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The Interrupted Kiss: A Fairy Tale

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Title: The Interrupted Kiss: A Fairy Tale
Author: [personal profile] emynn
Rating: NC-17
Word count: 24,795
Content/Warning(s): (highlight for spoilers) *A brief kiss during a flashback between 17-year-old Harry and a not-17-year-old Severus. Other than that, nothing except for a plethora of clichés and what you would expect from the rating.*
Cliché: (highlight for spoilers) *Quite a few sprinkled throughout, but the main one is a Snarry retelling of a famous story, in this case, Cinderella.*
Summary: Once upon a time, Severus Snape shared a kiss with Harry Potter. Then Harry had disappeared after killing the Dark Lord, leaving Severus the reluctant darling of the Wizarding world. When Dumbledore insists on throwing a ball in Severus’s honour, Severus is convinced the world has gone completely mad. But when he comes across an ashy-faced young man whose half-answers about his identity haunt his every thought, Severus realizes that a ball might be the least of his worries.
A/N: AU after OotP–yup, Dumbledore is alive and kicking! A million thanks to D, who provided invaluable beta services and worked her magic on this. You’re the best!

MOD NOTE: If you have arrived here via a link from Adultfanfiction.net, the person who posted there (TeamSnape) IS NOT THE AUTHOR of this fic. She is a troll and a plagiarist. Please leave any comments you have to this fic for the actual author. Thank you.

 


The Interrupted Kiss: A Fairy Tale

 

CHAPTER ONE: ONCE UPON A TIME

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a handsome prince. He had hair dark as night and eyes the colour of ebony. He was dearly loved by his parents, the king and queen. For the most part, he lived a full and enriching life. However, there was one thing he was missing: his one true love. His devoted parents, recognizing this as the horrible fact that it was, finally came up with an idea so that their only son would have the wonderful life he so deserved: they decided to throw a ball in his honour and invite all of the eligible men and women in the kingdom. It was at this ball that the prince met his soul mate …

Severus Snape slammed the offensive book on the desk in front of him in disgust. “What is the point of this drivel, Albus? I have no taste for Muggle fairy tales.”

Albus Dumbledore leaned back in his chair and smiled as he stroked his long white beard. “I realize that, Severus. However, I thought that simply reading the story might be the best way to prepare you for an idea that occurred to me last night just before I fell asleep. Please, sit down. I assure you the chair will not bite.”

Severus glared, wishing that Albus had fallen asleep only a moment sooner so that this asinine idea (and, knowing Albus, it would be asinine) would never have materialized. He also had no desire to sit in the chair. The purple, cushy chair he had sat in every year when the headmaster told him somebody had been hired to fill the Defence Against the Dark Arts position, the same chair he had been sitting in when he received a lecture for making twenty students cry in one day, the same chair he had been sitting in when Albus showed him that god-forsaken Daily Prophet … in short, the chair was evil. There was no way he would sit in it.

“I would prefer to stand,” Severus said primly.

“Nonsense. Sit down, my boy, and have a lemon drop.”

“No.” If there were anything worse than the hideous chair, it was the sickeningly sweet lemon drops. Foolish, ridiculous Muggle candy.

“Really, Severus, I must insist: either you sit down or you take a candy. Otherwise I may feel offended that my display of hospitality has been rebuffed.”

Severus sat down with a huff. The chair keened and purred in delight. Albus did not give a damn about hospitality. He was a manipulative and meddlesome man who very often gave Severus a pounding headache with his riddles and flamboyant robes.

But he was Albus Dumbledore. He was not to be ignored. Severus heaved a resigned sigh.

“What is this about, Albus?”

Albus’s blue eyes twinkled in a way that told Severus he really couldn’t be trusted. This idea, whatever it was, was dangerous. Albus stood up from his chair (more like a throne) and gestured towards a large poster hanging up among the portraits of the former headmasters.

Severus groaned inwardly. The Photograph had been the bane of his existence since it was first published in the June 4 edition of the Daily Prophet following the Final Battle four years prior. There he was, his long black hair whipping about his face and his eyes burning with pain and triumph, struggling to march up a hill with the body of Harry Potter, the Boy Who Once Had Lived, in his arms. Harry’s face was buried in his former professor’s chest, his famous emerald eyes hidden from view, but there was no mistaking him. Severus watched in sullen resignation as his photographic self strained to make it to the top of the hill and then dropped to his knees under the strain. Harry’s body never touched the bloodstained earth, however, and as Severus fought to regain his footing once more, rays of sunshine streamed out from behind the clouds to bless a holy light upon the figures. Severus hid his face in his hands, unable to watch as his photographic self rose and silently let out a victorious cry and lifted Harry even higher in his arms. He knew that shortly the clouds would return and the scene would replay again, and again, and again …

“That photograph has made quite an impact on your life, has it not?”

“You have a fine talent of stating the obvious,” Severus growled. “I now receive at least twenty owls a day from lovesick fools and their mothers now thinking that I am some sort of Byronic hero desperate for just one iota of affection. Why that blasted Creevey boy elected to carry a bloody camera onto the battlefield instead of a wand I shall never know.”

“Most men your age would be thrilled to be the recipient of such admiration.”

“I never asked for a following, Albus.” In fact, Severus did everything he could to deter it. While before The Photograph he simply did not care enough about his appearance to concern himself with more than the absolute necessities, he now took great pains to look as hideous as possible. He slept the bare minimum to ensure he always had bags under his eyes, ran fingers slick with butter from the morning’s breakfast pastries through his hair and across his face, and, when given the option, would always choose the messiest and most heavily dye-saturated ingredients to use in potions. Not that it did any good. Men and women alike still fawned over his every move. “That’s Potter’s—”

Albus cleared his throat delicately and Severus bowed his head, unable to complete his sentence. From what Severus had gathered, Harry Potter had resided in the bed next to Severus’s own for several months, hidden away from the Wizarding world as they recovered from their injuries. Although Harry had awakened before Severus, his injuries did not seem to be getting any better. After a few weeks, they had been forced to turn to Muggle remedies, which did help alleviate some of his pain, but not to the extent they would have hoped.

Then one night, mere hours before Severus himself awoke, Harry had disappeared. Tracking spells turned up no leads. Nobody had seen him since. By all accounts, Harry Potter was dead, and was forever engrained in the public’s mind as a doomed boy hero. Absolutely bloody tragic.

“Albus,” Severus ground out. “Please do me a favour and simply get to the point. What is it you want me to do?”

Albus beamed. Absolutely beamed. Blue eyes twinkled like sapphires and white teeth gleamed from underneath the equally white beard. Severus cringed.

“Severus, my boy … I want to hold a ball in your honour. Sometime next month, after all the children are gone.”

Severus shot to his feet. “Absolutely not. I will not spend a perfectly decent evening waltzing around the Great Hall with some silly witch–”

“There will be wizards as well, of course,” Albus said with a sly smile. “I do know how your tastes run.”

“Regardless! I will not! I refused to attend the ball given after I received the Order of Merlin. I was only able to stay at the last bloody Yule Ball for ten minutes before I felt the need to soak my head in Flesh Eating Slug Repellent. I do apologize, but there is not a single way you will be able to get me to go to another one of your blasted balls.”

The smile vanished, but a slight twinkle remained in the azure eyes. “Severus, I had not wanted to tell you this, but you leave me no choice: you are a lonely, miserable, and unhappy man.”

“What!” Severus exploded. “I’m perfectly happy. I have only deducted four hundred points this week. We had filet mignon for dinner. Would you like me to do a jig to demonstrate my feelings of sheer joy?”

“And who could blame you?” Albus continued on, pointedly ignoring Severus’s outburst. “You lack somebody with whom you can share the joys of your existence. And, Severus, when you’re unhappy, I’m unhappy. I would greatly prefer to be happy.”

“Of course you would,” muttered Severus.

“And since I’m getting old …”

“Albus …”

“And will most likely … oh, do stop giving me that look, Severus. Everybody dies eventually. I have come to accept the fact that soon, I too shall join the others in that great other dimension.”

Severus stared unblinkingly at the wizened face he had come to both trust and fear. “You know perfectly well that you have at least another fifty years to torment me with lemon drops and tea parties.”

“Exactly my point … nearly no time left at all! Please, Severus, do this for me.”

Refusing to deign to waste his voice on such a trivial topic, Severus firmly shook his head.

“Very well. Severus, I had hoped it would not come to this, but you leave me no other option.” Albus opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a faded piece of parchment. He ran one long finger down the page until he paused with an excited noise. “Ah! Here you are, right between Diane Sebastian and Nader Thalius: Severus Snape owes Albus Dumbledore one life debt.”

As Dumbledore stared up at him, Severus realized just where he had acquired the habit of communicating messages with his eyebrows.

“I hereby formally request that as payment for the life debt … Severus Snape must attend the ball I plan to hold in his honour and choose the person he intends to marry.”

The sound of the parchment falling back to the desk reverberated like an executioner’s axe.

~* * * * *~

A month later, the preparations for the ball were in full swing. Although Hogwarts was mercifully free of students, it certainly did not mean the school was empty. Between chefs baking cakes and pastries, seamstresses sewing magnificent draperies, house elves frantically scrubbing the floors, and the ladies of Veela Homes and Gardens decorating the Great Hall, Severus was feeling rather claustrophobic. As such, he was forced to do what he tended to avoid ever since The Photograph had first been published–go to Diagon Alley.

Severus yearned for the days when he could go out to do his shopping in his intimidating black robes and ferocious glare and the waves of customers would part for him out of fear. They still parted for him, but now it was with giggles and leers and whispers behind hands. Twenty years ago he would have appreciated the fawning, but now it was merely irritating.

Nevertheless, there was simply no way he could stay at the castle for another minute, not with that harebrained seamstress coming after him with silk and a measuring tape while she pleaded to measure the inseam of his trousers.

With a grimace, Severus tied his hair with a black ribbon. He despised wearing his hair back, as it made his nose look even larger than normal, but he tended to attract less attention with the style. He then cast off his customary black robes and changed into ones of navy blue. Again, it went against his norm and thus slightly fewer people would recognize him.

Ridiculous. What kind of person achieved Lockhart-level fame in his forties?

Fortunately, the excursion turned out to be less excruciating than past trips. Diagon Alley was so abuzz with excitement over the upcoming ball that nobody paid him much notice. He was so confident that, on a whim, he decided to eat lunch outside a small café.

And then immediately remembered why, even prior to The Photograph, he had avoided eating outside.

Staring out at him from the pavement was a young man wearing huge sunglasses and gray robes. His hair was long and black, much resembling Severus’s own prior to the defeat of Voldemort. Still, despite the perpetually greasy state of his hair, Severus had cared enough to wash his face, something this boy obviously never did. It was so covered with dirt and soot that Severus could not even tell what his natural skin colour was.

Turning determinedly to his sandwich and almond biscuits, Severus tried to ignore the waif. But, much against his will, he found himself glancing over at him every few minutes. The boy was always there, still staring.

Severus finally came to a decision: he could not eat while this creature was staring at him, and he did not seem to be leaving any time soon. Therefore, swift action had to be taken.

“Hungry, boy?”

The filthy scamp looked shocked. He slowly shook his head, but made no effort to move.

Severus rolled his eyes and dug a hand into his pocket. Clearly he was not going to be able to eat his meal in peace until he was rid of this boy. He held out a sickle. “Buy yourself lunch, or perhaps some soap.”

“I don’t need your money, sir.”

“Then why, pray tell, are you staring at me and my sandwich?”

Severus felt his annoyance mounting as the boy casually shrugged his shoulders and made no attempt to even look embarrassed. At least his fan girls, as Albus merrily called them, had the decency to blush and look away when he caught them staring at him. This boy was obviously the poor village idiot who was in shock and awe over seeing somebody featured in numerous magazines. Well, if he wants a show, a show he shall receive. Not removing his wand from his pocket, Severus levitated the sickle towards the boy. It stopped just in front of his face.

The boy did not even look moderately surprised. Severus watched in disbelief as he pulled a gold coin out of his pocket, placed it on top of the hovering sickle, and then, without the use of a wand, forced it back towards him.

“I told you I didn’t need your money,” the boy said. He gave a slight bow. “Good day, sir.”

Severus looked uneasily back at his biscuits. His appetite had completely vanished, much to his chagrin. No filthy street boy had the right to rattle him so much. No dirty urchin should have enough gold to give away to strangers. And nobody who had not attended Hogwarts, the finest school of witchcraft and wizardry, should have the ability to perform wordless, wandless magic. And this boy surely had not attended Hogwarts, for Severus would have remembered the face. Sunglasses and soot be damned; Severus never forgot a student’s face.

And he was not likely to forget this new face–or what he could see of it, anyway–either.

~* * * * *~

Still shaken over his experience with the sooty-faced boy, Severus spent the next several days burrowed in his dungeons. The wards he had placed around them were strong and bitter enough to deter even Albus.

It was actually rather pleasant. Since the Final Battle, Severus had been able to spend precious little time developing his potions. Between teaching brain-dead whelps how to not melt their cauldrons, grading papers in which the most intelligent writing was the name in the upper left corner, and avoiding Rita Skeeter’s disciples, there had simply not been enough hours in the day to make detailed observations of the exact boiling of an experimental potion.

Severus could feel the tension ease out of his shoulders the second the orange smoke began to rise from the copper cauldron. He was in his element. Potions making required rapid decisions and precise thinking. A single ingredient could increase the potency of the potion tenfold or render it completely useless. It was a challenge he relished.

This particular potion was one he had begun about five years before, when the war was raging hideously around them. It was supposed to diminish, or, in the best possible scenario, completely eradicate the effects of the Unforgivable Curses. Unfortunately, brewing the potion was rather time-consuming, as, according to Severus’s calculations, it would have to simmer for seven hours the night of each new phase of the moon for three months. Some of the ingredients were also rather pricey and difficult to come by. When Severus had entered his lab four years earlier to see the potion and several others of his experiments gone, he had been livid. But then the alarms went off and chaos erupted in the castle, so the missing potions had been relegated to the very back of his mind.

But now the potion was in its final stages, only needing to be sublimed at the next full moon. It pleased Severus greatly. All that was left was to come up with a name. For that, he would need his Latin texts, and he would never leave a still simmering potion unattended again. Realizing there was not much left to do for at least five minutes, Snape let his mind wander.

