Title: Strong at the Broken Places
Genres: Hurt/Comfort, Angst, Romance
Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters herein are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: After the war, both Snape and Harry have the chance to start over again…more than once. The choice is whether to go it alone or with each other.
Author's Notes: To my recipient: here's a helping of hurt/comfort, angst, Snape saving Harry again, plot, and a few other things you wanted that I'll not mention so you'll be surprised. Some events in this story were inspired by the film, 'An Affair to Remember,' with one dialogue line taken directly from it. My gratitude to my equally anonymous beta reader, who inspires, exhorts, and gently corrects.
Strong at the Broken Places
"The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills."
'A Farewell to Arms' ~~Ernest Hemingway
The biggest story had been the death of Voldemort.
In the days that followed, though, the role of Severus Snape in the war had finally come to the light, and the wizarding world was in shock. Any disbelievers had been firmly silenced the very first time Harry Potter gave an interview.
Then had begun the press' vigil at St. Mungo's, waiting for news of the 'Dark Hero,' as they'd so dramatically dubbed him, while he struggled for his very life. Healers were stymied—the man should've been dead, given the size and species of snake that'd bitten him, and the length of time he'd lain in the Shack afterward.
As the weeks went by, the press lost interest, and one by one, they abandoned their watch, all except for a single young, tenacious reporter who even slept in the poorly furnished waiting room, determined to be there if and when there would be news.
He was slouched down in his chair one night when a shadowy figure stole through the swinging doors to the private ward. Shaking off his sleepiness, he moved into position, ready to pounce when the visitor would finally leave.
And this was how his patience and dedication received their just reward: an exclusive opportunity to question Harry Potter about his one-time professor and now friend, it would seem.
"No, I wouldn't say we're friends," Potter objected.
"Then, why're you here, sir?" the journalist asked.
"Let's just say he deserves to have someone checking in on him."
"What've the two of you talked about? What has he had to say about your defeating the Dark Lord?"
Potter scrutinized him for a moment, then said, "We've hardly spoken at all, and as for defeating Voldemort, you and I wouldn't be here talking about that if it weren't for him." With a curt nod, he turned and headed purposely for the door.
"Mr. Potter! Is it true his wounds aren't healing?" But the only answer was the sound of the door as it clicked shut.
"HARRY POTTER MAKES DEAD-OF-NIGHT TRYST TO SEE DYING DARK HERO," Severus read aloud with disgust, then threw the Prophet aside.
"You're not dying," said the voice at the end of his bed, making Severus roll his head to look at him. "But you're not making acceptable progress either. As I told you last week, for you to heal fully, we're going to have to go."
Severus was tired, his neck throbbed, and a thin pink fluid seeped continuously through the bandages. He had no strength, no appetite, but even worse, now that the novelty of surviving had worn off, he was finding it hard to make himself care about what was to come: he'd not planned for it, that much was for certain, and now that 'forever' was here, he had no inclination to 'participate.'
Turning his face to the wall, he asked, "When?"
The man walked around the side of the bed and drew up a chair, forcing
Severus to look at him. "All the arrangements with the Greek Ministry of
Magic have been made. The excavation on
"And he knows what he's doing, I hope? I wouldn't want to be bitten a second time, although the irony would probably kill me first."
"Severus, you won't have to be anywhere near the snakes, I assure you. Besides, even though they're the same species as Nagini, they're relatively small."
"Such an inconvenience," Severus sighed.
Shaking his head, the man replied, "Fresh-squeezed venom twice a day for six months. Someone to wait on you, hand and foot. The Ministry is sparing no expense for its Dark Hero." He reached out and touched Severus' arm. "Use the time to sort out the rest of your life. And it's beautiful there—the birthplace of Apollo."
Severus looked up at the ceiling. "It's been a long while since I've seen the sea."
"Well, then, so you shall," the man said as he stood.
Twice a day, the snake-handler would seek Severus out, carrying one of the small serpents indigenous to the island, wrapped around his dark, muscled forearm. The potion had been prepared in quantity at St. Mungo's and brought along when Severus first came to the island. A pre-measured amount sat ready in the usual silver chalice, waiting for the snake to be milked directly against its rim. Once the venom mixed with the potion, Severus had only seconds to down it before its potency was affected.
Severus flexed his wrist to rotate the chalice and mix its contents, already steeling himself for the foul odor, and a taste even worse. Taking a deep breath, he gulped it in a single swallow, then slammed the chalice down hard onto the table, struggling to keep the vile concoction in his stomach.
"That bad, huh?"
He looked up, his eyes watering, then said, "Perhaps you'd like to try it?" he asked sarcastically, gratified when Potter shook his head quickly.
"Explain again why they can't just pack up a few snakes and haul them
"The venom is altered when they're relocated. Whether it’s the water, or what they eat, maybe the climate…." Severus reached out to touch the sliver green snake on Zef's arm before the handler left the porch with a nod towards him and Harry. "Whatever it is, it's enough to render the potion ineffective."
Potter studied him. "So…one month down, and five to go, then?"
"More or less," Severus replied. "I'm hoping more."
They didn't speak for several moments, both of them looking out over the
small beach to where the
"Not too much of a hardship, though. It's a pretty place," Potter finally broke the silence.
Severus stiffened. "Why are you here? I gave them strict instructions that no one was to know."
Potter smiled. "Ah, but I'm not just any no one, remember?" He leant over and began to untie his shoes. Severus watched, fascinated, as he removed first one, then the other, then both socks at once. As he started to roll up his trouser legs, he said conversationally, as if they'd always been in the habit of discussing mundane matters, "I had to come. I wanted to come," he finished as he stood and towered over Severus.
Severus thought he looked rather silly, with his shirttails un-tucked and hanging down loose over his rolled-up trousers, so it looked as if he didn't have any on at all.
"Walk down to the water with me?" Potter asked as he stepped off the porch, then stopped to wait with a question in his eyes.
Self-conscious in his cut-off trousers and plain white tee shirt, which he knew was so thin his skin poked through in places, Severus stood and shaded his eyes to peer at the water. "Not for long. The sun's at its hottest." He stepped down off the porch, then the two of them took off toward the beach.
"I wanted to see
"Then you're making a poor start. Technically
Potter stopped at the edge of the sand, his hands shoved in his pockets as
he squinted, looking out to sea. "I came to see you, not
"Then why didn't you bloody well say so?" Severus asked irritably, partially to hide his confusion over what to say to such an admission.
Severus never really asked how long Potter intended to stay, but at the end of a week, he was curious. They were sitting under a makeshift umbrella in the sand, only their feet stretched out in the full sun.
"Do you remember me visiting you in St. Mungo's?" Potter asked out of the blue.
"Of course I do. I was ill, not out of my mind," Severus retorted, reaching into the straw bag to pull out another bottle of mineral water. Popping the cap, he took a swig, casting a sideways look at Potter. "Why?"
Potter eyed his bottle until Severus handed it over. "Just wondering if you remembered…all we talked about."
"What do you think? Not only do I remember it as if it were yesterday, I've no desire to speak of it again. Did I not make myself clear the first time?" he asked, trying to retrieve his bottle, and failing.
"Just checking. You were a bit…fuzzy, and I wanted to make sure you knew how…" He stopped at the look on Severus' face. "Water under the bridge," he said instead.
Severus gave up and reached for another bottle. "I was never…how did you say it? Fuzzy," he enunciated the word as if it left a bad taste on his tongue. After drinking most of the bottle, he looked at Potter. "When are you leaving? Don't you have someplace you should be?"
Potter set his empty bottle aside, then picked up a handful of sand and let it sift through his fingers. "You want me to go?"
"Did I say that?"
"No…and no, I don't have anywhere I need to be. In fact, I've decided I like it here. Maybe it's the climate…."
"Or the isolation…"
"Yeah, or how simple and the same every day is. Get up, go for a swim, watch you drink snake shite, eat, go for a swim, lie on the beach…."
"Ah yes, I can see why you'd be loath to leave…never want to go back," Severus mused.
"We could stay here together," Potter said dreamily, a smile in his voice. "I can cook."
"I can clean."
"I have money."
There was a long pause, until Potter broke it. "A match made in heaven," then he guffawed.
Severus stared at him, dumbstruck at the turn the conversation had taken, then his mouth dropped open, when Potter added, almost as an aside, "And you have money, didn't you know? You're Albus' heir, now that the war's over."
It was one of the bad days.
One of the days when the ache in his neck was so severe that the only thing in question was in which direction he would rip out his throat. One of those days when he burned with fever, when he became convinced that the bloody cure was ten times worse than what ailed him. One of those days when he lay curled in a ball on his bed, and asked himself serious questions, like why was he going through all of this anyway? What did he have to look forward to, except for spending the rest of his years trying to forget it all?
There wasn't one single thing he wanted to do with his life, although he had to admit it wasn't something he'd ever much thought about; there wasn't anyone who wanted his company, and the feeling was mutual, he thought with bitterness.
It was one of those days when he came to the end of himself and lost that last little veneer of civility that most days made him treat both Zef and Potter with at least token respect.
Zef tutted sympathetically as he helped Severus to sit to drink his potions, hovering anxiously as he waited to see if Severus' stomach would send them back up. He wiped him with cool, moistened flannels, his hands gentle and practiced, and in the middle of the afternoon, well after the second potion, Severus lay and listened to the almost comforting sound of the water from the ewer being poured into the basin.
He felt the shift in the bed as Zef sat, then the cool touch of the cloth on his forehead, then a voice that murmured, "I think he's coming out of it." Potter, not Zef. He wanted to protest, but what was the use? He'd tried for weeks to get Potter to go, tried when he'd been well and had his strength, so what chance of success did he have now?
He kept his eyes closed and relaxed, and let Potter take care of him. It was only fair: he'd taken care of the whelp for years.
At the end of the third week, Severus got his wish, when Potter had to leave—it appeared that he did have obligations and people who'd send out a search party if he didn't put in an appearance soon.
Severus would've never admitted it, but it was an adjustment, Potter being gone. Zef was a poor conversant, and in any case, he seemed in awe of Severus and hesitant to relax in his company. So, Severus read the books he'd brought, took walks in the cool of the evening, and he thought…a great deal, at last processing the sum of his life, considering the parts that were choices and alliances, the parts that were plain serendipity and fate. He slowly came to terms with what had gone wrong and what, incredibly, had gone right, and decided in the end that it was far too complicated for even his own analytical mind. He chose, on that day, to put it behind him, and resist the urge to take it out on occasion and look at it ever again. He'd wasted far too much time on it as it was.
Potter returned every weekend, and Severus in no time was looking forward to his visits far more than he let on. The man brought him more books and Prophets¸ wine and chocolates, although Zef tsked furiously and confiscated most of the latter, muttering about 'thinning the blood.'
They spent their two days together like they had the initial weeks, but now Potter had things to talk about. Severus listened to his adventures in courting, mostly disastrous, with Ginny Weasley. He heard accounts of the Death Eater trials, still in progress, and they talked at great length about unimportant things: how olives were harvested and why they thrived in the Mediterranean; Severus taught him about the mythical history of Delos itself, and why the archeological sites were treasure mines; they spent an entire day looking for, then discussing and examining the habits of hermit crabs.
"So, they've never really had their own shell to begin with?" Potter asked as he gingerly touched the edge of a mollusk, and watched as the crab withdrew its legs in even further.
"No, they move from shell to shell as they grow, as their need for a larger one arises," Severus confirmed. "They're quite good at it—adaptable. Nature's very economical, when you come down to it."
Potter, leaning in over the rock pool, pointed to a large group of gastropod shells. "When they can't pull themselves all the way in, that's when they look for a new one?"
"Yes, it's instinctual—finding one large enough to entirely protect them."
"Sort of sad, that. Never having a home you can stick with, get comfy in." He sat back on his heels. "There's a great deal to be said for that." He seemed to suddenly feel self-conscious about what he'd just said. "Not that I've learnt that by experience."
Severus studied him soberly. "Neither have I. But consider the bright side. We never overstay our welcome."
At the three-month mark, Potter brought a cake to celebrate. After supper, they sat out on the small porch, Severus whittling away at some driftwood he'd discovered, Potter looking on in amusement. When Severus glanced up at him and caught him smiling, he scowled.
"You do that a lot," Potter told him, pulling his chair closer to watch as he carved.
"Do what a lot?"
"Make a face when you look at me," Potter told him.
Severus shrugged. "Habit, I suppose." He bit the tip of his tongue and held his breath as he dug at a difficult angle.
"What do you see when you look at me?" Potter asked, once Severus had moved on to a smooth plane of the wood.
Thinking about it for a moment, Severus answered without looking up, "An enigma."
Potter thought just as long as Severus had. "Because of my mother?"
Severus looked sideways at him, then remembered he had a knife in his hand, so he stopped whittling to answer. "Why would you think that?"
"Because you liked her, but you hated me. So that would've…been confusing for you."
Severus scoffed, "I was never confused about how I felt about you at all. You asked what I see, if you recall. And I said an enigma, because all things considered…I don't understand why you are here."
"You don't want me to be here? If you don't, I can go."
"No…you don't want me to go or…"
"No, Potter, I don't want you to go, damn it, I don't know why, I can't explain it."
"Neither can I," Potter said, sounding pleased with himself.
Severus stole a look. "Neither can you what?"
"Explain why I have to come every weekend."
Sighing heavily, Severus opined, "We're both fucked."
They watched the sun set, and so Severus had to set his carving aside. Without really thinking about it, he stretched and laid his arm along the back of Harry's chair, then at the surprised look on Potter's face, he didn't remove it.
He'd been right. They were fucked.
A month before the end of his sojourn, Severus awoke in the dead of night, suddenly filled with fear as he realized that someone was standing just beside his bed. Light streamed in through the window, silhouetting the figure as it reached down to touch him.
"Severus?" he heard Potter say as he gently shook his arm.
