“I suppose that’s it, then.”
Harry, blinking in the sunlight outside the London solicitor’s office and trying to get his bearings after what felt like a long fall, nodded slowly. He stared up at the sky for a moment, almost amazed that it could be an ordinary, steely September day, clouds edged with rain, when he and Ginny had just got a divorce.
Ginny put an elbow into his ribs, making him grunt and look at her. She was grinning at him, holding out a hand. “No need to look like your Crup just died,” she said softly. “We both agreed to this, remember?”
“I do.” Harry gripped her fingers firmly, and felt a surge of emotions more like what he’d expected to feel, a combination of relief and regret. “And we’ll both be happier in the long run.”
“There’s that.” Ginny hesitated, studying him, then leaned in and brushed a quick kiss across his cheek. Harry patted the back of her head instead of trying to return the gesture. “Take care of yourself,” Ginny murmured as she pulled away.
Ginny gave him a firm nod, then turned and strode off. Harry watched her go for a moment. She walked with her head up and her shoulders straight, but also with a lightness in her step he hadn’t seen for a long time. This had been the right decision for them to make, he thought, in so many ways. They had grown apart, and though they had tried to maintain an interest in each other’s lives and come together again for the sake of the children, they both kept forgetting, caught up in their more exciting individual activities and relationships with friends. When Ginny had finally sat Harry down two months ago and had an honest conversation with him, Harry had to agree that divorce was really the best thing for both of them. At the moment, they were trying to pretend the sexual aspects of their lives didn’t exist; they didn’t want to touch each other, but neither were they interested in infidelity. And that wasn’t fair to either of them.
Harry had explained things to the boys—James was at Hogwarts for his third year and Al for his second—whilst Ginny took over the task for Lily, who would spend most of her time with her mother but be free to see her father. James had accepted the news easily, as he seemed to do with everything; Lily had shed a few noisy tears, then learned that her parents hadn’t divorced because of her and promptly seized the opportunity to try to get twice as many birthday gifts. Al, the sensitive and shy one even though his year in Slytherin had given him more confidence, had required more reassurance.
But all of that was in the past and Harry was—
Free? Not the right word. It represented his marriage as an unwelcome burden, and it hadn’t been, even as he had come to realize that he and Ginny were friends, nothing more.
I’m not a husband, now, he thought. It’s the only way to say it that’s strictly true. And he began wandering up the street, his hands in his robe pockets. He wasn’t expected at the Ministry today; he could use the time to think and make up his mind about how he felt.
Severus narrowed his eyes. The frame of bones and skin stretched on a network of silver strands in front of him looked correct, but there was a flaw somewhere in the design. Unlike his work with potions, the art he’d taken up after his near-escape from death in the war did not reveal wrong details he could pick out at once. He was still learning, even after eighteen years of practice, to see his creations as less than a complete whole.
He paced around the web, slowly. The silver strands were strung between two ivory poles; ivory was almost the only material that wouldn’t react with the complex spells Severus had to use to create the artificial bones and skin in the first place. An extra leg behind each pole supported the entire apparatus on the smooth wooden floor of Severus’s cottage.
Two more turns, and he stopped and raised his eyebrows. A wonder I did not see it before. The curvature of the spine at the top of the design, the place where it would expand into the neck and support for the skull, was entirely too weak. Severus reached out and carefully adjusted the direction of the bones, bending them back and forth several times, then pausing, then adjusting the outermost vertebra one more quarter-turn. There.
Satisfied that his commission for Mrs. Waverley’s broken back was nearly complete, Severus turned to the front of the cottage where his daily dose of antivenin was bubbling. He passed, along the way, numerous crates of metals, stones, and gems; racks across which gleaming furred or feathered or hairless hides were stretched; cages where live animals scrabbled in panic or dull curiosity; complete skeletons and smaller, free-standing studies of human anatomy; and several collapsed frames and easels that held the remnants of finished projects. His great horned owl, Daedalus, preened himself importantly near the one window; he never seemed inclined to go to sleep when the sun rose, but instead slept in odd snatches in odd corners of both space and time.
Severus gazed once into the cauldron of antivenin, snorted, and then picked up the glass stirring rod that lay on the nearest table and swirled it twice around the surface of the potion. The green liquid calmed, the bubbles that had been rising subsiding back into the depths. Severus nodded sharply and laid the stirring rod aside. Acceptable, though if he were truly as skilled as he’d always thought himself, he would have brewed the antivenin so that no instability existed at this late stage.
He only allowed admission of his own weaknesses in private, even now. He might be fifty-eight years old and compelled to swallow a dose of antivenin every single day to counter the lingering effects of Nagini’s poison in his veins, but that did not change the fact that no one else had the right to see into his soul.
Two people had once had that right. Both were dead.
Severus touched the side of his throat, as he did whenever thoughts of the past threatened to consume him, and fingered the new skin he had devised for himself to cover the scars of snake fangs. It flexed, wrinkled, felt, and smelled like ordinary skin. No one could have told the difference with a casual glance; Severus had challenged potential patrons who doubted his skills to examine his neck for themselves, and an extended investigation produced no ability to distinguish between the real and the artificial, either.
He had begun his labors of necessity; the last thing he had wanted when the Ministry finally pardoned him was to be disfigured. But the business had grown beyond that, until he was replacing entire limbs—something ordinary mediwizardry had never been able to do well; witness Alastor Moody—and repairing broken bones or wounds inflicted by Dark magic, which were much harder to heal with simple potions. It was not the work he had once envisioned himself doing.
On the other hand, which of your own visions of the future has ever turned out to be true? Albus struck closer than you managed.
So he had his life, isolated save for owl post, and an occasional fitting when he needed to look at a client’s wound in the workshop instead of in hospital or a private home. It had quietude, grace, beauty, the solitude he desired, and an occasional…more artistic…detail as well.
Severus turned to face the bedroom at the back of the cottage, wondering if this was a propitious moment for him to retreat and work on the Kestrel project. The antivenin would not be ready for another hour, he could do nothing with the backbone project for Mrs. Waverley until tomorrow—
And then an owl swooped in through the window, hooting urgently and making Daedalus turn his head and stare with offended dignity. Severus sighed, caught the bird on one heavily padded shoulder, and took the letter from the owl’s leg. His gaze went as a matter of habit to the signature; there were some people he refused to work for no matter what the inducement, since they might take the chance for revenge.
A moment later, emotions he had almost forgotten, among them hatred and choleric passion, slammed right back into his heart, inspired by the signature Harry Potter. The owl barely went fluttering in time, and the cauldron of antivenin didn’t survive the blast of the curse that followed. In instants the floor and walls were soaked with thick green liquid that stank of moss and toadstools.
Severus stood in silence for a short time, staring down at the ashes of the letter. Then he turned, slowly, methodically, and began gathering up the ingredients he would need to create a second batch of the antivenin. Though he had some stored for emergency uses, it worked best when it was fresh.
“How is he?”
Harry turned and smiled wearily up at Hermione. She was still clad in an Unspeakable’s hooded gray robe, but the hood hung back to show her face. She looked worried enough before he smiled; after he did that, she came up and hugged him tightly.
“Better than he could have been,” Harry said softly, staring at the Hogwarts hospital bed that held his eldest son. James was pale and sleeping, his face drawn tight with lines of pain. His hair looked as though he’d got into a spectacular fight. His left hand was curled limply on his stomach, but half-closed into a fist anyway, as if he’d fight his enemies off in his sleep.
His right hand—
Harry glanced away, swallowing queasily.
“I saw Hagrid,” Hermione said after a few moments in which they held each other and said nothing. Madam Pomfrey had vanished into the back of the hospital wing for more potions, hoping to find something that would heal James’s hand completely, and no other students, for a miracle, occupied any of the beds right now. Harry was grateful. It gave him the ability to break down without worrying what gossip might find its way into the papers tomorrow. Maybe the news of his and Ginny’s divorce would beat out even this, he thought tiredly. “He was practically in tears.”
“Well, he deserves to be,” Harry said bitterly. Later, he would feel sorry about yelling at Hagrid, but for now, his thirteen-year-old son was curled up in bed with a right hand like a limp and shriveled glove, all because Hagrid had given in to James’s excited demands to be allowed to touch an Ashling, the hybrid between a Runespoor and an Ashwinder Hagrid had created with his own experimental breeding. The Ashling had locked its fangs into the palm of James’s right hand and pumped in venom that burned up all the nerves, bones, and flesh from the inside out.
Hermione sounded exactly like she had twenty years ago when Harry suggested skiving off Herbology. Harry choked back a little sound—whether it would have been chuckle or sob, he never knew—and sighed. “I know, I know,” he said. “I’ll apologize to him tomorrow, Hermione. I just—it’s hard, right now.” He thought the sensation of a swooping plummet when he opened the letter from Hogwarts and recognized James’s name and the phrase regret to inform you your son has suffered an accident was still affecting him.
His children had had their share of falls, accidents, momentary perils, and illnesses since they’d been born, but none of them had ever been wounded this severely. Harry stared at James and had to grit his teeth against the wave of helplessness that came over him. He could fight Dark wizards and rogue werewolves and escaped lunatics, but how could he protect his son from this? At thirteen, James was crippled. Nothing Madam Pomfrey had tried had been able to counter the Ashling venom. The only mercy was that it had stopped spreading at James’s wrist.
Or, perhaps, not the only mercy. Madam Pomfrey had agreed to let James stay in the infirmary under her care, rather than going to St. Mungo’s, though a few of their best Healers had been brought to the school and sworn to secrecy. Harry did not want to imagine what would have happened if James had had to be moved into hospital and the press had been able to descend freely on them.
Hermione spoke his name, quietly, and Harry realized she had probably been trying to get his attention for some time. “Has Ginny been here?” she asked when he looked at her, his eyes aching around the rims.
Harry nodded. “Yeah,” he said softly. “She was here all night, and when I got here this morning she went home to get some sleep. And of course Lily needs her. She and I’ll alternate for a while, I suppose.” Arrangements like that could hardly hold his attention when James moaned a little and tossed his head back on the pillow. Harry took one arm away from his embrace of Hermione to reach out and touch his son’s forehead, just above the place where the lightning bolt scar might have rested if Voldemort’s curse had skipped a generation. James relaxed, but his left hand had clenched completely into a fist now.
“Have you tried contacting Professor Snape?” Hermione asked, in the same ginger tone with which Madam Pomfrey had suggested amputation.
“I did,” said Harry bitterly. God, I’m nearly forty, he’s nearly sixty, and still he can’t get over his old grudges. Or his new ones. Harry had shown some carefully edited memories to the Wizengamot and finally managed to persuade them that Snape had been acting on Dumbledore’s orders all along, but Snape might well feel that he’d rather have gone to Azkaban than owe his life and his freedom to Harry. Or his freedom, anyway; in reality, he had saved himself from Nagini’s bite with a potent antivenin. “No response to the first letter. The second one got a Howler that told me exactly where I could shove my Galleons. Woke James up, too, the bastard.”
Hermione bowed her head and was quiet for a few moments. Harry blinked, hard. He must have slept at some point last night, just because he didn’t feel like falling over today, but so far as his brain was concerned, this was an endless nightmare.
“Well,” said Hermione at last, “I have heard that Snape might agree to accept—other prices.”
Harry turned his head to look suspiciously at her. “There was a dramatic pause before other prices,” he said. “I heard you. What does that mean? If you think I can somehow persuade Snape to be interested in my soul, my flat, or my Auror career, think again.”
Hermione shook her head. “We’ve investigated Snape a few times, just to make sure he wasn’t using any Dark magic,” she said.
Harry snorted. “Or any artifacts the Department of Mysteries might like to have for itself.”
Hermione didn’t bother trying to deny the accusation. “We’ve learned that sometimes he accepts clients too poor to pay the rather exorbitant prices he demands,” she said. “Usually, he wants to experiment on them. Try out some new technique or new replacement limb on them that hasn’t been sufficiently tested yet and which there isn’t much demand for.”
“If you think I’m going to let him experiment on James—“
“I wasn’t thinking about that.” Hermione shivered a little, and her hand clamped hard on his arm. She flicked a glance at James, then looked quickly away. Harry doubted she would have suggested what she did next if she hadn’t known how desperate he was to save his son. “He might be open to experimenting on you, though, Harry.”
Harry paused, recalling the hatred in Snape’s eyes after the Pensieve incident in his fifth year, and then again when the Wizengamot had given him back his wand under Harry’s supervision. If Snape had grudges, why wouldn’t he want to settle them? Howlers and silence were so inadequate, compared to what he’d probably like to do.
And was there anything he wouldn’t do to save James? Harry couldn’t imagine it if there was.
“Yes,” said Harry. “I think I’ll ask him.” He pulled his arm gently from its resting place on Hermione’s waist. “And just to make sure he can’t tear up another letter, I’ll go in person. I hope he makes tea enough for two.”
Severus took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He had to calm down. It seemed as though, every time he settled back into the detached, serene state of mind he used to work on his best projects, some recollection of Potter’s inane requests would smash into that serenity like a stone into a pool and destroy everything.
But Potter was not here, and he hadn’t sent another letter for nearly twenty-four hours. Perhaps he had at last accepted that there were some things he was not meant to have, no matter how many worlds he saved.
Severus realized he had been overestimating Potter’s intelligence and good sense when someone knocked smartly on the door of the cottage. He knew who it was without looking. The intense revulsion that curled his tongue as effectively as the smell of cat piss told him.
He lifted his wand to cast a spell that would seal the door shut, but it opened before he could speak the first syllable, and Potter ducked in. He was bent as though to escape a flying curse. Severus snarled in spite of himself; at least Potter knew him that well.
Then Potter straightened up, and they looked at each other.
Severus was sure of what Potter saw: some old monster of his schooldays, tinged and softened, if at all, with the muddy hues of guilt. He himself saw what he had expected. Oh, Potter was taller than he had been, solider, with a bulk around his waist that told of a developing ring of fat. There were traces of gray, and even a strand of white, in his dark hair. But he still wore an expression of irritating hope mingled with self-righteousness. He had the right to take, and take, and take, that look said, until he had scraped everything good down to bare ashes.
Just because, once, he had volunteered to die, when that was obviously the right choice to make.
