"You need a plan."
The three of them were lounging on the grass in the sun, exams finished and the Leaving Feast less than a week away.
"No one's going to buy that you're just going to sit around on your arse." Hermione was right as usual, but what was he supposed to do about it?
"Especially not with the Quidditch offers." Ron, around a mouthful of pumpkin juice.
Not after they'd been splashed all over the Daily Prophet, no. Harry sighed. "I know, but what am I supposed to say? Dumbledore said lie low and don't let on."
"Why not develop a drinking problem?"
Hermione elbowed Ron in the ribs. "Honestly, I don't—"
"No, no, you've got to. Not really," Ron clarified. Now that he'd settled on an idea he was sitting up straight, animated. "Fake it. People would believe that. Plenty of people with your kind of money would love to sit around and drink themselves silly for a year."
It was a stroke of genius, Weasley-style.
To the apparent surprise of everyone else in his year (save Hermione and Ron), Harry Potter did not become Seeker for any of the Clubs that had made him offers, nor did he accept an Auror-in-Training position at the Ministry.
Once the rest of the students had left, he settled into a life of doing nothing: he rented rooms in Hogsmeade and spent a lot of time drinking. At least, that was the official story. Ron's idea, supported by his regular appearances with glass in hand.
It wasn't strictly true. Most of what he noisily quaffed was butterbeer in draught glasses; and though people assumed he was spending his days battling hangovers, in fact he was studying. Reading texts Dumbledore had pinched for him from the super-restricted wing of the Hogwarts library. Hoping against hope that he, or one of the dozen others who were immersed in text, would find Voldemort's Achilles' heel.
It was early fall when Dumbledore sent him on his first recon trip.
Navigating Muggle London was supposed to be easier for Harry than for many of his peers. After all, he'd grown up in the Muggle world, hadn't he?
Though that wasn't much help; now that he'd reached his majority he had no intention of ever returning to Privet Drive, and the Dursleys hadn't exactly given him much insight into how ordinary Muggles behaved, unless most Muggles were in the habit of locking their foster children in closets.
So he was nervous as he walked the misty streets, although he couldn't pinpoint why. Muggle clothes were no worry. His hair was shaggy enough to hide his scar, and he'd taken the added precautions of covering it with Muggle makeup and casting a small glamour over himself. Not only should the scar be invisible, but in theory no one who saw him would retain a lasting impression of the memory. It wasn't foolproof, but it made him feel better. Slightly.
No: the nervousness had something to do with recognition, and something to do with Voldemort's unknown forces, but also something to do with the vagueness of his mission.
As he approached the enormous wrought-iron gates, he breathed deeply and kept his footsteps even. Hermione, now pursuing graduate study with a wizard who taught at Cambridge, had procured him a fake university ID that she swore up and down would get him into the stacks if he needed; apparently she'd spent the previous several summers sneaking in to read old Muggle manuscripts. ("Oh, Harry, while you're there you should see the Chaucer and the Gutenberg; they're absolutely brilliant...")
What he didn't know was who he'd be meeting there.
"You'll know him on sight," Dumbledore had said. "Better not to say at this juncture, eh?" He'd smiled rosily, although Harry's spine had prickled. What, if he knew who he was meeting, and fell into the wrong hands, he might tell them? What the hell was that about? But he'd smiled back and said, "Yes, of course," because what else did one say to Albus Dumbledore?
He didn't even know exactly where he was going. "There's a bench outside the National Library. You'll be met there." So he sat, and he waited.
The sound of his name startled him. More startling still was the familiar drawling tone. Harry looked up; sure enough, there stood Snape. He wore black corduroys and a grey jumper, and his hair was tied back, and there was an earring in one ear. Harry boggled, but tried not to show it.
"What's the point of being incognito if you're going to use my name?"
Snape scowled. "There are at least a dozen Potters in this city even now, I guarantee it." How could a voice so quiet sound so disgusted?
Harry felt his face heating. "Yeah, right, okay."
There was a moment of awkward silence.
"I have a manuscript for you to take back," Snape said, smoothly. Harry inhaled hard, wondering what Snape had found.
"Really?" He tried to affect nonchalance, but knew he was probably failing. Poker had never been his strong suit.
"There's a pub down the street with particularly fine bangers and mash. Perhaps you could join me for dinner and we could discuss it."
Now Harry was definitely boggling. "Dinner?"
"The library is busy at this hour," Snape said, glancing to one side meaningfully. "I'd prefer to chat somewhere more...congenial. Besides: I hear you're doing a fair amount of drinking this year."
Oh, God: the stupid cover story. Harry sighed.
Though it was getting chilly as the mist intensified to drizzle. A warm dinner did sound good. "Sure," he said.
"I trust you're not waiting for me to offer you my arm." Snape turned and headed down the street. Harry's blush, which had finally receded, came racing back.
Damn it. There was nothing to do but follow.
Cooper's was dark and a little smoky. They settled into a small table in a back corner, and slowly Harry felt himself beginning to relax. The bartender had nodded at them when they entered, and Snape had said hello to a few men at the bar; clearly he had been here before, and that made Harry feel safer. Snape had claimed the seat with his back to the wall, and darted periodic glances around the rest of the room.
A burly guy in an apron came to take their drink orders. "Pint of your usual?" he asked Snape, who nodded. "And for your boy?"
Harry almost choked, but Snape merely quirked a half-smile. "He's not a boy."
Nor yours, either, Harry thought, but managed to keep his mouth shut.
The waiter shrugged and looked Harry's way. "A pint of bitter, please," he managed. The fellow went away, and Harry considered, and rejected, at least half a dozen ways of asking Snape what the hell that had been about. Somehow they all seemed like good ways to get himself turned into something unpleasant the next time they were somewhere safe for magic.
