Slumped in his chair, Potter looks like nothing so much as a puppet with its strings cut. Despite the noise of the hall, Severus thinks he can hear the lazy scratch of his fork against the edge of his plate. The tinny sound weaves its way across the cluttered stretch of table between them and pulls at his nerves.
He doesn’t want to be watching Potter. The host of Ministry officials and wizarding elite spinning or stumbling their way around the dance floor is a much preferable view. Yet, he finds his focus sliding inexplicably, inescapably, back to Potter. Every glance that proves the man as leaden as before makes Severus more restless, an itch under his skin that he can’t quite explain.
Diverting his gaze again to the dance floor, he takes a long drag of wine. The Ministry’s choice tonight is an unimpressive red. Severus lets it flow bitter and unappreciated down his throat, contemplating the advantages of an inconspicuous exit. He would get up now, but the thought of pushing his way to the other side of the room, past over-familiar drunken smiles, through the stench of cosmetic potions and an evening’s exertion, is repugnant.
“Mr. Potter.” He doesn’t look up, instead watching his hand tighten around the wine glass.
It isn’t really a question, so he doesn’t bother to answer. A moment later Potter sighs and seats himself in one of the abandoned chairs beside him.
“Quite the party, isn’t it?”
He does turn at that, not bothering to temper his sneer. “It is precisely the same as last year, and the year before that. Voldemort is still dead; the Ministry can still command our presence. Hurrah.”
The corners of Potter’s mouth twitch and tighten, indecisive. Pressing his lips together, he looks out towards the rest of the room. “It is worth celebrating,” he says at last, almost to himself.
“I don’t need you to tell me that. Potter,” He waits until the man’s eyes meet his, though they seem glassy and a bit unfocused. “What do you want?”
There’s a flicker of relief in Potter’s expression, and his answer is quick. “A favor.”
He isn’t surprised; there is little reason for Potter to approach him otherwise. “You must be desperate.”
Potter smiles, actually smiles, at that, as if they’ve shared some joke. “I must be.”
To escape the look, Severus refills his wine glass.
“I’ve been fixing up Grimmauld Place -- to sell it.”
A chill settles in Severus’ bones at the thought of strangers living in Grimmauld Place. He just manages to cover his discomfort at the idea with a disdainful sniff.
“So, the prodigal son has returned?”
Potter blinks and looks at the dance floor. “Only for the summer. There’s a bunch of things in the attic I’m going to get rid of. I found a dollhouse I thought Hermione’s kids might love --”
“I trust,” he drawls, intentionally using his old classroom voice, “that somewhere in here there is a point.”
“But, I don’t trust anything the Blacks kept in the attic, and would like a Dark Arts expert’s opinion on it.”
“I see. And of all people you’re asking me?”
“You’re the only person I can ask.”
Formal robes don’t suit Potter. His jaw is too rough, his hair too wild, making him look out of place in them, like he’s borrowed someone else’s trappings for the evening. It is doubly true now, with his features playing host to such a range of feelings.
“I am sure with some research --”
“You know that’s not good enough,” Potter snaps. “Look, I’ve already checked it out myself. All I’m asking is one afternoon -- I’ll pay you if you want -- so that I can be sure the thing isn’t going to kill someone.”
“I think,” Severus answers slowly, giving himself time to decide, “that payment will not be necessary; I rather prefer the idea of you owing me.”
Potter’s eyes are bright, his body tense, and the half-forgotten thrill of having gotten under the man’s skin floods Severus’ system. He can’t help the satisfied smirk, but washes it away with a last sip of wine. Unable to think of a better note to end the evening on, he stands to leave.
“If Tuesday morning is amenable to you?”
“Very well. Then good-night, Mr. Potter.” He doesn’t wait to hear Potter’s response, if there is one.
Severus arrives at Grimmauld Place only to think, briefly, that he must have the wrong location. Freshly painted, looking bright and innocent in the sunlight, the house defies his instincts. He feels oddly disconcerted, a smudge of black amidst so much brightness.
The familiar creak of the porch steps filters up through the new paint as he climbs them. It calms him somewhat, this audible confirmation that here, in fact, is the house where Albus directed a war. The tightness of his muscles, the vague nausea and fear that has always surrounded him here, does not feel so ridiculous now.
The knocker is a tiny thing, neither warm nor cool in the afternoon air. His hand feels cumbersome around it and he knocks too hard, almost banging his knuckles into the door. He pulls away sharply and takes a breath in the moments before Potter opens the door.
Irritation wells up in him at the surprise in Potter’s tone. Severus lets it, comfortable in the feeling. “Did you think I wouldn’t keep my word, Potter?”
“What? No, I…”
When it’s clear Potter doesn’t know ‘what he’, Snape gives a pointed glance to the foyer he can see over the man’s shoulder.
“Oh! Sorry, please, come in.”
He means to make a snide remark about Potter’s manners but is immediately distracted by the bright white walls. They have been primed, and in front of such an unforgiving canvas there is no space for memories of Dumbledore welcoming him or Black sneering. Even the floor, refinished, looks nothing like he recalls.
Stranger than that, though, is the silence. Covered over with paint, the old frame is not readily apparent, and so it takes him a moment to realize that Mrs. Black is not gone, only painted over. Severus is startled into a laugh, but stifles it quickly. He leans close, turning his ear to the canvas. Indeed, faint but still there, are the old witch’s screams. Resting his hand against the frame, he imagines he can feel the wood vibrating with her outrage.
“It took thirty-three coats of paint to get her that quiet.”
He straightens and looks at his host. “I suspect you will have to add more on a regular basis.”
Potter nods. “She peels it down from inside.” A shrug. “It’s the only thing that even half works, though.”
He’s fidgeting, twisting and winding his fingers about each other until he catches Snape’s eyes on him and shoves his hands in his pockets. It brings back pleasant memories of students cowering before him, so Severus lets the uncomfortable silence stretch. He isn’t quite sure why Potter, who seemed self-assured enough at the Ministry dinner and was never one for trembling in the first place, does so now, but he enjoys it nonetheless.
“Right. So. The dollhouse is in the attic” -- he gestures with a hand up the stairs for Severus to precede him, then seems to change his mind and begins up the stairs himself -- “this way.”
The house becomes more familiar as they ascend the stairs and move down the hallway. The paint gives way to wood and wallpaper.
The attic stairs are hidden behind one of many doors Severus never explored here. It’s only on their way up the dimly lit, tight stairway that Potter speaks again.
“I checked it out… but I’m… I might have missed something.”
“So you mentioned,” Severus responds dryly, still vaguely amused by Potter’s awkwardness.
The attic is not what he expected. Round windows, obviously recently cleaned, let in enough sun to light and warm the room comfortably. Boxes and furniture are stacked about the room, but there is still more than enough space to walk between the makeshift rows.
“I just spelled the dust off,” Potter says, leading him towards the back. He stops and steps aside at last.