Choking on hatred of this man who had never known any ambiguity, Severus pointed his wand at Potter’s chest and said, “I will hear no talk of debts between us. You are still a child if you think your heroic reputation carries any weight with me. Therefore, there is no reason for you to remain here.”
Potter raised his eyebrows instead of his wand. Severus hated the gesture immediately. Is he so confident that he cannot suffer pain?
“I’m willing to pay the price,” Potter said quietly.
The tone calmed Severus, and reminded him that he did not need to lose his dignity in front of an enemy simply because he wished to assert himself. He lowered his wand enough to make it less of a threat whilst making it clear that he could raise it again at any time, and took a moment to calm his breathing. Potter brought so much of their shared past into the cottage with him, into a place where, for many years, Severus had succeeded in shutting the past out.
“For what?” he asked, running his gaze up and down Potter’s body and sneering. No doubt James Potter would have hoped for his son to become some paragon of manhood, some hearty and glorious homage to physicality and Gryffindor courage. But Potter was utterly ordinary. It was only the famous face that would have made anyone stop and turn to stare. “You seem to have all your limbs. Do you plan to commission something that you might someday need? I’m afraid that even I have never yet managed to create the functional mind which is your most pressing lack.”
Potter took a deep breath, and then said evenly, “It’s for my son. Not for me. One of Hagrid’s creatures bit his right hand, and none of the Healers who’ve looked at it can do anything to reverse the effects of the venom. It’s amputation or—or one of your creations.”
Severus felt a brief stirring of interest, which he quickly Vanished to the outer void of his mind. He would not become involved in this. But curiosity won out over hatred enough that he could ask, “My namesake?”
Potter shook his head. “My older boy. James.”
Severus didn’t need to speak. He let his disgust show in his eyes, and began to turn away. Of course, Potter stood there, shifting from foot to foot, instead of taking the hint and getting out, so Severus had to speak up after all. “Potter, not even if you presented me with a hundred thousand Galleons and two basilisk scales would I—“
“I’m offering to let you experiment on me.”
The words stopped Severus as ably as though the brat had just conjured one of Hogwarts’ walls in front of him. Severus stared at a cage that held a small winged rat and tried to control his breathing. He knew at once what he wanted to do to Potter; the image sprang fully-formed into his head, much the way the original Kestrel project had when he’d conceived of it three years ago.
Potter was willing to reduce himself to an animal. How that must bite and sting at his pride. And if his father could see his son doing that, how he would roll and writhe. Severus shivered in almost sensual pleasure as he pictured the look of revulsion on James Potter’s face, how he would plead with Potter to reconsider—
And what would Lily say about your experimenting on her son?
Severus Vanished that thought, too. One thing he had come to accept in the last few years was that Lily was dead, beyond recall. He might hold precious memories of her—handed back to him by the idiot behind him, who had no doubt thought he was doing Severus some great favor by returning his own property—but she would never breathe again, despite anything he might do to atone for causing her death.
Lily would have understood, he thought, no one better. Here was a parent offering to make a sacrifice for his child. How could she disapprove?
Severus turned back to face Potter at last. The man’s muscles were tight and coiled with waiting, and Severus toyed with the idea of keeping him balanced on that edge of agony, not knowing if his offer would be accepted or rejected, for a few moments longer. But in the end, he wanted to see how Potter would look when he realized what he had got himself into.
“I accept your offer,” Severus said, and Potter immediately bowed his head to hide his face. Coward, Severus thought idly. But then, Gryffindors always bore pain better than the threat of mere humiliation.
Harry bowed his head and took a deep breath, so that his relief wouldn’t blast him backwards and leave him a mere stain on Snape’s wall. Then he looked up. “What information will you need about the injury?” he asked. It cut him to refer to James’s hand in such impersonal terms, but mentioning his son’s name—his father’s name—in front of Snape right now didn’t seem like the best idea.
Snape shook his head. His eyes had gone intent in a way that Harry supposed should worry him. But with the image of James so still and pale in his head, he simply didn’t have any room for extra concern. Snape had agreed. That was all that mattered.
“This way,” Snape murmured, and led the way towards the back of the cottage. Harry followed, ducking under grotesqueries that he thought would have made Dumbledore proud. He paused at one point, caught by a spluttering bowl of the clearest purple liquid he’d ever seen, but a growl from Snape hastened him along.
Harry edged carefully into a small, dingy room—a drying rack occupied half the doorframe—and then stopped, staring. Snape had no doubt planned the effect, since the one window was unshuttered to let dim rays of sunlight fall through the dusty glass and directly onto the thing in the center of the room. The man himself stood off to the side, his arms folded, smiling in a way that Harry thought he’d probably smiled at his victims in the days when he’d been a sincere Death Eater.
But he couldn’t worry about that, either. The thing he stared at had taken the place in the center of his mind that worry over James held just a moment ago.
It was an enormous stretch of gleaming blue canvas, tinted the exact color of the sky on a fine summer’s day; Harry thought he could see even the outlines of clouds. In the center shone a pair of jointed wings, narrow in the middle but pointed and expanding rapidly as they traveled outwards, until their plumed tips brushed the walls beyond the edges of the canvas. The feathers were gray near the ends, with a series of paler gray markings along the sides that looked almost unnatural. Closer to the middle, the markings turned into black spots on a white background, intermixed blotches like drops of paint.
“They are even more magnificent from the back,” Snape said, his voice soft, caressing. Harry shot him a startled glance, and then realized he was looking at the wings. That makes sense. God knows I’ll never attract that tone from him. “Brown, evolving into a color almost ochre in the middle.”
It took Harry several attempts to find his voice. “What kind of bird are they meant to resemble?” And then he coughed, because he sounded awed, and he didn’t want to.
Snape snapped his gaze towards Harry. “A kestrel,” he said. “An adult male common kestrel, specifically. I created a pair of wings meant to be worn by an adult male human. So far, I have not found a willing test subject.”
Harry could see why. The wings were beautiful, but why would anyone who simply wanted to renew a lost limb or replace burned skin—Snape’s two more frequent sources of business, he’d heard—want to wear something so alien? And from the way Snape said “test subject,” the wings would induce changes in a human body beyond the obvious.
Harry cleared his throat. “You want me to wear them.”
Snape curled his lip. “You are an adult male human,” he said. “You offered yourself for an experiment, and I led you here. Yes, Potter, that is the natural conclusion to come to. Well done.”
I can’t let him get to me. This is for James. Harry nodded shortly, once. “How do they fit on? Do you bond them to the back of your test subject?” No, Harry, face this. If you’d only had the courage to tell the truth to Ginny long since, you might have made her and yourself happy earlier. “To my back?”
Snape shook his head and gestured with his wand at the center of the wings. Harry peered at it, and saw what the colors and the size of the apparatus had distracted him from noticing earlier. There was a hooked steel harness that consisted of a collar and a pair of straps leading back into the wings.
“I will attach it to your neck,” said Snape. “The harness and the collar sink beneath the skin, and there is no sign of their having existed—fortunately for you, or otherwise someone might easily catch at them and yank them away.”
“If they sink beneath the skin,” Harry said, turning back to stare at Snape, “how are they meant to come off?”
Snape’s lip curled a little more, but this time it was in the direction of a smile. “They’re not.”
Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath. So this would last the rest of his life, and probably have unknown magical effects on his body, not to mention the physical differences having a pair of wings would induce. Could he do this?
What a stupid question.
“All right,” he said, opening his eyes. “Are the wings attached only by the harness?”
Snape inclined his head. “At first,” he said, his voice warm as he reached out to touch the flight primaries of the nearest wing. “Then they root themselves.”
“Shall I explain the etymology of both those words, Potter?”
“I don’t know,” Harry said through gritted teeth, “how they would root themselves. They’re wings, not plants.”
Snape simply looked bored, as though Harry’s objection had no logic to it. “They extend fibers, or tendrils if you will,” he said. “They sink into your skin, tying the wings on these curves.” He tapped the edges of the enormous curves that began to bulge just past the harness straps. “The fibers root themselves in your bones and your lungs. Most of the time, they simply coexist with your magical core. When you are ready for flight, they will lighten your bones and add extra air sacs to your lungs.”
Harry would have dropped his wand if he’d been holding it. “Flight,” he said dazedly.
“It is fortunate,” Snape said, not quite under his breath, “that the Kestrel project depends on none of the functions normally assumed to be present inside the skull.”
Harry hissed under his breath, but said only, “I didn’t assume you would want whoever wore these to fly. Just to wear them.” He looked at the wings again, tried to imagine what it would be like to carry them on his back and perhaps feel the tendrils Snape talked about probing into his lungs, and then shook his head. Oh, he’d had his dreams of flying as a child, the way everyone did, but since he’d come into the wizarding world, those had become dreams of flight on a broomstick. In some ways, magic narrowed his vision of the possible.
“If you are unwilling, Potter,” Snape said, so close to Harry’s ear that he started, “say so now. Of course, then you and your son must go a-begging.”
Harry set his jaw, determined not to show anything, fear or nervousness or irritation. “It’s fine,” he said. “Tell me what I have to do to put them on.”
Severus felt a stab of disappointment go in under his ribs like a dagger. He had hoped that whoever wore the Kestrel wings would regard them with the same wonder and delight he did, not look on them as a chore. But of course Potter was only doing this for the sake of a James Potter, the same way Lily had turned away from Severus for the sake of one.
I will never escape that name, that face, Severus thought. He had seen no photographs of Potter’s elder son—a small story had run in the Prophet about the younger when he was unexpectedly Sorted into Slytherin—but he knew without asking that he would carry his grandfather’s features.
Seeing the wings come to life at last would have to be enough, without sharing the emotions he had wanted to go with them. Severus laid his hand on the front of Potter’s throat. The shiver that coursed through the younger man put him in a slightly better mood. He knows that I can snap his neck even now.
“Remove your robes and shirt,” Severus murmured. “The harness must touch only your bare skin at first. Cloth would interfere with the development of the magic in ways you do not wish to contemplate.”
Potter stood rigid for a moment, as if he would defy Severus’s orders for the mere sake of disobedience. Then he grumbled under his breath and began disrobing. Severus moved around him and towards the canvas, waving his wand to levitate the Kestrel wings gently from their frame. The feathers shifted and shivered as they moved. Severus rotated them slowly so that Potter might see the brown and ochre colors on the back of the wings, if he cared to glance up from the apparently absorbing task of undoing his robe buttons.
He did not. Severus told himself it did not matter, not when he could admire the results of his own artistry.
At last Potter said, not quite snapping, “I’m ready.”
Severus guided the wings behind him, using the pretense of being entirely focused on their movement to sneak a glance at Potter’s bared torso. He was pleased to see he’d been right about his thickening middle, but displeased at the amount of scars—from claws and curses and blades—scattered along the softly curving muscles and between the brown nipples, peaked slightly from the cold. James Potter would have been pleased with his son after all. Even after sixteen years in the Aurors, Potter felt the tiresome need to play hero.
The collar snapped into place around Potter’s neck, the wings falling behind it to rest on his back. Potter’s throat bobbed as he struggled to breathe, and he raised a hand.
“Do not,” Severus said, not loudly, but with enough bite in his voice to make Potter freeze just short of touching the harness. “Contact with even the skin of your palm might prejudice the magic unduly.” He stepped behind Potter and reached for the straps of the harness, circling them under Potter’s arms and binding them to his shoulder blades. The warm, sweaty skin under his fingers broke out in goosebumps when he touched it. At least Potter looked fit from the back; Severus would have hated to see the Kestrel project wasted on an inferior physical specimen.
He kept his hand on the skin just under the curve of one wing, watching. Potter tensed and said, “Why can you touch the harness and the collar, but I can’t?”
“It’s getting used to the back of your body, and did not need your hand interfering,” Severus said. He could feel the gathering magic, and now small trails of bright black and white sparks raced along the edges of the harness. “Anyone else can touch it freely after it is fastened to you and—ah.”
Potter jumped as the collar and harness suddenly vanished. For a moment, Severus saw the shadows of them under the skin, and then nothing. He nodded, pleased.
Of course, a moment later he had to duck Potter’s elbow as he reached frantically up and felt around the sides of his neck and the backs of his shoulders. When he encountered the wings, his touch slowed and softened, but he was still groping as if he hadn’t listened to a word Severus said about the way the wings would be fastened to him.
Severus rolled his eyes. “For life, Potter,” he said. “In time you will be able to move the wings, but not immediately.” He spoke carefully, to control his sudden excitement. “Now. Turn about and let me look at you.”
Potter locked his legs. Apparently he had to consider each simple request and decide if it was worth answering. In the end, though, he turned to face Severus, his head tilted back and his green eyes as nervous and angry as Lily’s before a Transfiguration exam.
Severus looked at Harry Potter, who by some strange twist of luck had become the bearer of the project he had spent more than three years perfecting.
And all resemblance to James Potter in the living man was forever destroyed for him in that moment.
Harry Potter clad in the wings of a kestrel was a stranger, a wild creature wandered in from the night to briefly warm itself by the fire. His tangled hair was not his father’s artistically disarrayed mess anymore, but looked like ruffled feathers to Severus’s eyes. His face had to be considered in the midst of a fan of primaries, pinfeathers, plumes, instead of through the mists of hateful memory.
And his eyes, for the first time since Severus had nearly died twenty years ago, were Lily’s.
Severus became aware that he was staring when Potter folded his arms and looked away, a florid blush coloring his cheeks. His voice tried to be sharp, but didn’t manage it. “If I’m that ugly, you could just say it, you know, instead of staring at me.”
Severus was glad, then, that he was not in the habit of speaking soft words. It allowed him to put away what he would have liked to say, sneer, and murmur, “I am incapable of finding the work of my own hands ugly, Potter. Your physique leaves something to be desired as always.”
Potter snapped him a glare, said, “Some of the work of your hands is hideous,” and turned to fetch his clothes. But Severus didn’t miss the way his right hand crept up to touch the nearest edge of the wings.
Severus smirked, and didn’t bother to hide it when Potter abruptly whirled around and demanded, “How am I supposed to wear clothes with these things?”