"Wha'szit?" Severus asked as he came up on his elbow.
"Shhh. Don't wake Zef. Get up, c'mon, you have to see something," Potter whispered.
Grumbling about 'sick wizards needing their sleep,' Severus sat up and pulled on his shirt, but didn't button it, then stood to follow him. Out on the porch, he paused, then bit back a retort when Potter grabbed his hand and pulled him around to the other side of the cottage.
"Look," Potter said, in a normal tone hushed only in awe this time. Severus followed his outstretched arm to the sky, and suddenly realized the source of the light on this moonless night. "Shooting stars," Potter said softly.
They stood side by side, watching as a starburst of silvery white streamers fell to the earth from a point high in the heavens. The breeze blew in off the sea, mingling their hair where they stood watching the fireworks.
"Meteor shower," Severus said as he tilted his head, watching. "The Ursids, I'd imagine, given the time of year.
"Not really stars, then?" Potter asked, tilting his head too.
"Hmmm, not at all. Meteor fragments—bits of cosmic rock and ice enter the atmosphere when the earth happens to orbit through the tail of a comet." He tilted his head to the other side, jerking it back quickly when it connected with a thunk to Potter's.
"See, we're having an early Christmas tree," Potter said as he rubbed the spot on his head, eyes still tracking the meteor shower.
Severus watched the reflection of the shower in Potter's eyes, mingled there with his shining excitement and glittering optimism; he was forced to bite back his sarcastic comment, and instead, looked to the sky again, hoping to catch a bit of the wonder that Potter had.
He waited, watching as the shower showed no signs of stopping, then he felt it arrive—a streak of wonder in his heart as Potter slipped a timid hand into his and squeezed it tightly.
"Worth getting up for, wasn't it?"
"It certainly was."
The six months were almost over. Severus was as recovered as he'd ever be, the only residual a raspy quality to his voice that Potter playfully insisted had always been there, but Severus didn't think so. Oh, and his right eyelid drooped, which Potter said made him look exotic.
It was the final day on Delos. The few belongings Severus had were packed and ready; Zef had said his typically Greek goodbye, which involved tears, hearty slaps on the back and a bottle of ouzo.
Potter had shown up just after supper, Severus finally conceding to the Ministry's demand that he have a traveling partner. They'd go by International Floo part of the way, then the remainder by Apparition. But they had this one last evening on the island, and were putting it to good use, walking along the beach until long after sunset.
"Oh, I've seen Albus' cottage once before," Severus told Potter. "What did you think of it?" he asked.
Smiling, Potter said, "It's just what you'd imagine he'd live in over the hols. Not as big as I thought, but…homey, and quirky like he was." He glanced over to Severus. "I think it'll fit you to a T. Plenty of space, a nice garden and your own lane to the beach, and it's private—no neighbors, so far as I could tell."
"The smaller of the Hebrides tend to be sparsely populated," Severus said thoughtfully, "although Castlebay's a good-sized village, and not too far off."
"You get to live by the sea again," Potter said as he stopped to look out over the ocean. "Lucky you."
Severus stood beside him. "Have you decided what you're going to do?" He turned to Potter. "Now that there's no further need to check up on me, since I'll be perfectly fine," he finished emphatically.
"Yeah, I know." Potter turned to him, looking down as he studiously tunneled his toes into the wet sand. "I'll miss this place."
"Don't you have things to do? Your life to get on with?" Severus asked, thinking to himself that if he had a Galleon for every time he'd said the words….
Still not looking up, Potter answered, "Yeah, matter of fact I do. Ginny and me…." He shook his head, then looked up at Severus. "Time for me to get started…."
There was something in his tone of voice that Severus found slightly alarming. He was about to press the issue, when he remembered it was none of his affair. Instead, he said, "I suppose I'll be able to follow your life in the Prophet."
Lifting his chin, Harry's eyes glittered in the moonlight as he grinned. "Don't be so sure."
It was Potter's eyes that made Severus do it.
He thought it over afterward and was almost certain…it had been his eyes, those damnable green eyes…although…he supposed the 'green' part was a bit lame, as he couldn't actually remember being able to see their color as he stepped closer.
But it was partly Potter's fault, he reasoned, because his eyes grew wider as Severus stepped closer, or was that because he'd put his hand on the boy's shoulder? But the eyes almost looked like they were asking him, pleading with him…oh fuck it all, it was his own bloody fault, but surely it was Potter's too! Severus couldn't stop himself at that point, so he slid his hand from Potter's shoulder up into his hair, pulled him close, and then kissed him.
Whoever's fault it is, Severus thought as they frantically tried to devour each other whole, we're now both equally guilty.
They staggered in the sand, struggling to keep their feet as they kissed, as their hands gripped each other and mysteriously worked their way inside clothing to touch bare skin. Severus felt a pain in his neck, and used that as his excuse to push Potter gently but firmly away.
Harry, he thought to himself as he stared at him. He realized he'd been Harry for a while in his mind. They were both leaving this island of mythical beginnings, and there were some things they'd best leave here in the realm of the mythical when they did.
They stood facing each other, regaining their breath—and the mind Severus knew he'd briefly lost—then silently made their way up the path to the porch.
They undressed in the dark, making shadows on the walls as they bent and moved. It was hot and close in the room, so Severus stripped down to his boxers, then slipped between the sheets. He lay on his back, his breathing still slightly rapid and his heart not yet back to normal.
What, he thought, did I do? What in god's name got into me?
He didn't move when he heard the springs of Harry's small cot creak, but when he saw his shadow move along the wall and stop beside his bed, he sighed as he threw the sheet back and reached up to pull him down.
They ate a small cold breakfast, trading only monosyllables as they shared an old edition of the Prophet. When they finished, it didn't take Severus long to shrink his bags, then, ready to leave, he found Harry standing out on the beach.
"I'm read-y!" Severus called out over the wind. Harry turned, then after one last look at the sea, strode toward him. Severus jumped down from the porch to meet him on the path. Harry's hair was sticking out in ten different directions, his cheeks pink from the sun and wind.
"Listen, before we go, I have something to say," Harry said so firmly that Severus didn't even bother to roll his eyes. Instead, he pocketed his wand and crossed his arms across his chest.
"Go on." His eyes drifted up for a moment to the gulls diving toward the surf, then snapped back at the sound of Harry's voice.
"I know you've got to get on with you life, and I have to get on with mine, but I'd like us to do something…in a couple of months." He stopped for a breath, and when Severus had nothing to say, he went on, "I'd like us to agree to meet each other on May Day—the day before the first anniversary—say, at the Hog's Head?" He ran his hand across his head, then seemed horrified to discover the state his hair was in. Smoothing it down with both hands, he quickly added, "It'll give us both some time to think about what happened, and decide…well, if we want to pursue it."
Severus congratulated himself on the control he had over his facial muscles. "Pursue it. It meaning..?" He lifted his voice at the end.
Harry sighed heavily. "The two of us." He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, then looked at Severus again. "It's a Muggle thing. Something I saw in a movie once. Two people meet and really like each other, so they make a pact that they'll meet on a certain day in a certain place if they're still interested in each other. Give themselves some time to sort things out. And they each know what it means if the other one doesn't show. Sort of romantic, it was." He said the last part in almost a whisper, watching Severus' face anxiously.
"But why?" Severus asked, genuinely perplexed.
"I don't know," Harry said almost angrily. "Maybe because I'm confused. I've known for a while that Ginny and me—not going to happen. And…" he faltered, "and it's you that's made me figure that out."
"Me?" Severus asked, almost outraged.
"Don't be stupid. After last night, you can't pretend you don't know," Harry said quietly.
"I loved coming here to see you. Well, the 'here' part doesn't matter all that much—it's the 'you' part that's important. I didn't mean for this to happen, but it has, and now I'm confused and I have to fix my life, because you said it yourself—we're fucked. I'd rather spend all my time here than do anything else, and that's just not right. Say something, will you?"
Staring at him, Severus jumped in quickly. "If you'd let me get a word in edgewise!" His face softened slightly. "It's only natural for you to feel…split. You've spent far too much time here."
Sulking outright, Harry demanded, "Do you really believe that?" He half-turned and looked back at the beach for a moment. "What did we do, except sit and listen to the sea and watch the stars? Talk out our nightmares, help each other once in a while? I don’t see how you can believe that wasn't good for both of us."
"No, I think we both needed a bit of sanctuary," Severus had to admit.
"It's not just that," Harry disagreed. "For a while now, it's more than that. I'm…I…I’m attached to you. And I think about you…you know, like last night…that way…all the time."
Severus looked down at his feet for a moment, thinking to himself that this was his fault, that he should've seen this one coming, that he'd had a duty to stop the boy; forget stopping the boy, to stop himself, because…he said, "You're so young and have seen so little."
Harry pursed his lips, shoving both hands in his pockets as he muttered, "I hate when people do that."
"Think that because I'm young I can't possibly know what I want."
Severus considered this for a moment. "You're right, that's unfair. But you yourself said you're confused, and I only suggested that being here so much has contributed to that state of mind. And that perhaps once you've seen a bit more of life, and have some basis of comparison…"
He loathed himself for the hypocrite that he knew he was; when he'd been Harry's age, he'd already killed, not to mention the horrors that Harry himself had already seen. They'd both been old before their time. He was sorely tempted to hang his head, but still a part of him insisted that Harry had to be slightly unbalanced.
Except, hadn't the boy just given them both their out? Spending months apart, and then deciding….
As if Harry could hear his thoughts, he frowned, then said, "All I'm asking is…let's go our separate ways, think about things, then…if you find you might be interested in…getting together. With me. I'll see you on May first at the Hog's Head, say at eight? No pressure. If either one of us doesn't think…" He motioned between the two of them. "…then just don't show. No hard feelings." Harry searched his face, his eyes almost pleading. "And in the meantime, I promise, I won't check up on you. No owls either."
Scarcely able to believe that he'd agree to such sentimental drivel, Severus stared at Harry for a moment, then nodded. "Fair enough. Time tends to put things in perspective," he said cautiously.
The two of them stood on the beach, ready for Harry to Side-Along them to the Athens Terminal. At the very last moment, Severus pulled him close and murmured at his ear, "Just in case…thank you for everything you've done."
Severus was now a wizard of leisure; he'd gone from a Gringotts vault that was sometimes near empty, to one that he believed he'd be hard pressed to put a dent in, no matter how much he spent.
There were a few wizards in Castlebay, and Severus made their acquaintance when he'd gone into the village for supplies that first day; he doubted they'd socialize—it was enough to know who and where they were, a good precaution to take, in any case.
The cottage was situated on the leeward side of the island, as isolated as Severus remembered it. In a good state of repair on the outside, it was the inside that almost brought him to the point of hyperventilating. For all of Albus' odd personal habits, Severus shouldn't have been surprised that orderliness wasn't one of them.
It took him a week to rearrange things so that he could comfortably move about. After some cleaning and polishing, the hardwood floors gleamed, the drapes were pulled to the side to let in the ocean air, and the books whose spines had been straightened and dusted now sat expectantly on their shelves, making Severus feel as if he were surrounded by silent yet approving friends. Every time he considered the wealth of knowledge sitting there, just waiting for him to dig in, his heart began to beat a bit faster.
Slowly, he sifted through the house. He found a few of Albus' personal journals, and set these aside, not certain that he would ever read them; he was pleasantly surprised to discover that the old man had painted as a hobby—row after row of canvases stacked against the attic walls, their subjects ranging from landscapes to nudes. Severus left them where they were.
After the first several weeks, Severus brewed out of necessity. He was too frugal to mail-order potions that he could easily supply for himself with the simplest of ingredients. He found that he liked to cook, and spent a short time every evening mulling over what he'd need from the village for the next day's supper.
January quickly became February, and Severus increased his daily walks to encompass nearly the entire afternoon as his health improved even more. He'd taken to smoking Albus' pipe as well, sitting out on the rugged dunes as he watched the wind whip up the whitecaps.
In March, as he settled into a routine, he began at last to grieve in earnest.
His surroundings and isolation collaborated to make this inevitable. Here he was, hemmed in on every side by the old man: his house, his favorite chair, his books and bric-a-bracs, walking his land and shopping in his village, down to smoking his bloody pipe, for pity's sake. And there was a cat that'd shown up the day after Severus had, and seemed to have been waiting for an inhabitant, so Severus took him in without hesitation, suspecting that he'd kept Albus company.
Sometimes, Severus would close his eyes and sit back, pulling in the cherry smoke, and he'd try to imagine that he wasn't Severus Snape. He was Albus Dumbledore, reclining in his favorite chair, settling down for a well-deserved retirement. And just for a moment, Severus could almost believe that the man's departed spirit was there with him. On some of these nights he'd tell Albus about what he'd done that day or what he planned to do on the next, but on others he let him know exactly how he felt about the hand life had dealt him, especially Albus' own part in it.
He'd finally faced the fact that he'd have to sort through the old man's belongings and decide what should be done with them. This was much harder than he'd imagined, and there were days when he found himself paralyzed, unable to part with any of it. He did find a few things that he thought Harry would like to have: a magical teapot that sang out rude expletives when tea was ready, a rare book on the history of Godric's Hollow, and a few photos of his parents that had been carefully preserved in an oversized Gryffindor sock.
By the beginning of April, Severus had to admit to himself that he was lonely; he tried to convince himself that it was just end-of-winter blues, but he knew this was infinitely worse. He'd been thinking more and more of Harry as May approached, damn his bloody proposition, which Severus swore there was no way in hell he'd even consider.
Now and then, he had days when it seemed as if the agonies of the snake bite were about to resurrect themselves; he'd be achy and stiff, prone to sweats and nausea; he'd sleep poorly and snap irritably at the cat. On days like these, when he was so miserable he was almost beside himself, he'd suddenly wish that Harry were there…to make him tea and talk to him in that irritating manner that he had, about things that were unimportant and ordinary and sometimes funny. Severus received owls occasionally, and when he did, he found that he was disappointed when none of them were from Harry—they never were, of course, it was what he'd wanted and Harry had promised. But still, on those days when he was introverted and maudlin and unable to distract himself, Severus wished….