The beers arrived quickly, anyway. Snape approached his with an air of reverence, drinking silently with his eyes closed.
There was something too intimate about watching the man worship his beer like that. Harry looked away. When he looked back, Snape's eyes were open again.
"What is it?" Harry gestured towards Snape's glass. The contents were vaguely pinkish and smelled sour.
"Cask-aged Belgian lambic. Not the sweet nonsense you find most places. There's nothing like it in the world, this one or ours."
Hearing Snape says "ours" sounded oddly intimate too, though Harry knew he was just avoiding saying "Muggle" and "wizarding." "Can I try some?"
Snape raised an eyebrow slightly but pushed his glass across the table. The ale was slightly sour, but in an amazing way. Wow: that really was good. Harry resisted the urge to gulp it, and passed the glass back.
Snape was right; the bangers and mash were excellent. Brilliant, even. In fact, once the food arrived Harry realized he was ravenous.
"So...the, ah, dean didn't tell me much about your work here," Harry said, between bites.
"Mmm. I suppose not."
"I'm on sabbatical this year, as I trust you've gathered."
"Hogw-- we give sabbaticals?"
Snape scowled. "Not as a matter of course, no. But there's work I can better do elsewhere. Bear in mind that teaching isn't all I do. Some of my superiors would prefer to see me in the city."
Oh. Right. Maybe it didn't look so great for a supposedly loyal Death Eater to be cozying up to Albus Dumbledore.
"In any case. I spent the summer in the archives here researching alchemy."
"Didn't know that was a valid field of study amongst Mu-- locals," Harry amended quickly.
Snape snorted. "It hasn't been in some centuries, much to their detriment."
Harry downed the last of his pint; the waiter whisked it away before he could gesture for a glass of water.
"In one of the medieval texts I was studying, I noted some fascinating omissions. So I used techniques for reading between the lines"--that same heavy-handed emphasis again; did he think Harry was stupid?—"and found references to this."
He reached across the table, hand clenched into a fist. Harry mirrored his reach automatically; Snape dropped something tiny into his palm. Felt like a capsule or a jelly bean.
The waiter chose that moment to return with new pints of beer for the both of them. Harry drew his hand back quickly. The waiter smirked.
When they left it wasn't raining anymore, but was still cold and damp, and Harry was disoriented. He'd tried to pay attention when Snape had led him to the pub, but they'd taken some odd twists and turns (to avoid being followed, presumably) and he wasn't sure now where they were. That morning he'd Apparated into a dark alley, but he wasn't sure he wanted to vanish from anyplace where people might see him. He stuck his right hand into his pocket and fingered the tiny scroll Snape had slipped him.
"Is there a park around here somewhere?"
Snape looked at him oddly. "A what?"
"Someplace dark without any people," Harry clarified.
It had to be the beer; Snape was actually laughing. "You want me. To take you. To a park where no one will see us."
It took a moment for the meaning to penetrate; then Harry found himself blushing yet again. "That--that didn't come out quite right."
"I should say not." Snape's laughter had subsided, but his eyes were amused.
Disconcerting. Presumably because he'd never seen Snape smile quite like that before.
"I need to get home. Dumbl--the dean will want a report."
"Ahh." Snape pursed his lips for an instant. "My flat's about five minutes' walk; we'll be alone there."
Now who's making suggestive...suggestions, eh? Somehow Harry kept the retort from bubbling up through his lips; he nodded, and they started walking again.
Though a question was starting to prick at Harry's consciousness. Why wasn't Snape bringing the scroll back himself?
Harry wasn't sure what he'd expected, but Snape's flat surprised him. It was basically nondescript; old tile floors, slightly dingy walls, a kitchenette and small lounge and a closed door that Harry had to assume led to the bedroom. The only things that made it look inhabited were the piles of books beside the sofa, and the quills and ink and stacks of parchment on the endtable serving as a desk.
After a moment he became aware of Snape's regard. Whoops: he was standing there staring at the man's things. Maybe he was tipsier than he'd thought.
"You may Apparate from here." Snape turned and removed his coat and went through the closed door.
The silence was awkward, as was the prospect of Apparating with his former professor there. Harry'd gotten decent at it, but he still needed a fair amount of calm to pull it off on the first try, and for some reason being in Snape's lounge wasn't calming him down.
"Thanks," he offered, lamely.
There was a noncommittal grunt from the other room.
"For dinner, I mean. And—"
He'd meant to say "and the scroll," but Snape emerged from the bedroom and for some reason Harry fell silent. "Everything," he said finally.
There was a pause. What the hell: might as well ask, right? "If you can Apparate privately from here, why couldn't you bring this back to Dumbledore yourself?"
Snape heaved a rather theatrical sigh. "I have tasks here that I need to finish before I can return. I have meetings this week—you needn't concern yourself regarding with whom," he added, sharply. "Suffice it to say that my...loyalty has been in question, and I need to remain here for a time. My return to Hogwarts would likely be noticed, since I'd have to Apparate outside the school and then walk. I don't need that kind of suspicion."
"Oh. Couldn't you Floo?"
Snape gestured at the electric fire snugly wedged beneath the mantel of what was clearly, now that he looked at it closely, a purely ornamental fireplace.
Harry felt foolish.
"It's getting late, Mr Potter," Snape said. Subtext: get the hell out of here.
"Right," hastily. Harry closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and felt himself pop out of the room.
It was a relief to be home. The day'd been more nerve-wracking than he'd anticipated. Navigating London, meeting his unknown collaborator, acting like a moron when it turned out to be Snape. And then dinner, and the odd almost-flirtation of the decision to Apparate from Snape's flat, and then the meeting with Dumbledore.