Four years ago he had been a heinously ugly, foul-tempered potions master. In his own opinion, he had only gotten uglier and nastier. And yet somehow others now viewed him as handsome and attractively skilled, and his scathing comments were reduced to being darkly humorous, which was apparently a very desirable characteristic these days. He wished it would stop immediately. It was difficult enough to teach his students the subtle science of potions without having them salivate over him. Severus admittedly did not have much experience with swooning students prior to The Photograph, but he did have some, and he found it no coincidence that the only pupil who confessed his love to him was the one who showed the most wasted potential.

“Sir, could I speak to you for a minute?”

Severus looked irritably up from the papers he was grading. The lot would fail, but as long as he was going to insult his intelligence by reading them, he wanted to do them all in one sitting.

“You know my office hours, Potter. They do not commence for another three hours. I suggest you speak to me then.”

Potter looked unaccountably nervous. In fact, with his wide green eyes and uneasy fidgeting, he greatly resembled one of the house elves in the Hogwarts kitchen. “It’ll only take a minute, sir, I promise. And I’d rather … I’d rather speak to you alone.”

Severus made a point of disgustedly tossing down his quill. Poor Komei Langerak was going to have a large red splotch over his three-foot essay on sleeping potions. Points would, of course, be deducted.

“What is it, Potter?”

Potter put his bag down on a nearby desk. So much for only taking a minute. With his hands clasped in front of him and his thumbs twitching, Potter began to pace across the classroom.

“You see, the thing is … Professor, have you ever thought you hated something, really truly despised it, but you know that someday you’ll be free and you just can’t wait to be rid of it, and just the thought of it makes you happy beyond belief, like you’re flying in the air … but then when it comes down to it, you realize that you were fine with it in the first place, and actually may even like it? And then all of a sudden the thought of leaving makes your stomach feel like lead and your chest like somebody very heavy was sitting on it?”

Severus raised an eyebrow. “Mister Potter, that may very well be the most convoluted phrase I have ever heard escape from your lips, and that is saying quite a lot.”

Potter sighed and sat down on top of a desk. His legs dangled midair, making him look like a rather life-like marionette. “How much do you know of my childhood, Professor?”

“More than I care to know.” Ignorant Muggle relatives, a cupboard for a bedroom, scarcely enough to eat … yes, Albus had filled them all in on the details until Severus felt as though he had been living Potter’s life himself. Not that it granted the boy any sort of pity or sympathy from him. Everybody’s life had trials.

“Well, then I guess you know I lived in a cupboard until I was eleven.” Potter seemed to be waiting for some sort of acknowledgement from Severus, but when none came, he ploughed on. “I hated my cupboard. It was cramped and dusty and there were spiders. Every night I wished somebody would take me away and that I would never have to sleep in that place again. Sometimes I would be in a more pragmatic mood and I would just wish that I could sleep in one of Dudley’s rooms, or even on the couch in the parlour.

“Then the owls came, and my uncle got scared. So he moved me into one of Dudley’s rooms. At first I was ecstatic. Then when I found out I was a wizard, and that I’d be going to Hogwarts … I felt like I was floating on a cloud. But when I had to go back to the Dursleys at the end of first year, I actually forgot that I had a real bedroom. I went straight to my cupboard and tried to open the door, but it was locked. And then there was nothing more I wanted to do than to go and huddle in my cupboard. Sure, it was uncomfortable, but in that whole house, it felt like the only thing that was really mine, the only place where I knew that I would be safe. And I just ached.”

“As touching a story that was, Mister Potter,” Severus said as he picked up his quill, “I fail to see how it is germane to potions. And unless you can come up with a plausible explanation in the next two minutes, I fear I must take points from Gryffindor for stealing valuable minutes of my life which I will never get back.”

“It’s not about potions, sir, it’s about you!”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t you get it?” Potter stood and shook his head. “Don’t you see? You’re my cupboard.”

“And you are insane. I suggest you pay a visit to Madam Pomfrey on your way out.”

Potter straightened and threw his shoulders back, apparently in an attempt to look older. It failed miserably. “Sir, once school has ended, I am planning to pursue a romantic relationship with you. With your consent, of course.”

Snape dropped the quill in shock, ignoring the second stain now seeping through Langerak’s parchment. “Boy, do you realize what you are saying?” he hissed.

“Yes, sir. I think … it’s hard to explain. But I always thought I hated you, but now, I don’t really know anymore, but I definitely don’t hate you. I find myself actively seeking you out, for what reason I don’t know, but I have this constant need to be around you.” He looked up hopefully. “And I was thinking that perhaps you felt the same way.”

Severus felt a migraine coming on. Never before had he been forced to deal with a love-struck student, save Malfoy who was only doing it under his father’s orders; the fact that it was Potter of all people made his head spin in a thousand concentric circles. He had been very comfortable with the enmity he had thought he had shared with the twit. And now, with the Dark Lord planning on attacking Hogwarts within a week, Potter suddenly felt the urge to announce his plans of a romantic pursuit.

Perhaps that was it.

“Potter, it is understandable that you are frightened of the impending battle. Nobody is expecting you to be fearless,” he said, forcing a modicum of sympathy in his voice.

Potter’s eyes grew even wider. “What are you talking about?”

“You are obviously in here, confessing your love to me, in an attempt to feel as though you are not alone. You hope that either I will take you up your offer, right here and now, or I will turn you away and know, just in case that either of us die in the next few days, that I was loved.”

Potter shook his head. “That’s not it at all, sir. I just … I just wanted to tell you how I felt, and thought that you might …”

“I am not kind to those who play pranks on me, Potter.”

“I’m not playing a pr--”

“Or liars.”

Fury raged in those bright green eyes. Severus might have actually been a bit worried if the eyes had belonged to anybody besides the immature brat, but he still felt a fleeting touch of sympathy for the Dark Lord. Potter would show no mercy.

“How dare you?” Potter shouted, “How DARE you?”

“Dare I what?” Severus hissed.

Potter did not say anything. Instead, he stalked up to Severus, grabbed him by the back of his neck, and pulled him down for a powerful, demanding kiss. There was no affection in the kiss, no real love, only possession and passion. It was competitive, and since there was no way Severus was going to lose to Potter, he found himself kissing the brat back.

A shrill whistle interrupted the kiss. Severus felt a satisfying sense of victory that the boy had pulled away first.

“What was that?” Harry asked. He looked vaguely disconcerted, much like he did during Potions class, but during those hours his face lacked this rather appealing flush.

“A timer, Potter. You may have come across them once in a while in one of your classes … Potions, perhaps?”

“I know that,” Potter snapped, following Snape into the back workroom. “What are you brewing?”

“Several potions that will hopefully save your pitiful arse on the battlefield.”

“I didn’t hear you complaining about my arse when your hands were all over it a minute ago.”

Severus refused to honour the juvenile comment with a reply. Such inane remarks reminded him why he despised teaching.

“Come on, tell me, what do they do?”

What do they do.

Severus had spent the next hour or so with Potter, explaining how the hellebore should react with the Re’em blood-soaked moonstone to create a potion that would grant its drinker immunity from most spells and potions for at least several hours, and how he was toying with adding a diced bezoar to increase the potency. Potter had seemed to be genuinely interested, much to Snape’s surprise. Of course, that may have only been because he had been angling for another kiss, but Severus was actually quite fond of discussing his projects. Reciting the properties and expected reactions aloud helped him to think and occasionally granted him epiphanies, and he greatly preferred to have somebody else in the room with him, even if the person was only pretending to listen. It freed Snape from the humiliating act of talking to himself.

Of course, only a few hours later the Dark Lord struck, and they had all marched into battle for the last time.

Such a bloody waste.

It was then that Severus noticed how silent the dungeons truly were. The only sounds he heard were the hissing and bubbling of the boiling potions and the occasional clang of metal as he stirred. Normally he enjoyed the solitude, but at this moment it seemed far too quiet. He glanced around the room, taking in the myriad of vials and bottles full of potions that he had made in the past three days. (He had been quite active in avoiding Albus.) He could certainly afford to take a break … and even bitter potions masters needed nourishment.

It was time for lunch, and Severus Snape had a certain craving for a sandwich and almond biscuits.

CHAPTER TWO: IN A FARAWAY LAND

There were some things that Harry Potter really loved about his life–his cottage, for one. It was small, with only a bedroom, a bath, a living area with a kitchen, and a workroom, but it was just the right size for him and his phoenix, four crups, jobberknoll, three kneazles, five owls, and countless puffskeins. He never meant to have so many pets. He had been content with just Hedwig, but one day she returned from hunting with a large tawny owl flying next to her, and, well, Almerick had simply never left. From then on, it seemed that every other week a new magical creature appeared at Harry’s house. Not that he minded at all; he had grown to appreciate their company.

There were also some things that Harry Potter hated about his life. On good days he was able to simply forget about them and enjoy creating wands or spending time with his pets. But on bad days it was impossible to ignore the frequent headaches that sometimes left him moaning in bed all day, or the scars and burns covering his face, arms, and chest, or the deep lingering ache in his left leg, or how he always felt hot due to the low fever that never quite left him. Harry was never one for vanity, but it was so disconcerting to look into a mirror to see a face he could not even recognize that, one day, in a fit of rage, he smashed every mirror in the house. Of course, the next day he regretted this, because the power that would have been necessary to repair the glass would have put him in bed for a week. Since he had no way to ensure that his scars were appropriately concealed whenever he went into town, he had to mail order a small compact for this sole purpose.

That had been over two years ago. Harry had been living on his own for nearly four years. When it was clear that he was not going to get better, and having a nagging suspicion that he only had himself to blame, he left Hogwarts. The decision did not require any real thought: he had killed Voldemort, he had no urge to face the press and reveal his scars and burns, and he had even less of a desire to see Ginny again. Harry had tried to break up with her gently before the Final Battle by saying that he did not want to endanger her, but he really wanted to scream that he did not love her any more than he would a sister, that he was not attracted to her, that her hair was entirely too red and her face too freckly, her body too curvy and her clothes too bright.

With a sigh, Harry looked down at the piece of rosewood in his hands. After he had escaped from Hogwarts, he had not wanted to jinx his newfound freedom by using his old wand. The Ministry or, even worse, Dumbledore would have traced the magic in a second and taken Harry back to the castle before he could even blink. Ollivander was still missing and presumed dead, and Harry did not want to risk Apparating to some far off country just to find a wand, so, in typical Gryffindor fashion, he simply made his own. It was made of holly, just like his old one, but the core was a phoenix feather wrapped in a plait of his own hair. The resulting wand had been satisfactory, completing all the tasks set before it, but Harry, quickly growing bored in his cottage, spent several weeks perfecting it. Once, while carving a vine-like pattern into the handle, he accidentally nicked his palm. To his surprise, as soon as his blood touched the wood, the wand glowed and vibrated in his hand. The next time he used it, the wand focused his spells even more accurately. On a whim, he soaked the wand in a mixture of phoenix and unicorn tears. When he next cast a simple household charm, the strongest of spells he allowed himself, he was left with a feeling of warmth and security, and his head even stopped aching a little. He only wished his old wand had given him such confidence when he had been fighting Death Eaters on an almost daily basis.

That was when he came up with his idea: customized wands. The orders would be mailed to him, and he could create a wand tailored specifically to the user. He had discovered that a simple biography written by the customers themselves gave him the ability to accurately choose which material to construct the wand with. With the placement of a few advertisements in the Prophet, Harry found himself the owner of a thriving business. Many wizards in Britain were quickly abandoning the idea that “the wand chooses the wizard,” for Harry’s careful selection of wood and core seemed to bring about better results than any of Ollivander’s wands ever did. He received glowing remarks for his work and never had a shortage of commissions. He had to admit, it was a nice career. For one, it required very little energy-draining magic to create the wands. But what’s more, he could work out of his home, rarely needed to make the dreaded trips out, and since each assignment was completely different, he was never bored. It was a fairly simple existence.

Except for now.

Last week Harry had made one of his rare trips into town to pick up a few supplies at the apothecary for his wand solutions, when, out of nowhere, he saw Severus Snape eating a sandwich. He had been so surprised that he could not help but stop and stare and, unfortunately, Snape had noticed. Harry smiled at the memory of the look of utter shock on Snape’s face after seeing his display of wandless magic. His head had felt like it was trapped in a burning vice afterwards, and he had spent the rest of the day exhausted in bed, but it was worth it to be able to exit with at least a shred of his dignity intact.

So now, as Harry was struggling to finish Cecilia Sala’s wand before the weekend, all he could think of was Severus Snape. A very distracting activity, since thinking of Snape led him to thinking about arguments and kisses and tears and the life he had left behind, and made him wonder if he had truly made the right decision to flee that night.

Harry tossed the half-finished wand aside. All this thinking had made him hungry, and somehow he did not think he would find what he was looking for in his cupboard.

~* * * * *~

So great was the rush of excitement running through Harry’s veins that he almost forgot to check his reflection in the small mirror. He winced, as he always did, at his slightly puffy, pink left cheek and ugly pink lines marring the other. Then he dipped his fingers in the cinders remaining in the fireplace from the previous night’s fire and rubbed them over his face, obscuring any trace of his scars.

~* * * * *~

Harry had not been disappointed, per se, when he arrived at the café and saw that Snape was not sitting there as he had been the week before. He had gone four years without seeing the man, and he could very well go another four without seeing him again. Still, he was not about to deny that it would have been nice to see Snape. Maybe even talk to him for a few minutes. There were some advantages to being Harry Potter in disguise. Not that anybody would have recognized him without the smudged face and long, tangled hair. The eyes would be the only giveaway.

He self-consciously pushed his sunglasses up to the bridge of his nose and quietly ate his sandwich, trying very hard to focus on the steps he’d have to take the next day to get started on Suzanne Stockenberg’s wand. He would think of willow, unicorn hair, and phoenix tears combined with those of Suzanne herself, but certainly not Snape. No, Harry was definitely not thinking of Snape. Not thinking about how much better his former professor looked now than four years ago when he had left the hospital wing. Not thinking about how his voice still sent shivers down his spine. Not thinking about how he had just been close enough to reach out and touch …

Harry was so busy not thinking about Snape that he barely noticed when the man himself sat in the chair across from him.

“You know, it’s considered good manners to introduce yourself after staring at a man for over three minutes.”

Harry started, and desperately tried to control his blush. He coughed a few times to cover his surprise, then ever so casually combed his fingers through his hair. “Didn’t really seem relevant, sir.” There, that was cool.