“Your problem, Potter,” Severus said, and slid past him whilst Potter was still spluttering, no doubt expecting Severus to take care of his problems as he had always done. So some of their relationship remained. Severus was glad; any care he would take in the future around Potter would be for the wings and not the man wearing them.
“Leave a summary of the details of your son’s injury on the table,” he told Potter over his shoulder. “I will visit him at Hogwarts in three days’ time.”
After much struggling and swearing, at Snape and himself and the wings that swirled around him like a heavy cloak, Harry finally managed to Transfigure his shirt so that it would cover his chest and most of his lower back, with the upper part left bare beneath the wings. The robes were a total loss, and he folded them over his arm.
Then he tried to take several fast steps out of the bedroom to find quill and parchment, and encountered another problem.
The wings had changed his center of balance. Now he had to keep his head cocked and his shoulders slightly strained back or lifted, both to stop the wings from trailing on the floor and to make them lie comfortably along his sides. The extra weight beneath his shoulders functioned like a pack, causing him to haul against it. And the large feathers on the very edges created a constant and irritating brushing against his calves, just light enough to tickle through the cloth of his trousers.
His life had changed so much, in the space of a few minutes—and Harry already had the feeling he would have more trouble dealing with the small things like this than with the larger ones like explaining to his superiors why he couldn’t wear regulation robes anymore.
And James’s life changed in a moment, too. If he can bear that, young as he is and without your resources, you can certainly bear this.
Harry forced himself to relax. He could soldier through this just as he had through the times when he’d feared for his children’s lives, the three years of Auror training, and the week before he’d married Ginny, when he’d been so nervous that he’d vomited constantly. Snape was going to create a hand for James, and he had no end of satisfied customers. That was the important thing.
Awkwardly, he waded into the middle of the main room of the cottage and found a sheet of parchment, an inkwell, and a quill on a small table. Harry shot a glance at Snape, about to thank him for the kindness, and found him engaged in brewing a potion, as though nothing had happened.
He probably just put them here so I’d get out of his house faster, Harry thought, and bent down to write. The trailing edge of his right wing promptly knocked the inkwell over. Swearing, Harry caught it with his left hand just in time and dragged it out of the shadow of danger.
Snape apparently never looked around.
Harry described everything he could remember about James’s injury, from the burned-out leather glove his hand had become after the bite to the details of breeding Ashwinders and Runespoors Hagrid had tearfully confessed to him a few nights ago. When he reached the end of a page and a half of parchment, he stared blankly for a moment, trying to remember anything more, then sighed and stepped away.
In the doorframe, he did pause to ask Snape, “The wings will still let me Apparate?”
“At the moment, they’re only accessories, Potter, no more alive than clothing,” Snape said in an excessively bored tone, not bothering to look up from his cauldron of thick green mush. He’s inventing some replacement for peas, I’ll bet, Harry thought, wrinkling his nose. All the color and stench and none of the nutrition. “You can take them with you just as you can take anything you’re holding when you Apparate or use a Portkey.” He measured a small amount of white powder into a spoon and dumped it into the potion. “I would not recommend Flooing with them, however, before or after they bond with your body and come to life. Singed feathers can be rather unpleasant, and you probably won’t be able to fit into most fireplaces anyway.”
Harry nodded curtly and let the door bounce shut behind him. Childish, maybe, but it was only too clear that Snape’s personality, rather like his appearance—save for the acquisition of an iron-gray mane of hair in place of a black—had not changed at all.
Severus raised an eyebrow as he moved through Hogwarts on his way to the infirmary, the preliminary potion he had created to assuage the pain of James Potter’s injury swinging lightly in his hand. He was noticing many things about the school he had forgotten or never known. The sliding staircases were a waste of time, and what did the ghosts and most of the portraits contribute to actual academic excellence? Letting a ghost teach a class had proved to be a failure. Altogether, Hogwarts was too individual, composted of ragged pieces added together without a care for the whole. Students could learn about a Founder’s life, perhaps, or how many vagaries existed in the heart of a teenage Slytherin; there was considerably less chance that they would be able to cast a proper Shield Charm when they left school.
He had reached the seventh floor and the hospital wing at last, however, and paused to assess the situation from the door. A dark-haired boy sat up in a bed, staring gloomily at the door to Madam Pomfrey’s storeroom. He was playing aimlessly with the edge of his blanket, ignoring the large stack of books that sat on the table beside the bed.
Of course. Probably dreaming of Quidditch, or pranks with his friends.
Severus cleared his throat and moved forwards. “James Potter?” he said.
The boy started and turned to face him. Severus grimaced. Yes, indeed, his old enemy reborn. Perhaps the boy’s eyes were a deeper shade of brown than the Marauder’s, and his hair had a glint of red, but otherwise there was nothing to choose between the older and the younger. The Potters continued on and on, stamping an image of father and son through the generations, whilst Severus’s family—in every sense of the word—would end with him.
Again, that was something he thought he had made peace with long ago. But the nearness of the boy stirred enough violence in him to close his throat. He was glad the boy said, “Who’re you?” only after a few moments of staring, and gave him the time to respond.
“Severus Snape, artificial limb master,” he said, and watched in satisfaction as the boy leaned into the pillows. The curious nature of his profession could frighten dunderheads even though he no longer had the power to assign detentions and condemn children to two hours full of fear. It was one reason Severus had chosen this path.
“My dad told me you might be here,” said James, and picked up his right hand with his left. “Here to see about this, then?”
The fear does not last long enough, of course, when confronting a Potter, Severus thought in irritation, and moved closer. The hand appeared almost exactly as Potter had told him it would (those years of writing Auror reports must have done something for his descriptive skills): withered and limp, the fingers hollow, a hand only by courtesy. The skin itself had turned an ashy gray. That was a consequence Severus had predicted given what he knew of Ashwinders and Runespoors, and it gave him confidence that he could solve the boy’s problem quickly.
“So why’d you give up potions?” the brat asked, drawing Severus’s attention briefly back to his face. “I mean, Dad told me how good you were at them, and even Mum mentioned it sometimes.”
Severus shook his head, pitying the child’s teachers. This Potter son sounded like Draco Malfoy come again. “It does not matter,” he said, sitting on the chair beside the bed and holding out the potion to the boy. “This is a diagnosis potion. It will tell me the inner damage to the hand that I will have to repair.”
“I don’t want to drink it until Dad comes back,” said the boy, folding his left hand over his right and staring at the potion as if it held the snake that had bitten him. “He says I’m not s’posed to drink things like that unless he’s here.”
“Your father is present?” Severus looked around the hospital wing. He had hoped to avoid an encounter with the senior Potter, despite some curiosity to see how the wings were settling in. They had not yet established a method of curt visits and owl post that would allow Severus to feel comfortable in any interaction. “But he is not here.”
He turned back to see James regarding him as Severus had once been used to regard Neville Longbottom. “He’s going to the loo,” James said. His voice implied, You know, like normal people.
“Professor Snape, sir. Good to see you.”
And there was Potter. Severus turned around, thinking he was prepared for the impact, and found himself staring all over again. The wings were half-spread around Potter now, fanning lightly as he strode towards Severus with his hand out. One trailing edge nearly snared a bed; Potter lifted it out of the way with smooth grace.
Appalled, curious, wondering, Severus blurted before he could stop himself, “You shouldn’t have gained that much control of them yet.”
Potter halted, eyebrows raised, then glanced over his shoulders. The wings lifted and lowered, languid as weeds underwater, and Potter shook his head. “I don’t control them completely yet,” he said. “They don’t always go where I want them to, for one thing. But I can do this.” And he spread the wings to their fullest extent.
Severus bit his tongue to keep from exclaiming as he watched the feathers extend almost to the walls. Of course he knew their measurements better than anyone else in the world, having constructed them as well as constructed the wood-and-canvas frame to hold them, but he had not accounted for the new angles and proportions they would take on when attached to a human body.
That was the only reason he was so startled, he reassured himself, ignoring the second pulse of emotion that seemed to beat beneath his heart. Once again, Potter looked wild and odd, a magical creature Severus was not familiar enough with to classify as a set of useful ingredients. And the shine in his eyes said that perhaps Severus did not want to classify him that way.
Which was, of course, ridiculous.
Severus cleared his throat and said, “Can you close them?”
Potter nodded and pulled the wings shut, then cursed softly as the left one stopped halfway in and dangled awkwardly in the air like a rag. After a bit of wrestling with the edge of the primaries, he managed to make it rest against his shoulder blade. By that time, Severus had overcome the sense of upsetting strangeness. He could smirk and nod from his potion to the boy in the bed. “Shall I feed him my diagnosis potion, then?”
“You can take this one, James,” Potter said, and walked a little closer, tripping on the edge of the right wing, which had suddenly decided to dangle beneath his foot. Severus wrinkled his nose and hoped the young fool wouldn’t actually break the wings before Severus had a chance to watch them work effectively. “I trust Professor Snape.” He put a hand on his son’s shoulder and smiled down at him.
And Severus was forced, once again, to see his enemy alive; this was exactly the way James Potter would have looked when comforting his son, he knew, in the year and a half he’d had before the Dark Lord came hunting him. And that thought stirred up Severus’s old guilt along with everything else, meaning his hands almost shook when he held the vial of diagnosis potion across the bed again. Potter shot him a quizzical look, which made it worse. How could James Potter’s grown brat, father of yet another James Potter, a static image reproducing itself without end, ever understand the way he was feeling?
The boy still eyed the potion dubiously, but drank it off in a long swallow. Almost at once red dots of light began moving about beneath the surface of his withered right hand, causing him to shoot an anxious glance at his father. Potter smiled and patted the boy’s shoulder again.
“That’s all right,” he said. “That’s normal.” But his left wing ruffled a little, anxiously, as he glanced over at Severus.
Severus nodded curtly and then bent over the skin of the hand, forcing his mind to shut out the distracting collision of the past and the future and focus only on the immediate problem.
Harry had never watched Snape at work before. Of course, most of the times he’d seen him, Snape had been stalking around a classroom barking orders, or taking points from Gryffindor, or participating in a demonstration of hexes and curses in Defense Against the Dark Arts. As entertaining in some ways as the hexes and curses had been, they weren’t the result of Snape’s passion, and he had to constantly break his mood of concentration in order to snap at someone who had displeased him.
Here, he didn’t. Harry stood as still as a pool of clear water and squeezed James’s shoulder whenever his son stirred or took a heavy breath. And Snape bent over his son’s hand and showed them the work of a master.
His eyes moved tirelessly, tracking each flash of scarlet light as it appeared beneath the leather of James’s hand, reading a pattern they obviously spelled out which was utterly invisible to Harry. His right hand acted independently of his eyes, writing on a piece of parchment he’d dug out of his pouch, scribbling down odd notations that Harry didn’t understand, either. Now and then he spoke under his breath, an incantation that sped the quill up or made it shine anew with ink. Those spells he performed wandlessly.
Harry shivered a little. Strangely, now was the moment he first began to appreciate what a formidable opponent Snape must have made in battle all those years ago, and what kind of foolishness he’d performed by trying to battle him on the night he’d killed Dumbledore. Snape possessed the ability to shut out the world and look only at what interested him. What would happen if he’d lost patience and decided to destroy Harry?
What would happen if he wanted to do something else to you?
Harry almost stepped back from the bed; only James’s steady focus on his face kept him from doing so. He had to make a little shrugging motion to conceal a shiver, which of course upset the wings and made them flop about, and then Harry had to try frantically to control them in case the movement made Snape lose his concentration. He could feel the heat of a mounting blush climbing his face, though Snape never once looked up from his staring and his transcribing.
“It hurts, Dad,” James whispered breathlessly.
That was just the hook Harry needed to pull himself out of his own troubles. He immediately stepped closer to the bed again and frowned at Snape. “In your hand?” he asked quietly. “Or in your throat?” Perhaps Snape would have put some kind of acid or harmful ingredient in the potion after all. Harry had said he trusted him, but could he really trust Snape to have got over his hatred of the Potters? This was Harry’s son, after all, with James’s name and a good part of his looks.
“The—the lights,” said James. “They’re bringing sensation back. I couldn’t feel my hand at all, and now I can.” He sounded as though someone had smacked him in the face with a wand.
Harry took a deep breath. The potion must be doing something right, if it could restore feeling of some kind to James’s hand. “Tell me if it gets really bad, all right?” he whispered, and watched Snape again, barely waiting for his son’s nod.
The red dots had clustered thickly in the middle of James’s hand, forming a coruscating pattern like the Northern Lights shining under his skin. Snape was scribbling furiously on his parchment, head swinging back and forth like an angry bear’s. And still he never seemed to lose his place or doubt for a moment what he ought to do. Maybe he should be doubtful, but Harry found this confidence reassuring.
James let out a quiet whimper or two, but never said it was unbearable, so Harry never moved his hand from his son’s shoulder and confronted Snape. The odd tableau went on and on, with no perceptible change except the continual brightening of the red lights. Harry felt his muscles tense and coil, the hair on the back of his neck rising. James began biting his lip and leaning his head heavily on his father’s shoulder. Snape alone never moved, never lost his fierce concentration. On and on and on the quill moved, whilst the wandless spells kept Snape from having to reach for ink and the eyes flickered.
Harry was nearly ready to scream—would have been, if Snape hadn’t been so obviously in control—by the time the red lights vanished in one sharp blaze and Snape sat back, nodding. “I can repair the damage the Ashling has done,” he announced. “I will create a new hand for the boy.” He managed to look neither at Harry nor at James as he spoke, but somewhere at the pillows in the middle of them. “But it will take time, and interviews.”
“Interviews?” demanded James, sounding suspicious. Perhaps he thought Snape would try to trick the truth about every prank and embarrassing childhood nightmare out of him.
“I will need to write to your father,” said Snape, giving that word such a weight of coldness that Harry nearly recoiled, “about your activities, your constitution, your resistance to healing potions, your magical vulnerabilities, and much else before I make the final decision.” He rose to his feet with a sharp snap of his robes and spent a moment looking at Harry with an expression Harry couldn’t read. Then he said, “Potter, you will accompany me to the doors of Hogwarts.”
James gave Harry a pleading look. Harry squeezed his son’s shoulder one more time, murmured, “Al will be out of Potions any minute now, and he said he’d come visit you. Besides, I won’t be long,” and then hurried after Snape, tilting back and forth now and then to balance the dangling wings. They would half-spread and then trail slyly along the floor when he wasn’t looking.
