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Severus’ head whips around before he has fully processed that there is a sound coming from his bookshelf. It’s a familiar sound, but it takes him a while to place it. Someone is tampering with one of his old school books? He waits to see if he hears the sound again, and eventually sits back down at his desk to continue grading the abominable essays the second years have somehow managed to create despite apparently knowing little to no English at all. The charms must be getting old.

A week or so later he hears the sound again, but he is in the bathroom and doesn’t make it back in time to find out which book it was. While frowning at his bookcase, still dripping from his shower, he decides to put the books around his rooms, that way he can at least narrow down which book it is. After he’s dried off, though.

He forgets all about the chiming for another few weeks, then decides on a whim late at night that he does want to know which charm is failing. He checks all the books one by one, and all of them seem to be fine. When he’s holding his NEWT-level Potions book however, it chimes loudly. He nearly drops it in shock. This one then. The charm looks fine, but when Severus checks it for other spells, he realizes immediately what must have happened. It’s still linked. He pets the front of the book, turns it over in his hands. He’d brought this book back from the winter hols in his fifth year, and Duplicated it for Lily that spring, when she complained about not being able to keep reading in it during her Easter break in Cokeworth. They’d linked them so they could write each other messages during class and while she was away. After that awful end of term, and that horrible summer, she’d bought a new one. Severus sets his book back on the shelf where it belongs. Maybe it’d been gathering dust in a second-hand store all this time. Maybe someone had bought it finally.

The intermittent chimes barely bother Severus by the time fall starts noticeably turning to winter – he is too busy dealing with Malfoy’s sneaky offspring, and the increasing demands of being called this way and that to deal with Order or Death Eater business. To say nothing of his job teaching miscreants not to kill themselves with creative accidents and uncreative teenage drama. Then he remembers what sorts of things he had written down in that book as he is patrolling late one night and spins around mid-step to run all the way back to the dungeons, ducking cobwebs and ghosts as he travels through little-known passages and secret corridors. When he finally holds the book in his hands again, panting a little, he notices the cover has been changed. It looks new again on the outside, but when he opens it, it still reads ‘Property of the Half-Blood Prince’. Severus sets his jaw and begins the mortifying work of rereading his instances of teenage angst, many and varied as they were, deciding one page at a time is preferable to looking for the things he knows to be truly abhorrent. It takes all night. And whoever it is that possesses Lily’s old book now – they have taken notes, too.

‘Genius’ it says, in pencil, underneath Severus’ comment about the bezoar. He knows now of course why these potions are in the book, not everyone has access to high-quality bezoars and they teach the importance of stirring techniques in a relatively safe way. There are some exclamation marks next to potions, not specifically useful ones, just here and there. As if the person who has the other book has been actually reading the book instead of working from it as a part of a course. A little question mark next to Sectumsempra makes him cross the whole spell out until nothing but a black splotch of ink remains. He goes on to the next page, only to reconsider. What if this person copied the spell somewhere? What if they remember what it was? ‘Test it on a training dummy first, if you’re so desperate to use spells you don’t know’ he writes underneath. He has to write neatly, print small letters, because of how cluttered this particular page is with notes and a big black stain. He crosses out a few more things throughout the book, and once, where the other person has written ‘ok but why?’ under one of his own comments, he writes: ‘Check O.T.M.H.S.F. – page 46’. If this person truly doesn’t know why Alihotsy and dried Glumbumbles should be kept separate they can’t have very much knowledge of potions at all. Perhaps the increasingly desperate Aurors have moved to recruiting people that, by the looks of it, don’t have even an O.W.L. in Potions?

After Slughorn’s horrid Christmas party, and the embarrassment of being tasked with caring for but not knowing anything of the Malfoy boy, Severus rushes downstairs. His nice robes are heavy and a bit uncomfortable so he shrugs them off before slumping down in his worn armchair and pouring himself some scotch. When the book chimes he summons it without a thought, and only thinks once he’s already holding it. The decision is easily made. What else would he do while enjoying his scotch? Brood moodily? He sighs and opens the book, still unsure about his feelings regarding the new cover. He leafs through the book, spotting no new additions, until he gets to the margins of the Elixer to Induce Euphoria. ‘Thanks!!!’ it says, and Severus rolls his eyes. He goes on, and then sees writing underneath the large black splotch. Underneath his suggestion about spells you aren’t familiar with, it says: ‘N.B.: do not try on pillows.’ Severus nearly chokes on his scotch. To amuse himself he summons his self-inking quill, and adds a few more notes to the question marks that are scattered throughout the book. When he carefully prints out ‘just read the instructions on the previous page again – it’s all quite obvious’ under one, and a little ‘ha-ha’ appears out of nowhere, right next to it, he suddenly becomes aware of what he’s doing. He slaps the book shut and returns it to its place on the shelf before going straight to bed.

The school year of course, does as all school years tend to. It gets worse. Between Dumbledore’s horrible revelations, the pressure of his other master, the brewing unrest, and catching Potter and Malfoy duelling in the bathroom (a truly pathetic attempt at Crucio on Malfoy’s side being deftly side-stepped by an equally pathetic Potter, who casts Incarcerous of all things) and of course the resulting detentions served by both, he feels further out of his depth each day. Malfoy at least has the Slytherin good grace of offering to mark first-year essays for his detention, which means he can set Potter to mark also, and this way he gets all his grading done on Saturdays for the rest of the semester. Both are remarkably fast and precise, but of course he would never tell them that.

The plan—which Severus had agreed to even if he did not want to, because has Dumbledore not always been three steps ahead of him?—starts crumbling as the curse in Dumbledore’s right hand progresses. They have less time than they thought they would, and Dumbledore ensures him everything will be clear, everything will be ready. But the Dark Lord is working on something too, and seems more confident and more unhinged with every passing day. It is maddening, in every sense of the word, especially because what comes after is worse than he could have ever imagined.

The boy, Potter, calls him a coward as he’s chasing him out of the castle, and all Severus can think of is the look of concentration he’d had on his face as he’d cast Incarcerous at Draco not three months earlier. This child is supposed to save them all. Why hadn’t he cast Stupefy? Or even Petrificus Totalus? He doesn’t turn around, and disappears into the forest with Malfoy to face the certain wrath of his other master. His only master, now. Later, he will be grateful that he didn’t have time to consider what would happen next. That from the moment he cast the curse, there would be no instructions, no clever guidance, no infuriating hints at omnipotence. Instead he has to find his own way through a muddled mess of morals, orders, and what only he knows to be true. He fights to keep certain thoughts far away, and others closer but not too close to the front, and sometimes quite forgets about feeling anything at all.

