It was September, and the rain was sheeting down.
Hard rainfall was a harbinger of bad news, Harry thought. He'd learned that the day Voldemort killed his parents, it had been the third day of a four-day rain spell. The day Sirius fell through the Veil, the rain came steady and cold. And the day before Dumbledore died, it rained on and off, the drops as hard as pebbles.
It stopped just as quickly as it started, leaving puddles everywhere. Harry clutched his cup of tea tightly, staring out the window as though the answer to his problem was written on the sky. Without turning around, he asked the question of his wife, picturing the look of pity on her face. "So, are you going to tell me his name?"
"Does it matter, Harry?" Ginny asked a bit tartly. Harry hated how she assumed she knew what he was feeling at all times.
Harry turned around, spilling tea on the rug. "It does to me. We were married, last time I looked. That gives me some say in who my wife sleeps with. His name, Ginny. And I want to know everything, starting with did you fuck in our bed and ending with how long has this been going on?"
"I won't be spoken to like that," Ginny said angrily. "If you want to know the details, I'd suggest you ask me civilly."
"Fine," Harry spat. He asked politely but every pore and fibre of his being was screaming 'slut.'
"His name's Simon Harrington-Crofts. No, we never fucked in our bed. And whether it's over or not depends solely on you."
Harry could barely stand to look at Ginny now. Her freckles, her dimples, her cute little button nose were no longer endearing to him. "Simon Harrington-Crofts? Sounds like a pretentious prat. He must know Malfoy."
"He doesn't," Ginny said. "He's...well, he's a Muggle." A slight smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Like she'd been waiting for the right opportunity to throw this in his face.
"A Muggle?" Harry repeated. Quite surprised at this, it was a moment or two before he spoke again. "How did you two meet?"
Ginny shrugged her shoulders. "By accident."
Harry flung his teacup across the room, knocking his glasses askew with the force of his throw. "And I suppose your falling back with your legs in the air was an accident, too?"
Ginny slapped Harry's face. "I am not a whore."
Harry lunged at Ginny, but he stopped when she raised her hand again. "Where did you two meet?"
Ginny distanced herself. "We met at a book club. Where we discuss classics of literature. We weren't intimate until months later."
"Hermione's suggestion I'll bet. Witches and wizards don't have book clubs?"
Her expression hardened. "Are you more upset that I strayed or that I strayed with a Muggle, Harry? Because honestly, it would've happened all the same."
Harry's head was starting to pound, and there were sharp, shooting pains in his stomach. "That's fucking comforting."
"Look, I went to my mum, and you went to Bill for advice, and we were both wrong in doing so. We should have been speaking with one another, trying to figure out things on our own. But I should have realised that if Harry Potter wasn't hot on danger's heels, he'd grow bored and disillusioned. Your first and only marriage was to Voldemort. After the war, you had nothing left to give. You just went through the motions."
Harry punched a hole in the wall. She was right. He was meant to die before the war ended. Love and marriage were never supposed to be a part of his future. He was holding her back. As much as he thought he wanted them to stay together and have a family, that was the Harry of yesterday's dream.
"I love you, Harry, but this is never going to work. Not if we keep going like this. I think it might be in our best interests to separate for a bit. At least until we get our heads together."
The numbness in Harry broke. "I have to get out of here. I have to leave now, or I'll say or do something we'll both regret," he said, pushing past Ginny. Harry stalked into their bedroom and began stuffing things into his rucksack. He fully expected Ginny to cry, but it was his eyes that were misting.
Ginny lingered in their bedroom doorway. "This isn't necessary, Harry. This was your house before we married. You don't have to leave. I'll go."
"No, I don't want to stay," Harry said, discreetly knuckling the wetness. "This - whatever it was we had - is over." And then Ginny said that predictable something that made his stomach flip flop.
"It doesn't have to end this way. We can still make a go of friendship."
Harry shouldered past her angrily, dragging his overstuffed rucksack. "It wouldn't end at all if it didn't end badly. Go to him if he makes you happy," he said before turning to leave. He got all the way to the front door before he noticed she hadn't followed him.
Reaching into the drawer of the table where they left the post, Harry pulled out a stoppered phial, holding it up to the light between pinched fingers before putting it into his pocket. He took one last look around before he left the house in Godric's Hollow to Apparate away.
For Merlin only knew where.
The day after Harry left home, he trailed Simon Harrington-Crofts. Ginny apparently wasn't the only girl that bastard was seeing.
Simon was exactly the type of smarmy bloke Harry had pictured. Simon wore a woollen scarf indoors, and his long, blond hair was pulled back into a misshapen ponytail. His glasses sat slightly askew on his face, and when he wasn't pushing them up the bridge of his nose, he was cleaning them with the front of his shirttail. But none of those things were what annoyed Harry most. It was that holier-than-thou attitude.
The Second Story was located in St John's Wood, and the tiny bookshop mostly attracted dealers and collectors and twenty-somethings. The shop carried a particular odour that Harry was certain Simon would have bottled and dabbed at his pulse points had he been able to. The mildewy smell, however, made Harry sicker than the bibliophiles whose noses were buried in the spines of those old books. Harry had to squint at the names; Shaw, Steinbeck and Stendhal meant little to him.
It had been Harry's plan to wait in the bookshop until it emptied so he could confront Simon and put a nasty curse on him. But there were always one or two people in the front arguing modern authors or trying to justify the literary merits of so and so. Harry felt like he was going to suffocate if he stayed there much longer. And that's when Simon finally noticed him and smiled, the womanising prick. As Simon started to make his way over, Harry picked up and hid behind the first book he touched.
"You're not a fan of Dostoevski," Simon said, plucking the book from Harry's hands.
That Simon was second-guessing his taste made Harry angry. "And you can tell that just by looking at me?" He fingered the wand in his jeans pocket, itching for any reason at all to hex the smile from Simon's face.
Simon folded his arms across his chest and smirked. "I'm so sure you couldn't name his masterpiece that I'm willing to give you 'Crime and Punishment' for free if you can."
Harry was damned if he could. He just stood there looking foolish. And beaten.
He shouldered past Simon with a hateful look and made for the exit.
"There's no need for that," Simon said, catching up with Harry. "Stay awhile, and I'll find you something more appropriate. I'm certain I can read you just as well as any of the books in my shop."
Harry mentally rolled his eyes. Is that how you chatted her up? I can't believe Ginny fell for that.
"Fine," Harry spat. "If you think you know me so well." He wanted to run from the shop when Simon went to the back, but sheer stubbornness compelled Harry to stay.
Simon was back a moment later with a worn hardbound. Without preamble, he handed it to Harry.
"What's this then?" Harry demanded.
"Faust. You'll enjoy him." Simon's smug expression told Harry that he was willing to stake his life on that pick.
Harry glowered. "And why's that?"
Simon fiddled with the tassels of his scarf. "I'm seldom wrong."
Harry fumbled in his pockets for some paper money. "How much do I owe you?"
That Simon said 'a gift' made Harry hate him even more. He wanted to say thank you with a Cruciatus; instead, Harry took Simon's scarf with him, ripping it from his neck. The garbled ouchbloodyhell that followed was only slightly satisfying.
"You'll get it back if you're right," Harry said when Simon started to give chase.
Over dinner he perused the book, reading passages here and there and shaking his head until he came to a line that caught his eye:
The ancient one I like sometimes to see, but not to quarrel with him am always civil-- tis courteous in so great a lord as he, to speak so kindly to the devil.
Thinking about his conversation with Simon, Harry closed the book with an infuriated snap.
He did not understand the verse entirely, but the outward meaning touched a nerve. Instead of sleeping, Harry stewed over it and wondered if in some way he was being mocked.
After the war, Harry and Ginny had had virtually no privacy. Harry was constantly hounded for autographs, and there were Daily Propheteers camped out on their doorsteps twenty-four seven. The attention seekers made taking a proper holiday nearly impossible.
It had been a simple solution, really. Leave it to Hermione to suggest the cover of disguise. Polyjuice Potion had become something of a novelty, and many celebrities gave locks of their hair for sexual masquerade. Harry had even given some of his hair in the spirit of things.
Polyjuice had performed miracles on occasions where Harry and Ginny's sex life became too vanilla. It had been nothing to stop at Slug and Jiggers for a phial of Myron Wagtail or a phial of Glenda Chittock, and on rare occasions, Harry and Ginny even switched sexes. Harry was cheeky that way.
Harry thought about the amber phial in his rucksack. It had been left over from happier times, one of many scattered throughout their home. Since Harry valued his privacy, he made a conscious decision to quaff the phial he'd taken and weigh his options undercover. He'd need more, of course, but this would do while he purchased extras from Slug and Jiggers.
Camouflaged as rookie Quidditch star Roland Rothschild, Harry purchased several phials of long-acting Polyjuice Potion. These were base brews, however, but he had other hairs at his disposal. And wouldn't it be bitter irony to walk around unnoticed in the skin of the man he hated most?
Plucking the hairs off the woollen scarf, Harry transformed himself into Simon Harrington-Crofts. He spent days hidden in plain sight, roaming from place to place until he found himself in Bullwell, mesmerised by the lights and sounds of a travelling circus. It was late in the season and the circus' last run before autumn. Desperately needing some respite from his troubles, Harry thought he'd stay awhile.
At first glance, it appeared like a Muggle attraction, but upon closer inspection, Harry saw that it was wizard run. There were sideshows with Metamorphmagi and Animagi. Wizards and witches who had been splinched during botched Apparitions. Hippogriff tamers. Pyromagi and their Blast-Ended Screwts. And a team of acrobats called The Flying Fabrizi Brothers. What Harry didn't understand, however, was why the wizards were entertaining the Muggles and why the Ministry hadn't been dispatched. It was an offence punishable by fine and restriction.
Under normal circumstances, Harry would've alerted the Ministry straight away, but the damaged half of his soul still fresh from betrayal wanted revenge long enough to linger. It was a sweet thought until a husky voice broke him from his reverie.
"You lost, mate?"
Harry looked up and then up again. The man that spoke to him was towering. Almost certainly half-giant like Hagrid. "I'm looking for the ringmaster. Know where I can find him?"
"What do you need him for?" the giant man asked.
"See about joining, perhaps?" Harry took a few steps back at the man's thunderous approach.
"You don't look like a wizard. Where's your wand?"
From out of his pocket, Harry pulled the holly and phoenix feather wand. He held it up so the giant man could see it.
The giant man seemed convinced. "Very well then. Go around those cages and past the line of train cars. You'll come upon an orange and yellow tent. There you should find The Great Gregorini."
Harry nodded his thanks and proceeded to the orange and yellow tent. What the giant man forgot to mention was that every tent was orange and yellow. It took him five tries before he found the ringmaster. Harry stood just outside the flap wondering if he'd made a mistake in coming.
The Great Gregorini was seated in a velvet chair at the back of the tent. Piled high before him were stacks of bills and towers of coins. "Well, don't just stand there. Come in. I haven't all night."
Harry stepped inside cautiously, moving closer when Gregorini beckoned him with a crook of his finger.
Gregorini's moustache twitched in annoyance. "State your business."
"Er, a job." Harry said unsurely.
Gregorini stood, tugging down on his waistcoat. "You have a name, I presume?"
"Har-- Er, Harrington-Crofts," Harry said, luckily catching himself. "Simon Harrington-Crofts." He offered his hand but Gregorini refused.
"Did you forget your name, giovanotto? Carlisimo Gregorini, but you will address me as The Great Gregorini or sir. Do you understand?"
Harry wondered just what it was Gregorini called him, but judging by the tone, he knew it wasn't anything flattering. "Understood, sir."
Gregorini clasped his hands behind his back and circled Harry. "Hate for the Muggles, have you? They're mostly harmless, but they hurt just as well as any wizard. Wouldn't you agree?"
Harry thought about that. Thought about all of the Muggles that touched his life in unkind ways. His Uncle Vernon and his Aunt Petunia. Cousin Dudley. Fenrir Greyback, dark creature but still Muggle in birth. And, of course...
"So, Simon Harrington-Crofts, what special talent do you possess?"
"Can fly pretty good," Harry offered.
"Have enough riders - broom, animal or otherwise."
Gregorini yawned. "Duellists are a Sickle a dozen."
"Can tame hippogriffs."
"You're positively boring me now."
Harry shot Gregorini a pleased look over his shoulder. "Can speak Parseltongue."
"Now that," Gregorini smiled. "Warrants my attention. Not many Parselmouths through the ages; Slytherin, Herpo the Foul, the Gaunts, Voldemort and..." Gregorini eyeballed Harry. "Harry Potter."
Harry said nothing to that, thankful the scarf at his throat hid his nervous gulp.
"You'll start tomorrow. I have a particularly crowd pleasing Anaconda you can try and sweet talk. And just so you know," Gregorini said, pointing with his wand to the stack of money. "Those who help make me a rich man do not go unrewarded."
Harry raised his hand to ask a question as if he were still a student in Snape's class. "Where will I be staying?"
"Have Nigel the Strongman assign you a tent," Gregorini said dismissively. "Now off with you."
Harry had other questions, but Gregorini went back to his money counting.
Leaving the tent, Harry went back to his thinking. About Ginny, their failed marriage and all the Muggles that had wronged him.
After a week's worth of sold out shows, Harry had made friends with several of the performers. Often, they would share a bottle of Firewhisky, chatting amiably around the fire.
"So, what do you think about the Cirque du So Lame, snake charmer?" Nigel asked Harry.
"I like it fine," Harry answered, tipping the bottle up.
"Reckon Gregorini will show you the Hall of Mirrors after the profit you've turned," Paolo Fabrizi offered.
Harry let go a drunken burp. "The Hall of Mirrors?"
Guiseppe Fabrizi was just about to answer when Gregorini appeared. His look quieted them all to stone, Medusa-like. "Simon, a word if you will."
Harry stood, wobbling a bit as he followed Gregorini to the furthest reach of the grounds. Before them stood a tent Harry hadn't remembered seeing before.
"No doubt those fools have ruined my surprise," Gregorini said, his moustache twitching in irritation. "Nevertheless, I have something to show you." He took Harry deep inside the tent, past rows and rows of mirrors, until he came to one in particular.
