I really do detest Muggle London. Nothing has changed, except this year it is raining, which, though it dampens the noise and diminishes the crowds, intensifies the smells and heightens the bleakness. I am resigned to this, however. After what he had to put up with last year, I can hardly lodge even the tiniest complaint about inconvenience.
Although technically, I was not responsible for those circumstances. I certainly didn't plan to be accosted on the road from Hogsmeade, and no one had demanded that he play mediwitch, either. Well, perhaps Poppy had, but my hands were clean in that matter.
I know why I'm thinking about this right now, as I walk the rest of the way to his flat. I am confused by what he did last year. Well no, not what, but rather, why. It was an amazingly sacrificial thing for him to do, and had he not done it, something else would have been worked out. Surely, he'd known that. So it leaves me with the same question, and the dilemma of what to say to him in acknowledgment. And, oh yes, something needs to be said. By me. To him. Enough time has passed that he should expect me to express my gratitude. I'm sure he was not surprised that I said nothing before he left last year. We were both a trifle shell-shocked, I believe. But I've had a whole year to reflect on his behavior, and he will be expecting me to say something. The fact of the matter is that I am still confused by his choosing to stay, especially as Poppy told me he was well-informed on what to expect. Confused that he willingly subjected himself to taking care of my rather disturbing, physical needs. Confused that, rather than being repulsed by those needs, he had quite literally embraced them when the need had arisen. Confused by that singular moment when I had awakened and become gradually aware of those arms around me and his head resting on mine, although intellectually I understand that he was trying to physically protect me from myself. It had been a rather world-tilting experience, and although I have protected and saved his skin more times than I can recall, there had never been one moment when I was required to offer a comparable physical intimacy.
Ah yes. And the final confusion, the mother of them all, the confusion of my contentment that persisted long after that moment of awakening, that stretched through the rest of the evening, right up to the moment when we said our goodbyes for the year.
Severus....Harry....Two more lines crossed.
This then, is why I am not sure of what to say. What will I really be thanking him for? I have thought about it for a year, but remain...confused.
As I approach his building, I look up, half expecting to see him where he stood the last time I was here. But it is raining and the balcony is empty, the door shut. I have not planned as well has I should have. I am a full two hours early. But if he comments, I can point out his early arrival last year. He had an explanation for it, of course, but I can call it into question if need be.
I stop in front of his door, shifting the paper sac to my other arm so I can knock. I wait a reasonable half-minute, and when there is no answer, I feel a twinge of apprehension. He's not here. I raise my hand again, but just as it's about to connect with the door, it opens. He grins shyly at the surprise I cannot hide quickly enough. It's taken him three years to get this reaction from me, and I mentally concede the point. The hair is back, longer and more unruly than I remember it. I cannot see if the earrings are still there, however. I've gotten him out of the shower, obviously, a towel tied around him at the waist.
"You're really early," he tells me, backing away to let me in.
I don't apologize, but also don't bring up last year as I'd planned to. "I had a few stops to make on the way, and they took less time than I anticipated." He leads me into the large, friendly room where I make myself at home while he continues into the bedroom to dress. Little has changed here. I notice that his desk has been cleared of work this time. Shucking off my wet coat, I invade the small kitchen, where the Glenlivit is already sitting out on the counter. I think it is the same bottle, untouched by the looks of the level, since the last time I was here.
He joins me, now dressed, as I'm pouring. The wet, disheveled hair makes him seem more like the boy I used to know. Not a boy now, though. A man. Soon to be twenty-two in little over an hour. I gesture at the bag on the counter. "Happy Birthday."
He looks shocked, then uncertain. Unfolding the top of it, he peers down, then grins. "Wow. You brought me beer? I didn't think you approved," he teases. Pulling it out, he twists the lid off a bottle, tilting it to read the label. "More than I spend, but thanks..."
He stops, looking at me, and we both know what the problem is. It's that little line that was crossed last year, and suddenly he's unsure. He eyes me for a moment, as if waiting for some sign. When I give him none, he finishes, "...Professor." His voice has gone slightly flat, and something inside me twists.
Before I can stop myself, I correct him. "Severus." He looks at me warily, still unsure. I reassure him. "You can call me Severus. It's not like you haven't before." He blushes, and I wonder at his being twenty-two.
"Well, it's not like I had your permission. I did it last year because you wouldn't wake up, and I was trying...to get a rise out of you," he finishes lamely.
I cannot resist needling him a little. "Precisely. And the other times, once I was awake?"
The game is up. I can tell he is catching on.
"Oh that," he tells me nonchalantly. "It seemed only natural since I'd seen you without your clothes on."