“How could it not seem relevant?” Snape asked, his chest puffed out in indignation. “You stare at somebody and the person catches you. It is only common courtesy to offer your name. Unless you are too cowardly … or have something to hide.”

“Nothing to hide, sir,” Harry replied, attempting to very casually eat another chip. Seeing how shiny his fingers were becoming, he gave up and hid them in his napkin. “You never told me your name, so I just assumed you weren’t interested in starting a lifelong friendship.” Harry was rather proud of himself. He’d had four years to himself imagining having these conversations and was very pleased that this one was almost paralleling his fantasies.

“Well, everybody knows my–” Snape abruptly cut himself off and looked furious.

Harry raised an amused eyebrow, even though he knew Snape wouldn’t be able to tell with his sunglasses.

“Why, sir, are you hinting that you are somebody well-known? A celebrity, perhaps?” Oh, pushing, pushing, careful, Potter.

Snape had the decency to look down at the table. “Certainly not. I just assumed… and stop calling me sir. You may call me Severus.”

It was next to impossible to stop the grin from spreading across Harry’s face. He coughed again and covered his mouth, but he was certain Snape–no, Severus!—would still be able to tell. He bit the inside of his mouth and thought the most serious thoughts possible, but he was still itching to let out a cry of triumph. Granted, Severus wouldn’t have allowed him the luxury of being on a first-name basis had he known who Harry was, but really, that was all irrelevant now. Harry would take what he could get. And he was giddy.

“Very well … Severus.” Oh, that felt lovely.

Severus stared at him impatiently. “Well, boy, are you going to return the courtesy?”

Harry sipped his water in an attempt to allow his pulse rate to slow down to a healthier rate. Slightly mollified, he gave what he hoped was a winning smile and replied, “Why would you want to know?” Harry blinked, suddenly realizing that he was flirting with his former professor and wasn’t being hexed or thrown out on his rear. Who would have thought he had a thing for dirty-faced young men? If Harry had known, he would have rolled in the mud every day his seventh year before going to Potions.

Severus didn’t seem to appreciate the attention, however. His cheeks flushed and his dark eyes narrowed dangerously. Harry had a brief flashback to being at Hogwarts and being at the receiving end of one of Snape’s notorious tirades.

“Because, boy, if you do not tell me your name you will hereafter be referred to as Boy Who Cannot Be Arsed to Wash the Cinders Off His Face and Wears Ludicrous Sunglasses, and that is quite a mouthful. Now. Tell. Me. Your. Name.”

Harry finished the last of his chips and leaned back in his chair. “Really, what’s so important about a name? Doesn’t really change anything. Doesn’t really mean anything. Your name actually fits me better than my real one, so, by all means, go ahead.” Harry mentally patted himself on the back. He was doing well with this conversation. Severus would never have any idea!

“Listen, you bloody fool, I haven’t the time or patience for your juvenile remarks. So just tell me your damn name so I can go about my day in peace.”

Harry paused. There was no possible way he could give Severus his real name. But somehow, giving a fake one just struck him as a very bad idea. He bit his lip, praying to whichever divinity would listen to save him from this quandary.

The answer came in a plump, bubbly brunette who twirled her curly hair with a finger as she clutched a photograph with her other hand. “Professor Snape! Professor Snape!”

Harry raised an eyebrow. Certainly, he thought Severus looked wonderful, and had thought so ever since he got his hormones straightened out in seventh year. Nevertheless, considering Snape’s less than stellar reputation at Hogwarts, and the general public opinion that he was an ugly, spiteful bastard, Harry never would have thought Severus would ever have been greeted in such a giddy manner by some random girl off the street. What was even more peculiar was that Severus seemed to expect this sort of behaviour. He sunk ever so slightly lower in his chair, and, if Harry wasn’t mistaken, let out a soft groan. Severus rather reminded him of himself, back when he was still recognizable as the Boy Who Lived.

“May I help you, madam?” The question was perfectly courteous, but Harry didn’t think it was possible for the woman to miss the frostiness in his tone.

Apparently it was. “Sir, I am your biggest fan. I’ve read all of your papers–”

“Did you have to consult a dictionary for the words longer than three syllables?”

The woman continued on. “And they are all just genius! To think that here I am, standing in the presence of the greatest wizard who ever lived. Looking into those dazzling obsidian eyes, so close to that Roman nose I could touch it, so close to those hands that brew those fantastic potions. Oh! I simply can’t help myself!”

“Try,” Severus said dryly. “It may have escaped your notice, madam, that my eyes are a plain black. My nose is large and crooked. My hands are stained with potions ingredients. As I was not the one who killed the Dark Lord and would never have been able to do so, I am certainly not the greatest wizard who ever lived. And, at the moment, I am having lunch with my … I am having lunch and would like to eat in peace. So, if you don’t mind, do get to your point.” He finished his statement with a disdainful glare.

Harry dug through his pocket for a handkerchief, certain that the woman would burst into tears at her hero’s cruelty. But to his astonishment, she simply sighed happily and continued to stare at Severus adoringly as she twirled her hair.

“Oh, just wait until I tell Brianne about this!” She thrust the photograph in front of Severus, her hand trembling. “Please, sir, could you sign this for me?” As Severus pulled out a ballpoint quill from his robes, she trilled excitedly, “You can just make it out to Rena Winters, the most enchanting woman you have set eyes on, signed with much love and respect …”

Harry stared at her in disbelief. Even when he was hounded for autographs in the past, he had never encountered such enthusiastic fans. Exactly what had Severus done to warrant this amount of fame?

Severus finished signing his name (as far as Harry could see, that was all he had written) and moved to hand the photograph back to Rena. Harry, overwhelmed by curiosity, quickly snatched it out of his hands.

“Is this …”

Severus sighed. “Surely, Mister … Cinders, you have seen this photograph before. I have been plagued by its presence for the past three years.”

Harry shook his head. “No, I’ve never seen it.”

“What!” Rena exclaimed, her finger twirling her curls furiously now. “How could you not have seen it? It is the defining photograph of our generation, the greatest work of art since the Mona Lisa, the single most…”

“That is enough, Miss Winters,” Severus said, holding up his hand. He turned back to Harry. “Are you quite serious? That photograph has appeared in the Daily Prophet nearly weekly for years, and there are copies of it in all sizes available in almost every wizarding shop, regardless of whether they sell candy or robes.”

Harry smiled apologetically. “I don’t subscribe to the Prophet, and I really haven’t gotten out much lately.” He examined the photograph more closely. “But, the man you’re holding … is that Harry Potter?”

“Of course it is,” Rena said impatiently. Harry really wished she’d stop twirling her hair. It was making him nervous. She puffed out her chest and stared straight ahead, and then, as if reciting a particularly important passage from a history text, stated passionately, “Harry Potter killed He Who Must Not Be Named in the Final Battle, but he was mortally wounded. The great Severus Snape, who betrayed He Who Must Not Be Named at the last but crucial moment, allowing Harry to throw the fatal curse, swept Harry into his arms and carried him up the hill towards Hogwarts castle. The weight of the boy hero, as well as Severus Snape’s own injuries, caused him to stumble. But, with unfailing spirit and determination, he regained his balanced and continued his trek up the hill, forever engraving himself in the public’s memory as the face of bravery, determination, cunning, and loyalty in the time of war.” She took a deep breath and looked at Severus and Harry as though expecting a pat on the head for her efforts.

Severus didn’t appear impressed as he leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “What never fails to amaze me,” he said slowly, staring at his hands. “Is how the public focuses their adoration on me, when it was Harry Potter who actually killed the Dark Lord.”

“Well, he’s dead,” Rena said bluntly.

Severus did not just flinch, Harry thought. His face did not suddenly drain of colour. His brows did not just knit together, and his cheeks certainly did not look pinched. Because that would imply that he was upset Harry Potter was presumed dead. And the Severus Snape that Harry knew for seven years certainly wouldn’t mind if Harry Potter were buried six feet beneath the ground. The Severus Snape that kissed him in the dungeons that one day, however …

But whether or not Severus flinched was soon irrelevant, because he returned instantaneously to his strict, foreboding self. “If that is all, Miss Winters …”

“Could I have that photograph?” Harry asked quickly.

“Get your own,” Rena snapped, snatching it close to her chest.

“Why would you want that piece of rubbish?” Severus asked as Rena flounced away.

“No reason,” Harry said in what he hoped was a nonchalant fashion. “Just seemed like something I should have. If it’s as important a piece of history as she says it is. Don’t you have a copy?”

“Certainly not,” Severus said, pulling his robes around him. “Why would I keep a picture of myself holding a dead boy hero among a wreck of carnage and darkness?”

“Do you ever think,” Harry said slowly. “That Harry Potter could still be alive?”

“Mister Cinders, I learned as a child that hope only leads to pain. I try not to think of Harry Potter, and every time I see that damn photograph … and I thought we were discussing your identity.”

Harry laughed. He knew he could only push Severus so far, and he’d already learned more about the man in thirty minutes than he ever thought possible. “Fine. But I won’t tell you my name, so you might as well stop asking.”

“Rest assured, Mister Cinders, that I will know your true name before long.”

Harry shivered. Whether Severus’s voice held a threat or a promise, it was all Harry could do to allow his tingling nerves to take over his body.

“Besides, Mister Cinders is such a ridiculous nickname that I’m sure that if you have any sense of dignity, you will soon be begging me to call you by your given name.”

Harry gulped. Severus didn’t know how badly Harry wanted him to call him by his real name. And given the right motivation, he’d be more than willing to beg.

“Since you appear unwilling to be considerate enough to give me some basic information, I have come to the conclusion that a compromise is in order. I will ask you three questions, none pertaining to your birth name, and you will answer them truthfully. Agreed?” At Harry’s reluctant nod, he continued. “How old are you?”

That was easy. “Twenty-one.”

“Where were you born?”

“Britain.”

Severus gave Harry a stare that he normally reserved only for Neville’s greatest moments of ineptness. Harry tried not to shrink into himself. “Sorry, it’s all that I know. My parents died years ago, and I never thought to ask the exact location.”

Severus sighed impatiently but continued. “What is your profession?”

“I’m a wandmaker,” Harry replied, unable to stop the note of pride in his voice.

“Really,” Severus said, crossing his legs. “For what company?”

Harry decided to ignore that that was four questions. “No company. I do it all on my own.”

“On your own, you say,” Severus asked, raising an eyebrow. “Must be quite a challenge, creating quality wands with no additional help.”

Oh, Harry knew a challenge when he heard one, and this was one he was not going to let Severus win. He took out his wand and handed it to Severus. He could tell Severus was trying to be nonchalant as he examined the engravings in the wand’s handle and rolled it in his hands, but it was impossible to miss the curiosity in his eyes. Severus then pointed Harry’s wand at the flowers sitting on their table. They jumped slightly, but quickly went back to resting.

“I do hope you have another job at the ready,” Severus said as he handed Harry back his wand.

Harry pointed his wand at the flowers. They immediately leaped into the air, partnered up, and began waltzing high above the table. With a smirk, he brought them back into their vase.

“You’ve piqued my interest.”

Harry grinned. He found himself launching into a lengthy explanation of his new techniques and methods. He told Severus of his proudest creations and even of some of his most humiliating failures. He showed him how he carved such intricate designs into the wood and attempted to describe how he innately knew just what wand a person needed. It was so much like their night in the dungeons, but suddenly their roles were reversed, and it was Harry talking and Severus listening with rapt attention. The similarities were so striking, in fact, that Harry couldn’t help but be reminded of a certain ground-shaking kiss, and that certainly wasn’t good for his train of thought.

“What I don’t understand,” Severus said after Harry had finally finished saying all he could possibly say about his wands, “Is why, if you are already successful at dampening the ability for an individual to use a wand that is not his own, that you do not try to completely eliminate that ability. Surely that would increase your sales, such wands would be in great demand.”

“I’ve thought about it,” Harry admitted. “And I’ve tried a couple of things. But the wands are magical objects. I think as soon as they come in contact with a person who has magic in his blood, there has to be some reaction, even if it’s just minimal.”

Severus frowned. “I suppose that makes sense, but I believe the core of the problem rests–”

“That’s it!” Harry exclaimed. It was that simple–simple, yet brilliant. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Excitement coursed through his veins–he needed to get home and test this theory right away. He was reluctant to leave Severus after finally being able to talk to him after all these years, but there were some things he simply needed to get done. Besides, he didn’t want to look needy or as though he had no life.

“It was nice seeing you again,” Harry said, shaking Severus’s hand. “Really, absolutely wonderful. Great day. We’ll do it again sometime.”

And he was off.

~* * * * *~

It was a bit ironic, Harry thought as he carefully slit his left wrist, that now that he was completely free of Voldemort, he was finally doing what so many assumed he did while the war was going on. He was well aware of what his classmates whispered in the corridors in his later school years, that he was unable to handle the stress of facing the Death Eaters and resorted to cutting himself and was contemplating suicide. At the time, he hadn’t paid them any mind, but now, as he watched the droplets of his blood fall on the phoenix feather, they seemed highly amusing.

After about a minute, the red feather grew warm in his hand and glowed gold. Crying out in triumph, Harry carefully put the feather back in his wand and screwed on the handle. With equal amounts of nervousness and excitement, Harry aimed his wand at the empty bowl that usually held the crups’ dinner. Crystal clear water spouted from his wand and arched gracefully in the air, landing gracefully in the bowl. A pleasant tingle flowed throughout Harry’s body the entire time, and he couldn’t suppress his grin.

This was wonderful.

CHAPTER THREE: THERE LIVED A PRINCE

Severus wearily rubbed a hand over his face. He had spent the past three nights in the library, pouring over pages and pages of wizarding documents. He had scrutinized the British birth, marriage, and death records from the past twenty-five years, but to no avail.

If Cinders were telling the truth, and somehow Severus knew he was, he was born in Britain in either 1980 or 1981. That certainly narrowed things down a bit. But then Severus had carefully noted each of the male births of those two years and had arrived at a conclusion: there was no possible person that Cinders could be.

There were just under a hundred wizarding births in Britain between the years 1980 and 1981. Of those, sixty-four were males. Of those sixty-four, Severus had taught fifty at Hogwarts. They were, of course, immediately crossed off Severus’s list as possibilities. He would certainly remember a student who only left his tutelage fewer than five years ago, especially if the student lacked enough proper hygiene to even wash his face.