He'd passed the tiny scroll across Dumbledore's desk; as it left his hands, the scroll had whistled and expanded until it was the size of a large rolling pin. Dumbledore had opened it and scanned it, murmuring things under his breath that Harry couldn't hear, as Harry gave his report on the day. He hadn't been sure the headmaster was listening, but when he was finished Dumbledore had looked over at him and smiled. "Good work, Harry," he'd said, gently. "I'll owl you in a few days. Stretchable Squid?"
The candies looked innocuous enough, although one of them kept blinking at him, but Harry had turned them down and headed for home. Where he was now luxuriating in the simple safety of being in bed for the night.
Although apparently too restless to sleep.
Time to pull out a well-worn fantasy, then. So much easier, now that he was living alone. Harry conjured a mental image of a beautiful man--a little older than he, pale and dark-haired and well-muscled and half-naked and leaning back in a deep leather chair--and let the image float over his bed, smiling at him.
The fantasy man licked his lips and leaned his head back and slipped his hand down his trousers. Harry breathed deeply and did the same. Mmm.
The vision sped his strokes, and Harry did too. In near-unison they teased and pinched their nipples with their free hands, and tightened their grasps. The vision moaned a little, and so did Harry. Close: so close. He was so close.
And then the vision closed his eyes and swallowed hard, and was in that instance the very image of Severus Snape transported by the flavour of his beer, and Harry's whole body flashed hot with something like mortification as he came harder than he could remember doing, ever in his life.
The owl from Dumbledore came on Thursday. Harry showed up for the resultant meeting on Friday morning; when the door swung open to reveal two chairs in front of Dumbledore's desk, instead of one, he felt odd butterflies in the pit of his stomach. Sure enough, moments later, in walked Snape. Who sat down with a nod to Dumbledore and a bare flicker of his eyes toward Harry.
The Muggle clothes, earring, and ponytail were gone. Snape looked back to his usual self. That struck Harry as slightly unfortunate, actually. He wouldn't have admitted it aloud, but the man hadn't looked half-bad in Muggle dress.
Dumbledore pushed steaming cups of tea across the desk.
"What do you gentlemen know about the Golem of Prague?"
Harry thought for a second. "Supposedly mythical creature made of clay by a Rabbi Loew, sometime in the sixteen-hundreds or so. Brought to life as a kind of bodyguard for the Jewish community, started killing people, and was eventually killed by his creator. Some believed he would rise again to save the people at their greatest hour of need, although that belief largely faded in the aftermath of World War II."
Dumbledore beamed. "Excellent, Harry!"
"Hermione had a collection of Jewish 'Occult and Fantasy' tales," Harry found himself mumbling. As if explaining would do him any good. He felt like a showoff.
"Do you know how it was killed?"
This time Snape spoke first. "On its forehead was written the word emet, 'truth.' Its creator erased the initial aleph, leaving behind met, 'death.'"
Huh. Guess he wasn't the only one with a taste for mythology. Harry straightened in his seat a little.
"Now—what do you know about the Sefer Yetzirah?" Dumbledore's smile had vanished. He looked deadly serious.
"Nothing," Harry admitted. Dumbledore looked at Snape.
"The 'Book of Creation.' Arcane text of unknown authorship. Medieval. Containing instructions for consciousness-raising and for the creation of golems. Among other things." Snape sounded bored. "Albus, you know I've spent the last six weeks on this. Does this meeting have a purpose besides testing the limits of my memory?"
Dumbledore seemed entirely unfazed. He leaned back in his chair. "I have reason to believe that your research may prove the answer we've been looking for."
Harry inhaled hard but kept silent. So did Snape.
"Voldemort is not entirely corporeal. He continues to use stolen physical elements to build his body, with borrowed strength."
Harry was nodding. Get on with it, please, he half-prayed.
"Using the methods outlined in the Sefer Yetzirah, the hints of procedure in the scrolls Severus tracked down, and a profound amount of magical energy and focus, I think we can...unmake him. Much like the golem."
"Erase the source of his power, leaving death behind." Excitement was building in Harry's belly. Vol-de-Mort. Flight from death. They could bind his wings.
There was a pause.
"What 'we,' precisely?" Snape's query was sharp.
Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "There's an injunction against studying these mystical procedures alone, for fear insanity might result. The two of you will learn and practise together."
Harry's spine prickled. "Are you sure that's a—"
Snape interrupted. "If memory serves, there's also an injunction against studying Kabbalah if one is under the age of forty, unmarried, or not Jewish." His sarcasm was in full force.
Dumbledore ignored it altogether. "I know you'll do brilliantly." He turned to the side table and nodded to the china pot, which elevated and hovered over the middle of the desk. "More?"
Snape's Hogwarts chambers looked much more like Harry had expected: heavy drapes and shelves of books and scrolls and unending cabinets of phials and jars labelled in Snape's precise hand.
"I don't speak Hebrew." Harry was seated in Snape's study, at a table with wood so dark it appeared black. He studied his reflection in the gloss.
"I have some, but probably not enough." Snape was pulling books and scrolls from the shelves. "The alphabet isn't difficult. We'll begin with the text in translation, and commentaries. I trust you can work on the language on your own."
The pile of texts thunked down with a little more force than strictly necessary. Snape sat in the other chair and heaved a sigh. "Some sabbatical," he muttered.
"Weren't you supposed to be avoiding Hogwarts at all cost?"
Snape glared. "My tasks in London were completed. And in any event, that's not your concern."