The dollhouse sits atop a stack of boxes, its open side facing them. It’s old and elaborate; Severus can see curling gingerbread decorations on the visible edge of the porch, and each of the rooms is filled with miniature furniture. Magical fires light in the hearths when he leans closer to examine it. Tiny perfume bottles adorn the dressers, and he thinks there is even still some movement in the paintings.
“It is not a replica of the house,” he states, though it is obvious.
“It eliminates a number of rather vile curses.”
“What if it’s a replica of another house?”
“It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not there.” He pauses, considering, “Assuming you have no malicious intents.”
“But if I give it away…”
Severus nods grudgingly, coming to the same conclusion. “I will check it.”
He can almost hear Potter thinking in the pause that follows.
“I guess I’ll leave you to it, then.”
“I don’t believe it will take so long as that.” Severus straightens and casts the first diagnostic spell on the house. A glow surrounds it, then fades.
He casts another, and another, with the same results.
At last, he removes a small box from his pocket. Sliding the lid back, he watches Potter from beneath his lashes. Severus does not lie to himself; Potter, with full lips and wide eyes, is a pleasure to look at. Disliking the man is not reason enough to deny himself this small, carnal pleasure of seeing those lips part and eyes dilate in surprise. He takes in the movement, a snapshot to file away with other faces from other times.
“Does it have a name?”
He looks down, turning his hand to capture the white mouse as she climbs from the box. It takes him a moment to reign in the smirk that wants to curve his lips, and he’s sure he hasn’t completely succeeded when he answers.
“Of course she does. Number 27.”
As he is setting the mouse into one of the dollhouse rooms, he can’t appreciate the expression on Potter’s face.
“You would experiment on mice.”
Not so much outrage as he might have expected from someone with an established hero complex, but there nonetheless. “You suggest I use humans?”
“Well, no, but it’s--”
“A cute, fuzzy animal?” he transfigures the box halves into food and water bowls, setting them in the house before facing Potter.
“Ah” -- this with the air of revelation -- “you suggest I use something scaly and unpleasant instead?” He casts an Impenetrable charm on the house to make sure Number 27 won’t chew her way out.
“No, that’s not the point!”
“Did it occur to you, Mr. Potter, that perhaps I picked up this mouse specifically for this experiment?”
Potter glowers at him, clearly disbelieving. And it isn’t so much the disbelief, which he’d anticipated, intended even, that makes him uncomfortable, so much as the way in which the expression brings to mind a younger Potter, full of assumptions and righteous indignation.
One last charm, to keep Number 27 from escaping, is done with a flick of his wand and a spell bitten out.
“Feed her. Give her water. Clean. Don’t take her out. Owl me if anything changes.”
He turns and begins making his way out of the attic. Behind him, Potter says nothing, and Severus gets several steps away before he hears the other man begin to follow him. He would be pleased to know that he is still capable of silencing someone like Potter, but his mood has soured and curls unpleasantly in his stomach.
Leaving is just as silent as entering. His hand is on the front doorknob to let himself out when Potter speaks again.
A breath, heavy in the silence.
The response is so long in coming that Severus begins to feel absurd, standing there with his hand on a half-turned doorknob. Perhaps he only imagined Potter speaking, and the man isn’t really there anymore at all, off in some other part of the house thinking Severus has let himself out. He imagines the empty foyer he will see upon turning, and is debating whether to summon the courage to look or simply to leave when there is a rush of words from Potter.
“There’s a lot of stuff in the attic and I thought maybe you could take a look at it like with the dollhouse.”
He turns then, one eyebrow raised in incredulous disdain.
“Are you asking me to spend my time playing your personal Dark Artifact Deactivator?”
Potter is standing on the bottom step, one hand holding tightly to the railing, as if he could fall at any moment. When he doesn’t seem to have a response, Severus turns again to leave.
“I’d pay you; I’ve already said I would.”
He cocks his head slightly. “How much?”
“How much do you want?” There’s more confidence in Potter’s voice now.
It’s not that he’s poor; potion-making provides him with a comfortable enough income. However, there is appeal in the thought of something different. He can feel the tingling, near-erotic pleasure of weaving and unweaving dark spells, the challenge of it mentally and magically.
“I will owl you a price -- there will be no negotiation.”
He can see Potter nod out of the corner of his eye, but waits for the verbal confirmation.
“Right. I’ll see you later then.”
“Perhaps,” he answers before finally taking his leave.
It takes Severus most of the evening to figure out an appropriate sum. Without feeling pressed for an answer he has time to reevaluate his earlier decision and weigh the temptation of the work against putting himself in service to Potter. In the end, he sets a price only slightly higher than what any sane man would pay. Waking in the morning brings the sight of his owl waiting impatiently, Potter’s acceptance clutched in its beak.
Now, on his fourth afternoon at Grimmauld Place, he is surprised at his own ataraxy in the situation. Potter, invariably in paint-stained trousers and an old shirt, answers the door and walks with him upstairs. With his host less jumpy than that first day, the silence of their walk up is quickly becoming comfortable. The upstairs hallway has been Potter’s task since the second morning, and he leaves Severus to continue on his own where the new paint ends and the old begins. There’s a strange moment of uncertainty, there, where sheets stretch across the floor, wrinkling beneath his shoes and seemingly held at bay only by the weight of the scattered paint buckets and brushes. Severus has always been sure-footed but still hesitates, feeling as if he’s going to stumble across that expanse of cloth.
The attic is much as it was before, with the objects Severus has finished examining reboxed and labeled. It’s slow work, but there is something about the room -- and this, he concludes, is at the heart of his feelings on the situation -- there is something about being surrounded again by Grimmauld Place that simply sets him at ease. As much as Hogwarts was his home for many years, so too did Grimmauld become a kind of home, somewhere he made sense.
That he must endure Potter’s company has been incidental. By mutual agreement, it would seem, their interactions have been kept to a minimum.
He should have known it wouldn’t last.
“It’s gone six, you know.”
Potter is leaning against a box-laden table just a few feet away, his arms crossed. He’s obviously been there some time. Though Severus doesn’t let on that he’s been caught unaware, the glint in Potter’s eyes attests that he knows otherwise.
“I am aware of the time,” he lies, looking towards a sun-gilded window. “If you hadn’t interrupted me I would have had another piece completed already.”
“Right. You didn’t eat lunch.”
“Lunch is a waste of time. Do you intend to spout useless observations at me all evening, or might I be granted the opportunity to finish so that I may go home to my dinner?”
“I’ve made dinner.”
“Do warn me next time so that I --”
“There’s enough for two,” Potter continues casually. “I’ll be in the kitchen.”
He doesn’t seem triumphant at having silenced Severus. He doesn’t seem anxious to hear Severus’ response. He seems, turning away, blank.
“What,” Severus asks when Potter is at the stairs, “is it you’re doing?”
Sunlight paints Potter’s back golden, but the shadows in front of him are too deep for Severus to read his expression.