Harry's mouth fell open, and he sobered quickly.
Gregorini smiled. "So you recognise it?"
Harry felt dizzy with the thought of it. He ran his fingers over the delicate filigree in disbelief.
"We have Mundungus Fletcher to thank for this. Not very bright, that one. All it took was a simple barter of liquor, pornography and pipe tobacco." Gregorini approached Harry, a knowing look in his grey eyes. "How does finding the mirror again lighten your heart...Harry Potter?"
Harry's insides knotted at being discovered. He was a terrible liar, so it was better to just own up to the truth rather than lie and look the fool. "How did you know?"
"I know everything that happens at my circus," Gregorini tutted. "Every ringmaster worth his salt has his Seer. Isn't that right, Sibyll?"
From out of the shadows, Sibyll Trelawney emerged, bangles and baubles clinking softly. She didn't quite look herself, though.
"You knew the whole time?" Harry asked eyeing Trelawney. She didn't look back at him.
Gregorini twirled his finger around the curl of his moustache. "I did indeed. Which begs the question. What is Harry Potter doing here when he should be at home with his pretty wife?"
Harry shrugged. He gave the mirror a quick glance.
"You want at that mirror, don't you, giovanotto?"
"I've looked in it before," Harry said matter-of-factly.
"Ah, but have you walked through it?"
Harry arched a brow in question. "You can't walk through the Mirror of Erised. A solid can't pass through a solid."
"Can't you now?" Gregorini touched the face with a fingertip and the glass dimpled. It was dark and silver and the consistency of unicorn blood.
"Mirrormancy?" Harry asked.
"An abstruse and ancient magic, yes. Once preferred by dark wizards."
Harry was sceptical. "How is this possible?"
For the first time since she appeared, Trelawney spoke up, her eyes wide behind those thick lenses. "Possible through a deep and desperate want."
She was promptly silenced with a stern look from Gregorini. "The heart does what the feet cannot."
Harry glared at Gregorini. Trelawney was no friend, but he felt a pang of sympathy for her. He had a strange feeling she was here against her will. "Dumbledore would've..."
"Dumbledore nothing. He had it removed from Hogwarts for fear you'd discover its secret. And then where would he have been - without his golden boy to win his war?"
Harry's flesh prickled all over. He had, perhaps, another twenty minutes before he became himself again. "And just where would I end up if I walked through?"
"Where would you like to be? What would you do for a second chance at happiness, Harry Potter?"
He didn't say, but Harry thought anything. "It doesn't matter," Harry said. "You wouldn't allow me. At least not for free." He blew on the glass, and his reflection rippled.
"In that you are right. But I see that you are a highly profitable attraction. Stay with me for a while, and I'll permit your passage through my mirror."
Trelawney went to speak, but Gregorini thwarted her with a Silencio.
"Why is she here?" Harry asked angrily. "What do you have hanging over her head?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but Sibyll owes me a debt, and once she's paid this debt, I will grant her the same opportunity." Gregorini laid a hand on Harry's shoulder, smiling. "Is another week or two worth my offer?"
Harry shrugged the hand from him. "Fine. Just one more thing. I touched the mirror before. Nothing happened. What's changed?"
"You. Your will to believe," Gregorini said simply, and he left with Trelawney in tow, five paces behind.
Harry had been having a bad dream that night when a rough and persistent hand shook him from sleep.
"Hurry, there isn't much time."
Harry gave the blur before him a sleepy glare. He swore the instant his glasses were pushed onto his face. "Time for what?"
"Now!" she hissed, dragging Harry to his feet.
Harry straightened the stems over his ears so they weren't poking him uncomfortably. "Hang on then. Where are we going?"
Trelawney put a finger to her lips in warning. "You know where."
Harry followed Trelawney to humour her. He left his things behind deliberately.
When they reached the mirror, Trelawney urged him forward. "He'll never allow you to leave. One week will become two and two weeks three. It never ends. I've been here five years. Now, go."
"What about you?" Harry asked. "Why don't you leave?"
Trelawney shook her head and her earrings jangled. "I owe Gregorini a life debt. Besides, I am his Secret Keeper. Only he and I know how to find the Hall of Mirrors tent."
"I can't just make a snap decision like this!" Harry said, eyeing the mirror. "This is mental!'
"No, boy, staying here is mental."
And with that, she pushed him forward and into the mirror.
It was dark inside the mirror and there were no walls to guide him. There was no discernible bottom, but Harry could feel something under his feet. He tried stepping forward, but his legs wouldn't move. The feeling in his limbs numbed and panic swept through him. Harry thought he would suffocate with the weight of crushing darkness.
And then he remembered Gregorini's words. The heart does what the feet cannot.
Harry thought about what he desired most, and the emptiness in his heart began to fill. Slowly, he felt himself float through the blackness.
Up ahead a dim light flickered, and Harry passed through, breathable air filling his lungs. He fell with a helpless thud, the cold, hard floor a comforting welcome.
When the tingling in his legs subsided, Harry stood, surveying the room. It was cramped and dirty, tiny pinpricks of light filtering through the cracks above him. A rickety staircase appeared to be the only way out, so Harry climbed the steps.
The air above was stale and thin, and there wasn't the faintest crackle of magic present. Wherever Harry was hadn't been touched by human presence in some time.
A slight prickle of familiarity stirred his senses when he passed the fireplace, but it wasn't until he spied the arched and brittle fingers of The Hand of Glory that he knew where he was.
Harry tried to Apparate out of Borgin and Burkes, but he gave up after several failed attempts. The Floo bucket was empty of powder, so he broke through the boards covering the grimy storefront window and crawled out. His wand did little more than spark when he tried to cast outside, his magic somehow displaced by the reality shift.
Knockturn Alley was deserted but for the pub down the way, so Harry walked until he came to a signpost. There, underneath Diagon Alley's pointing finger, was a street name he'd never seen before. A chill washed over him. How had his heart guided him here - to this other, more grim reality?
The answers, he knew, could only be found with the two constants in his life. Harry just prayed that they were still together.
As luck would have it, his magic returned after while. Harry Apparated to Ottery St Catchpole. Ron and Hermione had a house there, and it was just as odd shaped and out of place as The Burrow, looking very much like a stovepipe hat.
It was late, and Harry hated to wake them, but he didn't know where else to go. At least, not until he found out more about where he was. It took at least fifteen minute's worth of pounding, but Hermione finally came to the door in her bathrobe, wand poised and at the ready. Her face went ashen with disbelief.
"Merlin and Morgaine! HARRY?!" Hermione dropped her wand and covered her mouth with her hands.
Harry thought she'd stopped breathing. Her shock did not bode well.
"It's cold out here. Let a frozen musketeer inside?" It wasn't much of a greeting, Harry knew, but he was tired and cold and hungry.
Hermione launched herself into Harry's arms, embracing him tightly. "You're alive!"
Grimacing at the pressure to his ribs, Harry pulled them apart. "Yeah, I'm fine. Where's Ron?"
Hermione took him by the shoulders firmly. "You're sure you're all right?"
"Yes, now will you--"
That was all Hermione needed to hear, apparently. She cold-cocked Harry in the jaw. The force of the blow knocked him on his backside. "That's for making us sick with worry for five years, Harry James Potter!"
Harry wiggled his jaw back into place. Had he been missing for five years in this reality? Or worse, had he been dead? The thought made him nauseous.
Ron appeared in the doorway. "What's all this racket? Can't a bloke get some sleep?" His jaw fell open in shock. "Bloody hell!"
Hermione was still staring down at Harry with an annoyed look on her face. "Well, don't just stand there, Ronald. Help him up!"
Ron flashed Harry a grin and offered a hand up. "Oi, where've you been, Harry?"
Hermione closed the door with a slam. "Yes, Harry where have you been? Five years and no owls? The papers are still trying to report on your whereabouts."
Harry pursed his lips. "I, um. Well--" Nothing was coming to him. His resurfacing had already popped a vein in Hermione's forehead. The Mirror of Erised would have to wait.
"Maybe he doesn't remember, Hermione," Ron offered. "Maybe he has amnesia?"
Ron, bless his red hair and freckles, was brilliant sometimes. "The truth is I don't remember--much. Did I give any hint as to where I might go?"
"Well," Ron said. "You made an off-hand remark once about running away and joining the bloody circus."
Harry could not tell if Ron was joking - the coincidence was uncanny.
Hermione shot Ron an annoyed look and pointed her finger. "The kitchen, the both of you. I'll make some tea."
Ron followed Harry into the kitchen. They fell right into their old routine with Ron trying to trip Harry. Hermione was not amused. She sat them across from each other and planted herself in between, at the head of the table.
The fridge and freezer doors were covered with articles about Harry's sudden disappearance. There were even articles from The Quibbler with bogus sightings. Harry was right up there with the likes of Nessie and Crumple-Horned Snorkacks. His face was even pictured on a milk carton. The whole thing was very surreal.
By the time the teakettle whistled, Hermione's temper had cooled. She poured three cups of tea and had even brought out biscuits. Harry took a chocolate-covered biscuit and dunked it in his tea, using it as a stirrer. He didn't relish the thought of an inquisition.
Per usual, Hermione did most of the talking. "Harry, I--I'm sorry that I hit you. Wait a minute. No, I'm not. It's just that your playing became so reckless after, well-- You took a Bludger to the head thirty minutes into the game with Ballycastle. You were supposed to come 'round the house for dinner after the game, but you never showed up."
"I used to play Quidditch?" Harry asked.
Hermione gave Harry a funny look. "Yes. For Appleby. After the war, there was an Auror training freeze. You figured it was your next best option, but it was just a poor outlet for your grief." Hermione's shoulders sagged. "Over Ginny."
The biscuit slipped from Harry's fingers. "Over Ginny?"
Ron looked away.
"We know you took Ginny's death hard."
"Ginny's dead?" Harry asked. The colour drained from his face.
"You mean you don't--? That Bellatrix? That Molly?"
Harry shook his head.
"You really don't remember, do you?"
Harry felt sick to his stomach. He'd lost Ginny twice now. "No," he said weakly. He couldn't imagine why his heart had led him here - to this.
"We should get you to St Mungo's, Harry. Straight away. The damage could be permanent."
Ron nodded in agreement.
Harry was adamant. "No hospitals and no Healers. I'm fine, really. Just a bit of memory loss."
Ron agreed with Harry as well.
"Harry," Hermione objected, glaring at Ron. "You were missing for five years!"
Harry folded his arms across his chest, leaning back on the rear legs of his chair. "Are you and Ron prepared to drag me kicking and screaming?"
Ron put a hand over his mouth, yawning.
Hermione huffed. "Fine, then. I'll owl Remus in the morning. He'll know what to do. It's bad enough that so many terrible things have happened to you. You shouldn't have to relive them. I'm sure that he'll have Regulus brew you an Amnesius draught."
Harry's brain stumbled over that. His chair fell back onto all four legs with a thwack. "Hang on. Did you just say Remus and Regulus? They're still alive?"
Hermione quirked a brow. "Yes, of course."
"Humour me a bit. What about Tonks?"
Hermione shook her head. "She didn't make it."
"Killed early on."
"Only three ears between them but running their joke shop."
"Killed. Kingsley's Minister of Magic."
"Dead. At Molly's hands."
"Sadly, all three of them are still alive."
Hermione's eyes darkened. "Rotting in Azkaban, the murderous traitor."
Harry choked on his tea. It took him a moment to press on, shocked by that news.
"Hit by Snape's Killing Curse."
"Bitten by Nagini. They never did find his body, though."
Harry saved the worst for last. "Voldemort?"
"Worm feast," Ron offered sleepily.
It was probably too much to hope for, but Harry had to ask. "My parents?"
"No," Hermione said quietly.
Harry felt light-headed. It was too much for him to take in all at once. Especially the bit about his godfather. Had it been Sirius that pledged his allegiance to the Dark Lord and not Regulus? "I-- I think I need to sleep."
Hermione helped Harry out of his chair. "You can stay in the guest bedroom. It's made up for Victoire, but if you don't mind dollhouses and--"
"It's fine," Harry interrupted, allowing her to help him. He was too exhausted to refuse.
"Come morning," Hermione reassured, kicking Ron's chair. "We'll see our way through this."
Harry smiled weakly, but he wasn't sure if it was more for her benefit - or for his.
Remus was already there and having breakfast when Harry awoke that morning.
Lupin was just as grizzled as ever, his hair shorn closely to the scalp. His robes were still patched and shabby, but he wore an expensive-looking ring. On the finger of his left hand. Harry idly wondered who Remus was shacking up with.
When Remus saw Harry, he immediately rose, wrapping his arms around him. Harry was determined not to let go.
"Harry James Potter, aren't you a sight for sore eyes. And sore arms and legs. 'Fraid, it's close to the full moon, and I've yet to take my draught, so you'll excuse this old man's feebleness."
Harry still hadn't let go.
Gently, Remus pulled them apart. "We'll have time for catching up later, Harry. Hermione's owled me and explained everything. We should probably stop by Godric's Hollow and grab your Invisibility Cloak."
Harry didn't even want to think about the state of his house. The amount of dust and cobwebs over five years would be frightening.
Hermione apparently sensed the worry in his face and explained. "Ron and I went to your house weekly and cleaned, Harry. I'd wager it's a good deal tidier than ours."
"Right, then," Remus said, finishing the last of his juice. "We should get a move on. We'll want to move you quickly and stealthily. Reckon that Skeeter woman would have a field day if she caught wind of your return."
"Bit late for that," Ron said, stuffing a sausage in his mouth and parting the kitchen curtains. There were paparazzi as far as the eye could see.
The Mortar and Pestle was located on Sechshu Alley very near to Knockturn. The Apothecary was twice the size of Slug and Jiggers and specialised in complex draughts and rare herbs. It was also the place where would-be hopefuls apprenticed if they stood any chance at all at becoming a member of The Most Extraordinary Society of Potioneers. Clearly, the proprietor of The Mortar and Pestle was a shrewd businessman, driven to excellence.
