Disclaimer: Harry Potter, Severus Snape and all associated characters from the Harry Potter universe are the property of J.K. Rowling. The author, and the website maintainers, is making no profit by this story or any of the site's contents.
Plot summary: No owls, more than a little magic, and quite a few books.

Beta: regan_v. Amazing. To her this story owes both clarity and compassion. Mistakes are of course my own.
Additional canon-picking and grammar by Dementor Delta
Black Story was written for rexluscus.

Warning
Black Story contains scenes some readers may find distressing, in particular the explicit depiction of child sexual abuse and sexual dysfunction.



Black Story
Jay Tryfanstone
Jan-March 2006

 

Though all the maps of blood and flesh
Are posted on the door
There's no one who has told us yet
What Boogie Street is for.

Leonard Cohen.
Boogie Street
, from Ten New Songs


After the war, Snape comes back to Hogwarts.

Three years after the war. He has no wand. His clothes are ragged. He is half-starved, battered, scarred. He can barely remember his own name and he can certainly not remember how he came to be here, on his knees in front of the wards. Afterwards, he will remember only snatched and fragmentary memories - stealing apples and the dry crumble of earth under his fingertips, ducking under a line of washing, shivering in the bend of a river bed, a flash of green light.

At this moment in time he can barely remember that there has been a war. There is only this imperative, this need, to be here. It has kept him alive mile after mile and day after day.

If the wards prickling across his skin do not let him pass he will die here. He will die a huddle of long white bones and a snatch of black cloth, little enough to say that here once stood a living man. Knelt.

It's raining.

He tilts his face up to the thin stinging raindrops and opens his mouth. The rain tastes of ash, but so does everything else. He can't remember why he has to wait. He would stand up, but he can't do that either. He crawls. The grass is wet and cold, and the rags of his clothing drag. He's pulling his own shroud, and the thought amuses in some corner of his mind that is not present but elsewhere, a dispassionate observer of his own progress. This battered husk of what used to be a man, crawling. Never has been much of a man. He feels as if he's laying it all aside now, the last rags of his self. His pride. His conceit. The bulwark of his anger. There's nothing left, only this journey.

And he is failing. It is harder to move now, hands digging into the mud, blades of grass tearing through his fingers. He was proud of his hands once but that's gone now. His legs no longer seem part of his body but detached and awkward appendages. He's not entirely sure he has a body any longer, but then it was never much use to him anyway. He doesn't know what he's moving towards, but it's warm. That's the only thing he knows. There is warmth in front of him. It's crept up on him slowly, the subdued lodestone of it, a hidden warmth. Power.

He's drawn to power. He crawls to it now.

~*~

Three o'clock.

Harry wakes up.

He lies in darkness, blinking up into the black absence of what in daylight would be the rafters and roof of Hagrid's hut, which is his hut now. This isn't unusual, this waking. He doesn't sleep well. Uneasily confined and bound by Harry's own choice, his magic flickers stronger at night when he's tired: he smashes cups half a room away, strips the blankets from the bed and summons rain. In dreams power calls to him with sickening images of himself inhabiting unthinkable futures. Dumbledore kneels before him in chains. He rapes Sirius. He rapes Sirius, with Remus looking on and laughing. He extends his hand and people die.

Sometimes it shows him other futures. He lives in a cottage with a woman. They have a daughter. Harry wants to say, 'can't you see the darkness in the cracks of the wall, under the doorstep?' He can't. He sits down at a checked tablecloth and eats apple pie that tastes of dust and ashes.

He dreams he is teaching at Hogwarts - he doesn't know what. He walks into a classroom and children's faces turn towards him, bright with hope, as if he is some kind of hero. "Why can't you see me?" Harry rages. "Look at me, I'm broken. I can't give you what you're looking for, don't ask it of me."

Sometimes he feels like he's a long way away, crawling towards himself through burnt out ruins, stumbling over broken glass. It's this dream that wakes him now, leaves him short-breathed and open eyed staring up into darkness. He wonders with a resigned and fearful apprehension what his magic has done. In his time he's forced the apple trees into unnatural blossom, turned a thestral white overnight and lit all the fires in the castle. It's cost him, his whitewash over the wound of the war, his rewriting of history. The forgetting.

In the book of the past Harry no longer exists. In grief and rage he's wiped out the war, the memory within the wizarding world of who he is and what he's done, removed the names of the roll of the dead and the guilty living. He has made himself almost powerless in the eyes of other wizards and pays the price in dreams he cannot share.

Sometimes his magic spills itself out regardless. Tonight, he will have to get up and look. He doesn't trust himself to feel what he's done: he can feel the wards of the castle, disturbed, itch at the edges of his magic.

Shivering, Harry pulls himself out of bed - Hagrid's bed, three feet above the ground and eight feet broad - he's never thought to change it - and pulls his clothes on with cramped fingers. It's raining; he can hear the raindrops falling on the roof, quick and hard. He'll need Hagrid's cloak. Autumn is coming.

Harry takes four steps to the back door and stops. It is not his own magic stirring the wards, not this time. There is something outside.

~*~

There is a point at which he can crawl no further. It doesn't happen, as expected, with a whimper, a silent collapse. It ends hard, as his forehead and then his hands slam up against something that doesn't move, can't be crawled over or through or round. It's not as cold as stone: it's wood, but it might as well be adamantine.

Now there's a word.

He laughs. He hasn't heard his voice in weeks. It's cracked and hoarse. He sounds a little mad, but that isn't really surprising and on the whole merely adds amusement to the situation.

On the other side of the door, warmth. But he can't reach it. He's been in exile all of his life - what's one more exclusion, here at the end of it?

Then, like the whip of a hex, noise.

~*~

He used to have courage. He can't Floo, but he could take the cloak and go up to the school, get someone - the Headmistress might come, may even be coming already to the call of the wards disturbed. Or Binns, who still looks at him some days with puzzlement, as if he remembers he should remember something although Harry knows the spell of the forgetting is as tight as an eyeless mask. But by the time help arrives or is fetched whatever it is might be gone.

He was not a coward, once. He opens the door.

~*~

What Snape feels - because he can't see, he lost sight about the third watch of the night - is heat. A blooming warmth on his skin, warm as a hearth fire, and then warmer, blazing, searing, hot as a dragon's breath, fiercer than a summer firestorm. Power. He didn't think he could move but he can, he'd rather face immolation than ice; he's going to burn in the fires of hell anyway.

He puts out a hand and touches something, cloth, takes hold of it and pulls himself onto his knees.

~*~

What Harry sees, opening the door, is a man. A man blackened and burned, his robes in shreds, his skin blistered and torn. His hair is wet and lies stranded over his face. His hands are filthy with mud and clawed, the nails cracked. He is barely recognisable as human. Harry thinks the creature is dead until it moves. It drags itself up onto its knees: its head sways like a blind snake. It reaches out a hand and touches his cloak.

~*~

Like touching the sun. Snape smiles. Because this is it, surely, this is death come to take his servant home at last. He gives it up everything he has left - which is not much: the chill of the rain in his face, the lingering pain of a cracked rib that remains when everything else has faded, the last hoarded dull ember of his power - and surrenders as he has done only twice in his life before. He falls into darkness.

A long way, into darkness.

It's warm. He didn't expect it to be warm.

~*~

The hand clutches Harry's robe as if the cloth is its last chance of forgiveness. It holds fast as the man collapses, as Harry himself falls to his knees. He puts his own hand out in return. The flesh he touches is cold, frozen, skin stretched so tight over bone that Harry's surprised it hasn't worn through. Almost, it's like touching a dead man. But this man isn't dead yet, Harry knows it. This battered remnant of the war - because it must be the war, what else is there? - this pathetic and hollow creature - it lives. It calls to his magic, this creature, offers up its own without condition, as if it wants to warm itself beside the fire of Harry's power.

It is...not frightened. There is no fear left in it.

Harry looks at his hand. It is touching someone else's skin, which is odd. Then he looks at that other hand, the hand that even after its owner is unconscious, clings to his own robe. It's a thin and elegant hand; the fingers long and well shaped, although each knuckle stands out like the links on a chain. After a while, he realises the hand is wet. It's raining. It's dark, and cold, and if he doesn't get this man - he thinks it's a man - inside, this man too might die and he doesn't want that to happen, even though Harry's better at killing people than saving them. He stands up and, propping the door open with his foot, tucks his hands under the man's armpits and pulls him inside.

Mud and leaves trail the body like guilt.

Harry pulls the man into the main room and lays him out by the fireplace. Unthinking he stirs the fire to flame and sets the lights on the wall ablaze. His hands strip cloth and sponge dirt: a bucket has appeared by his left elbow, and although the sponge comes away from skin black with mud the water remains clear.

There is a point at which he realises that he recognises the body under his hands and the magic in his mind, which he has absorbed, soaked up like a sponge.

There is a point at which he realises this is Snape.

This moment, delayed, is a gradual realisation, a slow and creeping knowledge that runs from stomach to bone to muscle to fingertips: his hands hesitate and stop. He sits back on his heels. Snape looks like a man at the gates of hell. He could leave the man now and let him die. It wouldn't take much. Snape's in the borderlands, lost. But this isn't the way Harry wanted it to be. When he killed Snape - because of course he was going to kill Snape - he wanted it to be at the point of a wand, with fire and burning words and above all fair, a fair fight that Harry would win fairly as a hero should. This isn't fair. And Snape would mock him for it. Afraid to face me, Potter? Too much of a coward to stand up with me?

And yet Snape has given up the last of his own magic as if it didn't matter. Harry has it, almost as if Snape has looked to him for protection.

'You fucker,' Harry thinks. 'You bastard. I will never forgive you for this,' Harry thinks, even as his hands reach out not for the sponge but for the rack of Snape's ribs. Under his fingers Snape's heart beats low and slow, faltering.

"Don't you dare die on me now," Harry thinks. "Don't you dare."

He can feel his own magic wrap around that heartbeat, align to it as carefully as he would feed air to the last ember of a fire.

'Live,' Harry thinks. 'Live, you wanker.'

He doesn't know how long it takes, kneeling on the floor, hardly aware of his own body but aware with every breath he takes of that other heart. He spells it by his own heartbeat. Breath. Breath. Breath. The sweat is pouring off him. Breath.

Harder than anything he's ever done before. Just enough power, not too little and he'll lose the man, too much and that overburdened heart will falter and die. An edge of control to walk step after step, an uneasy arête. Keep going. He's not even sure which heartbeat is his anymore. Beat.

"The Headmistress - the wards - no! Stop!" It's Poppy's voice, Poppy hurried and anxious as she has not sounded for three years.

No.

"Harry. Stop. Don't try. You don't have the magic for it - you'll kill yourself, you stupid boy. Stop!"

It's done anyway. He sits back on his heels, tired as he's ever been, and watches Poppy test pulse and skin tone and pull Snape's eyelids apart - Snape's eyes are rolled up so far up only a sliver of black can be seen, frighteningly blind.

"Blankets," Poppy says and, "Have you a hot water bottle?"

Harry stands on unsteady knees and strips his bed.

Poppy doesn't even bother about the mud, which means it must be bad, although she does say, "Harry, can you-" looks at him, frowns, spreads the blankets in front of the fire and very gently rolls Snape to lie on them.

In Poppy's eyes, Harry's as near to a squib as makes no difference. He's only glad she didn't arrive ten minutes earlier.

"...how did this happen?" Poppy says to herself. "This is...this man is nearly..." Her hands check skin, measure pulse, uncork salves and potions. She has not even bothered to brush the hair back from Snape's eyes.

Harry boils a kettle and makes them both tea. Even if he would, he doesn't think he has enough magic left in him, after what he's done for Snape, to heat a cup of water.

Poppy talks about things like blood pressure and lymphatic system and platelet counts. Her wand, set beside her, hums. But for the first time in years Harry doesn't feel someone else's magic, mute as it is to its owner, cry out to him with the knowledge of history mislaid.

It's a good feeling, detached, dispassionate, the kind of feeling he's been looking for in a very long time. He really is shaky. He sits on the edge of the bed frame and watches Poppy work.

It must be half an hour before she leans back, puts one hand to her back and reaches for the cold cup of tea.

"Thank you," she says. And then, "I haven't seen anything like that since...since.." She frowns, but Harry knows the memory she cannot place. She is thinking of the war, but she will not be able to remember.

Instead, she looks down at the tea in surprise. Taps it with her wand: steam curls. Harry's mug is cool as well, but he won't warm it, not here. He's still got both hands wrapped round the mug though.

"No," he says. Then he says, and thinks as the words leave his mouth, I shouldn't have said that, there is no Snape, not to Poppy, he never existed, he's gone with the war. "You know who it is?" The memory of Snape tastes vivid and acid-edged in his mind, as clear as if Poppy could see it.

Perhaps she can. Poppy looks up, looks at him, looks down. Her face sharpens and pales. She drops the teacup. It smashes. She stands up. Steps back. Her hands are tight on her wand.

"Holy Mary Mother of God," Poppy says, which must be something from her childhood, although she's not young in either world. And then she says, "Severus."

Which of course he is to Poppy, although to Harry he's Snape, snapped out and harsh and always will be. He doesn't comment. He will not remember Dumbledore dying. He takes a sip of cold tea instead.

"It must have been him the wards let through," Poppy says slowly. "I don't believe it. I thought-"

Harry can hardly believe it either. Snape shouldn't be here. Snape shouldn't be remembered. He should be dead, twice over dead, once with the forgetting and once with Voldemort: Harry should be the only wizard who knows the man's name and remembers the list of his deeds. World's last living Death Eater, Severus Snape. Yet the wards let him pass and Poppy knows his name.

Perhaps the spell of the forgetting is not as strong as he thinks. Perhaps it's Harry himself, Harry recognising Snape, so Poppy does....tight as he can, Harry locks the memory of Snape's crimes away, hoards them fast. His.

"I must tell the Headmistress," Poppy says. "I must...you'll be all right here?"

"I don't think he's up to murdering anyone just now," Harry says, tired and careless. Although of course if there is murdering to be done it'll be the other way round, although he won't tell Poppy that. Execution, not murder. Justice. Although for a moment it feels horribly, childishly, like revenge.

Poppy gives him a very strange look, but says, "I can't believe the wards let him through." She shakes her head. "In fact...where do you keep your Floo powder, Harry?"

"I don't have any," Harry says.

"Oh. Of course you don't. Well then. I'll be back in fifteen minutes or so, you just stay there. Make sure he's comfortable?"

"Yes," Harry says, and watches Poppy leave. He's tired, and cold, and not exactly comfortable himself. He is sharing a small room with Dumbledore's killer.

Quite suddenly Harry is curious to know what Snape looks like these days. Does it show, what he did, on that arrogant, angular face? Will there be lines of anger, of regret?