It is months later, when Severus is sending one of the students who was until recently home-schooled out of his office, that he hears a familiar chime. It feels like something from a different life, more now than when it had been decades since he’d last heard it. He hasn’t thought much about the book or whoever might have the other book, let alone written back, since the events that occurred at the end of last term, and privately is rather envious of every past version of himself that did not have these burdens to carry. He walks through to the bedroom (garish) of the Headmaster’s rooms (overlarge) and opens his own trunk (comforting). There, kneeling down to reach with his arm into the depth of the magically enlarged trunk, he finds the things he’d thrown together to take with him to the Headmaster’s tower, and then never had the time to unpack. He finds the book easily; its fit is familiar in his hand. He sits down heavily, too tired to keep himself up, surrounded by the black Headmaster’s robes, and opens the book. ‘Thank you for all your help!’ it reads on the first page, a wholly new message he had never seen before. Inside are a variety of new notes, some things have been underlined where he is sure they hadn’t been before. Until he gets to the end. ‘Where can we find more dittany?’ Any other time, he’d have written ‘a shop’ underneath. He’s well aware however that certain types of wizards can no longer go to a shop so easily. ‘Crete,’ he writes instead, then after some thinking, ‘perhaps Muggle botanical gardens, or even old religious institutions.’ He thinks for a moment longer. ‘Do not confuse with Krascheninnikovia – check for round leaves.’

He checks often, after that, going so far as to leave the book on his bed-side table. Just in case he missed the chime, he goes through it back to front once a day or so, until a week later he finally reads ‘thank you, that was very helpful’. Snape is of course busy with trying to catch some teachers while they are breaking some laws of morality, as well as trying not to catch some students while they are breaking some laws that morality and, quite often, sanity wouldn’t approve of. Unfortunately, he does not pay enough attention as he is walking up to the tower on the one day that he should have and nearly collides with very guilty-looking students holding the Sword of Gryffindor. He contemplates erasing their memories of the whole incident for only a second before deciding against it. It’d be hard to get it right, and they would be vulnerable while they recovered from the intrusion. Despite the sword being a fake, he has to make an example of them so he won’t blow his cover. He very nearly cries as he looks at them, young and worn, trying to hide the sword behind their backs like children who have taken the last biscuit. Takes out his anger and frustration at night, in his bedroom, at a painting of Dumbledore that pretends to be asleep the whole time.

‘What helps when you’re very tired all the time?’ his book spells out one night, as Severus is staring at the page where he had written about dittany. ‘Let me know when you find out’, he writes back. His lip almost curls, but then the neatly printed pencil continues. ‘What about nightmares?’ Severus thinks. Dreamless sleep requires Flobberworm mucus, which this person probably does not have access to. ‘Page 52?’ he writes instead. Draught of the Living Dead. He keeps thinking and feels the corner of his mouth tug when another little ‘good one’ appears. ‘Lavender and Valerian sprig with honey instead of the mucus,’ he writes. ‘Stir with your wand and let it simmer for 48 hours.’ He writes out the full brewing instructions just to be sure, then finds sleep himself rather more easily than he’d feared.

‘Can you see the sky?’ Severus writes one night. It is cloudy over Hogwarts and he really needs to know where Mercury is before he completes this potion. If he goes to the library for a star chart he has to leave the potion unattended while it is at its most volatile. ‘Bright and east,’ the book tells him almost immediately, and Severus wonders for just a second whether the person on the other end ever stares at the book all night. Then he counts out three leaves of the mourning bride flower he was holding, and he loses himself in his brewing. He does remember to thank his assistant, but only the next day. ‘For a potion,’ he answers under the ‘why?’ that must have been added later. He doesn’t say what potion. He’d prefer not to think about it.

‘Do you think the war will be over soon?’ Severus manages to decipher. It looks as if the person on the other side tried to erase it after writing it. He doesn’t know what to say. In the end, he settles on: ‘I hope so.’

Nothing much seems to have been happening, but Severus knows there is a task he was not made aware of, and he has his role to play in the conclusion. He does not have much hope for his own place in the world after the inevitable end, but hopes he can help make the coin fall one way rather than the other. He hopes people like this person, who seems not to be much involved in the war efforts either way, can see a resolution before there is nothing left to rebuild.

‘I’m worried it won’t be worth it anymore, when we win,’ the person writes, echoing Severus’ own thoughts. ‘Me too,’ he says.

Winter break is spent pretending to be very busy doing things he Must, while actually searching for the three musketeers. He finally convinces the Nigellus portrait to talk to him at all by getting Dumbledore to threaten him, and from then on a lot of shouting and searching is required. He does learn that the trio is no longer three, however. A quick visit to the Weasleys’ while disguised shows that at least the third is not lost to the world, and the news of Bathilda Bagshot’s very timely demise ends with a near miss, and then a win. The Forest of Dean. It takes Severus four tries to cast his Patronus, as he stands watch over the already-submerged Sword. The fourth time the chime sounds, muffled from inside his winter cloak, right as he is speaking the words into the eerie stillness of the winter night. He holds his hand against the coat pocket the book is in and watches the silver finally take shape. His doe does as it’s told, and luckily Weasley does as he should. Act of bravery indeed, Severus thinks, resettling his cloak while keeping an eye on the sodden boys. Then before he can see anything else, he disappears. This part is out of his hands.

‘Are you real?’ Severus reads on the page he’s blearily staring at, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart and the sweat tickling his neck as he feels his fingers tingle with the remains of the nightmare that woke him up. He does not feel real. ‘What makes you ask?’ he writes back. ‘Apparently it is a bit uncommon for books to give advice,’ comes back, and in another life, Severus would have laughed. He flips to the front, and under his own pseudonym, writes: ‘& the Scatter-brained Simpleton.’ In the back of the book he writes, ‘It is a bit uncommon for books to ask for advice also,’ and then, because he’s wondering, ‘You never asked yourself this before?’ He holds the book as he falls back asleep and wakes up stiff and sore but more rested than he could have hoped for.

There is more news of Potter being spotted every day. So much so, that when the news comes in March that Potter is at the Malfoy Manor, Severus refuses to believe it. He decides he will see in the morning, by which time of course the news arrives that it really was Potter, but he is no longer there. His Mark burns with second-hand rage for days.

On April 30th Severus stupidly spends a whole day trying to convince the Carrows that they are better off trying to get the teachers to behave than taking their anger out on the students. He feels a bit bad about the noise Minerva makes when she overhears him saying that the Dark Lord chose him for this position because of his experience with shaping young minds and that they should trust his judgment. He thinks of all the arguments he came with, all the manipulation techniques he used, all of the next two days as he tries to find Potter, get him the message, stop the school from burning down, and then dying. There are so many ways he could have spent his time better.

Severus wakes up because there is a persistent noise breaking through the dark fog in his mind. He cannot place it at first, and then realizes it’s the sound of an anti-tampering charm. His fingers flex and find no wand, so he casts a wandless Petrificus Totalus that drains all his energy in the direction of the noise and lets the resulting exhaustion drag him back under. The noise stops, at least.

