long before the four founders, or Merlin for that matter. The sword is legendary. Claíomh Solais. The Sword of Light. It's one of the four treasures of
Harry looks at Dumbledore, his eyes narrowed. "You didn't just find it lying about."
"No," Dumbeldore says evenly. "I did not."
Snape presses his lips together and snorts.
Harry sits down again, the sword over his knees. The worn leather belt flops across his feet. "How's this going to help me get Al?"
" You can't go against the Tartaruans unarmed," Snape says. He turns to Dumbledore. "Pish was arranging weapons."
"And they will be needed still, I am sure." Dumbledore sits behind his desk and leans forward. "We can't have you defenceless. Beneathworld magic will only go so far."
Snape grunts. "And that--" he points towards the sword "--is overkill."
"Not for what Harry will face," Dumbledore says. "Or you for that matter, Severus."
There's a long pause. The fire crackles and pops in the hearth. Harry can hear Sirius's laugh booming down the hallway from the front parlour. "What does that mean?" he asks finally.
Snape's face is impassive. "It means there's something the old bastard isn't telling us."
Dumbledore rubs the bridge of his nose, pressing his spectacles to his forehead for a moment before they slide back down. He looks tired, drawn. "There are forces at work--"
"Don't give me that shite," Snape says tightly. "Tell us, Albus."
With a sigh, Dumbledore splays his hands against the desk blotter. He studies them, rubs his thumb against the blotter paper. "Donn has overstepped his bounds. There are those individuals," he says carefully, "who are unhappy with this state of affairs."
"The Council," Snape says after a moment.
Dumbledore tilts his head. "A majority wishes him removed."
"Removed." Snape snorts. "Sent to oblivion more like it and they're too damned afraid to do it themselves."
"Is this because of Al?" Harry's fingers tighten on the sword hilt.
"No." Dumbledore looks apologetic. "The heroit is a factor, I suppose, but it is far more disturbing that Donn has begun to amass a force of Tartaruans at Diunn." He sighs and plays with one of the braids in his beard. "Given that this is a recent occurrence I daresay he has been, shall we say, encouraged to do so."
Snape runs a hand over his face. "The Dark Lord. I do loathe him."
"Yes." Dumbledore glances at Harry, his eyes sad and tired. "I'm afraid you've no choice but to face him again. I'm sorry."
Harry leans back in his chair with a sigh.
Bollocks, shit, and bloody fucking hell.
"I need to talk to you."
Lily grabs Severus's arm and pulls him into a shadowed corner of the hall. Potter and Albus continue on to the parlour, seemingly unaware of his abduction until Dumbledore turns with a questioning Severus?
"A moment," Severus says, and Albus nods, his hand on Potter's elbow. Potter looks at Severus and his mother curiously, but doesn't protest. He limps down the hallway slowly.
Severus eyes Lily. "What?'
"Don't even start with me." Lily's green eyes, so bloody like her son's, narrow up at him. "I'm not a tit, you know."
"Oh, for God's sake." Severus slumps against the wall. "I never said you were."
Lily leans next to him. "Are you angry with me? Is that why you've never bothered to come back?"
"No." Severus stares at the painting hanging on the wall across from them. A tiny woman in a Victorian dress strolls through a field of poppies. Severus thinks she's Albus's mother. "I don't particularly want to do this."
"You never do." Lily smiles faintly. "Was it James then?'
Severus shrugs. He doesn't need to answer. His hatred towards Potter the Elder still simmers beneath the surface. Fucking sodding prat.
Lily sighs. She leans her head against his shoulder. He should make her move; he should step away. He knows this. "I love him."
"I know." He tenses. "It was a long time ago."
"You're still holding on to it." She raises her head. Her hair is so red, he thinks. The way it was when they were children. That's the first thing he'd noticed about her. Those flaming, shining locks. She'd looked so damn alive. "Do you still love me?"
It takes him a moment to answer. He looks at her thoughtfully. She's so young. He can barely remember how it felt to be twenty-one. All he recalls is the terror, the fear. The sinking realisation that he'd ballsed up his whole bloody life. "Not the way I did when I was sixteen, no."
Her smile is bright. "I know." She settles back against the wall, her shoulder pressed against his arm. "But you love me."
"You were my best friend." Severus feels out of control. Lily's always done this to him, forced him into admissions that make him uncomfortable. It's one of the things he's hated and adored her for over the years.
"I still am," she says gently. "I was even after I walked away from you."
Severus licks his bottom lip. "I was wrong. With that. I tried to tell you--"
"And I tried to tell you about Mulciber and the others." Lily tucks her hair behind one ear and frowns at him.
"I should have listened," Severus admits. There are so many things he would change if he could. That moment, hanging there, humiliated in front of the whole damned school, spitting out the worst epithet he could think of towards his best friend just because of the way James fucking Potter looked at her…. His throat aches. He wonders if it would have made a difference. If he would have taken a different path. He really doesn't know.
Lily's fingers curl around his. "I forgave you a long time ago, you know. Before I died even."
Severus doesn't pull his hand away. "I know. I never doubted you did."
"You couldn't forgive yourself."
"Really stupid of you."
"Yes." Severus closes his eyes and rests his head against the wall. He's so damned bloody tired of Potters. They exhaust him. He can't fucking think around them; he doesn't know what's up and what's down any longer. He sighs. "I couldn't, Lil. You died."
A moment's silence, then she squeezes his hand. "Severus Snape," she says, and a trace of the
She touches his cheek; her breath is a warm huff across his cheek. She smells like roses, the way she always did. "I saw the way you watched my son," she whispers in his ear. Severus huffs in annoyance, and she laughs softly. "I always knew you went both ways. Mulciber's arse was quite the draw, really. I was a bit jealous."
Severus snorts, half-amused. "You're a wretched liar."
"Maybe. As for Harry, well, I think I approve." Lily hesitates. "But don't fuck around with him, Sev, like you did with me." Her lips are soft against his.
When he opens his eyes, she's gone.
Pish meets them outside the city on the banks of the river. Two horses wait beside him, one pawing the soft green grass impatiently.
Horses. Great. Harry eyes the creatures dubiously. He's never ridden anything that wasn't mostly broomstick before. He rubs his eyes and sighs.
He's exhausted. He'd stayed up until half four, talking to his mother and his father and Remus and Sirius and Tonks. Snape had disappeared up the stairs not long after , a bottle of whisky in his hand. Harry's gaze slides over to the man next to him. Snape looks as if he'd downed half the bottle, his hair rumpled, his eyes bloodshot.
Pish frowns at Snape. "You look like hell, lad."
"How very fitting," Snape mutters. He presses a hand to his temple.
"Put you in the right mindset at least." Pish hands them both red cloaks. The wool is heavy and soft in Harry's fingers. "You'll need these. Nicked 'em off a couple of Tartaruan lieutenants on the way here. Better they think you two of theirs."
Snape draws a cloak over his shoulders and fastens it. "What have you learned?"
"Spoke to your da," Pish says. He strokes the mane of one of the horses. It snuffles and butts its head against Pish's hand. "Don't like to talk much, that one. Bit like you, really."
The glare Snape gives him would have frozen a student in his tracks, Harry knows. It doesn't phase Pish. He grins, his teeth flashing brightly in his beard. "The boy's safe still, but they're looking for his father." He nods towards Harry. "Donn knows you're here."
Snape's eyebrows draw together. "My father didn't betray--"
"No." Pish touches his shoulder briefly, then drops his hand. "I reckon the guards what chased us down the river made it back to Duinn." He eyes Snape. "You'll need to be careful. I'm surprised you got through the woods as it is."
Harry shifts from one foot to the other. The bandage wrapped tightly around his ankle rubs against the top of his trainer. The ankle still hurts, though it's faded to a dull throb at the moment. Harry ignores it as best he can; he's had worse injuries in the field, after all. He wraps the cloak around his shoulders. It falls almost to his feet, hiding his jumper and jeans.
Snape shakes his head. "He's playing at something. They all are." His mouth turns down. "The Council intends to use this to remove Donn. Albus approves, of course. Damned fool."
"That's not what he said." At Snape's pursed mouth, Harry sighs. He's not entirely certain that Snape's bitterness isn't justified. Still he feels the need to defend Dumbledore. "He never said that we were going to have to…" He hesitates. "Remove the bastard." Nuada's sword clanks against his thigh softly. His mum had strapped it on him before he'd left, leaning up to kiss his cheek. It feels heavy and strange hanging from his hip. He'd rather have his wand, all said and told.
"It was the implication, Potter." The exasperated, mocking tone Snape uses flashes Harry back to his first Potions class. He bristles; his jaw clenches. "Why the hell do you think he gave you the damned sword? I can assure you it's not to protect either me or yourself."
Harry and Snape stare each other down.
"He's using you again," Snape says softly. "And your son."
Harry looks away. There's a part of him that knows Snape is right, and he hates it.
Pish crosses his arms over his chest with a sigh. The wool of his coat pulls tight over his shoulders; the lines in his forehead deepen. "The Council don't take a step like removing Donn lightly. You're sure?"
"I've known Albus Dumbledore nearly my entire life." Snape takes the reins of one of the horses. "Show him the sword, Potter."
Harry's hand rests on the hilt of the sword. He looks between the two men, at Snape's tight frown and Pish's curious, raised eyebrows. With a sigh, he pulls the sword from the scabbard. It glows even in the sunlight.
"Claíomh Solais," Pish breathes, his eyes widening.
"Yes." Snape exchanges a long, pointed look with him. He swings into the saddle with a fluid grace that makes his cloak ripple about him. The horse whinnies softly and takes two steps back as Snape settles himself. "I trust you take my point now."
"Aye." Pish strokes his beard; Harry sheathes the sword again. "Your da says he's been using the cauldron more lately. Catching folks before they reach Elysium even. Building up his force. You think he knows?"
"He'd be a fool not to." Snape pulls at the reins; his horse stills. "And unfortunately, mad though Donn may be, he is not a fool." He looks at Harry. "Mount."
Harry eyes the other horse. He licks his bottom lip. "Are you sure a broom wouldn't work?"
"Positive." Snape's mouth twitches. "Get on the damned horse, Potter."
Harry moves towards the horse. It huffs at him, baring rather large teeth. Harry takes a step back, out of biting range. "Yeah. Not entirely comfortable with that idea."
"Oh, for God's sake." Snape's horse tosses his head and whinnies at the sharp tone. "Help him, Pish."
Pish chuckles at Harry's discomfort. "Come on, lad." He holds the horse still. "Foot in the stirrup--not your left, you'll end up backwards."
Harry holds onto the pommel of the saddle and pushes himself up, his trainer slipping on the stirrup. His ankle protests. "Ow." Pish catches his hips, pushes him up. Harry swings his leg over the back of the horse and pulls his cloak out of the way, tossing the hem over his shoulder. The saddle's only slightly more comfortable than a broom. "How's that?"
"Not bad." Pish grins up at him. "Hold the reins loose until you're ready to stop him and you'll be fine."
Right. Harry's pretty sure that's a lie. "Aren't you coming with us?"
Pish shakes his head. "Think I'll talk to a few people I know around the edges of the Council." He looks over at Snape. "See what I might hear that could be a bit of help to you two."
"A wise idea." The wind catches Snape's hair, lifting it. He looks strangely commanding on the horse, Harry thinks. Like some sort of ancient king, almost. His cheeks warm. Christ, being down here's got him fanciful, although he supposes it's hard not to be when you've a sword hanging from the beltloops of your jeans. He pushes it out of the way; the scabbard bumps against the horse's flank. The horse turns his head, eyeing Harry for a moment before looking away.
"Sorry," he mumurs, stroking the horse's mane. It's oddly rough against his palm. The horse feels strange between his thighs. He shifts on the saddle.
"Send Ratatosk if you discover anything," Snape says to Pish and the other man nods.
"Watch yourself." Worry creases Pish's forehead. "There were more Tartaruans out on the roads than I'd have liked coming from Diunn."
Snape presses his heels to the sides of his horse; it begins to walk. "I'd be more concerned for Potter than for me, if I were you. He always was a reckless fool."
"Hey!" Indignation floods Harry.
Pish just laughs. "Best keep up with him, lad." He slaps the flank of Harry's horse. It starts moving at a loping canter after Snape. Harry holds on for dear life.
Al had damn well better appreciate this, he thinks.
They've been riding for hours, following the curves of the River Phlegethon deeper into the mountains.
Harry's finally caught the rhythm of riding. It's not so different from flying. The whole goal of both is to hold on to whatever's moving between your legs, which is a thought that reminds him of sex which in turn isn't particularly something he wants to consider while riding a horse. Ginny always claimed he had a perverted streak, but Harry's pretty damn certain it doesn't go that far.
He glances over at Snape. Even as long as they've been riding, the other man still sits straight in his saddle, his body swaying with the movements of the horse beneath him.
They've barely spoken since leaving Pish behind; Snape's been lost in his own thoughts. Harry has his suspicions about what they are. He saw Snape watching his mother this morning surreptiously, a shuttered expression on his face.
For some reason it annoys Harry. It's always been about his mother for Snape. He's known that from the time he saw Snape's memories, from the time he watched Snape's face when Dumbledore asked him if he was in love with Lily Evans after all these years.
"Do you still want her?" It comes out before Harry can stop himself. He watches in horror as Snape turns in his saddle, his face studiedly blank.
"I beg your pardon?"
Harry's face burns. "Forget it."
Snape watches him for a long moment. "I assume you refer to your mother."
A shrug. Harry doesn't look at him. "I guess." He wraps the reins around his hands, his thumb rubbing the thick leather strap. "I saw you watching her."
"I see." Snape guides his horse around a large boulder. Harry follows. The terrain has given way to rocky soil and scattered poplars. "You do realise it's none of your damned business."
"She's my mum." At Snape's raised eyebrow, Harry sighs. "I said forget it."
The horse's hooves echo in the silence, a steady clip-clop over the stony path. Finally Snape sighs.
"I prefer men, as I do believe I've mentioned before."
Harry looks at him out of the corner of his eye. "So?"
Snape's mouth thins. "Only you could be thick enough not to understand that particular statement, Potter. Allow me to make it clearer. I like pricks."
"So do I." Harry shrugs his shoulders. "I was still married for twenty years and slept with my wife pretty damn regularly. There's such a thing as bisexuality. So yeah, I think you're full of shit when you imply that you couldn't have loved my mum in that way because you'd rather shag a bloke." He lifts his chin. "Look, I've made my career on being able to read people--"
Snape snorts and Harry glares at him.
"I'm not seventeen any longer," he says evenly. "In fact, I'm a whole year older than you if I remember the dates on that damned plaque of yours in the Ministry atrium correctly. So excuse me, Professor, if I call you on your shit."
The reins in Snape's fist jerk; his horse stumbles to a stop. Snape stares off, over the rocks and crags of the mountainside. A muscle twitches in his jaw.
Harry sits still, watching him. He doesn't speak, barely breathes. He knows better. Snape has a skittish look about him, and Harry's learned the dangers of that. You have to know when to press a person, know what buttons to hit and when to ease off them.
"I loved your mother when I was sixteen," Snape says finally. "Or I thought I did. She was my closest friend and I was young. Perhaps I interpreted our relationship in a wrong manner, but I thought she returned my feelings." He doesn't look at Harry.