“Food, Snape. It’s a basic necessity of living.”
He won’t ask why, though the word is already on his tongue, poised to traverse the space between them. Instead, he swallows it back and lets Potter go.
When he leaves for the evening, Severus tells himself it is merely
a nod to what little civility he owes Potter that he closes the front door loud enough to be heard in the kitchen.
“It’s not poisoned,” Potter says when Severus looks up to see him setting a tray of food on top of a box.
“And you would tell me if it were?”
“Probably.” Potter shrugs, fiddling with the silverware.
His lips twitch in response and he has to look away before he can quell the impulse. “I believe I was quite clear that I don’t take lunch.”
“Eat it or don’t, but I won’t be responsible for you dying of malnourishment in my attic.”
“I assure you, should I expire here, it will be thanks to your presence, not a lack of sustenance.” The words come out more sharply than he intended.
“Fine. I’m going.”
“Why the sudden concern? Afraid I’ll haunt you?”
“I’ve enough ghosts, your scrawny spirit won’t make a difference,” Potter spits. There’s a beat of silence before he turns sharply on his heel. “Bring the tray down when you’re done.”
Severus doesn’t eat, but as the afternoon heat crawls in, he does finish the juice. The day is noticeably hotter than yesterday, and Severus blames his inability to concentrate on the stifling air. His gaze wanders to the lunch tray, bringing back the memory of his and Potter’s conversation, until he considers the afternoon a lost cause and gathers the tray to leave.
By the bottom of the stairs is the entrance to the living room, and in passing Severus’ attention is caught by the sight of Potter sprawled across the couch. The furnishings here are old; curving wood and dark flowers. Amid them Potter looks displaced, like a doll forgotten. Logically, he knows it’s Potter, but his eyes will not resolve the figure into the man he knows, leaving Severus blinking and uncomfortable.
Potter sits up immediately, eyes wide with the illusion of awareness before he blinks and it fades to an exhausted confusion.
“Snape?” He tangles one hand in his already disheveled hair, his brow furrowed.
Severus knows the kind of sleep Potter has had, where every muscle seems overworked and a headache begins upon waking. The kind that, against all reason, seems to drain rest rather than bring it.
“As you seemed so concerned with proper dietary habits, I thought you might wish to know that it is dinnertime.” He turns and walks into the kitchen.
Apparently, Potter has not yet gotten to refinishing in here. The old table still stretches across the room, worn and riddled from the tension of the Order meetings. The cabinets are still yellowed, gray around the edges from a myriad of hands banging them open and shut.
The air is ripe with memories, but with the Dark Lord gone, the stress seems a distant thing. It is, Severus muses while cleaning off the tray, a bit like greeting an enemy one has not seen in years, when enmity has worn thin and what remains is an almost intimate knowledge of each other.
There’s a bang and a hiss of breath from the hallway, explained when Potter stumbles in, absently rubbing his arm. He shuffles over to the stove and stares at the kettle a moment before patting his pockets -- in search of his wand, Severus presumes.
“Oh, for --” He has his own wand out and the spell cast to boil the water before Potter has even looked up. “Sit down before you break something.”
Severus abandons the dishes. He pours the tea and leaves it to steep while he checks the cabinet where the basic potions used to be kept. They’re still there, layered with what looks to be five years worth of post-war dust, and certainly out of date.
“Where do you keep your potions?” Shutting the cabinet door with a snap, he turns.
Potter is sitting, head buried in the space of his folded arms.
“Mm...?” The response is only audible thanks to the echo it causes, reverberating against the wood of the table.
“Where do you keep your potions?”
Potter lifts his head, turning it slightly from side to side as if he’s looking for something.
“No potions,” he answers, even as he’s lowering his head back down. “Hate potions.”
Severus shuts his eyes and lets out a resigned sigh. “Idiot.”
Trust Potter not to keep the necessities. He deposits the tea in front of Potter with a thunk and a curt “Drink” before setting about making dinner. Because it is getting late and Potter’s naptime has put him behind, he makes enough for himself, too.
“Eat.” He sets the soup and bread on the table. Potter has, at least, woken up enough to hold his head above the teacup, though he clutches the mug in both hands like it’s his last, tentative connection to the world.
Seating himself at the other end of the table, Severus eats. The bowl grates against the table as Potter pulls it closer. Severus gives him an irritated glance, but Potter is far too absorbed in divining the secrets of the soup to notice.
Severus doesn’t look up again until he hears the bowl being pushed away. Potter is watching him. Their eyes lock a long moment before he speaks.
It awes him a bit, that the question he does not dare to ask falls so easily from Potter’s lips. But then, fools are often willing to tread where the wise will not.
“I’m” -- tired, he’s going to say, but the truth is a complex, fractured thing, and he offers a less sharp-edged piece instead -- “a potions master. It’s in my nature to want things functioning properly. Balanced.”
Nose scrunched in dissatisfaction, Potter looks away. If history repeats, he is sure to push for more of an answer any moment.
There is little more intimate to Severus than the sharing of his own uncertainty. To do so with Potter, of all people, is not an idea that he even considers. He dislikes Potter; the knowledge is solid, built from years of being proven true. Whatever this odd sense of ease between them is, it is not enough to negate hard fact. Still, he is unwilling to enter into the argument he can feel hovering on the horizon.
“What are you doing?”
“Forgive me,” he answers, bringing his dishes to the sink. “I had thought you couth enough to recognize the act of dishwashing.”
“I have finished, and you appear to be what passes for functional; it’s time I took my leave.”
Potter looks ready to argue and Severus holds his breath for the next remark.
But it never comes. Potter actually seems to think before speaking. Then he laughs. It’s a small, shaky laugh, more at himself than Severus. He looks at what remains of his meal.
“Thanks for dinner, Snape.”
Severus doesn’t quite know what to say to that, and so merely gives a curt nod and finishes cleaning up.
“Tomorrow, then?” Potter asks as Severus is leaving. There’s a hint of anticipation in his voice that Severus can neither mistake nor credit.
He has to let himself in the next morning. This in itself causes anxiety to unfurl in his stomach. It has been cocooned for so long that even the first hint is enough to quicken his breathing. Stepping cautiously into the foyer, he shuts the door and listens for any indication of his missing host.
And lets out a huff of breath that is part exasperation, part reluctant relief when he immediately makes out the sound of a wireless playing further in the house. Severus chooses to let the irritation carry him down the hallway to the threshold of the library, where the noise originates. He can see Potter pulling books off the shelves and sorting them into several scattered boxes.
“You can’t have finished the hallway,” he says without preamble. There had been a reasonable amount left the night before, and it seems improbable to him that Potter could have completed it.
“I needed a change.”
“Applying paint too taxing on your mental faculties?”
“In a way, I mean, yesterday I thought you did something nice for me. Clearly it was the paint fumes.” Potter deadpans the last part, finally looking up from the books.