Over the months, he watched the Prophet for mention of Harry, especially the society pages, for perhaps an engagement notice or a picture of him and the Weasley girl, despite what Harry'd told him. When month after month went by and there was no mention, no flash of that face in a photo, Severus refused to consider what it meant, or why he secretly felt a smug sense of satisfaction.
By the middle of April, Severus forced himself to set to work on plans to get Albus' neglected apiary up and running. He'd ordered supplies, as well as bees, which were delivered toward the end of the month. He'd spent time each day since he'd arrived, repairing the hives one by one. It was an activity he took comfort in, working out in the sun, knowing that Albus had done the same tasks, year after year. It was a start, he hoped, finding things to occupy his time and mind.
In his more pessimistic moments, he wondered how long he would last, and just this insidious and disturbing thought was enough to make him get out of bed, go out of the cottage, get him to walk the countryside and make plans to fill his days. But deep down inside, he was floundering, trying to find enough to engage and hold his interest. All of his sorry life, he'd been driven by someone or something outside of himself, and now…. He told himself that he should take a lesson from the bees, so industrious, always occupied, ever busy. He envied them, as they were never paralyzed by why or for what they lived: they simply lived.
At the end of April, Severus tossed and turned, sleeping fitfully. The cottage was overly warm, and he finally lay completely awake, thinking he should get up and open the window wide, when his eyes became accustomed to a strange glow that filled the room. He half-rolled in the bed, then sat up when he realized that the light was filtering in through the curtains.
Staggering out of bed, he pulled on his robe, then took the narrow hallway to the steps. The light had filled the lower floor and lit the stairway enough so that he had no need of a Lumos. He didn't stop for his shoes, instead throwing open the door and stepping out into the garden in his bare feet.
He stopped dead in his tracks as he looked up, stunned. A shimmering emerald swath of light filled almost the entire sky, twisting slightly on its axis, stars sparkling brightly from the blackness on either side of the radiant green belt.
"Aurora borealis," Severus said aloud. "Northern lights, I should've remembered…."
As he gazed at the astronomical wonder, he was suddenly transported back to that night under the Mediterranean stars, when Harry had dragged him from his bed to see another unusual night sky.
"So beautiful," he murmured, "so rare…" All at once, he was struck with an almost overwhelming grief, that he had no one to stand beside him and share such beauty. His throat felt suddenly thick, and he had to work to swallow the lump down, all the while transfixed by the glories of the heavens above.
In the morning after an hour of work in the apiary, Severus set his tools aside and walked back to the cottage. With no premeditation, the thought was just there: come May Day, he'd be in the Hog's Head at eight sharp in the evening.
It was a Saturday night at seven-fifty, so the Hog's Head had more than its usual half-dozen patrons seated at the bar. Severus kept his head down as he headed toward the darkest part of the room and slid into an empty booth. Angling himself in the corner, he watched as the barkeep approached.
"Snape," the man said.
"Aberforth," Severus replied neutrally, slightly surprised that the man had acknowledged his identity, then remembered somewhat belatedly that his name had been cleared. "A pint of bitters," he said with a nod.
The man studied him silently for a moment, then turned away without a word. Severus took his time to casually inspect each of the men seated at the bar, then looked up as a shadow fell across the table.
Sliding the pint toward him, Aberforth said, "On the house." He turned on heel and was gone before Severus had a chance to open his mouth.
As he sat and sipped at his bitters, he was mildly surprised that Harry wasn't already there, given what he knew of the man's youthful exuberance and impatience. He'd have thought he'd be there waiting, flashing him that sly smile the moment he came through the door, the first words out of his mouth, 'I knew you'd come.'
At eight o'clock sharp, Severus was expectant, and biting back a sneer as he realized that Harry was about to make a show of arriving precisely on the hour.
At eight-oh-five, he felt a twinge of impatience, his eyes locked on the door from over the top of his glass.
By eight-fifteen, he was drumming his fingers on the tabletop, irritated when Aberforth brought him another pint, but accepted it without a word.
He began to second-guess himself at eight-thirty, going back in his mind to review the particulars; was today the first of May, had Harry said nine instead of eight? Had it been a dream…or a nightmare? Had he imagined the whole bloody agreement from the start?
By eight forty-five, he was tempted to be worried. What if something had happened to Harry? What if even as he waited, Harry was being held at wand-point for a ransom?
It was only natural, given his temperament, that by nine p.m. Severus was furious. He stared at the bar and met Aberforth's eyes. Shaking his head, Severus stood, then made his way to the door and out into the mild spring evening.
There were few people on the streets as Severus wandered through Hogsmeade. He walked down a path that he'd walked hundreds of times, the one that would lead up to Hogwarts if he continued on far enough. He stopped, though, at the edge of the village and sat on a petrified log by the side of the road, resting his head in his hands as he puzzled over the fact that Harry hadn't shown.
He looked up toward the castle that was out of sight, and thought about the hand that fate had dealt him just a year ago. He'd never expected to survive, yet here he sat, his only souvenir a decidedly drooping eyelid, and some aches and pain that he counted as paltry, given what he'd managed to escape. One year ago, on this date exactly, he'd sat in the headmaster's office, agonizing over what Harry would do next.
And here he was…in very different circumstances, to be sure, but still the one common denominator was…a Harry who was expected, but who'd yet to show.
He wearily walked his way back into town, and at ten p.m., he stuck his head into the Hog's Head for one last look. Scanning the room, he saw no sign of Harry. Raising a hand in farewell to Aberforth, Severus stepped back into the street, and turned on the spot.
It took Severus two days to stop expecting Harry to show up on his doorstep. Each time he realized that he was listening for the pop of Apparition, he was angry all over again. He sat moodily in the garden, watching the sunset, trying to be philosophical. No sense in being angry, he told himself, he should've known how it'd turn out.
Both he and Harry had needed each other for a time, but the man had obviously moved on, and Severus should've anticipated it; the old Severus would've anticipated it, he reasoned. Being ill for so long had weakened him, but now…now that he'd had his wake-up call, he realized how lucky he'd been that Harry hadn't shown—how the whole sorry affair had illustrated for him how important it was that he get on with his life, just as he'd told Harry to do.
He spent the next several days laying his plans, studying Albus' large folding enchanted atlas, marking his itinerary with his wand. Each destination was magically 'loaded' so that a tap of his wand would give him real-time information on weather, food and lodging, as well as local wizarding contacts.
He regretfully looked in on the apiary, and apologized to the buzzing inhabitants. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you're on your own again, as I'll be gone for quite some time." He systematically and carefully warded the property, leaving the house for last. It belonged to him now, and although he might be away, he intended to protect it.
As he selected books and clothing to pack, he almost whistled, and ended by telling himself that he was grateful to Harry for the favor; Severus had been a fool, but now his winter of moping and discontent was over. He was a wealthy man, who'd always dreamed of traveling the world—so why shouldn't he take the time and do it up right?
On the final morning, he sent off an owl, canceling his Prophet indefinitely, then after the final wards were set, he Apparated to Diagon Alley for supplies and a visit to Gringotts.
Severus decided he was born to travel.
He needed few possessions and was not overly attached to any particular roof over his head. He'd descend upon a city like an invading conqueror—there to sample all that glittered. He delved into historical places, savored local cuisine, and basked in natural beauty. And once in a while, usually when he'd had too much to drink, he'd have a companion for the night. In Istanbul, he met someone who tempted him to linger for the company alone. He became enamored of a man who was tall and dark and had the unparalleled ability to make Severus laugh out loud, and on one memorable occasion, dance atop a table.
Weeks became months, and before Severus knew it, it was May again. He was thousands of miles away, and yet the second anniversary turned his thoughts toward home, somewhat longingly. He lay in bed, and despite the fact that he rarely thought of Harry, when he fell asleep he dreamed of him, and of that solitary night they'd sweated together on the sheets in the small hut on the Aegean. Severus could feel the silky texture of Harry's youthful skin as he moved against him, he felt his heart pounding in his cock and could taste the salt of Harry's lips, making him frantic to come, until his eyes snapped open and he stared up at the ceiling, his chest heaving, vaguely aware that he was a sticky mess at the waist.
There were times when in a city with a wizarding quarter, he'd read an outdated copy of the Prophet, but never saw any mention of Harry there.
Severus, for the most part, kept his mind and body occupied. He was tan and fit, still slender but with a body that was defined and muscular. His eyelid still drooped noticeably, especially when he was tired, but Severus now thought of it as a badge of honor, much like Harry's scar…
No. He refused to think of Harry.
As the second year rolled along, Severus continued to work his way slowly eastward: India, China and Mongolia. Japan and the lands Down Under. He was a seasoned traveler by now, comfortable with strangers and mastering enough of the language to manage easily.
The third May anniversary caught him by surprise in North America. That night, under the stars of Texas, he found himself inevitably thinking of Harry again. He imagined he was doomed to repeat this every year; it wasn't as if he could avoid the association, he thought in his defense.
He'd had a few moments, over the past months especially, when he'd caught himself wondering what Harry would think of this place or that, and now he felt himself almost overcome with curiosity to know what the man's life was like. Had he married the Weasley girl? Was he working at something that made him happy? He tried to mentally wish him well; he truly hoped his life was working out—if anyone deserved it, he did.
If he were honest, though, he didn't always have such charitable thoughts; there were a few nights, when he was slightly drunk, or when his war wounds acted up, when he was trying to find a comfortable spot in an unfamiliar bed, he'd remember how he'd felt on that May Day in the pub…and what a picture of humiliation he'd made. He, Severus Snape, who'd scoffed at the idea when Harry suggested it, had been made a fool of… But then he remembered Harry's words…no pressure, no hard feelings, and he'd grumble and roll over and pull his pillow atop his head.
It was midsummer and Severus was in Halifax; he awoke as he usually did, just after daybreak. Pulling on his robe, he made himself a cup of tea in the room, then carried it out to sit on the balcony to watch the sunrise.
It was magnificent, the sky streaked with purples and reds, washing the surrounding houses in a comforting pale pink light, their windows reflecting as if they were huge sympathetic eyes watching his misery.
Severus sat back and propped his feet up on the railing as he moodily watched the daylight dawn and listened to the mournful sound of horns in the harbor.
He was suddenly and inexplicably weary.
He'd traversed the globe, seen everything he'd had a mind to see, spent money but not wastefully, and suddenly, he knew it was time to go home. He was sure that whatever it was that had driven him away was gone now. He refused to believe it was Harry.
No, it'd been fear, plain and simple.
Fear of needing something outside of himself.
Fear of needing someone besides himself.
But as he opened his eyes to watch the hues of the sky fade into the blue of morning, he couldn't for the life of him say whether or not he'd conquered this fear.
Now…wanting something was an entirely different matter. That was something he could easily master.
Severus had only been home for two weeks, and already, in some respects, it felt like he'd never been gone. The July nights were short, lasting only several hours, so his days were full of gardening and walking, and slowly but surely making progress in the apiary.
He'd managed his first honey harvest—albeit a small one—and had done it the Muggle way, with no charms to protect himself. He remembered the one time he'd visited Albus here, when the old man had told him with a straight face that he was a bee charmer. But now Severus understood—there was an art to the occupation that he found soothing and fulfilling, even though he was slightly wary of being stung. He was thrilled, too, but not surprised, to find that his library contained several up-to-date and comprehensive Muggle guides to beekeeping.
He was so content with the current state of his life, in fact, that when the owl appeared and he saw the familiar crest on the letter, he was tempted to incinerate it on the spot. He felt a strange foreboding…
He placed the letter on the kitchen table and went about his day, refusing to think of it as he walked to the village for a brief stop at the chemist for supplies and a rare supper out. By the time he got home, he was dirty and tired, so he studiously ignored the letter as he headed up the stairs for a shower. Dressed for bed, he considered letting it go for the night, then sighed heavily.
He picked up the letter and took it and a glass of wine out to the porch, where he sat and listened to the sound of gulls not far off. He absent-mindedly tapped the letter against his thigh as he watched the cat stalking something on the other side of the rose arbor, then scowled when he realized he'd yet to open it. He held it up to the light, then snorted. It was obvious who'd addressed it. Slitting the seal with a fingernail, he removed the single sheet and unfolded it.
I hope this finds you well. Earlier in the summer, I paid you a visit, but you were away. I asked an acquaintance in Castlebay to alert me when you returned, and I only just heard from him over the weekend.
Severus scowled. He wondered which of the four wizards, which comprised the entire wizarding population, had ratted him out.
You know my preference is to be direct, so I'll just tell you why I'm writing and save us both time, as I know you're sitting there, impatient already.
Despite himself, Severus' upper lip curled
I'm in dire need of a Defense teacher. You've done it before, so there's no sense talking of qualifications. The impediment, I would think, might be Hogwarts itself—am I correct? I know your last months here were not happy ones.
Severus snorted out loud.
And your departure was under circumstances that were both ignominious and undeserved. No one is more aware of this than I. Had you seen fit to accept the Merlin of Order that was offered to you, perhaps this might've in some small way righted the injustice and misunderstanding that you were required to suffer through for most of your years here.
"I doubt it," Severus murmured, then read on.
Severus, I beg you to consider. The pay will not tempt you, of that I'm certain. But I'm hoping that the desperation of one who supported you for the most part and looked for the best in you might sway you to decide to help me out—it need not be a permanent post, unless you so choose. I will continue to seek a replacement, but at the present moment, I'm desperate—yes, Severus, I'm reduced to begging—just for someone to start in September. I can, as an enticement, offer you better quarters than you once had. The South Tower five-room suite is available, if you would like it. Of course, if you prefer your dungeon rooms, they have remained unoccupied since you left over three years ago.