"We argued, as you saw, I'm certain. I made a fool of myself and drove her into James sodding Potter's arms, or so I thought at the time. When I was older, when I had come to terms with who I was and what I wanted, I realised Lily had made her own decisions, and that her love for me was different. Not of the sort she felt for your damned father." His mouth twists to one side. "She was my friend, Potter. The anguish I felt at her death was not that of losing the only love of my life. I'm not that foolish of a man to believe in something as ephemeral as a solitary True Love." He snorts. "No such thing exists--"
"That's a cynical view of the world," Harry says.
Snape looks up sharply. "It's a practical worldview, Potter. People change. You ought to know that by now. And given that your childhood love affair has far from worked out..."
Harry flinches. The bastard has a point.
"Whatever emotional attachment I had towards your mother as a youth dissipated," Snape says, his voice quiet. He lets the reins slacken in his hands; the horses begin moving again. "But I hold myself responsible for her death."
"That's stupid of you." Harry nudges his horse alongside Snape's. "You didn't kill her. Voldemort did."
Dark eyes flash angrily at him. "And I didn't stop him. Her blood is on my hands."
Harry can't answer. He understands that feeling all too well. He swallows past the tightness in his throat. "The Council," he says finally, changing the subject. Snape's shoulders relax. "Who are they?"
"The overseers of Beneathworld," Snape says.
They start up a narrow path between high cliff faces. Harry eyes the tops uneasily. It's not the sort of place he'd lead a force of Aurors into. Too many chances for ambush. He pulls his cloak tighter around him.
"And that means?" he asks.
Snape watches the right cliff, his eyes narrowed. "The ancients considered them to be gods. The Celts had Arawn and Niamh, the Greeks Hades and Thanatos, the Inca Supay, the Slavs Chernobog, the voudoun Baron Samedi. Even the Canaanites of the Bible had Mot. Enough years of belief makes them real." He sniffs. "Here at least."
"And they're the Council?" Harry pulls his horse back onto the path. It snuffles irritatedly at him.
"More or less. There are others."
Harry shifts on his saddle. His arse is getting sore. "How'd Dumbledore fall in with them? Doesn't really seem like his cup of tea."
Snape gives him an incredulous look. "For a Gryffindor, Albus thinks rather highly of himself. I'm quite certain he wormed his way in through one of the lesser deities. An Elysium judge perhaps."
The crash of falling rock clatters through the crevice. Snape jerks his horse short, looking around. His hand goes to the long knife at his belt. "Get back," he says harshly, and Harry wheels his horse around.
It's too late.
They're surrounded by men, clad in dark cloaks and black helmets. Spears point at them, holding them still.
"Shit," Snape says, his jaw tight.
Harry can't agree more.
Severus grunts as the guards dump them unceremoniously on the cold stone floor. He winces; they've been none too easy with either him or Potter. He's half-afraid one of his ribs is cracked. Their weapons are tossed in front of them, out of reach.
Footsteps echo through the hall.
"Have you found them then?" a woman asks. Severus looks up. Tall and thin, she sweeps towards them, her grey robes glittering with silver embroidery. Her pointed face is inked with blue-black swirls that curl gracefully across pale cheeks and down her long throat. He can see small curls of black at the cuffs of her sleeves, twisting around her wrists and over the back of her hands. Her nails are long and sharp.
She stops in front of Potter, catches his face in one bony hand. With the other she sweeps his fringe back. Her thumb traces over the scar on his forehead. "Mr Potter, I presume."
Potter pulls away. His jaw is purpling courtesy of one of the guards' steel-toed boots. "Who are you?" he spits out.
The woman smiles coldly. "My name is Hel. Welcome to Castle Eljudnir."
Severus's blood runs cold. He's heard of Hel. Everyone Beneathworld has. "Her hall is called Sleet-Cold," he murmurs, "her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her slave; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings."
Hel tilts her head towards him. Her thick, grey ringlets, piled high on her head, tumble across her cheek. "The Gylfaginning," she says. "It's been a long time since they worshipped me in that manner. A pity. I do miss that."
"What do you want with us?" Potter's jaw is set stubbornly. The damned fool.
"She's part of the Council," Severus says. "A minor member, of course."
Hel's face twists. Wrinkles pit the black ink curls before they smooth out again. "I'd watch your tongue, Snape, or I'll send for your mother and draw her into my bed."
Severus bares his teeth. "She'd have you for breakfast."
"Indeed?" Hel's laugh is bright and cold. She twists her fingers in Severus's hair, jerking his head back painfully. "You think too well of her, I daresay."
Potter breaks in. "If you're in the Council, then you know what we're doing, right?" He rears up on his knees. Two spears are immediately at his throat. The fool ignores them, his eyes fixed on Hel. "I just want my son back."
"Oh, I'm quite aware of what you want, Mr Potter." Hel steps back, drawing her robe tighter around herself. "Unfortunately, what you want and what I want appear to be at odds with one another." She smiles at him, a cruel curve of her pale lips. "I'm afraid I can't allow you to leave."
"And what is it you want?" Severus asks. She steps towards him, and the whisper of her robe against the uneven stones of the floor sends a chill down his spine. He refuses to flinch. "You're defying the Council."
She brushes her knuckles against his cheek. Her skin is ice cold. "Not everyone on the Council is against Donn, my boy. Then again, you're intelligent enough to have figured that out." She leans towards him, her cool breath gusting across his mouth.
Severus doesn't pull away. "I'm merely curious as to what he promised you for your support."
Hel's smile is thin. "Power, of course." She pulls back, looks around the shadowed hall. Arched stone vaulting curves above them like giant ribs. Severus can almost imagine them shuddering with a ragged breath. "Odin--" she spits the name bitterly "--confined me to this hovel for nothing more than the accident of my birth. Thousands of years, I've spent watching over the doddering old bastards inept enough to die in their beds, silly women, foolish children. Never the glory of the warriors to wrap around myself." Her mouth twists to one side. "Donn will give me that."
"There aren't any warriors any longer," Severus says. "Not the sort you want." He feels the faintest twinge of pity for her. It disappears when the back of her hand strikes his face, rocking him backwards. Her nails drag across his cheek, sharp and painful.
"Warriors always exist." She glares down at him. "Throw them in the pit for now."
The guards jerk Severus to his feet, twisting his arm roughly behind him. An explosion of pain in his shoulder takes his breath away. They pull Potter up as well, nearly knocking his glasses from his face.
"My lady," one of the guards says. He picks up the sword they ripped from Potter's belt. "The small one carried this."
It's nearly worth it to see the indignation on Potter's face.
Hel takes the sword. Her eyes widen as she pulls it a mere fraction from the scabbard. Its light glitters through the entire hall. " Claíomh Solais." She snaps it back into its sheath and hands it to a guard. "Where did you get this?" she asks harshly.
Potter says nothing.
"Answer me." She moves closer to him, and she touches his cheek almost gently.
Potter is still silent.
Hel's eyes narrow. She holds a hand out to the nearest guard. "Your knife."
The blade he places in her palm is sharp and viciously serrated. Potter doesn't blink, not even when she drags the tip lightly up the side of his throat, leaving behind a thin trail of beading blood. "Where," she asks again, "did you get the sword?"
Potter meets her gaze, then looks away. Hel's jaw tightens.
She grabs Severus, tangling her fingers in his hair. He lurches forward, held back only by the two guards on either side of him. His shoulder throbs. Hel places the blade against his neck. He can feel the points of the serrations pressing into his skin.
Hel looks back at Potter. "Well?" He hesitates; she pulls the knife slowly across an inch of Severus's skin. He can feel the blood spill warm and sticky down his throat. The sting fades into the agony of his shoulder.
Potter's eyes flutter closed and then open again.
"Do you know what death is for a dead man Beneathworld?" Hel asks softly, watching Potter.
"Keep your mouth shut," Severus says to Potter, his voice harsh and angry. Whatever anger he may have towards Albus Dumbledore, Severus will not let him be discovered. He knows damn well that Albus obtained the sword through far from legitimate means. Potter stares at him, horrified. Hel pulls the knife again, and the blade presses against his jugular.
"Stop," Potter cries out and Hel's hand stills. Potter licks his bottom lip. "Albus Dumbledore," he says softly and Hel swears, shoving Severus away from her.
The guards barely catch him before he hits the floor. He presses a palm to his throat. It comes away covered with blood.
"The pit," Hel snaps and she turns on her heel, stalking out of the room, her robe billowing behind her.
Severus cries out in pain as the guards tighten their grasp on him, dragging him to the back of the hall. Potter struggles behind him. They're brought to the edge of a gaping hole in the stone floor. It's black as night and just as endless.
"Don't," Severus hears Potter choke out just before a hand presses into his back and pushes him into the darkness.
With a scream, he falls.
"Hey," he hears Potter say and he opens his eyes. Potter's worried face relaxes; he leans back. "You scared me there."
With a grunt and a stab of pain through his shoulder, Severus tries to sit up.
"Careful." Potter's hands are gentle, holding him steady.
Severus leans against the dirt wall of the pit. He presses his palm to his aching shoulder and breathes out.
"I can help with that," Potter says. Severus rolls his head towards him and glares. Potter splays one hand over Severus's shoulder and reaches for Severus's arm with the other. "Hold on, it'll hurt."
It does. Severus barely bites back a cry. His shoulder pops back together with a quiet click; the pain slowly fades to a dull ache. "Thank you," he says, falling back against the wall. He's shaking.
"No worries." Potter settles next to him. "Basic Auror training, that. It's easier to do it in the field without magic, but it hurts like fucking hell for a bit."
Severus touches his throbbing shoulder. "An understatement." He looks around. The pit is small but deep. He can hear rats moving about in the shadows. At least he hopes they're rats. One never knows Beneathworld.
"How long have we been down here?" he asks.
Potter rubs a thumb over his denim-clad knee. "Half a day? A day? I can't be certain; my watch doesn't work properly here."
"Long enough." Severus touches his throat. The blood on his skin is dried, scabbed over.
Potter hesitates. "You've been out a while."
Severus sighs. "Obviously."
"I've looked over all the walls, and the floor." Potter says. "There's a door in the far right corner. Metal. Locked from the outside and I don't think there's any way we can get through from here. The rest of the walls are just dirt over stone, I think. I tried digging through and hit hewn stone about a foot into the dirt. The way they're set isn't a natural formation."
"They filled in a room with earth." Severus swallows. Even his throat hurts.
Potter crosses his legs and lets his head thud back against the dirt behind them. A shower of dust sprinkles across their shoulders. "Yeah."
"Same." Potter looks over at him. His glasses gleam through a layer of dirt. "And there are bones in the corners. A lot of them actually, all broken up." His Adam's apple bobs slightly. "I think they're human."
Severus takes a ragged breath. His rib cage aches as he struggles out of his robe. "I'm not surprised."
"I didn't think you would be." Potter falls silent.
"You shouldn't have told her about Albus," Severus says, anger flaring. "Do you know what sort of danger you may have put him in?"
Potter glares at him. "Do you know what sort of danger you were in?" His mouth tightens. "I wasn't about to let her kill you."
"It would have been more honourable," Severus snaps.
"Christ, you're such a prick." Potter runs dirty hands through his hair. It stands up messily. "Fine. Next time I'll let the mad deity cut your throat, okay?"
"I have no idea how you became head of the Auror department with such a cavalier attitude towards sensitive information." Severus tugs his shirt up and presses his fingers against his ribs. The flesh is tender, sore. He peers down at the bruise that mottles his pale skin and breathes a sigh of relief. Not broken at least. When he looks up, Potter is watching him, an odd look on his face.
Potter shakes his head. "Nothing." A flush spreads over his cheeks and he turns away with a cough.
Severus raises an eyebrow.
"Anyway." Potter tugs nervously at his fringe. "It's not going to be easy to get out of here. Especially not with you hurt."
"I'm fine." Severus shifts and winces.
Potter doesn't look convinced. "Right. Let me see." Severus pulls away; Potter catches him, fingers curling around Severus's wrist. His hands are warm through Severus's shirt. "Don't be a twat."
He runs his hands over Severus's arms and legs, checking for breaks. "Everything looks fine," he says, cheer a bit too forced. Potter doesn't look at Severus's face. He hesitates for a moment before he lifts Severus's shirt, bunching the fabric up over his left ribs. "Christ."
"It's just a bruise." Severus watches him. Potter swallows and nods, then brushes his fingertips over Severus's swollen skin. "Fuck."
"Steady," Potter whispers and he shifts, moving closer. He straddles Severus's thigh, leaning in to examine his ribs.
Severus's breath catches. Potter's hands trail over his chest, pushing the white cotton of his shirt higher as his fingertips move over Severus's sternum to the other side of his rib cage.
"They kicked you pretty hard," Potter murmurs. His head is bent; his glasses have slipped to the tip of his nose. Severus can see his thick eyelashes.
"I'll survive." Severus keeps his hands clenched at his side. The urge to slide his fingers in that messy, dark hair is nearly overwhelming. He can smell Potter, sweaty and earthy and male. His nipples harden.
Merlin's teats, it's been too damned long.
Potter looks up at him. His hands still, palms flat against Severus's chest. "I think you're all right," he says. He doesn't move away.
"I could have told you that." Severus stays still. Potter's thigh presses against his.
"I know," Potter breathes out. He stares at Severus. "I'm sorry. You shouldn't be here. If you weren't looking after my family--"
Severus's fingers touch Potter's knee. "Don't flatter yourself."
Potter's laugh is a soft huff against Severus's cheek. He studies Severus for a long moment. "Fuck it," he whispers and he leans in.
His mouth brushes Severus's almost hesitantly at first, then harder, his hands sliding up to cup Severus's face. Severus shudders; Potter's lips open, his tongue flicks at the corner of Severus's mouth, and Severus can't stop himself from grabbing Potter's shoulders, pulling him harder against him.
"Oh, Christ," Potter says against Severus's mouth and then they're kissing, roughly, hungrily and Severus knows this is a wretched idea but it's been so damned many years since he's been kissed this thoroughly without paying money for it.
The rusty creak of the door sends them flying apart, Potter scrabbling backwards, his glasses askew. They stare at each other, breathing hard. Severus can barely tear his gaze away from Potter's wet, swollen lips.
"My, my," Hel says from the doorway. She raises an eyebrow. "I didn't realise I was interrupting a moment."
Severus drags the back of his hand across his mouth. "Do sod off," he says politely, and she laughs.
"I think not." A crook of her finger and five guards file in past her. All wear bright crimson cloaks. Their faces are obscured by brass helmets. Tartaruans from Duinn. Severus's stomach twists.
"What are you up to?" he demands.
Hel merely laughs. "These gentlemen have arrived as your escorts." Her smile tightens. "Donn wishes to see Mr Potter."
"Mr Potter doesn't particularly wish to see him." Potter pushes himself to his feet. "I want my son."
"Then you'll go to Duinn." Hel snaps her fingers; the guards move forward, reaching for Severus and Harry. Their lieutenant enters the room after them.
Severus meets Macnair's gaze evenly. Walden's grin is missing another tooth, he notes as the guards pull his arms tightly behind his back. His shoulder twinges.
Macnair looks him up and down. "Severus."
"Arsewipe," Severus says, in a tone he'd use to address the bloody damned Muggle Queen herself, and Macnair frowns at him. The fool never was the brightest of His Lordship's inner circle, he thinks as Macnair's fist slams into his jaw.
He crumples to the floor; Potter swears loudly and rather creatively, Severus must admit. Impressive, Mr Potter, Severus thinks as he spits blood out onto the dirt beneath him.
"Pick him up," Macnair says above him.
Severus is jerked upright. He can feel blood trail down his jaw from the corner of his mouth, can taste it in the back of his throat, cloying and coppery.