“Have you read Voight’s Theory on Magical Voids?”
“Ah.” Potter considers the book in his hand a moment longer before tossing it into a box.
Severus has always been curious; it is part of what made him a good spy. Now he draws closer, peering down into one of the boxes. Many of the titles are familiar to him as excellent texts. One or two of them are Dark Arts works he has heard of but never managed to get copies of.
“I’m keeping that box. The other one I’m getting rid of. If you want anything, you’re welcome to it,” Potter comments, going back to sorting the shelves.
Never one to pass up an opportunity for free books, Severus moves to the other. There are a couple of potions texts he pulls immediately, but beyond that there is little of interest. Going back to the first, he pulls out a larger tome.
“Are you certain you wish to keep this one? It does contain four-syllable words, and no pictures.”
Potter glances at it over his shoulder and grins.
“Nice try. You can borrow it if you like.”
Severus nods his thanks, distracted by the feeling that there is something he’s missing. No firmer idea is forthcoming as he makes his way up to the sanctuary of the attic, and so he shrugs it off to begin his work for the day.
By noon, it is hot enough that Severus has removed his outer robe and rolled up his sleeves. The box he selected this morning contains a multitude of tiny curios and he is sitting cross-legged on the floor, tested figurines scattered to his left, when Potter enters.
“I had thought we’d been over this.” He looks up, and has to drag his gaze away from the glass of juice Potter has included on the tray, beads of condensation rolling down it.
“We have; I’ll bring the food, you’ll starve yourself anyway. A satisfactory solution for all. Merlin, it’s hot up here.”
“The consequences of being in an attic in the middle of summer. What are you doing?” He moves over instinctively as Potter sets the tray on the floor and sits beside him.
“Everything downstairs smells like paint,” Potter replies easily, reaching for a sandwich.
“Isn’t there somewhere else you could be?”
“What is it, exactly, that you do, Mr. Potter, that you have all of this free time?” The question has been lingering at the back of his mind for some time now. It’s not interest, only a general curiosity. They did, after all, fight a war together, even if Potter spent most of it unaware of which side Severus was on. His last real memory of Potter is of the man shaking hands with him at the first Ministry celebration. There are exactly five more recent memories, each of Potter in formal black robes at the other end of the table.
Potter shrugs and looks around. “I travel. France -- Ron and Hermione are there now,-- Egypt, Romania, India.”
“For what purpose?”
That earns him an incredulous look. “For the purpose of seeing the world. There’s so much. I
lived, now I’m living.”
It sounds far too well-rehearsed to Severus, and he holds Potter’s gaze until the man looks away. He has seen inside Potter’s mind, and he has not forgotten the fierce attachment to family, to home, that was there then. Such loyalty was far too deep to be swayed by the years that have passed.
“Tell me about what you’ve found up here?” Potter takes a bite of his sandwich.
As none of it is really Severus’ business, he allows the change of topic. He picks up one particularly ugly figure of a dragon with its spawn and holds it up. “A great number of hideous dust-collectors.”
Potter grimaces, swallows, and laughs.
It’s not much of a laugh, but it kindles an uncomfortable pleasure in Severus. He shifts and sets the dragon back down with the rest, watching them and waiting for the feeling to dissipate.
“That’s it? No dark curses? No struggles to undo knots of black magic?” Potter’s voice is low and smooth, and for a moment Severus doesn’t register it as Potter’s, only as rich, and deep, and male.
He examines the objects before finding the one he wants and snatching it up deftly.
“This one,” and now that he has had a moment he can look at Potter again, “had a lovely infertility hex on it.”
Potter leans close, examining the figure and reaching up to take it before hesitating and glancing at Severus as if for permission.
“Mm.” He lets it drop into the man’s hand. “Bleeding, dysfunction, nausea -- it took several spells to deactivate it.” Seizing the opportunity of a distracted Potter, Severus leans forward, casually, and grabs the juice from the tray. No matter that he doesn’t care for pumpkin juice; it is wonderfully cold going down, and he has drained half the glass before he manages to stop himself.
When he looks again it’s just in time to catch Potter’s gaze darting back to the figure. Potter bites his lip, lightly worrying it between his teeth, before exhaling and looking at Severus with eyes that seem too bright.
“Tell me more?”
Severus does not stay for dinner that night, and Potter seems to accept his refusal with equanimity. If Potter is anything like him, there is also some measure of relief when they part for the evening. The hour or so spent pleasantly together in the attic is almost too much, and Severus is grateful for the time home, alone, to absorb it.
He finishes dinner and settles down with tea for the evening, thoughts dwelling on Potter’s odd behavior, the growing sense that Severus is missing something, and not on the memory of the man’s voice, or the blurred shiver of emotions when their eyes met.
“Still alive, I would presume. If you’ve been feeding her.” Severus refuses to look up as Potter crosses the room to the dollhouse, setting the tray down as he passes.
“She’s not very active. Is that normal?”
“I wouldn’t know, it’s not my habit to scrutinize the daily activities of rodents.” He glances over to see Potter crouched in front of the dollhouse, carefully replacing a replenished food dish.
“I thought I’d make pasta tonight.”
“Do you announce every thought you’ve had aloud?”
Potter looks at him over his shoulder, pretending to consider it. “I don’t think so,” he drawls at last.
And it’s such a simple joke, delivered with such impeccable timing and innocence, that Severus cannot help himself. The corners of his mouth twitch madly before he gives in and lets the small smile grace his lips. He huffs, a venting of both his amusement and the frustration that he could not control it.
Potter mirrors the smile, and turns around, sitting down as he does so.
“Will you stay?” His tone is easy enough, but his expression has turned serious.
“Will you desist these absurd attempts to feed me lunch if I do?” Severus asks, looking at the tray and hoping Potter will agree. It isn’t what he wants to ask, isn’t the elusive why, but perhaps it will get him closer.
It’s said too easily, and after too long a pause for Severus to be anything but suspicious. He looks at Potter with narrowed eyes, but the man’s face gives nothing away.
“I’ll fetch you when it’s ready, shall I?”
Severus nods, and watches Potter get up and leave, conscious of the heat between them condensing and expanding with the movements.
Potter laughs, a low chuckle that cracks the uneasy silence between them.
The eyes that meet his are bright with mirth, “Us.”
“I don’t recall saying anything witty,” Severus sniffs.
Sobering his features, Potter responds with mock severity, “That would be the point, wouldn’t it?”
When it’s clear Severus isn’t going to answer, he continues, “I don’t think you and I have ever been silent in each other’s presence for so long.”
“Detention.” He can’t resist snapping it as he used to, enjoying Potter’s automatic flinch in response.
“True,” Potter laughs, and picks up his fork.
It takes Severus a moment longer to take up his own cutlery, bothered as he is by the resurgence of that unfamiliar pleasure at making Potter laugh. It is almost like the thrill of irritating the man, but -- different, in a way he cannot yet pinpoint.
