torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
February - July 24, 2002 (September 2002)

Disclaimer: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Slytherin. Or a Gryffindor. The hat's still debating Ravenclaw vs Hufflepuff. Started more or less in response to a challenge I believe was made by Telanu once upon a time, finished for Ellen's birthday. Many, many thanks to elynross, Beth, Temaris, Julad and I. B. for their help! Do not archive this story without permission.

flambeau: (10:59 PM) I don't think I could write a story where anyone called anyone else a sexy bitch unless it was part of a game of truth or dare gone badly wrong or something *g*
flambeau: (10:59 PM) Hm. That could work.

Pale green

Harry nearly dropped his bottle of Butterbeer. He stared at his best friend. "You want me to say what? Have you gone completely mad?"

Ron grinned. He seemed to think that he'd had a brilliant idea. "You said dare, I dared you. Are you saying you're scared of Snape?"

"Of course not!" Harry lifted his chin. Hermione, next to Ron, was pink in the face with suppressed laughter. "But at dinner? In front of the whole school? Don't you think that's a little...?"

"I could've asked you to wear my old purple dress robes while you do it," Ron pointed out, and Harry, who had tried to see if another swallow of Butterbeer would make sense of things, nearly snarfled it through his nose, avoiding disaster by a very narrow margin. Neville, next to him, wasn't so lucky, and sprayed hot tea all down the front of his robes.

"That was really funny, Ron," Hermione said, some of her laughter breaking free. She straightened up and reached for her wand. "Who's next?"

"Neville." Ron shifted to give Hermione room for her Drying Charm. He looked at Harry. "So, tomorrow at dinner, then?"

Hermione spoke the last word of the charm wrong, and the tea stains on Neville's robes turned into embroidered roses. Tea roses. "You're not really going to make him do it! You can't make Harry say that to a teacher!"

"Come on, Hermione! Don't you want to see the look on Snape's face?"

Hermione put on her sternest look, the one where she did something with her jaw that made her look almost like McGonagall. "I don't want Harry to spend the rest of the year in detention!" Ron opened his mouth, and Hermione went on, more loudly, "Do you want him to miss every single Quidditch practice? Slytherin would win the Cup, and—"

"All right!" Ron held his hands up and shook his head. "Not at dinner. Not out loud. How about writing it on the board down in Snape's dungeon? With any luck, he wouldn't see it until he came in to teach the next morning."

Neville stopped poking at the roses and looked up with a fascinated, terrified grin. "He'd be awfully angry."

"Yeah, but he wouldn't actually know it was Harry, would he?" Ron grinned and took another swig of Butterbeer. "So it's safe. Go on, Harry, off with you."

"What, now?" Harry held his bottle in both hands and tried to scrunch down into his robe.

"Yes, now." Ron shot a quick sideways look at Hermione. "It's Sunday evening, he won't be there, you won't be caught. No detention. And we have Potions first thing tomorrow."

Neville made a small, squeaking sound. "But, but—!"

Hermione frowned. "Ron, I really don't think—"

"Don't be such a prefect," Ron said. "Harry's not scared. Are you, Harry?"

"It's really Neville's turn," Hermione said. "We should just go on playing. You want to take a turn, don't you, Neville?"

"N— yes," Neville said, glancing at Harry. "Of c-course."

"I'll do it," Harry said abruptly. He set his bottle down and got up. "Don't hold up the game for me. Neville should take his turn now."

"All right," Ron crowed. "Neville? Truth or dare?"

"Truth," Neville said faintly, as Harry went out through the portrait hole.

It was much colder outside. Harry drew his robes together and hurried towards the stairs. Many of the portraits he passed smiled at him, and two Hufflepuffs waved from another staircase, but no one asked him where he was going.

Torches burned along the corridor all the way to Snape's classroom. Maybe he was there. The door was closed. Harry thought about going back for the Marauder's Map. Then he knocked. He could say that he had left his quill behind last time.

There was no answer, and he pushed the door open and went inside. He walked to the board. On the teacher's desk lay two metal globes, about as big as apples, one silvery and one bronze. Harry looked at them curiously. He'd never seen anything like them before. Drawing a deep breath, he started to write: Professor Snape is a sexy...

He stopped writing. Had Ron really said that? Harry wasn't sure. He should probably have written it down on a note. "Sexy, anyway," he said and rubbed at the back of his neck. "And, and, what was it. I want him to take me to his secret love nest and show me his magic wand?"