That left fourteen wizards. After examining the death records, Severus saw that eight had died years ago. Perusing faded newspapers revealed that three were patients at St. Mungo’s. Another two had moved to New Zealand in 1992. The final remaining wizard was half-giant. Since Cinders, if anything, appeared to be slightly shorter than average, Severus scratched the final name off his list.

Of course, Severus thought suddenly, there was the possibility that Cinders was actually a female. His hair was on the long side, and his baggy clothes could have easily hidden a feminine figure. Plus, who could really tell what his face looked like underneath all that soot? Severus turned to the birth records again before letting out a nearly hysterical laugh. The idea was preposterous. Cinders was most certainly a male.

Severus sighed and rolled up his piece of parchment. He didn’t even know why he felt this pressing need to discover Cinders’s true identity. He certainly didn’t pay this much attention to any of the other paupers on the streets. In fact, just the sight of the boy’s filthy face and impish grin should have sent Severus scurrying for the sanitary, calming security of his dungeons, rather than impelling him to go back out to the village at every possible opportunity.

Instead it was as though a soft but persistent voice whispered in his ear that he simply needed to know. For whatever reason, it was of the utmost importance that Severus discovered exactly who Cinders was, and exactly what he was hiding underneath all the grime. There would simply be no rest for him until he did so.

Not that he’d get any sleep anyway. For while Severus’s waking hours were spent uncovering the mystery that was Cinders, his resting ones were spent being haunted by the mystery that was Harry Potter.

Harry had always appeared in Severus’s dreams. It was only natural – dreams were, of course, created in the mind, and Harry unfairly stole quite a bit of Severus’s when he was a trouble-making student at Hogwarts. Then afterwards, with his disappearance, it was still only natural that he continued to occupy a fair bit of Severus’s mind. It was a puzzle, an enigma, and Severus despised not having all the answers to everything.

The problem was that now Harry appeared in all of Severus’s dreams, and Severus was dreaming every night.

The dreams were varied—Harry flying, Harry laughing with his friends, Harry screaming in rage, Harry crouched in the corner with tears silently streaming down his face. Sometimes Severus even dreamed of the Final Battle, and relived the exact moment that infamous photograph had captured. These dreams were bittersweet, and usually caused Severus to wake with a soft smile on his face as he remembered a vivacious, courageous young man whose life was cruelly cut short.

Then there were the dreams that stormed through Severus’s consciousness and made him feel as though he had been punched in the gut. They were dreams of Harry – Harry’s brilliant green eyes, Harry’s confident grin, Harry’s assured walk … but it was an older Harry. A taller Harry with broad shoulders and strong cheekbones. A Harry that Severus might have seen occasionally (or, perhaps more than occasionally had the dratted brat gotten his way) if he hadn’t disappeared from the hospital wing four years ago.

There was no going back to sleep after these dreams. Severus would spend several long minutes just gasping and struggling to control his rapid heartbeat. Because these dreams left no question in Severus’s mind–Harry James Potter was alive.

It was a terrifying thought. Contrary to popular opinion, Severus certainly hadn’t wanted Harry dead. He had been appropriately upset at Harry’s disappearance, and even spent more than few days searching for him with the others before returning to brew the experimental potion that had mysteriously disappeared during the Final Battle. But to know now, nearly four years after Harry had been presumed dead, with utmost certainty that he was alive, was just too much to take. The thought brought back too many emotions that Severus had buried along with Harry’s empty coffin.

Severus had never hated Harry, exactly. He simply resented that he was the darling of the students and staff simply for existing. Seeing him every day in class made him grit his teeth and his stomach curl up in knots. He was just another spoiled little boy, always getting his way simply because he was Harry Bloody Potter. The boy put no effort into his studies and expected everybody to cater to his every whim. And when Severus didn’t, he immediately became the most evil and unjust adult in Hogwarts. Which might have been true, but Severus resented it nonetheless.

Hate Harry Potter? Not especially. He just wanted to beat some bloody sense, not to mention respect, into the damn child.

He almost wished he did hate him, for that would lead to far less complicated emotions that had emerged one day when, while giving a report at Grimmauld Place, Severus found Harry watching him. And not just watching him, but watching him. Harry’s assessing gaze had haunted Severus’s dreams ever since. His stomach still tangled up in knots whenever he looked at Harry, but it was no longer a completely unpleasant sensation. He still found himself gritting his teeth and restraining himself from reaching out for the boy … but for significantly different reasons than before. Severus couldn’t quite understand his reactions, or why he always felt like he was developing an extreme case of vertigo just from the thought of Harry.

Their kiss helped him understand why.

Severus was unable to suppress a smirk as he extinguished the candles in his study. The fine line between love and…

He froze, his lips pursed above the flickering flame of the final candle on his desk. He had never loved Harry Potter. He just…

Hell, it was too late to make excuses to himself. Severus quickly blew out the flame, and, just for a moment, stood in the pitch black room and thought only of emerald green eyes.

~* * * * *~

Severus bolted upright in bed and clutched at his heart. It had been one of those dreams. As he tried to ease his rapid breathing, he had to admit that at least this dream was interesting. There was Harry, looking very much like a young adult, standing in a forest surrounded by a virtual menagerie. A phoenix perched on his shoulder, several owls swooping around his head, crups dashing in circles around him, and even more animals that, in his post-dream state, Severus could no longer recall. Then Harry pointed his wand out directly in front of himself. A burst of light flew from it, and within an instant, the forest was ablaze with a powerful, overwhelming light. And yet Harry stood there, a knowing smile on his face, his arm still raised.

Severus shakily got out of bed and pulled on a dressing gown. There would be no sleeping tonight, so he might as well do something productive. He scanned his desk until he found the paper he was looking for: a list of all the wandmakers in Britain and their addresses. He dipped his quill in ink and began to write to every single one of them, inquiring about purchasing a new, superior-quality wand.

If he couldn’t unravel the mystery of Harry Potter, at least he might make some progress in the enigma that was Mister Cinders.

~* * * * *~

Nearly two hours later, Severus was cursing the loudly hooting owls as he finished tying his inquiries to the legs of the strongest birds in the owlery. He had ended up writing nearly twenty letters. He was sure most were wasted pieces of parchment, but he wasn’t about to take any chances. With his dastardly luck, the one name he would decide not to write to would, in fact, be Cinders’s, and then he’d spend the rest of his days as a bitter old man.

Well, more bitter.

Severus picked up another scroll and tied it to a barn owl’s leg. Galahad Stockenberg was just as likely to be the wandmaker he was looking for as any of the other names listed … even if the current records showed that he was approaching his hundredth birthday.

“Good evening, Severus. Or, should I say, good morning?”

Severus cursed under his breath. Leave it to Albus to go on a morning stroll to the owlery at three in the morning. Not that Severus believed for an instant that it was a coincidence. Sneaky bastard.

“Is there a reason you are sending an owl off to …” Albus paused as he picked the last remaining letter off the floor and read the address, “Artemis Wands so early in the morning?”

Severus put on his best scowl and drew back his shoulders. “Because I need a wand, obviously.”

“Yes, obviously,” Albus said as he flipped the letter over, as if looking for some hidden message. “But at three in the morning, and in your dressing gown?”

Severus shrugged. “It was urgent.”

Albus nodded and clucked his tongue. A beautiful white owl flew over and perched on his shoulder. Albus chuckled and stuck the letter in her beak. The bird, clearly excited about her task, flew in a few giddy circles in front of him before soaring off.

“I’ve always loved that bird,” Dumbledore said fondly as they watched her disappear into the distance. “She reminds me so much of young Harry’s owl.”

Severus busied himself with retying the sash to his dressing gown. Albus had a tiresome habit of being able to know the exact nature of Severus’s thoughts whenever Potter was mentioned, and Severus wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing his face.

“It was very strange,” Albus mused. “Hedwig disappeared at exactly the same time Harry did. She was in the owlery that very day, I remember, as I was here myself around tea time. The very next day she was gone … no sign left of her.”

Severus blinked. He wasn’t sure where Albus was taking this conversation. “Perhaps, realizing that Potter was no longer … with us, she flew away.”

“Or perhaps she went with him.”

Neither said anything for a long moment. The owls continued hooting earnestly, obviously engaged in some riveting conversation that did not involve the humans.

Finally, believing that Albus wished him to make some comment, Severus coughed and said, “Are you implying that Potter’s bird died when he did? I was not aware there was some sort of bond between them.”

“Why, Severus, I never said Harry died.”

There was no use trying to hide his reaction. Severus could feel the blood drain from his face as he nearly fell over in shock. “How … but … the funeral!” he stuttered.

“Well, yes, at the time it did seem that way,” Albus agreed amicably. “Harry was gravely injured and showing no signs of improvement. Perhaps he simply wanted to be somewhere more comfortable when he passed on. Oh, really, Severus, I just told you I do not believe he is actually dead, there is no reason to look so pale.”

“I’m not pale,” Severus said indignantly. And why did Albus have to mention that? It was degrading enough to react this violently over news about Potter, and to have it rubbed in his face was simply humiliating.

“Of course you’re not. Now, where was I? Oh yes. But I admit, from the very beginning, I was suspicious that Hedwig disappeared the same time as Harry. It was simply too coincidental. But I did not say anything, for all the evidence pointed to the contrary. To compound this, the tracking spells were not working and there were no signs of Harry’s magic anywhere. If I had insisted that Harry were actually alive, I am certain most would say I was still in denial over his passing and would eventually overcome my grief and see reason.”

“And instead…”

“And instead, I’ve noticed an increase in magical activity in Scotland. It’s raw and powerful, defined and yet somehow amorphous, familiar and yet unrecognizable. I admit, Severus, I do wonder.”

Severus didn’t dare speak. It was one thing to believe, in the privacy of his own mind, that Harry Potter, presumed dead by the entire Wizarding world, was actually alive. The fact that he came to this conclusion based solely on some recurring dreams only added to the likely conclusion that Severus’s newfound fame had caused him to go insane. But now, to hear the most powerful and influential wizard in the world echo his thoughts … it was simply too much to take all at once.

“You think so too,” Albus murmured.

Damn it, how did the man do that?

“I have had dreams,” Severus admitted reluctantly. He knew it was fruitless to try to keep any sort of information from Albus, but that didn’t mean he had to be happy about it.

“Oh? About Harry?”

Severus nodded. “He’s always an adult, always surrounded by animals. And there is always something off about him, but I can never get close enough to see what it is.”

Albus nodded. “Yes, I do believe our Harry is alive. I cannot tell you what relief this brings me. Such a brave, compassionate young man with the brightest of futures ahead of him. I wonder where he is hiding.”

Severus heard the unspoken question.

And why?

~* * * * *~

It was the night before the ball, and Severus knew he was one step away from falling off his precipice of sanity and into the murky waters of madness.

In the past week, Severus was unable to even leave the castle, for a horde of his admirers would always be waiting for him, crying out in excitement as they offered him roses, candy, and their first-born children in exchange for a single dance at the ball. The only thing that stopped Severus from hexing them all was the memory of Albus’s punishment the last time he had done so. That blasted bird of his wouldn’t stop following Severus for a month!

Then there was Albus, who seemed to have forgotten that anything was going on in the world besides the damn ball. He called Severus into his office at least twice a day, and Severus was forced to listen to him rattle on about the importance of choosing a good engagement ring and how to be charming.

Severus was not charming, no matter what the Daily Prophet said. He was spiteful, cantankerous, bitter, and stubborn, and whatever sad chap he ended up having to propose to would do best to remember that.

And then the Great Hall … Merlin, the Great Hall. Severus had never seen a more distressing sight in his life. The wooden tables were replaced with mirrored ones. Elaborate crystal chandeliers floated in the air. Silks and velvets draped the walls. Severus itched to tear the hedera helix from where it clung to the columns and store it away for his potions. And then the fairy lights … oh, the fairy lights could blind a man with their incessant sparkling and absurd brightness. Severus found himself yearning for a pair of sunglasses like the ones Cinders always wore.

Ah, yes, and there was that. Severus was no further in discovering the identity of the ever-mysterious Cinders than he was the previous week. He had received replies back from all but three of his inquiries, but most essentially said the same thing: “Thank you for your interest, but I no longer make wands, due to my unfortunate lack of funds/career change/loss of bodily limbs/death.”

Yes, there were a few positive replies, and Severus had requested more information, but he still had a feeling that the man he was seeking had not contacted him. If he wanted to be completely honest, Severus would admit that it only made sense, since Cinders clearly was a fairly intelligent young man and, if he truly wished to keep his identity a secret, would never casually reply to Severus’s owl.

Damn it.

Severus glanced out the window. It was not even lunch yet, but a few faithful females were already standing outside the gates. Severus groaned. Just for once he’d like to be able to go out without attracting the attention of simpering women.

Then he straightened and glared at the girls. He wanted to go out, and he would, blast them. Since when did Severus Snape let a few ridiculous females stop him from doing anything? Perhaps the fame was going to his head. But no longer … he was going to the café.

Right after he procured a pair of sunglasses.

~* * * * *~

Severus self-consciously pushed the sunglasses farther up his nose. He held no delusions of becoming suddenly unrecognizable, for nothing could conceal his prominent nose, which had been the focus of many a Daily Prophet article. But they still made him feel much more comfortable, as though he had a shield, no matter how small, to protect himself from the omnipresent stares. He wondered if that was why Cinders always wore his.

Cinders, as fate would have it, was eating a sandwich at a nearby table. Without waiting for an invitation, Severus swept over and sat down across from him.

“Severus!” Cinders exclaimed. “I’ve been waiting for you!”

“Is that so?” Severus said coolly, trying hard to suppress the light fluttering in his chest that the boy’s greeting had caused. “To tell me how you lied to me?”

Cinders’s jaw dropped. “I never lied to you, Severus.”

“Bent the truth then, perhaps?” Severus was a Slytherin; he was familiar with the practice.

“Not even that. Omitted some, yes, but you knew that. Why?”

“Because, boy, you don’t bloody exist! I have searched through countless archives, and there is not a single living soul who fits the description you gave me.”

Cinders shrugged. “Perhaps you weren’t looking hard enough.”

Severus’s hands itched to wrap around Cinders’s neck. And then to snatch those damn sunglasses off his face.

“Are you hungry?” Not waiting for an answer, Cinders waved a hand in the air to attract the attention of a waiter.