I hesitate to say it…but perhaps you would find teaching different, now that things are more settled? Needless for me to say more—I know you will consider the offer and make up your mind, regardless of my dire need and your superior abilities in the subject matter.
Severus guffawed. "Manipulative witch."
My holidays have been delayed this year, partially due to staffing problems such as this one. If you would be so kind to let me know of your decision as soon as possible, as I would like to leave for a few days of well-deserved holiday..
He stared at the parchment for a few moments longer, then carefully folded it and slipped it inside his robe pocket. It was too late now, but he wished he'd not read it, and gone on blissfully unaware that one of the few friends he'd had in his life now needed him.
Severus took one last look at his garden, then stood on the cobblestone walkway. He was struck by the fact that it'd been disturbingly easy to shut up the cottage again and be gone in the space of several days. Although, this time, he planned on returning some weekends, if only to check in on his apiary.
He Apparated to just outside Hogwarts gates, which stood open now that it was no longer necessary to keep them shut and warded in the summer. There was no one about as he made his way to the great doors and into the Entrance Hall.
His eyes grew wide as he took in the recent renovations and repairs; Harry had described them when they were on Delos, but seeing them was another matter altogether. Drawn by curiosity, he walked to the doors of the Great Hall, then pushed one open to look inside. He was surprised to find that it looked as it always had—no magical ceiling just now, but tables and benches neatly lined up, the High Table standing bare at the front of the room. As he turned back, he was startled by the small figure that'd mysteriously appeared in front of him.
"Professor Snape, sir? Clovis will be showing you to your rooms like the headmistress said. If the professor has decided, that is?" The elf bowed low in a practiced sweep, then straightened and folded its arms inside its shapeless garment, its eyes bulging expectantly.
"I've decided on the Tower suite, and there's no need to show me," Severus told the elf dismissively. He headed for the staircase, then turned back. "Who else besides myself is in the castle?"
"Professor Trelawney is in her tower, sir," replied the elf. "Everyone else is being on holiday."
Severus nodded. "I'll be taking my meals in my rooms, then."
It took Severus the better part of the day to unpack in his rooms, which were airy and spacious compared to his former dungeons. Stacked in a corner, there were boxes of books labeled with his name, books that had once upon a time belonged to him; they'd been thoughtfully gathered and stored after the battle. Some were merely teaching texts that he'd used for Potions and Defense classes, but others were ones he'd grown attached to over the years, and had thought to never see again. He picked them out of the boxes, one by one, smoothing their bindings affectionately before placing them on the shelves.
Unlike his dungeons of just a sitting room and bedchamber with en suite, the tower rooms had the added luxury of a study, as well as a dining room with a small kitchenette. Not nearly as large as the cottage, but still, Severus felt as if he'd won the lotto.
After supper, he sat on the sill of his open window and looked out over the grounds. The sun was about to set, and he had a sudden fancy to watch it as it sank below the horizon on the other side of the castle. There was something else there that he wanted to see as well….
He'd seen it, of course, when he'd returned as headmaster. That first month, he'd visited it just once, in the middle of the night, to pay his respects, then had put it far out of his mind, in the interests of keeping it free and clear of all that might make him weak. There'd been no time for foolish sentiment or regret.
He sat by the tomb and watched the sun set over the water, smoking a pipe-ful of burley tobacco he'd found in Albus' escritoire at the cottage. He practiced blowing smoke rings, then long after the sun was gone, he could feel the heat from the marble at his back, a warm comforting presence. The place and the pipe and the warmth all combined to fill him with a sudden, intense emotion that lasted long enough to make his eyes burn.
He had no idea how long he sat there, but when he finally stood to leave, he was slightly stiff and sore. Patting the marble that was cool now, he murmured, "I'm back, Albus."
Within a week, Severus had his rooms and classroom ready for the upcoming term. All that was left to do now was to work on his curriculum and meet with the headmistress. She was due back any time now, and Severus, bored by the prospect of another day of lesson-planning, decided that he might as well make the obligatory trip to Diagon Alley for a new set of teaching robes, something he knew Minerva would demand of him straight off.
For the first time in his life, Severus bought robes at Twilfit and Tattings, then paid a visit to a shop in Knockturn Alley for some class supplies he knew he'd not find anywhere else; after a stop to place an order at Obscurus Books, he headed for Gringotts, his last destination of the afternoon.
It was late in the day, and the streets weren't as crowded as when he'd first arrived. He noticed as he approached the bank that someone had reopened what had been Fortescue's once upon a time. The outside tables and white picket fence surrounding them were back in place, and the establishment seemed to be doing a brisk business, its chairs mostly occupied.
Severus kept his head down as he walked, but he looked up just as he was about to cross the Alley to Gringotts on the other side. And there, just at the end of the fenced-in enclosure, he saw the back of a man's head, the hair a disturbingly familiar cut and color, tilted to the side in a gesture that flooded Severus' brain with the picture of a face that he'd got in the habit of looking for in crowds all over the world, but never spotted, of course. Without thinking, he slowed as he neared the end of the fence, as the figure bent forward, and Severus saw at last that there was a child in a pushchair angled to the side at his feet.
He would later wonder why he stopped, why he hadn't just continued on his way, once he'd seen and come to the obvious conclusions. But his legs seemed to have a mind of their own, and he came to a halt, staring as the figure unbent and the head swiveled around to look at him. If Severus hadn't been dealing with his own surprise, he might've felt a twinge of sympathy for the man's shocked expression. Since he'd had a few moments longer to process the unexpected, Severus spoke first.
"Harry," he said with a nod, noting that all color had drained from the man's face. "I thought it was you."
Harry opened and closed his mouth twice, then seemed to regain his composure. "I…Severus," he said, squinting up in the sunlight, smiling slightly. "And it's you, I see." He looked to the child in the pushchair, then back to Severus. "It's been a while."
Severus' eyes flicked to the child, whom he decided couldn't be much more than a year old, obviously a girl, from the clothing, and from the bright orange ringlets… Severus hazarded a guess. "She looks like her mother," he murmured.
Sitting back in his chair, Harry looked at the child, then smiled at Severus. "Spitting image of her." His eyes searched Severus'. "It's good to see you—what's it been? Three years? I hadn't heard you were back."
"Two and a half," Severus replied without hesitation, then could've kicked himself for giving that answer so readily. Thinking it best to get it over with, he added, "I was abroad traveling. Always wanted to see the world, and so I did."
"Good for you—I'm sort of envious." He paused. "You could've sent me a postcard or something," Harry said, then the smile seemed to leave his eyes as he studied Severus' obvious discomfort. "Listen, about what we were supposed to do." The child began to fuss, so Harry propped a foot on the bottom of the pushchair to gently roll it back and forth. When he looked up to Severus again, he bit his lower lip before he continued, "I just want to say I'm sorry, because I was the one to make such a big deal—"
Severus frowned. "I'm sorry—what is it we were supposed to do?"
Harry closed his mouth, looking stunned for a moment. "We were going to meet each other on May Day that year, you remember?" His tone of voice became more urgent. "When we left Delos, on the beach that day, we agreed that if we were both still interested—"
"Oh, now I remember," Severus said, forcing conviction into his tone. He tried to look slightly embarrassed, as he said, "I'm afraid I forgot all about it. Once I got to Barra, my days were so full, organizing the cottage and then planning my travels, it must've slipped my mind."
Running his hand through his hair, Harry's expression betrayed his doubt. "Really? You forgot? Well, then I guess I've nothing to apologize for either."
"Nothing at all," Severus confirmed, then narrowed his eyes. "As I now recall…there were to be no hard feelings." When Harry only nodded in reply, he was unable to contain his curiosity. "So, what're you up to these days?"
Harry shrugged, then motioned to the pushchair. "I'm sort of in between things right now. Most days I come here in the afternoons to meet Ginny." He leant forward and handed a small toy owl to the child. "What about you? Are you just down for the day?" he asked, his face still averted.
Severus watched him, trying to decide why Harry suddenly seemed…different, as if he were upset. But what reason could he possibly have to be upset? "Yes, I needed a few things, and I'd not been here in quite some time, and…" He nodded in the direction of the bank. "…I really should go, as the bank closes at four."
The two of them stared at each other for a moment, and Severus was seized by a sudden urge to reach over and shake the man, but he wasn't certain exactly why. They'd agreed, hadn't they, that there'd be no hard feelings if one of them didn't show, that it would be a subtle message that life had taken a different turn? Harry had done nothing wrong; in fact, he'd done what they'd both agreed to do…but….
But Severus couldn't deny that although he'd known Harry had moved on, he himself had had some difficulty doing so…evidenced by all the times he thought of him, and remembered those months on Delos, the hours they'd spent talking as they'd lain in the sand and watched the stars, that last unexpected encounter that Harry'd been the one to start….
And hadn't Severus been the one to tell him that he was young, that he'd not experienced enough of life…that he needed to go out and make sure of what he wanted before he did something foolish?
Well, the evidence that he'd followed Severus' advice was staring up at him, two large brown eyes in a freckled face framed by carrot-colored curls. Severus startled when the child grinned at him suddenly, showing off four perfect white teeth.
"Yeah, you should go." Harry's voice brought him back to himself.
This was the part that Severus always hated—leave-taking and how to do it gracefully. He reached down and patted the baby's head, then straightened to look at Harry. "Now that I'm back, no doubt we'll run into each other," he said stiffly.
Harry looked away, to the child, as he answered, "No doubt."
The more Severus thought of it, the more furious he became.
Harry had been apologetic, in spite of the fact that they'd agreed there'd be nothing to be sorry for. And when Severus, who'd been the wronged party—oh all right, so there technically wasn't any wronged party—had reminded him that he had nothing for which to apologize, then Harry had for some reason taken offence and twisted the whole miserable encounter so that Severus was the one who'd felt, for some ungodly reason, as if he should be the one to apologize, because Harry had seemed slighted, almost distant by the time they'd said goodbye. None of it made sense, not him, not Harry and…
Fuck it all.
Deep down inside, Severus had to admit that for the past two years, he had felt slighted, and had felt regret and longing, and had wished that the damned Gryffindor—even though he'd been three months short of nineteen and short on experience to boot—had got his sorry arse to the Hog's Head so they could 'explore' each other. Certainly in the carnal way, but there were other things about the man that intrigued Severus just as much.
Wasn't he enraged because not only had he come in second after the Weasley girl, but because she and Harry hadn't wasted any time in producing tangible and almost painfully visible evidence of said second-place?
As he slammed the great doors with such force that he would've sworn the castle shook, Severus knew that he was being unreasonable and childish and downright pathetic. As he took the stairs two at a time, he decided that all in all, it'd been fortunate that they'd run into each other; he'd been spared hearing the news from someone else and having to hide his reaction. He'd figured the man had moved on; he'd just not been prepared to have to face it so personally and so soon.
And he'd do his best, despite their parting words, to make certain that they didn't 'run into each other.' At least not until Severus was ready…and hell might freeze over first.
As he lay in bed that night, Severus was struck by a sudden thought that filled him with a flash of regret: it was official now, he'd never get to show Albus' apiary to Harry. And for some strange reason, that bothered him more than anything.
"The headmistress is asking for Professor Snape sir to have lunch with her in the headmistress' office," the house-elf said, just after he'd nearly scared Severus to death by appearing without warning at his elbow.
Severus slid the parchment to the side, then rubbed his forehead with a hand. "All right, tell her I'll be there at—"
"Twelve, Professor sir," the elf supplied for him.
It was odd, he thought, as he was about to rap on her door at twelve sharp, but he couldn't remember the last time he'd knocked on this door. It had been the day that Albus died, he was certain of it, but he couldn't remember the precise circumstances, try as he might.
"Come in, Severus," he heard Minerva raise her voice.
There was no awkwardness, for which Severus was thankful. No revisiting of the past, no assumption that there were words of gratitude or explanation that would be obligatory between the two of them before they could move on. Minerva was cordial and straightforward, and within moments, they were seated across from each other at a small table that'd been erected for the occasion, waiting while the house-elves served them and then disappeared.
It was an enjoyable meal, their conversation centering mostly on how Hogwarts had been renovated and Severus' travels.
"No," he informed her, "no pictures, I rather prefer to have those in my head. I think just the act of picture-taking causes the loss of a small piece of the moment, because one's attention is fixed elsewhere."
Minerva considered this. "Some truth to that, I suppose. But then you don't have them to share," she pointed out.
He shrugged. "I didn’t travel so I'd have pictures to share. My stories of my experiences will have to suffice," he said as he set his napkin aside and took up his wine glass.
"Aye, and good stories they are, and I'll look forward to hearing more of them, if you will." When Severus nodded, she considered him critically for a moment, then seemed to be choosing her words for a moment before she spoke. "I was going to ask if you'd speak to Harry for me."
Severus set down his glass. "Harry?" he asked. "Odd that you should ask, as I just saw him yesterday. You want me to speak to him?"
Seeming surprised, Minerva asked, "You saw him? How is he?"
"Seemed fine to me—said he's 'between things,' whatever that means."
Narrowing her eyes, Minerva seemed to be trying to make a decision. "I saw him at the end of term. As I told you, Filius will most likely retire next year, but he wants help for this one. I asked Harry to take on the first through third years, but he turned me down."
"Why would he want to come back, given his family situation? Although," Severus said derisively, "if you sweetened the offer with some Quidditch coaching, you might have more luck."
"I hardly see where anything I might have to say would make a difference."
Minerva sat back in her chair. "He told me the two of you had settled your differences."
"Well, yes, that’s true, but I'm hardly in a position to try and persuade him to uproot his family when he's an adult and perfectly capable of making his own decisions."
She sat up straight in her chair, her face puzzled. "Uproot his family? Severus, what do you mean? He has no family to speak of, although the Weasleys certainly count as one, in all but name."
Severus frowned. "He has a wife and a child to consider." When he saw the look on her face, he growled, "Minerva?"