“Anything interesting today?”
“A few hexes, nothing particularly imaginative.”
Potter hmms, pursing his lips. “I didn’t realize creativity was such a criterion of a good curse.”
He’s half-joking, Severus can tell, but the lover of Dark Arts in him will not allow the statement to go unaddressed. “Of course it is. Generally the more creative a curse is, the more difficult it is to break.”
“Oh, well then, you would have loved the curse we found on Charlie’s new property in Romania.”
When silence again falls between them it is a good meal and some time later. Severus watches Potter lazily mopping up the last of his sauce with bread, a bit amused at the love the man seems to have for eating. For everything, actually. Potter spoke of his travels, his friends, and magic with equal enthusiasm. Severus simply doesn’t understand where the energy for it all comes from.
On some days, he feels the weight of his life more, and the knowledge that he has many years yet to fill is overwhelming. There is little, of late, to make him so aware of the turns his life has taken as finding himself at dinner across this table from Potter. And yet. And yet it is easier now, in Potter’s presence, in Grimmauld Place; the past does not seem such a distant thing, his life does not feel like a flash in a pan, left to wind away in endless tendrils of smoke.
“I’ve brought --”
“We agreed no more lunch,” he interrupts without looking up.
Severus shakes his head at himself; he should have known.
Potter sets something next to him as he passes, and Severus looks up to find a blessedly cold glass of water.
“It’s too hot up here.”
“I will survive; that is why cooling charms were designed.” Inadequate though they may be.
“You could help me sort through the library.”
He looks over, but Potter is facing the dollhouse and Severus cannot read his expression.
“That was not part of our agreement,” he answers carefully.
Long seconds of silence answer him before Potter nods shortly. “No, it wasn’t.” When Potter turns around, his face is neutral. “Are you staying?”
“We agreed --”
“That you would stay for dinner last night.”
Severus takes in the too-quick answer, turning the tone over in his head and memorizing it to examine later. He does not know why he dislikes it so, why it seems to crawl and itch beneath his skin, but he does know he wishes it gone.
“Far be it from me to pass up the opportunity to see you play house-elf.” He says it slowly, sneeringly, but holds his breath as soon as the words are out. For the first time in years he is uncertain of the response his words will receive. It is rather like the wait when an ingredient has been added to an experimental potion.
The corner of Potter’s mouth curves up the tiniest fraction. Too little, really, to be even the beginnings of a smile. But Severus takes it, along with the slight relaxation in Potter’s features, with a silent exhalation of relief.
Potter licks his lips, his gaze more active now as it moves from Severus to the floor and back.
“I’ll call up when it’s done.”
And then he is gone, walking out even as Severus is debating whether to respond.
Despite the uncertain afternoon, their second dinner carries on as well as the first. Better, if one takes into account the distinct lack of uncomfortable silence.
It’s almost dark by the time they finish, and the front hallway is dim with the gray-blue of evening shadows. Potter walks through it with him, silently handing Severus his cloak at the door.
“Why are you feeding me, Potter?” It’s as close as he can get, even with the illusionary intimacy of the shadows.
Potter looks up at him, and for a moment Severus thinks he will get his answer. Then Potter’s lips part, and hesitate. “Hero complex, isn’t that what you call it?” he says, shrugging and looking away briefly. “I like taking care of people.”
“I don’t need taking care of,” Severus sneers, because it is what is expected.
Potter smiles ruefully. “I know.”
“I said I liked to, not needed to.”
He opens the door, and Severus gets the message.
After a time it becomes unnecessary for Potter to call him down; Severus merely arrives in the kitchen around six and helps to finish up. Today he enters to find Potter standing, motionless, staring into the open pantry.
“I don’t want any of this,” Potter says, suddenly, as if Severus’ appearance has released him from a spell.
Severus walks up, looking over Potter’s shoulder at the shelves of food. He means to find something they’ve not yet had, but finds instead that his attention is caught by his awareness of Potter. He can, this close, make out the scent of the man’s shampoo and the light evening stubble emerging on his jaw. He has the sudden urge to lean forward and bend his mouth to the curve of Potter’s neck. This is no snapshot of the aesthetically pleasing, but desire running hot and thick through his veins. It’s a heady feeling, and he has to put an arm out to keep from falling completely into its thrall. His hand lands against the doorframe and he grips it, trying to focus on the white pain in his fingers.
Severus is so focused that he doesn’t notice when Potter starts to turn, and so is surprised to look down into green eyes.
“Oh.” And that’s Potter, breathless, but Severus has already stepped back.
“What?” he says, as if Severus is speaking another language.
“We’ll go out. For dinner. I’m tired of your cooking.”
It’s a bit absurd, the way Potter’s uncertainty helps to balance Severus again.
“Yes. Out. Not here. You attended Hogwarts, I’ve seen you at Ministry functions, I know the act is not entirely foreign to you.”
Potter blinks at him a moment, and Severus is just preparing to deliver another, more cutting statement, when he speaks.
“Okay. I just --”
Watching him, the way he bites his lip, the way his eyes shift, it occurs to Severus that he hasn’t seen Potter this anxious since the first morning he returned to Grimmauld. There’s an assessing glint to Potter’s glances at Severus, though what it means he can’t discern.
“ -- need to do something, first.”
Severus is waiting in the foyer when Potter returns from his mysterious errand upstairs. He paces the short length and, glancing up again, catches sight of Potter descending, one hand skimming the railing.
He cannot help staring.
Potter grins when he notices Severus looking at him, and turns around at the bottom of the stairs like he’s showing off a new outfit.
“Not polyjuice,” Severus murmurs, studying the changes and trying to work out what potion or combination of them could have caused such results. Potter’s features are the same in shape, but his eyes are a dull brown and his hair a dark blond.
“No,” Potter answers. “Weasleys.”
This pulls Severus from his contemplation and he narrows his eyes, automatically suspicious.
“The official formula changes your hair and eyes for a few minutes, but I’ve got one of the earlier test versions -- a full twelve hours.”
It can’t be him. For all their battles over the years, Severus knows, instinctively, that it is not for fear or disgust of being seen in public with him that Potter feels the need to disguise himself. His mind creates and discards a variety of potential reasons in a matter of seconds, and what he is left with is not a reason, but a memory of Potter, absently tapping his plate at the Ministry dinner.
He has stayed silent long enough that Potter’s smile has started to fade.
“I don’t like being crowded,” he says, like he’s used Legilimency, “It may not seem like much, but without the scar it’s enough.”
“Make-up.” Potter shrugs, seeming to regain some of his earlier cheer. “A touch of concealor and I’m Evan Jameson, at your service.”
Severus grimaces reflexively, and it takes him some seconds to regain control of his features.
“Please,” and he’s only half-teasing, “please tell me you don’t actually use that conspicuous pseudonym?”
Potter doesn’t respond, just smiles and walks past him to the door.