Harry decided not to pursue the issue. To fill the silence, he flipped one book open. An impenetrable wall of unintelligible characters seemed to dance before his eyes. Wait: they were actually moving. He blinked and closed the book again.
Snape answered his unasked question, sounding vaguely weary. "No, Mr Potter, ordinary Hebrew texts do not move. What you hold in your hands is a rare example of magical text written in Aramaic."
"Wow," Harry said. There was a pause. The excitement of having an actual task to pursue, a possibility of getting somewhere, began to drain away, replaced by the sinking awareness of how much there was to do. "This is going to take forever."
Snape smiled grimly. "I suggest we begin."
The morning of the first early snow, coating the crinkled fallen leaves with dry, sparkling white. A fire burned in Snape's study.
"What are the thirty-two paths of wisdom?"
Snape and Harry faced each other across the narrow width of the table, close enough to reach for each others' books.
"The twenty-two letters of the aleph-bet and the ten primary numbers."
"The ten sefirot, spheres of divine emanation." The questioning felt like class, but for once Harry was sure of himself under Snape's regard. Reading was much, much easier than Potions.
"What is the difference between Wisdom and Understanding?" Before Harry could answer, Snape cut in again. "Provide the relevant terms in Hebrew."
"Chokhmah signifies the unitary quality of divine wisdom in which all divisions or differences are irrelevant. Binah is essentially binary: understanding which presupposes a knower and a known."
Snape nodded. "Not bad, Mr Potter." It wasn't quite approval, but Harry would take what he could get.
Snape closed his book; Harry opened his.
"Which letters are the three fundamental mothers?"
"Aleph, mem, shin."
"A scale of innocence, a scale of guilt and 'a tongue ordained to balance between the two'.""
"And the other letters?"
"Seven doubles, and twelve simples."
Harry shrugged. "Sounds right to me."
The fire popped and crackled. Harry's book slammed shut, and Snape's hissed open.
The studying wasn't so difficult, once Harry got into the rhythm of it.
The meditation was harder. They sat before sunrise, facing each other, eyes closed and palms open. Practicing breathing and focusing, calling up the letters in their complicated spirals.
Harry's focus was decent, generally. He wouldn't have been capable of Apparating, otherwise. But sitting so close to Snape, in the early morning before sleep had entirely left his body, was...distracting. Especially because the fantasy vision he conjured to masturbate himself to sleep most nights was looking more and more like his study partner.
"Potter. You're drifting." Disapproval.
Shit. The cone of energy dissipated as Harry opened his eyes. "I'm sorry. I was—" What exactly was he going to say? 'Sorry, Professor, I was lost in imagining that sharp tongue put to better use?' Not bloody likely. He took a deep breath. "Let's try it again."
Their eyes closed. They synchronized their breathing.
"Do you have any idea what we're getting ourselves into?"
Harry was lying on his back on the floor of the meditation room, trying to stretch a kink out of his lower back. Snape leaned against the wall. Harry avoided looking up at him: his legs looked even longer from this vantage point.
"Same thing as always, right?" Wasn't like he'd never fought Voldemort before.
"Damn it, Potter, don't be flip. We're playing God. Even if we succeed in binding him, there's danger."
He sounded angry. Almost...protective.
Harry sighed and sat up. "I understand that. I do," he repeated, quickly, to forestall objection. He breathed deeply, then let it go. "It's worth the risk."
"Gryffindors." The name was meant to be an imprecation, but it sounded more weary than angry. In two strides Snape was back in the center of the room, sitting back down to begin again.
Some mornings Snape appeared grey and sallow, with shadows under his eyes. He was always clean-shaven, his robes always impeccable, but sometimes he seemed to radiate exhaustion. No: not radiate. Nothing was radiant about those mornings. More that his exhaustion was so strong it fed on everything Snape did.
As if he needed all of his considerable will to remain upright.
Slowly Harry realized those mornings came once a month, like clockwork. Mornings after Snape was called, and had returned, from meetings of his other, darker, Order.
What was Snape doing, those nights, to come back so drained? What was he going through?
Harry didn't ask, and Snape didn't volunteer. From snippets he overheard between Snape and Dumbledore as Harry came or went from their progress-report meetings, he knew the dark Lord was still plotting. Was gaining power. Seemed unaware of what they were working on.
Was not, though he seemed it, gone. Merely biding his time. For something new and terrible. About which Harry both did, and didn't, want to ask.
Sometimes he wondered whether Snape would break. Whether one morning he'd fail to arrive at the meditation room. But Snape had been doing this dangerous doubling for years: surely he was capable of continuing.
He had to be. Harry shook his head and followed Snape's example, settling into meditation again. If Snape reacted to his own exhaustion by attacking their exercises with an almost murderous fury, Harry didn't complain.
Qualities formed with the letter Aleph: the spirit-wind, air, the between-seasons, the chest, the tongue. With the letter Yod: the sign of Virgo, the month of Elul, the left kidney, copulating and castration. With the letter Ayin: the sign of Capricorn, the month of Tevet, the left hand, laughing and the loss of spleen.
By Christmastime Harry could recite the letters of the aleph-bet and their attendant arcana without even thinking.
Their study dialogues grew more like interrogations, the questions harder and more arcane, energy at a higher pitch.
"Give me another Hebrew term for 'creation,' and distinguish it from Yetzirah."
"Bara, as in bereshit bara YHVH et ha-shamayyim v'et ha-aretz, 'in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.'" The knowledge was like reflex now. "Yetzirah denotes formation, not pure creation."
"And why doesn't the Sefer Yetzirah employ that synonym?"
"Because the text is an instruction manual for men, and only God can create ex nihilo. Yetzirah implies forming something new with pre-existing materials, like forging iron from ore."