"You fucking bastard," Potter snaps, lunging forward. The guards pull him backwards; he stumbles.
Macnair just laughs and pulls a bag of coins from his pocket. He tosses it at Hel. "You'll have the rest afterwards."
"After what?" Snape glares at him.
"Soon enough, Snape," Macnair says and he sweeps out of the pit, his cloak flaring out behind him.
The guards shove them forward.
Harry shifts on the saddle. After some discussion they had thrown both he and Snape on horses, taken from the stables of Castle Eljudnir against Hel's protests. Harry's grateful, even if it means his hands are tied to the saddle pommel and he's flanked on all sides by guards to prevent him from wheeling the horse in the opposite direction. Uncomfortable though he might be, at least he doesn't have to walk.
He glances over at Snape, riding next to him. The other man hurts, Harry can tell from the stiff way he holds himself, fingers white-knuckled on the pommel. A bruise purples Snape's jaw and cheek, dried blood scabs his cut lip. He looks damn sexy, Harry thinks, and he's horrified at himself not for the thought--dangerously embattled is a good look on Snape after all--but rather for the sentiment. The man's been beaten for Christ's sake, not caught up in some street fisticuffs.
Still. Harry's mind drifts back to the kiss. He can't believe he did that. He can't believe Snape responded. Merlin, he can still taste the man against his tongue.
"Do stop staring at me." Snape turns his head slowly with a wince. He frowns at Harry.
"Sorry." Harry rubs his thumb over the worn leather of the pommel. His wrists hurt; the rope cuts into his skin. Steadying himself on the horse makes his thighs ache, his back protests. He sighs. "We're fucked, aren't we?"
Harry presses the balls of his feet against the stirrups, ignoring the stab of pain in his ankle as he raises himself from the saddle for a moment. His arse is sore. "The Council--"
"Are obviously not in agreement." A cold breeze ruffles Snape's hair, catching it on the corner of his mouth. He shakes his head, spits his hair away. Harry's prick throbs.
Fuck. Harry spreads his legs wider on the saddle, grateful for the cloak around him. He can see the wide curve of the river below as it winds its way up the mountain. He squints at the chunks of ice floating downstream towards the Elysian Valley. A few of them flicker oddly. He looks closer, certain he's lost his mind. "Is the water burning?"
Snape peers past him. "Yes."
"Right." Harry gives him a quizzical look. "That's impossible."
"Not for the Phlegethon." Snape's mouth twists to the side. "Where do you think the Christians discovered their lake of fire, Potter? The colder the river grows, the more it burns. It's the worst at the delta, where it meets the River Cocytus."
Harry shudders. "Doesn't sound pleasant."
"It's not from what I've heard." Snape's voice is grim. "And that's exactly where we're headed."
A shout rings out in front of them; the guards pull their horses up short. "Riders," Macnair snaps and he draws his sword. The others follow.
Hoofbeats echo against the rocks and within seconds Pish gallops around the curve, his horse's hooves stirring up a cloud of dust and gravel.
Hope explodes in Harry's chest, only to catch in his throat as another horse follows, its rider bent low, red cloak flying out behind him. "Pish," he cries out and Pish jerks his horse to a stop in front of Macnair, a knife in his hands, his white hair blowing in the wind.
"Stop," the rider behind him shouts and Snape jerks in his bonds.
"That's my father," he murmurs. Harry's mouth drops. What the hell--
Tobias Snape spurs his horse up the path. "Watch him, Severus--the bastard--"
Something's not right, Harry thinks as Pish wheels his horse around, past the gaurds. His knife swipes at Snape's hands, catching the rope and it falls to ground. Before a word can be spoken, Pish pulls Snape from his and slides an arm around his throat.
With glitter of steel in the sunlight, Pish sinks his knife into Snape's side. Harry screams, the sound ripped harshly from his throat as he tries to leap from the saddle. A guard grabs him, pulls him back.
Pish's hands are covered with blood. Snape falls to the ground, his dark eyes wide. There's blood everywhere, pooling beneath him and Harry shouts again as if he can stop it, keep this from happening again, oh God--
"Go," Pish shouts at Macnair, and the flat of a sword comes down on the rump of Harry's horse.
The last thing he sees is Tobias Snape falling from his horse to the ground next to his son, his angry screams echoing Harry's as Pish descends upon them both, his knife raised.
Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.
The word echoes through Harry's mind with each steady clip of the horses' shoes against the path. He's shaking, barely able to hold on to the saddle. A guard rides with him; he's already fallen off once.
Pish manouevers his horse next to Harry. "It had to be done," he says quietly. "Donn--"
"Fuck off." Harry can see Snape's blood dried and flaking on Pish's knuckles. He doesn't ask why. He doesn't fucking care. He's seen it too many times. There's always an excuse. Power. Money. Privilege. Revenge. Love. Hate. Sex.
Harry stares straight ahead.
With a sigh, Pish falls back. "It had to be done," he says again, and he spurs his horse on towards Macnair. Harry tightens his hands on the pommel and holds on. All he wants now is to get Al out of this fucking hellhole.
They ride on.
Duinn is perched on a crag overlooking the boiling waters of the Phlegethonian Delta. The castle is large, as big as Hogwarts if not bigger, and the lower reaches of it are carved from the rock itself. Gate windows overlook the hot rivers below that belch up rancid steam. His son is in one, Harry knows.
Gargoyles perch on the castle gates, and one turns to watch as they ride through, its stone claws gripping the arch tightly. It hisses, sharp granite teeth bared.
The guard behind him swings off the horse, then unties Harry, letting him slide down from the saddle. Harry's arms are numb; his wrists are red with rope burns. He doesn't care.
"I want to see my son," he says. The guard ignores him, pushing him forward towards Pish and Macnair. Harry's jaw tightens. "Where's my son?"
Macnair turns on his heel without answering. Harry spits after him.
"Wouldn't do that if I was you." Pish's voice is quiet.
Harry whirls around, nearly losing his balance. "Don't," he says through clenched teeth. "Don't you dare tell me what I should or shouldn't do."
Pish's face is stoic, his mouth a thin line in his beard. He grabs Harry's elbow and jerks him towards the door to the Great Hall, away from the guards watching them. "You're going to get your damn fool self killed," he says in Harry's ear. "And what fucking good will you do your son then?"
"As if you care." Harry tries to pull away. He can't. "Why'd you do it? He was just trying to help me."
.Pish doesn't answer. He leads Harry into the cold hall and down a wide sweep of stone steps. They pause in front of a heavily carved black door. Pish knocks; it swings open.
The room they enter is hung with heavy tapestries, dark and intricately woven. A fire burns hot and bright in the hearth at the end of the room, and a long, wide mahogany table fills the centre. Papers and inkwells are scattered across it; two men are bent over a map.
"Your Lordships," Pish says and they look up.
Harry's stomach flips. The tall one he's never seen. Donn, he assumes by the wide shoulders and the thick hands. He wears a circlet of bare white bones in his dark, curly hair. The other, however…
"Mr Potter," Voldemort says smoothly. His eyes gleam red in the firelight. "How pleasant to see you again."
"Not particularly." Harry keeps his voice steady. He takes a deep breath, clenches his fists at his side. For the first time in two decades his scar aches. "I want my son."
Voldemort laughs. "So very Gryffindor, making demands where you have no power." He looks past Harry to Pish. "Do you have it?"
"Aye." Pish tosses the Claíomh Solais on the table. The sword clanks in its scabbard. "You were right about him giving it to them."
"I am always correct when it comes to Albus Dumbledore." Voldemort picks up the sword almost reverentially and hands it to Donn. "Did I not tell you we would reclaim it?"
The king of Duinn nods grudgingly. "So you did." He strokes his fingers across the emeralds in the hilt. The scabbard glitters in his hands.
Voldemort eyes it hungrily. "Thy sons and thy daughters shall fall by the sword," he murmurs, "and thy land shall be divided by line; and thou shalt die in a polluted land…"
Pish catches Harry just as he lunges forward. "None of that," he says, twisting Harry's arms behind his back. Harry winces as pain shoots up his shoulder.
Donn belts the sword around his hips and looks at Harry with idle curiosity. "This is the boy's father?"
"Yes." Voldemort moves towards Harry. Only Pish's tight grasp on him keeps him from pulling away when His Bloody Shitface grabs his jaw. Sharp fingernails dig into his skin. "Older, but far from wiser, Harry. I suppose it's the Gryffindor in you." He twists Harry's face to one side. "Amazing how very like you your son looks. He gave me quite a start."
Harry bares his teeth. "Scared, were you?"
"Hardly." Voldemort's thumb strokes Harry's cheek. "Intrigued, rather. And then to discover Severus had called for your assistance…" His thin mouth twists into a grimace of a smile. "How very fortunate I am. Father and son at my bidding."
"I doubt that." Harry jerks his head back, out of Voldemort's grasp.
Voldemort's eyes narrow; he leans forward. "I would be more cautious were I you, Harry. My payment for providing the Claíomh Solais is your familial heriot."
Harry stills. "You bastard."
A thin shoulder rises, falls. Voldemort tilts his head to one side, studying Harry. "Your son, yes. And yourself, I daresay, should I want. And I do, Harry." He trails a finger over Harry's jaw. "I do."
The touch is a slip of scales across Harry's skin, warm and firm and it's only then that Harry realises Voldemort has been speaking Parseltongue. He turns his head, shuddering.
Voldemort's eyes flick over to Pish. "Snape."
"Dead," Pish says. His voice is weary. Resigned. "Done as you said. You'll keep away from her. You swore."
"He will," Donn says, walking up. He gives Voldemort an even look. "She'll keep her freedom."
Voldemort hesitates then nods. "I want Potter in return."
Donn shrugs. "Do as you wish." He sounds bored. His palm rubs the hilt of the sword at his hip. "The heriot is yours, after all. I've no use for the fools."
A sharp word from Voldemort and guards come from a small door at the opposite end of the room. "Take Mr Potter downstairs," Voldemort says, a thin smile curving his mouth. "Cell twenty-four. I do believe he'll find it adequate."
Pish steps away; the guards replace him, their cold hands curving around Harry's upper arms. When Harry glances back at the doorway, the old man won't meet his eyes.
The door slams shut behind him.
Severus's eyes flutter open.
Everything hurts. He's starting to become used to it, though he thinks frankly it's bloody horrific that a dead man still feels pain. Perhaps he would have been better off haunting that damned shack.
The sky's grey above him; the sunlight cold and faint. He starts to push himself up, but a hand on his shoulder stops him.
"Careful, lad." His father squats beside him, helping him to lean against a rough rock. He presses a small tin cup wrapped in a rag into Severus's hands. "Drink."
Severus doesn't argue. The whisky's been warmed over a fire just enough. He sips it slowly, letting the heat seep through him.
His torso has been wrapped in strips of wool; it doesn't take long for Severus to realise his father cut his cloak up. Tobias shivers in the brisk wind, holds his shaking hands over the small fire he's built.
"Potter?" Severus says finally. He can still feel the wretch's mouth against his.
Tobias throws another stick onto the fire. It crackles and pops. "Taken to Duinn."
Severus watches him from over the rim of his mug. He has never had a close relationship with his father. Not as a boy, not as a man. Tobias Snape had made it abundantly clear how unsettled he had been by his odd son. To a certain extent Severus blames his mother for that. She'd only told his father she was a witch after she'd discovered her pregnancy, and Tobias Snape came from solid Yorkshire Methodist stock. Severus's grandmother had had the two of them in front of the minister before they could object.
It had not been an easy marriage.
He leans back against the rock. "Pish?"
A shrug of his father's shoulders. "Knew he was up to something when I met him. Too antsy by half."
Severus draws a shallow breath. He can still feel Pish's breath on his cheek, still hear his whispered sorry, lad as the blade slid into his flesh. It could have been worse, Severus knows. Pish deliberately went for a minor wound, injuring little more than muscle, really, rather than one that would have left him on the ground, the remnants of his soul leeching into nothingness. And yet the betrayal stings. He presses his lips together. One would think he would become used to this by now.
"How far to the castle?"
"Few hours ride." Tobias squints at his son. "You'll rest first."
Severus frowns, but he knows his father's correct. The wound in his side, though not deep, still aches. It'll heal soon enough--nonfatal injuries seldom linger Beneathworld--but he wouldn't last a half hour on the back of a horse at the moment.
The fire flickers between them; the silence grows. Severus finishes his whisky and sets the mug on the ground. "You could have left me."
"Aye." Tobias pulls his knees to his chest for warmth, runs a hand through his cropped grey hair. He looks tired and old. "I didna. You're my boy, much as you hate it."
Severus doesn't say anything.
Tobias meets his gaze. His eyes are dark and sober. "I've paid for what I did to you and your mum," he says quietly. "Forty years down here makes a man think about what he's done."
"I know," Severus says after a moment. A curious relief slips over him. His father has never apologised to him before. Ever. And Severus recognises the words for what they are meant to be. He is a Snape, after all.
His father nods and settles back against a boulder. "Best sleep some, if you can," he says gruffly. "It'll be a rough ride for you."
Dutifully, Severus closes his eyes, but he won't sleep, he knows. He's too damned worried about Potter.
The cell Harry is thrown into is small and dark. There are no windows, only three solid stone walls and a heavy iron gate. A mattress lies in one corner, the corner eaten away by rodents of some sort. It's stained with fluids Harry'd rather not examine closely, and the scent of mildewed decay is heavy in the air. It wouldn't surprise him if a rat was decomposing under the striped ticking of the mattress. Harry grabs the thick, rusted bars of the gate and tugs on them as the guards tromp away.
"I want my son," he shouts. His voice echoes off the walls and fades into silence. "Shit."
He hears a quiet Dad?
"Al!" Harry peer through the dimness. There's a clatter across the corridor, a rattle of iron against stone, and his son is there, only a few feet from him, his shock of black hair messy above his pale face.
Al stretches his hand towards Harry. His eyes are bruised and shadowed behind his glasses.
Harry tries to reach through the gate, tries to touch his son from across the narrow hallway. The iron bars bite into his shoulder. Their fingers can't meet and Harry shoves against the gate with a groan. Al drops his hand.
"What are you doing here?" Al's voice is raw, hoarse. As if he's been screaming for days, Harry thinks, and his heart twists, remembering the dreams that have kept him awake. Al's eyes widen in horror. "You're not dead--"
"No." Harry cuts him off. "I came to bring you home."
His son slumps against the bars of his cell. "You shouldn't have."
"You're my son," Harry says roughly, emotion thickening his throat. "I wasn't going to leave you here."
"That's just so Gryffindor," Al says, and Harry's not certain whether his son is laughing or crying. A bit of both perhaps. He smiles faintly.
Al rests his forehead on the bars. "He said you'd come for me." A shudder wracks his thin body. "Dad, he's awful--"
"I know." Harry bites back his rage. He can only imagine what Voldemort's done to his son. He doesn't want to think about it.
Al draws a shaky breath and nods. "They took me to the cauldron last night." He breaks off and looks at Harry, his forehead creasing. "You know about the cauldron, right?" At Harry's nod, he chews his bottom lip. "I thought they were going to put me in there." His fingers curl tight around the bars; he doesn't seem to notice. "I'm scared."
Harry wants to hold his son. Wants to tell him everything's going to be fine. He's not sure it is though. Still, he pulls himself together and lies, because that's what dads are supposed to do at times like this. "It'll be okay. I promise."