"You honestly don't know," she sighed as she Summoned the wine, then directed it to fill both their glasses. "And I see now why you're confused. You saw him and the child, didn't you?" When Severus nodded, she shook her head, then pointed to his wine glass. "Drink up, you're going to need it." When Severus hesitated, she commanded, "Go on."
Angling her chair to the side, the headmistress placed a hand to her forehead for a moment, obscuring her eyes; Severus didn't know if it was out of weariness or emotion, or whether she was merely collecting her thoughts. When she finally looked up, her face was composed, even if her eyes were suspiciously bright. Severus felt a moment of apprehension, but then she began to speak.
"Just about the time you went off, Harry had a mishap. He'd started a Muggle business—a newsagent's—and one night on his way to his Muggle bank, well after dark, he was attacked from behind. They were after his nightly deposit." She lifted her hand when she saw that Severus was about to pepper her with questions. "Let me tell you the whole of it first." After taking a sip of her wine, she continued.
"He was unconscious for weeks—a head injury. And as he had no identification, the Muggle authorities had no idea whom to contact. His friends had by this time become used to not seeing him for a week or two at a time, but when it became three, Ronald Weasley went to his flat and discovered moldy tea cups in the sink, and the next stop—his shop, well, his neighbors said they'd not seen hide nor hair of him for weeks." She sighed heavily, tucking a stray strand of gray hair back into her bun.
"They called their little group of friends together, and searched as best they could, and were on the verge of alerting the Ministry, when evidently Harry woke up and was able to tell them who he was and whom they should call." She looked down at her hands. "Of course, by that time, the damage had been done. Brain damage, which St. Mungo's did their best to remedy, but it was too late. He's lost the use of his left arm, and the left leg drags a bit. As well as a partial loss of vision in the eye on that side."
Severus felt as if he couldn't breathe, a combination of anguish and rage. Harry had survived so much, been in jeopardy for so long, only to be struck down in such a…common manner, by cowards who'd not even had the nerve to let him see their faces. "When?" he finally managed to ask. "When did this happen?"
Minerva looked thoughtful. "The attack itself occurred near the end of April. I remember there was some discussion that he'd not turned up for the anniversary celebration, day after May Day, but at the time, his friends said he'd not wanted to come, so the matter was left alone."
Severus didn't hear what she said next, as the implications hit him full force.
On May Day, Harry hadn't shown because he'd been incapacitated. That entire agonizing evening at the Hog's Head, the evening when he'd felt sorry for himself, and the days that followed, when he'd been angry and laying his plans to flee, the entire time, Harry had been lying in hospital alone, with no one by his side to keep vigil.
As Harry had done for him.
But…but…suddenly another thought occurred to him.
"Wait, wait!" he interrupted her account of how Harry'd been moved to St. Mungo's and then released almost a month later. "You said no family to speak of. He's not married, then? There was a child…."
"The child is Ginny Weasley and Oliver Wood's daughter. They were married almost two years ago, I believe, then had the child last summer. Harry watches her in the afternoons while Ginny works part-time at Madam Malkin's. Most days he meets her there to spare her the trip to Grimmauld."
Severus sat very still, trying to process what he was hearing, all these facts that flew in the face of what he'd believed and mulled over in his mind almost incessantly for the past day, since he'd seen Harry.
Harry had been injured, and was permanently damaged.
Harry wasn't married, and he didn't have a child.
Harry had missed the May Day rendezvous for a very good reason.
And a more recent development, entirely of Severus' doing, Harry now believed that Severus had forgotten they'd even had an agreement and hadn't shown up at all.
But why hadn't Harry said anything the day before? Severus wondered, once again off in his own little world as Minerva droned on. Why had he allowed Severus to believe that he hadn't shown up? Why hadn't he told Severus what had happened to him?
Oh, but Harry had begun to tell him why, hadn't he? But Severus had cut him off, and lied, almost ridiculing the notion that he'd even remember such an agreement. No wonder Harry had stopped dead in his tracks. Why would it matter that he hadn't shown, when Severus hadn't either? Why would he willingly humiliate himself? And as for what had happened to him…
Severus shook his head. "Why wouldn't he tell me, I wonder?" he murmured to himself, then was startled by Minerva's response.
"Severus, you've been gone all this time. Perhaps he just assumed you knew? That you'd been told by someone, or seen it in the paper. Is that possible?" she asked gently.
He stared at her, the bile rising up in his throat, as the possibility dawned on him that Harry might actually believe that he'd chosen to stay away when he'd heard Harry'd been injured. "Entirely. I did see a Prophet here and there, but if I remember correctly, the first time was in the autumn of '99. It might've been out of the papers by then." He rubbed the bridge of his nose as he thought. "So…what's he been doing all this time? Surely not just being a nanny?"
Minerva shook her head sadly. "He sold his shop, and let go of his flat. Moved back into Grimmauld and has been fairly reclusive. I fear he's caught in a web of self-pity and feeling useless, and the fact that he doesn't actually need to earn a wage doesn't help." She reached across the table to touch Severus' arm. "It's not for lack of others trying—his friends, the Ministry and the staff here—we've all tried to engage him in something useful. This time, though, I really honestly do need him. And I was hopeful that you might be able to talk some sense into him."
"He's never listened to me before," Severus muttered, suddenly dejected and wishing he could Stun a hag, hex a house-elf, shrink a student, but most of all, what he wanted to do was murder the ones responsible, anything to diminish the growing rage that was pounding in his temples. "He won't listen now."
"Perhaps not," Minerva replied. "But I do know that he respects you more than anyone, and, well, it's not my place to say it…" She looked fearlessly at Severus and he knew that this was her way of prefacing what it wasn't her place to say.
"Oh go on," he said testily.
"When I visited him in St. Mungo's, you were the first person he asked after—had you been told, where were you, were they keeping you from visiting," she said, her eyes fixed on Severus' face. "I don't know what went on, on that Greek isle, but for his part, you became very important to him. And when it was finally discovered that you'd gone off—I had to find this out on my own from my friend on Barra—well, he was more withdrawn than usual for days, then never mentioned you again."
Severus had forgotten that she'd laid her hand on his arm until she squeezed it again. "Please, Severus. You know it's not because I need him, which I most certainly do, but I can't stand by and watch him just…fade away. He deserves so much more, and I think, for some reason that makes sense to only me, and even I don't understand it, that you might be able to get through to him."
"It's not like him to give up on anything," Severus said slowly, his mind beginning to lay its plan.
"He needs to realize that it's not the end of the world. Of course, it's unfortunate that he's impaired, but he has his magic, and manages very well, from the looks of it. He's just so depressed." She hesitated. "Will you go?"
"I'll go, probably next week. I'd like to give him a chance to get used to the idea that I'm back."
Heaving a sigh of relief, Minerva cocked her head. "You have a plan, an idea of what to say?"
Severus smiled, then said dryly, "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."
Despite what he'd told Minerva, Severus actually had no precise idea of how he would approach Harry, nor how he'd convince him to agree to her offer. He had to clear up two misconceptions first, no easy task, considering he himself had lied intentionally while Harry…Harry….
Even though Severus didn't really know if Harry had been planning to show that May Day, none of what came afterward was Harry's fault.
His heart clenched in his chest as he wondered what Harry must think of his lack of a response. No visits, no flowers, no owls. When Harry had needed a friend, where had Severus been all those years? Harry would've had to believe that Severus had chosen not to bother himself. Just the thought of what had gone through Harry's head made Severus physically cringe and mentally berate himself, like a broken record, over the course of the weekend.
He was too distracted to work, unable to concentrate at meals with Minerva and now Hagrid in the Great Hall. He revisited the tomb and poured out his heart to his friend, who seemed to turn a deaf and condemning ear.
He heard the accusation over and over in his head:
Always so quick to jump to conclusions, so quick to judge, to take offense, so quick to believe for the worst in him. The boy was patient and persistent, the very picture of what a friend should be, stubbornly claiming that I had better days ahead, and what did I do? Abandon him… I should've stayed, I should've looked for him, it might've made a difference….
But in all fairness to myself, I only did what we'd agreed to do, and when he didn't show, I got on with the rest of my life. What was so wrong about that? Didn't we both have that option?
True words that rang hollow, for some reason; Severus couldn't shut down the voice that nattered on, so he decided, no he hoped¸ that time could indeed be rewound without the aid of a Turner.
He waited the weekend, and then Monday, but on Tuesday he found he had to go. He had his thoughts in order, his voice of conscience relegated to the 'it's enough, you've made your point' section of his brain, and the only uncertainty was the possibility that Harry for some reason might not be there.
He knew that Madam Malkin's closed at four-thirty, so he insured that the two of them would have plenty of time, managing to arrive at Fortescue's at three on the dot. Harry and charge weren't there yet, but Severus hadn't thought he'd be. Advantage went to the first-seated, he'd reasoned, so he chose a table in the corner, on the same end of the outdoor patio where Harry had sat, but away from the fence this time. If there were one thing Severus wanted to avoid, it was a public spectacle, and Harry, from Severus' experience in the past, didn't stop to think where he was when he wanted to 'express himself.'
At three forty-five, when Severus was on his second cup of tea, Harry appeared from around the corner, guiding the pushchair with one hand, a cane dangling from the frame of it. His left arm was hidden in the folds of his robe, his left shoulder slightly higher than the right; he had a discernable limp and made a slight syncopated sound as he shuffled along, covering ground at a considerable pace, given his handicap.
But he held his head up high, scanning the enclosure are he deftly maneuvered the pushchair inside the seating area, freezing for a moment when he spotted Severus watching him, then with a nod, he continued on toward the opposite corner.
Severus picked up his cup and winded his way through the chairs that separated them. He stood and waited until Harry was seated, then asked politely, "Would you mind if I sat a while?"
Harry glanced at the sleeping child, then shook his head. "Not at all."
Trying not to make noise, Severus pulled out the chair opposite. When he looked up, Harry was watching him. About to open his mouth, Severus stopped when the server came to pour Harry's tea and top off his own. He waited, watching how the man managed with only one hand, stirring in two teaspoons of sugar. When Harry lifted his cup to drink, Severus decided to jump to the heart of the matter.
"I've taken a position at Hogwarts. As the Defense instructor. I'd not imagined myself back there, especially so soon and on such short notice, but Minerva begged, and I hate to see her beg," he said humorlessly, then added, "Minerva's spoken to me about you. All you said last week was that you were in between things. Why didn't you tell me?"
He watched as Harry's eyes narrowed. "It's no one's affair but my own."
Predictable response, one for which Severus was ready. "Strange, but I remember like it was yesterday, you telling me that there was no shame in needing help."
Harry muttered something suspiciously like, "Not the same," under his breath, then seemed almost sullen as he replied, "I'm doing just fine. I have money. I don't need a job, so you can just go back and tell Minerva you tried and failed."
Severus was puzzled for a moment, and then frowned as he suddenly got it. Once again, it seemed as if they were doomed to misunderstand each other. "What're you talking about?" he asked.
Harry looked at him warily. "That's why you're here, isn't it? To get me to agree to fill that half a Charms position?" he asked caustically.
Severus fixed him with a stern look, then answered, his voice low and intense, "She asked me to mention it, yes, but that's not why I'm here. I'm here because the last time I was, I didn't know what had happened to you. And you didn't tell me," he finished, a note of mild accusation hanging in the air between them.
Harry's cup slipped to the saucer, making a clattering sound. The baby startled, both tiny arms coming up, then fretted softly, rolling her head from side to side. Harry instantly leant forward, soothing the child as he moved the pushchair back and forth. Severus knew his words weren't lost, however, as he could see the flush spreading up the man's neck, although his face had paled considerably in contrast.
Sitting back, Harry looked dumbstruck, his eyes wild. "You didn't know? Really?" When Severus shook his head, Harry said, as if to himself, "But you said you'd read the Prophet."
"I didn't know," Severus said softly. "It would've first been in the Prophet weeks after I'd gone, and I didn't see one again for months."
They sat in silence for a moment; Severus had to look away, as he saw the struggle in the man's face. When Harry finally spoke, his voice was slightly tremulous. "By that time, I would've been old news."
Severus nodded. "That would explain why I saw nothing. I did look, you understand…for news of you, and your life. But I always supposed I must've missed it, as I went a month or two sometimes without seeing one."
"I don't know what to say, you can't imagine how I…" he stopped, seeming to catch himself. They eyed each other, and Severus was about to speak when the clock in the square began to chime the hour. Harry looked down at the baby, then back to Severus. "I'm sorry. It's four, and I promised Ginny I'd bring her into the shop today." He pushed his cup away and made to stand, but Severus reached out suddenly and touched his hand, making Harry freeze.
"Please, perhaps we can have dinner together?" Severus asked, then added quickly, "I'll not badger you to take the position, I promise, but I…I…" he faltered, feeling suddenly out of his depth. "I still have questions. I'd like to understand what happened to you…and I have a thing or two to say as well," he finished uncomfortably.
Harry scrutinized him carefully for a long moment, then nodded as he struggled to his feet. "Fair enough. But there's dinner waiting for me at home. You could join me, if you like?"
"Grimmauld Place," Severus said. "I take it Kreacher is your cook?" He sneered. "You might have to taste my food for me, no love lost there."
With a laugh, Harry angled the pushchair for the exit. "Kreacher's changed. If he sees that I approve of you, he won't harm a hair on your head." With a backward glance, he directed. "Wait here, would you?"
Severus knew better than to offer to help, so he watched the man struggle to get the pushchair through the narrow opening, before he ambled off, cater-corner, to the dress shop.
Harry hadn't lied—the house-elf beamed at Severus when he was introduced, then shooed them off to the kitchen where a more than adequate supper had been laid out. For a short time, Severus was a bit out of sorts, as his last memories of the kitchen warred with the one he was currently making. The room echoed of Order meetings and Black, of Albus and Lupin and Nymphadora, and others who were both living and dead. He thought of them one by one, setting some aside, putting others to rest, until he was able to focus on the flesh and blood wizard at the other end of the table.