When Severus wakes again he is not sure what woke him up. Normally he wakes up to his ancient alarm clock, but he doesn’t hear it now. He feels as though he is late for something but when he opens his eyes it is still dark. He is in his own bed, though. His own. Bed. In the dungeons? He sits up and immediately regrets it in the most horrible way, grabbing the bowl that is pushed his way only just in time to throw up in it. He can’t stop until someone passes him an anti-emetic potion that he drains so fast it gives him the hiccoughs on top of all his other misery. He gets pushed back down into his bed and falls asleep again.

He wakes the next morning with a certainty in his bones that he should have been dead. He scares the house-elf that is placing a host of potions on his bedside table half to death when he tries to speak and a horrible croak comes out. When she’s recovered though, she explains what she knows about what happened, and then brings Poppy in to explain the rest. All the staff seems to want to make the pilgrimage to his dungeons to stare at him with sad eyes and by the end of the day his hands hurt from fisting them into his sheets in impotent rage. It’ll be months before he can speak again at this rate, and all anyone wants to talk about it is how they’re rebuilding the castle and would he want to be headmaster again? Sod the headmaster! He wants to know why and how Potter is still alive. When Minerva asks if he wants to get back his job, he actually Conjures parchment and a pencil and spells out, carefully and neatly: ‘Sod that.’ She grants him a watery grin and he glowers up at her until she leaves.

Three days later he drags himself out of his rooms, across the lawn, across the border of Hogsmeade, and with the last of his strength, he Apparates to Spinner’s End. It takes the house-elf that took care of him only six hours to find him, and only three seconds to decide to stay with him rather than return to Hogwarts. It’s a good thing she’s a deft hand at chopping and slicing. Mincing not yet – but they’ll get there.

He reads in the newspaper of his own recovery, and subsequent pardon, and how it all happened behind closed doors (Rita Skeeter is not happy about this, which curls a wisp of joy in Severus’ stomach). He brews and answers letters that don’t make him angry, eats the food Misty gets him, and gets a little better with each iteration of the potions he’s working on. When he upends the leather pouch he keeps his money in and all that falls out is a Sickle, a button, and a bit of lint, he straightens his back, puts on his outdoors robes, and makes the trip back to Hogwarts for his things. Minerva of course offers him his job back, again, but he just levels a blank stare her way. Recovering his voice didn’t actually end up taking months, but some questions don’t deserve answers. While he is packing up his rooms, he finds the book that he kept on his bedside table for years, and then twenty years later for months, and he has several ideas at once. He tosses the book in a box.

Two days of moving and one day of sending letters to call in favours later, he has all his things in one place if not properly unpacked, and a neat advance on a book about advanced healing potions. They’ll publish six improvements and two inventions if he just writes them down, and in the meanwhile he’ll have enough money to eat and brew.

He only opens his old potions book on the third day after he recovered it. Sitting on his bed, he realizes what he’s done for the very first time. He relied on someone, who relied on him, even if in small and seemingly insignificant ways, during a time when reliance was rare and wonderful, and then he disappeared for months. The book is filled with pencil marks, half of them erased and written over again. ‘Are you alright?’ it reads. Over and over, variations on the theme. ‘Were you at the Battle?’ Severus swallows around whatever is lodged in his throat. ‘Did I miss you? Would I have met you if I’d paid attention? Were you really only a book after all?’ Sometimes they are more rational, ‘Maybe you lost the book? Maybe the spell got damaged?’ Some are unhinged in a way that makes Severus’ chest hurt, even as he realizes just how grateful he is that they apparently both made it through the war. ‘What if I’ll never know who you were? What if you died before I got to meet you?’ He goes all the way to the front, almost grins when he sees the ‘ha-ha’ next to his sharing of the ownership of the book. ‘I am fine,’ he writes. ‘I was injured and have been recovering. I am sorry to have worried you.’

He carries the book with him everywhere for the rest of the day, holding his breath for any response, and still nearly knocks over the potion he was working on when the book chimes behind him. He lets the potion ruin itself when he turns off the fire and turns around to read the message, staring at the ‘oh’ underneath his words until Misty calls him up for dinner. That night when he looks through the book again, many of the pencil questions have been erased. He’s not sure how that makes him feel. Even as he’s staring at a long and cramped passage that seems to be about black eyes and being see-through, it disappears bit by bit.

A few days later, Severus adds extra pages to the book and writes at the top of the first one: ‘Does this work?’ He gets an answer pretty quickly, ‘It does!’ Spends the next few hours thinking of a question that the person on the other side might know the answer to, that isn’t personal, isn’t prying, and won’t make them think that he is in any way offended by the way they fussed when they thought Severus might have died. ‘Did the substitution of honey work for the Dreamless Sleep?’ he writes, finally. He has been toying with the idea of writing another book after this one is done, about the most basic potions used in everyone’s household, but they should require only common or easy to store ingredients. The working title of that book is For Everyone That Failed My Class But Needs Potions Anyway and he thinks that besides some cleaning and healing potions, this might be something people would like to be able to make themselves. ‘Yes!’ comes back, quite quickly. ‘I actually dunked in a mug after half an hour of simmering, drank that, and slept very well.’ That is promising, Severus thinks, cheering up a bit. ‘But that might of course have been placebo.’ Next to their little conversation Severus draws a little table with two columns. ‘You’ he writes about the left column, ‘Me’ above the other. He gives himself a 0, and the person on the other side a 1. It earns him a ‘ha-ha’ and his heart skips a beat. He had missed those.

The person that has the other book, Severus has started thinking of them as The Person That Has The Other Book, writes as often as they did during the war. So late that Severus considers they might be in a different time zone, but of course then if that were the case, they wouldn’t be able to help him with the position of the stars when it is overcast where Severus is. They talk most days, it feels easy and natural to keep the messages going. Severus finds himself… fond. ‘You have a house-elf?’ He watches the words appear on the page, and feels his mouth twitch. ‘Why does that surprise you?’ he asks. ‘Bit unethical isn’t it?’ comes back. Severus’ mouth works its way into a smile. ‘You might be surprised by how easy it is to ask questions like “What do you need?” and “How can we make this arrangement work for you?” if you were to try it for yourself someday.’ He doesn’t need to wait long for a response. ‘So you pay them?’ He rolls his eyes but doesn’t manage to get rid of the smile. ‘Obviously not, I tell her how many hours a day I want her around and don’t call on her outside of those hours so she can spend time with her family.’ He also lets her know every time she does a good job and that he trusts her at least once a day. ‘And that works?’ Severus thinks on that. He does think they are both happy, he with her work, and she with the pride and fulfillment of serving him well and belonging somewhere. ‘Well,’ he writes, ‘I did have to promise that I would let her work longer hours as soon as I get married and have many children.’ It stays quiet for a beat longer than he’s used to - a distraction on the other side? ‘Is that a near-future sort of plan?’ Severus snorts loudly at the very idea. ‘Not bloody likely,’ he writes back, and regrets bringing it up all through the rest of the awkward back and forth of, ‘Not that it’s any of my business,’ and, ‘No, I don’t mind.’