"Really, Potter," a voice drawled behind him. "Right now, or did you want to make an appointment for later?"

Harry jumped. He spun around, and there was Snape, looking at him. "Professor Snape! I — I just—" Harry stumbled over his own feet, and when he reached out to steady himself, he put his hand on the silvery globe.

Everything went black.

* * *

Harry cautiously opened one eye, saw a familiar, lean, black-robed figure, and quickly shut it again.

"I can tell you're awake, Potter." The robes rustled. "Or should I cast an Ice Drops spell on you to revive you?"

"Please don't." Harry sat up. He opened his eyes again. "Where am I?"

"In my secret love nest. Wasn't that what you said you wanted?"

"It was a dare," Harry said quickly. "We— We were playing a game."

"I see." Snape steepled his long, thin fingers together. "You're good at games, aren't you, Potter?"

"Er," Harry said. He looked down at his knees, and at his hands, bunching into his robes. "What was that thing? The one I touched?"

"The globe? There is an Unconsciousness Charm on it. I wouldn't expect you to remember that you are studying Awakening Potions tomorrow. They're unlikely to work if you are all upright and conscious."

"Oh." Harry looked at his fingertips. "Professor Snape, can I go now?"

"Are you certain you don't want to stay and play another kind of game?" Snape's voice dropped from its usual sharp scorn to something sharper and more challenging. "You asked me for something, Potter. Perhaps I'm in the mood to give it to you."

Harry scrambled backwards, only now registering that he was on a couch, and Snape was looking down on him, and how could anyone that thin loom quite so much? It had to be the robes. "I wouldn't have said it if Ron hadn't dared me!" Then he bit his tongue.

"Ah, yes." Snape dropped down next to Harry, and the couch dipped a little towards his greater weight. "The grim terror that is Ronald Weasley frightened you into doing it. I quite see."

"I'm not frightened!" Harry snapped before he could think.

"Foolhardy courage has always been one of your more outstanding characteristics," Snape agreed. "Along with not considering the consequences of your actions."

Harry looked around. It was a small room, with a couch and a fireplace and a rolltop desk crammed with papers and books, and didn't look like a love nest, exactly. Not that he was certain what a love nest looked like, but he was pretty sure love nests didn't have creepy things in jars. "I already know you don't like me, Professor. Can I go now?"

"No."

At the side of the couch was a small table. On the table, Harry could see a book, a carafe with some pale green liquid, and a glass, which was empty.

"I suppose you'll give me a detention." Harry kicked his heel against the side of the couch. Snape was sitting very close. It was peculiar. He could sort of tell what shape Snape was, under those voluminous robes, and it made Snape seem different somehow, though Harry wasn't sure why.

Like a person, not just like someone who stood at the front of a classroom and sneered, but like someone real, someone.... Harry's mind groped for the rest of that thought. He wasn't aware that he was staring until Snape said, "You don't make a very convincing Basilisk, Potter."

"There are enough ugly statues at Hogwarts already," Harry shot back. Then he braced himself for getting detention for the rest of the year after all.

"Am I to take it that you go around school and ask all the ugly statues you meet to take you to their love nest?"

Snape had turned to face Harry, and his arm lay along the backrest, hand curved not far from Harry's shoulder. Harry looked at it quickly, and then away, and then he looked at it again.

"It was a dare," he said again. Maybe Snape didn't understand about things like dares. Harry didn't think he could have explained how Ron had sounded, or how Hermione had giggled, or Neville's attempt to be kind.

"I'm quite sure that an inventive young man such as yourself could have gotten out of Mr. Weasley's dare if you had truly not wanted to do it."

"What?" Harry stared. "You're mental. I didn't want to do it! I didn't want to— I don't want— I mean, I never— you're completely mental!" Snape raised an eyebrow. "Raving, really!" Harry added, in case Snape hadn't gotten it yet.

"Really." Snape flexed his hand. His fingertips brushed against the upper part of Harry's arm. "So you would have been just as happy to make fun of any other teacher at Hogwarts."

"Ulp," Harry said. "I mean— Yeah!"

Snape smiled a little again. "Ah. Of course." His fingers wandered up Harry's arm and onto his shoulder. "Haven't you learned by now, Potter, never to ask for something you don't truly want?"