Despite his demand, Snape said nothing until they were on the second floor, far from the hospital wing and almost out of the castle. Harry had worked himself into a frenzy by then imagining what Snape might have wanted to say to him that he couldn’t say in front of James, and had to clench his jaw to keep from shouting. But, no, he would show Snape that he’d matured, and that he cared about his son more than about their old animosity. He forced himself to walk on in calm silence.
Snape turned towards him suddenly, and Harry jerked to a stop, teetering on the balls of his feet and perilously close to collapsing into Snape. The other man looked down at him with a sneer, and Harry wondered again if his trust was misplaced. Snape had changed so little, really, and he seemed to take no account at all of the changes Harry himself had made. Perhaps he had decided James deserved to suffer for looking like his grandfather. Perhaps he was envisioning revenge by feeding a subtle poison to James, and then being realistically able to claim that the venom from the Ashling had been too much for him to cure. Perhaps—
“I will require you to visit my home often,” Snape said. “Every third day, at least. And you will speak with me not only about your son, but about how you get on with the wings.” He dropped his voice, as though someone might be lurking around the corner to steal his precious kestrel design. “I require every detail, do you understand me, Potter? The least event may have significant consequences for the bonding of the wings to a human body, and I do not trust you to recognize them.”
Blunt as always, Harry thought, and wondered why he felt an obscure hurt. He must have wanted Snape to acknowledge that he’d changed more than he realized.
“Understood,” he said. “But why couldn’t you say that in front of James?”
He received an incredulous look, Snape’s nostrils flaring and his pupils dilating. “Would you condemn the boy to knowing his father paid such a price for him?” Snape asked curtly. “Would you yourself have wanted someone to remind you daily of how your parents died to save your life?”
Harry laughed before he could stop himself. Snape tilted his head to the side like an owl, examining Harry with one oddly brilliant eye.
“If you think I don’t live like that already,” Harry said, “if you think I don’t find that reminder in the eyes of every person who looks at me or writes an article on the Boy-Who-Lived or sends me a letter about the power of ‘mother’s love,’ then you’re blind.”
He turned and walked away, shoulders stiff with disgust and anger and a residual guilt that he hadn’t thought of the effect the wings might have on James. He’d owl Snape later to set a time for him to visit. At the moment, he couldn’t stand to be near him.
Severus began work on the artificial hand the next day.
The diagnosis potion had told him that the boy had nothing left in his hand that might regenerate or make the healing easier. Bones, tendons, veins, muscle—all had been sucked out by the magical fire, and less than ashes was left. Even if it had been possible to make it solid and strong again, he would never have done magic with it, and would have had to start all over in learning the wand with his left hand.
Severus would hardly admit it aloud, but he was intrigued by the challenge. When he replaced the hand on James’s wrist, he would have to counteract the possible lingering effects of the poison; it seemed that some of the venom had hardened into crystallized capsules in the bones of James’s wrist, and not even the amputation of the hand might remove all of them. They would certainly spread into Severus’s magical creation if they had the chance.
So he began to make what would not only be an instrument, capable of grasping and using a wand and writing like a normal hand, but also a weapon, capable of defending its owner’s body from re-infection. He sat down with his work at dawn and didn’t rise from his seat until well after midnight, when his body had begun to scream for food, water, sleep, and the relief of his bladder.
He used stretches of artificial human skin as the beginning, even though they would form the outer shell of the hand. He wrapped them first around articulations of bone, then frames of ivory, then pseudo-wands of ebony, looking for the material that would best resonate with the magic in the skin. It was none of those, in the end, but a set of delicate-looking reeds, which Severus had hollowed out and filled with a mixture of water and mud, drawing on practices of ancient Egyptian magic first worked by the Nile.
Within the reeds, he needed something that would sustain the shape of the hand, render it able to perform delicate work, and rest heavily against the wrist to chase the remaining venom away. His eyes fixed on several vials on his table, then moved on restlessly from item to item—bits of fur, shards of obsidian, pebbles picked up on roadside walks, gems ordered from lapidaries all over the world, scrapings of horn and nail and tusk and tooth. Severus let his gaze wander. He recognized this mood in himself, and he knew he would find what he needed when he needed it.
At last his hand reached out, moving slowly and with many pauses, and scooped up a series of small quartz pebbles, then the shavings from a unicorn horn, then an unusually powerful mortar and pestle. Severus used the mortar and pestle to crush the other two ingredients together until he had a glittering dust that flowed over his fingers like cool sand. He let a few flakes of it rest on the reeds, considering the effect by holding the reeds up to the light and shaking them. He nodded. The unicorn horn would purify the venom, and the quartz pebbles would keep the purity flowing as they kept reflections of light flowing in their natural form.
But he would need yet another binding, to tie around the dust and keep it in place; the absolute outer rim of skin would not be enough.
His body interrupted him then, and he had to rise and attend to it with the problem humming in the back of his head, not at all solved. But it hummed productively. When Severus sat down at the next dawn, he reached confidently for a series of large, flat leaves often used in wizarding communities in South America to wrap fragile, intensely magical objects so they would not be harmed in transport.
He poked the white dust carefully in among the reeds, packing the space between the stalks with it, and then bound the leaves in place about the reeds with swallow-spit, and then nodded in satisfaction. Yes, this would work. Now he needed a potion that could strengthen the whole construction, so it wouldn’t fall apart the first time he moved it, or, worse, the first time it was fastened to the child’s wrist.
He started to stand and turn towards his cauldron.
And then his body, either on general principles or because he hadn’t taken his dose of antivenin for more than a day, rebelled. Severus found himself lying on his back, staring at the ceiling of his cottage. His first emotion was annoyance. The position reminded him far too much of the way that Potter had found him just after Nagini had bitten him.
It seems I am destined to die in this position, even if I managed to escape it the first time, he thought, and his eyes blurred, and beneath him he could feel the floor tilt as if it had suddenly decided his body should be in sympathy with the great orbits of the planet. Severus didn’t have time to snort at his own poeticizing before he slid into unconsciousness.
Harry hesitated as he raised a hand to knock on Snape’s door. He really should have owled ahead, shouldn’t he? What if he interrupted Snape in his work and then he refused to keep the bargain in a fit of pique? Or what if Harry somehow caused damage to the hand by the interruption?
But he had come all this way, and Ginny and Ron had asked several good questions about the magical hand that Harry had been dismayed to find himself unable to answer. He knocked.
No response. Harry narrowed his eyes and looked the door up and down. He couldn’t see any spells which might have identified him and made Snape decide not to answer, but that didn’t mean there weren’t some there, probably designed so as to make it impossible for anyone else to detect them.
Harry did not care to be put off, not when he had taken some trouble to be here at all; his superiors had been sympathetic about his asking for time off since James was injured, but he really had been supposed to work on the latest case with Ron today. He began circling the house, hoping to find a window not blocked by grime, wards, or a collection of the artifacts Snape was using in his research.
He found the window at the back of the cottage, which must look in on the room where the wings had been. They flexed and stretched on his back, apparently reminded. Harry folded them down irritably and walked about until he finally found the next window, tucked behind a flickering Notice-Me-Not Charm.
Harry used his wand to dissipate the traces of the charm, and then to clean a portion of the dusty glass so he could look inside.
He grunted with surprise, and his wings stood straight out from his body, when he saw a pair of black boots lying on the floor. He could just get a glimpse of leg and robe above that, and he doubted Snape would have deliberately let himself sprawl on the floor in such an untidy state (especially when the floor itself was in an untidy state, and he would have had to move some of his objects to find a place in which to fall comfortably).
The wings beat anxiously, causing Harry to cough and gasp as tendrils of magic raced through his body. He didn’t know what they were about to do, but he knew he didn’t want them to do it. He concentrated hard on folding and smoothing them down, then raised his wand and cast a Blasting Curse.
The weak window gave at the first touch of magic, and Harry winced as he listened to several vials and glass jars shattering. But the next moment, he was climbing through the window, ignoring the way his feathers snagged on the edges. He fell over a pile of wooden planks and scrambled back up again.
Snape lay still, his face turning blue, one hand helplessly curled palm-upwards next to him. Harry knelt, swearing. He would have given a great deal at the moment for Snape to open his eyes, scowl, and threaten to take points from Gryffindor for inappropriate language.
He cast a diagnosis spell of his own. Rough and crude compared to the potion Snape had used on James, it still worked to let Aurors pinpoint a wrongness in someone’s body—invaluable when they were dealing with criminals who liked to use time-delayed spells and long-lasting poisons.
A blue glow welled around Snape’s body, centered in the chest. Harry stared. There was a poison of some kind settled in Snape’s blood, but he didn’t recognize it, and he didn’t think any of the small stock of emergency antivenins he could Apparate from the cottage to fetch would help.
He slung his arms under Snape’s shoulders and started to drag him to his feet, intending to get him to St. Mungo’s, but just then Snape coughed and opened his eyes. He conveyed his contempt for Harry’s small efforts in a single scathing look, then whispered, “An emergency supply—of the antivenin. Closet behind the bed.”
Harry laid Snape on the floor again and turned to run in the direction of the bedroom. That wasn’t simple, given the amount of objects he had to hop over, duck under, or edge past, and with the wings now and then booming open as Harry failed to control his fear that Snape might die before he could return with the potion. By the time he reached the doorway of the bedroom, Harry was wondering why Snape hadn’t fallen and broken his neck long since.
He did manage to locate the closet after a few minutes’ hard searching—Snape hadn’t told him it was protected by charms—and he pulled out a vial of thick green liquid. It looked like the potion Snape had been brewing the last time he was here, and that gave Harry hope. He charged back through the bedroom door with it, though the charge immediately turned into another confusing series of leaps and dodges through the obstacle course.
Snape seized the vial the moment Harry offered it to him, but his weak, shaking hand fumbled it, and green liquid started to tip all over his chest. Harry Summoned it before that could happen, then ducked the mass of the potion and sent it back at Snape with another sharp wand movement. Snape opened his mouth and gulped, any protests silenced by the threat of drowning for a moment. Then he had to put his head back, close his eyes, and rest. Harry saw no reason to be displeased about that.
Finally, Snape said, “Move me to my bed. Slowly. Be sure that you don’t bump the table on the way, or I may lose all the progress I have made on your son’s hand.”
Harry bit back a retort to the effect that he wouldn’t have to worry about that if not for the wings Snape had made him wear and the mess he had left about his cottage. Using both his magic and his arms, he levitated Snape carefully over piles of debris and past the table, without altering the position of a speck of dust. Snape made no grateful sound and gave no thanks as he was laid in bed; he simply let his head fall back on the pillow with a pained sound, and then commenced a series of steady breaths that made Harry feel entirely pushed out of the room and ignored.
Harry fidgeted about a bit, trying to think of something to say, and finally thought, Fuck it. “What kind of progress have you made?” he asked, leaning against the wall in a clear area not far from the closet. The wings at once spread; they didn’t particularly like him leaning against them. Harry was glad, now, that he no longer shared a bed with Ginny for a more mundane reason. The wings tended to spread away from him as he lay on his stomach and drape over half the blankets. They’d suffocate anyone lying next to him. “And how could you make any kind of progress at all if you’re still waiting for information from James and me?”
Snape said nothing for long moments. Perhaps he really had decided to ignore Harry. Harry stifled the temptation to kick the wall or something equally childish. Not much he could do if Snape chose to indulge his eccentricities in the process of forming James’s cure.
So long as he makes that cure.
Finally, Snape murmured, “There were some things my own diagnosis potion told me. Or did you think that potion useless?” He rolled his head to the side with painful effort, keeping his eyes on Harry, although they were so large and so glossy that Harry almost would have preferred him to shut them.
“What kinds of things?” Harry wanted to be involved in the process of creating the cure if Snape would let him be. He certainly didn’t want to be left out to pine and mope in the darkness, forced to trust someone else to do all the vital things. He’d had enough of that whilst he was still a teenager.
“The purity of the wound, the condition of the flesh inside the hand, what I would have to do to restore the bones,” said Snape in a long-suffering voice.
“But some of that is information you asked me about.”
Snape shut and opened his eyes as though that were the best way of expressing his inexpressible weariness with the world. “Potter,” he whispered, “I have no time and no patience at the moment to explain the exact mechanics of my trade to you. You will have the hand for your precious son. That should be all that matters to you.” He rolled away again and faced the wall.
Harry hesitated. Perhaps it was just his inherent need to contradict Snape’s words, no matter how or why he said them. Perhaps it was his curiosity about the venom that had shown up in Snape’s blood when he performed the diagnosis spell. Perhaps it was that he really had thought the wound that lay between Snape and the Potters should have been healed by now.
“It’s not all that matters to me,” he said, and his wings flared out, propelling him away from the wall. Harry stumbled and glared over his shoulders. The wings, of course, did not respond to that, unlike Lily and Al, who always at least pretended to be contrite. James would just grin up at him and then dart away to do something else.
“What?” Snape’s body had gone stiff with what was probably disbelief, but he didn’t turn around to face Harry, and so he couldn’t be certain.
“It’s not all that matters to me,” Harry repeated, and carefully crouched down beside the bed, arranging his wings in a series of half-curves to avoid all the obstacles they could catch on. “I want—I would like to know more about you, too. Why are you still living here alone after all these years? What will it take to give you peace? Have you ever invented something that didn’t work?”
“You need not seek proof that my talents will not work,” Snape said coolly. “I am perfectly able to create what you need.”
“But suppose I want more than that?” Harry murmured, staring at the back of Snape’s head. The iron-gray hair had a slight curl at the ends where it fell down Snape’s shoulders that he couldn’t remember noticing before. He did not give in to his odd impulse to reach out and touch it, but only because he was sure Snape would curse him to London and back. “Suppose I do want to know you?”
Snape said nothing at all, and even his pained breathing had stopped. Harry knelt there, frowning, feeling as if he were trying to work out a difficult equation in Arithmancy. (Hermione had insisted he learn at least a few elementary problems in it when he became an Auror, but no matter how long Harry sat down with the books, he found the subject as baffling as Potions).