It was early that morning when Harry and Remus arrived at the Apothecary, before the start of business. Several employees were busy cutting and chopping and shucking plants. Others were taking inventory. Still others were brewing. Harry hadn't recognised a single person, though, not until he was escorted to the back office. It was there that he finally met with his godfather's brother, Regulus Black.
Regulus stood and smiled when Remus brought Harry forth, removing the Cloak from Harry with as much showmanship as a Muggle magician snatching the tablecloth from underneath a set of dishes. The breeze it stirred sent a stack of invoices to the floor.
"His majesty returns!" Regulus beamed, shuffling papers aside to sit on the edge of his desk. He made a paper crown from a purchasing order and set it on Harry's head.
Regulus was a nutty sod, Harry noted, but very likeable. "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
"So it would seem," Regulus said, itching his nose with a metal finger.
"When--?" Harry asked curiously. "When did that happen?"
Regulus peeled back the sleeve of his robe, putting in full view his silver arm. "Oh, right," Regulus began. "You don't remember this, do you? Severed my arm off at the elbow to stop the summoning. Rather, Remus did it for me. Couldn't bring myself to do it. I'm squeamish that way. We've been together ever since."
"Glad to hear it," Harry smiled, reclaiming his Cloak. So that's who gave Remus the ring, he thought. Harry rather liked the idea of them together, smiling inwardly at the mismatch.
"Right then," Remus spoke up. "You brewed Harry an Amnesius draught?"
Regulus handed Harry an amber phial. "It's been five years. I can't guarantee that your long-term memory will fully recover. Sometimes, the brain needs to heal itself and at its own pace."
Harry wanted to say that his memory was fine, that he was only time displaced, but he took the phial and nodded his thanks. He'd pour it out when nobody was looking.
Regulus stood up and kissed Remus's cheek. "Mind if I have a moment with Harry? Somersby has your Wolfsbane ready."
"No, of course not. Make him a sceptre, won't you?" Remus winked, closing the door behind him.
They hadn't so much as discussed the weather when the door burst open and a blond man swept in, snarling.
"Of all the incompetent, good for nothing brewers you've hired, Black. Culpepper was by far the worst. He's not to return."
"Harry," Regulus laughed. "This is Malavar Crane. Grouchy ol' bugger and business partner. You remember Harry Potter, don't you, Mal?"
Crane regarded Harry with a look of irritation. "Well, well, as I live and breathe. Your rock undergoing renovations, Potter?"
Harry narrowed his eyes. Who was this prick bastard? "Why? Were you evicted from your gutter?"
"This is my Apothecary," Crane hissed. "You'd do well to watch your tongue, boy."
"Okay, that's enough, you two," Regulus interceded. "Harry, I need a word alone with Malavar. Will you excuse us?"
Harry nodded, ripping the paper crown from his head as he left. The door closed with a slam. He walked about halfway down the hall to make his departure convincing, silencing his steps before returning. Slipping the Cloak over his head, he pressed an ear to the door.
"Have you and Lupin gone completely mad bringing Potter here? Have you any idea the attention he'll attract?"
"Oh, relax, Mal--"
"I thought I told you never to call me that."
"And for God's sake, Black. Check the door!"
At the sound of footsteps, Harry moved away from the door, pressing up against the opposite wall. Regulus opened the door a crack and checked the hall, deciding it safe to talk again. The door closed, and Harry resumed his eavesdropping.
"Shall we discuss the real reason you're angry?"
"If you want to play house with the wolf and his cub, that's your decision."
"Jealousy is such an ugly emotion."
"I'm hardly jealous, Black."
"Seriously, though, isn't it about time you ended the sexual sabbatical? I mean, how long has it been?"
"That's none of your business."
"It is, really. We have to deal with your unpleasantness on a day to day basis."
"We? Are you with child?"
"Very funny. Me and the rest of your pestle-swinging chain gang. You've reduced most of the lads to thumb-sucking, pants-wetting stutterers."
"I'm not going to argue the point anymore. It's one of the reasons we didn't work out."
"Really? And here I thought it was your roving eyes."
"And stop firing the employees without consulting me. You wouldn't have a cauldron to piss in--"
"Salazar's scrote, how long are you going to keep hanging that over my head? As to your personnel choices, I'll stop firing them when one of them proves a challenge."
"Can I quote you on that?"
"Fine, the next incompetent you hire may stay indefinitely. But don't blame me when the place is burnt to the ground."
There was a thunderous roar down the hallway as loud as a hippogriff stampede. Harry only barely managed to escape detection. The fool called Middleton opened the office door without knocking, barrelling into Crane.
"Sirs," Middleton cried. "We have a problem that requires your immediate attention."
Crane pushed past Middleton, snarling. "Way to lock the door, Black."
Harry followed, slipping out of the Cloak unnoticed to join Remus. Outside, a huge crowd was milling; admirers and press alike. Middleton was fired on the merits of messenger alone. Now, the Apothecary was short two employees.
Remus, who had been peeling an apple, just shook his head. "Once a celebrity, always a celebrity. I wonder who leaked Harry's whereabouts?"
"I suppose you think this will be good for business, Black?" Crane interjected, the vein at his temple throbbing.
"Mmm, no. Not unless I do this."
"Do what?" Crane spat.
"This," Regulus said. He tossed Harry some old robes. "You start tomorrow."
Normally, Harry would have turned down a job such as the one Regulus offered. He was lousy at Potionscrafting. Worse with following orders. But this Malavar Crane bloke intrigued him. He reminded Harry far too much of--
"Snape?" Hermione asked. "Harry, there's no way that Malavar Crane is Snape. Snape is dead."
Harry tried desperately to cut his meat, but his bandaged fingers only got in the way. He gave up after three failed attempts. "They never found his body. You said so yourself."
Hermione shook her head and cut Harry's lambchop for him. "Still, you'd think you'd recognise his voice."
"He's disguising it somehow. I know it's him."
Hermione pushed the plate back at Harry. "Malavar Crane is blond. Handsome even. Explain that?"
"Polyjuice," Harry said simply, gripping his fork awkwardly.
"For five years? There'd be debilitating side affects. Polyjuice alters the body at the cellular level. Ron, what do you think?"
"Huh?" Ron offered, his mouth full of potatoes.
"Oh, honestly," Hermione huffed. She picked up Harry's fork to feed him but Harry flatly refused. "Mind telling me why your fingers are so mummified?"
"Crane had me doing the grunt work for all of his employees. I sliced shrivelfigs for four hours straight."
Hermione shot Harry a dissatisfied look. "And you're going back in the morning?"
"Of course," Harry said, resorting to drastic measures. He picked up the pieces of lambchop with his fingers and shovelled them inside his mouth. "How else am I going to prove my point?"
This mortified Hermione. "Didn't you break for lunch today?"
"Couldn't. I was too busy. Besides, I don't think Crane would have allowed me. He refused me loo breaks."
"He can't do that. The Board of Wizarding Labour--"
"Doesn't matter," Harry said with a wink to Ron. "I just watered some of his rare plants instead."
Ron broke out in gales of laughter. He nearly choked on a potato until Hermione whacked him on the back.
"Way to go, mate," Ron squeaked.
Hermione stood, shaking her head at the both of them. "There's cake for dessert. Try not to make such a mess."
A month had come and gone, and Harry was no closer to exposing Malavar Crane. Crane spent most of his time either out of the Apothecary or in seclusion in his office. If Crane was, in fact, Snape, he went to great pains to cover his tracks, not unlike Barty Crouch, Jr. their fourth year.
Of course, Harry knew the longer you kept at something deceitful, the easier it was to make a mistake. He'd learnt that the hard way with Ginny's affair. If Snape were disguising himself with Polyjuice, sooner or later he'd slip up, just as she had.
Daydreaming at his workstation, Crane happened by, snapping his fingers in Harry's face to break him from his reverie. He took one look at the mess at Harry's feet and Accio'd a broom, shoving it at Harry. The tip of the handle caught Harry in the face, knocking his glasses askew.
"If you've time to lean, you've time to clean, Potter. I want the Apothecary swept from front to back, and don't let me catch you sweeping rubbish under the--"
The door chime pealed musically and Harry and Crane both looked up. Wiping his feet on the welcome mat was Draco Malfoy. Crane's upper lip trembled in fury.
That slip up had just come sooner.
"On second thought, Potter, you may go now," Crane said, snatching the broom from Harry's fingers. "Have Hawthorne lock up after you've left." Without another word, Crane left for the back of the Apothecary, motioning for Draco to follow. Draco gave Harry a rather nasty look in passing.
The opportunity was just too good to pass up, even if Ron and Hermione were waiting on him for a pint of bitter and a game of darts. For this, he would hold over his one night out in thirty days.
Hawthorne was not exactly the brightest ink in the well. He let Harry talk him into leaving while Harry locked up instead. Some things just fell into place, Harry thought as he placed the scarab key on the sun lock, turning thrice before skittering off with it in its mandible to its place behind the counter. Heart racing, Harry crept down the hall to the storeroom, peering around the corner from the loo.
"You're late, Draco. So like your father. He never took much stock in punctuality."
"Could we not talk about my father?"
"You have them I hope?"
"Of course I do. But first things first. What's Potter doing here?"
"Let me worry about Potter. The box, Draco, hand me the box."
"What about the potion I asked you to brew?"
"I have it, though I see no signs of a receding hairline."
"Just give me it!"
"I'm sure I don't need to see you out."
"Sod you sideways, Crane."
"Next time, come when I ask, or that hairline will be the least of your worries. Use the Floo to exit."
There was an angry rush of footsteps and a brilliant flash of green when Draco left by Floo. Harry tried to tiptoe out but the floorboards creaked in protest and Crane was hot on his heels, apprehended by the collar of his robe.
"I thought I told you to leave, Potter. Where's Hawthorne?"
"Gone, sir. Said something about a pint with his name on it."
Crane tugged harder on Harry's robe. "Is that a fact? Well, then lucky for me you're such a workaholic. My office, Potter. After you've swept and mopped. Without magic."
Harry was unsurprised when his wand flew out of his pocket. He never could counter nonverbal spells.
After two hours of cleaning, Harry went to Crane's office. Crane was writing something in a leather-bound book. "If you're busy, I can come back."
Crane did not look up from his book. "Sit."
Harry sat and waited as Crane finished, replacing his quill in the inkwell. It was a moment or two before Crane spoke.
"How long have you been in my employ, Potter?"
"Er, well, sir, to be perfectly honest, longer than I expected. Are you going to fire me?"
"No," Crane said. "Quite the opposite. I'm promoting you to brewer."
Harry's scar inched up his forehead in disbelief. "You're promoting me to brewer?"
"Did I stutter?"
"Um, no, it's just that I--"
"You start your apprenticeship tomorrow. I'd highly suggest that you curtail any nocturnal activity. I expect that you'll be alert and well rested. I will not suffer any carelessness. Are you up to the task?"
Harry shook his head yes before he fully understood what he was agreeing to.
"Good. You will report to me at six a.m. and not a moment later."
Harry was curious why. This was such an unexpected turn. "Um, sir--"
"That will be all," Crane said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Harry stared at Crane a moment before standing. The time on the wall clock read ten thirty-four.
Crane's trust in Harry warranted noting.
Harry was not only early, he was ridiculously early, and Crane wasted no time in getting Harry started.
Their first lesson was on the different types of cauldrons; iron, orichalcum, hepatizon and pewter. Thirty-two different designs, and no two were alike. There were freestanding cauldrons and tri-legged cauldrons. Fat-bottomed and wide-lipped cauldrons. High and low temperature cauldrons. The onslaught of information gave Harry a splitting headache.
Over the next ten days, Harry took more notes than he had in his six years at Hogwarts. He'd learned how to properly heat up a cauldron, both by magic and by hand. There were demonstrations on the right ways to hold a stirrer and a ladle, practicals on stirring technique and temperature control and lessons on protective gear. Even though Harry was certain that Crane was Snape, the Crane persona exhibited a sort of patience that Snape had never bothered with him.
By the end of the second week, Harry had performed so well that Crane advanced him to the next stage. Both of them were just as surprised at Harry's progress, but it was, perhaps, Harry who was most taken with his success. And just to be a cheeky bugger, he gave himself a gold star for his forehead.
On Sunday, Harry's day off, Crane had ordered Harry in at five a.m. Crane offered no explanation other than they would be at it all day, and that sometimes an hour made all the difference. Harry merely saw it as an hour of lost sleep, but he trudged in at the expected time hopped up on sugar cereal and chocolate biscuits.
In the brewing room, Crane had set up a large table with plants and herbs from end to end. To Harry, unless they were marked, they looked similarly. But this, Harry would find, was the crux of their next lesson.
"When one sense is blinded, it is said that the other senses strengthen to compensate for the loss," Crane said. "This is referred to as the sixth sense."
Before Harry knew what was happening, Crane had stolen the glasses from his face.
"Hey! I need those to see!"
"Precisely the point, Potter. This lesson is designed to hone your olfactory senses. By the end of the third week, you will be able to identify the scents of thirty different plants and herbs. We shall start off simply."
Crane held the first plant under Harry's nose and Harry breathed in the scent. It was pleasant smelling and Harry immediately recognised it as lavender. Hermione wore it to entice Ron. "Lavender," he said proudly.
"Correct," Crane said. "Also known as Elf Leaf, Nard, Nardus and Spike. Repeat after me. Lavandula angustifolia."
"Lavandula angustifolia," Harry repeated. "I'll never remember all of that."
"You can and you will, Potter. Now, take a deep breath and breathe out through your nostrils. Rid your nose of the lavender."
Harry did just that and soon enough Crane was waving another plant under his nose. The next odour was strong and earthy. It took Harry a few whiffs before he recognised it as patchouli. It was Ron's counter fragrance to Hermione's lavender. "Patchouli."
"Correct. Also known as Pucha-Pot and Kablin. Repeat after me. Pogostemon cablin."
"Pogostemon cablin," Harry said. He took a deep breath and cleared his nasal passages.