Slowly, as Severus gets better physically and more comfortable with the idea that he won’t be hexed by a disgruntled parent the second he shows his face he starts leaving the house more often. At the we-restored-the-atrium party at the ministry that his publicist forced him to attend, he is surprised to see the triumvirate not together, but spread around the room. He wonders vaguely whether they might be having a little domestic but then has to focus his attention back to the person he’s supposed to be flattering. Someone tries to introduce him to Potter at some point, and the best Severus can manage is “... yes, we’re acquainted.” He pretends to see someone he knows right as Potter deliberately spills champagne all over himself so in the end they were both probably equally eager to make small talk over war reparations.

It makes symbolic sense, of course, to have the party about the atrium in the atrium, but the terrible memories that haunt the space are overshadowed only by the impossible acoustics, and Severus ends up leaving early with a splitting headache. When he is already holding a fistful of Floo powder he looks over his shoulder to make sure he didn’t miss the opportunity to talk to anyone he should have, and finds Potter staring at him from across the busy hall. His bottle green robes match his eyes, he thinks, and the thought makes him toss the powder and rush on home.

His book gets published and the first print sells out almost immediately. Barry Barnstein, who wrote an absolutely glowing review (his editor’s words) gets a nice plant-growing potion as a thank-you. The anonymous benefactor who ensured the printing presses could be fixed and his book be published well ahead of schedule, will have to settle for a silent thank-you that Severus does think very hard. The sense of gratitude is so new and overwhelming that Severus decides to thank his lucky stars too. Out loud, at night, staring at the sky and feeling silly but proud. Dangerously close to content. The money is good, and the idea for the second book is an easy sell, with a better advance than the last time. He finishes most of it during the time it took the editors and publishers to go through his first work, and gives himself leave to consider the rest of his life.

‘Do you ever reread our old conversations?’ The letters appear one after another, as always neatly printed in pencil. Sometimes when The Person writes with emotion the impressions their letters leave feel like a flat sculpture. Thoughts in relief. Severus was staring at the book before the writing started, no longer startled by the times where it feels as if they are each waiting for the other to say something first. It seems dishonest to say no. It would be. ‘Occasionally,’ he says instead, which is hardly more honest but at least more true. ‘Me too,’ comes back. ‘It,’ appears, and then it seems that something happened on the other side, because no more words appear for long minutes. Eventually the sentence gets finished. Severus has brushed his teeth during this time, and changed for bed. ‘It brought me comfort, to talk to you during the war. I don’t like remembering the war, but I don’t mind remembering your messages, and how relieved I was when you’d write back.’ It’d be a maudlin thing to say that Severus too is glad that the person he writes to didn’t die in the war. ‘I feel the same,’ he writes instead. It feels oddly like doing something brave.

The invitation to meet with the board of governors of Hogwarts comes just on time to schedule their meeting before the winter holidays, and Severus strides across the frosty grass of the lawn thinking very hard of other things than all that happened here. He notices only just on time that lunch is about to begin, and rushes to his meeting to avoid coming across too many students, ignoring the chime coming from his pocket in order to do so. The meeting at Minerva’s office goes well, and Severus leaves with a rough outline for a new textbook for Potions, as requested by his successor. The board of governors offers to arrange for the publication but Severus declines. He’ll get a better rate himself. All he needs is written proof that Hogwarts wants his book. When he leaves the meeting he checks his book, but nothing immediately obvious seems to have been written in it. Then he gets interrupted by Draco Malfoy of all people, as if he has not had enough of his face to last a lifetime, who insists on telling him everything that has happened to him since the last time they saw each other. Draco is still answering Severus’ question about his mother’s health when he has to leave to take his Arithmancy NEWT. He and most of the other students around gather their things to take the winter NEWTs Minerva had suggested they create for those students unable to complete their courses properly last summer for whatever reason. As the students start stumbling into the Great Hall or walking to the staircase to go back to the library, Severus knows it’s time to go, and says goodbye to Malfoy. He is walking away already when someone else calls him and as he turns back for a dignified nod. In the confusion someone bumps into him, making him drop the book he’s holding. Severus takes a deep breath to scold whoever it is while also stepping over to pick up the book and all the students are stumbling into the Great Hall but when he looks back up Potter is staring at him, and then at the book that is in his hands, but still open. On a page absolutely covered in notes. There is, of course, only one way to interpret that look, and Severus knows exactly what he feels about it. “No,” he says, rather firmly, and then he disappears in the direction of the teachers’ lounge, from where he should be able to Floo home.

***

“No!” Says Snape, his face pale and pinched and Harry had been about to tell him that he’s happy to see him, glad to know he’s doing well, maybe even that he looks good. He does - far less greasy or unhealthy-looking than the last few times Harry’d seen him. Harry has also, of course, just felt his stomach drop straight through the floor and panic and magic raise all the little hairs on his arm. Snape has the book, and he said no and now he’s running away. Sick with want and also why Harry chases him, caring far more about the Half-Blood Prince’s book in Snape’s hand and all that that might mean than he ever did about NEWTs.

“Snape,” he cries, half-running through a corridor he never knew existed, “Snape!” Snape just keeps going, shakes Harry off when he tries to stop him by pulling at his sleeve. “Stop,” he pants, until he catches up while they’re running up a staircase Harry knows leads to the fourth-floor corridor. Finally he manages to grab Snape’s robes, and he holds on tight to prevent him from getting away again. Snape jerks and then spins around and looking meaner and angrier than Harry has ever seen him, starts yelling.

“HOW DARE YOU!” He shouts, and something that sounds like: “IF YOU SO MUCH AS BREATHE!”

Harry isn’t entirely sure what Snape is so pissed about, but he definitely isn’t going to let anyone out-shout him. “When have I EVER.” He shouts back, starting to get a little riled up between the adrenaline of seeing Snape and finding out he is the Half-Blood Prince Harry’s been talking to all this time. Then he realizes why that surprises him so. He knew Snape was well, had seen him run across the lawn not three days after the end of the war, from the window of the Gryffindor tower. The Prince however, had been missing for so long that Harry was sure he’d died, months ago.

Snape has been sputtering about Harry not telling anyone, and where had he even found the book, and also possibly denying that he even knows who wrote in the book, but Harry’s had a revelation, one he should have had ages ago, considering the potions. “YOU GREAT SACK OF SHIT!” he screams, feeling his throat close and his eyes heat as he remembers the hours, the days he spent staring at the book, praying for it to change in any way. Praying for his friend to be alive. How the initial giddy wide-eyed hope had turned to a stupefying sort of grief, unparalleled by what he felt for anyone else he’d lost, because of the lost chances, the never now instead of perhaps one day. “I thought you’d - you’d DIED!” he shouts, tears making his voice wet and cracked, remembering the ways he poured himself into the Prince and his book, the gratitude he felt for every scrap he got in return. “Where WERE YOU? Why didn’t you TELL ME?”