It is easier than he expected to agree on a restaurant. They have only gone a short way down the street when Severus gestures to one, less because it is appealing and more because he expects the selection to be a long, drawn-out process.
Potter narrows his eyes, reading the sign. “Sure.”
Severus’ surprise must show, because Potter smiles slightly, and it’s the small, private one he seems to use when he finds something Severus has done amusing.
“I wasn’t raised to be picky about what I eat.” He shrugs and angles his steps towards the restaurant, leaving Severus to remember why.
What they get for their indifference is not bad. The restaurant is small, verging on cramped, but the dim lighting and deep colors lend the space an air of intentional coziness. Though it takes his eyes a full minute to adjust, the difference from the bright sunlight outside is welcome, and the cool air is practically magic.
They’re seated towards the back at a small table that somehow manages to feel as if it’s going to topple any moment and still remain steady. It’s early yet, and the waiter is quick to get their drinks and take their order.
While they are waiting for the food to arrive, Potter turns in his chair, stretching his legs in the aisle. Severus watches him look out over the tables and knows that the man will ask something soon. It’s disconcerting to see Potter’s expressions combined with a stranger’s coloration. Severus cannot help but feel as if he’s watching an actor playing a role, and begins to understand what has been bothering him.
“I don’t know what to call you now,” Potter says eventually, voice quiet as if uncertain whether he wants to be heard or not.
Had Potter been a Slytherin, Severus would think it an excellent move, forcing him to offer leave to use his given name, rather than asking for it. Brilliant, but not the way Potter’s mind works.
If Severus is honest with himself, it is a frightening thing, the idea of offering what, for him, is an intimacy. If he is more honest with himself, he wants to grant Potter the permission. But the seconds tick by and he cannot bring himself to give so much, so he offers what he can.
“Why call me anything?”
“There are not so many people in Grimmauld Place that you feel the need to specify who you are speaking to, are there?”
“Well, no, but -- ”
“And you are not in the habit of speaking aloud to yourself -- I assume I would have noticed.”
Potter smiles indulgently. “No.”
“Then, until you know, I suggest you save yourself the trouble and don’t address me as anything.”
It must be enough, because Potter nods and looks back out over the restaurant. They lapse into silence, a not-unusual occurrence for them, but it is comfortable. Severus suspects that Potter, like himself, is merely used to it. He knows that Potter has visited older acquaintances on his journeys, but it seems only logical that a life spent traveling would limit one’s opportunity to form and maintain attachments.
Or perhaps it is only here that Potter is not very friendly with the locals.
“Where is Mrs. Potter?” he asks, continuing his thoughts aloud.
“Never met her.” He doesn’t look over as he answers, doesn’t look affected by the question at all, a fact which only heightens Severus’ curiosity.
He’s about to continue, to prod Potter with a jibe about his standards, when the food arrives. Severus is only momentarily distracted by the brush of their knees as Potter brings his legs back under the table, but it is just enough time for Potter to say something and start them on a new conversation. The moment is lost, and Severus sets the question to the back of his mind with all the others.
It isn’t until they arrive back at Grimmauld Place that Severus realizes he has no reason to come inside tonight.
Potter seems to realize this too, for he shifts, a smile flirting at the corners of his lips, as he takes his key from his pocket. He looks down, hair brushing against wood, and unlocks the door. There’s a small click, but Potter makes no move to either look up or open the door.
His voice is so quiet Severus takes a moment to discern whether he imagined it or not.
“It’s a basic necessity of civility,” Potter adds, softly teasing as he turns to look at Severus.
And this is the moment. This is the moment that Severus knows, with every beat of his too-quick heart, that he could lean forward now, press his lips to Potter’s, and not be pushed away. The knowledge whips between them and crackles into the stretching seconds like a spell.
But it is not yet dark, and even in the shadow of the porch Severus feels all too exposed and all too aware that it is brown eyes looking into his, so he stands, unmoving, until the last of the moment has dissipated and Potter turns away again.
“Tomorrow, perhaps. Goodnight, Mr. Potter.”
He manages to get to the bottom of the porch steps before he stops and turns around.
He’s just opened the door, and at the sound of Severus calling he turns and leans against it, hands pulling against the doorknob to keep himself from tumbling in. The position makes him look oddly boyish. Severus hesitates, reminded of their past, and the vast difference between them, but manages to go on after only a brief pause.
“What are you planning for supper tomorrow?”
Potter looks at him warily. “I thought I could pick up some salmon.”
Severus nods, focusing on a point just beyond Potter’s shoulder. “I’ll bring a Chardonnay. Contrary to Hogwarts’ teachings, pumpkin juice is not the ideal libation for every meal.”
He glances at Potter’s face for the reaction, and while the smile there is not as light as the one moments before, it is enough to allow Severus to turn and make his way to the Apparation point.
It is a relief, the next morning, when Severus must let himself in again. The empty foyer, the sound of the wireless from the library, are welcome indicators that he will not have to face Potter again quite so soon. He takes the wine to the kitchen, leaving it where Potter will notice, and goes up into the attic.
Most of the contents are clean of dark spells, and Severus works his way through what remains almost mechanically, letting his mind wander to thoughts of Potter, of why.
As the morning eases into afternoon, clouds begin to fill the sky, and the attic light dims to grey. Severus looks around himself, at the dusty, skeletal beams, the boxed memories, all the components of his little corner of Grimmauld Place, and he understands.
Lunch arrives before he expects it, and Severus barely hears the thump, thump, thump of Potter on the stairs before the man, in all his disheveled glory, is there, setting down the lunch tray and offering him one of the mugs he’s holding.
He’s lovely, even in the drab light. Severus feels the weight of his earlier realization as an ache in his chest, slow, like cold steel being bent against its nature.
“It’s going to rain,” Potter says, as if he isn’t standing too close.
“You are, as ever, a veritable wellspring of the obvious, Mr. Potter.” Severus replies. He is used to wearing masks, and it is no trouble to act as if nothing happened, or almost happened, between them.
Potter goes to the dollhouse and tends to 27. When he is done, Severus sets his work aside and they sit together once again one the floor.
Today, thanks to the graying light, edges seem to blur. Severus feels uncertain, as they sit with backs braced against a stack of boxes, their legs extended, where precisely he ends and Potter begins.
Potter tells him tales of India, where Severus has never been. That the stories are not of the places he might have chosen to seen, or detailed with information he might have included, does not matter; they are always bright, and Potter’s love for everything pulls him in.
They let the conversation die as it begins to rain. Potter has finished his lunch, and they listen to the rain hitting the roof, a thick, warm sound.
He doesn’t startle easily, and it is that which keeps him from pulling back when Potter reaches out and covers Severus’ hand lightly with his own. It’s the first intentional touch between them. Severus stares at their hands together, trying to rectify that the darker, stronger hand can feel so natural against his thin skin.
“I like your hands,” Potter says, brushing his fingertips across the back of Severus’ hand.