Severus narrowed his eyes. As Cinders raised his arm, his sleeve slipped, revealing a white bandage wrapped around his wrist. Severus let out a displeased breath. He had little patience for those who turned to self-mutilation. It was something only cowards did in hopes of gaining some attention.

“Do you live a difficult life, Mister Cinders?” Severus asked curtly. “Do your woes simply become too much to bear?”

Cinders tilted his head, and Severus could almost imagine him raising an eyebrow in confusion. “Excuse me?”

“Your bandages, Mister Cinders. The only times I have seen wrists wrapped that way have been on misguided youths who believed that they were the only ones to ever experience a taste of angst in the entire existence of the poor, bleak, dark world.” Severus allowed sarcasm and scorn to slip into every word.

Cinders shook his head and laughed. “No, I swear, I’m doing okay with life. Not great, but I’m not desperate–or, in your opinion, pathetic–enough to slit my wrists. But that’s actually what I wanted to talk …”

“Then why is your wrist wrapped and not simply healed? Do you enjoy looking at marred flesh?” Severus snatched Cinders’s wrist and began to unwrap the bandage. Cinders flinched but did not pull away.

“Not particularly, that’s why I had it bandaged.”

By this time, Severus had removed the bandage. It was a clean wound, a single line that was not particularly deep. There was a gel-like substance coated over it. Severus leaned closer and sniffed.

Muggle ointment, Mister Cinders?”

Cinders shrugged. “It’s what was available.”

“And, as a wandmaker, you had no wand available?” He frowned. Cinders’s hands were terribly warm, as though he had been holding them in front of a blazing fire for an hour.

Cinders jerked his arm back and hurriedly rewrapped the bandage. “That’s what I was trying to talk to you about before you accosted me.” Apparently satisfied with the bandage, he reached into his robes and pulled out his wand. “Try it,” he said, handing it to Severus.

Severus took the wand and almost dropped it immediately. There was an obscene amount of magic in it–he could feel it thrumming in his grip, practically bursting to break free of the wood. But somehow, the power felt as though it were completely locked away from him. His curiosity aroused, Severus aimed it at Cinders’s plate.

Nothing happened.

He concentrated harder on the spell and pointed the wand directly at the plate.

Still nothing.

Severus envisioned the plate rising and floating in the air, and directed all his energy towards accomplishing the task. He could feel beads of sweat forming on his forehead and could see his hand trembling before him. Giving in, he reluctantly whispered “Wingardium Leviosa.”

The plate remained as steady on the table as ever.

With an irritatingly smug smirk, Cinders took back the wand. With barely a swish or a flick from the man, the plate rose in the air and stayed there. Cinders graced Severus with a beatific smile.

“It’s perfect now. And it’s all thanks to you. Well, perhaps not all, but you gave me the right idea, you know?”

It took a moment for Severus to realize what Cinders was talking about, but when he did, he was greatly relieved. It had been humiliating not to be able to perform a simple levitation charm in front of Cinders, with or without actually saying the spell. To know that it was physically impossible brought him great comfort.

He leaned back in his chair in what he hoped was an aloof, unconcerned fashion. “Of course it is. I knew my magic would never work with it; I was simply testing your project to the best of my abilities. You will be pleased to know that it passed the examination.” He paused. “All thanks to me?”

Cinders nodded. “Yeah, remember what you said about the core of the problem? That was it.”

Thus began their lengthy discussion on wands and their cores. It was rather one-sided, with Cinders doing most of the talking, as Severus found it quite difficult to focus on exactly what Cinders was saying. Oh, it was a fascinating subject, and Cinders certainly had the potential to make millions of galleons with his new project. But all Severus could think of was the odd warmth of Cinders’s hands and his unnerving familiarity. It wasn’t just that they were meeting semi-frequently, and Severus found the boy to be capable at holding intelligent and interesting conversation; it was more than that. Somehow, with every word that came out of Cinders’s mouth and the way he would thread his fingers through his hair, Severus felt that he should somehow just know Cinders. Severus could feel the boy’s true name just sitting on his tongue, but it refused to come out. It was enough to make him bang his head against the table in frustration.

“Severus?” Cinders asked, “Is something wrong?”

Severus shook his head. “No. I apologize for my lack of conversation. I am indeed pleased and excited by your discoveries. However, with this damn ball coming up, I simply find my mood souring more frequently.”

Cinders snorted. “I believe you’d find many who say that your mood is perpetually sour.” Severus glared at him, but he only laughed. “What’s the problem? Have a big party, dance with a couple of witches, call it a night.”

Severus could only stare. Was the boy completely oblivious to the world? “It’s not as simple as that, Mister Cinders. I have to choose the one I will marry at the ball.”

It was difficult to tell from all the soot, but it did appear that Cinders face paled. He quickly took a drink of water … too quickly, perhaps, because he ended up choking and spent the next twenty seconds coughing.

“Well,” he said when his coughs finally began to subside, “I suppose that is a bit more than I’d expected.”

Severus sighed and rested his head on a hand. “A bloody nuisance. Albus was his usual manipulative self.” A thought occurred to him. “You will be there, of course.”

Cinders looked down at what remained of his sandwich. “I wasn’t invited.”

“Of course you were. Every eligible witch and wizard in Britain was invited.” Severus stopped to examine Cinders’s face carefully. “You are eligible, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am,” Cinders laughed. “With this … never mind. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t think I’ll be able to make it.”

“And why not?” Because suddenly, it seemed terribly important that Cinders attend the ball. Severus told himself it was simply so he would be assured to find intelligent conversation at the ball, and perhaps partly out of curiosity to see if he’d wear his sunglasses at such a formal event, but the fluttering in his stomach told him it was something more.

“Busy,” Cinders said shortly and stood up. “I’ll see you around, I suppose.” He left a few coins on the table. “I guess by then you’ll be engaged.” With a nod of his head, he was gone.

Severus sighed. Why was it that every meeting with that blasted boy only produced more questions?

CHAPTER FOUR: WHO HELD A BALL

Harry absentmindedly scratched behind Tilly’s ears. If he had to be honest, Tilly was the favourite of his crups. He had boundless energy and was always up for a game of fetch, but also seemed to understand Harry’s moods and knew when it was time to simply lie by his master in front of the fire. But tonight, even Tilly didn’t bring him any joy. All Harry could think about was the ball that was due to start in–he checked his watch–four hours.

In four hours, Severus would meet the man or woman he’d spend the rest of his life with. And Harry would still be hiding behind his mask of ashes.

More than anything, Harry wished he could go to the ball. He wanted Severus to see him as Harry, not as Cinders. He wanted Severus to see him clean-faced and without any scars. He wanted Severus to see him as somebody he could spend his life with, somebody he could desire and quite possibly love. He wanted to feel Severus’s heart pounding rapidly against his own as they recreated that fantastic kiss in the dungeons all those years ago.

He just wanted.

With a sigh, Harry stood and headed towards his workroom. Perhaps he’d at least be able to get some work done tonight. He still had to finish Jamie MacLeod’s wand, and hadn’t even started on Genevieve Buchanan’s. Tonight would be a perfect opportunity to work on them.

Or …

He turned to the piece of parchment on his desk. It was a brief message from Severus inquiring about a wand. Harry had to hand it to Severus–he certainly knew how to work with the little information he was given. But he had another thing coming if he thought Harry would be dim enough to write back.

Still, that hadn’t stopped Harry from beginning to work on his wand. He had found that, after about ten years of knowing Severus, he didn’t even need a written description to know exactly which materials to use.

It was, without a doubt, going to be the most exquisite and extravagant wand Harry had ever created. He had no choice, really: Severus’s personality was too complex to tie down to a single type of wood and core. How Severus had managed with the simple wand he currently owned baffled Harry. Didn’t he feel how trapped his magic was? Didn’t the restraint frustrate him?

Harry had set out to remedy that. The outer core he knew immediately to construct from the smoothest yew wood. It was the same material as Voldemort’s, and only made sense to Harry. For years the public had viewed Severus as a worshipper of the Dark Lord, and that was the image Severus chose to show. That yew also symbolized resurrection, faith, and sorrow only added to the appropriateness. Inside the core of yew was a thin layer of walnut wood, meant to bring out Severus’s well-known stratagem and intellect. Finally, the innermost layer was made of pine … pine, for the courage and daring that few truly appreciated in Severus. The three layers of wood made the wand a touch heavier than Harry would have liked, but he thought Severus might appreciate the solidness of it.

Harry lovingly stroked the wand. It was his greatest accomplishment to date. He only wished that someday he would be able to place the phoenix feather inside it and watch Severus’s face as he used it for the first time.

Harry stopped his ministrations for a second. There was still something missing … he walked over to his carefully labelled boxes of woods and searched. His eyes finally caught what he was looking for.

Wood from a yellow acacia tree. Putting yet another core of wood was out of the question, because there would be no room to place the actual phoenix feather. But a low thrumming filled Harry’s body, telling him that this wood was desperately needed to make the wand complete for Severus.

Harry grabbed a knife from his table and carefully went to work. When he was done, the thinnest shaving of wood curled gracefully on the table. Satisfied, he wrapped the coil around the wand and then tapped it with his own. The shaving immediately melded itself to the wand, leaving a pleasing spiral pattern. Oh, the wand was a beauty.

If it was the only way for Severus to know of this wandmaker’s love for him, then so be it.

~* * * * *~

Harry was so busy sanding and fine-tuning the wand that he barely noticed the sun beginning to set outside. He only realized how much time had passed when a disgruntled-looking owl flew in through an open window, her white feathers a stark contrast to the settling dusk.

The owl dropped the message into Harry’s outstretched hand and then settled herself on his table. Harry spared a moment to wonder if perhaps this bird and Hedwig were siblings and made a mental note to introduce the two before this one left. Then he looked at the parchment.

The handwritten address was enough to make Harry’s entire body clench.

It was just like all the other inquiries, carefully addressed to Artemis Wands, Artume Forest, Scotland.

But none of his other inquiries had that narrow, loopy handwriting. That handwriting belonged to only one man, the last man Harry ever wanted to know where he lived.

“Hello, Harry.”

Harry screamed and turned around, his wand at the ready.

Dumbledore chuckled. “Now, now, Harry, I know we have not seen each other for years, and I admit that my entrance was rather devious, but is that any reason to raise your wand at me?”

Harry slowly lowered his wand. No sense beating around the bush. “How did you find me?”

“I have always prided myself on my good instincts, Harry. They have gotten me through many tricky situations. And so, after several interesting conversations with Professor Snape left me curious about the man behind Artemis Wands, I knew I simply had to find him. Well, you made that rather difficult, young man, leaving no records of your exact location and somehow causing tracking charms to bounce off of you,” he said, waving a chiding finger at Harry, “But I prevailed, as you can see. I simply wrote a legitimate request for a wand, gave it to an owl, shrank myself, and enjoyed a rather pleasant ride across Scotland.” He frowned. “But I daresay, Harry, it really isn’t good for business to force all incoming owls to travel in the most meandering fashion before finally arriving at your house. I understand your reasoning, of course, but poor Stella grew so weary after flying seven circles around Edinburgh Castle.”

Harry shrugged. “I’d rather not have people following the owls, thinking they could find me.” He paused. “Not that it stopped you.”

“No, my boy, it didn’t.” Dumbledore smiled gently at him, and Harry felt his heart begin to break. “Harry …”

Harry tried to stand firm. He stood still, fists clenched, and started determinedly at the ground. And yet somehow, by no will of his own, he found himself wrapped in Dumbledore’s arms in such a tight embrace he feared his back would break. And then, somehow, liquid appeared on his cheeks, and his whole body was trembling. But he wasn’t crying. Certainly not.

After a few long moments, Dumbledore pulled away, and, with a flick of his wand, lit a few more candles in the room. “Now, my boy, let me look … ah.”

Harry looked back down at the floor. This was why he had stayed away. He couldn’t bear to look up and see the pitying look in Dumbledore’s eyes.

“What happened?”

Harry shrugged and forced himself to look up. “You were there.”

There was a long moment of silence. Harry could see the exact moment when Dumbledore realized what Harry was talking about.

“All these years?”

Harry shrugged again. “Magic doesn’t work on me. And my body doesn’t much like it when I use magic either.”

Dumbledore nodded slowly. “Well, my boy, I certainly have a few questions for you, but I imagine that they can wait for another day. Right now, we must work on getting you ready for the ball.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Harry shouted before he could stop himself. “I can’t go to the ball! I’d be laughed at and bombarded with questions, or, worse yet, be given those disgustingly pitiful looks as they all remember the poor Boy Who Lived. I spent years hiding from the Wizarding world. Why would I go to the most public wizarding event of the decade?”

“Because you love Severus and you do not wish for him to marry anyone else.”

Harry really wished he could learn to control his jaw better. It had been dropping more in the past ten minutes than it had in the past four years. He supposed it came with conversing with Dumbledore.

“Who … what … how did you know?” Harry stuttered.

Dumbledore only laughed. “I have eyes, my dear boy. Now, go take a shower and wash some of that grime off your face, and let me see what I can do.”

The day simply could not be any more surreal, Harry thought twenty minutes later as he sat at his kitchen table and allowed Dumbledore to trim his hair with a knife he took from Harry’s worktable. Harry had been instructed to trim his fingernails, but his hands were trembling far too much to actually accomplish anything. There was simply no way he’d look presentable enough to go to the ball, yet alone win Severus’s affections, but he couldn’t stop the flutter of hope in his chest.

Harry absently rubbed a hand down the front of his deep blue robes. He had dug the formerly emerald robes out of his trunk after showering and was not surprised to find that they were entirely too tight to wear. Dumbledore had taken one look at him, fairly bursting at the seams in the shoulders, and, with a single flick of his wand, had made them two sizes larger and a blue the colour of the sky at midnight. With a few more waves of his wand, there was a dusting of silver across them, just enough so they shimmered slightly as he moved.

But even with the exquisite robes, clean skin, and hopefully acceptable style of his hair, Harry knew that there was no way he could attend the ball with his face the way it was. He felt his face burn in embarrassment of being concerned about such a superficial thing, but he couldn’t stop the feeling of shame that coursed through his blood at the thought of facing the Wizarding world, and even worse, Severus, the way he looked.