Harry bit his lip. He tried to keep perfectly still as Snape's fingers moved across his shoulder, but when the first fingertip touched his bare neck, he shuddered. "I really think I should go now," he said, and his voice was quiet and sort of shaky.

"Perhaps you should." Snape's voice sounded different, too, and his dark eyes didn't fully meet Harry's. The fire crackled. Harry wasn't sure he could feel the rest of his body, just that small, bare part of his throat where Snape's fingertip moved in short, soft strokes. "If you think you've learned your lesson."

"Right. Yeah." Harry couldn't move. "Wh-where's the door?"

He couldn't look away. If he swallowed, his throat would press back against Snape's touch. Harry stared, desperately, at the corner of Snape's mouth. He was the one who had turned to stone.

Snape cleared his throat. He shook his head, just once, the way someone might nod just once. "Behind you, Potter. The door is right behind you." He seemed to be waiting for something. "The password is Paracelsus."

"P-Paracelsus?" Harry breathed. The room was too small for a fire that big.

The stroking finger left Harry's throat, and it felt like a reverse burn, cool air coming in to freeze all the places Snape had touched. Deep inside, he was shaking.

"Go." Snape straightened a little, and Harry found breath, found movement, and began to raise himself up, pushing against the backrest.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I have to go." He braced himself, but his elbow refused to lock. It was as though his joints had gone soft. "This was— It's—" His mouth moved before his thoughts could catch up. "Nobody ever touched me like that before."

Snape's eyes burned, and he moved so fast, in a flurry of black, that Harry hardly understood that he was caught, and held, and pulled down. "Shut up, Potter," Snape hissed, pouring the words into Harry's mouth, kissing him until he thought he was going to die.

When they broke apart again, it hurt to breathe. Snape yanked Harry to his feet, and Harry stumbled across the small room and out through the door that opened before him and then slammed behind him.

He was in a corridor not far from the classroom door. Harry took three steps and walked into the wall. He straightened up and tried again. His knees weren't working properly. Leaning against the wall, he knuckled his eyes fiercely and swallowed hard.

There was a strange taste in his mouth. Sort of a pale green taste, he decided.

After a while, he stopped shaking. Harry went back along the corridor until he came to the stairs.

Outside the entrance to the Gryffindor tower, he stopped again. It was late, and he hadn't met anyone on his way. The Fat Lady looked at him and clucked her tongue. "Are you all right, dear? You look a little peaky."

"I'm fine," he said. "Eudaemon."

"Better have some chocolate," she advised as the portrait swung open.

Harry climbed inside. It was darker now. He walked over to the others. Neville had fallen asleep leaning against the couch, and Hermione and Ron seemed to be playing a game that involved a lot of tickling and slapping. Ron looked up. "Harry! How did it go?"

"Snape was there." Harry rubbed at the back of his neck. His mouth felt a bit sore when he talked.

"Oh, no!" Hermione looked worried. "What happened? Did he give you detention?"

"No," Harry said. "I'm going to bed."

He turned and went towards the stairs. "Yeah, okay," Ron said behind his back, sounding a bit confused. Hermione whispered something that Harry couldn't hear.

Harry went to the bathroom and brushed his teeth for twenty minutes. His Marvellous Mint toothpaste seemed to taste pale green, somehow. Harry rinsed and spat and squeezed out more toothpaste. "Careful, there," the mirror said. "Your gums are bleeding."

"Oh, good," Harry said, and brushed some more. The mirror hmfed and made him look all wavery and pale.

When he went to the dorm room, Ron still wasn't back. Seamus was asleep and snoring. Harry got into bed and lay staring up at the bedcurtains for a while. Then he realized Ron would come in and talk to him. He pulled the covers over his head.

Harry clenched his hands. When he closed his eyes, he could see himself, sitting on the couch down in that little room in the dungeons. He couldn't understand why the Harry he saw didn't just get up and leave. Harry poked at his gums with his tongue. He tasted blood and mint and pale green.

Ron didn't come back until an hour later, dragging a sleepy Neville. Harry pretended to be asleep.

Next morning, Harry got up before anyone else and had a long bath. He spent a long time washing the side of his neck. The mirror kept quiet, even when he stood right in front of it and yanked at his hair with a comb. He put on both a shirt and a sweater under his robes and went down to sit in front of the common room fire.