The next two were just as easy. Foul smelling plants he remembered from Potions class; stinksap and bubotuber. Harry thought he'd never be able to rid his nose of those two scents, so Crane gave him a small cup of espresso beans to smell, a tip he'd garnered from a perfumer.
Gardenia followed, as did bergamot, fenugreek, juniper, hyacinth, orchid, sarsaparilla, toadflax, wormwood and yarrow. By the time Harry left that night his nose was twitching like a rabbit's, and he was mumbling Latin incessantly.
Harry fell asleep at the kitchen table on top of his notes. He was still clutching his fork, and there was a half-eaten dish of shepherd's pie nearby. A voice, sharp and strong, woke him with a start.
Disoriented, Harry blurted out. "Asafoetida! Liquidamber! Dragon's Blood! Gurdyroots!" When he saw that it was only Hermione and not Crane, he felt very foolish.
"Harry, what the--"
"Snape - Er Crane promoted me to brewer," Harry said, knuckling the sleep from his eyes. "He suggested cramming."
"I'd like to cram that book up Crane's arse," Ron offered as he stepped into the kitchen. The duvet hung from his shoulders like a superhero's cape.
Harry swiped at the glob of potatoes on his parchment, blanching at the frigid taste. "Lookit, I'm sorry I woke you both. I really should go back to Godric's Hollow. It's just that it's so empty there."
"Harry," Hermione said, pulling up a chair. "You can stay here as long as you like. Besides," she continued. "If you weren't already here, I'd have to wait until morning to owl you."
Harry peered into his teacup thoughtfully. Only a shallow pool and the dregs remained. "Owl me for what?"
Hermione motioned for Ron to put the kettle on to boil. "Well, I did a little digging to humour you."
Harry arched an eyebrow. Humour him? Hadn't he been right to suspect Malfoy of deviances their sixth year? Provided that happened in this reality, of course. "And?"
"While they were both still married, Abraxas Malfoy and Walburga Black had an affair. Their union produced two male children, identical twins. The eldest, Malecarius, was a stillborn birth. I don't have to tell you what the other child's name was."
"Malavar Aloysius to be precise."
"And where is he now?" Harry asked.
"Malfoy manor," Hermione said, jumping at the teakettle's whistle. "Locked away and thought mad. Apparently, he's never spoken. It's rumoured the children were cursed by Orion Black."
Harry was quite amazed with her sleuthing. "Hermione, how do you know all this? I imagine this wasn't easy to come by."
Hermione blew on her nails and polished them on the lapel of her bathrobe, impressed with herself. "Kerbie the house-elf. In the Malfoy's service since nineteen sixty-nine. I freed his sister."
"Then I reckon that package Malfoy delivered to Crane held locks of Malavar's hair."
Ron poured them each a fresh cup of tea. "Draco? Stupid git."
Harry nodded. "He was in the Apothecary not long ago. Hey," he laughed. "This'll keep you busy, Ron. Malfoy's hairline is receding. He had Crane make him a hair restorative draught."
Ron snorted his tea. "Serves the bastard right. Money can't buy you good genes, eh?"
Hermione rolled her eyes.
"Hang on," Harry said. "Where did the name Crane originate? It isn't any pure-blood name I recognise."
"That was easy enough to find," Hermione said. "General Register's Office lists Theodosia Crane as Snape's great, great grandmother on his father's side. What are you going to do now, Harry?"
Harry stood, intent on bed. He gave them both a knowing wink over his shoulder. "Use this all to my advantage, of course."
The moment Harry arrived at work, he was called into Crane's office.
"That waste of skin, Gainsborough, has gone and obliterated six trays of graduated cylinders. I would have been able to repair them had the imbecile not buried the evidence. I'll need you to purchase replacements at Gustav's Glassworks."
Harry watched as Crane drafted a cheque and notated it in the ledger. Sure enough, Crane signed it 'Malavar A Crane.' He handed it to Harry.
"What does the 'A' stand for, sir? Andrew? Alistair? Archibald?"
"The Glassworks, Potter. I haven't time for guessing games."
The apple in Crane's throat bobbed slightly. "Do not dawdle. When you have returned, see Llewellyn for a brewing assignment."
Harry folded the cheque lengthwise and slipped it into a breast pocket, patting it. "Of course, sir."
When Harry returned an hour later, Crane was nowhere to be found. His office door was locked, and no one knew of his whereabouts. The disappearance came as no surprise to Harry. He was positive he had just clipped one of Snape's wings. Feeling triumphant, Harry went to see Llewellyn for his assignment.
Llewellyn was, perhaps, the smartest of the lot, and that said very little. He ran a potions-stained finger down the parchment and read Harry off his day's task. "Shrinking Solution, Potter."
It had been too much to hope for that his first assignment be Polyjuice Potion, but Harry was determined to find out which brewer held that task. "Mind if I have a look at that?"
Llewellyn rolled the parchment up and blew into it, as if it were a hunting horn. "What for? Get brewing, or I'll tell Crane."
"Hey, um," Harry said, tapping Llewellyn on the shoulder. "Think that bloke over there is snorting powdered bicorn for a cheap high."
"Where?" Llewellyn snarled. "Nobody steals on my shift!"
"Just over there," Harry said, pointing to a crowded area. "You might want to hurry. Before he falls over dead. Crane would shit a bezoar."
"Thanks, mate," Llewellyn said, handing Harry the parchment to hold.
"No," Harry said with a grin. "Thank you for being so thick." Unrolling the parchment with a snap of his wrist, Harry located the brewer's name next to Polyjuice Potion. It was Regulus. The instructions under Black's name, however, were written in gibberish. The directions would need to be copied and somehow translated. This would take time he didn't have. Shoving his hands in his pockets in defeat, Harry felt something smooth and foil-wrapped. It was his Drooble's Best Blowing Gum.
A grin skirted across his lips.
Cramming eight pieces of gum into his mouth, Harry chewed hurriedly, flattening the wad against the roof of his mouth. Stretching it over the directions on the parchment, Harry pressed down with his palm and peeled back the layer. The ink had transferred to the gum sheet. Harry preserved the copy between two pieces of wax paper. It was a touch of genius if Harry had anything to say about it.
Carefully slipping the gum into his pocket, Harry set about the task of mass-producing Shrinking Solution. Pity, he thought, he could not shrink the hours in his day.
They had been up all night and were still no closer to cracking the code. The day was about to break, and no amount of caffeine was going to get Harry through his shift. Yawning hugely, Harry pushed away from the table, resigning himself to failure. "I've had enough for right now," he said, exasperated. "We'll try again tonight. Obviously, whatever code they've used was not meant to be broken overnight. Or at all."
Hermione laid a hand on Harry's arm. "Don't get discouraged. Rome wasn't built in a day."
"I should shower and dress for work now anyways," Harry said with a deflated sigh.
"At least have some breakfast, Harry," Hermione said, taking the box of cereal from Ron's hands. "Before Ron finishes the entire box."
Nodding in agreement, Harry sat down and poured himself some cereal. A clunky plastic ring fell into the bowl.
"I get dibs on the prize, though," Ron said with his mouth full.
Harry pinched the ring between two fingers and examined it. It was a Captain Courageous secret decoder ring. Looking up, he managed a weary grin. "Don't suppose this is worth a try?"
"You can't be serious?" Hermione said in disbelief. "That's a toy. You don't really expect me to believe that it will crack a code written between Snape and Regulus?"
"Why not?" Harry said, shrugging his shoulders. "It's so absurd it's practically brilliant."
Ron motioned for the box back, pouring the last of the cereal into his blue-grey milk. "Box says the ring can crack most any code." He made a show of pointing to the testimonial.
"Fine," Hermione groaned. "But don't blame me if all it does is reveal the location of Captain Courageous's arch-nemesis, Dr Soggy."
Harry ate his bowl of cereal so fast it gave him the hiccoughs. "Right then. I'm off for a shower. Owl me if you find anything out?"
"I wouldn't get my hopes up."
The notion was just so ridiculous that it called for a wager. "Care to bet on that? Say - one Galleon?"
"You're on," Hermione said with a snort.
Each believing the other had made a fool's bet, they shook on it.
Midway into his day, Harry received an owl from Pigwidgeon. A Galleon rolled out and fell into Harry's lap when he opened it.
I don't know how or why that stupid decoder ring worked, but it did. Ron won't stop with the 'I told you sos.'
CraneSnape takes two flasks of long-acting Polyjuice Potion; one at eight a.m., and the other at two p.m. The effects last anywhere between seven and eight hours. Regulus administers both doses. The draughts are dated and stored according to weeks one through four. The week four dosages require a drachma of minced Heliotrope. I can't believe this worked. I said that already, didn't I? Can we expect you for dinner?
Harry punched the air with a sibilant 'yes!' It wasn't often one had Snape this dangerously by the balls.
Immediately after lunch, Harry crept into the storage room to thwart Regulus. The room was cold and dark and empty; the perfect conditions for a surprise attack. When Regulus entered the room, Harry fired a Confundus Charm at him. Regulus left thinking it was closing time, volunteering his master key set. Nimbly, Harry plucked a 'week four' flask from its holder and slid it into the pocket of his robe sans the Heliotrope. Slipping underneath his Invisibility Cloak, Harry entered Snape's office, setting the flask on Snape's desk per Regulus's instructions. Anxiously, he sat in the chair in the corner of the room musing over what he was going to say to Snape. Mostly, he was picturing the look on Snape's face.
Snape was right on schedule. He opened the door and barked the order he was not to be disturbed. Locking the door behind him, he sat down at his desk and produced a box from out of the bottommost drawer. Snape pinched a couple of blond hairs between his fingers and dropped them into the flask, stirring the potion with the end of his quill. Pressing the flask's mouth to his lips, Snape tilted his head back and--
Dumped the contents onto the floor. The familiar iciness of Snape's voice startled Harry out of his skin.
"Comfy, isn't it, Potter? That chair. It belonged to my mother."
Shocked, Harry said nothing - or rather, could say nothing. The room was pin-drop silent for a moment before Snape cast a Mufliato Charm.
"Oh, now don't be shy. Come out from underneath that wretched Cloak and give us a kiss."
Slowly, Harry pulled the Cloak from his head. Snape stared back at him through those cold, grey eyes.
"Did you really imagine a nose such as mine would miss the Heliotrope, Potter?"
"I, er - well."
"We really must work on your monosyllabic vocabulary."
"How did you-?"
"Foil your plan? Escape detection? Cheat death?"
"Yes. To all three."
"I knew what you were planning from the beginning. The Occlumency lessons enabled a direct link to your thoughts when in close proximity. It's why I agreed to take you on as a student then and why I kept you joined at the hip now. I could end this - right here, right now - with an Obliviate, but neither of us wishes that."
Harry stood, leaving the Cloak behind in the chair. "That doesn't sound like the Snape I remember."
"Doesn't it? The Snape you remember died in the Shrieking Shack. Face ashen. Mouth twisted. Fingers staunching the wounds at his neck. You closed my eyes."
A chill ran the length of Harry's spine. He had come to expose Snape, scarlet letter him 'F' for the fraud that he was, but he hadn't expected those last four words. Anger had been all that kept him standing, but now his legs were weakening. "How could you remember that? I watched you die."
Snape's body tensed, wracked with sharp pains. He clutched the corners of his desk, hands white-knuckled, as the transformation began. "Residual memories. The link to your mind was still open. There is a fifteen second window between this life and the next."
"Who came for you?"
Snape's skin started to bubble below the epidermis, giving the appearance of crawling bugs. The loud accompanying pops induced tiny paroxysms.
Harry winced with sympathy pains. He steadied his wand to try and help Snape, but Snape knocked it from his hand.
"Oh, no, Potter! This is what you wanted to see, isn't it?" Snape panted. The blond at his hairline darkened and the fullness in his face diminished, his cheeks hollowing. "I wouldn't dream of depriving you. And once again I beseech you; look at me!"
Harry forced himself to look at Snape. He stumbled into the dark tunnels of Snape's eyes, the memories of another, of a heartbroken woman, piecing together a story. Harry's body involuntarily shuddered at the horrors. Death. Life. Then death once more.
The woman took Snape's body from outstretched arms. "You were right to bring him here, Regulus."
Regulus's voice quavered as he spoke. "Can you save him?"
"If I cannot," the woman said. "Then I am no fit mother. Go, but do not go far."
"When should I return?" Regulus asked. "How will I know?"
"You will know," was all Eileen said in response.
A mother is strong, even when elderly, when it comes to a child. She took the pathetic and nearly exsanguinated corpse in her arms; but Eileen Prince had never been a woman of pathos. There would be no Pieta-like scene of dead son held to the bosom of grieving mother; she would simply make it not to be. There was still, though, a mother's care as she carried her son down the stairs into a lower room. A special room.
The room was circular, and upon inspection, one would realise that it was far, far older than the rest of the house. A part of the floor, nine feet in diametre, was recessed; one entered it by stepping onto a single stone step, oriented precisely to the south. Upon the floor, scribed by an ancient hand, there were chiselled markings, faded by time and almost illegible. In the centre of these, Eileen laid the body of her only child, pausing to rest his cold and stiffening hands upon his bosom, and to smooth the blood-matted hairs back from his narrow face. And then she returned upstairs.
The furnishings of her small house had been fine, in their day; but like their mistress, they were fading. From a mahogany armoire, Eileen removed a series of seven iron candelabra; unlike most magical implements, these were functional, almost Spartan in appearance. They contained a socket for the base of a candle and nothing more, not even a base upon which for the holder to stand. She turned toward the still-open door of the staircase and simply released them; they flew like doves, swooping down the steps. She knew that she would find them in their proper places when she followed.
The next articles she removed were a small goblet, also of unadorned black iron, and a strange, dagger-like implement, three-bladed, resembling a Tibetan phurba in style. Unlike the goblet and candlesticks, this was ornate; three faces adorned the pommel. One was of a virginal maiden barely out of childhood, the second, a woman in the full blush of beauty and maturity, and the last, a wizened crone with decrepit and twisted features. These were released to fly where they needed to be as well.