Harry puts down his mug and moves to kneel at Snape's side. He brushes hair out of the man's face, strokes it back, although it clings to his fingertips damp and sleek. There's more of it than when Snape faced him across the battlefield of a potions classroom, but it's ragged. Starvation has left Snape little more than bones. There's little to him but the blade of his nose, the flat lines of his cheekbones, the hollow of his jaw and the black sunken shadow of his eyes. He looks feral and dangerous even like this. Perhaps more so like this because that old Snape, Professor Snape, always gave Harry the impression that he chose to leash his anger and his contempt. This Snape looks as if reason has been discarded with his flesh, as if on waking he would bite and scratch and scream as any trapped animal.

'Where's he been?' Harry wonders, and thinks of broken glass and someone crawling. Then thinks, 'well, he's here now.'

Well, he's here now. What an odd thing to think. So certain. Could it be... But Snape is unconscious and Voldemort is dead and Dumbledore before him. There's no one else who can slide into Harry's mind like a thief in the night. He reaches for Snape's left forearm, just to check. And then suddenly, thinks - Harry, you idiot - because Snape, Snape will remember everything, and very quickly before Poppy comes back with the Headmistress, Harry pulls all the magic he can - not much, enough, just enough to make Snape forget the war, and starts to -

~*~

Snape's warm. It's so unusual it startles him, when he thought he was beyond any feeling. Warm. He'd forgotten what that felt like. Maybe it's the antechamber to hell. Maybe this is the moment before someone says, Snape, stand up. Account for your crimes. He hadn't known at Hogwarts, when he'd eaten the last meal for the dammed.

But warmth. It feels good. It feels like someone's thrown a blanket over him. Soft and enveloping.

He's Snape. No one throws blankets over Snape. Snape is cold and caustic and spiked with rage, dirty with anger, stained with an unsteady and cracked disdain. He is aware of his sense of self and is furious, because he thought he'd leave this behind, this broken angry wreck of a human being with all his promises and obligations, he'd thought it would all burn away. But it hasn't. He's still himself. Although he's aware... it's not all him. There is something blanketing his thoughts, enfolding them. It's something soft and gentle and encroaching, persuasive. There is no war, it says. There is no war, it's gone now. Give the pain away. I'll give you peace, it says.

Snape has not earned peace and no one has ever given him anything for free. He's himself. He's not mild. The war happened. He knelt to Voldemort, lied for him, killed for him. To the end of his days and beyond he'll be Dumbledore's killer. He's earned revilement, not forgiveness. He always has. Comfort is a lie offered by strangers he will not trust. He clings to the rags of his self-knowledge and holds onto his pride.

~*~

He can't do it. Even unconscious, Snape fights back like a man with everything to lose. Harry can find no kinship in Snape's mind and no acceptance of comfort. For the first time, he can't make things better. And there are noises outside the door, footsteps, and the door opening - he can't be seen to do magic. He lets go of the enchantment and sinks back on his heels.

"Harry," the Headmistress says. "Harry, are you all right? And-" She comes to a halt, slowly, five paces from the door. "Oh my God," she says.

Snape's face, with his hair smoothed back, is instantly recognisable.

"Oh my God," she says again, and, "Severus."

"He's badly hurt, " Poppy says, behind her. "Starved. Dehydrated. He's got a cracked rib that's dangerously near his lungs. I suspect pneumonia. And his feet - Minerva, his feet-"

"Severus."

"-should get him to the hospital wing-"

Minerva McGonagall walks forward, very slowly. Her eyes behind the severe frame of her glasses round and the pupil lengthens, as if in moments of stress she reverts to a more familiar form.

"Severus."

She kneels down by Harry's side and reaches out a hand. And Harry surprises himself, because what he wants to do, fiercely, is knock that hand away. Snape's his. Harry found him. Harry owns him, owes him. This last killing blow, it's between Snape and Harry and no one else has the right to get in the way.

"Minerva?"

"I never thought I'd see him again." McGonagall says, so low only Harry can hear her. It's almost tender.

Then she stands up. "We can drag him outside," she says. "Harry, you take one corner and I'll take the other. Poppy, get the door will you?" She's all Headmistress now, quick and decisive. "That's it - push up for the door? - oh, well done - Leviosa!"

The mattress rises two feet, tilts a little and steadies. One of Snape's hands falls and hangs loose, lax and broken as a crow's carcass on a gamekeeper's fence.

"Come on then," McGonagall says, and walks away, the mattress following her, and Snape on it, and Harry and Poppy behind.

Poppy's tired. Harry should lend her a hand, but he doesn't really like touching people anymore, not since the war. Although Ginny's skin under his fingertips was softer than anything else he's ever touched. She died too.

McGonagall's been efficient. There are house-elves at the great door, and lights, and cocoa for Harry, and a great bustle of stairs and people and light and blankets, possets and wringing of hands, wails and exclamation, and noise, too much of it. But Snape's unconscious. Snape's a sole point of stillness. Snape doesn't care. Harry trails after the mattress like a dog after its master, which is all wrong because surely it's the other way round.

It seems to take hours, with Poppy fussing, to get Snape into bed. Poppy wants him clean, McGonagall wants him dressed. Elves run for hot water, nightclothes, more pillows, essence of arnica, eucalyptus oil. Snape's body is crowded with bones. It's almost impossible to tell the colour of his skin - he's bruised all over, swollen at his joints. His feet - his feet look like he's walked from Dover without a moment's rest. Maybe he has. Harry's never known where the last battle was.

He's tired himself. He curls up on one of the beds, but he doesn't mean to go to sleep.

He wakes up later than he should, but before Poppy. Dawn's breaking behind the blinds. Someone's given him a blanket and taken off his boots.

Across the room Snape's head, all Harry can see of the man uncovered, is turned on one side. His mouth is open and his hair, clean, spreads over the pillow, black on white. There are wards on his bed but none Harry can't get past. He could try again to make Snape forget.

He doesn't have to.

He can have company in hell.

And if anyone deserves that it's Snape.

It won't be long now until someone arrives. Do it now, if he's going to -

Harry gets himself out of bed. Snape's head, on the pillow, tilts a little. Under closed lids, the man's eyes follow his movements, almost as if Snape can see him - but he can't. The man's asleep. Harry walks up to the edge of the bed and looks down. Snape asleep doesn't look like a monster. He looks like an aged and unhappy man, just a man, like Harry. Who doesn't think they've ever been this close before. He'd thought, close up, that Snape would be ugly, all open pores and broken veins, but he's not: his skin between bruises is pallid but smooth. Snape's eyes follow his gaze. It's almost unnerving. And when Snape speaks - fuck! - Harry is a step back from the bed before he knows what he's doing, and he has to creep forward and bend down again to hear Snape's voice. Nothing more than the ghost of sound, nothing like that hated, smooth "Potter."

"Do you expect me to confess my sins?" Snape says, and Harry looks round, because he doesn't want anyone else, this is his - "Fuck you," Snape says.

Harry laughs. It's more a snort, really, an incredulous, amazed amusement. For a moment, a very brief moment, he feels...not liking, but...respect. "Fuck you too," Harry says under his breath. "Sir."

He's left it too late. The door opens. Poppy. Two house-elves, broth, towels, potions bottles. Harry you're up can you do you -

He doesn't belong here. He belongs outside, where things don't talk back at him. Snape can wait. Snape, Snape's magic, is all Harry's now, although the man doesn't know it.

~*~

Harry doesn't go back to the infirmary for a week. He doesn't need to. Snape's return, for all McGonagall's efforts to keep gossip to a minimum, is the talk of Hogwarts. Even out on the Quidditch pitch Harry, mowing, hears -

"Potions Master"

"Dark Arts"

"Professor" - and Snape's name.

Whispers in the darkness of the struts under the stand, snatched gossip in the rose garden, stifled giggles by the lake. He doesn't mind. Snape's crimes are his, all his. He hugs the knowledge of them to himself, a private and guilty triumph.

"He's woken up."

"They say he's not talking."

"He asked for the Headmistress. In private."

"Was she crying? She can't cry. She's the Headmistress." Harry thought that once too, once.

"'Pomfrey asked for sherry. At breakfast!"

"The house-elves are frightened of him."

"I'd be frightened of him. He's Slytherin, isn't he?"

"No, he's Hufflepuff."

"Isn't he Ravenclaw?"

"Anjuli's Dad says-"

"My cousin said-"

"Jon said he saw someone at the window."

'He's six feet tall.'

"He looks like a monster!"

"No - he's part Veela. Vampire. He can-"

"Stopper death. He's faced a dragon. He's an animagus - a lizard. A cat. A snake."

Harry laughs. He sleeps well, these nights, curled round the memory of Snape's body splayed out on his hearthrug and the feel of Snape's magic constrained in Harry's own mind. In his dreams, he knows the taste of Snape's voice and the touch of his thoughts naked. He doesn't need to see the man to know he's awake, he's alive.

~*~

After a week he goes back to the infirmary. He picks his time well, after supper and before bed. There's been a afternoon of Magical Games, Slytherin v. Ravenclaw: hexes and arcane maneuvers. Poppy's got seven beds occupied and a delivery due from St. Mungo's, but Harry's got a bunch of freesias in his hands and a note from a grounded Ravenclaw to an incapacitated Hufflepuff - he's not stupid.

Snape is awake.

Harry stands in the doorway and looks past two empty beds. Snape's got the room to himself: Harry suspects the man's venomous tongue but maybe Poppy's being kind. Perhaps she's being kind to the students, not Snape. He's sitting up in bed and doing something with his hands. There's a tray hovering six inches from his knees and on it small coloured bottles and a measuring jug and a quill. As Harry watches, Snape writes out a label and smoothes it across one of the bottles. He doesn't look up.

Harry is acutely conscious of his own skin. He's not clean - he hasn't bathed yet. He's crumpled and sticky with sweat and there are grass-stains on his robe. His hair is probably sticking on end again. For a moment - how odd! - Harry thinks he might actually be frightened. But he can't be.

He walks forward, holding the flowers. Snape doesn't look up. Harry resents that. He doesn't sit down, or put the flowers on the table, or say hello or good evening or even how are you. He waits.

Snape's hands, bottling potions, are a mess. He's got splints on two fingers and his thumb cracks when it moves, bone against bone. There's a scar that runs through all the tendons of his right hand. His wand hand. But every separate dose of whatever potion it is - Harry doesn't know - is measured to a featherwidth.

'Maybe we're not going to say anything at all,' Harry thinks.

"I heard that."

"You can't."

"I did." Snape looks up then.

He has forgotten how black the man's eyes are. He's never seen another human being with eyes quite that colour. But maybe Snape isn't-

"I heard that too."

"How? I set -" It just came out. Harry remembers someone saying his foolishness would kill him someday. Someone he hated.

"Quirrell, I believe. Or rather, his involuntary tenant. Your first year. I have seen Dumbledore's memory of that conversation."

And despite himself Harry gasps. Because he hasn't heard another person mention Dumbledore's name for three years. He hid it, in the spells of the forgetting, made the man myth, long gone and far away and not someone who gave Harry family and took it away again.

"You're still angry."

He won't give that an answer. Although it's not Legilimency, not magic at all, he can feel Snape's awareness, cool and cutting in his mind, almost as if they could communicate without words. As if they are kin, as if Snape's magic binds them together. He blocks Snape out. Succeeds, although it's more power than he really cares to use within the school itself.

It's a long time until Snape stops trying. He'll have to be more careful in future.

"Do you presume to own the past?"

"No," Harry says.

"Then why?"

"Because I can," Harry says. "Because I wanted to."

Snape doesn't say anything to that. He bottles potions. Glass clinks against glass.

Harry feels as if he's been judged and found wanting. He'd forgotten what it was like to wait on Snape's words.

"No other activities to pursue, Mr. Potter?"

He'd been about to leave.

"No," Harry says. He sits down. He takes care, sitting down, to fill the chair, legs spread and elbows on the armrests. He wants to sit small and bunched up as a child in a cupboard but he won't, not in front of Snape.

Snape bottles potions. Harry watches him do it. There's an ease to watching something like this, the monotonous one-two-three and write label of it. He could stay here all evening - he's got time.

Eventually Snape says, "It won't last. The spell."

Harry shrugs.

After a while he does get up and leave. It's not until he gets back to the hut that he remembers the freesias.

~*~

Two weeks after he crawls to Harry's door Snape moves back to the dungeons.

It takes him most of an afternoon. He walks. It's quite a procession, although Harry hears about it two hours after the event while mulching rhubarb and raspberry canes for the winter. Harry thinks of the soles of Snape's feet, not just blistered: cut to shreds, scabbed and oozing pus, blackened, and of Poppy's voice when she'd said, "Severus."

He cuts the seed-heads from the last of the onions and turns over the asparagus bed. He's using Neville's grandmother's notes - nothing's dead yet, although Harry expects casualties sooner or later. By the time he's finished, it's evening. By the time he's cleaned his spade and his wheelbarrow, it's night.

And although for the last three years Harry's gone home at the end of the working day, on this occasion his footsteps turn to the dark bulk of the castle.

After Voldemort's death, after Harry came back to Hogwarts, after he'd counted the long line of the dead, he'd gone down to Snape's rooms. It was before he'd reined in his magic and he was fired with it, invincible, unassailable. Mad. He'd broken Snape's wards with a flick of his wand, ward after ward shriveling like spider silk in fire. Snape's rooms had looked as he thought they should look, so familiar to his mind's eye that it was almost impossible to believe he had not seen them before. He'd stopped, Harry remembers, in the doorway, before he drew his wand.

Book by book, bookshelf by bookshelf, papers, scrolls, photographs, journals, furniture, desk, leather-covered chairs, flambeau, fire dogs, threadbare carpet - Harry destroyed it. Wood smashed to kindling. Books turned on each other and tore themselves apart. Whisky, potions, inkbottles smashed, puddled on the floorboards, and soaked into the patterns of the hearthrug. Harry cracked destruction with the wand that had killed Snape's master.

He'd regretted it afterwards. He should have looked for proof of Snape's treachery, his hatred, his spite. But at the time Harry had looked at the utter destruction he'd made, all he knew of Snape's life, and been pleased. He'd never gone back. He wasn't sure if anyone had.

The new DADA professor wasn't a man for dungeons. Harry thought he might have a room in one of the towers, although he'd never bothered to find out.

But Harry knows the way to Snape's rooms as though he'd been walking that way all his life. He isn't surprised, when he comes to the door, to find it hanging ajar and although the last time he'd been here the wards were the strongest he'd ever met - stronger even than Dumbledore's - there is no protection on Snape's rooms now.

He stands in the doorway and looks in.

Nothing's changed. A torch burns on the wall, that's all. The bookshelves lurch from the walls. There is a smashed chair in the fireplace. The floor is black with gleaming liquid: it hasn't dried up. Papers float in the mess, torn printed leaves, the shreds of ideas scattered and abandoned. Harry doubts there's a whole book in the place.

In the middle of the room, Snape. Kneeling. Clothed. Someone's found him a black robe from somewhere - not his own, it sits uneasily on his shoulders and creeps away from the line of his thighs, and the sleeves bunch on his arms. His head's down. His hair is the colour of blood seen in darkness, dense and black. In one hand he holds the remains of a single printed page and in the other the mutilated cover of a leather bound book. Even from where he stands, Harry can see they don't match.