They talked quietly as they ate, Severus sharing a brief outline of his travels, interspersed with shortly worded answers to his own questions about Harry's circumstances. When they were finally done, they retired to the sitting room, now stripped of the odious furnishings that Severus remembered.
Harry sat in a heavy wooden rocking chair, propping his leg up on an ottoman. Severus sat opposite, in a chintz-covered armchair that reminded him of Albus.
"The house," Severus thought to ask, "is still under Fidelius?"
"I never changed it, and after the…accident, Arthur convinced me it'd be a good idea to leave it. I'd never lived here before, really. And I guess I wasn't in the best of shape, you know, to defend myself. Besides, I like my privacy," he ended with a shrug.
"Indeed," Severus agreed, silently thanking Arthur Weasley for his good sense. "So, tell me about your shop."
He listened as Harry talked, watching as he relaxed, secure in familiar territory. It was a side of Harry he'd never had occasion to see, either: a man with entrepreneurial aptitude, who'd struck out on his own at the age of eighteen, in the Muggle world, no less.
"Not much else to tell. I was stupid for not carrying ID, especially in Muggle territory. I don't think they put much of an effort into finding out who I was—for some reason, I was dumped miles from where they hit me. If I hadn't woken up on my own…" He smiled at Severus. "Well, it wouldn't've been too much longer—the D.A. was out looking for me."
"So, you just sold your shop?" Severus asked.
Harry looked away. "Spent a month in St. Mungo's. I thought about maybe giving it another go, but if that happened to me when I was…all there, just imagine what could go wrong…" He looked up and gave a forced smile. "Sold it easily. Decided to come here—had a bit of help fixing it up. Hermione and Ron, Neville and Luna, and Oliver and Ginny, of course."
Severus couldn't help himself. "I must say, I'm a bit disappointed in her, leaving you in the lurch when you needed her most."
Harry's eyes flashed. "Funny, that's what I thought about you," he said, and the tone of his voice told Severus how many, many times the man had actually thought it. Before he could protest, Harry waved a hand, "Doesn't matter now. You didn't know, so I was wrong." But he didn't sound to Severus like he believed it completely. "And Ginny and I—we were over long before. I sort of hinted at that, you remember?"
Of course Severus remembered that, so he had to agree. "Yes, you did, but…do you know, when I saw you on Friday, and the way the conversation went, I just assumed that you and her, because of the baby…"
Laughing out loud, Harry seemed to relax again. "Ah. You're right, yeah, I can see why you thought that. Alas, Dodie isn't mine, although she could've been." He had a faraway look in his eyes for a moment, then they focused on Severus again. "It's funny, isn't it, how life changed for both of us at about the same time—you going off on your round-the-world trip, me getting clobbered?"
"Hmm, funny's a funny choice of word," Severus opined, making Harry laugh again.
When he sobered, he asked, "Why then? I've always wondered, why you went then?"
The moment of truth had arrived, and Severus knew it, even as his heart began to beat a bit faster. "Those months just after Delos were difficult ones—learning to live on my own without help, sorting through Albus' things, trying to envision what the rest of my life would be like. So many things I'd never had time to do before—things I'd never believed I'd live to do." He took a deep breath.
"Then I was lonely and restless, and made the decision to wrap up my life here, and see the world, no looking back." He leant forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his thighs, as he captured Harry's eyes. "You see, I was spurred on by a disappointment. A friend of mine missed a very important rendezvous." He said more gently, "As it turns out, I misunderstood his absence entirely. Something I've just learnt in the past few days…." He watched as Harry went completely white, his eyes wide as he struggled to speak, but was unable. Severus finally took pity on him.
"I was there, Harry."
Harry grabbed his bad hand with his good one, and wrung the two of them together. "You were there?" he almost whispered.
Severus moved his chair closer so their knees almost touched. "I was. I waited for an hour, then left for a while. I couldn't leave Hogsmeade, though. I was certain that you were just late, or that I'd remembered the time wrong. I came back at eleven, and after that…the rest you know."
Harry's cheeks were pale except for two pinks spots at the center. "You were there," he repeated, this time in wonder. "But if you were there, that would mean that you'd decided…" He stopped, his face suddenly flushed and filled with a chagrin that alarmed Severus, who couldn't understand what was behind it.
"It was as you said, before we left Delos," Severus said hesitantly, watching Harry with concern. "Time and distance put things in perspective. And I found that I thought of you…and missed you. There were so many new things in my life that I wanted to show you. And so, I made up my mind and went to the Hog's Head."
Harry seemed to ponder this for a moment, then his eyes drifted back to Severus'. "Why did you lie, then?"
It was Severus' turn to flush. "I interrupted you before you had a chance to finish, remember? I thought you were about to make your apology for not having come. And I couldn't bear to hear it, not when I believed you married with a child."
Comprehension flooded Harry's face. He sat entirely immobile for a moment, blinking his eyes as he seemed to think, then looked up to smile wanly. "Well, it's nice to know."
They were silent for a moment, then Severus asked him, "The question I've wondered about over the past several days is had you not been prevented, would you've come?"
There was no hesitation. "I was counting the days," Harry said wistfully. "I hadn't thought all that much about what we'd do, if we both showed up." He blushed prettily. 'Beyond…the obvious." He stopped and smiled bravely. "Of course, I know that this—" He waved at the left side of his body. "—changes everything. But like I said, it means a great deal to know that you came."
On to the next part of the predictable program, and suddenly Severus understood the chagrin of a few moments ago. "You believe your injuries make a difference?" He put an edge of steel in his voice. "I find that slightly insulting."
Harry sat up straight to defend himself. "For the last two years, I've believed that this was exactly why I didn't hear from you. Pardon me, but I'm trying to get used to a few things here…"
Severus pushed back his chair, and then stood to lean down and grab the armrests of Harry's rocker. Their faces were only inches apart. "All right. In all fairness, I've had four days to get used to the facts. You should have the same consideration. This," he said softly, as he reached out and touched Harry's damaged arm and then his leg, "means nothing to me. They change nothing. Do you understand? Just as I know that this," he paused as he touched his own drooping eyelid and the scars on his neck, "means nothing to you." He stopped, but held his position, lost for a moment in the green of Harry's eyes, so close that he could smell the fruity scent of the wine from dinner, and see the throb of the vein at the hollow of his temple. He felt Harry's hand come up to rest on his arm, and for a moment, Severus closed his eyes.
When he opened them, Harry had closed his as well. They stayed that way as Severus began to speak again. "Take a few days to think, and get your affairs in order. You have a position waiting for you at Hogwarts, as well as…someone who cares a great deal for you. If you decide you might be interested in…getting together. With me. I'll see you on Friday at your usual spot in Diagon Alley, say at four? No pressure. If you don't think…" He motioned between the two of them. "…then just don't show. No hard feelings."
Harry's eyes snapped open at the familiar words, and Severus was gratified to see a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "You couldn't come up with something original?"
Severus didn't return the smile, but lowered his voice. "The choice is not as simple now as it was before, I know. But you once told me that self-pity is unbecoming. Heed your own words. If you should choose to not come, I'll accept your decision and not seek you out. No hard feelings."
Before he straightened, he was overcome at last by the unpredictable; he closed his eyes again and moved his face forward until their lips met, but just a brush of heat and the flick of a tongue before he pulled away.
And for that, he congratulated himself. It could've been so much worse.
In the interests of keeping explanations simple, and perhaps a bit of belief in the power of positive thinking, Severus told Minerva that Harry would be coming on Friday.
He convinced her that Harry would need rooms on the ground floor, then checked in frequently in the intervening days to make certain the house-elves were making the modifications he'd requested. There weren't many, but they would make Harry's life easier—interior doors that did not latch, a bathtub that was recessed into the floor, and some other innovations that could be easily controlled by Harry's wandless magic.
On Friday, before he left for London, he paid one last visit to the suite, to leave something in the sitting room for Harry. He'd thought of it when he returned on Tuesday, and had made a quick trip to Barra to retrieve it: the small basilisk he'd whittled as they'd wiled away the hours on Delos.
As for any other thoughts on Harry's decision, Severus studiously refused to consider it. He reckoned that he'd spent entirely too much of his life worrying about things in advance, and that for once, he'd just have to wait and see.
A successful tack for the most part, which finally failed him the minute he opened his eyes on Friday. He was distracted by racing thoughts, right up until it was time for him to leave. Then he forced himself to focus, as he Disapparated from in front of the castle gates.
Severus didn't try to understand why this time he made a point of not arriving early; this time he was exactly on time, crossing the square just as the clock was striking four. He saw Harry sitting in his usual place, but he was alone, with no pushchair at his feet.
There was just a moment when Severus saw him first, before Harry looked up, and he was struck by how shrunken he seemed. He sat twisted in his seat, as if he were compensating for his injured arm, with his feet angled out to the side. His good arm was resting on the table, and he was absent-mindedly twirling a lock of hair.
When Severus was almost upon him, Harry looked up, and the slow smile that lit up his face transformed his entire appearance.
Standing at the opposite side of the table, Severus didn't sit. "Mister Potter," he said amiably.
Harry snorted. "You've not called me that since Hogwarts."
"I'm trying to adjust to your professorial status," Severus said, straight-faced.
After a moment of scrutinizing him, Harry answered with a shrug, "That makes two of us, I guess."
"Harry," Severus said, "we should be on our way. Supper's at five." He held back the smile, enjoying the spark in the man's eyes at the use of his given name.
Struggling to his feet, Harry mumbled, "You're not even surprised that I'm here, are you? I was rather looking forward to surprising you." He straightened, then nodded towards the square.
As they headed for open space, Severus said quietly, "I decided I'd only prepare for you to be here."
Harry turned to him, and for a moment that was little space between them. "And if you'd been wrong?"
Severus took hold of his arm. "It would've been you who was wrong, so I'd've come after you."
"What happened to making my own decision, no hard feelings? And by the way, I don't need your help to Apparate." He tried to take a step away, but Severus held fast.
"It would've been a wrong decision. And stop being stubborn, I've been looking forward to whisking you away." He finally smiled when he saw Harry's eyes go wide, and then turned them on the spot.
It was still two weeks from the beginning of term, so even though it should've been a welcoming dinner for the newest member of the staff, there were only six of them at supper. Hagrid and Filius sat on either side of Harry, while Severus was unfortunately flanked by Sybill and Minerva. But the table was round, so he was able to observe and hear all that went on, as well as ignore what he found irritating.
When supper was done, Hagrid and Sybill said their goodnights, so the four of them retired to Minerva's rooms, where plans were laid for Harry and Filius' Charms-sharing project. Severus sat and drank the headmistress' most excellent Scotch, here and there interrupting with a comment, increasingly inane as the level of the bottle dropped lower. It was after eight when Minerva finally stood and suggested they take it up again the next evening.
Harry seemed in better spirits than Severus had seen him since that first encounter in Diagon Alley, his face flushed and eyes shining as they walked along the corridor for the staircase. There was a moment of indecision, as their eyes met.
"Listen, you go on up. I'm fine on my own, really," Harry told him earnestly, as he took the first step down."
Severus frowned, uncertain all of a sudden. "No trouble to see you down." He stopped when Harry began to shake his head before he'd finished.
"No, really. I'm all right. And I just need to…" His eyes were almost pleading. "Need to get my bearings. Honestly, I'm used to managing on my own."
"I'm certain you are," Severus said slowly, trying to intuit what Harry wouldn't come out and say directly.
"See you at breakfast?" Harry asked, just about to turn away, and Severus could've sworn it was with regret.
"More than likely," he replied, then stayed and watched until Harry was out of sight, with one last wave.
"I'm not certain what it is, but something's off about him," Minerva murmured to Severus two evenings later.
"I think you're right, and I'm not certain why," Severus told her. "I have an idea, and I'm going to have a little talk with him. Never fear, we'll sort it out."
Minerva hid her answer as she took a sip of her wine. "I've no doubt, since you managed to get him here in the first place. Don't frighten him off, though, Severus."
"I've not managed to frighten him in all the years I've known him. And believe me, I tried my best," he said dryly.
What was off was that Harry seemed to possess a superhuman energy, filling his days with hours-long conferences with Filius, spending the rest of his time preparing his classroom, poring over Charms texts, trekking down to visit Hagrid, and a trip now and then to the kitchens. It seemed that every evening, just as there would be time for the two of them to talk, Harry would reasonably, so it seemed, claim that his long day had done him in, and off to bed he would go, sometimes as early as seven-thirty.
But Severus had noticed that the harder Harry tried to keep himself busy, and perhaps even avoid him, the more Severus caught him watching at odd moments, and the man would quickly avert his eyes and flush to the very roots of his hair. Severus couldn't be sure, but he thought that Harry seemed torn, wanting to do and say one thing, but then ended by choosing another. It was almost as if he were afraid….
The more Severus thought, and the more he watched Harry's little dance of 'come-hither, go-yonder,' the surer he became of what had to be done.
That night, a week before term would begin, Severus walked with Harry into the Entrance Hall, then allowed him to beg off once again, and say good night just after seven. Severus took the stairs to his room to get a bottle of brandy, spent some time leafing through a book, then stood out on the tower balcony until he heard the castle clock striking eight.
Tucking the bottle under his arm, he smoothly took the staircases down to the ground floor, then strode along the outer corridor to the very end where Harry's rooms were. Without hesitation, he lifted a fist and pounded unreservedly on the heavy door. He waited several seconds, then pounded again…and again. He was about to begin his fourth volley, when the door was thrown open. Harry's eyes widened when he saw who it was.
"What's wrong? Did something—"
Severus pulled the bottle out from under his arm, but didn't offer it. "We're going to have a drink, and then we're going to talk."