At the last, she opened a lower drawer and removed a bundle of unbleached linen, taking it with her into the cold, tiny room that held her bed. She shucked out of her utilitarian clothes, kicking them to the side in uncharacteristic disregard. She slowly unfolded the cloth bundle, revealing it to be a simple, hooded robe, without so much as a belt to adorn it. She put it on, leaving her feet bare. Retrieving her wand, she cast a few spells, drawing curtains and putting things in order, almost as though preparing to leave her house. After a fashion, she was; she would never see this room again. The rough linen robe brushed her bare feet as she descended the stairs once more.
Pausing and drawing a deep breath, she posted herself at the step leading down and into the recessed circle. She did not yet descend; rather, she turned to face the left and began a slow counter-clockwise walk. The candlesticks were hanging in midair, just within the perimetre of the circle. As she passed each, she tapped it with her wand; when she did so, a black, gnarled and twisted candle emerged from the socket beneath, hanging downward like a stalactite. As she made the slow circuit, she spoke.
As she spoke the final line, Eileen came to stand once more at the step into the circle. When she stepped down, the candles sprang to life, but not with the normal, warm glow of a flickering flame.
The light had a sickly quality; a bruised violet that deepened the shadows, yet made things glow that should not. That horrible glow caught the white threads in Eileen's straggling hair and made the blood staining Severus's robes shine a lurid green. Eileen crossed widdershins-the same direction in which she had walked the circle-and came to stand at her son's head. She flicked her wand, and both the strange dagger and the goblet flew to her, hanging in midair.
The clotting blood, still moist, was most accessible where it had congealed in Severus's hair; she used her fingers to strip some of the thick mass away, and placed it within the goblet. Her thin lips twisted at the realisation that Voldemort had chosen the wrong name; death was not eaten, rather drunk. Tonight, she would have her fill of it, and more.
Her thin hand did not hesitate as she drew the dagger from the air before her, as though from a scabbard, slow and sure. Nor did she waver as she opened the inside of her left forearm, wrist to elbow, in a deep and ragged tear. It was only when her blood had filled the goblet, buoying up the clots of Severus's own life fluid, that she betrayed emotion.
"Oh, Severus," she murmured. A hard life filled with bitterness, loneliness and regret tinged those words.
And now, she had to be quick; it would not do to exsanguinate before the last stages of the spell. From pockets sewn into the robe for this purpose alone she withdrew certain herbs: bitter mandrake, sick-sweet manchineel resin, the mind-draining soma, once thought lost to antiquity. With the appropriate chants and callings of names, she combined these with the blended blood within the goblet. Horrible names they were that she called; with each, she consigned herself more surely to... nothingness. All that was in her, soul and emotion, mind and life-force, would live on in her son. Eileen Prince Snape would simply cease to exist.
At the last, closing her eyes, she quaffed the viscous brew. She sank down on her knees by the body of her son, and she waited.
It began quite suddenly, a creeping, paralysing cold that began in her extremities, stiffening them as though frostbitten. The goblet fell from a hand curled into a claw. She watched the flesh begin to desiccate, withering as though within the grave; as though the years were passing as seconds. Her legs began to curl then, tight against her chest, and she fell to her side, her cheek resting against the outflung locks of her son's blood-crusted hair. There was no pain, but there was an increasing sense of dread, a finality worse than a suffocation, a drowning from which there would be no known rescue. She felt a breath-more than a breath-exhale from within her; it was only then that fear came to her. And then, it was only fear that the vapour be lost, rather than pass, restoring life, breath and sound body, to her only child.
Severus... live for me, she thought. And then she fell away.
When Snape had let go of him, Harry fell to his knees. The forced intrusion made Harry sick to his stomach and a bit faint as he got to his feet. Snape was staring at him, his pallid skin flushed in patches and his brow dappled with sweat. His body movements were tremulous, and a trickle of blood rolled from his nostril to his upper lip.
Feeling a wave of nausea about to overtake him, Harry covered his mouth and ran out the door.
"Too much for your tender eyes, Potter?" Snape shouted after him.
There was a crash of glass against the door, followed by a sickening thud.
Harry did not return to Ron and Hermione's house that night. Instead, he went back to Godric's Hollow, to the cold and emptiness that matched his soul. His thoughts bounced from Ginny to Snape and back again. Nothing made sense anymore. He'd made a terrible mess of things, and part of him wanted to escape through the mirror again. But maybe that was why, he reasoned, things were the way that they were, because he'd chosen to run. After the war, there'd been nothing left in him to stay and fight. Fight for what was right and for what he wanted.
Behind the Potter family portrait, Harry kept a safe. Inside, were those things he treasured most; pictures, keepsakes, his father's love letters to his mother, his teddy bear - and one half of the friendship ring he'd given to Ginny before the war. Slipping the other half off his finger, Harry decided it was time to let her go. He set his ring gently next to hers and closed the safe. The force of the close had knocked something over, something that clinked. Pushing aside a stack of papers, Harry reached in and pulled out a phial. It was the phial that contained Snape's memories.
"We were wondering where you'd hid those," came a voice behind him.
Startled, Harry whirled around, wand at the ready. It was Regulus.
"Sorry," Regulus said. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
Harry lowered his wand. "Then you know?"
Regulus nodded. "Severus told me he showed you the memory of him and his mum."
"How did you know I'd be here?" Harry asked.
"I took a guess. That was quite clever of you to Confundus me."
"You're not mad?"
"No. Your actions, however misguided, needed to happen. Harry, Severus needs you."
"To clear his name?"
Regulus exhaled deeply. "Yes."
Harry stared absently at the phial. "How many know?"
"Only me, Remus and the Malfoys. We all know he's been wrongly accused of murdering Dumbledore. That he acted on Albus's wishes. But our word isn't enough. Even together."
"Why isn't it?"
"The Malfoy name has been greatly tarnished. My nephew has been making great strides to rectify this, but changing minds takes time. Remus is a lycan and still considered a dangerous and untrustworthy creature to some, and well, I have been cursed with the Black name. We're not exactly known for being sane and men of our word. It all came down to you. We agreed that when Severus recovered, we'd approach you and right things. But then you disappeared, and we were forced to take matters into our own hands. The Malfoys owed Severus a considerable debt, and that is how Malavar Crane came to be."
Harry considered the phial. He thought about Snape loving his mother, Snape's Patronus, how Dumbledore had used him, the both of them, really. The abuse. The torture. Even though Harry had had it quite bad with the Dursleys, Snape had had it much worse. An ache was forming in the pit of his stomach. Snape was entitled to some amount of happiness. "I'll owl the Daily Prophet tomorrow."
"Good man, Harry," Regulus said, smiling.
"Just - just one thing."
"Why the charade? Why not tell me straight away?"
Regulus sighed, sitting down on the edge of Harry's bed. "Severus was adamant about building a level of trust with you. You came to the Apothecary, and well, I saw that as the perfect opportunity. He'd never admit as much, but Severus was impressed with your not quitting. We were going to sit you down, but then this all took an unexpected turn. Harry, Severus is a proud man. He asks nothing and expects very little. But I had to step in after tonight. He's taken ill."
"He's sick?" Harry asked. He joined Regulus on the bed, sitting down next to him.
"There are long-term effects to taking Polyjuice Potion for as long as he did. He's lost some feeling in his extremities and his senses have dulled. We can arrest any further losses, but the damage that's already been done is irreversible." Regulus stood, ruffling Harry's hair. "Tomorrow's going to be a long day for the both of you. You should get some sleep."
"Right," Harry agreed. He saw Regulus out, watching as he Apparated away. The night sky was twinkling with stars. It was going to be a clear day tomorrow.
That night, Harry slept in his own bed, the phial clutched tightly in his fist.
Hard rain was an ill omen-but what of unseasonable heat? Harry wiped his brow for what felt like the twentieth time as he waited. He was standing in the main square of Hogsmeade, in a sun more reminiscent of May than November, next to a podium on a raised dais. He was waiting for the reporters and writers for whom he had owled. Every major wizarding publication and periodical had been notified; the Daily Prophet and the Quibbler were only the beginning.
The longer he waited, the more agitated he became. Harry knew that what he had to say would be ill-received by many people; that very fact made him all the more determined to get it said. He could not live comfortably in his own skin-time-displaced or otherwise-until it was made quite clear why that skin was intact. An injustice was present, and Harry Potter intended to right it.
At last, the reporters were arriving; he scanned over them with a jaundiced eye. Only one, Luna Lovegood, received so much as a nod. The others would serve a purpose and nothing more-and woe betide the one that dared to misrepresent what was said here, under the glare of the sun.
One by one, he made eye contact with each writer, as though taking their measure. He was halfway through the throng when he blinked, as though something had confounded his sight. And then, the old anger seethed forth within him, and he pointed a finger.
"You!" he barked. Everyone turned to see who it was that he had so vehemently indicated.
Standing there, Quick-Quotes Quill hanging at the ready, was Rita Skeeter. Her press badge indicated that her current employer was Witch Weekly. And, as if this weren't effrontery enough, bobbing and fawning at her heels was none other than Dolores Jane Umbridge. The ill-favoured woman had apparently attached herself to Skeeter as some sort of aide.
"I don't know why you've bothered to come, Skeeter, but I can assure you, I have no intention of allowing you to feed Witch Weekly your own version of what is about to be said. You have a choice: you can either snap that Quick-Quotes Quill this instant and write precisely what I say... or you can take that thing you brought with you, and leave the square at once." As Harry snapped the word 'thing', he made another stab of his finger, toward Umbridge.
"I'm sure I don't know what's troubling you, Mr Potter! It's not as if I-" Rita would have said more, but Harry cut her off with an angry snarl.
"I wasn't joking. I will not have you taint a proceeding this critical with what you call 'journalism'. And bringing dear Dolly Jane with you was an even bigger mistake. Dismiss your toady and dispose of the quill, or I will hex you both to within an inch of your lives and care nothing for the consequences!" Harry lifted the wand that, only now, he had realised was clenched in his right hand.
"But, Harry," Umbridge simpered, "I thought surely that you, of all people, would support someone wishing to have a second chance." Her slack lips turned up at the corners in an approximation of a smile. "I am on work furlough, merely trying to make something of the wreckage of my life."
"A second chance? For those deserving of such, a second chance is a precious gift. In fact, it's what I've come to grant today-but not to you, and not to the hack there beside you. Like attracts like, I suppose, but I do not choose to tolerate such filth in a press conference I have chosen to call. Or did you think to put more scars upon me than you already have?" Harry held up his right hand, revealing the whitish scratching of scars that still marred the skin: 'I must not tell lies.' "Circumstances have changed, even if you have not. Both of you: get out of my sight!"
There was an increasing amount of muttering and hostile looks directed at Skeeter and Umbridge; the two of them thought better of remaining any longer and slunk away. The remaining journalists were, of course, eating this up. Harry couldn't fail to notice, though, that two of them replaced what seemed to be Quick-Quotes Quills of their own with more respectable writing implements. He made eye contact once again with Luna, and she gave him a dreamy smile. He returned it briefly; if the truth would be written by anyone, it would be Luna. Waving the crowd to silence, Harry stepped forward to speak.
"Public speaking is not my strong suit; I will make what must be said today clear, if not eloquent. I have come here today to right a terrible-in fact, criminal-injustice. The things I have to reveal are going to be difficult enough to relate; I have to insist that there be no interruptions as I speak.
"Years have passed since the fall of the Dark Lord, and the reorganisation of the Ministry of Magic. The events have become a matter of record, relegated to history and spoken of only in retrospect. I have come to tell you that, for one, the Dark Times have not ended.
"Severus Snape is an innocent man."
At once, pandemonium erupted; unable to restrain themselves, most of the scrum of reporters began blurting out questions. Harry folded his arms and looked impatient until they realised nothing more would be forthcoming until they were silent. When the noise died down to scratching quills, rustling parchment and the occasional cough, Harry continued.
"I hold forth several facts; seen with my own eyes, these are incontrovertible. People pity me for the life I led until Voldemort was finally and permanently put down; they call me 'hero' and 'saviour' for the sacrifices I made for all wizardry. But I am here to say that the bravery... the heroism... was not mine."
Dimly aware of the slight tremor in his voice as he spoke, Harry began to weave the life story of a man he had once hated. He evoked the abuse in Snape's childhood and the bullying in school. He mentioned the torment at the hands of Voldemort, and the final tragedy-the lost love-that turned Snape against Voldemort forever. He detailed risk after risk taken by Snape, sacrifice after sacrifice, the defending of the son of a man he despised out of love for the memory of the child's mother. Severus Snape had known all along that his lot would be the most thankless and bitter, but he had never faltered.
When he had finished speaking, there was silence, as though the crowd held its breath as one. And then, Luna raised her hand, ducking her head a little as though expecting something to be thrown at her.
"But, Harry... you said yourself that you saw Snape cast the Killing Curse upon Albus Dumbledore with your own eyes. The history you relate is indeed tragic, but how can it excuse an act like that? The Unforgivable Curses are... well... unforgivable, after all."
"What do you know about Horcruxes?" Throughout the crowd, there was a gasp; the utterance of the word almost as shocking as the worst of profanities.
"I know what they are... how they are made." Her great eyes were even wider as she looked upward at Harry.
"It wasn't Snape that sealed Dumbledore's fate; it was two of the Horcruxes created by Lord Voldemort. When the first was destroyed, Dumbledore acquired the wasting affliction that affected his right hand in his last months of life; that could perhaps have been avoided, but he chose to take the risk that caused this to be. In the case of the second, he had to take a necessarily fatal series of actions; it has been revealed to me that this was something he had known all along. Dumbledore's plea on the battlements was not a plea for his life; it was a plea for the end to his pain."
"But... could Snape have misled you in some way, Mr Potter?" A wizard with an ink-smudged walrus moustache spoke; his press badge indicated that he was from Transfiguration Today.
"I can state with complete authority that what I am telling you is the complete and unadulterated truth. The reason I know this is simple: Snape's last act in life, when he was certain he faced oblivion, was to bestow his memories upon me, revealing everything I have told you today." The tremor was back in Harry's voice again. "I can't continue to exist under the premise that my actions alone were the ones that put an end to the Dark Times. The fact is, I would never have lived to fulfil my mission, without the help and support of Severus Snape."