"Yeah." Al's white-knuckled fingers relax. He gives Harry a small smile. "You're here."
"How very charming." Voldemort steps into the corridor, his robe trailing on the mouldy floor. Al jerks at his voice, scrabbling backwards until he disappears into the shadows. Harry's mouth tightens. He can hear his son's quick, ragged breaths in the dimness.
"What do you want?" Harry pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and glares at the former Dark Lord. He's not frightened of him; he hasn't been since that night in Hogwarts Great Hall so many years ago. Still, his head throbs; his scar burns. It's all he can do not to press his fingertips to it in a vain attempt to staunch the pain.
Voldemort's eyes flick to Harry's forehead. "Revenge, I suppose." He raises one skeletal shoulder. "Justice, I would call it." His robe swishes as he steps forward. He pauses in front of Harry's cell. "I knew you would come for your son. So very predictable."
"So?" Harry lifts his chin. Voldemort chuckles.
"I want to go home, Potter," he says softly. He leans towards Harry; his eyes glitter redly in the light that filters from the corridor beyond. "And you're going to help me."
Harry snorts. "Not bloody likely."
"You don't have a choice." Voldemort taps a knuckle against the iron bars. "You're mine to use as I see fit." His hand reaches through before Harry can pull back, grasps his jumper, fingers twisting in the wool. He jerks Harry against the gate. "I've been thinking, you see, and it strikes me that it would be oh so very appropriate, would it not, if I were to return as the Saviour of the Wizarding World, the triumphant hero who braved Death himself to bring his son back to the living."
Silence for a moment, then Harry whispers, "You're mad."
"Perhaps." Voldemort slides his palm up Harry's throat, fingernails digging into Harry's skin. Harry can barely swallow. He meets Voldemort's too-bright gaze. The man was insane, even more than he'd been alive. "You killed me, however, and now you'll bring me to life again. The cauldron is such a lovely artefact, you realise. They say it's almost like going to sleep. Yet excruciatingly painful." His rancid breath huffs warmly against Harry's mouth. Harry turns his head away with a shudder. "It will eat your soul, boy, and leave your body free for mine."
"Al will tell them," Harry chokes out.
Voldemort's laugh echoes. "Will he?" He loosens his grip on Harry, runs his knuckles up Harry's cheek. He brushes his fingertip against Harry's forehead, tracing the scar. "You should ask yourself why your son's so very frightened of me."
Harry stills, his heart pounding in his chest. He can still hear Al's breaths from the corner. "You bastard. What have you done--"
He's shoved backwards roughly; he loses his balance and falls, catching himself with one hand. Stone scrapes his palm; his wrist protests.
"Just imagine how thrilled your pretty little wife will be to have you home again." Voldemort turns to the other cell, opening it with a key he pulls from his robe. He jerks Al from the corner. "Perhaps I'll fuck her for you."
Al's eyes are wide, terrified. He's shaking. "Dad--"
Harry crawls to the bars, pulling himself up. "Get your hands off him!"
"I think not." Voldemort pulls Al against him, his fingers tight on Al's jaw, pulling his head at a painful angle. Al tries to hit him; Voldemort catches his hands easily. "Say goodbye to your father, Albus."
"Al," Harry says, but Voldemort's already dragging his son down the corridor. Al's frightened Dad, please rips through Harry's heart. He screams and slams his fists against the iron bars over and over, not caring that the rusted metal tears at his wrists, at the sides of his hands.
His son. His son.
Harry sinks to the floor, his throat raw, blood running down his wrists. He doesn't know what to do. Snape would, he thinks. Snape would know.
Alone, he buries his head in his bleeding hands and sobs.
A hand on Severus's shoulder wakes him.
He lashes out, quick and rough, fingers twisting around a wrist, bending it back painfully before he blinks and realises the man leaning over him is his father.
"Sorry," he says, letting go. It's an old habit, his wariness while sleeping. He'd begun as a child, keeping one ear out for his parents' arguments after he'd been sent to bed, and seven years of Hogwarts had only increased his paranoia. One learned to look after oneself in a Slytherin dormitory.
Tobias rubs his wrist. "It's dark. Best we leave now." He doesn't say anything about his son's jumpiness for which Severus is grateful.
Severus pushes himself to his feet. His body protests at first, creaking and aching. He checks the makeshift bandages wrapped around his torso. The wound's knitting, slowly, crusted over with black scabs. Another day, perhaps, and they'll fall off. One of the few benefits of being dead, he supposes.
His father helps him mount the horse, then swing up behind him. Severus tenses for a moment, then relaxes against Tobias. His father reaches for the reins, his arms sliding gently around Severus.
"All right then?" Tobias asks, and Severus nods. He feels oddly comfortable; he thinks this should disturb him. It doesn't.
With a snap of the reins, the horse stumbles forward.
Pish squats next to Harry, pushes a still-wrapped pack of
Harry just looks at him balefully. He holds Leuce's silver cord in both hands. He twists it around his wrist, watching as the jet bead swings free. It's the only thing that's kept him calm since Al was taken. The smooth slide of the silver across his skin soothes him, keeps him from pounding the bars until his wrists break. He runs a thumb over the cord and breathes out.
"What's that?" Pish asks. He touches the bead; Harry jerks it away.
"Nothing." Harry shoves the cord back in his pocket. He doesn't want it taken from him.
Pish sighs and drops the food on the floor. A torch flickers behind him, casting long shadows across the cell.
"It's from your bag, lad. I reckon it's been a while since you ate."
It has. Harry's stomach rumbles, and reluctantly he reaches for the crisps. The rip of the foil bag is loud in the silent cell. He pops a crisp into his mouth and chews; the dry salty oniony powder is sour against his tongue. He licks his thumb and pulls out another one. "You're a shit," he says after a moment.
Pish doesn't protest. Instead he hands Harry a bottle of water. Harry hesitates and Pish rolls his eyes. "Go on. I ain't done anything to it."
"Where's my son?" Harry asks. The snap of the cap reassures him as he opens the bottle and lifts it to his lips. The water's warm and tastes metallic. Harry relaxes. Definitely Aboveworld. He wipes the back of his hand against his mouth.
"Macnair has him." Harry tenses and Pish shakes his head. "He's alive, if that's what you call this bloody life. Other than that…." He trails off, his mouth tightening . Harry's stomach clenches. He's an Auror. He knows what that can mean. "Arseholes want to fuck with your head."
Harry leans back against the wall. His hands shake; water splashes out of the bottle. "Which is why you're here."
"No." Pish runs a thumb over one of the bars. Rust flakes beneath his nail, drifts to the floor. "I wanted to check on you."
"Well, you have," Harry says bitterly. He takes another sip of tepid water. "So you can go back and tell them I'll be fucking fine once I kill that fucking red-eyed bastard again."
Pish meets his eyes. "They were going to take her, you know. Severus's mum. If I didn't bring you to him…" His voice cracks and he looks away. "She's a good lass, Eileen. Don't deserve to be sent into nothingness."
Harry's silent for a moment, then he sighs, resting his bottle of water between his thighs. He presses his forehead to the cap. "So you saved her by killing her son. Brilliant."
"Did no such thing." Pish's mouth thins. "Might have been some blood spilled, but I know where to cut to kill. He'll heal soon enough, if he ain't already. The dead don't stay hurt long down here, and I knew none of the others would look close enough with you about."
Harry lifts his head. "He's alive?"
"Better be," Pish says grimly. "Or we're all fucked up the arse." He runs a hand through his hair.
"They'll hurt you if they find out you didn't kill him," Harry murmurs.
Pish laughs. "Don't be worrying about me. They can't send me over." His face grows wistful.
"I know." Harry pulls his knees to his chest. "You're immortal, aren't you? That's how you can go between worlds."
"Never do a favour for a god," Pish says morosely. "The bastards trick you with their bloody rewards."
There's a clatter down the hall and Pish stands quickly. Harry tucks his water behind his back, crumples the bag of crisps and shoves them in his pocket.
Two Tartaruans turn the corner. Al staggers along, dragged between the guards. His cheek is bruised; blood is smeared across his mouth, over his chin. Harry leaps up.
His son turns his head towards him. His glasses are cocked, his green eyes are dull. He opens his mouth, then closes it again, swallowing hard.
"Put him with his father," Pish tells the guards, and they hesitate. "Now," he snaps. He doesn't look at Harry.
One guard opens the gate, holding Harry at bay as his companion shoves Al in. Al drops to his knees, shaking, and Harry doesn't even notice the door clanging shut behind him or the footsteps that echo away.
He kneels next to his son, stroking his back gently. "Did he touch you?" he asks finally. He has to know.
Al nods and breathes out heavily. His hair hangs in his battered face.
Harry's blood chills. He keeps moving his hand across Al's back. He can feel every bump and ridge. "How?"
Al just meets Harry's gaze, then looks away. Harry's hand shakes. He keeps moving it. His mind whirls; he taps down a rush of rage. He'll kill the fucking bastard. Again. Jesus fuck. He'll rip him limb from limb--
"I'm sorry," Al whispers. Harry can barely hear him.
"Whatever for?" Harry smooths Al's hair back, tucks it behind on ear. It slips forward again.
His son turns anguished eyes on him. Dark circles smudge the pale skin beneath them. "You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for me."
Harry's throat tightens. "Don't," he says. "This isn't your fault. None of it."
Al doesn't say anything; he just looks at him, and Harry's eyes burn. If anyone's to blame, it's him, he knows. Him and some damned Weasley from too far back to bloody remember. He reaches for his son, and Al lets Harry pull him against his side without protest. He hasn't done this for years, Harry realises. Not with his boys. Lily was the demonstrative one in the family, always hugging and crawling into his lap even now at eleven. Al had been the quiet one, drawing back. Harry'd always let him. Now he wonders if that was wise.
Harry hands Al his bottle of water. "Drink."
Al does, finishing the water quickly. He takes a ragged breath, then leans his head against his father's chest. "Thanks."
"Are you hungry?"
Al shakes his head and closes his eyes. Harry runs his fingers through Al's hair, stroking lightly, and Al leans into the touch. His breathing slows; his shaking stops.
Harry's almost certain Al's fallen asleep when his son asks, almost tremulously, "How are Mum and Jamie and Lily?"
"They miss you." Harry hesitates. He's not sure how much to tell his son. "Things are different up there. It's been a few months--"
"I know." Al sits up, but he doesn't pull away far. His shoulder presses against Harry's. "Tobias told me time was different." He looks up at Harry. "He reminds me of Headmaster Snape's portrait."
"He's his dad."
Al nods. "That makes sense." He rubs at his jeans. They're stained with dirt and blood. "How different are things?"
Harry takes a deep breath. "Your mum and I…"
Al shrugs and studiously doesn't look at his father. His hand shakes slightly as he traces an 8 on his knee. "It wasn't like we didn't know you were having problems. We're not stupid, you know, me and Jamie and Lils."
"I never thought you were," Harry says softly.
"Yeah, well." Al drops his hand and sighs. "You and Mum acted like it. And it's supposed to be hard on parents when their kids die, so I reckon that didn't help things either--"
Harry bumps a knuckle underneath Al's chin, lifting it slightly. His son's eyes are bright. "Not your fault, Al."
He can tell his son doesn't believe him. In a way he understands. He's never stopped blaming himself for his parents's deaths even though he knows he couldn't have prevented them.
"I want to go home," Al whispers, his voice cracking. Tears well over his eyelashes. He blinks them away. "I miss Mum."
Harry presses his mouth to the top of Al's head, quick and fast. "We're going to get the fuck out of here, I promise, okay?"
Al nods and leans against him again. He closes his eyes and breathes out, a shudder going through him. "Okay."
Harry hopes he's right.
Duinn rises above the fiery waters, its jagged towers barely visible against the dark sky. Tobias pulls the horse short. It paws at the ground impatiently, eager to be settled in its stable with a bale of fresh hay.
"How are we going to get in?" Severus murmurs. Dawn will be coming soon, he knows, and with it any chance of entering the castle will be gone.
His father snorts. "It's nasty."
"I'm certain." Severus turns, wincing slightly. "Your point?"
Tobias tugs the reins and turns the horse off the path. "Best be able to hold your breath, lad, is all."
Severus doesn't particularly care for the sound of that.
The clang of metal against metal wakes Harry. He blinks sleepily; Al mumbles something and shifts, his head sliding off Harry's stiff shoulder.
"Up," Macnair barks, grabbing Harry's jumper and hauling him to his feet. Al rolls off Harry and blinks up.
"What--" Al says before the Tartaruans come from behind Macnair and jerk him up. He tries to pull away. They twist his arm behind his back.
Harry lunges forward with a shout, only to find himself pulled roughly back by Macnair.
"Don't give me a reason to hurt him," Macnair says into his ear and Harry stops struggling.
"What do you want with us?" He twists his head, looking back at Macnair. His shoulder aches.
Macnair just grins. His teeth are uneven. "Almost dawn. Best time to greet the cauldron, they say." He shoves Harry forward. "Walk."
"Dad--" Al's face is frantic.
"It'll be fine," Harry says, meeting his son's terrified gaze.
He wishes he believed himself.
The fire burns bright on the river.
Severus stares at it as he removes his cloak, his boots. He can feel its heat from the shore.
"Dive fast," his father says, tugging at a boot. "Sooner you get beneath the surface the better. Flames stay on top."
"Where's the entrance?" Severus peers across the narrow stretch of water to the base of the castle. He ties his boot laces together, drapes them around his neck. His cloak he folds and wraps around his waist like a thick belt.
Tobias points to a grate set into the stones just above water level. Severus doesn't particularly want to know what's pouring from it. "The grate's old. Should be easy to pry off."
"Brilliant." Severus steps into the water. It's warm against his ankles. He looks back at his father. "Ready?"
"I reckon." Tobias walks past him, water splashing up to his knees. He hesitates, then throws himself into the river, disappearing under the burning surface.
Severus takes a deep breath and follows.
The corridors are silent save for the heavy tread of the Tartaruans as they lead Harry and Al further into the castle. The passageway twists and turns on itself; Harry has no idea how he'd make his way through it on his own.
He looks back at Al. His son is stoic, his mouth set, his jaw lifted. He's trying hard, Harry can tell, just like he has all this time alone. Pride swells through Harry, and he smiles at Al before a Tartauran shoves him forward. He stumbles, falling against Macnair.
Macnair shoves him back roughly. "Watch yourself."
Harry glares at him through smudged glasses.
Severus pulls himself from the water. His father is above him, bare feet balanced on rough-hewn rock. Tobias jerks at the rusted grate, pushing it open with a grunt. He holds a hand out to Severus.
"Come on, lad."
The stones scrape Severus's toes as he clambers up the side of the castle. He reaches for the edge of the drainhole, pulls himself up, his father's hand on his hips. His side hurts. He sits, shoves his feet into his soaking boots and ties them before pulling his cloak free. It's drenched, just like his clothes. With a curled lip, Severus drapes it over his shoulders. With any luck, the heat from the river will dry it soon enough. He tucks his wet hair behind one ear and looks around. The drain stretches dark and wide in front of them. It reeks of decay and refuse.
Severus stands and steadies himself against the side of the drain. It's too low for him to stand upright. Tobias brushes past him, a solid shadow against the flickering light of the river below.
"Careful," Tobias says and he splashes through the muck. Severus follows cautiously. His boots slip against slimy stone at times, and he catches himself against the wall. The stench grows stronger the further in they go. Severus wrinkles his nose. He's damned tired of drains.