Snape doesn't appear to be doing anything. He's just looking.

Not even that. He's just being. Snape on his knees.

Harry watching.

He hadn't realised quite how much destruction he'd managed to wreak. There's not a part of this place, bar the walls, that's whole.

He's not sure how long he waits, until Snape puts the book down and looks round. There's nothing in his face, not fury, not fear, not pain - nothing.

"Did it help?" Snape says. He's not trying to read Harry's mind.

"I don't know."

"I don't suppose you have any idea what you have destroyed," Snape says. He doesn't sound angry. He sounds tired. He probably is tired. He's most definitely not well; there's a spot of red on his thin cheekbones, fever-bright, and his eyes are dull.

"I wasn't-"

"Did you honestly think I would leave anything here that I could not afford to lose?" Snape says, dispassionate.

Harry doesn't answer.

When Snape stands up it's slowly. His robe drags up with his knees, wet and reluctant.

"My blood pact with the devil?" he says. "My parent's marriage certificate? The children I've killed, the promises I've broken? Did you expect to find it all laid out with a note on the top reading 'For Harry Potter'?"

Snape drops the piece of paper from his hand. It doesn't flutter, it spirals light as a snowflake, meaningless as an unspoken promise. "What's wrong?" he says.

Harry says nothing.

The paper snags on an uneven stack of smashed wood, hangs still.

"Well. I'm sorry," Snape says.

Falls. There must be magic left in whatever it falls onto: the paper crumbles, soundlessly smoldering, and a thin trail of smoke reaches towards the stack of books and then the ceiling.

Snape says, "Perhaps you had better leave now, Mr. Potter."

Harry feels almost ashamed. He's destroyed far more than Snape's rooms. But something about this is so personal it hurts. He looks at the book in Snape's hand.

"Can I help?" Harry says. Quickly, quietly.

And then Snape laughs. He doesn't laugh all at once. It's a laughter that tears at his gut, forces itself out of his throat in shudders and stretches the tone of his voice into awkward, dark humour. It's not a laugh meant to be shared.

Harry walks away.

~*~

He's never owned much, himself. But what he does own is...precious to him. The last of his father's belongings. Some photographs. A hair ribbon. Snape...Snape probably wouldn't have anything like that. Snape probably had dead rats and books in dead languages.

Hermione had been learning Greek when she died.

Neville's death took five days. From a wasting hex. If Snape had been there - if Snape had been there, and also a cauldron, and fire, and twenty-seven different rare ingredients and five books on cell protein and anti-virus reactions..

Harry stands on the steps of Hogwarts and speaks to the boars. "I'm an idiot."

But it wasn't a night for replies. He goes back to his hut and makes himself tea, which tastes of dust though the packet is fresh. He drinks it lying on Hagrid's bed, boots muddy on the cover but he doesn't care.

Harry's got a few books. His schoolbooks. A couple of Quidditch texts. A Muggle copy of War and Peace that Hermione had been reading.

He's got the Half Blood Prince's potion book too, although it's the first time since Voldemort's death that Harry acknowledges possession.

That had been Snape's book, with Snape's notes in it. Snape, not the Half Blood Prince, who in Harry's mind had been someone entirely different, not Snape at all: someone patient, painstaking, someone who, when he spoke to Harry, saw someone whole.

That book is probably the only thing Snape's ever owned that is still undamaged.

And certainly Harry doesn't need it anymore.

He makes himself another cup of tea.

If it had come with a ribbon on top and a note saying 'from Severus Snape' Harry would have Incendio'd the thing.

He's a fool. But he's still getting up and taking the book off the shelf. It's raining again, and he's got nothing to cover it that resembles protection. He can't exactly give Snape the book wrapped in a two-years-out-of-date Chudley Cannons sweatshirt that once belonged to Ron. He's got one pillowcase and that's back on the bed.

In the end Harry wraps the book in a scarlet hand towel. It just about fits in the pocket of Hagrid's cloak: Harry, walking back to the castle, shelters it within the crook of his arm. It takes less time than he thought it would to get back to the dungeons and he arrives sooner than he wants to, all wet hair and dripping clothes.

The door's still off its hinges, but there's a mop by the wall and the floor's dry. Paperwork lies in stained drifts against the walls: the bookshelves have gone. Snape's still kneeling on the floor, but his hair is tangled and burred as if he's been running his fingers through it, although that's a habit Harry's never seen the man own. In front of him are little stacks of torn paper in neat piles.

"Doesn't Reparo work?" Harry says, eventually, when it becomes clear Snape isn't going to acknowledge his presence.

Snape doesn't even turn round.

'I guess that'll be a no then,' Harry thinks. Then, "I brought you something."

"A nice dose of arsenic, Potter?" Snape says.

"No. It's a book," Harry says. "I think...I think you might like it." He's too wound up, jumpy, to recognise the tentative sound of his own voice although he'll replay the words later and cringe.

"Oh, don't be a fool." Snape's head has snapped round, he's standing up, and for once the anger in his voice is showing. Harry feels it almost like recognition.

With both hands he holds out the package. It's with a sinking heart that Harry realises now, too late, that the towel is one he snatched from the prefect's bathroom six months ago. There's a Gryffindor lion embroidered on the cloth.

Snape smashes it out of his hands.

The noise it makes when it hits the floor is hollow, wood on wood.

"I want nothing of yours," Snape says, low and vicious, all the lines of his face sharp. He's close, two feet away: Harry can see spittle at the corner of his mouth, a patch on the robe, Snape's clenched right hand.

"It's not mine," Harry says.

"Neither was this!" Snape says. "But that hardly stopped you, did it? What gave you the right to walk in here and tear my life to shreds? Have you any idea - no, you can't have - how many years of my life went into this room? I could murder you for this," Snape says. "I could happily gut you with a broken penseive and believe me I would dance on your grave. Yours and your father's. Is that what you want me to do? You'd like that, wouldn't you? Fame without effort? You'd be a hero all over again, merely dead."

"Shut up," Harry says.

" The saviour of wizardkind, the man whose sacrifice saved the world again - don't you ever get tired of it? What was it meant to achieve?"

"Shut up!"

"Well go on!" Snape says. "What's one more death? Do it now."

"No," Harry says.

"Don't say no to me!"

"Don't tell me what to do!"

Snape says, silk smooth. "How was it your friends died again, Potter? Don't you think there are potions in here - oh, not now, but then - that could have saved them? There are books here only I owned, spells to redeem a dead man, charms to reconstitute a soul. If you'd looked."

"I don't believe you," Harry says.

"The world doesn't come in black and white, Mr. Potter," Snape says. "Not all promises are made to be kept. Not all truths are true. Isn't it time you thought for yourself? Oh, but-" Snape says, "I forget. You don't think. You destroy."

"As if you don't," Harry says, furious.

"Don't talk to me about-" Snape says.

"Because that's what I should have been looking for. Something to explain you. Something I could understand. And there was nothing, Snape - no explanations, no reasons, no-"

"So you were grubbing through -"

"- understand -"

"You ignorant fool-"

"- what you were hiding."

"As if I would leave anything for you to find!"

"So where did you hide it then?"

"What makes you think -"

"Oh come on, Snape. The signed confession, the death note, the will? The secret potions that prove to the world what a misunderstood genius you are? Your excuses, your reasons?"

Snape is not flushed but white, shaking with anger: he's as angry - angrier -than Harry's ever seen him, but Harry's not thirteen any more and they're long past points or detentions.

"Or maybe there are none," Harry says. "Maybe you just liked it - the power. The death. The killing. Did you-"

Snape hits him.

Not open handed. A closed fist, straight to his face, fast and powerful. Harry ducks but not in time: with a sickening lurch he hears the crack of something break, and when the pain kicks in a moment later he knows it's his cheekbone that's broken. His eyesight's blurred - no, his glasses are spotted with blood - he's stumbling backwards, taking them off. It takes a while for the lazy world to stop spinning. When it steadies, he wipes the glasses on his robes and puts them in his pocket. He'll fix them later. Snape's a black blur, standing still.

"Just like that," Harry says. "Exactly like that."

Snape, from what he can see, still hasn't moved. Harry walks forward.

"So, Professor Snape," Harry says. "Sir. How many people then, exactly, have you killed?"

He's closer to Snape than he's ever been before and keeps walking. Snape's moving backwards, giving ground.

"Did you keep score, keep count, take trophies? Some hair, some fingers, an eye or two?" He's got his hands on Snape's arms, pushing back. There's no resistance in Snape, no nothing. "Were they wizards? Did you lose count? Or was it the sex, Snape - is that what you wanted? Was it the only way you could get someone to shag you?"

Snape hits the wall violently, shocking. Harry pins him there, voice, hands, but the man has no reaction to which Harry can respond.

"Is that what you're hiding?" Harry says. "The women, the little girls? Did you tell them to call you Daddy when they took down their panties for you, Snape? Or was it little boys?"

He's got his face right up against Snape's, shouting, but the man doesn't turn his head, or duck, or move at all. Harry can't see clearly but he thinks Snape has no expression on his face - nothing at all, blank.

"Is it the photographs you keep, Snape?"

And Snape does react to that. He shudders, a slow, fine tremble that Harry can only feel against his hands, his thighs, his forearms pressed against the man's chest. It doesn't stop.

Feels like triumph. Because he's right. There are photographs and Snape knows where they are.

"Did you get off on them afterwards? Is that it? How many, Snape?"

But Snape doesn't answer. Snape isn't going to answer.

Deep breath. Harry leans back.

"I should have let you die," he says. Then he says, "But that's easy, isn't it? I don't think we should go easy, do you, Snape?"

He lets go. Snape stays where he is, as if it's only the wall and Harry's eyes that hold him upright, stiff and absent.

This is the moment when Harry punches Snape in the gut. It's a deliberate blow and it has all the force of Harry's arm and his shoulders behind it, his last late growth spurt, the muscle he gained over a long summer. It would have left Snape on the floor were it not for the fact that Harry's knee is between Snape's thighs, pinning him to the wall, and Harry's right hand is as tight as a wrench round his balls. As it is Snape's curled up over Harry's thigh, hands pressed to his belly with the pain of it: he didn't scream, but the sound he does make, a thin and almost silent wail, is almost more gratifying.

"Give me one reason," Harry says, "why I shouldn't rip your cock off right now?"

He doesn't expect an answer. Snape can't speak. Draped across Harry's knee, his body writhes, curling up slow, and his genitals are soft and creeping compressed between Harry's fingers. He hasn't lifted a finger to save himself.

Harry could kill Snape. No one would know. He could do it slowly: tear his balls off, burn his eyes out, cut the flesh from his bones strip by strip.

He could do more than that. Snape's as lax as a roll of cloth, but Harry's cock is as hard as he can ever it remember being. It's not sex, there's no sweet thrill to the way he feels now. It's power. He could lay Snape on the floor and take him open, rend him apart, with his own body, his hands, his cock. Snape would let him.

He could almost enjoy it.

Just like Snape.

Fuck.

Harry lets go as if Snape's become real. He doesn't step back, he stumbles, and as he does Snape falls to the floor and lies curled round himself, wheezing.

"I'm not you," Harry says. "I won't be you."

He'll never remember how he gets back to the hut. He does remember a sleepless night, making cup after cup of sweet tea with adrenaline-shaking hands.

He'll never go back to the dungeons. He doesn't want to see Snape again. He's disgusted by himself, his own reaction: he's even more confused by Snape's because in that moment Snape would have let him do anything. And Harry, who when he has dreamed of sex has dreamed of the soft warm willingness of female flesh, finds himself thinking instead of muscle under his fingertips, hard: of stubble and strength set against his, of what it would feel like...

Yes, he does think of that. What if he hadn't stopped? What if he'd ripped Snape's robes and lifted his own and thrust into the hot, clenching embrace of someone else's body? What would it have felt like - tight, he's sure, walls of flesh spasming, shocked - would it be embrace or rejection? Would he force his way in, stuttering, battering thrust after thrust, or would he be welcomed, a long slide home?

At night Harry comes often and hard into the clutch of his own hands.

~*~

The gossip about Snape dies down. He's vanished into the dungeons: were it not for the occasional sightings of nervous house-elves holding covered trays in blank stretches of corridor - or picture galleries, or cloisters, or halls lined with mirrors - he might never have come back to Hogwarts. Harry double-digs the potato bed and prunes the apple trees, with violence, out of season. He takes to having dinner in the Great Hall where he can't hear the sound of his own breathing. He considers taking up drafts and does take up patience. In moments of madness he considers asking Binns if he plays chess - but doesn't, and never will, and Harry knows it's all procrastination anyway

He wants to see Snape.

Oh, don't get this wrong. Harry no more wants to screw Snape - really - than he wants to be the golden boy of his third year once again. He's older, colder, apart: he feels himself balanced on the brittle edges of wizarding culture: he's not certain he's quite sane.

But he suspects Snape's grasp on reality is equally disturbed.

~*~

It's a fortnight after that abortive and angry exchange that Harry comes home to a parcel outside his front door. It's a neat parcel, the size of a cigar box, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. The knots are arcane and elaborate. There's no name attached, but it's for Harry and it's from Snape.

Harry's almost frightened to pick it up.

Which is stupid. Snape has no magic left in him. Harry's incendiary with power.

He picks the box up and carries it inside.

This means of course that Snape knows where he lives and has picked a moment when he knew Harry would be working to deliver the parcel. Snape's been watching. Harry...is careful: unties the string rather than cuts it and folds back the paper with care.

It's not the book back. It's a box, pine, lightweight and thin. There are no wards.

But there wouldn't be anyway.

Harry slides back the lid and looks inside.

And gasps. An image out of his worst nightmares stares back at him. Empty eyesockets, leering mouth, porcelain white lying over shadows. It's a Death Eater's mask. The first one he's seen within the grasp of his hands and it loses none of its frighteningly aware vacancy for being unworn. He's reluctant to pick it up, and fascinated: it feels heavy and rigid and the stuff of it clings cold to his fingers. It's a piece of dark magic that stains his skin with old and unwelcome memories. For a moment - a horrible moment, sickening - Harry considers trying it on and wonders what his own eyes would look like from under this particular disguise.

He has enough masks already. He puts it down on the table, propped up against his coffee mug.

Under the mask, photographs.

Snape's photographs.

The top one shows a dead man, splayed on his back across an operating table, half-dissected. Harry's stomach lurches.

He could walk away from this.

He can't.

He picks up the first photograph and only then sees that the man is still breathing.

Everything in him winces. Composure unravels. He drops the photograph as if it's ice: he's standing up, and the chair is falling backwards, and the floor is suddenly unsteady: he can taste bile in his mouth.

What did he expect, summer picnics and children's birthday parties? He can't not look.

The second one. Different angle, different man. Same pose. A third. A shot of a woman naked with a baby in her arms. Same woman, not quite dead. The baby - at least, Harry assumes it's the same baby - thin, bruised and blue. More barely living people. Some close-ups of things he doesn't want to see but does anyway, shades of glistening red and grey.