Biting his lower lip, Harry tried to protest, "I'm sort of tired." He kept his hand on the latch.
"No doubt, but that will not save you tonight," Severus said wryly.
Now the man looked hesitant. "What do you mean?" he asked, seeming as if he wanted to look away, but the force of Severus' eyes forbade it.
Leaning slightly forward, Severus said matter-of-factly, "I mean that sometime between now and breakfast I'm going to fuck you. Do you need it any clearer than that?"
Harry's shock was apparent, his mouth gaping open. There ensued a brief staring match, which ended when Harry let his arm drop from the door and stepped to the side.
Pushing past him to enter, Severus asked as he headed for the sideboard, "Was that a 'no', then?" There was no reply from behind him, so he set out two glasses, poured them each a measure, then pivoted and returned to Harry who still stood by the open door.
Severus canted his hip to close the door, then handed Harry one of the glasses. "Drink," he commanded. Eyeing him as he did the same, Severus then took both of their glasses and set them aside.
Stepping closer, Severus saw that Harry still seemed in a state of shock, his cheeks flushed, and his eyes large. Reaching out, Severus slid an arm around Harry's waist and pulled him slowly toward him, until there was no space between them. He took a fingertip and traced the outline of the man's lips, then slid his hand down to tilt his chin up. Gently, as if in slow motion, Severus brushed his mouth over Harry's, back and forth, barely touching, then used his tongue to draw along the crevice of the lips that were already slightly parted. When he breached them, working his way slowly inside, Harry melted against him and let out a moan that made Severus suddenly hard.
All gentleness was suddenly gone as Harry almost fiercely responded, grinding his hips into Severus, opening his mouth to give back as good as he got. The only sound in the room was them breathing noisily through their noses as they drew the kiss out, Severus finally forcing Harry's head back as he mouthed his way down his neck, and back up again. There was one more kiss then, softer and chaster, as if it were the finishing taste in a first course of passion.
"You know you want this," Severus said at his ear.
"I do," Harry sighed, but he was the first to pull away. When he reached down and slipped Severus' arm from around his waist, he met no resistance. He limped to the settee and sank down onto the edge of it, then placed his head in his hand. Without a word, Severus followed and took the armchair opposite.
Severus watched him for a moment, then said softly, "You have to stop running it over in your mind." When Harry dropped his hand and looked up, Severus said more insistently, "You have to stop feeling sorry for yourself."
Harry's face drained of color, and with a withering look at Severus, he Summoned the bottle from the sideboard. Severus reached out and took it from him. "No more tonight. I want you sober."
Laughing in disbelief, Harry told him, "You have no idea what I've been through…what it's been like."
Severus sat back in his chair, crossing an ankle on his knee. "I probably don't. So, tell me. Tell me everything."
Harry shook his head sadly.
"Tell me what you're obsessing over. How you hate what you've lost. Tell me what you lost. Tell me what you cry over. And don't tell me that you don't. I know you too well. I could probably guess at most of this, but you need to tell me."
Now Harry looked defeated. His hand was balled up in a fist on his knee, and for a moment he shook with suppressed emotion. Then, as if he'd come to a decision, he unclenched his fist and shook out his fingers and laid them loosely on his thigh. When he began to speak, it was so softly that Severus had to uncross his leg and sit forward just to hear him.
"The worst part was waking up, you know." He smiled bitterly. "Waking up and knowing I'd let my guard down, and let a Muggle do this. I hated myself for being so stupid. I was so cocky—all my magic to keep me safe, and I didn't even know what hit me. Literally." He looked mournfully at the brandy bottle, then shook his head. "So many things to be furious about. My friends, why didn't they miss me sooner? What if they'd come looking earlier?"
He stopped then, emotion working the muscles in his face, and for a moment, Severus thought he might cry, but he didn't. He took a breath, then sat back, using his good hand to adjust his left arm at his side. "You had a taste of what it's like, so I know you'll understand. I lost my independence. My ability to be my own man…take care of myself…protect myself. Some of it I still have, but it'll never be right." His voice wavered slightly as he said, "Quidditch is gone forever—I'll never fly again. And my friends, they all have this look in their eyes. Do you know what that's like? Everywhere I go, people are awkward—used to be because of who I was, but now…now it's because of what I'm not. No one looks me in the eye anymore." He squinted at Severus, and then smiled slightly. "Except for you, you heartless bastard."
When Severus didn't smile, Harry seemed self-conscious suddenly. "It's why I seldom go out. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Got Bashed by Muggles," he finished with a derisive snort. When Severus still had nothing to say, he was defensive. "Say something," he said irritably.
Severus was strumming his lower lip with a thumb, watching Harry's cheeks flush again. He narrowed his eyes, still leaning forward. "I hope you've got it out of your system now, because that was the last time you'll think of it."
Harry almost looked wistful. "Yeah, for sure. What're you going to do, Obliviate me?"
"As tempting as that is, I'll pass. No, you'll not think of it again because I'm going to make you forget it—not what happened, of course, but this pathetic drudgery that you force yourself to wade through over and over is finished. I'm serious, Harry, that was the last time."
"Nice. Nice words. And I know you mean well," Harry said patronizingly.
"When have you ever known me to be altruistic? Of course I mean well, but I have selfish reasons for wanting you to forget."
He saw a flash of uncertainty in Harry's face.
"Do you know what an object lesson is?" Severus asked.
When Harry rolled his eyes and sighed heavily, Severus pressed on. "Alas, I have no concrete object, so perhaps this is an allegory. Hmmm, perhaps not. Rather a metaphor…wait, I do believe it's a parable."
"Does it matter?" Harry asked exasperatedly.
Severus laced his fingers together and grasped his knee. "When I was a boy, of eight or nine, we went to visit my father's brother in Cornwall. I'd never seen the sea, so we went down to the bay to a small rock pool, so I could swim and splash. I'd been yammering on about it for days—the excitement of swimming for a city boy, well you might know a bit about that—and then all I did when we were finally there was play around the edges. I couldn't see how deep it was and the water was very cold." He smiled as he remembered.
"After an hour of trying to coax me in, my uncle asked me why I was wasting time, and missing the fun, and then he seemed to just snap. He picked me up and threw me into the pool." He looked pointedly at Harry.
"It was indescribable. Sheer terror and stinging cold, then I found I could stand on the bottom and still have my head out—my uncle knew this, of course—and before long, I was diving for shells and paddling all over the pool. We stayed for hours, even had a picnic on the beach. It was hands down one of the best days of my life." He lowered his voice. "My only regret was that I'd wasted that first hour because I was afraid."
Harry seemed slightly puzzled, and a bit doubtful. "So, what you're saying is I should try and set everything aside, and ignore how I feel?"
"No," Severus said as he stood to his feet and began to unbutton his shirt, holding Harry's eyes. "All I'm saying is you should perhaps prepare yourself, as I'm about to throw you into the deep end." The front of his shirt open, he started on his cuffs. "You can undress yourself. Or if you prefer, I'll do it. Glad-ly," he drew out the word.
Harry had sat up straight, his hand clenched in his lap as he watched, seeming fascinated. "I...I don't…you don't understand…I can't…don't want you to see…"
"For god's sake, you've seen me at my worst, wouldn't you say?" Severus shrugged out of his shirt, then began to work at the fastening of his trousers.
Unable to look away, Harry protested, "It's not the same, you're fine now."
Severus dropped his trousers, then sat to work on his shoes and socks. Shaking his head, he disagreed. "Not fine. Perhaps less damaged, but not fine. Do you know that in cooler weather I lose my voice, and when I'm tired, I can't keep this eye open?"
Harry shook his head. "It's different. You've always been so strong."
"A wise Muggle once wrote that life breaks us all, and if it doesn't kill us, well, then we're strong at those broken places. You have that strength in you; Albus knew it long before I did. Not a physical trait, of course, but something much more vital."
"Dumbledore thought I was strong, he told me that," Harry said, a faraway look in his eyes. "I don't know…" He looked almost longingly at Severus.
Standing naked, Severus held out an imperious hand. "You might as well give it up, because I'm not going to let you hide. Starting now." He crooked a finger in front of Harry's face. "Harry. Come with me."
In the bedchamber, he realized as he undressed him that he'd never really seen Harry naked before. That one time they'd been together, it'd been dark and they'd only seen each other in silhouette and moonlight.
As each piece of clothing fell to the floor, Severus almost reverently exposed the pale flesh beneath. Harry trembled and looked away as Severus smoothed his skin in wonder, finally pushing him to the bed where he gently lifted and then carefully laid him down in the center of it. Crawling up, he removed the last of what covered him, then sat back on his heels, Harry's feet trapped beneath him.
"Look at me. There's nothing to be ashamed of. You're beautiful," he said solemnly.
Harry laced his hands behind his head, and seemed to relax marginally. He said it in a playful voice, but Severus could hear the desperation that lay beneath. "You're mad. You must be, to want a cripple like me."
Severus slid up and lay atop him, fixing Harry's good arm above his head. He gave a wicked twist of his hips, and smiled in satisfaction when Harry groaned and jerked upward in answer. "Obviously, you're not a cripple where it counts."
"Don’t' be so sure. I don't know…" he faltered, his eyes earnest, "…if I can please you."
Severus buried his face in the crook of Harry's neck and sucked for a moment, concentrating on using the weight of his body to keep Harry from bucking upwards. "Oh, I've no doubt. I'm looking forward to finally teaching you something useful."
He had to remind himself to go slowly, especially after Harry admitted, in a gasp actually, that he'd not had a partner since that night in Delos. Just the thought of what awaited him made Severus' cock stand up straighter.
Fueling him tonight were months and months of fantasy, nights when he'd lain out under a tropical sky, days when he'd sat on a beach and watched the locals cavort, dreams of that steamy encounter in a humid hut with the moonlight streaming in through the window. They'd been rushed then, urged on by an explosion of denied lust and the knowledge that they'd be leaving in the morning. So on this night, Severus relaxed, knowing they had time…and then some.
He took care to not neglect the wounded parts of this fragile body. Using his hands, and his mouth, he didn't miss an inch of it, especially exploring the limits of Harry's injured arm and leg, gently flexing them at the joints, pleased to discover that the leg was moderately functional. He grieved for the arm, and covered it with kisses, smiling against the skin of it when it was clear that Harry could feel, even if he couldn't move it.
Up and down on the bed Severus moved, unable to neglect Harry's mouth for very long. He grasped his head in both hands and fixed him in place, kneeling up on the bed with one knee between Harry's legs, bending over to kiss him until he was breathless. Straddling him at the hips, he fondled his cock and balls, intently watching the man's face, head thrown back, mouth wide open as he huffed in arousal.
Severus stuck the fingers of one hand deep into his mouth and began to noisily suck, making Harry's eyes snap open. When he saw what Severus was doing, he groaned out loud, and made an admirable attempt to jut his arse off the bed.
"God, what're you…you're gonna kill me…" His eyes grew wide as Severus knelt between his legs, and then spread them with his forearms. Chin up, eyes fastened on Harry's, Severus felt for his bottom, then smoothly pushed in with a finger. He smiled outright when this earned him an outright gasp and a muted, "Fuck."
After a few moments of playing it in and out of his arse, Severus leant in even closer, grabbing Harry's cock with his free hand as he rocked the second finger in. Stretching him wider, Severus couldn't take his eyes off of Harry's face, now a bright pink, sweat popping out on his forehead.
"Push down," Severus murmured, and when Harry did, he angled in the third. Then he released the rigid cock, still pumping his arse with his fingers, and buried his head in Harry's groin and swallowed the length of him.
Hands were suddenly in his hair, holding him fast as he pumped both his handful of arse and his mouthful of cock. He breathed stridently through his nose, almost heady with the wonderful smell of Harry. As he felt the cock head hit the back of his throat, he pulled his fingers out of Harry's arse, and gently rolled and squeezed his bollocks, at one point having to resist the urge to bite down when Harry's knees knocked against his ears.
"Se…se…sev…" He knew Harry was trying to warn him, but Severus stuck fast and waited for him to come, and when he did, in several long drawn-out pulses that filled Severus' mouth to overflowing, he did his best to swallow it all, but still some escaped and dribbled out the sides of his mouth. He sat back on his heels and used his fingers to wipe his face, then licked them clean, all the while watching the picture of a debauched Harry laid out on the bed beneath him. Not the picture of his fantasies, nor the vision in his dreams.
This was the real Harry, who was infinitely better.
He wasn't finished, though.
"All right?" he murmured as he slid to Harry's left side, coming up on an elbow.
"Mmmm," was his answer, punctuated by pants of, "Was…was…" Harry turned his head to the side to look at Severus. "C'mon. You now."
Sliding his lower arm beneath Harry's head, Severus rolled him onto his side, as he asked him, "You trust me?"
"You have to ask?"
Ever so gently, Severus nudged his knee between Harry's thighs from behind, then rolled him even further so that his chest was half on the bed, his injured arm carefully cradled against his upper body. Severus Summoned the lube and used a lot of it, then took good care to position himself. With one stroke, he was in, and he groaned at the tight heat of resistance, as he stopped and waited, his bollocks already drawing up as he tried not to come too soon.
"Good god, Harry," he grunted out. He took a moment to nuzzle his nose against Harry's neck, then latch on, sucking until Harry began to squirm in response, moaning as he became aroused again. Severus broke away to mutter, "Finally…."
Harry turned his head slightly, and Severus heard the single word. "Finally?"
"Finally," he said as his pushed in as hard as he could. He thrust again, and then again and again, in time with the words. "Have you…where I…want you." When he found a new patch of skin and began to suck again, Harry gasped in pleasure.
"Like the sound of that…where you want me," he managed to wheeze out.
Severus had nothing else to say, but he moved faster, holding Harry firmly in place, with just enough room for him to push backward. He felt as if he were a paper doll fitted to Harry's body, , mouth to neck, arm to shoulder, cock to arse, thigh to thigh, as they moved in tandem, stuck together, sliding easily against each other, slimed with sweat that smelled of men in lust and animals in heat.