I choke on the Glenlivit and accept it good-naturedly when he pounds me on the back. "Well, although you had my permission to do neither, it seems rather pointless to impede progress, Harry." I say his name softly, and he cannot help but look me directly in the eye. The line has definitely been crossed now. In indelible ink, I think. I read something like gratitude in his expression, and find I am again struggling to push down my old friend...confusion.
He rescues both of us by picking up our drinks to move us to the couch. The rain is beating a rhythm against the glass door as we each take an end, turning slightly to face each other. I feel that familiar, disorienting deja vu as we do this, and remember that our last conversation here had not been altogether pleasant.
We spend a goodly amount of time catching him up on news from Hogwarts and bits of information that he wouldn't have found in the Prophet. I am surprised, then concerned in spite of myself, to learn that he is completely out of touch with his friends. When I am amazed that he did not even know that Granger is engaged, he is uncomfortable. He becomes downright defiant when I am shocked to learn that he hasn't seen Lupin in over a year.
"I told you, Professor." We both notice this intentional reversion to my title. "I need to make my own way here, in my world. I don't have anything in common with them anymore."
Two things occur to me almost at once. Firstly, I have no idea how he is making his own way here, and secondly, when did I even start to care about this? But I realize that, regrettable as it is, I do care. Another huge line crossed. Probably also in indelible ink.
"Harry," I probe gently, "what is it you do here? You've never told me." Truthfully, I've never asked, but I want to know now, more than I care to admit. "Tell me, Harry, I'd really like to know."
He's tugging on his lower lip, a mannerism that I recognize, and now he is a boy again. But not a boy, I tell myself. He is considering what to say, too carefully I think, and my concern grows.
"I'm at university. I've just finished up my third year in Graphic Design, with a second in Art. I have one more year before I sit the exam, then a year in practicum."
Ah. The sketchbook. "And how did this come about? I didn't know you had these inclinations or abilities," I confess. I know what art is, but I'm without a clue on graphic design. His eyes light up as he warms to the subject. There is Muggle technology that I'm not familiar with, but the scientific principles underlying the concepts are ones that I can appreciate. It is heartwarming to see that he has found something he is passionate about, and I find that I am grateful to whatever gods there may be that he has found this. He deserves this consolation in life, having been deprived of so many others.
I am more curious about the art. "Surely you did not have much encouragement in this at Hogwarts, outside of the occasional drawing of magical creatures or plants?"
For some reason, he is not as eager to talk about the art. "It's always been a hobby, even before I came to Hogwarts. At the Dursley's, I had a lot of, er...free time on my hands, with nothing to do, so all I really needed was a pencil and some paper...to draw."
He will not look at me, then falls silent. I am trying to remember something buried deep down in the Snape archives on Harry Potter. Dumbledore had provided me with detailed information on the boy's upbringing when he assigned him to Lupin and me for training in his sixth year.
Suddenly I have it. Carefully, I approach the subject. "You drew when they shut you in the cupboard? Is that it, Harry?" He looks nonplussed that I know. I tell him urgently, "It's all right, Harry. Only Lupin and I know. The Headmaster told us before we took you on in your sixth year. He thought it might come up." I bloody well wish it would've come up. How could we have been so stupid not to see it? That infuriating self-reliance that we'd practically had to bludgeon out of him had been born out of necessity. He'd had no one to rely on but himself, all those years with the Dursleys. Shut up in a cupboard. Drawing, indeed.
"It wasn't all that bad, Severus." Ah, the name is back. "It's not like they beat me or anything. They just didn't ...care. So I spent a lot of time drawing, and it turns out I have a natural flair for it." He stops, looking at me for a reaction, needing reassurance that I'm not going to overreact. I give it to him for now.
"Well, some good came of it then. What do you like to draw?" Relieved, he starts to talk.
It is very late when he appears to be suddenly talked-out. When he stands and starts for his desk, I know what he is about to do, so I stop him. "Harry, I forfeit the couch. It's only fair, as I had the bed last year without a toss."
He grins and says, "Frankly, Severus, I think last year you would've gladly changed places with me. Your having the bed was no picnic." I grunt in amused agreement, and am not surprised when he returns with the Galleon nevertheless.
"Your call," he says as he tosses it. I call heads, and naturally it is. I do not feel guilty as I settle in on the couch. He had his chance, and had with true Gryffindor gallantry yielded it. I hear him grumbling as he finds his spot on the floor.