A teenage girl tearing her own nails out, expressionless.

An older man, crucified. A series of shots, that death.

A potions laboratory Harry does not recognise.

And then - Harry slaps his palm down over the image and feels it burn - Draco spread-eagled, tied across an old-fashioned tester bed with deliberately spaced welts laddering his back. The man with the belt is Lucius: there are half-round cuts, brightly bleeding, where the belt buckle has cut into Draco's skin.

Lucius is smiling.

In the next photograph he's spread over Draco's back, heaving and grunting.

Harry's less than halfway through the stack. It's only his stubbornness that moves him on.

A woman he doesn't know. A man he does.

A man he doesn't know and a woman he does but wishes he didn't.

It can only get worse. It does.

Students he shared a house with, naked and tearstained. It's not the bruised bodies - it's the absolute lack of animation that's horrific, the doll-like stiffness of their limbs.

Sex. Not sex. Rape. The moment of penetration, a woman's labia crooked apart by a pair of thumbs he's seen grasping his own robe but is more accustomed to watch distilling potions. A long, slim, pale penis - Lucius'? - unevenly flared at the head. The moment seems sickeningly banal reduced solely to the flesh.

A man coming over another man's face. Another, same. No one he knows.

A child, beaten. A boy with short dark hair.

Inexpertly and in fear, the same boy taking Macnair's cock in his mouth as tears stream down his face. This isn't sex. It's abuse.

A small girl strapped on her front to a table. Her hair covers her face, loose golden locks that curl at the tips: her hands are clenched. She's so young the fingers are still chubby and her nails small and soft. There are bruises on her wrists and in the small of her back.

A closer shot of the same girl, the slight round curve of her.

Bile surges unstoppably into Harry's throat and mouth, sour and acidic - he pukes on the floor by the side of the chair, over and over again, until there's nothing left in his stomach.

Her anus is gaping open, torn wide apart. The rim of flesh is split, deep purple, and there are bloodstains on her thighs.

She must be seven years old.

There's one more photograph.

Harry wipes his mouth, and his eyes. He gets himself a glass of water and one of brandy.

In the last photograph, she's being raped. Against a man's body she's a toy, thrust with terrible, implacable rhythm against the ties that bind her. The man is Snape. Robed, masked.

As Harry watches, the camera angle changes. It shows firstly Snape's cock, painfully flushed and uncomfortably distended, forcing itself over and over again into a sheath of flesh too small to contain it. Pans up to show Snape's hand twisted in the girl's hair, and then retreats. Snape looks round.

The mask shows no expression.

Snape, hips thrusting, cuts the girl's throat.

There's nothing left in Harry's stomach to regurgitate. He's retching dry in great shudders, waves of nausea.

More than anything in his life, now, Harry wishes he'd never opened the box, never looked at the photographs. It feels as if he's let something unspeakably evil into his house, his mind. He will destroy them. Burn them, and the box with them, and the string - and he cannot understand what Snape wants him to do. Because there's a reason for this.

Harry shuffles the photographs back into the box as quickly as he can and slams the lid down. His fingers feel unclean. His whole body, his mind, feels soiled.

He doesn't want to take a bath and leave the photographs in his house. He doesn't even want to touch the box.

But he does. He puts it back where Snape placed it on his front door step, and wards it as carefully and strongly as he's ever warded anything in his life. Then he bathes, scrubbing himself down over and over again, and when he's done he pours himself another brandy and drinks it.

Then he takes the box back to Snape.

~*~

Although the route is different Harry's feet know the way. The door to Snape's rooms is open, and for all Harry's wariness the wards are still down. Snape's waiting at the desk.

The shattered bookcases and the splintered chairs have gone. The only furniture in the room is whole - a battered wing-back settle by the unlit fire, a desk, the chair in which Snape sits behind the desk. His hands are empty, the desk clear, but Snape looks as if he hasn't moved for hours. As if he's waiting for something.

All around the walls of the room, piles of paper, the torn pages of dead books.

Harry takes two steps inside the door and flings the box in the fireplace. He sets it flaring up the chimney with a whiplash of a spell, harsh and white-hot.

"I didn't need to see that," he says. "I didn't want to see that."

Snape says nothing. Doesn't look like he's going to speak.

With a flicker of thought - he's careless tonight, but he has cause - Harry summons another chair and sits down on the opposite side of the desk.

"Why?"

Snape turns his head to Harry. His eyes are dull and blank: it takes minutes for him to collect himself, to bring himself back from whatever place in his mind he's retreated to. When he speaks it's low and uninflected.

"I thought you wanted company in hell," Snape says.

It's meant, Harry thinks, to be Snape at his worst, but what the words actually show is a blistering self-contempt. It's eating Snape alive: he's shivering with it, under his robes, and his right hand is clenched over his forearm with convulsive strength.

"I did not need to see that," Harry says.

"Potter," Snape says. "Why are you still talking?"

And what Harry realises then is that Snape has been expecting Harry to kill him. Has issued an invitation and left the door ajar.

But Harry will not be what Snape wants him to be.

"Who took the photographs, Snape?"

It takes a minute or two for Snape to respond. When he does it's with a shrug, sluggish and uncaring. Harry thinks that's all he's getting by way of reply. But he's wrong.

"He liked to watch," Snape says.

No need for either of them to delineate who.

Harry, silently, summons brandy. And glasses. He pours two measures and lets one rest in front of Snape.

Who says, explosively, "I never want to smell roses again as long as I live."

Harry says, "Satyrosa." It's a potion he has only ever heard of in whispers. Hermione, reading out loud late one night when none of them could sleep, looking up roses to remind them of Hogwarts, expecting paragraphs on scent and finding instead the instructions for a brew that creates a demanding and forced priapism. Satyrosa is without doubt on the Ministry's proscribed list.

"Yes," Snape says.

"Doesn't that-"

"It has unfortunate but well known side effects," Snape says. "Pain on ejaculation. Occasionally resulting in impotence." His voice is dead.

Harry pushes the brandy glass near Snape's elbow.

"Not that it matters," Snape says. He tosses off the brandy as if he's an actor in a cowboy film.

Harry pours more.

"Learnt enough?" Snape asks - there's a thread of acerbity in his voice Harry never thought he would welcome.

"Anything else you need to tell me?"

Snape takes a sip of his second brandy. Over the glass, his eyes meet Harry's for the first time that evening.

"Must you be quite so heroic?"

It's Harry's turn to shrug, uncomfortable. He glances round the room. Snape's got paper piled up all over the floor, contained in black lacquer trays. There must be a pattern to it.

"You're mending the books? I could," Harry says slowly, "charm them for you."

"Minerva has already tried."

"So what are you doing? Is this - I don't know - all the page ones or something?"

"Paper type."

"What?"

"I am sorting the scraps by the type of paper, Potter. One has to start somewhere."

"Yes, but - paper types?"

Snape sighs. "Take a piece of paper."

"Any one?"

"Yes. Any one. No, not that one-"

"Tell me next time. Here."

"No, you hold it. Rub it between your fingers. Note how thick it is, and also the roughness of the surface. Note too that the cut edge is slightly fibrous."

"Yes. Yes."

"It is a wood pulp paper. Nineteenth century and most probably made from Eastern European pine, with a size of soda ash." Snape frowns. He glances down at his second brandy, considers, and sinks the shot with a flick of his wrist. Leans back in his chair. "Note that we have already eliminated three quarters of what was my library. Now look at the print and observe the way it depresses the paper. This piece was printed on a press, Potter, not a roller or a digital copier, and that means it was printed at the time it was made. Put it on the pile nearest the door."

"What about the words?"

"The typeface? Later. At the moment my categorisation is purely physical. Once done, I will consider breaking the set down by font."

"Actually, I was thinking of the text," Harry says.

"Maybe later," Snape says. "If there is time."

"I have time," Harry Potter says. In his mind Snape's magic warms, the first glow of a new lit fire.

~*~

It is not the easiest task he has ever undertaken.

Harry learns more than he would ever have believed possible about paper. Both demanding and taciturn, Snape is impatient with his ignorance and disdainful of his assistance. The first evening is spent on a knife-edge, tiptoeing round precarious chronologies and abbreviated questions. The situation is brittle and the participants antagonistic.

Then Harry surprises himself. After the first few hours he can put his hand in a sack of scraps and recognise type by touch. The trays are filled and filed and filled and filed once more. He misses dinner and fails to realise until in search of a bathroom, he opens the door to find a flinching house-elf with food.

"Take the tray, Potter!" Snape says without even glancing up.

It's Harry who eats the food.

It's backbreaking, frustrating work, and the pile of sacks for sorting does not appear to diminish, but just before Harry says:

"Well, I'm off to bed then."(as he will say at the end of countless evenings to follow.)

And Snape says nothing, (although later he will deign to grunt in reply.)

A miracle happens. A small good thing.

Harry glances down. He's got a piece of paper in his left hand, and is just about to spin it into a tray - it's fine India paper, made just after the second Muggle world war- and one in his right, the same, fresh from the sack.

The edges line up.

He blinks. It's almost unbelievable, a bright moment of achievement.

"Snape," Harry says. "Snape, look up."

From where he is crouched in the far corner of the room, Snape does.

"Look," Harry says. He holds the two pieces up, and moves them together. Under his breath, the faintest whisper of a spell - "Reparo."

The pieces knit seamlessly. The words make sense.

Harry's grinning.

And Snape?

When Harry looks up from the complete page, what he catches, expression fleeting across Snape's face, is something that looks very much like exasperation and impatience and also - and if Harry hadn't spent six years in a classroom with Draco Malfoy he'd have missed it - what cannot be but is approval.

It cheers Harry more than the golden glory of the last moments of a successful Quidditch match. He's positively grinning, remembering, as he leaves the room, and he finds himself humming as he walks home in the dark.

And the next evening, bathed, hands scrubbed, Harry knocks on Snape's door and is admitted.

~*~

Autumn blusters to Winter. Harry stakes the young saplings, repairs the greenhouse glass, and cuts the dry chrysanthemums. In the evenings, he sorts paper.

At first it's almost meaningless, truncated syllables and torn-off descriptions, differentiated only by the nerves on his fingertips. Later it becomes almost a game. Harry picks up references he's never heard of and reads the tail-ends of spells he's never said - "Who's Prester John?" he asks one night, and gets a fifteen-minute presentation on cross-continental African trade, and dreams that night of silence and gold. "What's Oculus Colorare -?" He's treated to several vituperate comments on the uses of the colour palette and congenital photoreceptor disorders. What was meaningless becomes real: Snape reads linguistics, philosophy, the history of spell casting. He likes nineteenth century narrative verse and has an unexpected weakness for lampoonery - within three nights Harry has learned to recognise the distinctive typeface of what had been Snape's collection of bound volumes of Punch.

There are other things Snape won't discuss. Harry becomes accustomed to the layered texture of parchment, but the first time he looks down surprised to feel skin under his fingertips - he swears, drops the fragment - Snape spins round and snatches it up before Harry can blink.

"What?" Harry says and then stupidly - "That's skin."

"Yes," Snape says, after a pause. And then, "It may not be inert."

He doesn't say be careful but that's surely what he means.

Harry doesn't ask what skin. Or whose.

Although later he will find the webbing of a bat's wing and the script on it runic, not type, and that Snape will burn. It screams, when it hits the fire, and that night Harry has the old nightmare again for the first time in weeks. Something's crawling towards him. Coming for him.

He remembers what that feels like the next time he sets his hand to Snape's door and pushes it open.

Snape has no wards on his door. Snape has no magic. Harry has it, boxed in the corner of his mind. And yet Snape, powerless, is still protecting Harry.

He thinks about that, filing paper.

And when he answers the door to the house-elf - because no matter how much he tries Harry can't get the house-elves to come in uninvited and he's pretty much given up eating dinner in hall, and if he eats Snape will - he thinks about it again.

He stops later than usual, that night. It must be one o'clock when he reaches the bottom of his sixth sack and stares at the door, frowning.

"You've no wards on your rooms," he says eventually.

There's a rustle in the corner, which is at least acknowledgment that he's spoken.

"I think we should set some," he says.

"Don't be absurd," Snape's voice is dry.

"Why not?"

He can almost hear Snape's exasperation. It takes the man thirty seconds of theatrical rearrangement - Harry has a sneaking admiration for Snape's ability to convey emotion through the fold and swing of a robe - before Snape, cross-legged, hands steepled, says - "In case it escaped your attention, Potter, I have no magic."

"I don't think that's true," Harry says, "and of course it wouldn't hurt to try. I could key them to you, I'm sure."

"And how should we explain this to Minerva?"

It's the first time Snape has acknowledged there are secrets he and Harry share that he'll keep.

"Why explain?" Harry says, cheered and confident. "And I'd sleep-"

Snape looks away.

"-better if I knew the house-elves would never, er, tidy." Harry finishes. "So would you." He's occluding as casually as he can, a whisper of magic. Snape's never again replied to an unspoken comment , but all too often he's passed over the matching fragment to Harry's page or brought two sacks rather than one from the storeroom. Once or twice he's even poured the coffee.

Snape says, "No."

Why explain? Snape would say, mocking.

Harry folds the sack up and doesn't explain.

Snape may be taller than Harry but he's lighter, and Harry's reflexes are well honed. It's the work of a second to snatch Snape's wrist and his hand with it, and pull the man round, and slam their joined hands palm-over-palm against the door. Although Snape's a burgeoning spasm of anger at his back Harry holds them steady, and says the spell, and as he says it, calls Snape's magic and gives it back.

It slams into them both with the force of a small explosion. The wards set in a second: it's the incendiary power of Snape's magic and Harry's that fires a brilliance of unexpected compatibility.

It hurts, it burns, it's a whiplash arc of feedback finding a home: it leaves Harry leant boneless against the door and Snape kneeling at his feet, convulsed.

It hurts like fuck.

It feels like the best orgasm he's ever had.

Afterglow like lava sparks. Harry reminds himself to breathe and discovers oxygen deprivation in a rush of blood. He can't think.

He can think. He looks down. Snape seems to be all right, if winded and not yet back on his feet. Harry puts a hand against the door, testing, and feels the sweet song of the magic. This door will always open to him now. In fact he knows, not with a sense of shock but acceptance, that he could walk through the walls if he chose. His mind is his own.

"It worked," he says.

It's not a comment Snape acknowledges. Or perhaps is capable of acknowledging - he's still crouched at Harry's feet. From above, cloth stretches over the long delineation of his spine and the broad and wasted slope of his shoulders: his hair is lank and unbrushed.

Harry reaches out a hand and rests it on Snape's shoulder.

Snape's body twists in absolute and violent rejection. He's five feet away, upright and glaring, before Harry's had time to draw his hand back. Every shape and line of the man's body says, 'Don't touch me.'

"What did you do?" Snape says. His voice is harsh, cracking.

"I set the wards." He's done more than that. The tone of the air has changed, charged: he can feel the wards, but the room is filled with his magic and Snape's, both awakened now.

"How did you do that?"

"I don't know what I did."