If he’s been alone all this time, I don’t think it was by choice. He was friends with my mum once; he must have wanted a friend. But on the other hand, he could have sought someone out after the war, and he never did. Maybe he really does prefer to be alone. Harry shook his head a little. He couldn’t comprehend wanting solitude forever, which might have been one reason his marriage to Ginny had lasted as long as it had. But if he has friends, that doesn’t mean he’s interested in adding me to the collection—
“Get out,” Snape said at last, in a deep, raspy voice Harry was more accustomed to hearing from Muggles who spent all their time smoking cigarettes.
Harry blinked a little, then said mildly, “All right,” and stood. He did pause on his way out of the bedroom, though, partially to smooth down some ruffled feathers and partially because he felt he should say something else.
“You know,” he said, “as strange as the price for your aid may have been, it isn’t so horrible. I’ve had clothing made that fits around the wings. And you are still helping me, when you might have told me to go bugger myself for a good reason.”
Nothing from the bed, not even the breathing.
“I just wanted to say that I’m—grateful,” Harry continued. The words were like pebbles in his throat, easy to think but not to say, after all. “If you need anything, if you want me to be something more than a person who wears these wings, I’m willing.”
And then he stepped hastily from the room, not at all sure where that offer had come from, and not wanting to look ridiculous in Snape’s eyes.
Though I’m sure it’s already too late for that.
Severus spent some time trying to decide which god he must have annoyed, to make his fate as awful as it was.
Potter feeling compelled to offer friendship to him? As though Severus was some pathetic crawling thing that needed help to reach its food? Or an owl with a broken wing, to be taken up and repaired and then set free? Potter’s offer had that kind of condescending overtone to it, Severus decided. His natural Gryffindor compassion couldn’t stay within its bounds, so of course he had to prove how wonderful he was to all and sundry.
Except there was no one to prove it to, here. Potter might brag to his friends about how he had offered friendship to Severus Snape, but Severus couldn’t envision those friends coming to his cottage to taunt him about it. It was too long a journey for too little reward. And Potter hadn’t done this in front of an audience.
It was, indeed, a mystery. Severus might have been able to take it at face value, but he had inflicted wings on the other man and not been exactly grateful when Potter saved his life. No one was compassionate enough to get past that in the space of a few minutes, no matter what he told himself.
He lay still for some minutes more, perhaps an hour, letting the antivenin work its way through his system. He made quiet plans not to become so absorbed in creating the hand again, no matter how fascinating it was, and to have a cauldron of the antivenin boiling at all times whilst he worked on this project. If he could not trust himself to remember the one task it was important to do daily, then he could not trust anyone else to remind him.
But his mind returned again and again to the puzzle and the problem of Potter.
He has changed, yes. But I do not think he could have changed that much.
One thing Severus was certain of, at least: Potter had not changed enough to become cleverer than Severus was, which meant he would be baffled and tripped up if Severus asked the right questions. Silence could be as telling as the right answer, but Severus doubted that Potter would preserve silence. He would try to press forwards, to show how well he could fool an old enemy, and be caught in his own contradictions and the exposure of his own hidden motives.
His mind pleasantly full of speculations as to what would happen the next time Potter visited, Severus rose and went back to his art.
“Harry. Go home.”
Harry started and raised his head. He’d fallen asleep by James’s bedside, he realized blearily, and suffered an immediate surge of panic. What if James had needed something in the night? What if the rest of his right arm had started to wither from some unanticipated side-effect of the venom and he hadn’t been awake to keep watch? What if—
A hand caught his chin and turned his face around. Harry blinked up at Ginny, though he couldn’t see her well since his glasses were smudged. He coughed and pulled them off to clean them, smiling at Lily, who stood holding her mother’s hand. Lily smiled back for a moment, but her eyes shifted to James and she frowned, sucking on her lower lip.
“Go home,” Ginny repeated gently. “I’ve caught up on my column-writing, and anyway, that’s something I can do sitting here more easily than you can catch criminals and track down forgeries.” Her hand tangled in his hair for a moment, stroking it the way she sometimes stroked James’s. “You’ve spent too much time here, and it’s weakening your ability to help him as well as to do your job. I’m sure James wouldn’t want to know his father got sacked, on top of everything else.”
“But he might need me,” Harry whispered. His son was sleeping peacefully now, but just whenever Harry thought everything might be all right, his gaze would come back to that collapsed hand, and he would be reminded, forcibly, that it wasn’t.
“Yes,” Ginny agreed, “but you’re losing sleep and not eating well. Like I said, you won’t be able to do anything for James if you’re like that.” She nudged Harry hard with her shoulder, so that he had to stagger out of the chair or be pushed out. His wings rose around him, of course, the feathers bristling defensively. Ginny raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Harry had already explained the price Snape demanded for helping James, and she seemed to accept it. “Go home, sleep, write a letter to Snape, and eat a big meal. Then, tomorrow, you can go in to work. I’ll be here, and I can tell you in an instant if something changes with James.” She sat down in the chair and conjured another one for Lily, who sat down, opened a book, and began to read, sneaking glances at James the whole time.
“How come we’re not married and you’re still telling me what to do?” Harry muttered, but the tone of his voice was affectionate, and Ginny grinned at him. It was much easier to be friends when they weren’t required to put up the pretense of sleeping together, Harry reflected.
“Because sometimes you get stupid and someone has to,” said Ginny, and shooed him out of the room with a wave of her hand.
Giving one last, long look at his sleeping son, Harry went.
Harry flung himself flat without asking questions; one consequence of his being friends with Ron as long as he had been meant that Ron could command him to do nearly anything in that tone of voice and he would. Right now, that meant curses coming in, and sure enough, the tiles on the roof next to him splintered a moment later and the air turned hot and sour-smelling where his head had been. Harry winced and raised himself to a knee, his wand poised.
He and Ron had been tracking a petty thief who went by the name of the Gray Cat, and unexpectedly stumbled into the midst of a much larger set of criminals apparently employing him. They’d been looking forwards to a lazy afternoon and an easy capture; now they had at least ten wizards after them, desperate men and women not afraid to use the Dark Arts. Harry was on a roof in a grimier section of wizarding London, with Ron a short distance away on his left.
And the criminals? Nowhere in sight, at least from the limited glances Harry could give before paranoia itched at him and he turned his head in another direction, but they wouldn’t have given up that easily. Harry and Ron had explored the house they were using for about ten minutes before someone sounded the alarm; they had information the Ministry would find both useful and interesting.
A movement stirred to his left, and Harry nearly fired off a curse in panic before he realized it was Ron. Ron raised an eyebrow, and Harry grinned sheepishly, reading the source of a thousand future jokes about his jumpiness in that one gesture.
And then a burning pain spread through his left leg, and Harry sprang to his feet with a hiss. He and Ron were still inside the criminals’ anti-Apparition wards, or this problem would have been easy to solve, Harry thought as they lurched and started running, Ron pounding along the roof opposite to him. And God knew how much further they had to go before they got outside them.
More tiles splintered and cracked; chips of dirt and stone and metal flew up around Harry; voices shouted for him to surrender in what seemed to be every possible direction across the gray sky. Harry folded his arms around his head and rolled across the roof to avoid another curse, then whirled and tossed a Blasting Curse behind him. He heard a sharp, short cry, and then another yell, this time of mourning. He smiled grimly. The Ministry wanted them to avoid every kill they could, but whether Harry had killed this time or severely injured someone, he wasn’t going to be sorry.
A line of lemon-yellow light he didn’t recognize blew past his face; he flinched. Then he took two more running steps backwards to gain, he hoped, the perspective necessary to do some real damage.
And that was Ron’s warning tone again, but too late, far too late. Harry had paid too much attention to the dangers behind instead of in front of him; he hadn’t realized he was running out of building.
He tumbled, arms and legs flailing. By the time he tried to cast a charm that would cushion his fall, he’d already lost his wand. He cursed himself. Stupid idiot, to let panic overtake you when you’ve had worse falls than this aboard a broom—
And then he stopped and hung suspended in midair.
Harry stared at his hands. No, he didn’t clutch the wand; he hadn’t saved himself accidentally. He looked up, expecting to see Ron leaning over the edge of his own building casting the spell that had saved his life.
He saw Ron’s face, all right, but he was staring, his face so pale that the freckles looked like wounds. And then Harry finally directed his attention where it should have been in the first place.
The Kestrel wings, which he had been able to control better in the past few days since he’d started getting enough sleep and which were folded so closely to his back that he forgot about them most of the time, were fully flared out now, beating steadily, making him hover. When he drew in a breath, Harry thought he could feel his lungs flex more deeply than before, and there was a lightness throughout his body, circulating like blood, which certainly hadn’t been there until now.
He was flying.
Harry laughed, or made some other kind of choked cry; he was in a situation so different from anything he’d ever experienced that he thought he could be excused behaving strangely. He willed himself to rise, and did, flapping up gently past the edge of the building where Ron crouched. Ron reached out, his hand shaking, and then halted short of the dark feathers on the edge of the wing, as if he thought touching them might cause Harry to fall.
Harry didn’t think he would. The wings required a strange combination of concentration and not-quite-thinking about what he was doing, rather like Quidditch. If he spent time trying to analyze every little movement he made, he would try to consciously control the process and fall. But at the same time, he needed to keep track of how far he was from the walls, how broad the wings were, and what they would and would not brush.
He shivered. A moment later, he spotted his wand lying in a shallow alcove formed by crumbling stone on the side of Ron’s building. He reached out and scooped it up. So long as he thought about that rather than the many movements he would need to reach it, Harry found, his wings functioned perfectly. He thought of going closer; he flew closer. And then he wanted to be back between the buildings again, on a level just below Ron’s face to lessen the chances of their enemies seeing him, and that’s where he was.
“Incredible,” Ron breathed. “I’ll have something to thank that greasy bastard for after all.”
Harry glared before he could stop himself. He felt a kinship with Snape just at the moment, perhaps because Snape was the only other person in the world who stood a chance of knowing what it felt like to fly on these wings. “You would have had to thank him for James’s hand, if nothing else,” he said shortly.
Another curse made Ron wince and duck, and set fire to the solid brick of a chimney not far from them. Harry pivoted in the direction the spell had come from, the world turning around him as smoothly as an owl’s head.
He could see one of the wizards who had followed them now, a towering figure in a robe at least three sizes too big for him and decorated in outlandish patterns of black and mauve. Even Dumbledore might have thought twice about wearing a robe that garish, Harry decided. Behind him were three distinctly smaller wizards and a witch with black hair that hung halfway down her back. All of them were aiming their wands directly at Ron.
Have they not seen me yet?
Well, then I can surprise them.
Harry took off before he thought about it. Maybe the wings were affecting his production of adrenaline along with his capacity for flight.
The lean wizard started to shout an order when Harry hurtled up over the edge of the building, but was reduced to staring with his jaw hanging open. Harry laughed and Stupefied him, then lifted elegantly above another curse and swooped down on the witch at the back of the group. She backed up, not panicking, which was to her credit, and concentrating her spells on his wings rather than his body. Harry could approve of her as a fighter, though unfortunately not as much else.
He rolled to the side, a Quidditch move that had never felt as natural as it did now, with his wings bursting out into the air, scooping wind, and then tucking close to his body. He came closer, faster, than he would have thought possible before this, and slammed her in the stomach with his elbow, hard enough to knock the breath out of her and ruin whatever spell she’d decided to perform next. She staggered, eyes blazing with fierce hatred, and then drew her spell down the center of the air, bisecting it. A gaping red door opened in front of Harry, a spell he didn’t know but which he thought was pretty clearly meant to transport him elsewhere.
He pulled up quickly, shot away to the side, and then reversed around the spell, coming at the witch just when she’d thought she was safe. A quick Expelliarmus took care of her wand, and then he put her in a Body-Bind and turned back to the other three wizards—
Only to find that Ron had Stupefied them all already, and was standing over them with his wand in hand, panting. Harry blinked. Ron raised an eyebrow and said, “They were all too busy staring at you to notice when I came up to them.”
Harry nodded and landed on the roof not far away from their new captives, his wings drooping around him. Immediately he felt a sensation like the popping of a balloon in his chest; his lungs would be returning to normal now, he supposed, shedding the air sacs. He coughed and glanced up at Ron, anticipating a scolding.
Ron sighed and said, “Those things saved your life. I can’t really get upset because you used them, can I?”
Harry smiled and punched his friend’s shoulder, then joined Ron in rounding up the criminals to take back to the Ministry. They hadn’t captured all of the wizards chasing them, of course, but the Ministry would have to be content with a description of the general location and a few captives to start with.
Snape would be gifted with more. Harry fully intended to visit him and tell him that his wings had saved his life—and not only because Snape had insisted on knowing all the details of Harry’s coping with the wings. This incident had transformed them from an unwanted burden into a gift. Harry was already envisioning solitary flights after a long day at work and freedom he had never known on a broom.
I’ll tell Snape that, I think. Whether he wanted to or not, he helped me as well as James.
Severus wrapped the final piece of artificial skin around the hand and stepped back to study it by the light of the globe-shaped lamp hanging over his desk. Then he nodded sharply. That would do. The outer casing of the hand was fully sculpted, and it only remained to form the hand into one that would work with the human body, instead of as an independent artifact.
And that he could not do until he received more information from Potter and his son.
He turned away from the table and then started, his hand going to his wand up his right sleeve, whilst his lips wrinkled back in an involuntary snarl. Potter was leaning against the doorframe, the door itself open to the air beyond the house. Severus had keyed Potter into the wards for his own convenience, not so that Potter could intrude whenever he wanted.
“Watching you work teaches me more about you than your testimony in front of the Wizengamot ever did,” Potter whispered.
Whispered, Severus thought uneasily. Has someone come with him? Is this the start of a threat, an attack? He did not know why Potter would try to attack him with his son’s hand still unfinished, but then, many of the things Potter did had no logical sense to them. He leaned a hip against the table so that he could push away from it and add to his momentum if he needed to move swiftly, and drawled, “You understand that your comprehension of me is not a personal goal.”