The next morning we do not even broach the subject of leaving the room. This is the fourth anniversary, after all, and it seems we have resigned ourselves to the true spirit of the request, even if we still have no idea why we are still doing this. Neither of us seems unhappy with the restriction this year. I wonder what this might mean.
After breakfast, the sketchbook appears and he moves off to his tilt-table. I spread my books and papers out over the small kitchen counter, and perch on the stool there. We work well into the afternoon before stopping for tea. I tell him about the research I have been doing during the summer breaks, and about the book that I expect will be published next year. I realize as I tell him, that he is the first person to know of my plans. He seems genuinely pleased for me, and I am surprised that he is even able to grasp the rudimentary concepts behind the research. "Well, Potions was never your forte, Potter." I do this intentionally, using his last name now, reminiscent of our teacher-student standoffs.
He gets the joke, and I am gratified when he parries, "Well, it might have been, Professor, if you hadn't been such a pain in the arse." We share a laugh. I think that another line has been crossed, but I am not sure of the ink.
We move to the couch again and settle in, much as before. This time the deja vu is stronger, for I have an agenda now, and intentionally plan to provoke him for his own good. Some part of me asks what in blazes I think I'm doing, but I ignore it. It must have something to do with all the lines that have been crossed, so what's one more?
"So, you've found something you really like to do. I'm glad for you, Harry. So many people manage to muddle through life without finding it." I truly am glad for him, but it doesn't stop me from feeling like the hypocrite that I am, knowing what I am about to do. He smiles at this, vulnerable, unaware that this may be his last happy moment of the day. But I know that I have read him rightly on this, and have to confront him for his own good. I do wonder, though, why this has become important to me. As time is short, I decide that I'll worry about this later.
"So tell me about your friends, Harry. Is it much different, considering that they're Muggles?" His smile falters a little, and I know I have him. When he hesitates, I push even further. "Are you seeing anyone? A girl? You were always on the verge of breaking someone's heart at Hogwarts." I don't know this to be true, but it can't be too far off the mark. The Boy-Who-Lived had always had a swarm of females in his wake, just waiting for him to notice them. Even I had not missed this.
"Well, no, there's no one in particular. I know...people from my classes. We have studio groups...three or four of us are assigned to work together on projects." He is telling me the truth, I am sure of it. But he is lying by omission, and I won't let him get away with it.
"Studio groups?" I ask him. "So these are people you get together with outside of class, too? You do things together? What is it Muggles do, theater, concerts?"
He has this strange, almost pleading expression on his face. He knows what I am doing, and is asking me, please, not to do it.
I am relentless. "When was the last time you did something like that, Harry? Got together with your friends? Went out to do something with them?" I pause to see if he'll answer. When he doesn't, I push on, even though he will no longer look at me. "When was the last time you had someone here?"
"Severus," he says quietly.
"Harry," I say firmly in return.
"Please don't do this," he pleads. I decide that "please" and pleading are not going to work here.
"Has there ever been anyone here besides me? In four years?"
He is silent long enough that he realizes, if he even entertained the thought, that he has lost the opportunity to lie. "No. No one's ever been here. But you."
"But why, Harry? Why have you no friends? You had friends at Hogwarts. Surely you don't think that this notion of making your own way means you must be totally alone, with no friends? It's not natural. It's not healthy." He laughs out loud at this, and I know what's coming.
"Tell me about friends, Severus. The only people you associate with are the other professors. What other people do you socialize with, outside of school and the occasional potions convention? Who do you get together with when you go down to Hogsmeade for a drink? No one. I know. Fred and George told me the summer after the Headmaster died, because I asked them. You're a loner, just like I am, so you can get off your high horse and quit preaching to me about how I need friends. You clearly don't."
Yes, and look at what a well-adjusted model wizard I've turned out to be. Instead I tell him, "Harry, I have reasons, choices I've made that can't be undone, that have isolated me. It's true that I don't have friends, but I haven't for a very long time, and I'm quite content with my life the way it is."
Liar, says the little voice inside my head. That's why you're so confused about Harry, you imbecile. He's started to remind you of what it's like to have a friend, in fact. All your pathetic confusion over the past year stems from this very idea, that you fear he is becoming a friend.
"I don't need friends right now either, Severus. And regardless of what you think my life was like at Hogwarts, most of those people were only interested in Harry Potter." He is sullen now, and I'm horrified to see that his eyes are brimming with tears.
"And my other friends, from Gryffindor, well, they changed during sixth year. We still hung around together, but it was never the same."
I move to give him my handkerchief, pressing it into his hand. Unfortunately, this is what seems to finally undo him. He uses it to shield his face, as he stuns me with the admission.
"I told them that year...that I'm gay."