"What do you mean? You did not-"

"Light a candle, Snape."

"You have no right to me-"

"Light a fucking candle!"

The fire goes up as if Snape had dropped a petrol can on the embers, flash-flame sucking all the oxygen out of the air and running it up the chimney in sparks and smoke. Gone in an instant, leaving Harry and Snape staring at the hearth.

"I didn't mean it like that," Harry says.

Snape straightens his robes. He brushes a smear of ash from his sleeve and flicks the cuffs into place. He closes his eyes - Harry suspects he may be counting to ten - and when he opens them looks down at his own hands. Snaps his fingers.

A tiny, incandescent flame burns above the palm of his hand.

"You wanted light, Mr. Potter?" Snape asks, sharp and snide.

"That's magic," Harry says.

Snape raises an eyebrow, but he's watching the light, not Harry's face. "What did you do?" Snape's voice is soft, but under it lies an absolute demand, darker than Harry's ever heard it before.

The light starts to spin.

"I was only setting the wards."

It's pretty, a core of silver with an aureole of paler glimmering flame. Harry can feel himself sliding into the light, comfortable.

Which is wrong. Snape's - it's harder than he thought it would be to look away, and although he should be angry he can't feel anything but dull disappointment. This should be a moment for pleasure, not suspicion.

"You don't need to charm me," Harry says. "I don't know anymore than that. But I'm glad you've got your magic back and I think it's time I went to bed. Oh," Harry says, "and the wards will work for you."

He waits.

"Goodnight," he says at last, and leaves.

~*~

They don't mention it again.

Although by the next evening Snape is summoning sacks of paper with a click of his fingers and from that moment on the coffee is always fresh. He does not, however, change the furniture and as far as Harry knows no one else is aware of the wards on the door. It's as if nothing has changed. It's not even as if Harry is more aware of the man: Snape's been in the back of his mind since one night in September, a presence that feels like...Snape, sharp-edged and deep. It's not something he wants to think about, nor the feel of Snape's magic smelling to Harry's mind of brimstone and ashes. Dark magic.

For the first five years of Harry's school career Snape taught potions. But the job he left behind him - unresigned - is Defence against the Dark Arts. Defence, not use of, although Harry knows well that Snape's skills lie as much in application as theory.

It's Thomas who holds the post now. Professor Liam Thomas, a slight young wizard from Glamorgan with a nervous twitch to his eye. Harry's never bothered to find out much about the man - it's nothing to do with him. School gossip overheard suggests he's a distant relative of Professor Sprout, a member of the Cymru Order. He stays in on nights with a full moon and doesn't talk to himself, that much Harry does know.

After the return of his magic it takes Snape three weeks and three days to get his old job back. Harry finds out the details afterwards, of course, in a hundred whispered conversations. Snape's arrival in the doorway of the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom: Professor Thomas' forced invitation. Snape's presence at the back of the room, silent and brooding and impossible to ignore. His terse one-word answers to Professor Thomas's polite queries.

By the end of the first day there are four pupils in the infirmary and Professor Thomas is known to have missed dinner and taken a bottle of firewhiskey to bed.

Harry doesn't mention it, that evening. He's brought a book on watermarks from the school library and spends his time with fragments of prints. Snape has a decided preference for nineteenth century landscapes, gothic and exaggerated.

On the second day, Professor Thomas stutters his way through the day's classes and breaks down when faced with a boggart. No guesses, Harry thinks, as to what he sees.

According to Robertson Jr. who was for reasons of his own passing by the appropriate doorway, he has a very long conversation with his mother.

Harry discovers Edward Lear and several sheets of eighteenth century anatomical sketches from the New World. He begins to wonder if some variation on a spell is the key - Reparo's like taking a crowbar to crush garlic, but the principle's right, he's sure of it. Snape is suspicious but not completely dismissive.

There is shepherd's pie for tea. It's a good evening.

"Couldn't you be a little bit, you know, kinder about it?" he says, leaving.

Snape just looks at him, unreadable.

On the third day Professor Thomas breaks.

It's a small thing. It's the moment when he looks round for the Botular Neutralising Ointment - which he has failed to request from the infirmary due to stress, hangover and a long letter from his mother at breakfast - and Snape produces same.

Professor Thomas throws the potion through the window, incinerates his register, and takes only four minutes to construct and sign one of the briefest resignation letters in the history of Hogwarts. It's on the Headmistress' desk within a minute of the ink drying and within twenty Professor Thomas, pursued by an untidily packed trunk and a ruffled owl, is seen heading past the Quidditch pitch to the nearest Apparition point.

He's in Glamorgan in time for tea and within two weeks has taken up a position as the village schoolteacher. Although Professor Thomas will begin the education of two future Prime Ministers, the world's foremost quantum physicist and the first Gates professor of cosmoarchaeology along with countless lawyers, doctors and artists, the Professor will never again set foot in Hogwarts.

That afternoon Snape will accept his reinstatement at the Headmistress' request with nothing more than a nod of his head.

Makes no difference to Harry. He uses the time before Snape arrives each evening to experiment with recognition and binding spells: has some success with Colingare, but finds it works only on single pages. It's something he thinks about at night.

He thinks about it quite a lot, because if he's thinking about binding spells he's not thinking about Snape.

He thinks a lot, these days, about binding spells.

Specifically he does not think about touching Snape. About the way it felt right. About the elongated and elegant curve of Snape's spine, or the hollows of his hipbones, or the line of his jaw, or his hair: Harry does not think about what it would be like to clench his hands in that hair or of what Snape's eyes would look like heavy with sex or if Snape is silent when he comes although Harry thinks he probably is -

There is a variation on Constringere indexed in the defunct Acta Diurna Veneficium of 1944 that was used by wizarding members of the ARP to repair family photographs. It might work on paper: a slight alteration to the specifications, perhaps.

Or the specifics. Is Snape, like Harry, sensitive to touch? Would he be passive, the first time, or would he be fierce, all hands and teeth? Would he want Harry at all?

Harry thinks a lot these nights about Snape.

Although he does also manage to sow the winter cabbage and repair the ventilation charms on the conservatory: label, neatly, the summer seedpackets and order in three separate gardening catalogues and a herbalist's almanac. It's December. The trees have lost the last of their leaves and the first snow of the year falls in a flurry of chill ice out of a cloudless sky.

They sort the last mixed sack.

Harry celebrates with chocolate sponge cake. Snape summons the first of the rag-pulp pages and a new set of index cards.

~*~

On the first Thursday in December Harry meets, accidentally, the new assistant Magical Sports and Games Coach whilst liming the Quidditch pitch and finds himself invited out to dinner. She is not an unattractive woman, Primavera, small and blonde and vivacious with a charming continental lisp to her voice, but Harry says goodnight without regret and does not proffer a half-expected kiss.

He is not surprised, later that night, when it's Snape's hands he imagines over his own on the jerking stroke and glide of his cock. He has rewritten the map of his own sexuality, imprinted desire in an iconoclastic and formal pattern. It is time to acknowledge the fact.

~*~

In the mirror, naked, Harry is not unattractive. His skin is good and colored the rich gold tan of outside labor. The muscles of his chest and arms finely delineated: his stomach is flat and his hair clean. As far as he can tell there is nothing objectionable about his genitalia. He would have the considerable advantage, for Snape, of being neither blonde, female nor seven.

He has been known to make Snape smile, although only once and not in circumstances he would wish to repeat.

But on the other hand Snape has learned to tolerate his presence as he does no other. And there is the magic: there is always the magic.

Harry speaks to the house-elves about changing the menu. It's the first time he's been down to the kitchens since the war finished, and he's surprised to find how familiar the place seems. How easy it is. He spends two hours in intimate discussion of Professor Snape's culinary preferences and samples four different kinds of chocolate cake. He's invited to Wednesday Afternoon High Tea, and will go.

That night he can't actually manage his own dinner but it's worth the aching stomach to see Snape eat - eat, not pick at - a plate of steak-and-kidney pudding and mashed Prince Edward potatoes.

In the morning he re-opens the seed catalogues with an eye to one particular palate.

On the night after that he begins to experiment with distance. It's easy enough to do: he's finished the last of the prints, and starts on modern Muggle. With their digital print and uniform format these are by for the hardest to sort: Harry must lay out quantities of trays and himself among them, only six feet away from Snape's stance in the desk chair. An entirely deliberate accident.

It takes almost a week before the man stops looking up at every unconsidered movement. Snape, studied, is as wary as an aged badger.

Harry takes to reclassifying font types and moving two inches backward every night, until he's practically sitting at Snape's feet.

By mid-December he's done something else as well. He's borrowed a catalogue from Primavera and an owl from the school, and he's bought himself three new sets of robes and some undershirts that fit closer than anything else he's ever worn. It may be his imagination, but he thought Snape's glance might have warmed before it was snatched away, the first time he wore them. Harry takes to leaving buttons undone and is absurdly conscious of the line of his back, stretching.

And the magic. Harry uses magic in front of Snape as he does with no one and nowhere else, a carefully casual sparking of power that he can feel rather than see the man acknowledge. Snape...likes his magic. Rather, Snape is drawn to it: murmur a summoning spell and Snape blinks, walk through the wards and he shivers, light the fire and all of his body stills, held in place, although it's the stillness of a snake and every muscle is tense.

If he touches Snape, ever, the moment to do it is not that moment. Or, maybe, incendiary, it is.

As Christmas nears Snape becomes incommunicative and darkly sardonic when he does speak.

Harry takes up quoting Persian love poetry - or rather, fragments in translation. The print face is distinctive, and he finds an unexpected appreciation in the beauty of structure. Once, he breaks off a stanza to hear Snape's voice finish the line, and after that starts taking complete texts out of the library. He has to order some in, and finds the two young librarians ladies with a wicked sense of humour and a taste for practical jokes.

They get on well with Primavera, too. Harry signs up for late afternoon tea breaks and listens to staff-room gossip.

Snape has his own copy of the Daily Prophet delivered and drinks coffee for breakfast.

He has been offered Slytherin House - and refused.

If Snape took back Slytherin, there would be no more time for evenings with Harry.

That evening he tries out the new Liber Constringere and finds himself with a complete set of Dickens. Snape damns the stack with a word - "Florid." - but will moments later flick the spell across his own sorted pages.

It doesn't work, for Snape.

Harry tries again. Snape's pages turn out to be a heavily foot-noted analysis of the Indo-Chinese opium trade. The spell works. It's a wheel spin of a spell, a localised tornado heavy with magic. It requires precision and a trick to the final cast of a wand that's wholly original.

It's taken Harry four months to perfect.

He does a few more trays, to be certain: he finds Kipling, Lloyd on Transformation and two volumes on Levantine code breaking. Also a pamphlet on the uses of Belladonna.

Snape says nothing.

Harry, looking round, does Snape's completed trays and the last of his own. Lucretius on molecular structure and bonding mechanisms: Ovid, on love.

Snape is holding onto the edge of his desk.

Harry is grinning as if his heart's desire has been made real. He looks at the books again, looks at Snape.

Lunges across the desk and snags his hands in Snape's robes. Snape is as rigid as a Victorian lamppost, but Harry kisses him anyway: once, quickly, just because, a fleeting press of lips, and then again gentler and softer. Snape doesn't move and Harry has all the time in the world to explore this new territory, its fine lines and rigid astonishment: the taste of it, not cool but unexpectedly warm, nothing more that salt and skin.

He's got his eyes shut. He opens them, when he draws back, and discovers his hands cradled round Snape's face and the man looking back at him with the blank horror of a war wound torn open But one of his hands is lying clasped over Harry's. Who won't stop now. He'll take what he can.

He's surer, this time. He knows the ground and is not prepared to accept a truce. He doesn't need to. Snape's mouth jerks up to his swift and clumsy, opening, and Harry takes everything he can get. Snape's tongue is soft, his teeth sharp-edged and fascinatingly ridged, his palate arched: his lips are finely muscled and as strong as Harry's own. The tang of his saliva is not sour but bittersweet. Harry takes a breath and shares it, a secret message, a desire written in code. His hands are in Snape's hair.

And then the world falls apart.

Crash like the ceiling falling in. He's tossed backwards, hands ripped open, warmth shattered to cold. There's a pain in his toes and his left shoulder stings: later, he'll find four crescent-shaped scars.

The desk has fallen. No. Snape's pushed the desk over. It lies up-ended between them and papers scurry around it, over Harry's feet and at the hem of Snape's robes. Snape's ten feet away and has his back to the wall, his hands pressed against it. His eyes - oh God, his eyes, stricken and desperate in the mask of his face.

That had been desire.

Harry's young, but not completely inexperienced. That had been desire, he's sure of it, and surer still looking at Snape across a battlefield of broken words.

He doesn't know what to say, but he could write Snape's script. Has done.

"Get out," Snape says.

Harry goes.

~*~

He does wonder, the next night, if Snape will avoid the whole issue and Harry himself, but when he opens the door the man is sitting at the desk, hair brushed, hands folded together, eyes steady. To Harry his pose is disturbingly reminiscent of one night in September. There's a taste to the wards as if Snape has tried to change them and failed.

"I'm not going to say sorry," Harry says.

"The assumptions of youth," Snape says. "What makes you think I am interested in your remorse any more than I am interested in your momentary passions? Your attentions are unwelcome, Mr. Potter, and your self-delusion astonishing. Desist."

"You don't leave me very much room to maneuver, do you?" Harry says.

"No," Snape says.

Colour washes across his skin and is gone in a moment: if Harry wasn't as fixated as a newborn phoenix he'd have missed it. Harry has a list of good reasons why, starting with you're as lonely as I am and ending with a slow and practiced striptease. He says nothing, puts his hands in his pockets and leans against the door. He didn't expect this to be easy.

Snape rearranges the stack of paper in front of him, moves his quill from table to ink jar and back again, straightens his sleeves. And says, "I am no fit mate for you, Harry. Look elsewhere."

"So," Harry says. "You want to say yes but you're so used to saying no you can't. That's all right, I can deal."

"There is a little more to it than that," Snape says. "And do not imagine that my opinion on the matter will change."

But even as he says it his hands shuffle paper and he can't look Harry in the eyes.

In that moment Harry wants Snape as he has never wanted anything else. What was curiousity has become desire. What was imagination has become real, almost within the grasp of his hands.

As he has not done since Voldemort's death Harry allows all of his mind to open. Calls to his magic and invites it in, an intoxicating rush of a wave he rides barely bridled, fire in a cold room, flashflood in a desert. It ruffles the paper on the trays, flares the wall sconces, disturbs his own robes and brings Snape, as Harry wants, stiff as a puppet out of his chair.

"Do not consider -" Snape says, but he's walking towards Harry one foot after the other.

In counterpoint to Harry's magic, Snape's is darker and quieter. Harry, here and now, could warp that power to his own and spin Snape into being exactly who he wants him to be.

Which would be wrong. Although for a moment he's tempted: Harry could rule the world and have Severus Snape at his feet.

An unthinkable future.

Snape's nearly close enough to touch.