The Wizarding world would gasp and shoot him looks of pity and then talk about his grotesque features behind his back. But Severus … Severus would demand answers. He would demand to know why Harry still looked the way he did. What’s more, he would demand to know why and how Harry had stolen those potions like a greedy street urchin and hadn’t been man enough to face the consequences. And Harry still hadn’t come up with a good response to that.

Harry was brought back from his musings by the sharp tug at his hair. He reached behind his head and felt that Dumbledore had tied his hair back with a leather band. Well, that seemed safe enough.

Dumbledore motioned for Harry to stand and then began to pull off his brightly coloured robes. Harry tried in vain not to gape at the bright pink trousers and gold shirt Dumbledore was wearing underneath. Dumbledore only chuckled and rolled up his sparkling sleeves.

“Stay still, my boy, I have some rather challenging work to do.”

Harry closed his eyes the second he saw Dumbledore’s wand inching towards his face. He knew Dumbledore would never intentionally harm him, but he couldn’t help but feel a little anxiety. That anxiety increased tenfold when Harry felt an intense burning spread across his face. It rose to an extreme level when Harry began to feel his skin fight the incoming magic, punching outwards towards the intruder. It climaxed to the level of outright panic when the pins and needles enveloped his face and tingled so intensely that Harry felt his entire face would simply fall off. And his eyes, they burned!

But slowly, the discomfort wore off, until all that remained was an almost-pleasant tingle dancing over the surface of his skin. Harry hesitantly opened his eyes. Dumbledore, sweating heavily, wore a pleased but exhausted smile. He lowered himself to the floor and gestured towards the bathroom.

“Go have a look, my boy.”

Harry knocked over his chair and almost stepped on Tilly’s tail in his haste to get to the nearest mirror. Good or bad, he needed to see himself. He still tried to stamp down his hopes, but it was impossible now. He wanted to go to this ball more than ever. If he could just see himself …

Wow.

Harry reached with a trembling hand to touch his face. His eyes were blue instead of green, but that wasn’t why he barely recognized himself. The puffiness and scars had completely vanished, leaving behind only smooth, pale skin. Somehow, his angular cheekbones, which had looked monstrous with all the scarring, appeared to be almost attractive. It wasn’t the face of the boy who had killed Voldemort, or the face of the monster that hid in a cottage, or the face of the sooty-faced street scamp who chatted with Severus Snape. It was the face of a young man who had seen both the most wonderful and most heinous aspects of the world and lived to tell the tale.

Another feeling joined hope in his chest … pride. He would be fine.

“I can’t believe it,” Harry breathed. “Is this really me?”

Dumbledore chuckled softly. “Of course it is. As you said, your body somehow repels magic. I was forced to trap the particles around you now and perform the glamour on them instead of on your actual skin. But don’t worry, nobody will be able to tell the difference.”

“But my face … I look … I’m …” Harry trailed off, not wanting to admit to Dumbledore that he actually found his appearance rather pleasing.

“You’re a very handsome young man,” Dumbledore said agreeably. “That was all you. I simply blotted out the scarring. You look now exactly how you would have looked had you never encountered Voldemort. Since everybody believes you are dead, nobody would think anything of an attractive wizard who looks quite a bit like Harry Potter–except for your eyes.”

Harry shook his head in wonder. This was beyond anything he ever expected. He fully expected to hear the ringing of his alarm clock at any moment and fall out of bed, awakening himself from this fantastic dream.

“Of course, it won’t last forever. Your body is fighting the magic fiercely. I doubt the enchantment will last past midnight.”

Harry didn’t care. Even if the charm wore off exactly at midnight, he would still have nearly five hours at the ball. Hopefully he’d manage to be around Severus for part of that time, and then he could happily replay the memories for the rest of his life.

He turned around to thank Dumbledore, who was currently having his face licked by a very enthusiastic Tilly. Dumbledore only smiled.

“Now, in keeping with the fairy tale, I should be turning some of these pets of yours into trusty steeds to lead your carriage to the ball, but I daresay Tilly wouldn’t be too fond of that.”

Tilly turned to stare at Harry with plaintive eyes, telling him in no uncertain terms that no, she would not be a horse that night, thank you very much.

“But I daresay it’s only proper that some of your pets escort you to the ball. They have been your friends for so long, after all. Now, I believe you have a phoenix in this menagerie?”

Harry nodded and reached for the whistle that he always kept nearby to call Conall. Within thirty seconds, the stunning bird was resting on Dumbledore’s shoulder.

“Excellent!” Dumbledore exclaimed, clapping his hands. “Simply marvellous!” With Harry’s knife in his hand, he walked outside. Harry watched as Dumbledore placed the knife on the ground and then transformed it into a beautiful glass carriage that was floating in the air. On closer inspection, Harry saw that the carriage was being lead in its flight by his beloved phoenix.

“He will have you there in a few short minutes, Harry,” Dumbledore said as he helped Harry into the carriage. “Enjoy your night, my boy … and your rebirth.”

~* * * * *~

Harry hovered outside the entrance to the Great Hall. He was dying to go inside, to see how the room was undoubtedly transformed into some sort of wonderland and, of course, to see Severus. But no matter how hard he fought to deny it, he was, without a doubt, nervous about interacting with Severus without his customary sunglasses and sooty face. What if he only talked to Cinders because he was a mysterious puzzle to be solved, and really did not care at all for his company? What if he, as usual, made an utter fool of himself? What if his disguise dropped before midnight and he didn’t even realize it? Harry could feel his head spinning and his face heating. He took several steadying breaths. This simply wouldn’t do. He killed Voldemort–he could certainly walk into a room.

Except he felt as though he were about to be sick.

At that moment, he felt a movement within his robes. Confused, he patted down his chest and was startled when a small ball of fluff scurried down his legs and came to a stop on the stone floor just in front of Harry’s feet. He could have sworn Briony, his first-ever puffskein, gave him a wink before she scampered off into the Hall.

Well, now he really had no choice. If a little powderpuff of a creature could do it, so could he. With one more deep breath, he raised his head high and stepped into the room as though he had eaten nearly every meal there for almost ten years.

He still felt a moment of panic when he did not immediately spot Severus in the crowd. Unfortunately, spotting him did nothing to ease his pounding heart. Severus looked like a bored, beautiful prince holding court in his hunter green robes that shimmered and clung just so whenever he moved. At the moment he was talking with a blond man who had a smile that rivalled Gilderoy Lockhart’s. Another wave of nerves swept over Harry. With all the stunning men and women about, many of whom had to be more talented, intelligent, or charismatic than he, what chance did he have of capturing Severus’s attention?

Evidently, a better one than he thought. Severus had tilted his head to the side to discreetly cough in his hand, and in doing so caught a glimpse of Harry. Harry fought the urge to turn his gaze downwards, and instead held eye contact with Severus as he excused himself from the blond wizard and walked over to Harry with great strides.

“Pardon me, but have we met?” Severus asked when he finally reached him.

Harry shook his head. “I don’t think so. Michael Gibbons,” he said. It was a name he had thought of on his way to the ball–generic enough not to raise eyebrows, but also not so common that Severus would suspect it was a fake name.

Severus extended his arm. “Severus Snape,” he said as he shook his hand. “Welcome to my ball.”

Harry couldn’t help but grin as Severus’s lips curved in an ironic smile. This was just Severus, and there just happened to be a lot of people around. That wasn’t a problem. As he felt Briony climb up his leg and back into a hidden pocket inside his robes, he allowed himself to relax. He had less than four hours to enjoy himself, and he was intending on using every one of them.

“Would you care to dance?”

Harry laughed. Severus sounded as though he’d rather go swimming in thestral manure and then eat his own skin before he took a spin around the dance floor. “I’m not really much of a dancer.”

“Neither am I,” Severus said with a sigh of clear relief. “How about a stroll outside? It is terribly stuffy in here.”

They were going to be hard-pressed to get that grin off his face, Harry decided. “I’d love to.”

~* * * * *~

“Naturally, I docked 100 points from Gryffindor and put him in detention for a week.”

Harry thought it wasn’t quite on to be laughing at his school-year escapades that resulted in severe punishments for him, but somehow, he couldn’t help chuckling at Severus’s rendition of the tales. Maybe it was the intervening years, or perhaps Severus just had a way with words, but Harry could not stop chuckling.

He wasn’t quite sure how the conversation turned towards himself. Harry Potter, that is. One minute they were making small talk about the ball, then Severus made a few perfunctory inquiries about Michael Gibbons, and then somehow they were discussing The Photograph (Harry could hear how Severus capitalized the words in his head) and then Harry Potter. It was slightly unnerving. One part of Harry–the ethical part, if he really wanted to admit it to himself–didn’t feel it was fair to Snape to let him rattle on about his thoughts of Harry Potter, but he couldn’t help think this was a perfect opportunity to learn what Severus really thought of him, the real him, and he was loath to give it up.

“He’s still alive, you know,” Severus said casually.

Harry startled. “What?” He laughed, hoping his nerves didn’t show. “You’re kidding, right? Everybody knows Harry Potter died years ago. Didn’t even have a body to bury.”

“Well, that’s just it, isn’t it?” Severus asked. “It’s a bit rash to declare a person dead if there’s not even a cadaver to prove it. Why not just call him missing?”

“He’s dead!” The words came out a little harsher than Harry intended. He looked down at his hands, wishing to avoid Severus’s slight frown. “I’m sorry, it just seems rather unrealistic. Don’t you think we would have heard from him by now?”

“I suppose,” Severus said softly. He turned to face Harry and cupped his face in his hand. “You remind me of him,” he whispered, his voice pensive.

“Really?” Oh, his voice did not just crack. How embarrassing. “Never heard that before.”

“I imagine he would look a bit like you if he were still alive. He’d be about your age too.”

Harry’s heart pounded in his chest. He wasn’t sure what he would do if Severus made the connection now. “Well, we were born in the same year, I believe. And yeah, I have dark hair. But I don’t really see it.”

“It’s not only your appearance. It’s the way you carry yourself, like you own the world but are surprised to find it in your possession. Your mannerisms, how you always tilt your head to your left when you’re listening, how your thoughts are always betrayed by the movements of your eyebrows, how you always run your fingers through your hair.”

Severus caught Harry’s hand, which was indeed curling around his hair. He pulled it closer to him, giving Harry no choice but to follow. “So much like him,” Severus whispered.

Harry flushed. Oh, he was so close to getting what he wanted, just one more kiss from Severus. But he couldn’t help but feel guilty. Severus wanted Harry, and here he was, thinking he had to settle for a decent imitation. But Harry couldn’t give up his disguise just yet. But it just seemed unfair to Severus. Still, Harry had to admit, if he were actually Michael Gibbons, he’d certainly be offended by the constant talk and comparisons. He began to feel dizzy, and he wasn’t sure if it was from trying to keep his multiple identities straight in his head or the fact that Severus was pulling him closer, closer, closer, closer, until he could feel his body heat, until his lips were-oh god-so close …

“I’m not Harry Potter,” Harry felt compelled to blurt out.

“I know,” Severus rasped. Harry didn’t have time to analyze his voice before Severus’s lips had descended on his own.

This was nothing like their last kiss. That one had been a fierce battle, a quest for domination and control. This kiss was gentle and lilting, a sweet sonata to reverberate in the cool night air, to echo the chimes that were crying out…

Chimes!

With a cry of regret and horror, Harry tore himself away from Severus’s embrace. The sudden feeling of emptiness overwhelmed him, and he swayed slightly without Severus’s strong arms around him. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

“What?” Severus rasped out dazedly. “Michael?”

“I’m sorry,” Harry repeated as he took off to the front gates at a run.

Severus seemed to have recovered. He took after Harry in a brisk run. “Michael! Wait! We need to talk! I need to–”

“I can’t!” Harry shouted, not bothering to turn around. He couldn’t, because he might not have the strength to run away again, and then Severus would see … he felt something fall from his robes in his haste, but decided it was probably Briony, who could certainly find her way home. He had no time!

“Where do you live?”

Harry didn’t answer. He could feel the warning burning of the magic tingling and evaporating from his skin and into the air. The gates were in sight.

“Michael!”

The clock struck twelve just as Harry reached his carriage.

He held his head in his hands the rest of the way home, trying his hardest to ignore the sounds of Severus’s shouts.

CHAPTER FIVE: AND FELL IN LOVE

Severus sat at his desk, slowly twirling the wand in his hands. Michael had dropped it during his mad escape from the ball the night before. Severus had immediately snatched it up and continued sprinting after him, but it was of no use. His mysterious suitor was much swifter on his feet than he could have imagined. Once it was clear Severus would never be able to catch up with him, he had taken the wand back with him to his rooms and locked himself away.

It was stunning. That Severus recognized immediately. The etchings carved into the gleaming wood were intricate and beautiful without being ostentatious. Michael must have spent a small fortune on it–this was no Ollivander’s wand, and even Ollivander’s wands didn’t come cheap.

Just one more piece to add to the puzzle that was Michael Gibbons.

Severus shook his head in wonder. If he didn’t have this wand in his hands, he would have thought the entire night was a dream. Michael had truly come out of nowhere. And yet he was practically everything Severus could have asked for in a partner. In only a few hours, Severus could tell that he was both witty and unassuming, and possessed a generosity of spirit that seemed to be quite rare among young men these days. What’s more, he was no blithering idiot and held his own around Severus, never turning into a fawning prat.

Not to mention he was quite easy on the eyes.

That, however, was a part that gave Severus pause. Michael was certainly handsome, with strong cheekbones, a warm smile, and pleasantly tousled dark hair. But he reminded him so much of Harry Potter that it was frankly unnerving. Given that Severus still had some unresolved … feelings about Harry, he couldn’t be certain that wouldn’t cause problems down the line. But Michael was a damn better option than the other fools that showed up that night, and proposing to him would shut Albus up for good.

That is, of course, if he could even find him again.

He had spent a sleepless night going through the same records he had studied to determine Cinders’s origins and had come up utterly empty. There simply was no wizard in the world named Michael Gibbons.

“Just fucking figures,” Severus muttered. “The only two vaguely interesting men I’ve crossed paths with in years and neither seem to actually exist. Perhaps I am actually finally losing my mind.”

Severus rolled Michael’s wand in his hand. It was proof that he did spend the evening with somebody, even if his name wasn’t actually Michael Gibbons. Ignoring the little voice in his head that said pursuing somebody who would lie about something as basic as his name wasn’t worth pursuing, he began to contemplate his next course of action.