Snape’s back straightens, and he takes a little step back, almost falling over on the narrow stairs. He blinks, and then flees, surprising Harry so much that he doesn’t manage to go after him again until it’s too late. When he rushes into the fourth floor corridor, panting and overwhelmed, it is empty.

***

The art of Occlumency has two main components that are required for achieving the result normally desired: safety from the prying Legilimens of the world. The first, unfortunately, is knowing what you have. The second, and far easier, component is employing your magic and will power to hide it. Severus discovered by accident that not wanting something to exist could make it temporarily disappear at a very early age. The lesson involved screaming, and more pain than he would have preferred. He did not realize this was an unusual skill until the Dark Lord himself asked him to stay after one of their meetings, and then demanded to know who had taught him Occlumency. He had been delighted, eventually, by Severus’ natural aptitude, and a worthy if cruel teacher.

When Severus, with his practice, will power, and magic, knows exactly what he wants to hide, no one will ever find it. It is less effective when he employs the skill on vaguer things, inconvenient senses of unease, uncomfortable but unspoken truths, the scratching of an inkling at the inside of his skull. But it still works, and it allows him to hide from himself.

‘Could you try something for me?’ he writes, a week or so after - stop. He’s been trying not to but - stop. And it’s not as though, even if - ‘Yes of course,’ comes back almost instantly and the shuddering breath that leaves Severus is witnessed only by his furniture and the walls. Severus scratches out some instructions. ‘But make it in a pan,’ he adds. ‘And stir it with a wooden spoon.’ Nothing happens for a minute. Then: ‘Does the type of wood matter?’

‘Awkward question:’ spells itself out on one of the empty pages at the back of the book, later that day, and Severus holds his breath as the pencil scratching picks up again. ‘Theoretically, if I had a big bump & bruise on my forehead, what would you recommend?’ Severus breathes out sharply through his nose. ‘What is wrong with Bruise Paste?’ he writes back. Then he adds: ‘Theoretically.’ The little ‘ha-ha’ makes him smile. ‘It’s two in the morning,’ comes back and Severus looks around. It is. The realization startles him into motion and he cleans his workspace while keeping an eye on the book. ‘I don’t think I even have arnica in the house,’ gets scribbled down, and Severus looks around to think of what else might help. Wrecks his brain, almost picks up a book for referencing. Then he realizes. He sits back down at his table and picks up his quill. Writes down: ‘Alright, I have a solution for you. I have to warn you however – it is not simple or for the faint of heart.’ He waits a beat to make sure he’s being followed, then continues. ‘Pick up your wand. Hold it firmly. Point it at your forehead (and please do use a mirror here if that helps you identify the affected area more easily, but don’t point your wand at your mirror instead). Make a downward movement, and say… Episkey.’

It takes three minutes exactly to clean up the rest of his lab, and when he picks up the book again, there's a firm ‘Merlin’s balls.’ And then a: ‘... thank you.’

The next day Severus is sitting on the floor sorting through ideas for potions to include, shuffling them about to come to some sort of logical order, when he has a thought. ‘How did you even get this bump?’ he writes. ‘Botched lobotomy?’

He puts the book back down, takes a sip of his tea, and tries to distract himself with work. He doesn’t regret the comment, would have said the exact same thing before - no. It’s just that it might seem as though he - no. Focuses back on his task. He’s almost done (except the cleaning potions, how many ways are there to say “Just use vinegar or maybe lemon if you prefer”?) when the book chimes. He turns around immediately and skips to the back to check. ‘No, no, my friend,’ he reads, and then he watches in fascination as the writing continues. ‘I simply had the bad luck to encounter a doorpost in the nighttime.’ Severus snorts and doesn’t over think the my friend thing. Much. He doesn’t overthink it for much longer than a week. There.

Sometimes he manages to forget, and he finds himself telling the sort of anecdote he might have told if… well if he’d had anyone to share such things with. Anyone that wouldn’t stare at him, or pity him, or rush off with the information to leverage it for Merlin-knows-what. Severus is testing a potion that would probably be brewed faster if he shortened the intervals between each set of seven counter clockwise stirs. It’s a bit boring, because he’s done this before and is trying to figure out an optimum, so he uses the breaks he has to write. The Person mentions they always forget which teacups used to be something else, and the way especially teacups made from twigs do not keep hot liquids well. Severus grins at the book, before dimming himself down to a smirk. ‘I had someone use Reparifarge on one of my chairs once, she still won’t tell me why, but I will never forget the way she looked when it turned back into a milk crate from the fifties as she was sitting on it.’ He chuckles a little at the memory before realizing how much this says about him and where he came from. ‘Oh no!’ Comes back, as if The Person finds it funny too. ‘Was the opening down at least?’ Severus’ grin is back at that mental image. ‘Unfortunately yes,’ he writes back. Then he has to stir again.

Severus is quite good at keeping certain thoughts from himself, even if the larger feelings are harder to tuck away. Which is how it happens that at the wedding reception of Draco Malfoy of all people, Severus has to carefully tuck away the happy flutter in his chest when he looks at Potter. He musters up a frown as well as a polite hello. Tries to remember why he doesn’t recall this happening last year, at the engagement party. Did they just miss each other? Had Malfoy and Potter become close enough to be invited to such events only now? None of his business of course.

As if this encounter isn’t eye-wateringly awkward as it is, the only other time he sees Potter that night is when he is looking for the Malfoys to bid them a proper farewell and accidentally catches a snippet of a conversation he was definitely not supposed to overhear. He makes his way back to the hall before anyone sees him, but not before he sees Potter’s frown as he tells his tipsy friends to be quiet. And why was Weasley joking about ‘the single-minded pursuit of the Prince’?

It’s at night, and in the smallest margins rather than the still mostly-empty pages at the back, that they talk of less innocent things than potions and plants. How tiring it is to be hurting all the time, from injuries old and new. What helps, and what to do when nothing helps. The Person mentions themes of their nightmares, raised hands and voices, powerlessness, endless black and Severus tells him he knows, he knows, he’s been there too. With shaky letters and hands so clammy they leave sticky finger-shaped marks on the pages they talk about the weather, the change of seasons, the heavy dread of a continued existence.

They don’t talk every day. Severus also doesn’t read every article about Harry Potter that he sees in the Prophet. When he has to rub elbows at a Ministry event because he wants to sell more books and Potter is a speaker he doesn’t need to excuse himself when it turns out that Potter says ha-ha out loud. In a mildly sarcastic way, with a one-sided grin. Almost in a – a light-hearted self-deprecating sort of way.