Harry...lets go. He doesn't force the magic back, this time, just lets it fade to a gentle background hum, an unspoken conversation. He is aware as he lets it go that Snape - and with his eyes closed, Harry sees Snape not as himself but as something bigger and darker and more dangerously seductive, granite poised to fall - has gathered up his own magic and is waiting for a moment of weakness.

"It's all right," Harry says. He opens his eyes and finds Snape six inches away. "It's all right, I won't do it." The magic is, almost, gone.

Then Snape, incredibly, reaches out. Almost as if he can't help himself, as if Harry's desire has made his own tangible. He touches Harry's shoulder, the lapel of his robe and the buttons of his shirt under it, the curve of his collarbone and the line of his neck. Snape's fingers are stiff and clumsy and the expression on his face is not so much desire as shock. But Harry finds he doesn't mind - his body doesn't mind - that light touch is as enflaming as anyone else's hand on his naked cock. He's arching into Snape's hand: breathe out, breathe in: he can feel his eyes widen. He scrabbles at the wall for something, anything, to bind his hands to because if he touches Snape the man will stop, he's sure of it.

Hears himself groan and sees Snape tilt his head, surprised. Touch firms. Six inches become four and then two. Harry can't help the closing of his eyes. His mouth is ajar and there isn't enough air in his lungs.

When Snape kisses him it's not tentative but desperate. Hardly a kiss at all but an unleashed open-mouthed, wet, straining battlefield of feint and attack, as if Snape doesn't know what he's doing, as if Harry is too far gone to remember this language of skin and tongues. It's a violent collision. Snape is heavy against Harry's body, armoured in robes stiff as serge, his hands an uncomfortable grasp at Harry's arms, shoulders, his hips: his thigh is hard against Harry's cock. A slow and shuddering grind this, arrhythmic. There are five, no, six layers of cloth between them. And yet it's the most arousing thing Harry's ever done.

"Don't speak," Snape says into his mouth - "Don't speak."

Harry thinks, very slowly, would that make it real? But it takes forever for the words to form and he can't imagine saying them out loud. His mouth is Snape's, not for talking.

He's going to come from this. He knows it ten seconds before he does, helpless and surrendered, his mouth torn from Snape's and his teeth biting down on his own fingers because otherwise he'll be saying something like Jesus or Fuck or even Snape. And at the moment all three are indistinguishable and incandescent.

~*~

Snape's breathing in his ear is harsh and heavy. Their hands are clasped, but Harry has no idea when or how that happened. His under-trousers are uncomfortably sticky. Snape's weight, leaning, constricts his chest, and the man's hair is stranded sleek across Harry's face.

Snape's not moving. Did he come? What's the etiquette for this? There's no script - nothing Harry's heard or read ends like this. Before he can think twice - because he will, now - Harry touches Snape's hip, the bone of it still too near to the skin under his robes. Snape shudders. He's drawing into himself, hunching around Harry's hand. Harry can feel the tension in his muscles and the flicker of the pulse of blood under his skin. For all his stillness then Snape has not come, will be hard for Harry under his robes.

Harry drops to his knees on that thought. His head is level with Snape's crotch and fifteen - sixteen - buttons: he rubs his cheek across fabric and feels them jar, eyes closed.

He can't feel anything under Snape's robes. A soft bulge, maybe. But Harry can't smell the musky scent of another man's come and Snape is shifting between the grip of Harry's two hands, a tiny arrested shove and thrust as if Snape wants to but won't.

Harry undoes buttons with a thought. Cloth falls apart. He's got his head on Snape's thigh, warm under his cheek. Hands on the man's hips. He can see now that Snape hasn't come. Snape's not even hard, his cock lying heavy and limp over the curve of his balls, snouted loose with foreskin. The skin of his cock is thick, a deep cream inviting to the touch. Harry doesn't touch: he licks once and experimentally at the top and then mouths the whole.

Soft. It's soft, that skin, soft and the weight of it is loose and malleable on his tongue and against his palate, lighter than he'd imagined. Not at all like the feel of his own cock in his hand. In Harry's mouth he can feel the loose bell curve of Snape's foreskin, the deep ridge beneath the head, and the shaft unfurled. His tongue feels clumsy: he tries to be gentle, tiny licks at the pearled O of the tip of Snape's cock, keeping his teeth well out of the way even though the flex of it is awkward and uncontrolled.

Snape's not hardening, although his breathing is audible and the little muscles of his stomach contract under Harry's fingers. Curiousity, desire: Harry runs his hand down and cups Snape's balls. Lax as his cock, heavy and loose between Harry's fingers, they are sparsely furred. Exploratory and cautious Harry rolls them in his hand, and again. There's no response, no stirring of the cock in his mouth. He sucks gently over and again, a familiar rhythm changed to something different and strange. He's not certain how much pressure he can use, what this feels like. Snape's breathing is still audible but the flesh in his mouth does not so much as quiver.

He's starting to forget his own arousal, the speed and force of that unexpected sexual collision: his battle now is with the recalcitrant, limp flesh in his mouth, the failed connections between mind and body. His hands become intrusive with frustration - a finger on the tight stretched skin behind Snape's balls, firm, elicits no response. The man won't move for him but Harry reaches further between Snape's thighs to hunt out the curlicues and folds of Snape's arse. His fingers are compressed and awkward. His jaws are beginning to ache and his knees are sore. This is a battle now between Harry and Snape's reluctant body and it's one he is beginning to think he won't win.

Then slowly, so slowly Harry doesn't quite believe it, he can feel the base of Snape's cock harden in his mouth. It's not the urgent pressure of a healthy erection but a pulse of blood that fills nothing more than an inch of flesh. Harry hollows his checks, sucks harder: his fingers find and press the whorled and clenched centre of Snape's anus, as intimate as he's ever been been with any other person. Yet even as he does that slight stiffening fades, is gone, will not return despite all Harry's efforts.

It's all he's going to get.

He's lost.

If Snape does feel any desire, it will not manifest in his flesh.

Harry lets Snape's cock slip from his mouth. He rests his head against the man's thigh: his mouth tastes of the acrid sharp musk of sexual intimacy, his knees hurt, his hands and jaw ache. He can't - won't - look up: he's frightened of what he might see in Snape's face. Rejection. Absence. Uncaring. Things he didn't know he didn't want until this moment.

He shudders when Snape touches his hair. It's a tentative touch, as careful as if it's the first intimate contact they've had. Harry burrows into it: he feels like a child seeking solace from all the wrong places.

"It's not your fault," Snape whispers. Devoid of tone, his voice is unexpectedly gentle.

Harry presses a single kiss to Snape's skin and closes his eyes.

It must be ten minutes later that the ache in his knees can no longer be ignored.

He sits back on his heels and without looking up begins one-by-one and by hand to do up all the buttons of Snape's under robe. At Snape's crotch he pauses and tucks the lax genitals back into the pouch of Snape's underwear, and starts again. The buttons of Snape's outer robe are jet and cold to the fingers: those of his inner black and iridescent mother-of-pearl. Harry may never see them so close again and his fingers linger.

Eventually, he has to stand. His eyes are level with Snape's neck - the man has his head back against the wall.

The collar of Snape's robe is stiff and high, and Harry's fingers struggle with the small buttonholes. But when he's closed up the last fastening he does look up.

Snape's eyes are open but not vacant. For a moment - a humming bird's heartbeat - Harry sees tenderness. Regret, perhaps.

Gone in an instant. He can almost see Snape, dressed, slam the shutters down.

He says - and Harry can almost predict the shape and cut of the word from the pursued line of Snape's mouth opening -

"Satisfied, Potter?"

Snape's eyes are pitiless, scathingly blank. Harry can't think of anything to say. And then it's too late - Snape's slid out from under his hands, snapped his robes back into shape, straightened his sleeves.

"We will not try that again," he says.

Harry wants to say 'Why not', 'You started it', and even, childishly bereft, 'You wanted me.' He doesn't. He watches Snape rearrange trays of paper, call his quill, and lay out a new set of index cards. It's as plain as if Snape's written it on a blackboard - this incident is over.

It's not.


~*~

Harry bides his time. He doesn't, that night, sit within six feet of Snape's knees, or ask questions - although he'll have a list for some other time - or take his time licking the spoon or allow his robes to fall accidentally loose from his shoulders. He is scrupulously distant when he must speak and unusually early in leaving.

He'd like to think the heavy silence is one of regret, but he's horribly afraid it's relief. He doesn't ask if it's all right to come back.

~*~

It takes two days, before Snape puts a filled tray down by his left elbow and stands over it, silent. Snape still hasn't mastered the binding spell and Harry has tacitly refused to demonstrate. In fact, has refused to repair any other books. It's the one tactical advantage he'll allow himself over Snape.

Harry sits back. He doesn't look at Snape: he looks at the tray, which holds sheets of cream laid paper on which the typeface is clear and elegantly bold - and picks a sheet. It's John Donne, although this Harry knows only because someone he once loved once recited the passage to him.

"You'd, er, like this one then?" Harry says.

"Evidently," Snape says, sharp.

"I'd like something from you," Harry says. He looks up: Snape's looking down his nose as if Harry's a stranger. "I liked what we did," Harry says. "I liked it a lot. I'd like to do it again."

Snape says nothing, but the line of his mouth tightens.

"I know it wasn't good for you," Harry says. "So. Bargain. Every night I'm here, I'll do your books for you. But I want fifteen minutes with you, touching you, as well. Every night."

"No," Snape says.

The tray stays at Harry's elbow. He ignores it. Against the wall he piles his own filled trays. He has Cowper, the Apothecary's Almanac, and what appears to be a disconcertingly bloodthirsty field guide to the lunar cycles of the Aztec year.

The trays stack up.

Harry leaves early. He has an appointment with Primavera and a game of tabletop ice hockey.

~*~

By the time he arrives the next evening, the finished trays are stacked almost to the ceiling and he can see the suppressed rage in the line of Snape's shoulders. The air smells of failed magic and electricity and something smoldering, and there's a book on the fire that looks as if someone has tried to patch it together from three years of shopping lists and a pair of mismatched driving gloves.

Harry smiles to himself and starts on quarto sheets.

After a week the corridor is lined with disassembled books held in protective stasis. Snape has a constant scowl and when he moves his robes crackle and jerk into place. They seldom speak, but Harry's not fussed. He can feel the considering weight of Snape's eyes on his back and they'll run out of space eventually.

Over dinner, Snape reads, ostentatious and obvious, the new biography of Cornelius Fudge - 'Statesmanship in a Time of Peace.'

Harry spoons peas with a guilty conscience.

It's only when the trays have started to obscure the paintings and two house-elves in a row have refused to bring dinner that the detente is broken. It's not Snape, whom Harry has come to the conclusion would continue filling up trays until the every book is filed or until he's mastered the spell, but a deux ex machina with a Scottish accent. Minerva McGonagall rapping at the wards with impatient authority.

"Shall I - " Harry says, but Snape has already opened the door. Their visitor stands in the doorway, robed, bonneted, authoritative. She can't come in, there's no room. She looks at the banked walls, the covered floors: at Harry surrounded by trays and Snape half-hidden behind stacks of paper. She takes off her glasses, polishes them, and puts them back on.

"It won't do," Minerva McGonagall says, and her voice is the voice that has governed twenty generations of Gryffindors and three years of Hogwarts itself. "This has become impossible. Severus, the house-elves are serving tea on the fish platters and refusing to walk past whatever it is you've got out there. It needs to stop."

Snape's "It cannot," clashes with Harry's "Of course."

McGonagall looks between the pair of them. "Cannot is not an answer. Severus. You know perfectly well that although I may not approve I would never object to your professional conduct. I do appreciate you've been through a difficult period. Whatever it is you are doing is, I know, on your own time. But this has gone beyond what is acceptable. I want you to stop."

There's a white line around Snape's lips, compressed.

"Is that clear?" Minerva McGonagall says.

Snape's "Yes," is a one-syllable hiss.

"Sort it out, my friend," McGonagall says, softer.

Snape dips his head half an inch in acquiescence.

Minerva McGonagall looks at Harry. It's a long cool assessing look that Harry can only just meet: under it his back straightens and his robes tidy.

For a moment, McGonagall looks as if she might say something to him. But instead she nods down once and thoughtfully, and leaves.

Harry rearranges his legs with care. Snape's frowning, his fingers tapping at his wand.

Harry waits.

And finally Snape does look down at him, a glare that makes it perfectly clear just how far down Snape's gaze has to travel before it meets Harry's eyes.

"What do you want?" Snape asks, voice dragged over gravel.

"Fifteen minutes. Every evening," Harry says. He'd settle for five. "Touching."

"No clothing to be removed," Snape says. "Five."

Harry hadn't considered that. "No clothing removed except by mutual consent. Starting tonight. Ten minutes, agreed by both of us and timed." He keeps his face still and mildly interested, but what he feels is a triumphant and singing joy because - now- he's got Snape over a barrel.

"I'll do your Donne first," he offers.

"From tomorrow," Snape says. "And no magic."

"-Except by mutual consent," Harry says.

Snape looks down at the paper he's sorting. Although Harry doesn't know it, what Snape has in front of him is an original folio edition of Albus Dumbledore's four volume epic, 'Misadventures in Macedonia.' It had been written when the young Albus was twenty-two and fresh from university, the rhythm of it barely scans and the rhyming structure is risible. Nevertheless Snape loves this book. He puts a hand on the pages and says, "Yes."

" Then. Yes," Harry says.

~*~

Harry goes to see Poppy.

He doesn't like the infirmary. It's a place stained., for him, with the memory of too many wounded and too few beds: where Poppy's robes are blood spattered because she's too tired to cast another cleansing spell, of his own magic fragmented and erratic after Voldemort's death. He'd had no control over who he healed that day. Goyle lived. Hermione died. McGonagall's scars are horrific. Luna succumbed to a heart attack and died with no mark on her skin.

Three years ago.

Now the infirmary is pristine and empty. Poppy's in her office: Harry knocks on the open door as if he's still a student.

"Oh, Harry," Poppy says. "Come in. Sit down. Shall I get you tea? What is it?"

"Can I shut the door?" Harry asks.

Poppy looks round from the kettle. Her eyes are bright and sharp, and it's herself who shuts the door with a tap to her wand. "No one will hear," she says, undisturbed, and passes Harry a mug of tea milky-sweet and strong. "Now. What is it?"

"I have a friend," Harry says.

Poppy tilts her head to one side, intent and inquiring.

"My friend," Harry says. "My friend has problems. In bed. Actually, with getting an erection." He's got both hands wrapped round the mug.

"Oh, my dear!" Poppy says. "Well of course - Harry, it's simple. I'm so glad you came to me. I have a potion right here to hand, you can-"

"No potions," Harry says. "I mean - Poppy - it can't be a potion. I can't explain."

Poppy is already at the dispensing hatch. She turns round, gives him a look that encompasses both his blush and his stance.

"Oh," she says. "A sportsman? Well, in that case there's a couple of spells - very simple ones, Harry, you'll find it easy and not at all embarrassing to get someone else-"

"It can't be spells either. No magic. Really."