“Not your personal goal, no.” Potter stepped fully into the cottage, and the additional hump of his wings, following his bowed shoulders as naturally as a cat’s tail followed its body, took Severus by surprise again. When will I get used to them? I am the one who affixed them there. I am the one who should be thinking about them daily, when the Kestrel project consumed so much of my time for three years. “But I think it might be one of mine.”
“What has got into you?” Severus demanded, stepping back so that he shielded the contents of the table from Potter’s prying gaze. It was not impossible that Potter had finally given in to the multiple stresses of his life and simply cracked. Stranger things had happened, many of them in Severus’s own experience.
“I flew today.”
Severus felt as if the house had become two sizes smaller. He cleared his throat and tried to respond gracefully, but in the end his voice fell as limply into his throat as his hand, which he had raised, fell back to the table.
And Potter, damn him, had come a step closer, his body tilted slightly to the side to accommodate the wings, his eyes so brilliant they actually appeared to be glowing. Severus shook his head, knowing it was nostalgic memories of Lily that made him think such things, and not reality at all.
You have been waiting for this moment for three years, and you’re standing and staring at Potter like a lovestruck idiot?
Severus shook his head a second time, and firmly forbade himself to think at all about the fact that he had paused for so long or the way he had just worded his thought to himself. “Well, come with me!” he barked, clapping his hands. “There are notes I need to take, experimental procedures I need to conduct—“
He paused, because Potter was smiling, and that smile was another thing that had descended in a straight line from father to son. Severus could never see that smile without feeling he was about to be made fun of.
“Do I amuse you?” he asked.
Potter shook his head. “Not you,” he said. “Just—I thought that was exactly the way you’d react, and now you’re reacting the way.” He rubbed the back of his neck, between the wings, and his smile grew into a smirk. “It’s sort of soothing, I suppose, how I could predict what you did. And God knows I need all the soothing I can get, after today.”
Severus told himself there were no suggestive vibrations in Potter’s voice. If he heard them there, he was simply hard up, as he had indeed been many times in the past twenty years, and would get over it. Because, though he looked differently and moved differently and spoke with a sharp spark in his voice that had never been there in his mother’s voice or his father’s, he was still a Potter. And he wore the Kestrel wings. Severus should be more interested in the wings than in the man.
With an effort, he forced himself to be so. He went into his bedroom, took out his file of notes on the project, came back out, and cleared a place for Potter to sit with a flash of his wand, since it seemed Potter was capable only of gazing forlornly at the covered floor. Potter smiled again and sat down, lifting the wings like a woman’s skirts to keep them out of the way so he wouldn’t crush their edges. Severus told himself the gesture was silly, certainly not worth staring at.
“Now.” Potter looked up at him, leaning on one elbow, his eyes still brilliant with that shine Severus was imagining. “What would you like to know?”
Severus asked the driest question he could under the circumstances, and enchanted the quill to record the answers so he could watch Potter. In this strange mood Potter was in, laughing at his expense and indulging in silly suggestive remarks, Severus was not about to take his eyes off him long enough to look down at the parchment as the quill wrote. “How long did you fly?”
Harry could not describe the emotions tumbling in and playing through him. There was the soothing effect of Snape’s absolute unpredictability he had already described, but there was also amusement, and something he would have called affection if he were feeling it for a different person.
He’s done and said everything I thought he would from the moment I stepped through the door. It reminded Harry of the early years of marriage with Ginny, when her fussing over the way he’d spoil the children and her tendency to sleep with her head under the pillow instead of atop it were familiar and welcome eccentricities, without the boring edge they had developed later.
And if that isn’t the strangest comparison you’ve made all night, I don’t know what is.
“About five minutes,” Harry said, realizing that Snape had looked up with a raised eyebrow and was awaiting his answer. “The wings supported me because I fell off a building—“
Snape closed his eyes and folded his arms over his chest, tightly, as if to keep out cold. Harry was delighted to find that he recognized the gesture from Hogwarts, the silent questioning of a professor as to why he had been saddled with the supervision of dangerously irresponsible teenagers.
“And why did you do that, Potter?” Snape asked. A faint noise drifted up from the general vicinity of his mouth. Harry knew before he identified the sound that it would be Snape’s teeth grinding. “If you would explain, please.”
“Ron and I were escaping from a nest of criminals we’d accidentally stumbled into,” Harry explained. “We were on the roofs of a pair of buildings and, well, we weren’t familiar with the geography.”
“That will do for details, then,” Snape said. “I hardly see the need for a long story on the matter to be entered into my notes on the Kestrel project.”
“Really?” Harry knew he should just accept Snape’s declaration, but, well, Ginny and Ron and Hermione had all accused him over the years of not knowing when to leave well enough alone, and Harry was sure his children would do it in turn when they grew old enough to realize that he was neither all-knowing nor all-wise. “But what if you forget them?”
“I am unlikely to forget anything associated with the Kestrel project,” Snape said, sounding driven to the end of his patience.
“Oh, good,” Harry said, and caught Snape’s eye, and smiled at him. “I would hate to think I wasn’t memorable.”
Snape stared at him with open, honest confusion for a flicker of a moment. Then he sneered. “Of course, Potter. I had forgotten how much your fame meant to you.”
“Look at a picture of me with Lockhart sometime, and tell me that I’m enjoying it.” Harry folded his left arm over his knee. “I meant that I would like certain people to remember me, and you’re one of them.”
Again Snape stared at him. Again Harry stared back, and added a smile.
What are you doing? his practical, Ginny-polished side demanded of him.
You’ll regret it.
And that’s not enough to keep you from doing it.
Snape shook his head after a moment, and returned to his questioning. “And how can you be sure that you spent only five minutes in the air?”
“Well, it felt like five minutes.” Harry shrugged. “And I didn’t actually have time to cast a Tempus charm.” Snape glared at him, as if to say that Harry was stupid for explaining something to him he could have figured out on his own. Harry smiled innocently back. “I certainly felt the wings extending their fibers into my lungs and lightening my bones, just as you said.”
“Hmmm.” Snape nodded. “And how maneuverable were you in the air? How fast could you fly?”
“The wings made me hover at first.” Harry closed his eyes, recalling the sensation of empty air hanging beneath his boots and his body’s absolute conviction that he was fine. His shoulder muscles had been rather sore afterwards, but at the time they had worked with the wings as if they had been doing it all his life. “That’s probably—“
“A natural method of kestrels in flight, yes.” Snape pushed impatiently past a moment Harry would have liked to linger on. “But I am still surprised you gained control of the wings so fast. They are not supposed to bond to a human body for at least two weeks, and you have had them for scarcely more than one.”
Harry opened his eyes, since it was perfectly clear Snape did not want him to stay in the memory and recall details more clearly. “Have you used them on a human before?”
“No.” Snape frowned at him fiercely. “I could never find anyone who would agree to take them on, for obvious reasons.”
Harry ignored the aspersion cast on his sanity, his common sense, or his desperation to save James. The last was not something Snape could insult him about, and he was well-used to a ribbing from Ron and Hermione on the first two after all these years. “Then you don’t know what’s actual,” he said. “You only have the notes, the predictions of what you think might happen. Obviously, practice is different from theory.”
“That is a conclusion of such triteness and of such low value that I am not surprised you came up with it, Potter.”
“If that’s my general way of speaking, then I’m surprised you’ve consented to trust my words about anything.” Harry drummed his fingers on his knee for a moment. “Do you want me to put the memories in a Pensieve for you instead?”
Snape jerked, as if the words had been a personal insult. Harry blinked. Well, it was true Snape probably still remembered Harry’s intrusion into his Pensieve less than fondly, but the mere absence of people wending to Snape’s door in the past few years to taunt him about it should have reassured him Harry had kept the memory of his humiliation quiet.
“I would never trust you near a Pensieve, Potter,” said Snape, in a dangerous tone Harry had heard only once or twice before—for example, when Snape suspected he was not putting his full effort into Defense Against the Dark Arts during his sixth year. “No. We will do it this way. And you have not answered my other question. How fast could you fly?”
Harry shrugged, stung, though he knew he shouldn’t be, by Snape’s continuing distrust of him. The circumstances under which they were working together didn’t really make them compatriots or friends. Probably Snape saw him, and James, only as experimental subjects at best, and at worst was looking for shades and hints of Harry’s father in every single one of their acts. “I don’t know speeds, either. I hit one woman in the chest with my elbow and knocked her down. So it was fast enough to build up that kind of momentum.”
“You idiot, Potter.” Snape looked up sharply from his notes, which he had started to stare at some time in the past minute. “Your bones were lighter than normal. You might have broken your arm pulling such a stunt.”
“Would you have cared, as long as the wings weren’t damaged?” Harry snapped back. Snape’s eyes widened, and only after a moment did Harry realize he had mantled like a hawk, encircling his head and shoulders in a storm of feathers. Harry coughed and shifted his position, hoping he didn’t look too embarrassed. “They weren’t, and neither was I.”
“There is too little detail to be gained from your responses,” Snape said. Harry frowned. Was he breathless? Surely not. Perhaps he had had another idea. Intense academic excitement took Hermione like that sometimes. “Stand up and turn around. And remove your robes and shirt,” he added after a moment. “I do not wish to be distracted by them when I examine the places where the wings have bonded with your skin.”
Harry snorted and began undoing the laces that tied his robes and shirt snugly shut around the wings. He’d managed to make do with his own magic and a few (dozen) books on clothing Transfiguration. Ginny had been the one who knew all those sorts of spells by rote in their marriage. But now Harry was living on his own, he would have to get used to some of the inconveniences that affected a bachelor existence. “Perhaps even my body will lie to you,” he said mockingly, and then peeled the fabric down his sides, turning to present his back to Snape.
The moment he touched the bare skin of Potter’s back, Severus knew he had made a mistake.
It was too much: the turmoil of being forced to see Potter differently in the embrace of the wings, the way Potter had approached him—only as the set-up for a prank, of course; Severus thought he had learned to recognize the emotions and actions of Potters by now—and the mixture of feelings he had been forced to entertain since Potter had saved his life a few days ago. Even if Severus had actually been the one who saved his own life, because he had known where the antivenin was, and even if he had the sneaking suspicion that Potter wouldn’t actually try to claim this life-debt.
And there was one more factor, one he had forgotten. He had worked on the Kestrel wings for three years. They recognized him, in the same dim way that a fish might recognize a person who fed it regularly. Their magic reached out for his the moment his hands settled on Potter’s back, covering a few of the pinfeathers.
Severus gasped and half-closed his eyes. He could feel it, the wings he had constructed and slaved over vanishing seamlessly into human flesh, the sensation enhanced by the magic thrumming around his fingers. The sudden incarnation of his dreams made him forget, for a moment, who wore the wings. He spread his hands further, letting them explore, figure out the places where the wings blended into the skin and where they stood free, which parts of Potter’s back were still bare and which were covered completely.
Potter began to shiver violently. Severus felt gooseflesh spring up in the wake of his trailing fingertips.
He didn’t open his eyes. So long as he didn’t have to meet Potter’s gaze and remember how much his loss of Lily had done to produce the young man standing here, this wasn’t real. He was learning, exploring. Potter was a project.
He touched the bottoms of the wings, ignoring the way the feathers stood on end in protest. They were strong, flexible, just the way he had always imagined them. Of course, their joining was not the same as the joining of a kestrel’s wings to its body, because they attached to the shoulder blades instead of replacing the upper limbs, but he was able to ignore that as he traced the curving, blurred edge where magic-created artifact became living muscle.
The right wing started and flapped back against him, filling Severus’s mouth with dust briefly and making him cough. No, that wasn’t right, was it, to think of them as artifacts? They were real and alive now.
He let his fingers explore further, running up towards the collarbone. The body beneath him sucked in a tense breath, and the wings bated for a moment, as though readying themselves for flight. Severus reminded himself to breathe. His hand strayed down, around the muscles of the torso, trying to gauge how much the reaching tendrils of the wings had altered the body they attached to when that body was not actually in the act of flight.
He brushed over something that made the man in front of him tremble violently, and Severus paused. Had he found an anomaly? He had never completely disregarded the possibility that the wings could cause harm to the person he attached them to, though he had spent a year specifically working to make sure the most obvious injuries could not happen. This was such an unusual experiment, however, with so few precedents, that he could not—
Potter jerked in a breath, and Severus’s neutral illusions about “the body” fell to pieces. Of course. He was touching Potter’s nipple, which would be one of the more sensitive parts of his chest.
Severus resisted the temptation to jerk away. He was not a teenager, nor someone who could afford another loss of dignity where Potter was concerned. He pulled his hand slowly back, his fingers spread wide and his mind frantically calculating the direction so that he could not accidentally touch Potter’s other nipple. Only after a moment did he realize that this produced five points of trailing sensation where his fingers were in contact with Potter’s flesh.
Potter was shivering helplessly by now, and the wings pulled themselves open and shut in odd contortions against Severus’s chest. Severus pictured to himself, firmly, the image of the wings as they had been when still on their canvas framing.
But it didn’t work, because his hands had convinced him firmly that the wings were indistinguishable from their living setting now. The image twisted and became one of Potter surrounded by his wings in the infirmary at Hogwarts. And then it blended entirely into the realm of fantasy and dream, became Potter naked, encircled by his wings only, body striving for the skies—
Severus jerked away then, and to hell with dignity. He pulled so far and so sharply that he stumbled and slammed his back into a cage filled with hissing cockroaches. They madly scrambled and, of course, hissed, whilst Severus straightened his robe. Surely Potter would begin mocking him for his clumsiness any moment, and that would give them the much-needed prod to move on from this incident.
But Potter did no such thing, much to Severus’s embarrassment. Instead, he wheeled around, mantling again, his eyes narrowed and his mouth pursed so tight in fury that Lily in a rage couldn’t have done him better. “What did you think you were doing?” he demanded.
Severus looked up, and his answer died with the breath he had drawn to speak it. Half his last vision was coming true in front of him. Potter, scarred and battered and beginning to run to fat, to gray, nevertheless looked too much like a falcon, a warrior, an angel, framed in the halo of his agitated wings.
Wings Severus gave him.
You did this.
“Well? I’m waiting for an answer.” Potter moved a step forwards, his face still set. His nipples were standing out from his chest, Severus noted with fascination that he immediately wished he didn’t possess. “What made you have to touch my chest when you were supposed to be exploring my back?”