He does however, drop his tea the next day when he sees that the photographer not only captured that moment, but also used it as the biggest picture to go with the feature about the event.

Severus is still going through the proofs of the third printing of his first book, almost three years after the end of the war, when the Evening Prophet arrives. It features a grinning Potter, several grinning Weasleys, and some very clearly new Auror robes. The book on the kitchen table is already open sideways on a page where there was still a little margin free. He hovers over the page for a long time. Not actually considering well done or I knew you’d get there or I hope your first assignment doesn’t kill you. ‘Did you know,’ he writes instead, ‘that a restoration potion reverses the magic that makes Ogden’s and other magical brews alcoholic? I recommend half of a standard dose before falling asleep.’ A message comes back at four in the morning. ‘Eerie feeling, that. Thank you, you may have just saved my life.’ It’s hyperbolic, of course, but it still makes Severus smile.

The months pass, and Severus starts to feel a little more comfortable every time he walks into Gringotts. As if the steady income from the books finally outweighing his monthly expenses changes something in him physically. So much so, that when Misty asks him one more time if they can please move out of this horrible shack sir, please? He says yes.

The cottage he buys in the end needs a lot of work, and also a lot of money, to be fit for inhabitation again, but it comes with a bit of forest and a large garden, as well as a shelter that the realtor described as bomb-proof. If anyone were to look into his mind they might find that it is the charming exposed wood and the wide view that really sold him on it but then again, that’s what he became an Occlumens for, isn’t it? Misty doesn’t complain about the extra work, but also doesn’t complain when Severus suggests they bring in another house-elf to be an extra pair of hands until at least after the move. Minerva is happy enough for him that she agrees immediately and in the end the hardest part is remembering which furniture has been Transfigured and repaired so often that it cannot reliably be shrunk or re-expanded anymore.

The wards are done first, months after the purchase is finalized, and the woodwork is stabilized second, and then comes all the rest. When Severus is kneeling in the recently overturned soil on a still-cold day in spring, finally getting to the parts he’s been looking forward to, he drops all his bouncing bulbs and watches them scatter. Harry Potter, Saviour of the Wizarding World and long-time girlfriend Ginny Weasley have publicly announced their split this morning. He whips his wand around to turn up the volume of the wireless. Despite recent rumours that she was taking a leave from Quidditch to carry a long-anticipated pregnancy to term or plan their wedding, both parties remain firm that this was a mutual decision and they will continue to love each other as friends.

‘Do you think,’ Snape writes, as soon as he thinks he has found most bulbs and washed his hands to avoid getting mud all over the book, ‘that Wizards would be more or less inclined to use my improved potions instructions if I told them how dumb they are for needing the book in the first place?’ An answer comes back so fast that it startles Severus, and all it says is: ‘Hi.’ He frowns, waiting for more to come and even eats dinner one-handed, still staring at the book. He’d hoped to bring distraction, but doesn’t know if it’s his turn to say something for possibly the first time since they started communicating in this way. Eventually a single point appears on the page, as if someone rested their pencil there for some time. ‘Less, I think,’ comes then, slowly. ‘People tend to insist on considering themselves clever even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.’ It doesn’t sound like The Person That Has The Other Book, but Severus thinks that might be allowed in times like these.

Severus aims for distracting, in a good sort of way, but not a demanding sort of way, and doesn’t spend all that much time thinking about ways to cheer Po - The Person up. That would be the… desperate sort of way. He is thinking about this as he rummages through Flourish and Blotts second hand bins, and is still thinking about it when he clutches his newly acquired books tightly to his chest and turns into the narrow alley he was hoping to Apparate from. The distraction costs him, but the books likely saved him. The paper fluttering everywhere obscures his attackers from Severus’ view but also allows him to put up a shield charm. He still gets hit.

At St Mungo’s what Severus misses the most is his book, and Misty. She cooks well, and is kind to him, and she never forces him take any potions he hasn’t brewed himself. The Healers whisper in the hallways about the fourth Stunner being the one that did it, and the way Harry Potter denounced the attackers and called Severus a war hero. Severus pretends to sleep.

There’s a scratched-out something in the book, one of the last large bits of free space they still had, when Severus gets back home. Misty brings him tea, and he goes through the book again, front to back. ‘What’s this for?’ is the only thing that he can spot that is new. It’s scribbled next to his suggestion to add wormwood to Everlasting Elixirs. He frowns at it for a long time, and then remembers why he thought that might be a good idea at sixteen. ‘E.E. make you feel sick,’ he scribbles, tight and small in the limited available space. ‘Ginger works better though - cheaper too.’ New pages appear at the back of the book while is still writing, and he breathes out slowly through his nose, then starts at the top of the first blank page. ‘Wormwood contains quinine,’ he starts, then explains the limited healing effects of wormwood. When he sees how much he’s written already, he pauses. Perhaps this isn’t interesting? Then a little ‘...’ appears after the half-sentence he ended with, and he continues.

When he is alone, Severus rereads bits in the book sometimes, especially late at night. If he doesn’t want to give away the fact that he’s awake, he takes notes on a separate piece of parchment. Thoughts, ideas, little diagrams of things to try out later. Severus, cold even under his duvet, soothed by the dancing light of the candle on his bedside table, reads the bit where he talked about Misty again. He writes without looking up, knowing his handwriting will be close to illegible from the unsteady surface and the reliance on muscle memory. He lets his thoughts drift for a minute, and when he decides he should try to sleep again, he’s surprised by the thoughts he has to shake loose from his mind. He closes the book, sets aside his quill, and as he rolls up the scrap of parchment he reads what he’s written. Not near future, it says. Be nice though. A body around the house. He tucks the scrap away somewhere he won’t have to look at it again, but cannot seem to keep his mind from running through it over and over. A warm hand on his back as he brews. A cup of tea handed to him out of simple affection. Crinkled eyes and exposed teeth as they laugh in front of the fire. “Occlumens,” he whispers.

‘Would the pain potion work without willowbark?’ Severus reads one night, as he blinks in the limited light of the candle on his bedside table. He’d been watching the candle burn down, unable to sleep, and welcomes the chime. Not so much this, though. ‘Dittany?’ he writes, as he is thinking about what else might work. ‘Nothing left to heal – just hurts,’ comes back immediately. The letters a little larger and clumsier than normal. What might have happened? He looks around. ‘Too much to sleep?’ he asks, but he knows the answer before it comes. ‘Yes’ makes the book chime when he already has his feet on the carpet next to his bed. He wraps his gown around his nightshirt, and has an industrial-strength pain potion in his hand before he can stop himself. ‘Do NOT cast a Featherlight charm before the potion has worn off!’ he writes on a little note that he attaches to the bottle. His owl takes the bottle and is off before he can think of what he’s just done. He stares out the window for the rest of the night, dread and panic heavy in his stomach, and only moves when Misty arrives for the morning.