Poppy says, "And of course - what did you say?"

"No magic," Harry says.

"None at all?" Poppy asks. She's let the hatch cover fall and is standing facing Harry, now.

"Like a Muggle thing," Harry says.

Poppy walks back to her desk. Her shoulders have slumped a little. It's the first time Harry's really looked at her since the war - really looked, despite three years of headaches and cuts. She looks older and smaller than the mediwitch he remembers from his schooldays.

"Perhaps you'd better explain," Poppy says.

Harry does. Oh, not the situation, and most definitely not the person, but the way Snape had been, he's sure of it, aroused, that miserly tremor of blood in his penis his sole physical response. The repeated use of potions. The involuntary sexual stimulus of magic - he's not sure himself if that's a good or a bad thing.

When he's done, and it takes a while to find the words, Poppy has her chin cupped in one hand and is looking at him across the desk. She's frowning.

"It sounds so familiar," Poppy says. "Almost as if I've heard it before - but I'd remember a case like this, I'm sure . I wonder if I read it?" She shakes her head. "I'm finding things harder and harder to remember," Poppy says. "Must be age." Her voice is casual, as if she's said it a few times before, but the look in her eyes which is both baffled and worried is not.

"I don't think anything could be done about it, in that case." Poppy says. "The person concerned...I don't think they cared. But I'm sure there's something in one of the journals." She runs her wand over the bound volumes on the shelves above the desk, although nothing quivers or lights up or does whatever it's supposed to do.

"Maybe in one of the abstracts." Poppy says. She stands up and pulls open the first drawer of the filing cabinet, pulling out sheets of paper and muttering to herself.

Harry drinks his tea. Poppy, increasingly frustrated, extracts article after article and abandons them on the desk, the top of the cabinet, and finally the floor. Eventually she stops.

"I know there's something," Poppy says. She looks lost, surrounded by words for which she has no context. "I'm sure there is."

"Could there be something in a Muggle book?" Harry asks.

"Possibly," Poppy says. "But I'd need to get into St. Mungo's. Harry, I'm not giving up. Can you come back in a week or so?"

The lines on her forehead have deepened and she's pinched the skin at the top of her nose as if there's a headache coming.

"I can wait," Harry says. "It's just if there is anything, I'd like to know."

"If I find anything, I'll tell you," Poppy says. "This damn memory..."

Harry, leaving, wonders if that had been Snape, that first patient. But there's no way of knowing.

~*~

It's midnight. Snape's halfway buried behind unsteady sheets of paper - he's been piling them up all night, a flimsy barricade. All Harry can see of him is the curve of the top of his head.

He clears his throat. "Snape?"

"What?" It's barked out. Snape's head is suddenly, not unmoving, but held rigidly still.

"Ten minutes," Harry says. It feels, suddenly, a cruel imposition. He's not at all certain he's doing the right thing. "Don't move," he says. "But I'm coming over."

Snape doesn't move. From ten feet away, his shoulders show hunched, from five, his hands grip a sheaf of paper so hard the leaves tremble. From two feet away Harry can see the pinched white arch of his nostrils. Snape's eyes are open, but he's not looking at Harry.

"It's all right," Harry says softly. He swallows. His throat's dry. "I'm going to touch you now. On your shoulders. That's all."

He doesn't stand behind Snape but just to one side. His fingers hesitate: the air between his skin and the serge of Snape's robe is thick, almost repellent. Harry takes a deep breath.

"Touching you now," he says, and does. Like touching electricity. Snape's coiled as tense as a detonator, rigid enough to break: it's Harry who shivers, a convulsive shudder of his shoulders. He can feel rather than hear Snape's indrawn breath.

"Okay," Harry says, because talking about it makes it seem more distant and more real at the same time. "This is what I'm doing." His thumbs press gently into the hard ridges of Snape's muscles. His fingers are curved round the hollows of Snape's collarbone, the long and elegant line of the bone under the flesh. The tension in Snape's muscle is drawn so deep he can only smooth it over, pushing gently at the ingrown tightness of it. "I'm not doing any more than this," he says. "I'm not hurting you, am I?"

Snape's head moves. No.

"You know-" Harry says. Snape's hair is still ragged at the ends. Harry would like to tie it back, but won't, not tonight. It falls and catches on his fingers and he has to be careful not to pull at the strands. "Nearly done." It wasn't what he was going to say. He smoothes the muscle again, over and over, falling into the rhythm. Snape's relaxed, he thinks, a little.

"Done." He takes his hands away just as the timer goes.

Two feet away from Snape. Five. He won't acknowledge the hollow ache of his stomach or the itch in his fingers or most of all the imperative and inopportune pulse of his cock.

"That didn't hurt?"

Snape looks up from under the loose locks of his fringe. "No," His voice is deeper than usual, cracked.

"Good," Harry says. He's at the door, hesitating. "Goodnight."

Snape doesn't answer.

~*~

"I fail to understand," Snape says, three nights later and a safe two hours before midnight, "Quite what you expect to gain from this." He could be talking about a mutilated library, but he's not.

Harry stacks books. They're going to have to find a bookcase, soon. "I don't know myself," he admits. "I think I like it. You don't find it unpleasant, do you?"

He's gone through another twelve volumes before Snape answers.

"No," he says. But it's not the hard no Harry would have expected, it's a little uncertain, a little off beat, as if Snape's shaken.

Harry stacks more books. That night, he thinks he can see Snape's shoulders relax, as if he might be learning to trust Harry's hands. He's not sure.

~*~

"What do you do in the evening, in that dungeon?" Primavera asks.

"Make books," Harry says.

"It's a great romance, n'est-ce pas?" Primavera says.

Harry laughs.

~*~

It's January. Snow lies six inches deep on the flowerbeds and edges the roofs and the guttering. Harry breaks the ice on the water barrels and wears two pairs of socks. There's a bookcase full of books in Snape's rooms and it's possible to walk between the sacks in the storeroom. Although he tries to remember, Harry's forgotten the exact taste of Snape in his mouth. He's never felt so odd, suspended between desire and fulfillment, afraid both to act and not to act. Snape's taken to tying his hair back of an evening and Harry takes it as a good sign. He talks to Poppy again, who gives him three Muggle articles and a book none of which are any use whatsoever.

Touched, Snape no longer freezes. He's become accustomed to Harry's touch, to the fall of robes against robes, to the accidental collision of hands and to the way Harry prefers to sort paper three feet away from his knees. It should be as comfortable as an intimate friendship but it's not. Harry is aware of every nuance of space they both inhabit, the layers of cloth over Snape's skin, the susurration of his robes, the words underneath the words they say that will never be spoken. 'Don't you want me?' Harry thinks. 'Could you want me?' The temptation of magic is always there.

Quick and guilty and gasping Harry wanks in the bathroom before coming down to Snape's rooms. Afterwards, it's slower, his strokes long and aided with lubricant. In the evening Harry pulls himself off like a schoolboy. At night in his own bed he closes his eyes and pretends his hand is Snape's, refusing to allow the stroke of it to tighten or speed, more hesitant than his own touch would be, yet Harry comes harder now than he ever did to someone else's hand on his cock. Primavera laughs at him and says, "Why not spend an evening out? Come on, let's go to London for the weekend." She means, find someone nameless and willing, warm flesh to set against his own, but it's not what he wants.

Instead he helps her mend the school brooms . There is less wear than he would have thought: they're dusty with misuse.

"Isn't Quidditch as popular as it used to be?" Harry asks.

Primavera looks up, surprised. Her eyebrows, plucked, arch like egg shells on the smooth skin of her forehead. "What do you mean?"

"We used to play all the time," Harry says. "When we were at school." He hasn't thought about Quidditch for years. It's not something he hid, knowingly, in the forgetting, but in this moment Harry wonders if the spell has influenced more than he knew.

Primavera shrugs. "It's been like this since I got here," she says. Then, "Which school did you go to?"

That night Harry, aching, rests his head on Snape's knees for a whole ten minutes. He doesn't move. Halfway through, when it becomes clear he's not going to move, Snape puts a hand on his hair light as a sheet of paper.

"Oh fuck it," Harry says. "Let's go out."

They go to Hogsmeade. The Three Broomsticks is smaller and darker than he remembers, and quieter. Madam Rosmerta serves them with no trace of recognition an ale Harry doesn't know and drinks far too much of for sobriety. It doesn't fill the emptiness inside, merely numbs it, and although Primavera leaves him swaying on the doorstep of Hagrid's hut with the keys in his hand - "You'll be all right, Harry, won't you?" - at half past midnight he's knocking on the door of Snape's rooms.

Snape lets him in. Sits him down on the settle and makes him tea with a resigned and detached amusement, as if Harry's a Slytherin caught stumbling back to the dormitory long after lights out. Stands over him until he drinks it, the taste strangely bitter and dry, and asks him if he's ready to go home.

"I am home," Harry says. He doesn't understand why Snape laughs at that, a dry laugh that reminds him of something he can't at this moment remember. There's a blanket on the settle. He bends down to take his shoes off and discovers that movement in more than two dimensions leaves his head spinning. He looks up. "Take me to bed," Harry says. He can't help feeling he's missed something there in the words, there should be something else he means. Snape's unmoving. "Please," Harry says. The ceiling's beginning to spin: it takes all his energy to keep the magic banked, he shouldn't have drunk that last glass, his foolishness will kill him someday although wasn't that someone else's words?

Snape's wand is in his hand. "Leviosa," Snape says, almost casually, and Harry can feel the sudden lightness of his limbs - but under that the burgeoning force of his magic rises to Snape's unleashed. The shock of it meeting is like recognition, like family, a warmth...gone just as he reaches for it. He lands with a thud on the settle and opens his eyes to Snape furious and frightened, hand tight on his wand, but the spell canceled.

"What?"

"I don't think we'll try that again." Snape's voice is dry. For a moment he stares down at Harry, expressionless. Then he takes the blanket from the back of the settle and spreads it over Harry's knees. "Goodnight," Snape says. "Mr. Potter."

Through half-closed eyes Harry watches Snape douse the candles by hand. He doesn't think he'll sleep, but he does, snuffed out just like a candleflame.

~*~

He wakes to warmth. That's the first thing he realises, waking up, he's warm. His head's fuzzy but present, he appears to be lacking his clothes, and the mattress is hard. It's not his own bed.

It's Snape's.

At night, when he's asleep, his power is uneasily confined. It forces the apple trees into unnatural bloom, miscolours thestrals, lights all the fires in Hogwarts. Tonight it's landed him naked in Snape's bed. He'd laugh, but there's no humour in it: he's where he wants to be, but unwanted. He lies on his back and stares into darkness that is not the darkness of Hagrid's hut. The mattress dips and pulls: in his sleep Snape's restless, his breathing hesitating and uneven. Harry wants to reach out and won't, it's an imposition he will not allow himself, but almost as if he can read Harry's mind Snape rolls over and slings an arm across his chest, abrupt and confining. The man's breathing falters: Harry holds himself as still as a hunted rabbit. He thinks of pillows. Snape settles. Harry starts thinking of spring. There are two cracked panes in the northern conservatory, he must ask someone to mend them, possibly Primavera. It's about time to start planting seeds for the herb garden. This year, he wants to grow something a little different, dill, mace, old-fashioned herbs that Snape will be able to use in research.

There's a surprising warmth against his leg.

Last year, he lost half the carrots to whitefly before he'd realised and got Professor Sprout to set wards. He'll need to ask early, before the breeding season. And for slugs: the dishes of butterbeer had worked, but Harry disliked emptying them.

Snape's moving. Very slowly, a sleepy, rocking push against Harry's thigh.

He'll need to seed the lettuces out in the coldframes soon.

That is Snape's erect cock against his skin.

Arousal scours through Harry. He's instantly as hard as he can ever remember being, his hands curled, his toes clenching, goose bumps chasing shivers across his skin. The helplessness of it is horrifying. He doesn't dare move, hardly dares breathe. Snape's cock nuzzles blind and seeking, unconscious, bigger and harder than Harry would have- and has - dreamed. The ruffling warmth of Snape's breath on his shoulder is a desperate call to move, to curl up and under Snape's shoulder, to pull a hand to down to where Harry's cock strains for touch, to splay his legs and let Snape drive home. The saliva in his mouth tastes of hot metal. He wants to lie back and surrender: he wants to roll over and hump Snape into coming, hands mashed together, mouth pressed to mouth, legs strained and tangled.

He can't. Snape's asleep. Harry finds himself almost angry. He feels betrayed, as if Snape's given him something with one hand and taken it away with the other, which is ridiculous because Snape has no more control over what he's doing than if Harry had cast Imperius and said, "Fuck me." He clenches his hands on the sheets to remind himself not to touch and rides it out, long, endless moments until Snape, softening before he comes, huffs in his sleep and rolls away and stills.

Frustrated, Harry slides a hand down under the sheets as if he's twelve and sleeping in a dormitory. Worse than that. He thinks it'll be okay but it's not: at the first touch of his hand on the heated flesh of his cock he shivers uncontrollably. He's fifteen seconds and three hard pulls away from coming but he daren't shake the bed, daren't move with any force, can't curl round his hand or move his hips. He settles for a slow twisting rhythm that he doesn't think disturbs the sheets, a tortuous pleasure that's almost painful, and turns his head to take a mouthful of blanket in case he cries out. So close. He's almost on the brink, nearly there, he's being so careful.

"Just what do you think you're doing?"

Harry could scream. He's teetering on the edge of orgasm, a moment more and he'd be there. Snape could just breathe on him and he'd come.

"If you are going to do what I think you are doing, Mr. Potter.." Snape says. His voice is nearer and the mattress sways and balances. "Then accept the consequences."

Something clamps down on Harry's wrist, hard. It's Snape's hand, ripping his grasp open. Harry tries to curl up but in an instant Snape's thigh is over his, heavy and taut, Snape's weight on his chest, his own hands raised and flung apart on the pillows and Snape's clawed grip holding him still. Fuck. That is Snape's cock against his, electric heat, and Snape grinding into him purposeful and controlled and untouchable. Harry tries to move and can't, tries to ride Snape's rhythm and finds himself helpless, hears himself whimper and finds his mouth covered and all thought vanished to a needlepoint of white light and Snape. He's blind and desperate, the slow damp slide of Snape's flesh against his a torment and not a relief. Harry shudders and begs and hears himself do it.

"Is this what you wanted?" Snape asks him, but he can't reply. Snape's hipbones rock against his belly, a slow scraping slide that should hurt and doesn't, just makes it more real. Between his thighs Snape's knees press awkward and hard, and Harry could swear he can feel every separate harsh hair catch and pull against his own. It's the most disastrous, uncomfortable sex he's ever had, not sex at all, a stumbling, incoherent meltdown.

Harry doesn't scream when he comes but that's only because Snape's got three fingers in his mouth and a thumb on his chin that will leave an half-inch bruise come morning. Orgasm leaves him adrift and floundering, not sure of where or what he is, every muscle in his body unstrung.