They didn't quiz each other from books anymore. Snape merely nodded and folded his hands, waiting.
"With which of the Four Worlds is Yetzirah associated?"
"The second world, that of emotions and water and thaw." Snape's voice was level, as though he were bored.
"And the root of the word?"
"Yetzer, urge. As in the yetzer ha-tov, the good urge or inclination, and the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination to evil."
Harry thought hard for a moment. "When the yetzer ha-ra was imprisoned, what happened?"
"Chickens stopped laying eggs. From this the rabbis deduced that without the so-called evil impulse, what we might call the sex drive, no creation could occur, and life would stagnate." Snape's voice was dry and silky and made Harry's arm and leg hairs stand on end.
Harry pushed his own evil impulse into the back of his mind, nodded, and waited for the next barrage of questions to rain his way.
The sun rose earlier and earlier as spring approached. Their meetings with Dumbledore grew more intense. He never explicitly said that time was running out, but Harry knew it from the worry in his eyes.
With the growing light, the balance of their days shifted: less time spent in study, more time immersed in the weird meditative fugue-state where their mingled magics drew Hebrew forms in the air. Harry had never learned a language so fast, much less a new system of spell-structures. Then again, he'd always had other classes competing for his energy, before.
And he'd had friends around. This year he was mostly avoiding students: he knew most of the older Gryffindors, and went to a Quidditch match now and then, but making conversation with his supposed peers wasn't easy, especially since he wasn't supposed to let on that he was working on anything. He wasn't even walking to Hogwarts most days: he Floo'd directly to Snape's study.
So his only human contact was with Snape. And with Dumbledore, from time to time, but it wasn't the same. Wasn't sustained.
Hermione and Ron came to town for a long weekend, renting a room from Madam Rosmerta. Harry took three days off to be with them. They ate and drank and reminisced. Ron talked about the Ministry, Hermione about her mentor at Cambridge. They carefully avoided asking about the details of what Harry was doing.
He wouldn't have known how to explain; their lack of questioning was a relief.
Day after day they started before dawn; broke for lunch and some book-work; and reconvened in the meditation room until they couldn't keep focus any more.
Their meditation practises grew in intensity, not just duration. Holding and breathing and focusing on the letters, trying to weave all 231 gates of permutation. When Aquarius gave way to Pisces, they could reliably make it through a hundred and fifty before somebody's focus broke.
It wasn't always Harry who faltered, either. That they were both imperfect was small consolation, but at least it shielded him from Snape's disgusted tone.
The disgust was less in evidence as winter wore on, actually. Sometimes Snape sounded almost grudgingly pleased with their progress.
Harry tried not to think about that; it was becoming easier and easier to imagine Snape's clipped half-compliments in entirely inappropriate contexts. He'd read enough by now to know that one of the reasons men and women were never traditionally paired to learn Kabbalah was fear that the building energy of study would create an inappropriate erotic bond; he wasn't sure why rabbinic authorities hadn't considered that men could develop erotic bonds with other men just as easily.
Meals and the hour of text study grew to be the reprieves in Harry's day. The meditative magic was exhausting, and every time his focus slipped he became aware of his erection. Lately he had one almost all the time. Insistent and often throbbing by the end of a few hours' work. Thank God for loose robes. It was mortifying enough having a perpetual hard-on. He certainly didn't intend for Snape to become aware of it.
Snape often winced as he levered himself out of lotus, but Harry attributed that to the stiffness of older bones, or hamstrings not conditioned by years of Quidditch.
Though sometimes he wondered whether Snape might not be similarly afflicted--whether twining their magical energy together were awakening Snape's erotic impulses, too.
And sometimes it seemed that Shape was looking at him, when he thought Harry wasn't looking back. Watching him. In what might have been construed, in anyone else, as a hungry way.
Harry confined that line of thinking to the privacy of his own bedroom. If he'd allowed himself those thoughts in the meditation room, he might have spontaneously combusted.
"We can do it."
Dumbledore peered at them from over the top of his teacup, slurped the tea noisily, then set it down.
"Severus? Do you concur?"
Snape tightened his lips. "I'd prefer another six months, but He plans to rise at the Solstice, and the phase of the moon is fairly critical. If we don't do it now..."
Harry suppressed a shudder.
"When was your last summons?" Dumbledore's voice was gentle, as always when he alluded to the dark sigil that marred Snape's arm.
"Twenty-six days ago."
"So you expect the next one—"
"Day after tomorrow."
Dumbledore nodded. "Tomorrow it is."
Harry took a deep breath and waited for the usual brush-off, the offer of some strange confection, but it didn't come.
Dumbledore smiled; his voice, when it came, was soft and kind. "Good luck."
They fasted from sunset the night before, to cleanse their bodies of any impurity. They abstained from sleep, each alone in his room studying the texts he by now knew by heart.
At the darkest hour of the night they set new wards on the meditation room. They burned sage leaves and white fox fur and clippings of fingernails. They cast a circle of salt and sand. They worked in silence, save the necessary incantations. Their motions were perfectly in tune, as though they were two halves of a single body.
A dim, distant part of Harry's mind that was observing the proceedings was fascinated by that. But mostly he wasn't thinking about it. Keeping focused. Mind-of-no-mind. Letting the spells and wards and chants move through him. Harry Potter, a conduit for the force that would turn Voldemort inert like clay. If they were lucky. If they didn't kill themselves first.
At sunrise they started the meditation, the breathing and letter repetition.
Energy built around them, a multicolored spiral from consciousness to the other plane, whether down or up Harry couldn't say. His wand felt glued to his hand.