Inspiration struck. “Of course,” Severus said. He nearly hit himself–clearly lack of sleep was to blame. He held out Michael’s wand. “Wingardium Leviosa.”

Nothing happened.

The surge of accomplishment Severus felt was quickly defused when he realized the only wandmaker capable of creating a wand that would only respond to its master was a young man just as elusive as Michael.

That was no matter.

He would bathe and set himself up at the same restaurant where he always ran into Cinders. Surely he would be able to get him to reveal whom the wand belonged to.

But before that, he had a letter to write.

~* * * * *~

To his surprise, Cinders was there before Severus even arrived, sipping a cup of tea. He looked just as taken aback to see Severus.

“Hello. Already recovered from your ball?”

“Hardly,” Severus said, and slid in the chair across from Cinders. “I found one man who might prove to be a sufficient match, but he decided to pull a disappearing act. He’s just as damn annoying as you.” He gifted Cinders with a pointed glare.

Cinders just looked down at his tea. “Well, nobody told you to sit here if I’m so annoying.”

“Annoying though you might be, I need your assistance.” Severus pulled out Michael’s wand and handed it to Cinders. “I have reason to believe this is one of your more recent creations.”

Cinders’s eyebrows shot up as he looked at the wand. “Why, yes it is,” he said. “Find it?”

“My future fiancé dropped it last night,” Severus explained. “I believe it may be my only way of finding him, since he seems to have given me a fake name.”

“Isn’t that usually a hint the bloke isn’t interested?” Cinders asked, a slight smile on his face.

“Irrelevant,” Severus said. “Now, tell me who it belongs to.”

Cinders took a long sip of tea. “Sorry, I can’t. Breach of confidentiality.”

“What do you mean it’s a breach of confidentiality?” Severus shouted, ignoring the way the other patrons stared at him and began to whisper frantically. “Ollivander would tell anybody who would listen who owned that wand along with their entire life story.”

“I’m not Ollivander,” Cinders said simply. “Sorry.”

“Of course you are,” Severus snapped, and snatched the wand back. “Well, it’s no matter. I don’t need you to determine who it belongs to anyway.”

“Is that so?” Cinders sounded only vaguely interested.

“That’s right, I forgot you don’t subscribe to the Daily Prophet.” Severus pulled out that morning’s edition that he had just conveniently stored in his robes. “I’ll be embarking on a quest shortly. Professor Dumbledore finds it terribly romantic.”

Cinders took the paper and began to read. “It says here you’re going to visit every wizarding home in the United Kingdom in order to find the wand’s owner.” He carded his fingers through his hair. “How long do you expect that to take?”

“Hopefully no longer than a day,” Severus said. “I expect that once he learns I am looking for him he’ll give up this ridiculous behaviour.”

“Really,” Cinders said. His fingers remained knitted in his hair. “Well, you’d best get started then.”

“Indeed.” Severus held the wand out to Cinders. “Care to give it a try?”

Cinders laughed and finally removed his hands from his hair. “Don’t you think you would have recognized me?” he asked, gesturing toward his soot-smeared face. “Believe me, I don’t clean up nicely.”

“Point,” Severus said, and pocketed the wand. “Do you have any plans for the day?”

Cinders startled, as though he hadn’t really been listening and Severus had awoken him from his daydreams. “Um, no. I’m in need of a bit of a break, actually. I’ll probably just stay around here for most of the day. You know, people watch.”

Severus nodded. “You are welcome to come along with me if you like,” he said. It came out without any real thought, but once said, he found himself hoping Cinders would accept. “I could use some expert advice.”

Cinders smiled, but it seemed pained, somehow. “I’m afraid that would be a conflict of interest for me,” he said. “But I do wish you luck.”

Severus stood, carefully pocketing Michael’s wand. He didn’t truly want to leave. Really, thoughts of Michael just seemed frivolous when he was around Cinders. But that was ludicrous. This whole thing was ludicrous.

Cinders coughed, and Severus realized he’d been standing there in silence for more than an acceptable amount of time. With a final nod, he turned and left the restaurant, trying to leave all thoughts of an ashy-faced young man behind him.

~* * * * *~

Severus disdainfully wiped the wand with his handkerchief. He felt vaguely dirty for allowing such a thing of beauty to be held in the hands of such brutes and fools.

It had been nearly seven hours of tracking down these houses, placing the wand in the hand of wizards of every age, and taking it back in resignation, and he was growing weary. He should have known this wouldn’t be a simple task, given the trouble he had already experienced trying to locate Michael. But there weren’t that many wizarding households in Britain.

What Severus had apparently underestimated was the number of fools who would be willing to turn to deceit in an attempt to win his hand. Seven witches dressed up as men and tried to convince Severus they simply had fair looks. Twelve wizards attempted to explain that the wand was simply finicky. Twenty wizards feigned an illness that robbed them of their magical ability. One wizard even concocted an elaborate plan where he aimed Michael’s wand while other family members performed the spell with their own wands; Severus hexed him for good measure.

With a queasy smile, Severus handed the wand to the next waiting wizard. Despite his sweet words of their time together, Severus knew just by looking at him that he wasn’t the man he was looking for. He didn’t even know why he bothered.

“I couldn’t believe you were interested in me,” the wizard was saying as he adjusted his grip on the wand. “I’ve had your photograph hanging in my bedroom for years. The ball was a dream come true.”

Severus crossed his arms and waited impatiently. Merlin, the trouble that damn photograph was still causing. It had created more than a few romantic, delusional fools who, for whatever reason, decided that a life with him would be the ultimate prize. Idiots, the lot of them.

“And you’re so kind to return my wand to me. I’ve been so lost without it.”

“Just try a damn spell,” Severus growled.

The wizard flushed and held out the wand. “Wingardium Leviosa!

Nothing happened.

Severus snatched the wand back. “Thank you for wasting my time.”

The wizard ran his fingers through his hair, visibly agitated. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t work. Perhaps it was damaged in the fall.”

Severus stared at the man before him. He definitely wasn’t Michael. But there was something about him that triggered something

It wasn’t his face, or the way he was dressed. It wasn’t even his hair. But that hand in his hair…

Michael had run his fingers through his hair multiple times at the ball.

Cinders ran his fingers through his hair whenever he was faced with a question he didn’t want to answer.

Michael had a wand that responded to nobody else.

Cinders was a wandmaker.

Severus nearly slapped himself. How could he have been so blind? The answer was right in front of him the entire time. Now he only had to get Cinders to admit he was at the ball and reveal his true identity.

He only hoped he wasn’t too late.

~* * * * *~

Cinders didn’t appear to have moved all day. Severus marched straight up to his table and held out the wand to him.

“Try it.”

Cinders looked up, startled. “Excuse me?”

“Your game is up. I know it’s yours. So I suggest you take it.”

Cinders took the wand hesitantly, rolling it slowly in his hands. He was clearly still trying to appear aloof, but Severus didn’t miss the look of relief that dawned on his face when he was once again holding his wand.

“Try it,” Severus repeated. “Now.”

Cinders shook his head, his damn fingers once more creeping upwards to run through his hair. “I can’t.”

“You can, and more importantly, you will,” Severus snapped. “Or else I will sit here all night and wait for you to do it. Why don’t you save us both the time and aggravation and do it now?”

By now a crowd was gathering around them. They spoke in low murmurs, but Severus had no doubt they were wondering why he was talking to such a filthy young man when he was supposed to be finding his future husband.

“Don’t make me,” Cinders whispered. “Please. I’ll leave. You’ll never see me again, I swear.”

“Do. It,” Severus hissed. “Now.”

His hand shaking, Cinders held up his wand and pointed it at his teacup. “Wingardium Leviosa,” he said quietly, his voice cracking on the last syllable.

The teacup rose in the air.

Not waiting another second, Severus grabbed onto Cinders’s arm and Disapparated them both to the gates of Hogwarts.

~* * * * *~

Blood.

There was blood everywhere and Severus didn’t know how it happened.

He carefully set Cinders on the ground, all the while checking for wounds. It was more difficult than expected since his entire body was covered with sticky blood.

The realization struck Severus full-force: Cinders had splinched.

Luckily, Severus knew how to handle this, having instructed countless on their first Apparating lessons. But that didn’t make it any more pleasant, and Cinders seemed to be in much worse shape than any of his students.

He couldn’t understand it. He had never had any difficulties Apparating with other people, and he himself had emerged just fine. Why would Cinders have such an adverse reaction?

The questions plagued him while he tended to Cinders’s wounds and cleansed the majority of the blood from his skin. For some reason, it required much more magical strength than it usually did to heal such wounds, and by the end of it Severus was sweating from his exertions. Recognizing there was only so much he could do outside, he carefully took Cinders in his arms and carried him back to his rooms.

It was slightly ironic, Severus thought, that this whole spectacle had begun with a photograph of him carrying a bloody Harry Potter off a battlefield, and now here it was, coming to a close, with him holding in his arms a young man who, at least when he had been at the ball, closely resembled the boy hero.

Severus began to draw a warm bath, and set to carefully removing Cinders’s clothing. He would have to purchase new clothes for him, as these were stained beyond repair. Out of respect, he tried not to pay attention to his genitals, but he couldn’t help but note that Cinders was rather thin and could do with a few good meals.

Once the bath was filled, Severus gingerly placed Cinders in it. Finally, he removed his damn sunglasses.

He couldn’t contain his gasp.

He didn’t let himself jump to complete conclusions just yet. It could still just be an uncanny resemblance. He had noticed it at the ball, after all. But if he would just take this flannel, and wipe away the soot and blood staining Cinders’s face, and if he scrubbed a bit harder at his forehead, maybe, just maybe, he would see …

A lightning bolt scar.

Severus fell back on his heels. Harry. Harry Bloody Potter was still the fucking Boy Who Lived, and he was doing it in Severus’s bath.

Severus had searched for Harry Potter. He had searched for Cinders, and he had searched for Michael Gibbons. All three quests had driven him mad and caused him to lose sleep. And now to find that they were all one and the same? Severus didn’t even know what to think.

A million questions circled in his mind. How had Harry survived? Why was he going around town with soot and ashes on his face? How did he get to the ball? Why did he hide his identity? And why did the simple act of Apparation nearly kill him?

Severus sighed. There was no way of answering those questions until Harry woke up. So, in the meantime, he contented himself with gently washing the filth off Harry’s body.

~* * * * *~

Severus looked down at Harry sleeping in his bed and frowned. A long bath had revealed that there was virtually no part of Harry’s body that wasn’t scarred. He had known his injuries in the Final Battle had been significant–hell, the Wizarding world had assumed they had killed him. But these appeared even worse than Severus had imagined.

Something simply wasn’t adding up. Severus was half tempted to force Harry to wake, but even if he didn’t realize he needed rest to recuperate from the trauma of splinching, he didn’t even know how he would begin to form the questions he needed to ask.

Harry began to moan in his sleep. A hand clawed at the bedcovers. “Severus …”

Severus knelt down by the bed and took Harry’s hand. “Yes, Harry? I’m here.”

Harry gave no indication he heard him. Rather, he began to move frantically beneath the blankets. “Severus. Severus, sorry.”

“What for?” Severus wasn’t truly expecting an answer. Harry was clearly in the midst of a nightmare and couldn’t hear him. But stranger things had happened … and a great number of those stranger things had happened in the past week alone.

“Potions. I stole your potions. I’m sorry. So sorry. Sorry. Sorry. SORRY!”

Severus brushed back Harry’s hair in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. “Shhh, Harry. What potions?”

“Potions,” Harry whimpered. “Your potions. Shouldn’t have taken them. Just wanted to win battle and win you afterward. Sorry. Strong. Kiss. Just wanted to be strong. Sorry.”

A horrible thought occurred to Severus. “Harry. You didn’t take the potions I was working on the day we kissed, did you?”

“Sorry,” Harry whispered.

Severus continued holding onto Harry’s hand as he worked his way through his nightmare. The gesture was partly for his own comfort–with this newfound knowledge, Severus felt as though he was trapped in his own personal nightmare.

It would explain everything. When the Dark Lord had struck, the potions weren’t yet complete–in particular, Severus needed to sublime them in order to diminish their more destructive properties. At that stage, they likely would have caused the drinker to be immune from all magic, both good and bad. What’s more, the dragon heart combined with Mandrake root would likely have caused Harry to experience severe pain whenever magic touched his skin. It would explain why magic wouldn’t cure his wounds all those years ago, why he appeared reluctant to perform spells, and, most importantly, why he was currently still unconscious after Severus attempted to Apparate them away.

Severus found himself torn. Part of him wanted to immediately go to his laboratory and begin brewing an antidote. But he felt an equally pressing need to stay with Harry and be there when he woke, even if it took all night.

A compromise was in order. Quietly, Severus moved a small writing desk into the room beside the bed. Wrapping his left hand around Harry’s, he sat down at the desk and began to scribble out possible methods to completely eradicate the poison from Harry’s body.

~* * * * *~

Several hours later, a soft groan roused Severus from his writing. He immediately looked to the bed, where Harry was just beginning to show signs of consciousness. He quickly took the glass of water he had set on his desk and held it before Harry’s lips.

“Drink,” he commanded, and was gratified to see that Harry obeyed.

“Mmm,” Harry murmured. He pushed the glass away as a small furrow appeared in his brow. “Who?”

Severus watched intently as Harry managed to work his eyelids open. Although he had braced himself for it, actually seeing those vivid green eyes again was enough to knock the wind out of his chest. How had he never noticed how expressive they could be? Just seconds after waking up, Harry’s shone with confusion, relief, hope, and fear.

“Harry,” Severus finally managed to get out. “Do you know where you are?”

Harry blinked a few times. “Severus? Can’t see.”

Ah, those damn sunglasses must have actually served a purpose besides hiding Harry’s eyes. Severus retrieved them, but turned the dark lenses clear with a tap of his wand. There was no way Harry would be allowed to go back to hiding behind them.

Harry put them on gratefully and blinked again as his world came into focus. “Severus. Your rooms?”

“Yes,” Severus said. He took Harry’s hand back in his own. “I had been planning on asking you to explain yourself. Fortunately for you, you talk in your sleep, so I imagine I’ve already worked most of it out.”

Harry frowned. “I talk in my sleep? What did I say?”

“Nothing too incriminating,” Severus replied. “Only that you were terribly sorry for stealing from me.”

Harry’s face turned ashen. “Oh, my god. I am so sorry.”