He can hear the rats squeak in the darkness and he shudders. Ratatosk aside, Severus has no great delight in rodents. Nasty creatures, fit only for feeding to serpents in his opinion.
Light filters through a grate above them. Tobias holds his hand up; they stop beneath it, waiting, listening. Finally Tobias nods and pushes the grate open. Severus watches his father disappear for a moment, before Tobias's hand slides back through the opening. He helps Severus through the narrow hole.
They're in a corridor, lined with smoky torches. The stone ceiling arches low above their heads. A noise causes Severus to jerk back, slide into the shadow, pulling Tobias into a niched alcove far from the faint torchlight. They drip water on the stone floor.
He sees Macnair first, his bald head gleaming, then Potter as he stumbles, pushed by a Tartauran. Severus digs his fingernails into his palm, almost lunges forward. His father's hand on his arm stops him.
"No," Tobias breathes into his ear. It's barely anything more than a gust of warmth against his skin. Severus forces himself back against the wall and lets his gaze drift away from Potter to young Albus. The boy is wide-eyed, frightened, but his chin is lifted, his shoulders squared. He turns his head as they pass. His eyes meet Severus's.
Severus presses a finger to his lips. The boy looks away, as if he's seen nothing.
Intelligence in a Potter. How very shocking.
The footsteps fade away before his father releases his arm. Tobias squeezes Severus's shoulder as they continue down the hall, following the Tartaruans.
Severus is oddly pleased.
Severus turns a corner and draws up short.
Pish stands in front of him, his arms crossed over his chest. "Took you damned long enough," he says over Severus's head.
"You're the tit what stabbed him." Tobias snorts. "Might have been a bit easier with the blade."
Severus looks between them, suddenly wary. He takes a step back. "What the hell--"
Pish rolls his eyes. "Stop it, you bloody suspicious young fool. Your da and I, we had an understanding." At Severus's frown, he sighs. "To keep you and the Potter lads safe. Didn't you ask yourself why I didn't just kill you?"
"I supposed you were just wretched with a knife," Severus says tartly.
Pish glares at him, then turns back to Tobias. "They're in the cauldron room." He catches Tobias's elbow before he starts off. "You'll need something first before you bust up in there like two damned fools." He looks at Severus soberly. "Don't argue, lad. There's not much time."
Feeling utterly lost, Severus nods.
Sunlight shimmers through the window, a chill rosy-gold. When it strikes the cauldron, steam curls from the wide lip.
"It's time," Voldemort says, and Donn steps up the dias, extends his hands over the cauldron.
The words he murmurs are guttural and rough and they strike Harry heavily, bringing him to his knees.
"Dad," Al says, his voice desperate. He tugs at Harry's hand, and Harry struggles to stand, but he can't.
He looks at his son helplessly.
The water bubbles beneath Donn's hands, small pops at first before it roils to a boil.
"Come on, Dad." Al pulls at Harry's arm. "Get up."
Voldemort smirks. "Yes, Potter. Please do."
Harry glares at him. "Fuck you."
"Language." Voldemort snaps his fingers and two Tartaurans sweep forward, one grabbing Al and pulling him back, the other reaching for Harry's jumper.
The door slams open as the guard's fingers curl into the wool. It's enough distraction to stop Donn's incantation, and Harry jerks away from the guard.
"Harry!" Snape throws a sword towards him. It arcs over the head of a stunned Tartaruan and Harry reaches out without thought. The scabbard slaps against his palm, and Harry's barely aware of the clank of steel behind him as Pish and Snape's father slam their swords against the guards'.
A bright white flash fills the room as Harry pulls the Claíomh Solais from its sheath. It's heavy, almost too heavy. He staggers beneath it for a moment, before curling both hands around the hilt. Power thrums through his palm, down his arm, and Christ, he's missed this, missed the kiss of magic. He hefts the sword high.
A swing through the air--it's almost like a Bludger bat--and a Tartaruan helmet tumbles to the floor. The body of the guard holding Al crumbles into a whirl of dust; a scream fades.
Al stares at him, eyes huge, and then he shouts, "Dad!"
Harry turns just in time to parry the thrust of another guard's sword. He can see the white glint of bones through the slits in the guard's helmet and he hesitates, a sudden rush of terror sweeping over him.
"Potter," he hears and he's not certain who shouted it but it pulls him back. With a cry, he slams the sword across the Tartaruan's chest. The guard doubles over, screaming, and bursts into an explosion of dust and bone.
He whips around. Al slams his fist into Voldemort's side, sending the bastard staggering backwards against the cauldron. Boiling water splashs out over Voldemort's arm. The skin sizzles and steams.
Donn grabs Al before he reaches the dias steps. He pushes Al to his knees, a sword at his throat.
A furious rage rushes through Harry, shaking his entire body, ripping a frienzied scream from his throat, sending him flying towards the dias, his trainers nearly skidding on the stone floor.
Donn throws a hand up.
Harry freezes, his muscles tensing as he struggles to move again. Donn smiles thinly, his fingers digging into Al's skin. Al whimpers and tries to twist away. Donn holds him still. Harry pushes against the magic holding him. Voldemort pushes himself up, his hand clamped around the deep burns on his forearm. Blood seeps through his fingers; pink flesh glistens where his skin has burned away.
Harry can hear the clang of swords behind him, can hear Snape's shouts. He struggles again, his fingers clenched tight around the hilt of the Claíomh Solais. It's warm against his skin and he can feel the trickle of magic pulse through his blood.
Donn smirks and jerks Al against him. He tilts Al's head back, strokes a thumb across his cheek. His other hand digs into Al's wrist. "Startling pretty eyes, your boy has." He looks at Harry. His eyes are a cold, empty blue. "Riddle's been helping me to prepare him for my bed, you realise. Such a delight to break such a strong will."
Al spits at him. It drips down Donn's cheek, into his beard. Donn's sharp thumbnail digs into the soft flesh beneath Al's jaw; a thin trickle of blood runs down Al's throat.
Harry's jaw tightens. "I'll kill you," he grits out.
"I rather doubt that." Donn chuckles. "Riddle," he snaps, and Voldemort's next to him. "Claim your heriot."
Warmth slips down Harry's arm, over his elbow, and his eyes flick to the sword. It's glowing brighter, bluer, and Harry suddenly moves his finger. He pushes again, focusing on the magic pounding through his hand, his arm, his shoulder.
"My pleasure," Voldemort murmurs, a smile curving his thin lips and he steps down from the dias, his glittering eyes fixed on Harry.
Donn's eyes widen just as Harry bursts through the binding, heaving the sword higher. "Move," Harry screams at his son and Al jerks away just as the blade slams through Donn's neck.
A hush falls across the room.
Blood sprays everywhere; Harry feels it hit his cheek, warm and sticky, as Donn's head flies through the air, thuds wetly against the floor. The body falls, blood seeping from gristle and torn muscle, then it shimmers, shivers, and fades into the stone, leaving behind only a dark, scorched smear.
"Potter," Snape shouts, and it breaks the sudden silence. The guards race towards Harry, Voldemort screaming at them to bring him to him. Harry shoves the Claíomh Solais into its scabbard and grabs Al's hand.
"Run," he tells his son, and Al nods, sprinting towards the door and Snape. Harry follows. Snape's father falls in behind him.
Pish leads them through one corridor, then another, their feet slamming against the stone floors, down the wide steps leading out to the courtyard. Harry can hear the guards shouting after them, can hear Macnair's roar and Pettigrew's wail.
He doesn't look back. Can't look back. The sword is tight in his hand; the carvings on the scabbard dig into his palm. His ankle hurts--Christ, it hurts--but he can't stop to rest, can't let it slow him down. Al needs him. Snape needs him.
He runs, ignoring the stabbing pain that shoots up his leg. He's slower than the others, and it's only when he feels the sting of a sword tip across his shoulder that he jerks the Claíomh Solais out again and whirls around, swinging it wildly. The guard bursts into dust at the first cut.
And then Snape's by his side, his sword out. "Go," Snape shouts, not even looking at him. Harry hesitates. "Now," Snape screams at him, and his sword whips through the air with a zing of steel against air. A Tartaruan stumbles back.
Harry runs, following the others towards the stable. "Severus," he chokes out as he passes Snape's father and Tobias turns back immediately, running towards his son.
Pish has Al on a horse already, and others saddled and waiting. Harry draws up short. "I can't," he says and Pish grabs him and pushes him towards Al.
"Get on." He helps Harry swing over the saddle. It's uncomfortable to say the least, but Harry doesn't care. He wraps an arm around Al's waist.
"Snape," he says, and a shout draws his attention. Tobias Snape has thrown himself into the fray, swinging his sword at a Tartaruan parrying with Snape.
Pish slaps the rump of the horse. "Get out of the damn gate now," he snaps, and the horse starts to canter.
The gates are swinging shut slowly, their heavy hinges creaking. Harry slaps the reins against the horse's neck. "Faster, damn it," Harry shouts. He leans forward, pushing Al against the horse's mane as he digs his heels into the horse's side. He'd give anything for a fucking broom right now.
Pish shouts; Harry looks back to see Snape run to the horses, swinging a leg over the back of a tall grey. Harry can hear him call for his father. Tobias breaks free from the guard and jumps onto the other waiting horse. They gallop up next to him just as Harry passes through the gates.
"Ride," Tobias shouts at him and Harry nods.
"What about Pish?" he asks, the wind ripping the words from him.
Neither Snape nor Tobias answers.
The path through the mountains is treacherous at best.
Severus urges his horse on, his heart pounding. They're not far enough from the castle, he knows. Donn's territory extends into the Tartaruan range; they cannot slow down until they reach the border. The next kingdom over belongs to Arawn. As Severus understands, he and Donn have never got on well. Perhaps he'll extend good will to those responsible for his nemesis's death. At least that's what Severus is hoping.
He looks over at Potter, holding tightly to his son with one hand, reins gripped in the other. Potter is grim-faced, determined to protect the boy. Severus understands. For all he had hated Potter for his resemblance to his damned father, he had felt a similar responsibility to the thin, obstinate, smudged-glasses Gryffindor fool who defied him at every turn.
Potter whispers something in his son's ear and the boy nods, smiling faintly. Albus Severus glances Severus's way, his smirk widening.
Severus glares at him and spurs his horse forward to ride beside his father.
After a few hours, the stark granite crags give way to poplars. They pass a man rolling a heavy stone up a sharp incline. Potter wants to stop and help him; Tobias refuses.
"Won't do no good, lad," he says. "That's his to bear, not ours."
The man's shoulders flex. His bare back gleams with sweat as he pushes at the stone. He seems utterly unaware of them, his focus concentrated solely on the strain of rolling the boulder up the mountain slope. He reaches the top, only a few feet from a level ledge, and his feet slip in the dirt and gravel. The stone shudders, holds, then rolls backwards, missing the man by inches as it thumps down into a grove of poplars below.
Potter sighs. "Doesn't seem fair."
"No god created by man gave a damn about fairness," Severus points out, a flash of irritation going through him. He doesn't care for the look on Potter's face as he watches Sisyphus scramble down the mountainside, leaping from rock to rock.
They ride on.
The trees grow thicker; their branches arch above the path, twining together. It's colder in the mountains. The leaves have begun to turn, to drift slowly to the forest floor in a carpet of red-orange-brown.
A noise from the distance catches Severus's ear. He pulls his horse up short, holds up his hand as the others turn towards him. He listens, holding his breath.
The steady thump grows louder. Severus exchanges a look with his father. Tobias nods grimly.
Severus swears. "We'll have to go off the path."
"And lose our way?" Tobias shakes his head. "Think on, lad."
"There's no other choice." Severus grips his reins tighter. The leather is rough against his palms; the horse whinnies and shifts beneath him, annoyed. "If they split and circle around to the pass--" His sigh is a grey puff in the cold air. "Our best escape is to cross the border into Arawn's territory as soon as we can. They won't cross the Cocytus without an act of war, and not even the Dark Lord's fool enough to allow that to happen. Not here."
His father runs a hand over his face. "Aye. You've a point."
"If we keep going west we'll find the Cocytus," Severus says. "We just have to follow the sun."
A nod from Tobias. "Put thee foot down then." He snaps his reins and turns his horse to the west. With a harsh shout he sends it cantering into the woods. Severus looks at Potter who follows without protest.
Severus digs his heels into his horse's flanks. The creature snorts and shakes its head before trotting after them. The leaves crackle beneath his hooves; Severus ducks to keep from being scraped by low-hanging branches. They're a quarter-mile into the forest when he hears the shouts from the trail. He leans over his horse's neck, the mane slapping into his face. He hopes they haven't ballsed up.
The screech takes him by surprise. He sees a flash of green skin and thick, snarled black hair before the banshee drops on him, her claws tight around his neck. His vision blurs; her keening wail fills his hearing.
And then she's gone, and his skin stings where her claws slid across it. He hears a shout and he wheels his horse around only to see his father drag her to the ground. A wound in her side pours thick black blood.
"Not my son," Tobias screams at her, and he swings his sword again. She reaches for his throat with another scream, and her long, razor-sharp nails slice through Tobias's skin just as his blade cleaves her in two. She falls, pulling Tobias with her.
With a shout, Severus is off his horse, running towards his father. He jerks the banshee's hand from Tobias's throat. His father's neck is mangled; the skin is bunched at one side of the tears; gristle peeks through the ripped muscle. Blood is everywhere. Severus's hands tremble as he lifts his father, pulls him against him.
"I'm sorry," he whispers into his father's hair, rocking back and forth. He's cold. Too cold. He can't stop shaking. "I'm sorry, Da. I'm sorry."
His father raises his hand weakly, brushes his fingers against Severus's cheek before reaching for Severus's hand and gripping it tightly.
"I'm sorry," Severus murmurs again, and a lifetime of regret fills those two words. "Please, Da…"
Tobias squeezes his fingers. His eyes are fixed on Severus's, dark and intense, and the grief in them tells Severus everything he needs to know. Severus chokes back a sob, his throat tight and tense. He clings to his father's hand, holding it fast even as his father's body begins to shimmer and to fade.
He's gone. Severus kneels in the leaves, his cloak and hands stained with his father's blood.
"Snape," he hears Potter say softly, then again, louder this time. "Snape!"
Severus looks up. Two Tartaruans are running through the trees towards them. Severus doesn't want to move. He doesn't care if they take him, but Potter's hand is on his shoulder and he's being pulled to his horse.
He climbs up on it, and to his surprise, Potter swings up behind him.
"I reckon you shouldn't be riding alone right now," Potter murmurs in his ear, and he reaches around Severus to grab the reins. The press of his body against Severus's is oddly comforting. "Come on, Al."
The boy spurs his horse on. The Tartaruans race after them, only to be outdistanced. Severus can hear them shouting for their companions.
Potter stops in a clearing. He's breathing hard against Severus's shoulder.
"What the hell are you doing?" Severus demands. They're not far enough from the Tartaruans, and even on foot the bastards are quicker than one might think.
"Trying something." Potter pulls a silver cord from his pocket.
Severus watches him with narrowed eyes. "What's that?'
"A gift from a friend, I hope." Potter ties the cord around a low branch of one of the poplars. A jet bead on the end of the cord swings in the wind. It catches a ray of sunlight that filters through the trees and gleams.
The branches of the poplar rustle, and then a woman is there, tall and slender, her silver-brown hair falling in soft waves to her hips. Leaves are woven through it, brown and yellow, and she wears a grey wool robe tied with a thin brown rope. She looks between the three of them.