Their two magics were wrapping together so completely they seemed almost to merge. It would have been an intimate sensation, maybe even pleasurable, if he'd been able to spare the energy for pleasure.
The intricate weave of emanations built, binding like braids or cables around the shape of a man. Along with them came a blinding pain in the center of his forehead, and the awareness that the same pain was spreading through Severus from the Mark on his forearm.
Strange to be fighting Voldemort from afar, without the adrenaline crackle of immediate battle.
Time seemed to slow, the exhaustion unlike anything he had ever experienced. They couldn't lose focus: couldn't give up. This was their one chance.
Fear of failure snaked through his gut. They could bind themselves alongside him. They could crackle like vessels in a kiln fired too high. There was no room for error. Any impurity of thought or focus or magic might cause them to burn.
They hit letter permutation number two hundred. An eternity of pain and effort passed before they reached two hundred and one.
Voldemort was aware of their efforts by now. He had to be: he was fighting back. Trying to turn aside their energy, to cripple them with their own force. His magic was leaching their strength, inching back towards them along the connection their letter-permutations had built.
They reached two hundred and fifteen. Two hundred and sixteen. Harry's head felt on the verge of splitting open. Severus's arm felt about to burst.
Thoughts and sensation weren't only Harry's, anymore. He was innately aware of his partner's body, power, emotion, as though they shared a physical form. They struggled to reach two hundred and twenty-nine.
Voldemort screamed. His rage slammed into them.
Two hundred and thirty.
And then: blackness.
The voice was Hermione's. The sheets around him felt crisp and cool. Harry struggled to open his eyes, then closed them immediately: the room was too bright, colors too vivid.
"Crepuscula," Hermione murmured, and the room fell into shadow. "There. That's better."
Hands propped more pillows behind him, and a moist cloth stroked his forehead and eyelids.
"Can you hear us, Harry?"
"Mmmph," he mumbled. He'd meant to say yes, but his voice didn't seem to be quite working yet.
"You've been out for some time." This time it was Dumbledore who spoke. Harry was startled into trying to open his eyes again.
The headmaster swam into blurry focus. Hermione was beside him. She brought a glass of water over and tipped a straw between Harry's lips.
"How...long?" He croaked after a few sips.
"About eleven days."
Harry sank back into the pillows, exhausted from even trying to move. Waking up in the infirmary with Hermione and Ron beside the bed was such a familiar experience he couldn't quite remember what had brought him there.
Wait. No Ron. "Where's—"
"Severus is in the next room over. He woke this morning."
Severus? Why would he be asking about--
The memory hit him hard. The meditation room afire with glowing letters. Everything going black. The binding almost completed.
Albus nodded. His face seemed unusually serious. "You succeeded. He is clay."
Harry exhaled. He felt vaguely dizzy. He couldn't quite believe it.
Dumbledore smiled then, and patted him on the shoulder. "I knew you could do it, Harry. I'll leave you to your friend."
He turned in a whirl of purple robes and was gone. Hermione perched on the edge of the bed.
"Do you feel up to company?"
"Talk to me," Harry whispered. It wasn't that his throat hurt; more like his brain hurt. He wanted to lie back and listen.
She seemed to understand, and started off. "Ron got stuck at the Ministry and couldn't come with me, but I've been here almost the whole time. I've been working in the corner so I don't fall behind. I'm learning the most fascinating things, Harry--you wouldn't believe..."
The streets of Hogsmeade rang with shouts and laughter. Fireworks zipped and zoomed. Music was playing. The weekend had been declared a festival: every establishment in the wizarding world was closed, and people were dancing in the streets. The pavement was already wet with sloshed pumpkin juice and beer, and though it was barely twilight there were people snogging in corners. It was going to be a regular bacchanalia, all right.
Less than a week since Harry had awoken. His weakness had faded quickly. The meditative skills he'd spent the winter developing were pretty helpful with healing, actually, and although Pomfrey kind of annoyed him, she was good at what she did.
He'd seen Snape once in the infirmary. The man had looked exhausted, although not in the same brittle way as he had after Death Eater meetings through the winter. Merely...thin.
The tenderness he'd felt, on seeing his erstwhile partner, had almost overwhelmed him. The impulse to embrace Snape, right there in the hall. For his part, Snape had nodded a greeting and had quickly looked away. Harry had felt vulnerable, naked, and not just because the cotton robes the infirmary provided were insubstantial.
Harry cleared his throat again as he headed for Hogwarts, paper bag clutched tightly. Hermione and Ron had urged him to celebrate with them, but he'd told them he had a date, and had refused to say with whom. As usual for him these days, it was a half-truth, not the whole story. He'd planned his evening out, but wasn't sure of his reception. He just knew that he didn't feel like being their third wheel tonight; that the wild carnival streets weren't what he was in the mood for; and that if he were going to celebrate Voldemort's defeat, there was only one person he really felt like doing it with.
He didn't exactly think he'd be an unwelcome guest. He and Snape had worked in concert for months now. He knew Snape's chambers, at least the study room, like the back of his hand.
He'd just never been there on a social call before.
Taking a deep breath, he knocked at the heavy oaken door.
It swung open silently. Snape stood inside. "Potter." There was acknowledgement in his tone, and was that surprise? Harry couldn't tell.
He gestured with the bagged bottle. "I thought you might want to celebrate."
Snape looked at him oddly for a moment, then stepped back to let Harry in.
Once they were seated by the fireplace Harry presented him with the bottle. Cask-aged Belgian lambic; it was supposed to be the same thing he'd seen Snape savor at the pub those many months ago. Madam Rosmerta had owled one of her contacts in the Low Countries about it. The bottle had not come cheap.
"My," Snape said, sounding pleased. "Where did you find this?" He rose and returned with a pair of glasses.