It sounds something like a confession, and Severus looks over, but Potter is looking down, his head bent too far for Severus to read his expression. He should pull away, but can’t bring himself to.
“Don’t tell me they’re elegant.” Someone had said they were, once, and Severus prefers to pretend he doesn’t remember who.
Potter looks up, and Severus realizes he has leaned forward; he can almost feel Potter’s breath against his lips. Once, Severus thinks, just once, and then he will do what’s right.
“They’re real,” Potter finishes in a whisper, like the breath’s been taken from him too. He leans closer.
“Don’t.” It escapes, from a conscience Severus has often damned himself for having, sounding more like a plea than an order.
While Potter is at a loss for words, Severus pulls away, sliding his hand free.
Dertmination backs the question, and Severus shuts his eyes a long moment.
“How often do you see your friends?”
“Every now and then.”
“And how often do you go out without that ridiculous disguise?” Better to be standing for this. Better, Severus tells himself, to draw on his former teaching resources. He stands up, crossing his arms and leaning back against the boxes facing Potter, trying to put both space and the illusion of time between them.
“I told you, I don’t, it’s --”
“Do you even have a place you consider home?”
“Stop asking questions and get to the point.”
There’s the familiar irritation. Potter stands up, facing him, shining in his impatience.
“That is the point,” and Severus can’t bring himself to add his usual insult. “Remember who you are, Potter. Remember who I am. We’re not made to be lovers. This isn’t real --”
“Then what is it?”
“You think I --”
“You lead an isolated life. You see no one. The first time I arrived here you were trembling, you were so anxious.”
“You travel, yes, spend your days with strangers. Come back when the Ministry bids, like a good little puppet. You even have a nice elaborate box to stay in when they‘re done with you,” he gestures to the house around them, “When was the last time you spoke to someone besides me?”
“Ron and Hermione --”
“Are in France, and married. Everyone needs a Secret-Keeper, Potter, and they’re far too involved with each other to be yours.”
“Damnit, would you let me finish a sentence? Don’t talk to me about Secret-Keepers. Mail-order Potions. The most you reveal to anyone is your handwriting and sneer!”
Severus stiffens, channeling his reaction into tense muscles. It’s what he wanted, Potter’s anger, and he tells himself it’s easier this way. Never mind that Potter’s words cut deeper than expected; he has recovered from much worse in the past. Summoning his coldest voice, he puts on the sneer Potter has just been so kind to remind him of.
“Thank you, Mr. Potter, for demonstrating my point. I think it’s time I go.” He turns away, heading for the door.
Severus doesn’t turn, doesn’t stop at all, but escapes down the stairs and out of the house before Potter can follow.
Never let it be said that Severus doesn’t keep his word. The attic was almost complete yesterday, and he and Potter did have an agreement. Severus gathers his courage and Apparates to Grimmauld Place in the morning. The rain has not abated, and the house looks dreary and familiar in a way it has not since the war.
He hopes he will have to let himself in. But, ever contrary to his wishes, Potter is in the foyer and opens the door almost before Severus can finish knocking. They stare at each other a moment, Potter surprised, Severus uncertain, before Severus manages to speak.
“You’re a mess.”
Potter’s hair is more unkempt than usual, and there are paint splatters in it. There’s even a white streak across his cheek.
“Couldn’t sleep… I’ve been painting since five.” He sounds like he’s been up all night, speaking more from exhaustion than anything else.
“That would explain the bags under your eyes. And the smell.”
Potter gives a harsh, desiccated laugh, his expression pained.
“Always so charming.” He opens the door more, leaning against it as Severus enters.
There’s a fresh coat of paint over Mrs. Black’s portrait, glistening slightly in what little light manages to filter through the clouds.
“What are you doing here?”
“I should be finished today.” Severus answers, matter-of-factly.
“Ah.” He doesn’t even attempt to mask the disappointment, though he looks away.
“I trust you’ll know where to find me, should it be necessary,” Severus says at last, less sharply than he’d intended, and heads up the stairs, conscious of Potter watching him the whole way.
Though he’s well aware of when Potter enters, he doesn’t look up. He is working his way through a box of jewelry, and as luck would have it he stumbles on a necklace with an old, tricky aging curse shortly after Potter’s arrival.
Waiting out the long moments in which he can feel Potter watching him from the doorway proves almost too much. But, eventually, Potter gives up and goes to the dollhouse.
Though it’s spoken softly, the sound throws off his wand movements, and Severus has to begin his fourth attempt at deactivating the curse. But this one’s no good from the start, not when he can hear the floorboards creak with Potter’s every step closer. It’s a bit absurd, he thinks, that with all the acts of his past, he is afraid to look up now.
Maybe it was a mistake, giving Potter the option of that name; now it whispers to him of what he has denied.
“I am engaged, Mr. Potter, in case that escaped your keen observational skills,” he answers, because he must say something, in the brief pause before beginning his next attempt.
“It can wait five minutes,” reaching out, Potter closes his hand over Severus’, stilling it.
Severus takes a breath, conscious that he’s gripping the wand too tightly. He can feel the heat of Potter’s body just next to him, can smell damp hair and shampoo.
“Did no one ever teach you that it’s dangerous, not to mention rude to touch a casting wizard?”
There’s no response, and eventually Severus gives in and looks at Potter.
“It’s rude to ignore people too,” Potter answers, without rancor. He lets go of Severus’ hand but doesn’t back up.
“I was working,” he says, irritated.
“It’s an aging curse, it’s not going anywhere. Besides, this is work too, there’s been a change.”
“Potter.” Severus exhales, and shuts his eyes, not sure what he’s going to say next. It’s in that pause, when his mind is blank, that Potter’s words fill in the missing piece. He has a moment of feeling cracked, of breaking apart, before anger rises.
“A change?” It’s no act, in this moment, his cold tone.
He follows Potter over to the dollhouse and crouches in front of it. There, in one corner of the living room, is 27. Her eyes reflect the light, but like glass, not the fluid nature of life. Reaching in, Severus pulls her forward, careful not to crush the soft body. Leaving her inside, he stands back up. He pretends not to notice Potter watching him with ever-increasing impatience until he judges it long enough and turns to Potter with one eyebrow raised.
“Well?” he drawls.
Potter blinks at him. “What?”
“I suggest you reverse the spell. Unless, that is, you’re very fond of stuffed mice.”
Lips parted, Potter glances quickly at the dollhouse, “I -- I’m not --”
“Not what, Mr. Potter?” Severus sneers. “Not fond of stuffed mice?”
When nothing but silence and a blank-faced Potter greet his words he continues in a venomous whisper. “Did you think I wouldn’t figure it out, Potter? That I could fail to notice your ability to distinguish between the good Dark Arts texts and the junk? That you repeatedly use the same long-lasting disguise rather than a simpler one? I am capable of putting two and two together, Professor. Now undo that spell, because I certainly will not.” By the end, what control he had is gone, and Severus’ voice reverberates through the room, ending with an almost audible crack like the silence at the end of a symphony.