Someone's hands, harsh and bony, are lifting him under the armpits. It hurts. He manages a whimper of protest and slams up against the bed head. He feels the heat of someone else's body against his seconds before the weight of it: a thumb in his mouth and then someone's cock, half hard, and filling fast, crammed into his mouth, hips thrusting against his face. Snape's cock. Harry opens his mouth and cranes upward. His mouth's full: there's no space to do anything but hold his tongue against the vein of Snape's cock, hold himself open against the punishing thrusts, breathe through his nose. It hurts, the head of Snape's cock battering against the back of his throat until he gets the knack of it, opens up and nearly chokes, but it's Snape, hard for him. Harry fastens his hands on Snape's hips and holds on and Snape does come for him, a spluttering, weak spurt of semen he can barely taste. It takes Snape a while to relax. His cock pulses, shrinking, in Harry's mouth: he can feel the man's lungs heave.

Snape folds in on himself slowly. He falls, rather than rolls, away from Harry, a convulsive movement that leaves him apart and on his back, still breathing heavily. Harry slides down the pillows and lays his head against Snape's arm. The skin of it is cool and smooth against his forehead. He feels odd, misplaced, he doesn't know what to do. Snape's not a man he can reach out to in any casual fashion: he'd like to push under Snape's arm and tuck his head into the man's shoulder, but it doesn't seem likely.

They breathe in harmony instead.

He could fall asleep here. He is almost asleep.

Then, shocking, Snape rolls over and feels his way down Harry's arm to his hand. Curls his fingers and kisses Harry's knuckles dry and gentle.

Harry falls asleep with Snape's mouth still resting against his fist.

~*~

He wakes up alone and disconcerted. The bed's cool, and his skin's got the unnaturally dry and staring feel that follows a Scourgify charm. He's sore in places he didn't know he could be sore in and although he's not hungover he's not exactly awake.

What would Snape want him to do?

Probably vanish and never come back.

In defiance, Harry rolls out of bed and wraps himself in the first piece of clothing he can find, a nightshirt that has a large rip at the hem. His own clothes appear to have gone missing and Snape's are nothing more than carefully folded piles of black cloth against the walls. There is no furniture in this room but the bed, although there is a door left ajar which leads to a sparse and ill-equipped bathroom. Snape lives like a monk, like someone prepared to leave on a moment's notice.

Harry looks at his eyes, a bit blurred, in the mirror. It doesn't show. He looks the same, hair tousled, needs a shave. Has a bruise on his chin. Ordinary face, doesn't look like who he is. What he is.

Snape's lover. Maybe. Once. Harry pulls a face at himself in the glass and wishes he had at least a pair of underpants of his own. He pulls the nightshirt straight and walks barefoot through the bedroom.

He almost walks into Snape's back.

The living room's changed. The bookshelves are back on the walls. The carpet's down, the chairs are in place, there's a tapestry on the wall and Snape's desk is as it was. There's a fire in the hearth, a fire in a grate with the firedogs back in place. Snape has Quidditch cups on his mantelpiece: Harry didn't know, he doesn't remember noticing those.

Snape's room looks exactly as it did before Harry destroyed it.

Apart from the stacks of paper in their trays.

And the Headmistress in the middle of it.

Snape's not saying anything. Minerva McGonagall's turning in small circles on the carpet, wand at the ready. The door's open, Snape must have let her in.

There's a red tray with two steaming teacups on the table. Snape's got pewter candlesticks.

"Would either of you.." Minerva McGonagall says. "Care to explain exactly what happened here?"

Snape says nothing. Harry peers round his shoulder, but can't see his clothes.

"Half past three," Minerva McGonagall says. "The biggest surge of magic I've felt since...since I took on the school. From here." Her finger pinpoints Snape's feet. "Your rooms, Severus. From you. And...you." She's looking at Harry. "I thought you had no magic," Minerva McGonagall says, each word carefully pronounced. "But what I felt last night was both of you. And when I investigate - because it's my job to investigate, because there are hundreds of souls here that I hold in my keeping - the walls themselves will not let me pass. Explain."

"Uh, the wards are mine," Harry says. He thinks he might be able to see the corner of his robes lying over the arm of the settle.

"You have no magic," Minerva McGonagall says. "According to every answer you have ever given me and every piece of paper I have read about you in the last five hours. You went to no school I can discover. You are registered with no department at the Ministry. You are not even registered at this school. I am not even certain I know your name."

Harry takes a deep breath.

Snape says, "Harry." He hasn't looked round. He doesn't say Harry's name as if it's a warning or a command or a weapon, it's just a reminder of who Harry is.

"If that is your name," Minerva McGonagall says.

"Yes," Harry says.

"And I assume that this is something to do with you," Minerva McGonagall says.

"Yes," Harry says.

"Then can I suggest," McGonagall says, in a tone of voice that makes it very plain that this is an order and not a suggestion, "that - dressed - you meet me in my office in exactly one hour to discuss the situation?"

Harry nods.

Leaving, the Headmistress's shoes raise little clouds of dust from the carpet. The door does not slam behind her, but Harry's sure that's only because Snape's glaring at it.

The sound of heels on the stone slabs of the corridor fades away.

Snape turns round. His eyes look Harry up and down, nightshirt, bare feet, hair.

"What have you done?" Snape asks.

"It gets away from me, sometimes," Harry says. "The magic. I, er, do odd things. I have to fix them without anyone knowing."

Snape looks at him for a very long moment. Then he pours himself a cup of tea. Two, although he doesn't pass Harry the other one. Harry's feet are cold.

"Do you want me to stay?" Harry asks.

"What difference does it make?" Snape says. There are shadows under his eyes that weren't there last night.

"I didn't mean to-"

"Lay a finger on me? Make everything better? Turn the clock back? Yes, you did, Harry Potter. The only question is what you are going to do about it."

"I'm not sorry about putting the room back," Harry says. "I've been thinking about it for a long time. I'm not sorry about-" he swallows, "-getting into bed with you. I've wanted to do that for a long time too. I wasn't sorry about making everyone forget. I thought it was the right thing to do"

Harry looks down at his tea. Snape's put a warming charm on it. In the bathroom, he knew the exact moment Snape touched his wand.

"But it was the wrong thing to do, wasn't it?"

Snape says nothing.

"I can't just...put it back." Harry says.

Snape looks at the trays of paper on the floor.

"I'll lose you," Harry says. Then, "I don't know if I can."

"Get dressed," Snape says.

Harry's clothes are on the settle. He picks them up and dresses in the bathroom with the door locked.

Did Snape even remember what they'd done?

Harry readjusts the fall of his robes and straightens his back. When he returns to the living room Snape's sitting at the desk with a pile of essays in front of him. The second cup of tea is untouched and still steaming.

In daylight, restored, Snape's rooms are different, open and at the same time less welcoming. As if Snape has made a picture of what his life should be like and lurks behind it, peering out. Harry wonders if it's okay, if Snape meant the tea for him, if he can sit down, if Snape will say anything else. He feels misplaced and out of context. He does sit down straight backed on the settle and keeps his feet together on the hearthrug.

But Snape has toast as well as tea. Harry eats as silently as he can. Snape drinks coffee, looking into the ashes of the fire. He hasn't brushed his hair. Almost invisible, Harry can see the small shift of cloth when Snape breathes. His robe hangs in formal folds: light shades the black into textured monochrome. It occurs to Harry that neither of them know what to say and that he'd never expected to see Snape at a loss.

"When Hermione and Ron got together Dobby put petals all over the bedroom and woke them up at six o'clock to drink champagne," Harry says. It's only when he's said it that he realises the memory doesn't hurt anymore, slips out easy and warm with the memory of friendship. "Took six weeks to clean them all up," he says. "The petals. But Hermione loved them."

Snape closes his eyes.

"It's all right," Harry says. "If I can use magic now, I won't use it for anything like that."

"You did not lose your magic," Snape says.

His eyes are still shut: there's a line between his eyebrows over which Harry wants to run his fingertip. Snape would shiver if he did. Snape, last night, had been shaking.

What Harry wants is the right to run his fingertip over the frown lines on Snape's forehead.

Lift the hearthrug and there are only floorboards underneath. Behind the bookcases, plaster. Take away Snape's robes, he's a man like Harry.

Kneeling, Harry waits until Snape opens his eyes and looks down. "I'm coming back tonight," he says. "I don't expect anything. I won't even touch you if you don't want me to."

"Thank you," Snape says.

~*~

It's an uncomfortable interview, with the Headmistress. No fool, Minerva McGonagall knows Harry isn't telling all the truth. Hardly any of it, although he does manage not to lie with a skill that verging on sophistry, that comes far easier after months sitting at Snape's feet.

He leaves the Headmistress's study an acknowledged wizard again. His name's on the staff roll: Harry checks, going down the stairs. The letters of it are not new but patinated, as if it's been there a while.

Maybe it has. Harry allows his eyes to drift over the notice board, the match practice lists, the chess convention, the first year carnival cast, the roll of honour...

On the roll of honour, in new minted bronze, Hermione Granger.

Also Ronald Weasley.

Harry blinks and looks again, but the letters do not disappear. He's still looking at them ten minutes later when Primavera comes and taps him on the shoulder.

"Are you free?"

"Why?"

"I've got a mixed class after break. Slytherins and Griffyndors. You used to be good with a broom, didn't you?"

~*~

When he gets to Snape's rooms, late, the man is standing at the fireplace looking at one of the House Cups.

"What is it?"

"This morning, the names on the cup dated to the last match of your sixth year. Now look."

Tilted to the light, the list reads on, delineating lost time. Today, Harry has mended the greenhouse panes, cleaned all the potting trays and flown on a broomstick for the first time in three years. He's felt as if he's reclaiming himself, letting go and becoming more distinct at the same time.

"The Slytherins were talking about Quidditch," Snape says.

"There's a Gryffindor second year who's going to make a brilliant seeker," Harry says, sly and smiling.

Harry doesn't need a clock to tell him when it's midnight. He's promised himself he won't, but he looks up. Snape's stopped sorting papers: he's sitting on the chair in front of the fire, staring at the flames.

"Shall I...?"

"Come here," Snape says. He moves his knee and cants both an eyebrow and an elbow, and suddenly there is both space and welcome for Harry at his feet. Snape's not soft but he's warm, and his hand rests just above Harry's shoulder in what should be a casual caress. It's not. Harry's as conscious of Snape's fingers, the line of his robes, the beating of his heart, as he is of the currents of magic in his own body.

There are no pictures in Snape's fire, but the warmth against Harry's skin is almost as good as family. He falls asleep against Snape's knees and is unsurprised to wake up on the settle with a blanket and the fire banked up. He could leave before breakfast, but he doesn't.

~*~

On the second day Hogwarts, A History has 72 chapters, not 68. Poppy finds an article about the effects of potion misuse on erectile tissue that she hands to Harry under plain cover in the staff room, over tea. McGonagall comes out to the greenhouses and spends a good half-hour talking about strains of heather and if Harry thought it would be worth setting up a Longbottom prize fund for a gifted herbalist.

The first In Memorium notice appears in the Daily Prophet, but it's small and quiet, as if three years have taken not the memory of love but the edge of grief.

Harry and Snape have an argument over compiling a grimore that is not dark but black. Snape wins, but Harry still ends up front of the fire with the man anyway which feels enough like triumph to make up for losing. He sleeps on the settle again.

~*~

On the third day there is an article in the Daily Prophet about a Death Eater found in Kensington Borough Library. The man had been recognised by the newspaper archivist. The Ministry had been contacted, but the archivist had told her sister, and her sister had Floo'd a woman who knew someone else: by the time the Ministry Aurors had Apparated in the man was a bloody bundle of rags on a building site.

It is purely by chance that Harry reads the paper, in the library. One of the librarians has a brother, the brother writes a column on competitive murtlap throwing, and Harry catches the initials D.E. out of the corner of his eye as he is thumbing through the pages. He reads in silence and quickly, and asks to keep the paper.

Snape's crimes. Harry has them at the back of his mind, a box wrapped in brown paper with a chain round it, incendiary. His alone. He doesn't, yet, maybe never, intend to share the knowledge.

Harry doesn't get much work done, that afternoon. He wanders the castle instead, its long passageways, its hidden rooms and its secrets. A room. A mirror. A door. Moments in space and time, the small histories of people misplaced and deeds misjudged, disjointed as a book torn to shreds.

'Am I doing the right thing?' Harry asks, in the echoing empty silence of an attic, although there is no one to answer but himself.

When he gets to Snape's rooms Snape is not sitting at his desk. He is standing in front of the fire, his robes pristine, his hair tidy, his face set. The room, Snape's room, is frighteningly neat. The last of the trays of papers have been finished and the last of the books shelved. Snape must have mastered Liber Constringere. He's waiting for Harry.

Who stops, in the doorway. Were it not for the formal elegance of his robes - Harry has never seen him dressed like that, never - Snape looks, expressionless, constrained, as he did one evening in September. Which is a long time ago now. Harry's a different person. So's Snape.

"What is it?" Harry says.

Snape says, "We should go to bed. Your wards will hold."

Then he says, "I would take a potion for you, first, if you prefer."

There is no emotion on Snape's face, looking at Harry.

"You will not," Harry says, blurts out, a horrified knee-jerk reaction, and then, "Did you mean that?"

Snape's right hand opens the first button of his robes, the black button that presses into the embroidered curve of his collar. The second.

He means it.

"Let me watch," Harry says to the sound of his own blood hammering in his ears and the feel of an erection caused by a bare half inch of skin. "Please."

Snape's robes are stiff. So is he, but the third button is undone. And the fourth.

"Can we move to the bedroom?" Harry says, while he can. He doesn't want this to be something small. He wants all night and the morning as well, if Snape can, if Snape will let him. But Snape does move, glances up at Harry and walks towards the bedroom.

"You're sure you want to do this?" Harry says, following. "Because, you know, we could always wait..."

Snape's stopped in the doorway. Beyond the angular line of his shoulders and his bowed head, Harry can see the bed with the cover turned down and two candles burning on the headboard.

"...until..."

Slowly, crumpling into heavy folds, Snape's robe falls from his shoulders. It catches for a second at his hips - Harry's mouth is suddenly dry - and then slides to his feet. Underneath Snape wears nothing but a twist of black cloth.

"Oh. God," Harry says. "Oh."

Snape turns round. His eyes - his eyes are black, open, intent. "Take your glasses off," Snape says, and his voice is lower than Harry has ever heard it before.

Harry does. Although what he does with them he doesn't know: he has walked forward, and under his feet the cloth of Snape's robe is cool and sea-silk smooth, and under his hands Snape's skin is as tender as chamois, a little loose over his bones. When Snape kisses him, it's not desperate or rushed but slow, slow, sure and deep. As if just this once, they've got all the time in the world.

 

This story's done.

 

acid6urn created a piece of comission art for me (isn't it beautiful?) which, whilst not an illustration for Black Story, drew on the images and emotion of the writing. Here it is, a small scan for three images. The centre is oil, the two sidepieces watercolour.
I love it. If you like it too, drop Acid a note to say so, eh?