I am careful of my reaction, knowing that he is watching for it. This is the last thing I ever expected to hear from him. My next thought, not even sparing another for the boy's present distress, is that if I could have dear Albus back here for one single instant, I would strangle him on the spot. There is no way he had not known about this.
He has been watching me over the handkerchief, and has mistaken my displeasure with the Headmaster for something else. "I'm sorry if I've disappointed you," he says flatly.
I realize that I have left him dangling. "No, Harry, not disappointed, just surprised. That's all."
Like tumblers sliding into place as the key is turned, I sense disjointed knowledge I have of this boy shift finally into focus. The pieces were there all along, but required this admission from him for me to be able to see it. It explains so many things - his estrangement from his friends starting in his sixth year, his legendary 'never the same girl twice' reputation, his pushing away Lupin, who had been the closest he'd had to a confidant since Black died. There are other things, I'm sure, that will suddenly make sense, but the exigency of the moment demands that I set them aside now and focus on the man before me. I have, after all, started this, and am still puzzled by his solitude.
In true Potter form, he has already thrown up the walls, arms crossed in front of him, and has fixed me with a polite stare. I've given him too much time to regroup, and suddenly this feels very much like those tedious, verbal sparring sessions that we both degenerated into during his training years. I am aware of the time ticking down, and decide to dispense with the more delicate approach.
"That was six years ago, Harry. You're a man now, so I'm assuming you're sure of this?"
He laughs for the second time in this conversation where nothing is funny. "Oh, I'm sure of it alright. I fought it off as long as I could, but I definitely have the disease."
Ah. This didn't take so long after all. Name-calling. Since he insists on using a medical metaphor, I'll play along and see how skillfully I can expose and excise this cancerous perception.
"Hmmm. So, you think of your sexual orientation as a disease? How interesting. Something unnatural, undesirable? Something shameful you must hide and deny? Something unacceptable that has just happened to you? Something you can never expect others to accept in you?" I pause before the final thrust. "Something that even you believe will warrant the ultimate and final rejection?"
If there was actually a question in there, he seems to have lost the thread of it. He has caught my sarcasm, however, but is not sure of the point I am trying to make.
"I'm not apologizing for what I am," he declares hotly. "I only told you because...that's a large part of why I'm so alone. I don't know how to even begin to meet...people..."
I mentally will him to say it.
"...men," he finishes miserably.
"When you discovered that you prefer men," I say it firmly and neutrally for his sake, "who did you talk to about it? The Headmaster? Or Lupin?"
He shakes his head. "Nobody," he says in almost a whisper. "I told Ron and Hermione, but we didn't really talk about it...you know...what the whole 'liking boys' thing actually involved. I think they felt sorry for me." He is blushing now in embarrassment, and I can't stop from trying to help him navigate through the rest of this obligatory conversation.
"So you've talked to no one?" He shakes his head. "You've had no...male friends, then?"
He is grateful to just be answering questions, to leave the direction we are going to me. "Well, there was a boy in Ravenclaw, seventh year. We were kind of, together, for awhile. We just looked at each other for the first couple of months, then we figured it out."
"And?" I prompt him when he takes too long to continue.
He shoots me an exasperated look. "And...we got together a couple of times, and never got beyond..." he swallows, "kissing... and some groping." He is looking down at his hands.
"No release?" I ask him.
He looks at me, surprised that I've asked. "Well, yes, I guess. If you can call it that when we both still had our clothes on."
I want to be sure. "And that's it? That's the extent of your experience...your sexual experience with another man?" I am trying hard to hide my disbelief...and my sadness.
He responds as if I've pounded the final nail into his coffin. "That's it." He pauses, looking off into space. "Pathetic, isn't it?"
Yes, it is pathetic, that this raven-haired, green-eyed beauty, savior of the Wizarding world, cliched as that is, should be so ashamed, so terrified, so utterly disgusted by his own sexual nature. That he has tried and convicted himself of this imaginary offense, then seen fit to punish and execute without appeal, is unconscionable. Lady Justice recoils at the neglect, and cries out to be heard, so I step into the dock.
Desperate times require desperate measures, another cliche, but so fitting here. I take the plunge, knowing that this is no little line I will cross here, but more like a giant chasm. There will be no going back once it is done.