Watching him, unblinking, Potter removes his wand and flicks it towards the dollhouse.
“No, Mr. Potter.”
“If you’ll let me--”
“Explain? I don’t enjoy being laughed at, or lied to.”
“I didn’t lie to you!”
“Egypt is wonderful, Romania fascinating -- just how many stories were you going to make up before you considered them lies?”
“I didn’t make them up!”
“That’s rich; and I suppose the year in France was spent flooing back and forth so you could get to classes?”
“It was before Hogwarts!”
“And all the time you have been at Hogwarts? Pretending to be interested in stories of my former students, of the dark artifacts, wasn’t lying? I’ll bet you had a good laugh over that little scene with your friends -- the old fool, too stupid to realize he was preaching to the choir.”
“I like hearing you talk!”
“Oh, I’m sure.”
“I told you--”
“Do you have a lover there? Someone you go back to every fall? What would we have been if I hadn’t stopped you, hmm? A little dalliance for the summer? Something to giggle over. ‘So sorry, Severus, I must be off to Australia for a year. Ha. Ha.’”
“Then why am I here, Potter? You recognized the aging curse -- you could have done all of this yourself, why bother paying me?”
“You were right, okay!” Potter yells, hands working between open and fisted at his sides. He looks away, and Severus can almost see the fight drain out of him in the brief silence. “You were right. I didn’t want to spend another summer here alone. I wanted -- someone here, someone with me.”
“No!” Potter turns to face him. “I didn’t plan that. I didn’t plan any of it.”
“You just suddenly decided to invite a man you hated -- hated,” he emphasizes when Potter opens his mouth to argue, “into your home?”
They’re holding each other’s gaze, so Severus has a clear view of the uncertainty, the hesitancy that passes over Potter’s features before he looks away, closing his eyes as if trying to keep Severus out.
“You remind me of the war,” he continues at last.
“Most people would wish not to be.”
“Most people’s lives weren’t dictated by it.”
“Everyone’s life was dictated by it.”
“Not the same way… and you know it. You. Sirius. Dumbledore. Me. People hear our names and they think of the war. It’s who we are.”
It’s true, and Severus can’t think of a response.
“Everyone else, they got to go back to their lives -- ours just stopped. You can call it loneliness if you want, but I wouldn’t have fallen for just anyone. It’s different -- it’s not so --” But Potter has obviously exhausted his capacity for eloquence.
No matter, Severus thinks of dinner with Potter, the comfort at Grimmauld, and knows what he means. There’s a pull in his chest, that same length of steel being forced back; he tries to ignore it.
“So you admit it isn’t real?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You just said--”
“I said I was lonely, that being around you stopped that.”
“We can’t build a relationship on the illusionary intimacy of wartime camaraderie.”
Potter smiles at him, a small, dry smile, like someone trying to bear a death.
“You have to pull everything apart, don’t you?” It’s not really a question.
Potter steps closer to him, slowly, and Severus can’t decide whether to back away.
“Everything is based on circumstances. Ron and Hermione probably fell in love because of the war; do you think that isn’t real?”
Potter’s right in front of him, now, so close Severus can see the variations of green in is eyes.
“Do you hate me?”
Severus would like to close his eyes, but the thrum of his heart is so loud, so deep, he’s afraid he’ll drown in it. “I di --”
“Now, Severus, do you hate me now?” He reaches up, brushing Severus’ hair behind his ear, letting his fingers trail down his jaw.
“No.” And now he does shut his eyes.
“You want this?” Potter leans closer, and Severus can feel the ghosts of the words against his lips.
It had been easy to picture it rough, easy to imagine the hatred from all those years ago spilling itself between them, at last, in the pulse and slide of bodies. What Severus couldn’t imagine was this, now, when Potter’s lips at last press against his and it is firm and gentle, a sweet heat that doesn’t erupt, but simmers. He parts his lips and their tongues meet, twisting and playing together, and Severus can’t think anything except that he wants more.
Potter’s hands tangle in his hair, and Severus’ come up to fist in Potter’s shirt, pulling him closer. Their bodies press together, and Potter’s as hard as he is, but it barely registers when there are so many other sensations; the complex dance of bone and muscle and skin beneath his hands. He doesn’t realize they’re moving until Potter bangs up against a stack of boxes, the jolt reminding Severus of where they are.
When they part -- Potter only loosening his hands enough to let Severus break the kiss -- they’re both breathing hard and neither speaks immediately.
“I’m happy with you,” Potter says at last. He slides his hands down until they rest on either side of Severus’ neck. “I like who we are when we’re together. So what if it’s thanks to the war? That doesn’t make it any less real.”
Maybe not. Severus cannot deny that the quick beat of his heart is real, nor his desire. “It’s too easy,” he says at last, because a part of him will not give in.
Potter chuckles, low and only half-amused. His fingers shift against Severus’ neck as if he wants to pull him closer, but there is already little space between them. “Easy? We’re already fighting, and we haven’t even begun. Nothing about this will be easy.”
“Then maybe it shouldn’t be at all.”
Though Potter’s expression doesn’t appear to change, it suddenly seems pained. “I can’t force you, Severus. I can only ask you to have faith in me.”
“You lied to me.”
“I didn’t mean to -- or I did -- but not later, not when we -- I didn’t know how to tell you then. I thought you would understand how hard it is for me to trust people.” He seems lost and it’s that, more than the words, that makes Severus believe him.
“I thought you would understand how important it is to me to be trusted.”
Potter’s hands go slack against Severus’ neck and he looks away with a nod, as if the final word has been spoken. Severus compensates instinctively, his hands tightening against Potter’s sides and pressing their bodies together.
“Nor am I interested in seeing a recluse.”
“I’m not --”
“You are,” and he says it softly, because he doesn’t want to hurt Potter, not with this. “Teaching, going out, you hide yourself behind paint and candied charms.”
“You’ve made your point,” he pushes against Severus’ chest, but his hands, like his words, are weak.
“I have.” Placing one hand beneath Potter’s chin he forces the man’s head up until their eyes meet. “Come to dinner with me, Harry.”
And it’s better than getting under Potter’s skin ever was, to see the hopelessness vanish from his eyes and happiness replace it.
Biting his lip, Potter’s pleased expression changes to wariness. “Don’t tease me.”
“You asked me to have faith in you -- and I will, in you, not some facade. Stop the Weasley tricks, here and at Hogwarts, and we will see if the rest of your argument holds true.”
Potter smiles, and pulls Severus down until their lips are a breath apart, their foreheads pressed together. “It will,” he whispers. “You’ll see.” He tilts his head to the side, brining their lips together for the second time.
It’s slower, deeper, and Severus feels as if he’s sinking. His last thought before he gives himself over to the feeling is that for once, Potter may have it right.