"Thought it was the one you liked," Harry ventured.
"Indeed." There was a silence as Snape poured; then he raised his glass. Harry mirrored him.
"To...victory," Harry offered.
"At long last," Snape muttered, and Harry closed his eyes briefly to drink. A flash of Snape's rapt face at the London pub crossed his mind, briefly. He flushed, hoping Snape would attribute it to the drink.
And kind of hoping not.
After the ale was finished, Snape opened a bottle of wine.
And then another.
In a tipsy slip of the tongue Harry had called him "Severus" and he hadn't seemed to mind, which filled Harry with quiet elation. Being able to call the man by his first name made his fantasies seem so much closer.
He wasn't entirely sure what they'd been talking about, but he knew he'd laughed so hard he'd almost spilled his drink. Twice, at least. Severus seemed unusually relaxed, too; Harry wasn't sure whether that was the effect of wine, or of the fact that the battle had finally been won, but he seemed less tense than usual. Still cuttingly sarcastic, but not as tightly-wound. The sarcasm seemed directed at the world in general, not at Harry in particular. Instead of flaying him alive, it just made everything funnier. Or maybe that was the alcohol.
Whoops. He hadn't been listening. Harry reddened but grinned. "Sorry; was distracted." He licked his lips.
Severus's eyes seemed to linger on Harry's mouth, but he made no direct acknowledgement. "I'm flattered that you chose to spend your evening here, but won't the...ladies of your acquaintance be missing your company?" Sardonic, as usual.
Harry shook his head. "I'm not much of a ladies' man."
Was he being too subtle? "And most of the men of my acquaintance are prats." There: that should be obvious enough.
Severus stood and walked to the mantel to pour himself another glass of wine. "But surely you'd prefer a more...active celebration?"
Harry's blood prickled hot. It was the perfect moment. The time had come. He stood.
"We could have a celebration of our own."
The drink and the fire had gone to his head; he could feel his cheeks reddening, was aware of the feel of his robes, and of the ache that signified wanting.
He walked towards Severus as he was cajoling, and when the man turned Harry moved in and kissed him. Oh, God: so much better than he'd imagined. The tall, whipcord-lean body pressed against his, hard in so many places. His tongue in Severus' mouth. His hair tickling the sides of Harry's neck as they pressed together. Severus bit gently and Harry felt himself moan.
And then Severus pulled back. Eyes bright, face pale but for high spots of color that could have been embarrassment or could have been arousal. His face seemed to shutter.
"Not a good idea, Mr Potter."
"Mr--?" Harry repeated, confused. "Severus, what the hell—" Damn it, everything had been going so right. What had he done wrong?
"You're drunk and you don't know what you're doing. Surely you can find a more appropriate partner for your one-night stand."
Harry felt as if he had been hexed, like ice was replacing his organs and veins. He took a step back, then another. "You really think so little of me." He was amazed that his voice was coming out so calmly.
Snape just stared.
Harry turned and fled.
It must have been two in the morning, but the sky was bright with artificial light: flowers, dragons, cascades of sparkling stars in colors too absurd to be real. Music was still playing. The streets of Hogsmeade were thronged.
Harry didn't entirely remember walking all the way home, but he was standing in front of his own door. Miserable. He tapped his wand once and muttered at the door, which obligingly swung open.
His flat seemed dark and low-ceilinged. He flopped onto his couch and stared listlessly at the floor.
A strange owl's chirrup caught his attention. He glanced up; sure enough, a large barn owl was perched on his windowsill.
Surprise cut through the weight of his apathy. Surprise, and a glimmer of hope. Who'd be owling him at this hour, on this night of all nights? He stood, took the two quick paces to the window, opened the sash and let her in.
The scroll tied to her foot unrolled itself when Harry untied the fastener. The writing was undeniably, recognizably, Snape's.
If you wanted to convince me that you are, in fact, drunk and an idiot, dashing off like that was precisely the way to go about it. Bravo.
If you had something else in mind, perhaps you ought to try again.
Harry sat down hard. His mind was reeling.
Severus was inviting him back.
"When the novelty wears off—"
Severus sighed and looked at his fingers, steepled across his lap. "The novelty of shagging an older man, the novelty of shagging a former professor--a hated former professor, perhaps--when the novelty wears off, you'll move on. And I'm not interested in playing those roles for you."
Severus looked up, his eyes dark with what might have been anger. "You don't have the right to say that."
"I didn't hate you." Harry thought for a second. "Well, okay, at first, sure." Severus seemed to almost chuckle. "Look, I was eleven, what do you want? But I...I haven't hated you in some time. And you know it."
"That doesn't change the—"
"And how about this, eh? What about the novelty of being with someone I respect? The novelty of getting to touch someone I've...wanted?" He had meant to stay as calm and level as Severus had, but his voice cracked and he flushed.
"Wanted?" The word sounded insipid and foolish when Severus repeated it. He stood and walked to the window. "Look. Harry. It's not that your offer isn't...tempting. I'm just not sure you mean what you think you mean."
"Shouldn't I know who I've been dreaming about?" Harry was getting annoyed now.
"Damn it, you don't--I knew this might happen, I tried to tell Albus, but—"
"You're blaming the studying?" Sitting still, trying to contain this much nervous energy, was excruciating; Harry rose and walked to the window too, standing behind Severus, whose stiff posture radiated untouchability.
"You've read the same texts I have." Quietly. "You understand the risk."
"And what if I told you I'd wanted this before we started?"
Severus turned to face him, eyes momentarily soft with confusion. "Eh?"