They don’t mention the potion, and Severus just hopes that his Person is smart enough to eat before taking pain potions and not to overdose. Instead they contemplate the fascinating merits of different sorts of anti-inflammatory agents and their effects on pain. The discussion ends up being what finally allows Severus to solve the Featherlight charm issue, of course turmeric would mitigate the effects without costing the potion efficacy.

“Professor Snape?” A voice calls through the fireplace in Severus’ sitting room.

“Not anymore,” he answers, before even bothering to look up. An anxious young face hovers in the flames. Bigsby… or Digsby? Adequate at potions, terrible Hufflepuff tendencies. A Healer now, judging by those robes. One that is too scared to say anything else apparently. “How can I help you?” Severus asks, aiming for at least not unkind. It is a bit late for real niceties.

“There’s been an accident…” Digsby/Bigsby says, eyes flitting about. “It’s Harry Potter, sir.” Before Severus is fully conscious of it, he is on his feet and coming at the fireplace. “Room 404!” The Healer manages to squeal, before Severus tosses in the Floo powder and rushes through.

Three Healers in a small stale office start to explain all at once. “On the form it says…” Says one. “Won’t even stay to have his injuries mended!” Says another. “The door is barricaded,” sighs the last one.

“Take me there,” Severus demands, cutting through all the stammering and fidgeting. And so they go.

Potter, of course, isn’t lying in his bed in the nice private room he was given. Instead he seems to be trying to fight his way out of his gown while hopping about on one slipper. Every inch of him radiates fury, and when the Healer that came with Severus enters the room, he starts shouting without even looking up. “I hope for your sake that you brought me my damn wand! You can’t bloody well force me to stay here! Give my things back!” He is still bleeding from several nasty-looking cuts, but when his eyes fall to Severus, he freezes.

“I’ll stun you,” Severus promises.

Potters nostrils flare, “someone always calls the press.” Severus remembers the feeling of stronger-than-steel wards around the room he stayed at in St Mungo’s, and the warm feeling that washed over him when he passed through them on his way out, when he was discharged. If they took Potter’s wand, he can’t even ward himself safe.

“You’ll get him his things,” he tells the Healer that seems to be too stunned to do much of anything. When she doesn’t move he draws himself up to his full height, ready to remind her, MISS APPLEBEE, of the time he caught her in that one corridor off the fifth floor, but she runs before he can even start.

Not three minutes later they are both standing in Severus’ living room. Misty has left for the night, the guest room is in no fit state for guests, and Potter is still bleeding. Dittany and the newest iteration of the now bright yellow pain potion solves the worst of it, and a pair of pyjamas, some food, and a glass of water is easily arranged. Severus leaves to let Potter sort himself out, and puts fresh sheets on the bed in the guest room so he will have somewhere to sleep. He spells some dust away, and moves boxes of dried potions ingredients around so he won’t step on anything if he tries to walk through the room in the dark. Then he goes to check on Potter. The food is gone, the potions have been taken. The lights are off but the curtains are still open, and by the light of the moon a person-sized lump and some wild black hair is visible, tightly cocooned in the duvet. Severus closes the door quietly, crosses the room to close the curtains, and cannot stop himself from settling in the armchair next to the bed. He considers reading, or going to bed, or at least taking the dishes down to the kitchen. Instead he watches Potter breathe.

He wakes up sore and uncomfortable. It is still dark out, and the room is all shadows. When Severus tries to remember what happened and what woke him up, he realizes he’s being stared at. The glint of light reflecting differently is all that gives Potter away.

“Why did they call me?” Severus says, placing just enough emphasis on the me to show his surprise and hide his incredulity. He hopes. Potter’s eyes flit about his face and then narrow before he heaves himself up to sitting. Settles against the headboard. He takes a few deep breaths.

“Thank you,” is the first thing he says, staring at his hands. Before Severus can reply he continues. “Not just - not for today. But. The potion, the sword,” he waves his hand about. “You’ve been so kind.”

Severus tries to think about a way to reply to that, and gets stuck looking at the profile of Potter’s face instead.

“It was still Ginny,” he says then, as if he wasn’t really expecting anything to be said back. “Last time I had to – last time. And Hermione was pregnant with Hugo then so I... ” He swallows and looks at Severus. “The Healer said to just pick someone who’d know what I’d want, who’d come when called and I – ”

He stops there. Picks at the duvet cover a little. Severus finds himself nodding slowly. It seems Potter won’t be saying anything else, so he stands up carefully, mindful of how stiff his muscles are, how dizzy he gets when he skips meals.

“Goodnight, Potter,” he says. Potter croaks something in return, and when Severus looks at him, it seems there might be tears in his eyes. It could just be the low light, of course.

His spare room is messy and cluttered, but the clean sheets are a special sort of welcome after the day he’s had, and Severus drifts off easily.

The next morning Severus wakes up to the creaking of the door, and a sleep-ruffled, bleary-eyed Potter. The light is low still but he must have slept later than he normally does for it to be light out at all.

“Your house-elf is really bossy,” Harry says, bafflingly. It takes Severus more than a second to catch on and then put all his thoughts back inside. He feels rather like he was somehow tipped over, all of him scattered over the floor of his spare room. Potter is carrying two steaming mugs, and suddenly it makes sense.

“She is a force of nature,” Severus agrees, and he lets Potter hand him the hot black tea. Even lets him sit down on the bed, close to Severus’ feet until Severus shuffles back against the headboard and tries to find a bit of his dignity back and maybe also smooth down his hair a little.

“I – mm,” Potter says. He takes too big of a sip of his tea and ends up clearly burning his mouth. Something hot and large is in Severus’ chest, burning his cheeks. “I used to think there were two people I could love – really be with,” he says, staring at the mug in his hands and settling on the bed a bit better. The Weasley of course, Severus thinks, but he hasn’t seen anything in the papers about someone else, even though it’s been a while since they announced their split. “When I was in – in my sixth year.” It almost sounds like a question, with the way his voice rises. “And then after the war. And then I. Unfair to Ginny of course.” He swallows. Has some tea, inhales it, coughs a lot. Severus feels like he’s going to explode. One big deep breath, and Harry straightens his spine. His eyes firmly on his cup, finality in his voice. “Then we had that fight in that staircase.”

It feels like a very anticlimactic nonsequitur, and Severus can’t help the way his nose wrinkles. “And?” he prompts.

Potter finally looks at him. Fierce and brave. “And then I realised it’s always been you. As yourself, and as the Prince.”