"He wants to see you, Harry."
Regulus's quiet voice broke in on the whirl of thoughts thundering through Harry's mind; he had been staring at the same flask of bubotuber pus for the past ten minutes; a few minutes before that, it had been a few threads of gillyweed. Harry jumped when Regulus spoke, startled; he looked down at his stained robes with an annoyed groan. He had spilled the viscous slime all over himself and now he reeked of it.
"Tell him I'm on my way. I want to get changed out of-"
Harry jumped a second time at the shout from the office door. He paused, but then headed for Snape's office. If the man wanted to contend with the stench, who was he to argue?
"Yes, sir?" Harry closed the door behind him.
"Tell me... what in Merlin's name possessed you to do this?" Snape pitched a copy of the Daily Prophet onto the desk.
"It had to be done." The simple statement was the only thing Harry found himself able to say. He couldn't look away from Snape's glittering gaze.
"Would you say, Potter... that I am fond of my affairs being made a public spectacle?" Snape stood, slowly walking around the desk.
"Of course not. But you also didn't deserve to live the rest of your life accused of crimes you did not commit, and with the reality of your deeds left unknown. I'm not the hero, Snape. I never was."
Snape's lean face twisted as though he were in pain, and he turned away. His hands grasped the edge of his desk; with a pang, Harry saw how those hands, once so sure and deft, now shook. Tears he never imagined he could shed stung his eyes. Seeing Severus Snape so afflicted was like seeing a hippogriff with clipped wings. He couldn't stop himself; he went over, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder.
Before he could do it, Snape spun around; even with the tremor, his grip was still strong. He held Harry's wrist in a painful grip, and once again his eyes were locked on Harry's.
"Why?" The word came out as a choked snarl.
"Because you loved my mother enough to save me. Because you deserve better than you've had." Harry lost control of the tears; wet salt tracked his cheek.
Snape reached to Harry's cheek with his free hand; he brushed the tear away with the tips of his fingers, staring at the moisture as though such a concept were completely alien to him.
"She was... crying... the last time I ever spoke to her. I wanted to take back what I had said... what I had done to her. I was a coward and a fool; I could only watch her go. I lost her." The words were a whisper so faint that Harry could barely hear them, even standing so close to Snape.
"Well, you have me, Severus." Harry heard his words as though coming from a great distance. He didn't know which felt stranger to him: calling Severus by his first name, or offering himself up to... what?
What happened then took the strangeness to a new level. Snape began to draw Harry, slowly and inexorably, closer to him. Harry's first instinct was to panic, but something told him that drawing away now would be the cruellest thing he could do. For Snape's sake, he chose to allow himself to be drawn in-even when he felt Snape's other arm snake about him, trapping him.
It still felt as though he were seeing and hearing everything from a great distance. It was simultaneously a shock and no surprise at all when Snape's thin lips met his own. The kiss was not gentle; he seemed intent on simply taking what he wanted from Harry, willing or not. Part of Harry wanted to recoil; but again, he did not. He allowed himself to remain within Snape's arms.
"Open your mouth... " Only a few words as Snape broke away; as soon as he had spoken, though, he once again pressed a demanding kiss upon Harry's lips. When Harry hesitated, he felt Snape's teeth sink into his lower lip a bit in a stinging nip. And then he obeyed, allowing Snape to claim his mouth, their tongues dancing hotly.
This is completely mad, Harry thought. He's got me mixed up with my mother somehow. But should I stop him? Harry found the idea of rejecting Snape far more unpalatable than that of playing along. This was, after all, not terribly unlike a few of the stranger games he and Ginny had played, a mirror and a world away from this moment in time.
Snape tugged at the worn, stained robes Harry wore; Harry allowed them to be partly torn and partly pulled from his body. A slight shiver ran up his spine as he stood, bare-chested, in front of Snape; he wasn't entirely certain it was from the cold. Snape said nothing, merely doffing his own robes of flowing black. And then his arms were once again around Harry, crushing Harry tightly to him.
A weird, sensual thrill was beginning to tingle through Harry's flesh. Why not give in and see where this would lead? How far would Snape be willing to go? At any moment, he felt sure that Snape would snap out of the strange frenzy into which he had fallen. And part of him hoped that moment would not come too soon.
Snape had begun to fumble with the buckle of Harry's belt; the infirmity in his hands was making this difficult. Harry kicked out of his shoes and unfastened his trousers himself, allowing them to fall away. He felt no shame in the fact that his cock stood proud; that was what Snape had wanted, surely? Quite suddenly, though, Snape seized Harry and pinned him roughly against the wall. After another nearly violent kiss, Snape hissed a few words into Harry's ear.
"You are mine... never leave me... never even try." And then Snape claimed Harry's mouth once again.
Harry would never be sure which of them had undone Snape's trousers; he only became completely aware that it had been done when Snape suddenly pushed him to his knees. He found himself confronted with the longest, thickest prick he had ever seen, the shaft nearly as big around as his wrist. He knew what he was expected to do, but once again, he hesitated.
"Open your mouth," Snape hissed again. Shaking, pale fingers threaded themselves into Harry's unruly hair, and then Harry felt the huge cock slip insistently across his lips. Harry closed his eyes and parted his lips, letting the girth stretch his jaws widely. The salt and sweat of Snape's body stung against his tongue; that weird shiver passed over Harry once again. He tightened his lips and began to suck. Snape gave a sharply-indrawn hiss of pleasure as Harry took him into his mouth; hands still twined in his hair, Snape began to thrust into Harry's face, unashamedly using Harry's mouth to his own ends.
Harry reached up and encircled the base of Snape's cock with one hand; with a size like that, he didn't want to try to take all of him at once. His other hand strayed downward; he began to pleasure himself a bit as he lost himself to the lewd rhythm of Snape's hips. The moment Harry had dreaded-Snape regaining his senses and stopping this bizarre tryst-seemed destined never to come.
Quite suddenly, Snape pulled his cock from Harry's lips; with a gasp, Harry reached for it once again with his tongue, worried that he had done something wrong. Instead of allowing Harry to propitiate him, however, Snape yanked him to his feet, by his hair and one shoulder. Snape then swept his desk clear of every object with one arm; the next thing Harry felt was the cool wood pressing against his cheek and his chest as he was bent over it.
"I think I want more of you than just your mouth... I want all of you... I will have all of you," Snape hissed, pinning Harry down.
Harry didn't struggle; the time for that was long past. He forced himself to relax; he knew what would happen next. And, if he were tense, it would be much, much more painful. Harry heard a drawer scrape open; something cool, wet and viscous was spread over his hole. As two of Snape's fingers intruded within him, Harry caught the faint scent of mimosa and oakmoss. He allowed himself a sort of distant amusement at the recognition of the scent.
A few slick strokes loosened the rings of muscle within Harry's arse; with almost no warning, Snape replaced them with his rigid shaft, pressing slowly but inexorably inward. Harry drew in a deep, ragged breath and released it; when he did, he felt the thick head of Snape's cock grind past the resistance of tight muscle, sinking into him.
Harry whimpered; he had never felt anything like it. Even Ginny's quirky proclivities had never left him feeling so helpless... so filled. Harry lifted his hips a bit, both to make it easier for Snape to have what he wished, and also so he could seek some pleasure of his own. Once again, though, he was interrupted; he didn't even have a chance to encircle his own prick with his fingers before his hand was plucked away by Snape.
"Your pleasure comes only from me now." Snape's hot breath against his neck made Harry squirm, writhing to allow himself to be impaled even deeper. He whimpered once again when he felt Snape's hand replace his own. All he could do now was hold on and take it... accept whatever Snape chose to inflict.
There was no gentleness in Snape as he truly began to fuck Harry. But gentleness and caution wouldn't have satisfied either of them; Harry wanted the exquisite pain of his hard-ridden arse as much as he wanted the dizzying pleasure of the hand on his cock. With every brutal, jackhammer thrust, Snape's slicked hand plied Harry's captive prick. All Harry could do was alternate between praying for the erotic torment to end, and begging Snape never to stop.
The sordid game couldn't last long; neither of them were equal to intensity of this level. Harry lost control first; he felt the fire start from deep within his balls and boil out of him in jets, his seed so hot it stung his skin. He came, and it never seemed to end; it seemed Snape had no intention of allowing it to stop. The hand around Harry's cock never loosened and never slackened its pace, even after a new, thick moisture joined with the oakmoss and mimosa oil.
Suddenly, Snape stiffened; the low, animal growl he gave was feral, barely sounding human. Impossibly, Harry felt his prick jump and spasm again, though there was nothing left within his sac; the sensation of Snape's cock pulsing inside him and the feel of the warmth spreading deep within his bowels was enough to send him to the brink once again. Harry's limbs grew weak; only the pinning weight of Snape on his back kept Harry from sliding bonelessly to the floor.
The slaking of his lust, too, must have drained Snape; slowly, he sank downward, parting wetly from Harry and dragging him down against him. He said nothing; the only sound in the office was their mingled breath. Both of them panted as though they had just run a marathon. Harry dared to allow his head to drop to Snape's shoulder. When he felt a thin, shaking hand caress his sweat-damp hair, Harry closed his eyes.
Snape had a tiny flat above The Mortar and Pestle, and Harry spent quite a few of his evenings there, though he had yet to understand why. They ate dinner in silence most nights, and when Harry deigned to start a conversation he was met with a look that would singe a Chinese Fireball's whiskers. Afterwards, Snape would sit and read or write in that mysterious leather-bound book without so much as a glance at Harry. On one occasion, Harry sat and stared at Snape for four hours before his eyes crossed. If he had had any expectations after their office tryst, they were lost to Snape's idiosyncrasies.
The nights Harry chose to go home were plagued with owls requesting, no demanding, he come at once. When Harry did return, his stay was met with further silence. Severus Snape was an annoying bastard.
Because Snape kept to himself, Harry was forced to learn what he could about Snape though his odd habits. And those were not in short supply.
Harry observed that while Snape preferred sleeping atop his covers, he was insistent they fuck under three feet of bedding. Or that while Snape spent at least twenty minutes flossing each day, Harry never saw Snape with a toothbrush in hand. Or that he liked to steep his tea precisely five minutes forty-two seconds, and begin each day with the Prophet and a lime marmalade sarnie on whole-wheat with the crusts cut off.
All of these things Harry learned through keen and silent scrutiny.
Harry suffered through wretched bouts of insomnia, but this time was best used to swot up. Snape was obsessively body conscious and only came out from underneath the covers when he thought that Harry was asleep. Propped on one elbow beside Snape, Harry would watch as Snape's chest rose and fell, trace the scars that riddled Snape's gaunt frame and smooth the greying widow's peak from his forehead as he cried out unawares in his sleep.
After a while, Harry knew enough without the verbal jousting, able to interpret Snape like a blind man fingers Braille. But Snape would forever have abandonment issues and recurring fears until he opened up to greater intimacies.
And this, Harry thought with a sleepy grin, required a second and livelier intrusion into Snape's personal affairs.
When Harry was certain that Snape was sleeping soundly, he slipped from the bed and made off with Snape's leather-bound book, left carelessly unhexed. Harry took up residence in Snape's raggedy chair, sitting cross-legged with a take-home carton of chicken vindaloo in his lap. He read until morning, bookmaking his page to take a walk downstairs to stretch his legs.
Harry hadn't expected an audience.
"Oh, er, hullo," Harry said. Remus and Regulus waved from their hand-shaped chairs. Draco merely rolled his eyes.
Regulus pointed to Harry's naked and dangling undercarriage. "Ahem."
"Oh, right," Harry blushed, using Snape's book to shield his genitals.
"What are you doing up so early, Harry?" Remus asked. From his lap, little Teddy sighed in his sleep.
"I never went to sleep," Harry said, settling on the couch adjacent to Draco. He kicked his feet up on the table before him. "What are you all doing here?"
"I was up half the night doing inventory," Regulus said. "Draco's here to see Severus, and Remus is here to see me. Bunking off now. Severus frowns upon comfort, as you well know. Thinks it instils laziness, so I transfigured a few crates into something habitable. What's that you have there?"
Remus transfigured a robe for Harry without disturbing Teddy. Harry very deftly made the switch from book to robe. "Did you know Severus was writing his memoirs?"
Remus and Regulus both nodded, but Draco spoke. "You had no business reading that, Potter. Haven't you caused my godfather enough pain? And now you're--"
"Shagging?" Harry offered, his eyes narrowed.
Draco wrinkled his nose. "Well, that too, but I was going to say 'a queer of convenience.'"
Regulus threw Teddy's stuffed bear at Draco. It made a soft squeaky noise when it hit Draco in the face. "You've no room to talk, cous. I'm sure Harry'd love to hear about your evening with Percy Weasley at last year's Ministry Christmas function."
"Oho?" Harry grinned.
Draco blushed a most lovely shade of crimson. "I was pissed. He was pissed. It's hardly my fault that Weasley can suck the yellow off a canary. Besides, it only happened once."
"Twice," Regulus corrected. "You remarked on his arse eat--"
Draco held up a hand. "All right, so I fancy a go with a bloke from time to time. I'm a hedonist not a pouf. Besides, Weasley has always been--"
"Convenient?" Harry asked sweetly.
"Sod you sideways, Potter!"
Regulus snorted, turning to Harry. "As I was saying...Severus has been journaling his life experiences since Hogwarts. That book's over twenty-five years old. I should know. I gave it to him."
"What's he planning on doing with his memoirs?"
Remus gently brushed the errant strands of purple hair from his son's face. "Knowing Severus, probably nothing. Writing's his version of therapy."
"The world would better understand him."
Regulus softly chuckled. "I think he enjoys being misunderstood. What do you think, Remus?"
Remus frowned. "I think Teddy's about to fuss."
"I should never have given away Mr Fuzzems," Draco said absently, clutching the bear tightly. One eye popped out of its socket.
"Let's have the bear back, Draco," Regulus said, extending a hand. "Before Teddy notices it missing."
Draco tossed the bear over to Regulus, pouting. "Bareback? Where have I heard that before?"