"Which of you called me?" she asks and her voice is deep and melodic.
Severus and Albus look at Potter.
"I suppose that would be me," Potter says, his cheeks flushing.
The woman holds out her hand. The silver cord circles her wrist, the ends falling loose. "This is my sister Leuce's ribbon."
"She gave it to me," Potter says. He looks nervously over his shoulder towards the forest. "Look, I hate to be a bit of sod here, but we're in a slight spot of trouble and we could really use your help, er…"
"Aigeiros." She tilts her head to one side. "I see. In what way?"
Shouts come from behind them. "Potter," Severus says warningly. He tugs at the reins. The horse prances and tosses its head with a neigh.
"There are some…people," Potter says. "They're after us--"
"And I should help you why?" Aigeiros crosses her arms. Her eyes are old and weary. Severus wonders how much the dryad has seen.
Potter meets her gaze. "Leuce promised me you would," he says softly, and Aigeiros sighs. "My son and I…" Potter's voice catches. "We want to go home. Please help us."
Aigeiros glances towards young Albus Severus. Her face softens. "These men will hurt you?"
"Yes," Albus says. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "They already have."
The dryad studies him for a long moment, and the boy meets her gaze steadily. She nods. "You'll have assistance."
There's crashing in the underbrush, and Tartaruans break through, their swords in the air.
"Go," Aigeiros says.
Potter wheels the horse around. "Al," he shouts, and the boy follows, clinging to the saddle.
The dryad steps in front of the Tartaurans, her arms outstretched. She cries out, a sharp, trilling note that brings the guards to a halt. A stream of women flow from the forest, filling the clearing, leaves and twigs twisted through their hair. Their eyes are cold, their mouths set. They carry spears of sharp, polished wood. The points glisten in the sunlight.
The Tartaruans step back. Macnair gallops up, his cloak flowing behind him. "What are you waiting for?" he roars. "After them!"
Severus jerks the reins from Potter's hands. "Hold on," he snaps, and he slaps them against the horse's neck. Potter wraps his arms around Severus's waist, leans against his back.
There's a rustle behind them, like wind through the branches of trees in spring, and the Tartaruans surge forward. The last Severus sees as the trees close behind them is the men, enveloped by a rush of willowy women.
Their screams echo through the forest.
Severus shudders and urges the horse on.
They stop on the other side of the Cocytus. There are caves tucked into the mountainside, and Harry deems them safe enough to sleep.
Snape doesn't object, which surprises him. Instead, he pulls his cloak off and hands it to Harry. "Make a place for the boy to rest," he says quietly, and he walks out of the cave.
Harry spreads the cloak out on the least rocky stretch, and Al collapses on it gratefully, pulling it over one shoulder. He's shivering.
"You all right?" Harry asks. He smooths Al's hair back from his forehead and settles next to his son. He sets the Claíomh Solais beside Al.
Al nods. "Tired," he admits. He runs a finger along the carved scabbard of the sword.
"It's been a long day."
"More than that," Al murmurs. He curls beneath the blanket, looking pale and wan, and Harry's heart clenches.
"Whatever he did to you," Harry says fiercely, his hand on Al's shoulder, "it's not your fault."
"Dad." Al's voice is quiet, heavy. "Don't."
Harry falls silent. If he could kill the fucking bastard again, he would. Over and over and over again. "I love you," he whispers.
Al's fingers slide over Harry's, twining with them. He squeezes gently.
Within minutes he's asleep. Harry waits until Al's breath is steady and even, then he slips Al's glasses off and folds them, setting them within reach. His back aches as he stands and stretches.
Snape's sitting outside, leaning against a tree trunk. Blood's dried on his shirt in rusty streaks. His legs are bent, spread, one arm dangling off his kneecap. He takes a drag off a cigarette.
Harry drops down next to him. Snape blows a thin stream of smoke into the darkening sky. The river curls below; Harry can see the whitecaps as it rushes over broken stones. It's cold out here, but not unbearable. He pulls his knees to his chest.
They're silent for a long moment, then Snape sighs and rests his head against the tree. "Is he all right?"
"For now," Harry says. "I don't think it's going to be easy for him when we get home." His mouth tightens, then he looks at Snape. "What about you?"
Snape shrugs. "Fine."
"Bollocks," Harry says. "Your dad--"
The glare Snape turns on him stops him in his tracks. Harry wraps his arms around his legs and rocks forwards slightly. He presses his mouth to his knees and breathes out. The warmth fogs his glasses briefly then dissipates. He leans back. "I'd have done the same thing for Al that your dad did for you."
Snape flicks ash off the end of his cigarette. "My father was a drunk," he says dully, "who spent most of his time roughing my mother and I up. He was not the wizarding world's grand Gryffindor hero."
"So?" Harry shrugs. "He was an arsehole when he was alive. Didn't seem that way here."
Snape rolls the cigarette between his fingers, staring down at it. Ash drifts between his thighs. "No."
Harry doesn't say anything. He wishes he had a beer. This would be easier. Instead he settles back against the tree, his shoulder pressed to Snape's. Snape doesn't pull away.
It's an oddly comfortable position. Snape's arm is warm and solid. Harry resists the urge to move closer.
"He changed," Snape says softly. He lifts the cigarette to his mouth. "I didn't want to believe him."
An owl hoots in the branches above them. There's a rustling in the leaves, and then it swoops down after a field mouse, arcing back up into the trees with its supper dangling from its beak.
"You kissed me," Snape says, out of nowhere. He watches the owl settle on a branch. "Why?"
Harry rubs his palms over his jeans. "I don't know."
Snape snorts and he grinds his cigarette into the dirt. "Bollocks."
"You kissed me back," Harry points out.
"Yes," Snape says simply, and the eyes he turns on Harry are dark and shadowed.
Harry's stomach flips. He remembers the want that shuddered through him when Snape's mouth opened to his. He shifts, his jeans suddenly tight. "Why?" he chokes out.
Snape looks at him for a long moment, and Harry's caught, unable to turn away. "Because I wanted to."
"Oh." Harry licks his bottom lip. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Do you still want to?"
The pause draws out, and Harry's kicking himself for asking such a stupid question when Snape murmurs, "I shouldn't."
It's not a no, Harry notes. Something in him flutters. "But you do." He can't keep the tinge of smugness out of his voice.
And then Snape's fingers are tangled in his hair, and he's being drawn forward, towards that mouth--
Snape tastes of cigarettes.
It's nice, Harry thinks, pressing his tongue against Snape's, and then he can't think because Snape is kissing him again and it's better than he remembered, all teeth and tongues and slick heat.
He feels the ground beneath his shoulder blades.
"This is mad," Snape says against Harry's mouth, and Harry slides his hands over Snape's back. He can feel the arch of Snape's spine beneath his shirt; he lets his fingers trail down the knobby ridge.
"He's sleeping." Harry grins. "And I'm good at being quiet."
"I'm not." Snape's teeth graze Harry's bottom lip. His tongue swipes the sting away. "You'll be home tomorrow."
"Yeah." Harry spreads his thighs, arches up into Snape's next kiss. "So?"
"Jesus Christ," Snape says roughly, and his mouth covers Harry's, his tongue sliding deeper. Snape smells earthy, sweaty. Salty-sour. He rocks his hips forward, and Harry can feel the hot swell of Snape's cock against his. It's nearly his undoing.
He pulls his mouth away, pushes Snape, rolling them over until he straddles Snape's thin hips. He's breathing hard; his glasses are askew. He smooths his hands over Snape's shirt, feeling the muscles beneath the thin cotton. Snape presses into Harry's touch, one hand flailing out, fingers twisting in the weeds around them.
"You reek," Harry says with a laugh.
"Might I point out your hygiene is not impeccable at the moment either?" Snape says breathlessly. "I crawled through a damned sewer to rescue your worthless arse, thank you very much." He closes his eyes with a groan when Harry scrapes his thumbnail over one nipple.
Harry's amazed. He'd never imagined Snape would like being touched so much, and he suddenly wants more. Wants to feel the warmth of Snape's skin against his palms.
"Worthless?" Harry grins down at him.
Snape's hands catch Harry's hips. "Very."
"That's not what I've been told."
"Mmm." Snape's fingers slip beneath the waistband of Harry's jeans, brushing lightly across his skin. "By tasteless cretins, I'm certain."
"Not fair." Harry pulls at Snape's shirt buttons, his fingers fumbling in his haste, and Snape reaches in to help. His long fingers brush against Harry's thick ones. Harry shivers. He slides one hand into Snape's shirt, stroking across his chest as he jerks the rest of the buttons open, pulls the shirt from Snape's trousers.
Snape's skin is soft; the sparse hair on his chest scratches Harry's palm. It's incredible. Harry pushes Snape's shirt open and stares at him. Snape's thin--too thin, Harry thinks--and white scars criss-cross his pale skin. The wound from the knife is pink and puffy, but it's knitted together already. Harry touches it gently. The scarred skin glistens in the moonlight.
"Does it hurt?"
"Some." Snape watches him, his eyes dark. "Not much now."
Harry brushes his fingertips over the scar. "It healed fast."
"A benefit of death." Snape's side trembles with each uneven breath. "One's noncorporeal body tends to recuperate quickly."
"You feel pretty corporeal to me," Harry murmurs. He flattens his hand against Snape's side. "Why didn't my ankle do that?"
Snape snorts. His hand slips over Harry's. "You're still alive, you twit."
"Right." Harry runs his palm over each bumpy rib, over peaked brown nipples. He loves the sound Snape makes--half moan, half gasp--when his fingers circle each aureole, barely brushing them. "Does this hurt?"
A sharp breath, then, "No." The word is soft, velvet-rumbly. It makes Harry ache.
He rocks back. Snape's hard; Harry can feel him against his arse and it thrills him. He leans in, drags his tongue across Snape's chest. Snape tastes salty and bitter and when Harry lets his teeth scrape over a nipple, Snape bucks beneath him and swears. Harry grins and sucks the nipple into his mouth. He'd always been good at this; he'd driven Ginny mad with want just by playing with her tits. Now he wants to know if it has the same effect on Snape.
Snape writhes beneath him, presses against his mouth. His fingers tangle in Harry's hair and he urges Harry to suck him, to bite him.
A nip of teeth, a slick swipe of his tongue. Snape tugs at Harry's hair with a cry. He pulls Harry up, kisses him, a rough, needy press of his mouth to Harry's.
They roll over; Snape pushes at Harry's jumper. "Too many clothes," he grunts, and Harry helps him tug it over his head. His glasses come with it. Snape plucks them from Harry's hair, sets them aside before leaning in to kiss him again. They're skin to skin and Harry's never felt anything so fucking good. He presses his mouth to Severus's neck.
He can feel Nagini's scar beneath his lips, the twisted skin that's the only reminder he's kissing a dead man.
Snape pulls away. His hands cup Harry's jaw; he studies Harry's face. His long hair falls forward, hiding both of them from the world, Harry thinks.
"Please," Harry whispers, and then Snape's kissing him again, moving against him. He loves the taste of Snape's tongue, the warm wetness of Snape's breath against his lips. His hands are tight on Snape's shoulders, holding on as he rocks up against Snape and when Snape groans into his mouth, Harry digs his feet into the ground beneath them.
And then Snape's hand is between them and Harry feels a tug at his zip. "Oh, fuck yeah," he gasps out. "Please. Oh, God, yeah. Please."
Snape laughs, and Harry's never seen that, never heard it, and it goes straight to his cock. He swears as Snape pulls away, looking down at Harry. Snape jerks Harry's jeans down over his hips and rubs one palm over the swell in Harry's y-fronts. It feels fucking amazing. Harry pushes against Snape's hand, his eyes fixed on Snape's face.
"Like it?" he asks.
The corners of Snape's mouth twist up. "It's adequate." He curls his fingers around Harry's cotton-covered cock. The y-fronts stretch over the head; a damp spot spreads across the fabric. Harry wants more.
"Come on--" Harry's breath comes in sharp, short gasps. He reaches for Snape only to have his hands shoved away.
"Patience, Potter." Snape's finger trails up the underside of Harry's cock, rubbing circles across the fabric. Harry moans and twists beneath him. He tries to sit up, to get closer, but Snape pushes him back down. He holds Harry's hips still, and then he peels Harry's pants down slowly. Cold air rushes across Harry's prick and balls, only to be replaced be Snape's warm palm. Snape squeezes gently.
"You're killing me." Harry slides his hands over Snape's forearms. His cock is hard against his stomach. Snape stares down at it, his thumb stroking the crepey softness of Harry's sac. Harry hasn't been this fucking turned on in years. He wants Snape to swallow him, wants to feel that mouth around his prick, sucking him until he pops, fills Snape's mouth with fucking come---
He doesn't realise he's talking until Snape leans in, his hands on either side of Harry's shoulders, and whispers, "Time for that later." His mouth brushes Harry's. "Touch me."
Harry doesn't hesitate. He slides both hands between them, his fingers pulling at the buttons on Snape's trousers. It takes him a moment to get them free; he can feel the heat from Snape's cock against the back of his hands and it drives him mad. He shoves the trousers open, pushes at Snape's pants. He cups his hands around Snape's balls.
"Oh, Christ," Harry whispers, and he leans up to kiss Snape again. Snape's prick presses against Harry's. It's damp already, and Snape's slick foreskin is stretched. Harry rubs a finger across it, sliding the tip of his thumb beneath the folded skin. It moves slightly; Snape groans and shudders above him. "Tell me you want me," Harry says.
"I'd think it obvious," Snape grumbles. He captures Harry's mouth with his; his tongue drags across Harry's teeth before he pulls back. "I want you."
Snape bites at Harry's wrist, then turns his head, his mouth nuzzling the soft skin beneath Harry's ear before trailing down Harry's jaw. Harry arches his neck; his eyelids flutter. He's never known how fucking erotic being kissed can be.
"Lick," he says, holding up his hand and Snape laps at his palm, toungue rough against Harry's skin. His heated eyes make Harry's stomach tense.
Harry curls his wet fingers tight around their pricks. Snape gasps at the press and slide of cock against cock and Harry grins. Rocks and tree roots cut into his back. He doesn't care. Instead he pushes his hips up, arching against Snape, and reveling in the groan he elicits from his former professor.
They rut together, kissing roughly, eagerly. Skin slips sweaty-slick over skin, mouths meet and bite. Snape's balls drag across Harry's, and Harry's hips buck up. He digs his fingers into Snape's shoulders. "I need," he chokes out, then breaks off in a cry as Snape's prick moves against his, wet and hot.
Snape's breathing hard. His hair swings forward, catching on the corner of Harry's mouth. It's thick and lank, and Harry turns his head, bites at Snape's jaw. "Want you," he says breathlessly, and Snape shudders, thrusts against him, his cock slipping over Harry's stomach. Harry pushes up and Snape cries out, his body tensing.
"Harry," he says, his eyes wide, and then, head thrown back, he's coming in sharp, quick spurts against Harry's hip.
It's incredible, Harry thinks, watching Snape above him. Snape's not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, but Harry wants him--Christ, how he wants him. He drags his hands down Snape's back, his callused fingers catching on the cotton of his shirt. He want Snape, wants his cock and his mouth and his hands, God.
And then Snape's sliding down him, his hair trailing across Harry's chest, over his stomach and he's licking at the come smeared across Harry's skin.
Harry's never seen anything so fucking hot in his life. Not even Ginny between his legs. Not even the Muggle boy who'd dropped to his knees in the alley behind a
Snape smooths fingers over a long, pink scar on Harry's stomach. "Is this from the train wreck?"