Severus held up his free hand. “Hush. I imagine that’s why you hid away all these years? The potions had less than pleasant side effects?”

Harry looked down at the blankets, refusing to make eye contact with Severus. “My scars wouldn’t go away. I could barely even recognize myself. And magic can’t touch me … I tried to leave the Wizarding world altogether, but I just couldn’t.”

“And so you hid,” Severus continued. “Hid in plain sight and even had the audacity to converse with me on multiple occasions, knowing full well that the reason you were in such a sad state was because you stole from me.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry said softly. “I didn’t mean to. I just … couldn’t resist.”

“Just as you couldn’t resist taking my potions,” Severus couldn’t help but add. “What the hell were you thinking, drinking an experimental potion?”

“We were losing,” Harry said. “I was already injured. I couldn’t last much longer. I had nicked them earlier just in case, and when Bellatrix cornered me in the Gryffindor tower, I just took a chance and drank as much as I could swallow. And I thought they had worked. Nothing could stop me after that.” He finally looked up. “And I would take them again, you know. We wouldn’t have won otherwise.”

“At the expense of you living the life you deserve,” Severus said. He gently stroked Harry’s cheek. “Harry, how could you live like this all these years? Why didn’t you come to me?”

Harry leaned into Severus’s caress. “Too ashamed. I stole from you and I paid the penalty. I didn’t think there was anything you could do.”

“Harry, look at me,” Severus said. When Harry didn’t do so immediately, he moved his hand to his chin and gently turned Harry’s face towards him. “I am going to work for as long as it takes to find a cure for this. Not because of the scars, because I couldn’t give a damn what you look like, even if you have a hunchback and three eyes. It’s because if I’m going to be with you for the rest of my life, the last thing I want to do is see you endure the constant agony of not being able to fully experience magic ever again.”

Harry blinked. “You don’t have to be with me if you don’t want. I’ll speak with Dumbledore. I’m sure he won’t hold you to it.”

Severus barked out a laugh. “Clearly you don’t know Albus as well as I thought. He most certainly will hold me to it. But it wouldn’t make a difference even if he didn’t. Harry, I have known you in three different forms now–as yourself, as Cinders, and as Michael Gibbons. Each form completely captivated me. If I have the chance to have you with me always, what kind of fool would I be to let you go?”

And then, not pausing to wait for an answer, he brought Harry’s lips to his.

They were just as soft as he remembered, and just as sweet. But while their last kiss had been fierce and competitive, this one was gentle. It spoke of a promise of a future together, one that would inevitably be filled with pain and struggles but would also bring unbridled joy.

This was the future Severus wanted.

Reluctant though he was to interrupt this kiss, he forced himself to pull away from Harry. “Marry me, Harry,” he rasped. “I know it’s sudden, and we can wait until you are ready. But you’ve been damn near impossible to track down, and I’m afraid if I let you go for a second without asking you’ll just vanish into the air and I’ll never see you again.”

Harry smiled. “I don’t think I could stay away again. It was getting more difficult by the day.”

Severus nodded. “And?”

Harry looked confused for a moment, and then laughed. “Yes, of course I’ll marry you.” His eyes twinkled brightly, and he burst into a fit of giggles.

“What’s so funny?” Severus asked. “I assure you I am quite serious in my request.”

Harry shook his head, still chuckling. “It’s just funny, you know? After all this, all that we’ve been through, all this time? You and I getting married? It’s just funny, isn’t it?”

Severus felt a small smile tugging at his cheeks; Harry’s grin was contagious. He wasn’t quite sure he’d call the whole thing “funny.” More like confusing and painful and aggravating and thrilling and exciting and …

And after all that, he was going to marry Harry Potter, the one person who had succeeded in driving him utterly mad from the age eleven years old and most likely would have continued leading him on this wild goose chase had Harry not dropped his wand at the ball. And Severus was excited about it.

“Yes,” he said, and leaned down to kiss Harry once more. “It is rather funny.”

CHAPTER SIX: AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER

“I think that’s it,” Harry called out as he dropped the final box in their bedroom and wiped the sweat from his brow. They had spent most of the morning moving Severus’s things into Harry’s cottage. They had ultimately decided living here made more sense than trying to persuade Dumbledore to expand Severus’s rooms enough to accommodate Harry’s menagerie. Besides which, the cottage was still as isolated as they could get, and they both appreciated having a quiet place to escape to, especially now that word had gotten out that Severus’s groom was none other than the Boy Who Actually Had Lived Yet Again.

Harry had been nervous about that bit of information becoming public. Saviour of the Wizarding world or not, he had hidden away while they had mourned him, and his scars were rather off-putting. Even a warm but emotional reunion with Ron and Hermione hadn’t assuaged his fears. But to his surprise, the news spawned countless spontaneous celebrations in the streets, near endless requests for interviews, and literally thousands of letters wishing him and Severus well. What’s more, it had been nearly four months since the announcement, and the excitement hadn’t tapered off in the slightest. Their upcoming nuptials were being referred to as the wedding of the century, and with Dumbledore as their self-appointed wedding planner, Harry didn’t doubt it would be.

Severus entered the room with two glasses of water. “It went quicker than I expected,” he said, handing Harry one of them.

“I told you the pets wouldn’t get in the way. I’ve trained them well,” Harry said with a grin. He held his glass up to Severus’s. “Cheers.”

Severus tapped Harry’s glass with his own. “That was only part of it, as you well know,” Severus said after he took a long swallow. “My new wand made all steps of this move significantly easier.”

Harry felt his face flush. He had finally given Severus his new wand last night to celebrate moving in together. The look on Severus’s face had been enough to let Harry know how much he appreciated the time and effort that went into creating it. But hearing that it also worked well was a huge boost to Harry’s ego. It was silly, but it meant a lot to him that Severus respected his work.

“I’m sure it didn’t add all that much,” Harry said modestly.

“The spells flew from my wand with momentous ease,” Severus said firmly. “They required little thought or effort of my own. I imagine it’s rather what Albus feels every time he casts a spell.”

Harry grinned and set down his glass so he could embrace Severus. “Thank you,” he said.

He felt Severus put down his own drink and then kiss the top of his head. “I should be the one thanking you,” he said.

Harry said nothing, and instead only leaned in closer to Severus, breathing in his rich scent. It was still so hard to believe how perfectly everything turned out–it was like something out of a damn fairy tale. But unlike any fairy tale, what he had was real. He gave Severus an extra hard squeeze to remind him of that.

Severus grunted softly. “I assure you I’m not going anywhere.”

Harry laughed and leaned up to kiss Severus on the lips. “Just making sure.”

“Hmm.” Severus pulled back slightly and took Harry’s face in his hands. “You’re feeling rather warm,” he said with a frown. “I believe it’s time to reapply the salve.”

Harry was willing to bet that at least part of the reason his face was hot was due to moving boxes all day, but he wasn’t about to say that. Having Severus apply that salve was one of his favourite parts of the day. For one, each day it was applied, his burns and scars became far less noticeable, and his other painful maladies eased off as well. Harry had no doubt that, in time, he would be completely back to his old self.

But besides that, it felt damn good going on, especially when Severus was the one rubbing it all over his body.

He quickly set about removing his clothing as Severus went to retrieve the salve from the other room. Once he had stripped entirely naked, he flopped down onto the bed and waited.

Harry smiled at the sharp intake of breath that indicated Severus had returned. He knew that Severus loved him for him and not for what he looked like–after all, the first time they had made love Harry’s body was still completely covered in scars and burns. Even so, it thrilled him that he was able to get such a reaction from Severus.

“Beautiful,” Severus murmured, and approached the bed. Harry could hear him opening the jar. “I will never tire of seeing this.”

“Mmm,” Harry agreed happily. “Have I mentioned how glad I am the antidote ended up being a salve instead of a foul potion?”

“I’ve told you at least a dozen times it’s the most gentle method to reintroduce magic to your system so your body doesn’t go into shock,” Severus said without a trace of annoyance.

“Or you just wanted a good excuse to see me naked every day. It’s okay, I won’t spill your secrets.” Harry couldn’t help it. He knew he sounded silly, but being here with Severus in what was now their home made him deliriously happy.

“Hush,” Severus said, but he began to spread the salve around Harry’s shoulder blades and gently knead it in.

Harry sighed happily as Severus massaged his back. The salve felt brilliant, and left his body feeling warm and tingly. Of course, he supposed, part of that could be due to Severus, but Harry felt he could detect something more–a thin thread of magic vibrating just under his skin, reacting in a positive way instead of attacking him for the first time in years.

“The long scar on your back has almost faded entirely,” Severus said. His hands pressed deeper into Harry’s skin, moving lower until they were just over his bum. “I’d say it should be gone by the end of the week.”

“Brilliant,” Harry said. But that wasn’t the only thing that was brilliant. The smooth warmth of the salve combined with the way Severus was pressing and rubbing his back had led to an inevitable erection. He arched his bum up in the air hopefully.

“Not till the salve is completely applied,” Severus said, swatting it. “Lie back down at once.”

Harry obeyed, but he couldn’t resist grinding his prick against the sheets. He smirked at Severus’s gasp–he could play the indifferent potions master all he wanted, but he couldn’t hide his reactions from Harry.

Severus quickly worked his salve-slicked hands down Harry’s legs and then applied the same attention to his arms. “Turn over,” he finally said, his voice slightly hoarse.

Harry rolled over, delighting in finally freeing his aching prick. It laid flat against his belly, deep red in its need.

Severus was quite noticeably avoiding it.

“That feels nice,” Harry said as Severus began to smooth his palms in circles on his chest. He reached an arm up to pull him down for a gratifyingly searing kiss. “Come on, Severus. Don’t you think you could lose some of those clothes?”

“Not … done yet,” Severus managed to say. He dipped his fingers in the salve once more and massaged it into Harry’s thighs and legs.

“Pretty damn close,” Harry said. “Really just my arms and face left, and you could do that naked. You know you could. Give it up.”

Severus paused, and Harry nearly wanted to shout with victory. Each day they went through this ritual, Severus caved in sooner and sooner. It was Harry’s goal to one day have Severus not even bother with pretences and simply give the massage naked from the start. Harry estimated it would take one more week.

“Very well,” Severus said, and began to remove his clothes.

Harry took the opportunity to tend to his prick. From this angle, he had a perfect view of Severus’s bum. He sighed in appreciation. He still couldn’t believe he was lucky enough to have this man with him always.

“It’s rude to stare,” Severus said as he returned to the bed and straddled Harry’s hips. He dipped his fingers in the salve and began to rub Harry’s forearms down.

“Just admiring my future husband,” Harry said.

“Hmph.” Severus paused in his ministrations. His head was cocked to the side, as if he were studying something intently on Harry’s face.

“What is it?” Harry asked.

Severus didn’t say anything at first, but lightly traced the scar on Harry’s forehead. Harry closed his eyes as the salve made his sensitive skin tingle. He reached a hand up and clasped Severus’s. “What is it?” he repeated.

“I think it all just hit me,” Severus said softly. “For years I was convinced you were dead, and that I had lost any chance I had to explore that completely inopportune spark between us. And now here you are, alive and nearly well, and we’re sharing a bed in our home where we will live together as husbands, all because Albus insisted on throwing a ball.” He squeezed Harry’s hand gently. “You will never hear me repeat this again, but I’m glad you decided to be a typical Gryffindor and steal those potions from me. They may have been a curse, but they also kept you alive long enough for me to come to my senses and claim you for my own.”

“Me too,” Harry agreed. “But I swear, Severus, if you ever mention the headmaster in bed again …”

Severus laughed and leaned down once more to kiss Harry. Keening with pleasure, Harry wrapped his arms around Severus’s neck and pulled him down, eagerly rubbing their pricks together.

“More,” Harry gasped, tearing his mouth away from Severus’s. “Please.”

Severus nodded and reached for a container of lubricant in Harry’s bedside table. He had refused to use the salve on any personal areas, not sure how it would react on such sensitive parts. Harry hissed as Severus slowly began to work a finger into his hole.

“God, Severus,” Harry groaned. “I love you.”

Severus responded with another heart-stopping kiss. Harry barely even registered that Severus had added another finger and was twisting them in scissoring motions until he managed to hit Harry’s prostrate.

“Yes! Severus, now, please!”

“I’ve barely prepared you,” Severus protested, but Harry could see that he was rubbing lubricant on his own prick.

“Don’t care,” Harry insisted. “Want to feel it.”

And feel it he did. Severus sliding into him felt like he was welcoming home an old friend. With Severus moving inside of him, Harry felt complete. He never wanted to lose this.

They rocked together, their passion rising between them, the only sounds the slap of Severus’s balls against Harry’s bum and their own groans. Sometimes Harry enjoyed wringing the filthy expletives out of Severus’s mouth, and would spout his own to encourage him, but today he wanted to content himself with simply feeling Severus’s body against his. There was something so powerful in the knowledge that he was the one whom Severus wanted to be with, that he was the one who inspired Severus to such brilliant lovemaking, who brought him over the edge.

Yes, he thought as Severus pounded into him, the hastening of his breath indicating that his climax was near, being in love was a powerful emotion.

“Harry,” Severus gasped. “Wank yourself for me. Do it.”

Harry immediately obeyed, stroking his cock in time with Severus’s thrusts. “Not going to last,” he said.

“Good. Do it. Come for me, Harry.”

Harry climaxed with a shout, thick streams of come spurting onto Severus’s chest. A few thrusts later, Severus followed with his own release. Gasping, they remained entwined together.

A few moments later, Severus managed to rouse himself enough to get a damp flannel. “I’m afraid if I clean the sweat off of you now I may also remove the salve,” he said apologetically as he blotted Harry’s semen off his chest.

“You say that every time,” Harry said with a fond smile. “It’s fine. It just means we’ll have to have bath sex in a few hours.”

Severus chuckled and got back into bed with Harry and pulled the covers up around them. Harry snuggled up to him and nestled his head against his shoulder. It had been a long day and he could feel sleep threatening to overtake him.

“I love you,” Severus murmured.

Harry pressed his lips against Severus’s skin. He didn’t say those words very often, and he cherished each and every time he heard them. “I know,” he replied. “I love you too.”

Severus’s fingers absently combed through Harry’s hair. “And now what do we do?” Severus asked, his voice heavy with sleep. “Now that we are all settled in, blissfully in love?”

Harry let out a happy sigh and draped a leg over Severus’s. “I say we live happily ever after.”

-The End-


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