Teddy woke, sliding down from his father's lap to settle at his feet. "It's a Muggle term," Remus explained, switching to spelling. "Means s-h-a-g-g-i-n-g without a c-o-n-d-o-m."
"During a-n-a-l s-e-x," Regulus added. "Well, then, since we're discussing terminology, what do you lads call the stretch of skin between the bollocks and the arsehole?"
Remus quickly covered Teddy's ears. "Spell it out, gentlemen. ABCs and 123s."
"Bridge of heaven," Draco insisted.
"Perineum," Harry said, eyeballing Draco.
"Like you would know, Potter," Draco snorted.
"Me? What about you? 'Mr-Insists-He's-Straight-Despite-Two-Cock-Suckings.'"
"I'm right. You're wrong."
"You have it backwards, Malfoy."
"Piss off, Potty."
Regulus cleared his throat and indicated the doorway with a wave of his head. "Severus. Top o' the morning."
Snape's book in his hands, Harry panicked, quietly signalling for Remus's wand. He tapped the cover and made several copies with a duplication spell, hiding them all unceremoniously.
"What," Snape asked, arching a crow-black brow. "Are you four doing in my storeroom and at this hour?"
"Chatting. Care to join us?" Remus said, putting Teddy back on his lap.
Snape looked positively murderous without his morning staples. He narrowed his eyes dangerously at Harry. "Out, the three of you. I need a word with Potter."
"Settle a quick argument?" Draco asked.
Snape rolled his eyes. "Proceed."
"What do you call the thing between the dick and the arsehole?"
Snape's glance shifted from Draco to Harry. "The coffee table."
"I don't get it," Draco shrugged as Regulus and Remus escorted him out.
Harry nervously watched as they all left him to his fate. Only Teddy remained behind. He tugged on the hem of Snape's robe before dropping Mr Fuzzems at Snape's feet. There was a moment's respite as Remus collected his son. And then the room grew colder.
"The book, Potter. My hand. Now."
Harry feigned innocence. "I don't know what you're talking about, Severus."
Snape invaded Harry's bubble of personal space, baring teeth the colour of buttermellow. "Don't. Lie. To. Me."
Harry flinched and avoided eye contact.
"Shall I take it out on your pert little arse? And before you think to smile, consider exactly what I say."
Harry sighed, slipping a copy out from underneath the couch cushion. He handed it to Snape.
"All of them."
Harry's mouth fell open. He took a second copy out from underneath the cushion, handing that to Snape.
"And now the one in your robe," Snape said, his lip curling into a sneer.
Harry forfeited that as well, mumbling under his breath. "That's it, I swear." Discreetly, Harry toed the last of his copies under the couch.
"What, may I ask, gives you the right to stick your nose where it doesn't belong? My personal stores. My Pensieve. My affairs. You insolent brat."
Harry snorted. "You weren't complaining when my nose was nestled against the seam of your balls."
Snape took Harry by the wrist, drawing him near. "Find that funny, do you?"
Harry's cock stiffened. "Please, Severus," he whimpered.
"Please what?" Snape demanded. His other hand found Harry's cock.
"Please fuck me."
"I suppose," Snape said, summoning the oakmoss and mimosa oil. "That I have an hour to spare you." He settled on the couch, parting his robes. Snape's cock was thick and veiny; the bulbous crown an angry red. He let go of Harry's wrist with a snarl. "Bend over and touch your toes. If I see your knees bow, even a little--"
Harry squirmed at the feel of cold oil slicking his entrance. His glasses slid down the bridge of his nose at the intrusion of Snape's fingers, plunging in and out, in and out, stretching his arsehole. Harry desperately wanted to slide back on Snape's fingers, but he couldn't do so without bending his knees or losing his footing. The muscles in his legs were pulled taut.
Just when Harry thought he couldn't stand it any longer, Snape took him roughly by the hips, forcing him to bear down on Snape's cock. Harry's glasses fell to the floor with a clatter.
"To whom do you belong?" Snape asked sharply.
Harry slid down on Snape's cock. "You." His shoulders slumped; chin resting against his chest to absorb some of the shock of the impalement.
"Bounce, you troublesome little tart," Snape purred in Harry's ear. He lifted Harry's chin and pressed a hand to the small of Harry's back to keep him ramrod straight. "To whom do you belong?"
"You, sir," Harry said, bouncing with more aggressiveness. "Just you." He was only vaguely aware of a passing shadow below when Snape's fingers curled around his shaft.
A sharp hiss passed through Snape's thin lips. "To whom do you belong?"
Snape's other hand anchored Harry down by the hollow of his hip when his movements became too frenzied. "Oh, God, Severus." It was all too much for Harry. He undulated his hips, bucking up into Snape's hand frantically until he came. He fell slack against Snape's chest, breaths catching in his throat.
"I shall have to teach you something of self control," Snape said softly, nipping at Harry's jawline.
Harry sighed blissfully when Snape's arms snaked around his waist. He was content to sit there, speared on Snape's cock all day if necessary. "You mean you're not angry?"
"All is forgiven. Provided you relinquish the last of your copies. I believe you nudged one underneath the couch."
Harry was silent a moment. He was sure Snape hadn't seen that. "I can't exactly move now," he said, twining his fingers with Snape's.
"Mmmhmm," was all Snape said in reply.
It was quite possibly the most perfect start to a perfect day. And then Snape's hand trembled uncontrollably in Harry's.
Harry had been used to the idea of being called into Snape's office. That Regulus was doing the calling came as a bit of a surprise.
"Come in, Harry. Close the door behind you." Regulus gestured to the chair, smiling faintly.
"Have I messed up an order?"
"No, no. It's nothing quite so bad." Regulus placed one of Snape's leather-bound copies on the desk, pushing it over to Harry with an index finger. "Found another when I was cleaning the storeroom. I would have destroyed it myself, but I think it would be a greater display of your character to do so. I trust you'll do this straight away?"
Harry nodded, taking the book. He sat there a moment waiting on a dismissal, but it never came. Regulus didn't seem his usual self.
"All right then, Regulus?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact, no." Regulus sighed. He rubbed his temples as if to alleviate the pain of a migraine. "But we'll manage."
"More like what isn't wrong. Costs are up. Profits are down. End of the fiscal year. I've taken on Severus's Wolfsbane orders. Remus and I are having problems. Andromeda's pushing for custody of Teddy. The full moon's approaching. The Most Extraordinary Society of Potioneers banished Severus on the basis of deceit. And Severus's condition is worsening. There, now isn't that a sodding mouthful?"
Harry nodded, feeling dumber for having done so.
"In short, everything's a clusterfuck. It's as though the balance of nature has been upset."
"Anything I can do to help?" Harry asked with good grace.
"Be good to Severus, Harry. Merlin knows the man's a pain in my arse, but he deserves some happiness."
Harry's shoulders sagged. "He still doesn't call me by my first name."
"We were seeing each other a year before he thought to call me by mine. He's afraid to get too close. Everyone he's ever loved has left him. And now he considers himself damaged goods."
Harry wanted to ask, but it wasn't his place, wasn't his business.
"You want to know what happened between us, don't you?" Regulus asked.
"Was I that obvious?"
"Just a little," Regulus grinned. "Quite simply, I fucked up. Had a good thing going, too. It's just that Severus can be so smothering. I cheated on him one night. With a bloke whose name I can't even remember. Don't think he's ever forgiven me. 'Course, I've never forgiven myself."
"Have you ever, you know, with Remus?"
"Cheated? Never. Couldn't bear to lose him as well. I keep trying to impress upon Draco that he'll lose Esme if he follows his father's bad example. And his grandfather's for that matter."
Harry quirked a brow. "Esme?"
"Draco's wife. Pretty bird, that one."
Harry had a hard time imagining Draco married. He was such an obnoxious git. But marrying and producing an heir was the pure-blood way of life.
"Promise me you'll not cause Severus any undue stress, Harry?"
Harry stood, nodding. "Oh!" he said, snapping his finger in remembrance. "I have Teddy's bear upstairs. I'll just run and get it."
"Don't bother," Regulus said, shaking his head. "He's moved on to bigger and better things. Bought him a pet kneazle." Regulus winked at Harry. "Currently, I'm leading the polls in the favourite uncle category."
Harry laid a hand on the doorknob. "Aren't you his only uncle?"
"Don't let Teddy know," Regulus said with a laugh. "And don't forget to take care of that book, Harry."
Right, Harry thought. Take care of it. And he knew just the perfect way to honour Regulus's request.
Luna Lovegood lived with Neville Longbottom on a rambling, country estate, some distance from the more populous areas of Great Britain, wizarding or otherwise. The house itself looked much like a beehive, a golden brown in colour, with no apparent joinings or brickwork. Luna had apparently been expecting him; she was standing just outside the odd, oval door of the house, with a plate of biscuits in one hand. Her dreamy smile was as it had always been, and she seemed quite happy to see him.
"Harry... do come in. Pardon the mess... " She led the way through the door and into what seemed to be a combination of a sitting room, a curio shoppe and an herbal apothecary. The room was completely round and had bizarre furniture that clearly came from all corners of the globe. None of it matched and some of it didn't seem to have any practical use at all. Over, around and between the various furnishings, bundles, baskets and bins of various herbs were set, to dry or be stored. The room smelled strongly of phlox and elecampane, a humid odour, but not entirely unpleasant.
"How have you been, Luna?" Harry asked, trying not to be obvious about staring around. "I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to speak to you at the conference. How is Neville doing?"
"Neville is doing very well," she said placidly. She poked at what looked like a long, furry scarf; it uncoiled itself from the chair where it had been sleeping and undulated down to the floor, curling up once again.
"Luna... what is that?" Harry was cautious of sitting so close to the odd-looking creature.
"He's a Poufslither... a relative of the Puffskein. I found him when Neville and I were in Borneo. His name is Fuzzy Gaboo. Pet him; he's really very sweet."
Harry gingerly reached down and caressed the Poufslither; the thing chirred pleasantly and crawled up his arm. He continued to pet it, hoping it would eventually detach itself; he didn't want to hurt Luna's feelings by disentangling Fuzzy Gaboo too soon.
"How lovely; he likes you. I can get one for you if you would like?" Her pale eyes sparkled as she spoke.
"No... no... I have rather an odd living situation right now, and it wouldn't be fair to a pet to have to keep carting him all over the place. Luna... this is more than just a social calling. I've come to ask a favour." The Poufslither seemed not to mind as he moved his arm to reach into an inner pocket of the coat he wore. He withdrew the leather-bound journal he had hidden there, and held it out to Luna. "This... has to be published. And it has to be done in such a way that it comes as a total surprise when it hits the shelves, or the author will attempt to stop it from seeing print."
"Ohhh... " If possible, Luna's silvery eyes grew even wider. She accepted the book in her hands, treating it as gently as though it were a fragile, living thing. "This is Snape's... isn't it," she said, the latter much more a statement than a question.
"How did you know?"
"If you were concerned enough with his innocence to hold the press conference, it stands to reason that you would also seek to reveal his heroism, as well." She scuffed one slipper across the worn, dusty carpet, tilting her head and peering at him.
"Well, yes, I suppose that's one way to phrase my intentions. Also, it's absolutely fascinating reading just on its own merit." Harry shifted in the chair and felt something crunch a bit; when he surreptitiously looked down, he realised that a few dried rose-petals had been scattered on the seat of his chair.
"Harry, he doesn't know you have this. Won't he be terribly angry when he sees it's gone missing?"
"This is a copy. But yes, he will be angry. Doesn't take away the fact that what you are holding is a story that needs to be seen."
"I will do it. I will bring it to my father. I believe in you, Harry; I always have. And if you say it's important that Snape's memoirs see print, then so it shall be. But you have to have a violet biscuit; Neville made these, and they're lovely." She held out the tray to Harry.
Some hours later, Harry found himself wandering around one of the seedier parts of London, lost in thought. Every once in a while, he would stifle a belch; Neville's candied violet biscuits had tasted fine to him when he had eaten them, but now were making him distinctly queasy. He didn't want to return to the little flat just yet; he was quite sure Snape would guess he'd been up to something, and he wasn't ready to face the questions.
A blazing and garish neon light caught his attention. It was in the form of a red hand, in the centre of which pulsed a blue neon eye. The sign beneath, rather unevenly painted, read 'Psychic Eye Mystical Advisors.'
Oh, why not, Harry thought. It'll be a bit of a lark. He stifled another floral belch and entered the dim interior of the shoppe.
There was a jangling of brassy bells, and a smell of cheap incense; it only barely covered the tang of sweaty bodies and cigarette smoke. He stood for a moment, taking in his surroundings.
He was in a sort of atrium that seemed to do duty as a waiting room. There were wispy scarves and veils draped all over the walls and even the ceiling. In the corner were two overstuffed chairs that looked uncomfortable; he imagined that sitting upon them would feel much like trying to relax while perched upon the protuberant belly of an inflated Aunt Marge.
"Do you seek the Wisdom of the Inner and Secret Eye?"
The breathy voice startled him. Harry turned to see none other than Sibyll Trelawney. Stunned, he took a step backward. Had she come through the mirror as well? He stopped just short of speaking; Trelawney's eyes revealed no recognition of him whatsoever.
"I suppose so," he ventured at last. Curiosity gripped him once again. She beckoned dramatically to him, and he followed.
At once, he was transported back to his third year at Hogwarts; even the scent of the incense was the same. As though in a dream, he seated himself at the tiny table she indicated. The milky eye of the crystal ball that rested there revealed no more to him than such an object ever had. He looked to Trelawney and began to speak, but she made a severe gesture, cutting him off before he could utter a sound. She then whispered the following rhyme.
In matters of family, or wishes or love
Read thou the signs in the blood of the dove.
Affairs of the Dark, wherein secrets have haven
Read thou the signs in the blood of the raven.
Harry was stunned to silence. His dealings with Trelawney had spanned a range from the absurd to the bizarre to the frightening: the last seemed to be the direction this encounter would take. He watched as she moved to a tapestry and threw it back, revealing two covered cages. One was draped in white, the other in black.