Severus stood still. Aside from the fact that he would probably bump into another artifact if he took a step away again, he refused to look like a coward in front of Potter. None of the insults James Potter had spewed at him had ever been true; he would not make this boy’s long-ago taunt on the night he had fled Hogwarts after killing Dumbledore come true. “I was checking for anomalies,” he said. “The wings might have altered the shape of your chest when they bonded to your lungs. Some of the possible changes could be dangerous to your health. I had to make sure none existed.” He was quite proud of himself for how calm he managed to sound.
And then Potter laughed sharply and said, “Bollocks.”
Severus narrowed his eyes. “I beg your pardon?”
“Something’s changed between us since I got these things.” Potter gestured back at the wings, which swayed together and waggled their tops as if excited to hear themselves spoken about. “You’re saving my son from a life of pain without most of your usual sniping. I saved your life. And then you touched me like that.” His voice deepened, and Severus could not name the emotion in it when he spoke the next words. “I just want to know what’s going on. That’s all.”
Harry watched Snape draw himself up, nostrils and lips both thin, his eyes hooded. Harry had seen the same expression whenever the bastard was hiding a secret, whether it was as important as the Philosopher’s Stone in his first year or a potion recipe he’d given to the Slytherins ahead of time.
And by that, Harry knew that whatever emerged from Snape’s mouth would be a lie.
In sheer frustration, and maybe instinct—many instincts seemed to have been added to his mind since he had first flown—Harry spread his wings, flapped twice, and launched himself hard at Snape.
His feet left the ground only a few inches behind, but that was enough to make him a solid burden when he slammed into the older man. Snape grunted desperately, his arms flailing as he tried not to fall backwards or touch Harry. Harry felt a moment’s bitter amusement that even now, Snape would still do anything rather than grab someone else to keep from falling.
In the end, he didn’t have a choice. Harry swept his wings forwards and surrounded Snape, yanking him in so they rested chest to chest. The contact was considerably more stimulating to Harry, of course, given that his bare chest was pressed against scratchy cloth. He shivered and resisted the urge to reach out and part Snape’s robes, digging for the warm flesh he had felt only on Snape’s hands so far.
And by that, he finally understood what his body was trying to tell him.
Harry took a moment to be stunned by the realization, and then shrugged the surprise away impatiently. What had he expected? His marriage with Ginny had failed in part because they became too familiar, with obligations between them not expected of friends. Snape’s compelling strangeness had made Harry obsessed several times over the years with ferreting out mysteries that involved him. His fascination with Snape’s difference and his earlier comfort with some of the traits Snape had retained for decades had twisted into a weird sort of attraction. That was a natural development.
Harry decided he would worry over where this might have come from later. For the moment, he was more concerned with the fact that his closeness to Snape might provoke an honest answer, if only out of frustration. And Snape was straining against Harry’s confining wings, but not very hard. He probably didn’t want to damage them, Harry thought.
“Answer me,” Harry said softly. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing, Potter,” Snape said, speaking harshly enough that flecks of spittle darted from his mouth and flecked Harry’s cheeks. “You have imagined things that do not exist and imputed equally fictitious motives to me. Now, I will thank you to let me go.”
“No,” Harry said. He couldn’t be the only one feeling this. He hadn’t invited Snape to grope him, after all.
Snape went as stiff as one of the dry reeds he’d used to build James’s new hand. “I hardly think,” he said, every word creaking, “that what you wish to discover, or make up, is appropriate, considering you have a wife at home.”
Harry snorted. “So observant, and you miss that?” He turned his hand over, revealing the absence of a wedding ring. “Ginny and I got divorced a few days before James’s accident.”
Snape said nothing; his only response was to go even stiffer. And Harry, who’d had to maneuver carefully to bring his hand into the tight, enclosed space created by the wings, became aware of how close they really were. Their breaths mingled. If he tilted his head forwards, he could rest his brow against Snape’s, his scar against Snape’s unmarked skin.
If he leaned forwards in a different way…
Harry shivered and let his hand drop to his side. It was really only natural, wasn’t it, to be this close to someone and wonder what it would be like to kiss them? Harry had done it with Ginny all the time, and once or twice with Hermione when she was comforting him after a particularly bad case, and even with Ron, though those times he had all been drunk.
Snape was none of them. Snape was different.
Harry was rapidly approaching the point of not caring, as the air between them tightened and grew stickier, like a strand of spiderweb stretched taut.
The moments passed, quiet and endless. And then they didn’t seem to pass at all, and Snape had looked at his lips, Harry knew he had, that quick and guilty flicker of his eyes suddenly away from Harry’s gaze could mean nothing else—
Snape looked at him, not having much choice.
Harry maintained eye contact as he leaned in and touched his lips to Snape’s, just to see what it would feel like, just to reassure himself that the difference between them was not great enough to become a permanent source of fascination. It really wasn’t, he reassured himself. Not really.
Snape’s lips were dry and gnawed, bitten many times, and that was a change from Ginny’s perfectly smooth lips. They trembled once, then firmed against Harry’s mouth, closing him out, and that was different, too; Ginny either initiated their kisses or relaxed easily enough to let Harry in.
But Snape didn’t lean away.
Harry smiled. The motion of his lips against the other man’s must have been unmistakable, because Snape did rip his mouth rudely away just then and stare off to the side. His face was flushed dully with what could have been arousal or rage. Harry wouldn’t have blamed him for feeling either emotion just then.
“What do you mean by this, Potter?”
Harry paused. Snape’s voice was not enraged, after all, but simply and plainly weary. He could not torment someone who sounded like that. The bullied boy had had a voice like that, in the memories Snape had shared with Harry when he thought he was dying.
“Something important,” Harry said. “If I let you go, will you talk to me, instead of cursing me or ordering me out the door?”
“This is nothing more than the expression of feelings that are not real,” said Snape.
Harry raised an eyebrow. “Not real?” If the emotions could be expressed, that was real enough for him.
“In my case, the feelings I had for Lily, which I never got over, and seeing her eyes in you,” Snape said, still staring away. “In your case, loneliness and probably some urge for excitement, after decades of marriage to the same woman. I will not indulge either one of our childish fantasies, Potter.”
And Harry almost believed him. He probably would have pulled away completely, except for two things.
One, Snape hadn’t been able to meet his eyes when he was feeling Harry’s chest.
Second, Harry still trusted his instincts; they had saved his life yet again when he flew. And his instincts were insisting that these were actual, legitimate emotions, not some mere reflection of his love for Ginny.
“Come outside,” he said, and pulled his wings behind his back. Snape staggered from the sudden loss of support, caught himself with a hand on a crate, and then stared at Harry.
“Come outside,” Harry said. He thought for a moment of putting his robes and shirt back on, to make it a little easier for Snape, but his wings snapped decisively, and he rejected the idea. The clothes would only interfere with his movements, anyway. He glanced over his shoulder at Snape and put what he hoped was the right smile on his face. “Come and watch me fly.”
And Severus followed Harry the same way he had followed Lucius Malfoy on the night that he had gone to commit himself to Voldemort and the Dark Mark, with the same sense of heavy, dream-like slowness in his limbs.
He knew he was walking towards something that would change his life, and most probably for the worse, but he was unable to turn back.
He stepped through the cottage door and looked about. The sun was setting behind the tangled thickets and pine forest to the west. Forest loomed in all the other directions as well. Severus had chosen an isolated cottage on purpose.
Granted, he had never expected to be glad of the privacy for the confidence it gave to Harry Potter as he strode forwards, his wings booming out around him, his arms rising as if to gauge the distance to the top of the sky. He paused once, glanced over his shoulder at Severus—to be sure he was watching, Severus thought, still dazed—and began to run.
In the midst of one of the steps, he writhed and shuddered a little, bowing as though over a wound, though he did not cease his run. Severus knew he would be feeling the wriggling pain as the wings’ tendrils changed his lungs and his bones, something he’d probably been too busy falling to feel the first time it happened, if that ridiculous story he had told was true.
The ridiculousness of that story might be an anchor, if Severus could only use it, to drag himself out of his ridiculous emotion of dazed awe.
But Potter took flight before he could clutch at that anchor. He had nearly crashed into the thicket in front of the western trees, but had not slowed down once. His feet left the ground with a smooth suddenness, and he was rising like a stork or a heron, his legs trailing behind him, his wings beating madly.
Severus craned his neck back, and was lost.
Potter put his arms by the sides of his face, aiming straight ahead, to reduce wind resistance. He began to spin, bearing straight still but rolling over and over, a motion Severus did not think kestrels were capable of. From the laughter that trailed down to where Severus stood, he was doing it for sheer joy.
Potter reached the far end of the clearing that held the cottage and turned back with a delicate flutter, then crouched and sped higher. The sunset light, gold and red and peach, rippled over the muscles of his bare chest. The idiot still hadn’t put his shirt back on, Severus realized absently.
Up, and up, and up. The wings worked as they always had in Severus’s dreams, beating in the motions of a small hawk but suiting those motions to the considerably greater weight and bulk of the human body. He had judged the proportions the wings would need to increase in size to a nicety.
Potter halted, aimed downwards, and began to drop.
Severus found himself clenching his fists, torn between screaming for Potter to stop and shouting encouragement. Potter made a perfect low dive, going down like a hawk stooping for the kill, and then spread his arms, skimming along so that the grass touched his chest and probably brushed his nipples, his head and his legs tilted back whilst he laughed and laughed and laughed.
Then he turned back upright again and began to hover in place, the wings working fast but perfectly, turning from one motion to the other, blurring, fast beyond human sight. Potter hung motionless in the middle of them, his eyes shut and his face slack with smiling.
He’s showing me all the motions the wings are capable of, Severus thought, and the thought was another one that should have pulled him back to reality and reminded him of the proper distance between him and everyone else.
It didn’t. Nothing could have moved his feet at that moment. Nothing could have disturbed his focus on Potter. He could feel the pain in his neck from being strained back so long and sweat trickling down his face, but those were distant, minor irritations.
From the same part of his mind that was actively taking note of the sensations of his body, he thought this was the oddest seduction he had ever been witness to.
Potter stopped hovering at last, and settled to the ground with a hand braced in front of him, his eyes shut, panting lightly. The sun had descended further in the time he’d flown, the shadows shifting, so that now strips of red and copper lay directly on his face. Severus scrutinized him slowly. Even with his eyes shut, his wings lying limply along his shoulders, Severus still could not see any more likeness to James Potter in that man’s face.
That did not mean he understood what was happening, or the pull that appeared to be drawing him to Potter. There were no words for it in his experience, and most of the time, things he did not understand sent him retreating behind walls, physical if he could, but emotional at least.
He did not move. He had no more than a vague interest in moving. He just stood there, watching, until at last Potter drew himself to his feet and opened his eyes.
“I wanted to show you that,” Potter said.
The statement was so simple Severus half-wanted to leave it there, not questioning it. But reality was returning in small trickles of cold water, washing common sense and common understanding of the world back to him. “Why?” he whispered. “You flew too fast for me to get more than a general sense of what the wings can do.”
Potter half-smiled. “Then I’ll have to show you again and again, won’t I?” he whispered. “Until we both get it right.”
Severus shook his head and did take a step back now. He hadn’t quite awakened from the trance the flight had thrown him into, but he was aware enough to think of consequences. “None of this makes sense,” he said quietly. “Not that you would want me, not that you would take gratitude and transform it into—something else.”
“It’s not just the gratitude.” Potter’s voice was thoughtful, and Severus had the feeling he ought to laugh. It was not possible for the man in front of him to analyze situations the way he appeared to be doing now. But he did it anyway, because Potter had always done the impossible. “I think it started from that. But more than that, it’s the sense that my life has changed completely in such a short time. I’m not married anymore, though I hope Ginny and I will always be friends. James is going to have to get used to a new hand, and I’ll want to help him do that. I have these wings, and they’re not going anywhere.” He lifted his wings and flapped them once, causing a cool breeze to spring up and stroke Severus’s face. “And there are already mutters at work about the wings, though Ron told me they’d been kept quiet so far because everyone is trying to give me some space to deal with what happened to James. Why not follow the change one step further?” He looked directly at Severus, and Severus had to turn away, because no good things happened when someone looked at him with an expression like that. “I find you interesting. I want to know how you’ve changed. Watching you work, which I haven’t got to do enough yet, is fascinating. You’re helping me and James in spite of—everything.” Severus was glad he had not named specifics. It would have ruined the last remnants of the mood between them. “Isn’t that enough, to start with? I can’t promise some grand resolution to this, because I don’t know what it is yet. But I want to know you. I meant that. I’d like to start this, and see what happens next.”
Severus shook his head several times. What surprised him more than anything else, even the words Potter spoke, was that something in him recognized and responded to those words—and he did not think it was the same part of him that would have reached out if Lily had spoken the words.
Lily was dead. She was. And all his work to come to terms with that and what it meant over the last few years had not gone to waste, after all.
That does not mean I will not see her ghost in her son.
“What you ask for is impossible,” he said at last, clearing his throat.
“Why?” Potter asked at once, in the tone of someone making an entirely reasonable request.
Severus turned around and stared at him incredulously. “Can you really be asking that, Potter?” he demanded. “You know what happened between your father and me, between your mother and me. You know that I only agreed to help in the first place because you took on the wings. No friendship, no love affair, between us, could possibly be anything but tormented and awkward and prone to break.” He had said “love affair” aloud to remind himself of how ridiculous it would sound. To his dismay, it did not sound as ridiculous as his own refusal of the hand reaching out to him.
“We don’t know that,” Potter said steadily. “Not with you as different as you are, not with me as different as I am. I’d like to try. Like I said, I don’t know where we’ll go next, so I can’t ask for more than a chance.”
Severus turned his back, but said nothing more. He walked into his cottage and shut the door. He did not put up wards, but that was because Potter would probably barge through them if he did. He sat down at the table and began to work on binding the hand together once more.
He felt his spine stiffen when Potter opened the door, walked in, and spent several minutes clearing a piece for himself among plates of porcelain and silver, shifting them carefully away from one another before murmuring the incantation that conjured a chair. Then he sat down and was perfectly still for some minutes.
Severus waited until the tension mounted enough to interfere with his work, then glanced over his shoulder.