No one's ever touched the scar before. It's still raised, still a bright slash across Harry's pale skin. Ginny had hated it the last few months they were together. She couldn't even look at him. Harry breathes out slowly. "Yeah. It's--" He swallows, his throat tight. "The steel went through Al and into me. It wasn't deep enough to hurt anything internally, but …" He trails off, watching Snape trace circles with his thumb.
And then Snape kisses it, drags his tongue across the puffy skin. He looks up at Harry and says quietly, "Let it go, Potter." Harry's breath is ragged and sharp.
"You should," Snape murmurs.
"Yes." Snape's mouth barely brushes the head of Harry's prick; his breath gusts warm over Harry's heated skin. He holds Harry's hips still.
Harry twists beneath him. Snape's thumbs trace tiny circles over his hipbones, against the soft skin just above his prick. His throat closes; he shudders, his cock slapping against his stomach. "Suck me."
It's a desperate plea, not a command, and his fingers pull at Snape's hair, trying to tug him closer. He needs this, has to have it.
Snape flicks his tongue across the head of Harry's cock and Harry jerks, moans. "Please," he says again, his voice breaking, and when Snape sucks him into his mouth, Harry arches up with a gasp, his eyes closing.
The air is cold against his chest and arms, but he's sweating. Harry feels a drop roll down his temple, catching in his hair. He can't breathe, doesn't want to breathe, just wants to feel this, feel the blood pounding through him, his body tensing with each swipe of Snape's fucking brilliant tongue--
Snape sucks him harder, the flat of his tongue pressing against the underside of Harry's prick and Harry digs one hand into the ground beneath him, fingers clutching at the dirt as he bites back a groan.
"Oh, fuck, yeah," he breathes out and his hips jerk as Snape takes him deeper into his mouth, his nose pressed against Harry's denim-clad thigh. Harry pushes himself up slightly. He has to see this, needs to watch Snape's mouth against his cock, his hair tucked behind one ear. Harry's prick slips wetly through Snape's lips, thick and heavy.
He's shaking now, and he knows he's close. "Snape," he says warningly, but Snape just looks up at him and slides further down Harry's cock.
It's too much.
Harry comes with a gasp, his body jerking, his stomach tensing with each shuddering spurt. Come fills Snape's mouth, slips down Harry's cock. Harry can't tear his eyes away. He's gasping, cold air burning his lungs, and when Snape licks his cock clean, Harry groans, pulls Snape up to kiss him. He can taste himself on Snape's tongue. It makes him want more.
They lie on the ground, bodies trembling. Harry can feel Snape's breath on his neck, then Snape slides off him with a sigh. He pulls his trousers together, buttons them halfway before sitting up, his knees at his chest. He runs his hands over his face and mutters, "Fuck."
"I wasn't that bad." Harry sits up and winces. His jeans dig into his balls. He shoves himself back into his pants and zips his jeans before looking at Snape.
"No," Snape says through splayed fingers. "You weren't." His laugh is hollow. "That was…" He trails off.
"Fucking incredible?" Harry crawls towards him. A rock digs into his knee.
Snape doesn't answer.
Harry touches his back lightly. Snape doesn't pull away. "I told you I'm not seventeen any more," Harry says softly. He strokes his palm down Snape's side, slips his arms around Snape's waist. He rests his chin on Snape's shoulder.
The sky is dark through the branches above them. Stars shine faintly through the clouds, and the thick autumnal scent of the poplars fills the air. Snape sighs and he curls a hand over Harry's. He leans back against him. "I know," he says. He snorts in amusement. "Technically, I suppose you're now older than I."
"Technically," Harry says with a smile. He presses his mouth against Snape's shirt. It's still open; the fabric is loose over Snape's shoulder. He flattens a palm against Snapes bare stomach. "I wanted this."
Snape doesn't answer, but his fingers tense over Harry's.
"I wanted you." Harry hesitates. "Come back with us," he says in a rush. He presses his face against Snape's hair. His hand trembles. He doesn't know why he's asking. He just doesn't want to walk away.
There's a long pause. "I can't," Snape says finally.
"Why not?" Harry already knows the reason.
Snape snorts. His thumb rubs against the back of Harry's hand. "I've been dead too long."
"So?" Harry's throat tightens. "What difference does that make?"
"The dead can't leave here." Snape stares up at the stars.
"They've done it before." Harry looks evenly at Snape. "I know the stories. Persephone. Half a year down here, half a year up above--"
"Don't be an idiot," Snape says, almost gently. He turns, pushes Harry back against the ground. His mouth brushes Harry's. "Just shut up and enjoy tonight, Potter."
"Take what I can have?" Harry whispers. He wraps his arms around Snape's neck.
Snape kisses him slowly. "Something like that."
Harry pushes Snape's shirt off his shoulders.
Dawn comes early.
Severus slides from beneath Potter's arm. He watches Potter sleep for a moment, curled in on himself, eyelashes dark against his cheek.
They'd slept only a few hours. The majority of the night had been spent touching. Kissing. Sucking. Severus had allowed himself one night to quench his lust for Potter.
It hadn't been enough.
He pulls away, reaches for his boots. They'd dressed before they slept, both for warmth and for the fear of Albus Severus waking before them. He tugs the laces tight and knots them before pushing himself up and going to check on the horses.
The boy's sitting outside the cave, wrapped in Severus's cloak. Severus stops, suddenly uncertain.
Green eyes look up at him, steady and clear. "Dad's still asleep?"
"Yes." Severus rubs one palm over an elbow. He doesn't bother to pretend. "He's tired."
Albus Severus snorts. "I bet." A pale hand emerges and pushes his glasses up his nose. "Sound travels at night, you know."
"I am aware." Severus prides himself on not flushing. "You don't seem upset."
The boy shrugs. "I'm not stupid. Mum and Dad have been having problems for a while. It didn't take a swot to see that, or to figure out why. Dad's not exactly as discreet as he likes to think."
Severus bites back a laugh. He sits next to the boy. "I would concur with that assessment."
"Yeah." Albus Severus rolls his eyes. "Even Jamie figured it out the last time Dad ogled some bloke's arse in Diagon Alley. And he's a Gryffindor." He looks wistful. "I miss Flourish and Botts."
"As do I." Severus crosses his arms over his chest. It's curious the things that one misses the most upon death. "And Tom's mushrooms in butter with three fingers of whisky at the Leaky Cauldron."
"And ginger-pecan ice cream from Florescue's."
They exchange a heavy sigh. One learns what true homesickness is when one is dead.
"I want to go home," Albus Severus says quietly.
That, Severus also completely understands.
"Dad wants you to come with us, doesn't he?" The boy watches Severus, his eyes sharp and bright.
Severus says nothing. He looks away.
"You should, you know." Albus Severus touches his hand hesitantly, as if he's afraid Severus will snap at him. Perhaps he's not wrong.
Severus pulls away. "It's an utterly ridiculous idea."
"Not any more than me going home."
The brat has a point. Severus swears under his breath. "You're young and have family awaiting you. I, on the other hand, have murder charges--"
"Oh, please." Albus Severus wraps his arms around his knees. He looks remarkably like his father, down to the stubborn set of his jaw. "Dad had those erased a long time ago. He's head of the Aurors, you know."
Severus frowns. Of course Potter would. The damned fool.
"Just think about it," Albus Severus says. He looks soberly at Severus.
"I've my mother." Severus can't believe he's even considering such a preposterous idea. Much less one proposed by Potters, for God's sake. "I can't leave her."
That distracts the boy. "I want to see my Mum," he says morosely. "She makes the best curry noodles on Saturday nights and she doesn't even shout if we sit in front of the telly and watch Doctor Who while we eat."
A small smile twists Severus's mouth. "I was fond of him as well." He stares off into the distance. "I watched the programme with my father when I was a child."
Albus Severus is silent for a moment, then he reaches over and squeezes Severus's hand quickly. "I'm sorry."
Severus stands up, brushing the dirt from his trousers. "Wake Potter. We'll need to leave soon."
He goes to find the horses.
By mid-afternoon they've reached the valley below. They follow the curve of the Cocytus, the horses carefully picking their way along the stony path. The river is wide and dark, so thick at times that it seems impossible to see the other bank.
"You're sure we're going the right direction?" Harry asks, and he receives a baleful glare from Snape in return. He rolls his eyes. "I was just curious."
Al presses his face against Harry's back, muffling a laugh.
"You should be standing up for me," Harry points out.
"I should," Al cheerfully agrees. "But I'm not Gryffindor enough."
"Not an excuse you can use forever." Harry guides the horse behind Severus's. He's gotten used to this riding shite, he thinks. Maybe he'll have to buy a horse or two when they get home. Lils has been asking for a pony since she was old enough to toddle around. He can buy a bit of land in Wales maybe. A cottage in the countryside that the kids can come stay at during hols if Ginny will let them.
Ginny. He's got used to the idea of their divorce now. Strange, that, and he wonders how much of it is the strangeness of being down here and how much of it is, well, Snape. Harry studies the man in front of him, watches how he sits his horse gracefully. That arse is a damned thing of beauty. He shifts, thinking of how firm and smooth it was under his mouth last night. Christ.
They haven't spoken about it since he woke up.
Harry's stomach rumbles, a loud, angry growl. Snape looks at him. "How much further is it?" Harry asks. He hasn't eaten in almost two days. The other two have at least had berries and nuts from the trail. Harry's almost ready to wish he were dead too.
"Not far, I think." Snape draws his horse up, his head cocked slightly.
"What is it?" Harry asks.
"Quiet." Snape frowns.
The wind whispers through the branches of the poplars; the river splashes against the rocks on the bank.
And then Harry hears it, the steady thud of boots. "Shit."
"My sentiments as well," Snape says grimly.
There's chittering from one of the poplars, and then a high-pitched, "Severus!" Ratatosk leaps from branch to branch, breathing hard.
Snape spurs his horse over. "What is it?"
The squirrel wheezes, bent over and gasping. "Arawn. Coming from Annwn. With Riddle." He coughs and sputters. "He wants the sword…"
Reflexively, Harry puts his hand on the hilt of the Claíomh Solais. The sword's almost become a part of him; he didn't even stop to consider before buckling it around his hips this morning. It thrums softly against his palm.
Snape swears. "How far away?"
Ratatosk shakes his head. "Not far. Pish sent me. He's men on the way, trying to catch up to Arawn, and Hades is with him. But you'll have to take the shortcut to the bridge. Try to go around them." The squirrel takes a deep breath. "Through the Well if the Norns let you."
"Has he lost his damned mind?" Snape snaps. "I hate those damned women. They spend too much time gossiping with my mother."
"He said you'd say that." Ratatosk rubs the back of his paw against his nose. "Doesn't matter, you have to or you'll be caught before they can catch up." His glance slides to Harry. "They're going to kill the boy when they find you and take Potter's body. And the sword."
Snape glares at him. "We can't go back to Yggsdrasil. There's not time."
"What well?" Harry asks. He's no idea what Snape's on about. "Is it faster?"
Snape's jaw tightens. The muscle in his cheek jumps. "The Well of Urd. The only way to reach it is through the trunk of the Yggsdrasil and we're a good three days ride from my cottage." He presses his lips together. "You need food and water, Potter. You can't last another three days without your body giving out on you."
"There's another way," Ratatosk says, and they all look at him. He coughs and smooths the tuft of fur on his head with one paw. He pats the branch he sits on. "All roots lead to Yggsdrasil, they say. Not that the dryads are much use unless they want to be. It's the only way."
"Aigeiros," Al says, leaning over Harry's shoulder. "She'll help."
"I've no idea how to ask." Harry tugs on his fringe. "I don't have the cord--"
Ratatosk chitters. "Easy enough. You just ask a tree." He rolls his eyes. "Humans. Really."
Snape and Harry exchange a look. "You might as well try," Snape says grudgingly, and Harry nods.
He nudges the horse closer to the tree and leans out to touch its trunk. "Um, hullo." Harry feels an utter prat. He clears his throat. "I need to speak to Aigeiros, please."
Harry's just about to pull away when a rustle goes through the leaves, carried on into the next tree and down the line, building into a loud rush before dying down.
As silence falls, he hears a soft laugh and a quiet Yes?
The dryad stands behind them, the wind gently lifting her long curls.
"We need your help again," Harry says, apologetically, and Snape cuts him off.
"Passage to Yggdrasil." He hesitates. "Or rather the Well of Urd."
"I see. For the same reason?" At Harry's nod, Aigeiros sighs. "This is irregular; however, given your circumstances…" She touches the tree trunk, whispers something against the bark.
The tree shivers and shudders before widening. A dark hole, just barely able to fit a man, opens in the trunk.
"You'll have to leave your horses," the dryad says. Snape's already dismounted. Harry helps Al slide off, then he slips out of the saddle, stopping to pet the horse. He's grown fond of it.
Aigeiros motions for them. "Follow me." She steps into the trunk.
"Find Pish," Snape tells Ratatosk. "Let him know we'll be there soon enough."
Shouts from up the hill catch Harry's attention. A group of men, dark green cloaks billowing behind them, are running towards them, swords raised. "Snape," he says.
"Get in." Snape pushes Al and Harry into the tree. He follows them, looking behind only as the trunk snaps shut again.
It's dark at first before Harry's eyes adjust to the gloom. He can barely see Aigeiros in front of them. She leads them down a circling stone stairway. Roots stick out of the earthen walls, catch Harry's jumper, pulling him off balance. Snape's hands steady him, warm and firm against Harry's arms.
"Thanks," he murmurs. Snape only grunts.
The steps end finally. A corridor stretches in front of them. Other stairways branch off of it. It's lighter here, and warmer. Harry scratches the back of his neck where his jumper rubs the skin. He's tempted to take it off.
They walk forever it seems, the only sound the echo of their footsteps. From time to time Harry thinks he hears whispers and giggles. He's certain his mind is playing tricks on him until he sees a small girl dart from one staircase to another, her eyes wide as she watches them pass. Her dark hair is twisted up, held in place by two twigs.
"Who's that?" he asks.
Aigeiros looks back. She smiles faintly. "A sapling, preparing for winter no doubt. We sleep down here when it's cold."
They turn a corner and Aigeiros stops. "This is as far as I can take you."
A lake stretches in front of them, covered in mist. The water is dark and tree roots twist above it, dangling into the murky depths.
"Bloody fuck," Al whispers.
"Language," Harry says automatically, but he agrees.
Snape nods to the dryad. "Thank you."
Aigeiros bows. "The sword commands," she says, her gaze falling to the Claíomh Solais at Harry's side. "Should you need me further…"
She disappears into the darkness behind them.
"Now what?" Harry asks.
Snape's already in the water. It's up to his kneecaps. "Urd," he shouts. It echoes in the silence. "Verdandi! Skuld!"
"What's he doing, Dad?" Al whispers.
Harry shakes his head. "I have no damn idea."
Water splashes as Snape wades back and forth. "Verdandi!"
"You needn't shout so, Severus." A woman appears on the shore, a skein of yarn in her hands. Her graying hair is tied neatly in a chignon at the nape of her neck. She wears a silver chain at her throat. The ends fall to the hem of her dark blue robe. "You know Urd will be furious if you wake her."
"I'm quite aware of that." Snape strides out of the water. His trousers are wet to his thighs. The wool clings to his skin. Harry tries not to notice. "We need passage to Bifröst."
Verdandi wrinkles her nose. "Whatever for?"