Arching his back, Severus came, biting down hard on the round of Harry's shoulder, tasting the coppery tang of blood in his mouth as he felt the pounding of blood in his ears. His heart and soul and world became a wave of pleasure so intense he knew he'd not survive it….
He was going to die, he was certain of it, but it would be a good death... His face was on fire, he could barely breathe, his ears thudded shut, and the room spun around him, even though his eyes were closed.
He knew he was still alive when he felt his cock slip out of Harry's arse. He got up, taking time to carefully rearrange the sleeping man's arm and leg in the bed. In the en suite, he wet a flannel with hot water, cleaned himself off, then wet it again and returned to the bed.
As he gently cleaned Harry's arse, he smiled as he thought of his uncle and how he'd never again been afraid of the water.
When term started, the students gazed up with awe at the two men at the High Table. The Man Who'd Killed Voldemort beamed down at them when he was introduced. He didn't stand, and most of them understood why. The professor next to him didn't stand either, perhaps out of deference to his table mate. The Dark Hero, the man who'd survived where others would've died, stared out over the student assembly and merely nodded.
After they'd been encouraged to begin their feast, when students dared to furtively look back to the table at the front of the room, they were surprised to see the two heroes smiling and talking, heads bent together, as if there were no one else in the Hall.
In mid October, Severus took Harry to Barra. Neither of them had house duties: Harry because he wasn't needed, and Severus because he'd flatly refused when asked, telling Minerva that 'he'd done his time.'
The weather was unseasonably mild, and it was still light when they arrived in early evening. With Harry holding his arm, Severus showed him the gardens and apiary, where Harry lingered for quite some time, asking questions until Severus firmly took his hand to lead him out, telling him they still had the beach to see before the sun set.
"Beekeeping," Harry exclaimed as they headed for the dunes. "Now that I think of it, it's exactly the sort of thing Dumbledore would've tinkered at. So, you say he has books? Is it hard to keep the hives up? If you don't have time, I can do some research for you in the evenings. All I'll need is a book or two. I can even get a Muggle reference—I'm sure Hermione would be glad to—"
"Harry, I have more books on bees than is healthy. You can putter to your heart's content. When we come up in the spring, you'll know it all and be ready to dig in."
The man's eyes glittered with barely suppressed excitement…and something else, something like hope. "In the spring?" he asked. "So, you'll bring me again?"
Severus didn't reply until they were both seated on the top of a dune, watching the breakers come in. "I don't see why not." He looked down at his bare feet. "It doesn't take much to make you happy, does it?" he asked, reaching down to roll his trouser legs up, then twisted to do the same with Harry, who watched him, amused. When he was done, he looked up at him. "Well?"
Harry shrugged with a smile at the edge of his mouth. 'I guess I'm happy when I don't want to be anywhere else but where I am." He dug his toes into the sand, then leant backward, still looking at Severus.
"Could that be here?" Severus asked softly.
He seemed to consider for a moment, his eyes searching Severus' face. "I suppose it could be, but I think it's not so much the place that's important as it is the person."
Severus had to look away.
He'd started it, after all, and he'd been shaken to the soles of his feet by the certainty he'd seen in Harry's eyes. But Severus was powerless to say the next line, to take the discussion to its logical conclusion. He'd been a solitary soul for so long, and even though he craved companionship—this man's, in any case—anything of permanence made his heart pound unnaturally and tied his tongue. As the moment lengthened, he reminded himself that it'd been barely two months, that they had the rest of their lives, so why not just take things as they came and….
"Would you like to come here for Yule? I've always stayed at Hogwarts, but now that I have someplace to go…." He took a deep breath. "We could make a holiday together."
Harry rested his arms on his bended knees, his face turned toward Severus. "With a tree?"
Severus tried to affect tolerant disgust. "A tree, if you insist."
Pursing his lips, Severus looked out to sea. "You can get me a present, if you like, although I'll promise no such thing." He dodged the handful of sand that he sensed was about to be thrown.
It didn't happen until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Harry lay breathing audibly at his side, while Severus had kept himself awake, waiting for it.
When it first filtered through the curtains, he got up and went to sit on the sill and watched until a trail of green edged with turquoise dripped across the night sky. Fainter than the last time, it was still enough to make him stare in wonder.
"Harry," he said as he bent over him, gently shaking his shoulder. "Wake up."
"Mmmm?" Harry grumbled as he rolled over, pushing Severus' hand away.
"Harry," he said more insistently, then grabbed him under the knees and around his shoulders and lifted him from the bed, taking the quilt along with him.
"What are you…" Harry yawned, his head rolling to the side to see Severus' face.
"Hold on, we're off to the garden," he muttered, already at the top of the stairs.
"Put me down, you're going to hurt yourself, I can walk, for pity's—"
They were at the bottom of the staircase, where Severus deposited him on his feet, then lifted the quilt and arranged it around Harry's shoulders. "All right. Take my arm."
Severus led the two of them out the side door into the garden. Harry stopped dead in his tracks, just outside the door, so that Severus had to tug him forward and maneuver them both to the center, as Harry's eyes were already fixed on the heavens.
"What on earth…is it?" he breathed. "It's…green." He glanced at Severus, then back to the sky. "I've never seen anything like it."
"I saw it once before, in the first months I was here. It made me think of you and your shooting stars, actually, so I'm returning the favor. Aurora borealis. "
Harry took a step closer to him, shaking his head, his eyes still skyward. "This is so much more stunning than Delos." He laid his head on Severus' shoulder. "Is it always green?"
"Sometimes red, I believe," Severus replied, feeling rather pleased with himself. "I was hoping it would occur this weekend—why I planned to come up when we did—I wanted you to see."
He looked at Harry, at the wide-eyed wonderment on his still-boyish face, and was overcome with an urge to celebrate this rare astronomical phenomenon. Dragging the quilt from Harry's shoulders, he spread it on the grass, then sat, pulling Harry with him. Severus made a brief explanation on the Northern Lights, then there was silence.
They reclined and watched the sky for a while longer, Harry sitting snug in between Severus' legs, back to chest, with Severus' arms around him, and Severus' chin on his shoulder. They didn't talk as they drank it in, not until Harry turned to look at him.
"Come on. We can't waste this," he said with a smile.
"What did you have in mind?" Severus said as he helped Harry to lie flat, then leant in to kiss him.
Eyes glittering, Harry said, "Surprise me."
It was April, and Severus and Harry were on Barra again, this time expressly to receive a shipment of supplies for the apiary. Harry was now the resident bee expert, having hijacked most of Severus' beekeeping books at Yule and dragged a dozen of them back to Hogwarts, where he'd devoured them and driven Severus almost to distraction with talk of bees and hives and honey harvests.
It was late on Saturday afternoon, a day that had been unseasonably hot. Severus sat on a bench at the end of the apiary, keeping a careful watch as an almost unrecognizable Harry painstakingly checked the multiple frames of each hive, sliding them out one by one, then returning them to place. Difficult work for someone with the use of both hands, but Harry had hit on a way to do it and refused all offers of help, saying that Severus 'upset' the bees.
"They don't like you, I can feel it," Harry had told him.
Severus guffawed. "Why wouldn't they like me?"
"Because you're afraid of them," Harry said simply.
Severus had opened his mouth and found he had nothing to say. Harry was right, as he'd felt increasingly uneasy as the number of bees and hives crept upward. Not to mention that the protective clothing made him claustrophobic.
So Harry was wearing it today, a hat and rigid veil, heavy shirt and trousers tucked securely into leather boots, and most important of all, thin but tightly woven gloves. As Severus watched him move among the hives, he marveled. It was if he'd been doing this all of his life, humming as he worked, his movements smooth and soothing, not once needing to call for the smoker that sat ready at the end of Severus' bench. He's cut of the same cloth as Albus, he thought. Bee charmers, both of them.
Severus felt a streak of sadness as he considered what he was about to do to the man. It was true that their lives had both been better off this past year. He wasn't certain what the students thought, but he knew the staff had made some assumptions about his and Harry's relationship. It'd been almost impossible for them not to, as he and Harry hadn't particularly done anything to hide their 'situation', spending all their out-of-class time in each other's rooms and making no secret of the fact that they preferred each other's company.
But now, Severus had come to a decision, and he knew he didn't dare delay the discussion any longer. He'd wanted to do it here, where Harry felt at home, and there'd at least be some distraction if it went badly. He could always run off and spend the remainder of his weekend in his study, and Harry in his beloved apiary.
After supper, Severus poured them both a drink, then carried them out into the back garden, where there were two comfortable outdoor chairs arranged to face the sunset. He waited while Harry sat, then handed him his glass. Taking his seat, he angled and pulled it closer.
Harry gave him a sideways look, then stared straight ahead, and for a moment, the two of them watched the horizon.
"Well, what is it?" Harry asked, shifting slightly in his chair to look at Severus.
"What is what?" Severus asked, slightly dismayed.
"Oh come on, Severus. Something's up, I can tell. You've been odd all day, and come to think of it, last night too."
"I didn't hear you complaining then," Severus said dryly.
Harry was well past the blushing stage of their relationship, Severus suddenly realized, when the man positively leered at him. "No complaints there, ever." He nudged Severus' knee with his own. "You're stressed, I can tell because your eyelid's drooping. Come on, you're scaring me. What's wrong?"
Severus had to look down, still bothered that he'd been so transparent. "I've made a decision, one that I've mulled over for months, well, ever since we returned to Hogwarts after Yule." He finally looked up and met Harry's eyes. "I won't be going back to teach in September." He registered the surprise on Harry's face, but barreled on. "This has been the best teaching year of my life, mostly due to your presence. But I've found there are too many…memories there, and too many things here now that I'm loath to leave whenever we've come for a visit. So, I've given my notice."
Harry seemed to be struggling with what to say, then finally replied, with a lopsided smile on his face, "What you chose to do, going back the way you did, to help out Minerva—I admire you for stepping up like that. You spent so much of your life there, and if anyone had a good reason for never wanting to set foot in the place again, you did; you know I'd've never done it, had you not coerced me." He grinned outright, but Severus could see the distress in his eyes.
"I didn't coerce you," he said mildly, "just a little incentive." He stared at Harry, wishing that he wasn't so bloody awful at this sort of thing. "One of the reasons I needed to tell you this soon is that I feel responsible. My intention all along wasn't to abandon you once I'd got you there." He hesitated. "And of course, you're always welcome here."
Harry looked at him thoughtfully, then said slowly, "I have a decision to make as well, I guess. Filius won't be coming back, and I'm not sure I want Charms full-time." He shrugged, then looked away. "I have some time to decide."
Severus frowned. "I thought you were enjoying your classes. You're well-suited for it, in any case, should you decide to stay."
"It's not that," Harry said with a sigh, then stretched his good leg out to the side. For a moment, both of them watched the beginning of the sunset, then Harry said softly, "I think I'm sort of getting that hermit crab feeling."
Severus felt a small tug of emotion, just to know that Harry even remembered the hermit crabs. "Hmmm, that's an interesting simile…or is it a metaphor? Yes, I think it just might be a metaphor…but it might be another parable—"
"Severus," Harry interrupted him with amused exasperation. "Hogwarts was good for a time; after all, I sort of got healed there."
"Now there's a creative euphemism for fucking," Severus said, deadpan.
Harry reached over and pinched Severus soundly on the thigh. "You know what I mean. But now, feels like it might just be time to move on." He shot Severus a worried glance. "And don't think it's because you're going. That would be part of it, you know that, but not all of it. And sure, I might've stayed a bit longer…."
"Hermit crab feeling," Severus repeated. "I sort of like that; that's exactly what it feels like."
"Yeah," Harry said distractedly, "I love Hogwarts, but I don't want to spend my life there."
Severus hardly heard him, as the way before him suddenly opened and the path became clear. Fuck the bloody awkwardness, he was about to throw himself into the deep end.
"Hermit crabs, you remember, live in colonies. Rather large ones, from what we saw in the rock pool. But they never share their shells," Severus lectured him.
Harry looked at him almost warily. "Live alone, yeah, I remember, as in hermit."
Sitting forward in his chair, Severus put his hand on Harry's knee. "But hypothetically speaking, in all the vast expanse of nature and variation of the species, I daresay there might be an exception."
Staring at him, Harry said slowly, "You have a point?"
Severus lifted his hand, and brushed Harry's hair from his eyes. Softly, just loud enough to be heard, he said, "An exception…a rare occasion when two crabs have such an affinity for each other that it's not so farfetched to believe they'd choose to share a shell." He moved to the edge of his seat, his hand gently smoothing the hair at Harry's temple.
Harry's eyes were bright, and he ran his tongue over the edge of his bottom lip before he almost whispered, "Hypothetically?"
Severus placed both hands on Harry's shoulders, then pulled him closer so they were eye to eye, foreheads touching. "Sod the hypothetical. Would you like to share a shell or not?"
There were no Northern Lights this time, but they chose to celebrate out in the open, under the star-spangled sky, the two of them laid out in the garden on Albus Dumbledore's family quilt. It was warm, and so in short order, Severus saw to it that there was an irregular circle of discarded clothing around them. There was a comforting hum of buzzing bees wafting on the breeze blowing from the apiary.
Severus pleasured his lover first, smiling, thrilled as he always was that he could make Harry produce such sounds, that this fragile body—so often awkward and stiff, unable to fly anymore, heavy with a weight of age that had come too soon—this body sang beneath his hands, became fluid and mobile and responded to his every touch, and then this beautiful body, solely because it was Harry's, gave him pleasure in return.
Pleasure he was about to take and be given, as he slid Harry's legs over his shoulders, then thrust solidly home. As he leant in, his heart full beyond measure, his breath caught as he saw the reflection of the stars in Harry's eyes.
"My Harry," he murmured.