Potter was leaning on the back of the chair, wings spread wide and then coiled with the tips in his lap, his mouth open, asleep. The flight must have exhausted him, Severus thought. Or maybe the thinking had.
He turned back to his work, unsure at first what was troubling him.
Even when he figured it out, he frowned down at the reeds he held and shook his head. Someone must have opened a door that he put between himself and the outside world before, Lily or Albus. That he could not remember it happening did not mean this experience was unique. He would not let it be unique.
Harry woke slowly, to small, regular, tapping sounds he was surprised hadn’t awakened him before. He blinked and rubbed a hand across his face. There was sleep crusted in the corners of his eyes, and he spent a few dreamy moments picking it out before he realized that he still wore his glasses, that his neck hurt horribly from drowsing in a chair, and that he had fallen asleep at Snape’s house.
He remembered what he had said, and flinched inwardly. Obviously, Snape wasn’t keen on paying attention to any portion of his pathetic plea. The arguments he was using made sense. The arguments Harry was using didn’t, not really.
But the same stubbornness that had made him open the shut door and come in made him open his eyes and look around for Snape now, rather than try to depart without catching his eye. He kept himself from speaking, though, when he saw that Snape was bent over a glittering object on the central table, his eyes narrowed, a small silver hammer in his right hand. The hammer fell on the glittering object in slow, regular taps, and each time sparks of pure white light arched outwards.
Harry knew it was James’s hand, but he had never imagined it would look anything like this. The fragile construction of reeds and powder and other ingredients he’d glimpsed last night had changed, become something like a piece of molten metal taken directly from the forge. He sat and stared, afraid to move, hoping only that the pressure of his eyes wouldn’t provoke Snape into covering the project up.
Snape seemed to have forgotten he was in the room, however. The hammer rose and fell too regularly. The hand contorted as the hammer fell again, and then twisted around like a snake. Harry clenched his teeth to keep from hissing in shock. Had something gone wrong? Was the hand going to lose its shape and dissolve into its component parts any minute now?
But Snape leveled his wand at it and spoke several sharp, stern words. The shape, flashing blue and white, gold and yellow, coiled obediently inwards, and Snape waved his wand once more. Harry thought he was guiding it, because it uncoiled and turned in the same direction as the wand.
And now Harry could see that the projections he had thought was the hand extending into a new shape were fingers, instead.
Magical fingers, still, flexing open and shut of their own free will, shatteringly brilliant, not anything Harry could imagine attached to his son’s hand. But still, existing.
And Snape danced them across the table like a conductor guiding an orchestra, making the fingers open and close, pick up small objects and juggle them, close into a pinching shape and spread wide whilst the hand turned to balance something invisible on its open palm. In a procession of moments Harry saw a procession of movements, all the things he could do with his own hands but hadn’t ever thought about separately.
In that moment, he began to grasp, dimly, how complex the task he had asked of Snape was. He shivered, awed and dismayed and humbled.
And he has changed, he thought to himself. This was an immense amount of work. I don’t think he would have decided to put in this much work for the son of someone he hated if he really hadn’t changed.
Harry stole a glance at Snape’s face. It was set with concentration, but not in the way Harry had seen when he glimpsed Snape brewing in the classroom. Then, he had always been tense, as if years of supervising students left him compelled to picture all the ways the potion could go wrong. This concentration had confidence behind it, the sturdy pleasure of a master craftsman who had done his best over and over again, and knew that this attempt would work, too.
The wand snapped to the left. The hand rose on its fingers and danced. The wand snapped to the right. The hand flipped over and over, then scuttled to the edge of the table. For a moment, Harry feared it would jump off. But it turned around and came back to Snape, and he picked it up. The white light surrounding it dimmed and died in a moment, and Harry beheld the hand whole for the first time, exactly the size and color—at least to his inexperienced eyes—that it should be to fit James’s wrist.
Snape cradled the hand, staring down at it. His face was more open now. Lines still surrounded his eyes; Snape was almost sixty years old, Harry knew, and nothing could change that. The gray hair dangling down to his shoulders reinforced the impression. But his face in that moment wore the expression of someone who could have suffered trial after trial and setback after setback in those sixty years, and could still rise and try to get over them and go on.
Once, Harry would have scoffed at that description of Snape. Snape didn’t get over things; Snape didn’t forget his grudges.
But there was a difference between forgetting one’s grudges and forgetting how to live. Snape had at least taken an active part in the world and the war even after Lily died, instead of locking himself into a single room to brood. Harry had seen too many examples of that after the war; George Weasley had done it for a time, and now and then the Aurors still got a request for help from someone who wanted them to dig out a reclusive relative. Harry had seen more self-made prisons than he cared to count.
This house was not a prison, not Snape’s replacement for Azkaban. He had managed to step past that, to accept that he lived when he should have died yet again, and to do something that would benefit the son of his worst enemy.
This was what Harry had seen in Snape. This was the quality he wanted to find and follow, and hopefully draw into the open. He could only hope Snape would give him that chance.
He cleared his throat.
Snape didn’t start, much less drop the hand, a consequence Harry had envisioned only after he made his sound. He uttered a dry chuckle and laid the hand on the table. “I knew you were watching me,” he said.
“Yes.” Harry didn’t hesitate. Snape had left a door open again, even if he didn’t realize it. “And I like what I see.”
Snape froze. Then he turned to face Harry, slowly. Harry held as still as he could, though his wings shifted a bit; he wanted to clear them out of the way so he could rise quickly from the chair, if need be.
Snape spent some time staring at him. Harry stared back. He had no idea what Snape might be deciding at the moment. The only thing he could do, as he had done since the beginning of this, was to keep reaching out and see what might happen.
The tension stretched until Snape cleared his own throat and said, “Breakfast first. The antivenin. And then we will take the hand to Hogwarts.”
Harry nodded and stood up. His emotions were unbalanced, shifting back and forth between hope that the hand would fit James and worry that it would not, hope that Snape would decide in favor of Harry’s extended hand and worry that he would not. But at least he could bear the oscillation better on a full stomach.
James Potter sat up when he saw them come into the infirmary. Severus didn’t miss the way the boy’s eyes immediately went to the pouch Severus had chosen to keep the hand safe on their journey.
He was thirteen. He had lost his hand, and knew it, and knew there would be little hope of recovery. Then he’d been given a chance, but hadn’t known until this moment that that would work out, either. So the storm of emotions that flew across his face were expected. He turned his head away a moment later, pressing a hand fiercely against his eyes and nose, as if sheer pressure could keep him from sniffling or crying.
But those emotions performed the same function for Severus as the wings had where his father was concerned. He could feel the likeness to James Potter the first changing and fading and becoming wispy in his mind. He sat down on the chair beside the bed without a word and undid the pouch, holding the hand out to the boy.
James didn’t look until Potter—or Harry; there were too many Potters in the room, Severus thought in distraction—put a hand on his son’s shoulder and whispered to him. Then he held out his limp right hand, slowly.
Severus drew his wand and severed the useless leather glove at the wrist with a single Cutting Curse. Before Harry had the time to shout at him, before James had time to cry out, Severus had fitted the artificial hand into place.
Magic arched, spitting, around the wrist. Severus sat back, shielding his eyes from the glow but not closing them; this was the moment when something was most likely to go wrong, and he had to observe to be sure that nothing did.
A coruscating glow of red and gold and blue sprayed from the boy’s wrist to illuminate the far corners of the hospital wing. It flung odd shadows on James’s face, odd lights on Harry’s. He had his wand drawn, but luckily he did not use it. Severus did not like to think of the mess that would have caused.
Red for the grains he had embedded in the hand to help fight the poison. Gold for the physical melding as the hand joined the body it had been made for. Blue for the transformation, as the magic fought to make James’s body understand and accept that this replacement was a good one, not something for the body to reject.
James was white as he leaned against his father. Harry was motionless as he held his son.
And then the magic flared red one final time—defeating the last dose of the Ashling venom, Severus hoped—and died out altogether. James looked down at his hand and spread his fingers.
And burst into noisy sobs, turning so he could bury his head against his father’s shoulder.
Severus sat back in the chair, satisfied. It would take some time still for the boy to gain full command of the hand, let alone become skilled enough to wield a wand with it or catch a Snitch, but that control would come; the magic in the hand itself would work with him, as the magic in the wings had worked with Harry.
Harry had swept his wings forwards, Severus noted now, and was cradling James in them. He had tears sliding down his own cheeks, but they were silent, and few, as if he had done all his mourning earlier in life.
Or as if he were concentrating his sorrow for the sake of being able to do things, said a charitable part of Severus’s mind he had only ever applied to excuse his own actions.
He turned when he heard the scuffle of a footstep behind him and found himself watching a slender boy with messy dark hair, wide green eyes, and a Slytherin tie edge into the infirmary. He stared at James for long moments, and then his shoulders slumped and he took a long, harsh breath. Severus, though he had never known what it was like to have a brother, was certain those simple gestures taught him more about it in a few moments than he could have learned from months of explanations.
The boy seemed to notice him then. “You’re Severus Snape?” he asked. “Dad told me you were helping.”
Severus nodded. “And you must be Albus Severus.”
The boy grimaced as if he’d bitten into something sour. “Call me Al.” He looked at the bed again, then away, sucking on the inside of his cheek. “And James is going to be completely better? I mean, I thought he was, but Dad has tried to reassure me so much that I thought he might not have told me the truth.”
Severus smiled a little. He liked this boy. “He will be fine now.”
And would you be fine, I wonder, if I did accept your father’s invitation and try for—something else? Something different?
“I’m glad he’ll be fine,” said Al, studying his brother and his father with wide eyes. “Everything’s so changed, and I tried to be with James, but I have classes most of the time. And Dad tried to be there for me, but he had to be there for James, too, and there was his job, and there was you.” At that, Severus glanced sharply at the boy, wondering what he knew, but Al’s face was innocent when he looked back at him. “I’m named after you.”
“I had noticed, yes.”
Al had the grace to blush a bit, but the steady gaze of his eyes never changed. “My dad said when I went to Hogwarts last year that it didn’t matter if I got into Slytherin, because I was named after the bravest man he ever knew, who was a Slytherin, and that was you.”
It took Severus a moment to extract sense from the sentence; he had long ago allowed his brain to lapse out of its habit of comprehending teenagers. When he did understand, he said the first thing that came to his head. “He might have been lying.”
Al jerked away from him, offended. “He wasn’t,” he said. “Dad doesn’t lie. I got put into Slytherin, and I was all right with it. But I don’t know if I like you so much.” He stared coolly at Severus for a moment, then walked over to the bed and nudged at his father’s side with an elbow. Potter reached out without looking and wrapped a wing around his second son. The boy leaned on him and sighed.
Severus swallowed. He had no place in such a family. It would be best if he left now, quietly, and only contacted Potter by owl to get updates on how the wings were bonding with his body.
But now he had proof that Potter had changed his mind about him as early as last year—from a biased source, true, but still, the information was not something Severus was eager to pass up. And perhaps he had truly changed his mind twelve years ago, when this son was born and he had decided to give the boy a name that most people would assuredly not understand.
Severus leaned back in his chair and waited.
Harry walked slowly towards the doors of Hogwarts with Snape. Madam Pomfrey had pronounced James as in good health as she’d ever seen him, and would release him to return to most of his daily activities tomorrow. Harry had contacted Ginny and told her the good news. She and Lily were with James now; Al had had to go back to classes.
His son would have a life back again. Not the same life as before—Harry would never have wished the pain James had gone through on anyone, let alone one of his children—but a life. He would be able to write, to cast spells, and to fly. Harry’s relief was so large it did not seem quite real.
And he would have a life, one that might be quite different from before, but probably better, thanks to the wings.
And maybe something else.
He looked up at Snape and waited until the other man felt the pressure of his steady gaze—or more probably, decided to stop ignoring it—and turned around. Harry raised an eyebrow and held out his hand.
“Well?” he asked. “Can I visit you?”
Snape stared at the extended hand with fathomless eyes for long moments. Then, his whole body as tense as though he were about to leap off a cliff, he leaned forwards and touched his lips swiftly to Harry’s.
The gesture was small, ended almost as soon as it began, so Harry didn’t really get to taste Snape’s mouth, but it lasted long enough for his wings to flutter up along his sides like an excited fledgling’s. Harry realized the importance of this, too. Snape had finally made an answer, if an uncertain one, to all the reaching he’d been doing.
Harry knew he was grinning like a fool, but he didn’t really care. He stretched luxuriously, both arms and wings, the latter rising almost high enough behind his shoulders to touch the ceiling of the corridor. Snape’s eyes followed them, but returned to Harry’s face quickly, perhaps to make sure his smile actually existed.
“It will not be easy,” Snape said.
“I know that,” Harry said.
“You might regret this.”
“Your children, and others, are sure to wonder what you have done.”
Harry nodded, thinking of the way that James would react, and Lily, and maybe Al, who had developed a form of cool analysis during his time in Slytherin that he applied to everything his parents did. They would probably wonder, at least a little, if Harry had wanted to divorce Ginny because he wanted Snape.
But then he thought of Ginny and her friendly tolerance, Hermione and her ability to offer suggestions, the way that Ron had decided Harry’s wings were brilliant when he had seen them save his life, and he smiled.
“We’ll get on,” he said.
Request: (from gingertart50): Harry/Snape, Plot and characterisation, UST, romance, angst is ok as long as there is a happy or hopeful ending. unusual career choices. Post-epilogue romance with the children as matchmakers (sort of, in a backhand manner), one of the characters (or a family member) has a major problem, overcomes his pride and asks for help, and ends up with much more than he bargained for.
Author’s Notes: Happy Beltane, ! Thank you for giving such wonderful prompts; I had a lot of fun writing this. I hope this story isn’t too angsty for you; I’ve done what I can to lighten it without making it too fluffy, either. Thanks to L., who did a great beta job even though she detests Harry Potter.
Author’s Notes: Happy Beltane, ! Thank you for giving such wonderful prompts; I had a lot of fun writing this. I hope this story isn’t too angsty for you; I’ve done what I can to lighten it without making it too fluffy, either. Thanks to L., who did a great beta job even though she detests Harry Potter.
Please return to LJ to post a review!