I stand, not looking at him, taking the few steps to his end of the couch. As he looks up at me in surprise, I reach over and slide the small table from his end of the couch so that it sits directly in front of him. As I straddle it and sit, he tucks his legs up under him and scoots back, attempting to preserve his personal space. Holding his eyes with my own, registering the alarm that I see there, I reach over slowly and pick up both his hands in my own. He pulls away reflexively, but I jerk him back, my hands moving to his wrists. His face is a mirror of surprise and confusion. We remain this way for a moment as I search his face, allowing my own features to relax, willing him to read the empathy there. When I sense that he will not bolt, I loosen my grip, but do not release his hands. He settles back a little into the couch, and I lean forward slightly to accommodate this.
"Harry," I begin softly, "I want you to promise that you will consider very carefully what I have to say to you. I know that in the past things have been rather, well, difficult between the two of us. But this is perhaps the most important thing I will ever have to say to you." I pause, giving him a moment. "Will you listen to me?"
The green eyes are wary, but there is something else there...almost wistful. When he nods, I continue. "I wish I could have known you were torturing yourself over this. There is absolutely nothing, Harry, I repeat, nothing wrong with you. Nothing. Preferring to love a man instead of a woman is just a variation on a theme. Neither one is better or more acceptable than the other," I rebuke him gently. "It has always been this way in the Wizarding world. Somehow or other you have missed this. I'm not sure how it's viewed in the Muggle world, but perhaps that's where all this self-degradation has come from?"
My voice has let him know that I expect an answer. He nods, then croaks out, "Maybe...probably. It just doesn't seem normal," he adds.
I squeeze his hands. "But it is normal. Surely you know that. It's not as common, to be sure, but there are binding ceremonies done all the time for same-sex couples. You've seen the notices in the Prophet." When he nods again, I continue. "The Wizarding world has always accepted men loving men, and women loving women, because, from the start, it was recognized that it is love that is the key component. And sex," the boy's eyes widen a little, "is just the natural expression of that love, regardless of the gender of the couple."
I release his hands then, and sit back. "Harry." It is a gentle command. The boy meets my eyes, and something in my belly clenches as I see him on the verge of tears again. "What do you know about the actual physical act of a man being with a man?" I know that I am exuding empathy.
He licks his lower lip before replying. "I know what...to do...technically. I've read books...seen pictures. And I think it would be wonderful...but I'm afraid I won't know...how," he finishes, once again sounding miserable.
I wonder if the misery is because of the sad state of his love life, or this conversation with me. He looks obviously ashamed at this admission, and I feel the same clenching sensation again. I startle both him, and myself, when I reach over and gently tilt his chin up. He does not pull away, but trembles slightly as I tell him, "First you love, Harry. And the sex...you know the bare mechanics of it. And that is all you need to know. If you love...believe me, the sex will find its own way." A tear has spilled over onto his cheek, and without thinking, I use my other hand to gently brush it away. A line has not just been crossed. It's been obliterated.
We eat a late, quiet dinner where neither of us is particularly hungry. While he sits on the couch, I peruse his bookcase, asking him questions, and we entertain a lively discussion on the use of Muggle technology to model magical warding systems. I always knew that he was intelligent, but that he could be innovatively so, is a pleasant surprise. I bite back the comment that the Wizarding world would benefit from some of his ideas. But I let him see my admiration, and am gratified when he glows at it.
Too soon, and I wonder at this thought of 'too soon', midnight is approaching. We stand on either side of the counter as he pours the Glenlivit.
As we prepare to toast, he says to me, "I thought for a moment this evening that we might have fulfilled the obligation, you know, whatever it is that the Headmaster was after."
I laugh. "Oh I doubt it would be that simple. Actually, I thought the same thing last year, after you...took care of me." He is looking at me, a question in his eyes. "I suspect it will take more than each of us doing the other a good turn. Albus was always into the more complex nature of things."
We clink our glasses together, and intone, "To Albus Dumbledore." Setting my glass down, I reduce all my confusion over the events of last year to two words. "Thank you, Harry, for last year."
Those warm, green eyes shine as he nods his acceptance.
As I gather my things, it is inevitable that he again makes the offer. "You could just spend the rest of the night, you know."
I straighten, and consider him thoughtfully, then ask, already knowing the answer. "Will you show me the sketchbook then, Harry?"
His shoulders droop a little, then he tells me, "No, I don't think so. I'm sorry."
He seems to think he's disappointed me, so I reach over and brush his cheek with the back of my hand before I turn to leave. He catches it between his own, and holds it there a moment longer.
When I turn to look back at him from the doorway, his hand is still at his cheek as he tells me, "See you next year, Severus."
As I cross the street in front of his building, I have no choice but to look up at the balcony. The wraith-boy of two years ago is gone, and in his place stands a man. I raise my hand in farewell, then turn away, not caring that with the gesture I have crossed yet another invisible line.