Utterly absurd, of course. Severus hears himself mutter something about a shower and breakfast and the things he has to do that day and when he almost flees for a third time, he hears the coward echo in his mind. He stops at the door. Stares at the nightshirt he was forced to wear after giving Potter his nice pyjamas. Feels hot shame and hotter rage burn through his veins, as if it’s going to come out of his skin. Potter has turned around on the bed, still holding his now empty mug, sitting cross-legged on Severus’ sheets. He steps closer and bends forward, and closes his eyes to place just one kiss on Potter’s wet beautiful bright lips. He tastes like tea.

Potter’s groan of surprise almost startles him into backing away, but the way Potter grabs on to the front of Severus’ nightgown and is pulling him in convinces Severus that perhaps he has not just made the worst mistake of his life.

The tumble over each other, the mug thumping onto the carpet next to the bed, legs and arms, and still kissing. Severus tries to get his knees under himself and at the same time work a hand under the shirt (his shirt) that Potter is wearing, but he’s being pulled closer and so he loses his balance. On their sides they continue their fevered kissing, the grabbing and locking of legs, the pull to get closer still where at all possible. It feels inevitable and a whole lot like falling and Severus shoves back that feeling too and bumps his hips to get – ah.

“More,” Potter pants, and Severus wriggles one hand under his head to pull at Potters hair, gets the other into his pyjama trousers to touch hot soft skin and kisses his face and his neck as thoroughly as he can while rolling their hips together. They come gasping into each other’s mouths, frantic enough that Severus wouldn’t be able to say who came first.

When Severus wakes up for the third time, he’s warm and comfortable, wrapped around Harry still. When Potter’s stomach growls again, he realizes what woke him up and huffs a small laugh. The way they are linked together makes him understand words like attachment and coupling for the very first time in his life, and it is that thought that spurs him out of bed.

It’s awkward, a bit. Breakfast. He doesn’t quite know what to say, doesn’t know how to ask where they go from now, whether Potter’ll want to stay a while, if he can get back to the things he’d planned on doing today. Potter doesn’t seem to mind overmuch, just chats with Misty, eats toast and bacon and shoots Severus bright grins from across his kitchen table.

The tension is broken by the apparition of a small silver-coloured dog. It looks comically disappointed and then says: “My dude.” Potter seems to know what has happened because he looks terribly pale all of a sudden, his hand frozen between his plate and his mouth, a piece of toast between two fingers.

“Fuck,” he says. His eyes flit apologetically over to Severus, and then he casts his own Patronus. “To Ron please,” he tells it, and the stag (gorgeous and life-sized and undeniably real) bows its head gracefully. “Tell him… tell him sorry for keeping you in the dark, woke up at St Mungo’s but got out before the cavalry came, safe now.” He is blushing deeply when he tucks his wand away again, more embarrassed than any of this should warrant. Then Severus realizes Potter did not say where he was, which means he is either ashamed… or Weasley already knows.

“They know,” he says, more to himself than to Potter, but Potter ducks his head further.

“For a while now,” he croaks. “The – the talking to a book thing. Got a bit much for them.”

Harry leaves without much fanfare after breakfast, and they promise to see each other again the coming weekend. It’s all, rather startlingly easy. Of course this has Severus worrying his way through the rest of the day, until he remembers his book is upstairs. He makes it all the way through, spotting little doodles and notes in the increasingly cramped pages that he had either missed or forgotten about, and finds at the very back the answer to a question he’d asked of Potter before he’d been called in by St Mungo’s. ‘Yeah I do. Actually, why do you have to steep it?’ It says under the bit where Severus asked if he has willow bark stocked now. ‘The heat helps, and the tincture stores well.’ He writes. ‘How are your bruises?’ He writes then, after much more deliberation than he’d ever admit to. He wants to know, and prefers this way of asking, and thinks he might be ready to think of Potter as the person he’s been communicating with for all this time.

They settle into a tentative new routine after that, where Potter comes to his cottage for dinner at least once a week, and often stays the night. They talk, most evenings, but are less careful about hiding personal or identifying things now. On his third visit to the cottage Potter says he wants to stop being an Auror and looks at Severus with such desperate helplessness that they get into a screaming row about things they mostly agree on already. Potter doesn’t stay the night.

“I have a potentially very soft question,” Potter says, the next morning, when they are each sipping their tea a bit faster than they should, sitting next to each other on the frosty steps that lead down into the garden.

“Nothing less than what I’m used to, I presume,” Severus drawls, but his heart isn’t in it.

“Could we,” the look on Harry’s face is so eager, the hot large thing in Severus’ chest is so hot large, he feels his whole face twist. “Could we write letters?” Harry says all at once, tumbled and when Severus processes it finally. He laughs.

“You daft…” He sighs. “Yes.” Potters shoulder bumps against his. “Can we go back to bed now, please?”

Tangled together after another hour or so of sleep, waking up warm and slow as he should have been on a Sunday, Severus finds it easy to let his hips move back into Potter’s space. The hand that settles on his waist asks permission, and the kisses on his shoulder promise he can say no. So he rucks up his nightshirt, sighs when Potter curls around him, arches when Potter pushes into him, and comes with tears staining the pillow, their hot mouths reaching for each other futilely. It’s just what he needed.

“Potter,” he says much later, wrapped in his bathrobe and watching Potter stare out into the garden. The glare makes him smile. “Harry.” He sits up a bit. “You cannot work for me,” he repeats for the umpteenth time, but he finally knows why he doesn’t want that. “No matter how much you dislike your job. No matter how much I trust you to be useful and knowledgeable. I’d be more inclined to accept if I did not know that you do not need the money and likely never will. Please - instead - find something you enjoy that has nothing to do with me.” Have your own life, be your own person, he doesn’t add.

Potter sits down opposite him, in the other chair. He nods a little, seems unsure of what to say. There is a tension that he can’t name. So Severus Transfigures his chair into a milkcrate.

The tension, as tension is wont to do, comes to a hissing blow a week or two later. It’s not been present all the time, and not every time they see each other either. But it’s something in the way Harry looks at him sometimes, and it makes Severus antsy until it makes him furious.

“Would you for once in your life just bloody well TELL ME what is ON YOUR MIND?” he bellows, scaring Harry and causing him to drop the little trowel he was holding. They’re bundled up and facing each other in the garden, their breaths puff even though it’s only November. Severus’ fault for wanting to get this done early in the morning so they could spend the rest of the day in front of the fire. Harry has been shooting him little glances all morning and he feels sick and his stomach feels tight and he’s also very suddenly extremely worried. “I apologize for my tone,” he mumbles.

“No,” Harry says. “I’m sorry. I should have realized – I’m sorry.” He takes a deep breath. His nose is pink and his hair is everywhere and he looks very serious. Very serious, and very very dear. “What I’ve – sorry. I…” Another sigh, then the brave straightening of his spine. “I love you and I’d like for us to spend the holidays together, in whatever way we can make that work.”

In a parallel that Severus won’t recognize until days later, Severus drops all his bouncing bulbs and this time doesn’t spare a thought to picking them up first. Just kisses Harry deep.