A smug satisfaction loosened the frustration that had bound Harry's chest. "Before the studying. Before the meditation. I'm not saying working together didn't intensify it, but—"
Next thing Harry knew, Severus was in his face. Literally. Body pressing his up against the cool glass of the windowpane, mouth fastened to his.
The desire that had been dampened by the emotional rollercoaster of the last hour rushed back in full force. Harry sighed happily into Severus's mouth.
"I convinced you," he murmured as he pulled back to suck at the long pale throat.
Severus gave what might have been a chuckle and might have been a growl. "Stop talking."
Okay, Harry thought, as the older man's groin ground against his, setting off a delicious stream of sparks up his spine. I can do that.
The window was cold and the sill pressed uncomfortably into his back. "Ow," Harry said after a while. And then, when that didn't seem to get him anywhere, "Couldn't we be horizontal?"
Severus pulled back and Harry waited to be mocked for his phrasing, but no mocking came. Severus turned and headed into his bedroom; Harry followed.
The bed was passably large, with thick posts, draped in dark curtains, black or Slytherin-green, Harry couldn't tell. He didn't much care. His fingers were busy unfastening Snape's robes. Beneath them were a vest and black drawstring trousers. As he tugged at the shirt, he remembered the recurring fantasy--Severus half-clad, stroking himself lazily--and felt his prick harden even further.
He pushed Severus back onto the bed. Even in the dim light he could see the man watching him. He looked a little amused, a little smug--hot, honestly. And for the moment, content to be pushed around. So Harry pushed him, and climbed over him, and yanked the trousers open far enough to reveal his erection, and slid it into his mouth.
Severus gasped. Harry resisted the urge to grin, devoting his attention to licking and sucking and using the hand that wasn't bracing his weight to fondle Snape's balls.
Their breathing had synchronized, from force of habit given their long months of meditative practise, and Harry found that he could read Severus's gasps and sighs like a book. He liked to be grasped roughly; liked a squeeze almost to the point of pain; liked the mingling of that with the sensation of slow, wet suction.
Harry resisted the easy buildup of rhythm, instead varying the length and depth of his strokes to keep Severus just shy of climax. He pulled back and breathed softly on the wet prick and Severus groaned. The sound was needy and naked and exquisite. Harry dove back down onto him; one good suck and Severus was coming in his mouth.
After a while Harry pulled back and wriggled up the bed to lie beside Severus, who rolled on top of him and kissed him long and hard, pressing his body against Harry's. Harry closed his eyes and reveled in the sensation.
A moment later Severus pulled back and slid off the bed, kicking off his pants and groping in his fallen robe. Harry sat up and started unfastening his own robes.
"You trust me," Severus said. It was not-quite a question. Harry nodded.
Severus's wand hand flicked once, fast, and he muttered something Harry couldn't make out. In the next instant Harry was lying on his back, arms and legs spread and fastened to the edges of the bed with what felt like thick, silk rope.
Every inch of Harry's skin danced with electricity and longing. Tied, with satin rope, at the mercy of Severus Snape. Whose gasp of completion had only moments before echoed in Harry's ears. Oh, God.
Severus crawled up his body, opening the robes and buttoned shirt and leaving them open at his sides. Harry felt exposed. It was delicious.
Even more so when his pants were opened and his cock drawn out. Harry gasped.
"You like this," Severus murmured, almost a purr. A finger traced a line down Harry's chest and belly and he quivered beneath it.
He reached for something, then brought his hands to the seam of Harry's pants. The seam parted noiselessly and he shoved the pants-legs down Harry's thighs. When his hand closed and stroked downwards, Harry moaned.
"Is this what you wanted?" Severus's hand ghosted past him and Harry strained upwards, inarticulate. It was like being vivisected with pleasure, his robes open around the hot, hard longing at his core.
In the dim light he could see Snape suckling at a finger; his whole body tightened as that finger was brought down and back to slide, long and knobby and insistent, into his arse.
"Ask nicely," Severus murmured.
His cock was enveloped in heat, Severus's finger pushed blindingly into him, and the room sparkled before going grey.
Harry awoke tangled in satin sheets. Severus was beside him, face-down. Harry resisted the temptation to touch the pale expanse of shoulder and back, and was glad he had when the sound which had woken him repeated itself: owl. Again.
He looked up. Sure enough, the barn owl who had brought Snape's note was perched on a bedpost.
"Hey there," Harry said, softly, not wanting to wake Severus. "Don't know your name."
The owl chirruped quietly and flew down to cling to the edge of the bedside table. Harry unfastened the scroll at its ankle, which unrolled itself.
Harry and Severus,
Fudge wants to award you medals. He insisted I produce you by noon. I'm offering him tea, which should keep him busy for a bit. Do come to my office within the hour.
Harry fell back on the pillow, trying not to laugh. "How does he do that?"
Severus rolled over and glared at him with one eye. "Hmm?"
Harry passed him the note. He felt, as much as heard, Severus snort.
The shower was comfortable for two. Harry took advantage of the chance to stare at Severus's body: long and lean and hard with muscle, darkened here and there with scars whose origins he didn't care to contemplate.
They were half-dressed when Harry finally asked. "Severus. How do we know he won't rise again?"
Severus finished buttoning his dress robes and shrugged. "We don't."
Severus opened the bedroom door and stood by it expectantly. "Doesn't do to keep Albus waiting. I suggest you find yourself some clean robes. Now."
Harry stifled a smile. Severus's bark had definitely lost its bite.
"All right, I can take a hint." He stopped to kiss Severus on the way out. Notably, although the man had been scowling, the kiss was long and involved and heavy with the promise of more. One-night stand. Hah.
Harry broke away and left Snape's chambers, his step easy, heading into the unknown of the new day.