"To get me home, ma'am," Al says, stepping forward. He dips his head. "If you don't mind."
"Is this the boy then?" Verdandi moves closer. Harry can see the fine lines in the folds of her eyes. She's much older than she seems, he realises. "The one your mother's been speaking of?"
Snape rolls his eyes. "Most likely. We need to cross the lake. Quickly." He runs a hand through his hair, pushing it back before it falls over his face again. "Arawn would like to stop us."
Verdandi frowns. "Ridiculous boy, that one, but I don't know how I can help. You know I'm only meant to deal with the moment, not the future or past. My sisters--"
"This is the moment," Snape says, his irritation evident. "I'm not telling you to stop him. Just bloody well help us across the damned lake, you old heifer."
"Well. If you put it that way." Vendandi tucks her yarn in a pocket of her robe. "All right then, although I do hope that Skuld won't be annoyed. She does hate it when I futz about with what she thinks is her element." She claps her hands together and the ground shakes. Harry grabs Al to keep him from falling.
A boat appears on the shore.
"That should help, I think?" Verdandi looks at Snape.
He nods. "Thank you."
"Don't flatter yourself over much, boy." Verdandi frowns and pulls her yarn back out. Her fingers caress the skein. "If I didn't enjoy your mother's company, you'd have had no help at all." She turns and walks away, her robe trailing along the sand.
"Bloody bitch," Severus mutters under his breath. He looks at Harry and Al. "What are you waiting for? Get in."
There's no need to row the boat, for which Harry's grateful.
It sails through the mist quickly, sending splashes of water over the prow.
"What is Bifröst?" Harry asks Snape quietly. Al's leaning over the side of the boat, trailing his fingers through the water.
"The bridge," Snape says. He doesn't look at Harry.
"Oh." Harry pulls at a hangnail on his thumb. It stings; a bit of blood wells up. He rubs it away. "You're not coming with us, are you?"
Snape's silent for a moment. "No," he says finally.
Harry looks away.
They land on the opposite side with a thump. Al clambers over the side of the boat. Harry follows. He holds a hand out to Snape to help him over. Snape pushes him aside.
This should be happier, Harry thinks as they trudge up the hill away from the lake. The mist burns away; sunshine warms his shoulders. He's going home. With Al. This was the whole reason he came anyway.
His stomach still twists.
They crest the hill and Harry's breath is taken away.
The bridge, albeit slightly dilapidated, hangs high over the rushing river. It glitters and gleams in the sun, a smooth arc of colour and light. Its fallen rocks and pitted stones are barely noticeable. On the other side is granite gate.
"Wow," Al says. His eyes are wide. "It's a rainbow."
Snape snorts. "It's crystal. The colours are due to a prismatic effect with the light."
"Way to kill the magic," Harry murmurs. Snape shoots him a hateful glare. "So we cross and go through the gate and we're home."
"So I've been told." Snape stares across the gorge almost hungrily.
Harry touches his arm. "Come with us," he says again even though he knows what the answer will be.
Harry sighs. Al slips his hand in Harry's and squeezes.
They walk to the edge of the bridge. It's in worse condition than Harry expects. He puts on hand on the railing. Stones crumble beneath his fingers, tumbling into the deep gorge below. The bridge itself is unsteady, ancient. Harry wonders if it will even hold long enough for them to cross.
Snape touches Al's shoulder, then drops his hand. "Age well," he says gruffly. "And for God's sake don't make an utter tit of yourself in the process."
"I'll try." Al gives him a small smile. He pushes his glasses up.
There's an awkward silence.
"Al, give us a moment," Harry says. Al nods and he steps onto the bridge, his back to Harry and Snape. The bridge creaks beneath his weight; crystals clink against each other melodically. Al leans against the railing and peers down into the water below.
Harry just looks at Snape. He doesn't know what to say. He unbuckles the Claíomh Solais and hands it to Snape. "I guess you should have this."
"Yes." Snape takes it from him. "I suppose I should return it."
"Thank you." Harry licks his bottom lip. "For helping us." The words seem so inadequate.
The wind ruffles Snape's hair. He shrugs. "I did what was necessary."
"Maybe." Harry wraps his arms around himself. He feels almost naked without the sword at his side. Strange. "So this is it."
They're silent for a moment.
"It's not as if it's forever," Snape says finally. "Another hundred years and you'll be back."
Harry can't stop the laugh that bubbles up. If fades quickly. "I suppose that's one way of looking at it."
"Your son needs you," Snape says. "Sons, I should say. And your daughter."
"Yeah." Harry knows he's right. "Doesn't mean I want to leave you here."
Snape hesitates, then he touches Harry's cheek. "As much as I loathe this world, returning home would be worse." He looks past Harry, towards the gate. His eyes are tired and worn. "I'm not a traitor here."
"You're not at home either," Harry protests. "I've fought for that--"
"The very fact that you're required to fight makes my point."
Harry knows he's right. Snape would always in the minds of some stupid people be a Death Eater. Dumbledore's murderer. At least here he can be a hero. He turns his head, presses his mouth to Snape's knuckles. "Don't let yourself get killed, all right? I'd like you waiting for me when I come back."
"I'll make the attempt." A touch of humour lightens Snape's voice. "You should go, Potter."
Harry nods and he pulls away. He takes a step towards the bridge and the turns around again. "Severus."
Snape looks up as Harry moves closer. "What?" A furrow creases his forehead.
His mouth is soft when Harry kisses him.
"I will come back," Harry whispers and Snape nods.
"You've not much of a choice." He steps back. "Your son is waiting for you."
Al looks up when Harry steps onto the bridge. The crystals and rock trembles beneath both their weight. Stones rattle down the sides of the gorge. "All right, Dad?"
"Yeah." Harry musses Al's hair. He doesn't look at Snape behind them. "Let's go home."
They're halfway across the bridge when a handful of Tartaruans break over the hill. Their shouts echo through the valley.
Al grabs his arm. "Dad!"
Harry turns in time to see Snape pull the Claíomh Solais out. It catches the light, glittering in a pure white blaze as Snape swings it.
"Go," Snape shouts at them, but Harry hesitates. The sword arcs through the air, meeting a Tartaruan sword with a clang. The lesser steel shatters beneath the Claíomh Solais. The Tartaruan screams as another swing catches him just above the hip. He falls to the ground; the return strike explodes him into dust.
"Dad?" Al catches his arm. His eyes are worried; he looks past Harry at Snape, He staggers as another Tartaruan parries with him. "They're going to kill him."
Harry's all too aware of this. He won't let it happen. He won't. He needs Snape waiting for him.
"Go over to the other side," Harry orders.
"I want to help--"
"No," Harry snaps. He won't have his son caught in this. "Go over. Now."
Al scowls, but he turns. Harry grabs him. "Al." His son's face is pale. "If anything happens--look, you make sure you get through that gate, do you understand me? Even if you have to go alone. Just…" Harry takes a deep breath. "If that happens, just tell your Mum and Jamie and Lils that I love them. All right?"
"That won't happen," Al protests.
Harry's not so certain. He knows what battle's like. "Promise me, Al."
Al bites his lip. "Dad…" He trails off, then leans in and hugs Harry hard. "Don't let him die again."
"I love you." Harry kisses his son's temple, holds him tight. "Go on now." He doesn't wait for Al before he turns and runs back to Snape. He can't.
"What the hell are you doing, you damned fool?" Snape shouts at him. He ducks a sword thrust.
"Not about to watch you commit bloody suicide, thanks." Harry shoves a Tartaruan out of the way. The guard loses his balance and, with a scream, falls into the rushing river far below. "Give me a sword."
Without argument, Snape throws the Claíomh Solais Harry's way. He grabs his own sword from his side and swings it in a wide arc, sending a Tartaruan head flying.
Harry throws himself into the fray, his sword clanging loudly. He holds the sword in both hands, wielding it like a scythe at times. It's crude but effective and that's all that bloody matters, he reckons.
His shoulders ache, his arms are shaking and blood stings his eye. And then he realises with a shock that the guards they're fighting are only an advance group.
"Fucking shit," he spits out, his back to Snape's, as men and horses flow over the top of the hill, Macnair and Voldemort at their head. Another man rides with them, tall and with cropped ginger hair.
"Arawn," Snape says, gasping as he slams his sword into the side of a Tartaruan.
Harry swears and swings his sword again. "You'll have to cross the bridge," he says.
"No." Snape ducks a Tartuaran sword. He pushes past Harry, running towards Macnair, his mouth curled in a grimance. His hair streams behind him, and he shoves a Tartauran out of the way, slamming his elbow against the battered helmet. The Tartauran staggers backwards.
A shout of Harry rings out over the far ridge. Pish is there, riding through the throng, scattering the Tartaruans with a roar and a swing of his sword. Behind him gallops Sirius and Remus and his father, and Harry lets out a near hysterical laugh.
Blood streams down his arm; his shirt is torn and ripped. "Took you bloody long enough," he shouts at Pish.
Pish just grins. "Thought I'd give you a chance for glory, lad."
Harry snorts and runs his sword through the belly of a Tartaruan guard.
There are other men there that Harry doesn't know, ones that aren't Tartaruans, and they cut a swathe through the throng that had threatened to overwhelm them. Harry's lost in the clatter and clang of steel, and he can barely breathe. He can hear Sirius's roar of delight and Remus's barked orders and he swears he sees a flash of Tonks' bright hair. But all he can think of is how much he wants to live, how much he has to protect Snape.
A horse and rider send him spinning and he feels the sharp sting of a sword against his back. He stumbles forward in time to see Voldemort bearing down on him.
He hears his son shout, hears the panicked Dad echo across the gorge. Harry steps back onto the bridge. It shudders beneath him.
Voldemort's sword is at his throat. "Give me a reason, Potter."
"Fuck you." Harry spits at him, but Voldemort's not looking at him. Instead he's fixed on the gates, on Al standing between them.
"Never call me a man unable to reconsider," Voldemort murmurs, and he shoves him backwards, over the railing of the bridge. Al's shout echoes in Harry's ears as he falls.
His fingers close on one of the crystal pilings. Harry hangs there for a moment, breathing hard, then, muscles straining, aching, he pushes himself onto a narrow ledge. His body shudders at the effort; he collapses on all fours, swallowing back a wave of bile. When he looks up, Voldemort's halfway across the bridge.
There's no time for him to reach Voldemort, no way for him to stop him. Strike, the Claíomh Solais screams to him, thrumming through his body. Strike.
Harry doesn't stop to think. With one hand, he lifts the sword high and with all his strength throws it towards the centre truss. It hits the stone and crystal in an explosion of bright white light. Harry throws his hand up to shade his eyes.
The boom rocks the bridge. Voldemort stops. He looks back at Harry, eyes wild and angry, and the centre of the bridge shatters beneath him.
He plunges into the gorge below. Stone and crystal rain down after him.
Harry's pulled over the railing by strong hands. "Harry," he hears his father say against his ear, but all he can do is stare at his son on the cliff opposite him. An uncrossable hole in the bridge separates them.
"Dad," Al shouts, but the gates are closing, and within seconds they've disappeared, taking his son with them.
"Al," Harry screams and he tries to lunge forward, but his father holds him tight.
"He's gone, Harry, let him go," James whispers.
The battle echoes behind him.
Harry sinks to his knees, shaking.
"I figured in for a penny, in for a pound," Pish says cheerfully as he wraps Severus's arm. "So I went to Hades himself, told him what was for, and the next thing I know he was ordering horses and men from Elysium and be damned to the restrictions."
Severus winces at the tightness of the bandage. "You might have left Black and Potter out."
"As if that'd be possible." Pish ties the bandage off. "First ones to volunteer they were and I didn't reckon I'd any right to tell them no."
Much as he hates to agree, Severus knows Pish is correct. With a sigh, he pulls away. "I'm fine," he says and Pish just raises an eyebrow.
"You should talk to the lad, you know," he says.
Severus just glares at him and stalks off.
Harry sits on a boulder across the field. He stares out at the gorge and the rushing waters of the Cocytus. He doesn't look up when Severus settles next to him.
"Are you all right?" Severus asks, even though he knows the answer to the question.
Harry doesn't say anything. They sit quietly for a moment then Severus crosses his arms over his chest and frowns. "You saved him." He snorts. "To avoid seeming maudlin, I won't point out that you also saved the world. Again."
A sigh. "It's what I do," Harry says dully. He twists his hands in his jumper. His shoulders are slumped.
"Yes." Severus looks at Harry at the corner of his eye. "And yet."
"And yet." Harry blinks hard. His eyelashes are wet. "I've lost my boy. Again."
"No." Severus catches Harry's chin and turns Harry to look at him. "You gave him what my father gave me. Another chance." He runs his thumb over Harry's bottom lip. "He's alive because of you."
"What about my other kids? You're the one who said they needed me."
"Oh, please." Severus presses his lips together in annoyance. "Thirty-nine years old and the idiot still lives by guilt and self-blame. Bloody Gryffindors."
"Don't be a hypocrite," Harry says with a small smile.
"You've kept your family from being forced to raise the Dark Lord, mark three," Severus says bluntly. "I would consider that a success." He raises an eyebrow. "In any matter, you truly believe you can't meddle in their lives from here?"
Harry blinks, then laughs. "All right. Point taken."
"I am capable of making them adequately at times." Severus leans his shoulder against Harry's. He 's quiet for a moment, then he says, "We could always find another way of returning you." He hesitates. "It might take some time, however, to discover an adequate method."
Harry rubs his thumb over the back of his hand. "Yeah." He looks at Severus. "Or I could stay here." He bites his lip. "With you."
Severus only just manages to hide his smile. "That might be possible."
"It'd annoy Sirius."
"All the better."
Harry laughs and relaxes against Severus. "Do you think we could have sex in a bed next time? I'm too damn old for rocks up my arse on a regular basis."
"I would suspect that could be arranged."
Harry's kiss is gentle and careful and Severus thinks perhaps he could become used to this.
It scares the shit out of him.
He stands at the edge of the cliff, watching. The cold wind catches his dark hair, ruffles it.
Harry comes up behind Severus, slips his arms around his waist. "I don't know if you're more excited about this or I am."
Severus frowns. "I am most certainly not excited about your latest spawn's arrival."
"Yeah, you are." Harry rests his chin on Severus's shoulder. "It's been a while."
Seventy-eight Aboveworld years after all. Half that here, but still. Long enough to wait.
For the past bloody year, Ginevra and Lily been planning the party to welcome the second Potter child. After the suffering he endured upon the younger James' arrival--really, he had no bloody opinion on the colour of the tablecloths whatever Lily might think--Severus has done his bloody best to ignore their idiotic chatter whenever Harry forces him to visit Elysium--which is too damned frequent for his peace of mind. The restrictions have been lifted, on Hades' order, much to Harry's delight and Severus's dismay. He prefers the quiet of their cottage at Yggdrasil, even if he is forced to put up with Pish's calls upon his mother. There are far fewer Blacks and Potters wandering about.
Harry's eyes are bright behind his glasses. He licks his lip. "You think he'll recognise me?" Harry asks.
"Don't be a twat, Potter."
A ferry crosses the water below, bobbing small and shadowed against the wide swathe of the River Acheron. A man sits in it, his hair grey, his shoulders slightly stooped. His glasses catch the glimmer of light. He sees them and a wide smile breaks over his face, taking years away. Al waves, leaning out over the boat and nearly upsetting it in the process. Severus can hear Charon swear across the water.
He snorts and pulls Harry next to him, their hands twined together. They stand together, waiting for their son to come home at last.