Trelawney threw back the black cage covering, revealing a large, wicked-looking raven; the thing flapped and cawed, attempting to peck and claw at her when she thrust a hand into its cage. She was deft; it was clear that this was a thing she had done many times. She returned to the table, the large bird held by the neck.
"Hey, you're not going to-" Again, Harry found himself cut off by Trelawney; this time, because she brandished a small, iron scalpel in one hand. The light of the candles glinted on its blade. And then, she turned the blade to the raven, neatly opening its breast in one swipe.
She parted the bird's keel from its breast and opened its ribs as though opening a book. She peered at the dying raven's entrails, liver and heart, heedless of the gore that coated her hands, and the table before her. She moaned a little, swaying, the scalpel falling from her fingers. It rang against the floor with a tone like a bell.
"I see Imbalance; there is that which cannot be. Where there can only be one, there are two. I see Refuge; the womb of the earth, cloister, sanctuary, cave. Imbalance must be righted, lest the tower fall, lest entropy cause an unravelling, lest that which should drain away, become a torrent and claim all in its path. You should not be here. Restore the balance, or be the author of ruin."
Harry could bear no more. He stood, legs shaking, and backed away from the bloodstained table. The jangle of the bells and the sound of running feet announced his rapid departure.
Harry ran a finger down the table of contents in Clara T's Guide to Divination. Haruspicy was the ancient Etruscan art of soothsay using an animal's innards as the medium. He only vaguely recalled it being mentioned in Divination. The Trelawney of his universe preferred reading tealeaves or Augury. Harry had never been much of a believer in fortune telling, but what Trelawney had to say was no mere coincidence. Harry idly wondered what Hermione would have to say about this form of prophesising - or the haruspex herself. Hermione was, perhaps, even more of a sceptic than he was.
Trelawney had said there were two of him. This could only mean his other self was still alive, unbalancing the furies, threatening to tear this world apart at the seams. She had disclosed a location, a cave. Could it have been the same cave that Sirius and Buckbeak found refuge in? Furthermore, could he allow this all to continue when it threatened more than just his way of life? And as if that didn't complicate matters--
The feel of Snape's spidery fingers curling about his shoulder startled Harry from his skin. "What in Salazar's scrote are you reading, Potter?"
Harry closed the book with a snap. "N-nothing."
"Your nothing is always something," Snape said, plucking the book from Harry's grasp. Both of Snape's eyebrows raised in questioning mockery. "Divination? Interpreting cloud shapes, are you? Let me assure you, Potter, that you did not see us in a lover's tangle through a rolling patch of cumulostratus."
"Oh, ha ha," Harry snorted, taking his book back. He shouldered past Snape and grabbed his coat.
"Where do you think you're going?" Snape asked, folding his arms across his chest.
"Out," Harry replied snidely. "What's it matter to you?"
"My cock's not going to suck itself."
Harry shoved Mr Fuzzems at Snape. "This'll keep you busy."
On his way out the door, Harry inspected Snape's woollen cloak. He pinched a long black hair between his fingers and placed it in his glasses case. He had something of a plan.
The makeshift lodestone comprised of Snape's hair and quartz crystal had led Harry to a mountainous area northeast of Hogwarts. But it wasn't until Harry spotted Canis Major, his accompanying lodestar, that Harry found the mouth of a peculiar cave. The air prickled around him. Something was afoul inside.
At the risk of not wanting to shock himself, Harry drew the hood of his cloak, stepping inside.
The inside of the cave was littered with newspapers, and there were bones picked clean every few steps. A small cookfire was blazing, and there was a wrapped bundle sleeping bedside it. A cage, its metal framework rusted with age, hung from a peg on the wall. Harry peered between the bars. An owl's remains lay at the bottom of the cage.
The bundle stirred, and Harry pulled out his wand.
"Who's there?" it asked.
When Harry didn't answer, the lump withdrew from the tatty blanket.
Harry found himself face to face with his mirror image.
The other Harry drew his wand. "Who are you and what do you want?"
"Easy," Harry said. "I come as a friend. I-I want to help you."
"Help me?" the other Harry said bitterly. "You can't bring her back. No one can."
"No. I can't," Harry said. His wand arm shook with fear.
The other Harry dropped his wand, sinking to his knees. "Then I see no other choice." He took hold of the end of Harry's wand, pointing it at his chest. "Say the words. Let me see her that way."
Harry had never uttered those words. Could never utter those words. Even to stop Voldemort. "No," he said obstinately. "There's another way."
"Another way? You mock me, friend."
"Trust in me," Harry said.
The other Harry snarled with disbelief. "Why should I?"
"Because you have nothing left to lose." Harry joggled the end of his wand. He was no expert on the laws of physics, but he knew the same matter could not occupy the same space. "Take hold of the end of my wand. I'll take you to a better place."
Slowly, the other Harry gripped the end of Harry's wand. There was a loud crack as the two of them Apparated out.
The Mirror of Erised was exactly where Harry had stepped out of it. What seemed an eternity ago.
"Is that the--?" the other Harry asked.
"It is. And you need only step through."
"Step through? Are you mental?"
For the first time since he came face to face with his alter ego, Harry took a good look at himself. He bore the signs of a broken and world-weary man. Embittered. Scarred. Wasted. "Trust in me. Step through. Let your heart guide you. She's there, on the other side, waiting on your return."
A tear streaked the other Harry's dirty cheek. "What if you're wrong?"
"Then it really won't matter," Harry said. He slid his wand from the other Harry's fingers.
The other Harry blinked his tear away, turning and facing the mirror. He glanced over his shoulder, unsure.
Harry nodded, encouraging his other self.
Gripping the sides of the mirror, the other Harry stepped through. The mirror imploded on itself.
Harry lowered his hood, wiping away a tear of his own. "Take care of her, Harry. Like I never could."
Harry Apparated out of Borgin and Burkes. His heart ached, but it wasn't for the loss of Ginny. It was the desire to attend to his newfound happiness - and Snape's side.
"Is there any particular reason," Snape said. "Why there is a large section cut from my morning paper?" He stuck his head through the hole and glared at Harry.
Harry shoved a spoonful of cold cereal in his mouth to keep from answering.
Snape rattled his paper. "Well?"
There was a knock at the flat door, followed by an annoyed scrape of chair.
"Sorry to disturb you, Severus, but I thought you should see this." Regulus handed a copy of the Prophet to Snape. He glanced over Snape's shoulder at Harry and shook his head.
Harry thought he lip-read Regulus telling him, 'I don't fancy being in your shoes.'
Snape stood there a moment, his back to Harry. His fists were balling at his sides, and Harry knew that there was no stopping the locomotive rush of rage that was Snape's temper. In the time it took to blink, Snape was looming over Harry, casting a great shadow over his bowl of Quidditch Cap'n Crunch. Some of the player pieces dove under the milk in fright, and several of the marshmallow Snitches flew away. Harry had never seen Snape so angry.
A trembling hand took Harry by the shirtfront, lifting him out of his seat. Harry's breathing stilled to nothingness. "Stupid...selfish...arrogant...FOOLISH...boy!" He thrust the front page of the Prophet in Harry's face.
"I wasn't aware I wrote a book," Snape snarled. His shower of spittle speckled Harry's glasses.
"Surprise?" Harry said, sheepishly. He gulped in fear.
Snape let go of Harry, pushing him back down in his chair. "The damage has already been done. And the books have already hit the shelves, I'm sure, by now. You leave me with little choice."
"They're expecting you by one p.m., Severus."
"No, boy. I won't be showing. You, however, will go in my stead and make a public announcement. You will tell those people exactly what you did and without my explicit permission. YOU HAD NO RIGHT!"
"I did it for you. For us. I wanted them all to see another side to you. The side I see."
"Whatever side you think you've seen is gone. Dead and gone. Think of me as one of our furthest planets. One that hasn't shown another side in ages."
"Even the furthest planet out shows another side eventually."
Snape shook his head. "I think that I am more disappointed in you than I have ever been. Will ever be. Get out, Potter. Leave and never come back."
"You don't mean that," Harry said brokenly. He reached under his glasses to palm at the wetness.
"Get out," Snape said quietly.
Crushed, Harry packed his rucksack. Upon leaving, Harry left a copy of the book on the table.
Flourish and Blott's was packed in anticipation of Snape's arrival. Scores of witches and wizards had shown up to meet and greet the man who had been so sorely misjudged. Some witches were labelling him a heartthrob. Others were swooning at his lost loves. Still others were praising his heroics. Of the female populace, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
To celebrate the event, the bookstore was decorated in every shade of pink and red imaginable. There were baskets of chocolates and candies, balloon-shaped hearts and party streamers. Costumed cupids even stormed the store, armed with bows and arrows and chasing unsuspecting shoppers. Snape would have delighted in hating the spectacle.
At precisely one o'clock, Harry trudged up to the podium to disappoint the hundreds who had shown up. Regulus had been right to pity him. "Um, I have an announcement to make," Harry said, the flashbulbs nearly blinding him. "Severus Snape--"
The doorchime pealed musically. "Apologises greatly for his delay. I trust you'll all take points from me for my tardiness."
There was a titter of laughter from the crowd as they parted for him to pass. Snape was dressed in his finest; a pointed hat perched on his head. He sat down at the table and dipped his quill in the well of black ink.
Snape held up a hand for a moment's word with Harry. "Did you really mean what you said in your foreword?"
"Every word, Severus."
"Cheeky bastard including your name in the dedication," Snape tutted.
Harry grinned fiercely. "You're not angry with me?"
"Oh, I'm still furious, Potter, utterly furious. Shall I turn you over my knee and have my apology here?"
Harry sat down next to Snape. "Your fans are ravenous, Severus. My arse can wait."
Snape waved the first in line forward. "That's where you're wrong, Potter."
Harry looked positively crestfallen at the prospect of Snape ignoring his arse.
"Lockhart had fans. I have admirers."
"You do at that," Harry said, standing. When Snape implored with his eyes for Harry to stay, Harry shook his head. "This day belongs to you." He kissed Snape's cheek and left to find Ron and Hermione, very nearly bumping into a tall, handsome man.
"Anders," the man replied, mouthing the words 'lucky you' to Harry. "Could you please make it to Anders, sir?"
Harry grinned back. He supposed luck had a hand in things. But it was mostly fate.
Snape had reached the flat before Harry after the book signing. He was facedown in his pillow and naked apart from the hat balanced on his arse. "Took you long enough," Snape said over his shoulder.
Harry scrambled to free himself of his clothes. "Maybe I wanted you naked and waiting on me for once."
"A likely story," Snape said, shaking the hat from his arse with a shrug of his hips. Mr Fuzzems, who had taken up residence on the pillow beside Snape, was batted off the bed with a vicious backhand. It growled at Snape before waddling off on stubby legs in pursuit of its rolling eye.
Harry crawled to Snape, settling between his legs. He nudged them apart to better appreciate the jutting cock Snape had tugged downward. Kisses turned to gentle tongue swipes and gentle tongue swipes turned to sweeps and swirls before Harry took the cock in his hand, swallowing the head with an enthusiastic 'Mmm.' Harry's cock stiffened painfully as he watched Snape squirm with pleasure.
But that wasn't the most wicked of his torments.
Coaxing Snape on all fours, Harry pumped Snape's shaft through a tight and teasing tunnel of fingers, leaning forward to lap at Snape's hole. Slow, deliberate circles of his tonguetip forced croaked and desperate moans from Snape's thin lips. In the time it took for most men to finagle a kiss, Harry had turned Snape from an indomitable bastard to a haggard beggar. Snape's body shuddered, and he came with a strangled cry, wringing the ends of the pillowcase in his fists.
Harry was so pleased with himself that he pushed Snape back down on the bed and snaked up his body, trapping and sliding Harry's cock up the cleft of Snape's arse. Snape, however, disagreed with Harry's tactics. He twisted about, rolling them both over and pulling Harry down on top of him.
"And just what in Salazar's name did you think you were doing?" Snape asked, grinding his spent prick against the throbbing one that nudged his.
"Topping," Harry said cheekily.
"The only topping I allow is the butterscotch ripple on my vanilla sundae," Snape purred. He pursed his lips and non-verbally summoned the oakmoss and mimosa oil from the bedside table.
Harry straddled Snape's thighs, plucking the lube front Snape's hands. He rubbed some into his palms and anointed Snape's cock with it, pivoting at the hips to slick his arsehole. "I think," Harry said with an impish grin. "That I am tired of vanilla."
"Ready for earthier delights, I see," Snape said, positioning his stiffening cock.
Harry slid back down on it with an agreeable hiss. He bent forward to kiss Snape.
Snape smoothed back the hairs from Harry's forehead, tracing his scar with a calloused fingertip. "Let an old man catch his breath before you take it away again."
"I was thinking," Harry said with a quick snap of his pelvis. "That we might take up residence at Godric's Hollow."
"Doable," Snape groaned.
Harry bounced on Snape's cock with more enthusiasm. "Like me." He flattened his palms on the plane of Snape's chest, pushing off with each release.
"A letter came for you the other day - harder, you little shit - from the Appleby Arrows. I took the liberty of owling it back 'not interested.'"
Harry slammed back down on Snape's cock with thigh-bruising force. "Interesting. I intercepted a letter from The Most Extraordinary Society of Potioneers. They wanted to restore your privileges. Told them to shove their reinstatement up their arses." His hands travelled down Snape's torso like the weave and weft patterns on the loom.
"Why you insolent br--" Snape's body shuddered from underneath Harry. Snape came a second time, whispering Harry's name over and over until he fell slack against the sheets.
Harry came shortly thereafter, collapsing on top of Snape thoroughly sated. Nestling under Snape's chin, Harry said. "I shall have to teach you something of self control." Clutching Snape tightly, Harry fell asleep.
When Harry awoke some hours later, he found Snape propped against the pillows reading his forward again. "What made you decide on the title; Memoirs of the Amphisbaena?"
"It suits you," Harry said simply. Plucking a candy heart from a basket he'd taken, Harry placed it on Snape's chest.
Not to be outdone, Snape chose a candy heart from the basket. This he placed in Harry's hand, curling Harry's fingers around it.
And Harry did.