The first- and second-years kept giggling and running back up to their dormitories for things they'd forgotten. Harry saw that his half-empty bottle of Butterbeer was still standing next to the couch. Seamus and Dean came down, and he went with them to breakfast.

It was very noisy in the great hall. Harry sat next to Dean and picked at his scrambled eggs. Dean kept staring at Susan Bones, over at the Hufflepuff table, until Seamus threw a roll at him. Dean threw a roll right back, and Professor McGonagall swept past the table and cleared her throat.

Hermione came down and sat across from Harry. Her hair was frizzier than usual, and she put her books on the table with a thump. "The roses won't come out of Neville's robes," she said. "Can you lend him your spare ones?"

"I suppose." Harry put his fork down. "I'll go tell him where they are. See you in Potions?"

"You haven't finished your breakfast." Hermione looked at the scrambled eggs on Harry's plate. "Are you all right? When you came back last night, I thought—"

"Harry, you have to lend Neville your spare robes," Ron said, sitting down next to Hermione. "His other ones have holes in them from the Biting Hydrangea. Ow, Hermione, what're you poking at me for?"

"See you later," Harry said quickly and got up. When he came to the door, he looked back over his shoulder. Snape wasn't in his usual place at the teachers' table. Harry slipped outside into the hall.

He ran back up the stairs and went into the Gryffindor tower. Up in the dormitory, Neville was sitting on the edge of his bed, poking his fingers through the holes in his sleeves. He looked up as Harry came in. "Harry? Do you think...."

"Hermione told me." Harry went to the foot of his bed and pulled back the curtains on the right-hand side. His robes hung on a hook set in the bedpost. He took them down and handed them to Neville. "Here."

"Thanks!" Neville put them on. They were a little short on him. He'd grown a lot last summer. "Do you want to— Oh, no, we won't have time for breakfast."

They went down to the dungeons. Halfway down, Harry discovered that his quill was broken. "I have to go back and get a new one," he said.

"I have one I can lend you." Neville tugged at his sleeve. "Hurry! You know how mad Professor Snape gets when we're late."

They caught up with Ron and Hermione outside the classroom and went in together. This year, they had Potions with the Hufflepuffs instead of with the Slytherins. Neville took a seat with Ernie MacMillan, and Ron and Hermione sat down next to each other and carried on a whispered conversation. Harry thought about sitting next to Susan Bones, but Dean would probably make him regret it. He sat next to Justin Finch-Fletchley and realized that Neville hadn't lent him a quill after all.

Ron and Hermione kept whispering. After a while, the whole class whispered. Snape was late. "But he's never late," Justin said. "Do you think he's ill?"

"How should I know?" Harry said, staring at his broken quill. Then he looked up in time to see Justin look a bit offended. "Maybe he just overslept."

They started to play hangman in Justin's notebook, and Harry was running out of vowels and limbs when Professor Flitwick came in through the door. "I'm afraid this morning's Potions class has been cancelled," he said. An excited babble broke out. Professor Flitwick cleared his throat. "However, Professor Dumbledore asks you to read up on Awakening Potions for your next class. He is certain that he will have found a substitute teacher by then."

The excited babble got even louder. Hermione put her hand up. "Is Professor Snape expected to be away for a long time?"

Professor Flitwick looked troubled. "As a matter of fact, Professor Snape will be leaving Hogwarts for — for a while."

Harry turned his broken quill over between his fingers. Professor Flitwick left, and everyone began to talk at once. "Too bad it's not for good," Ron said.

Hermione looked troubled. "I wonder who will take over his classes?"

"Whoever it is, they can't be worse." Ron got up and walked over to where Harry was sitting. Justin had already left. "All right, Harry?"

"I'm fine." Harry stood up. Hermione came up to them, and they walked out of the classroom. Looking to the right, Harry saw the corridor vanish into darkness. Ron and Hermione turned left, towards the stairs. "I just have to do something," Harry said. "I won't be long."

He darted down the corridor to the right, turned right again, and stood outside the door to Snape's little room. Harry wondered if he should knock. Then he said "Paracelsus," and the door swung open.

Snape stood by the rolltop desk, crushing rolls of parchment between his hands and dropping them to the floor. He turned in a swirl of robes as Harry stepped inside. "What are you doing here?" he said. "Get out."

Harry shook his head. He closed the door and leaned back against it. The carafe and glass were gone from the small table, but everything else looked the same. The room had no windows. It could have been the same time of night, even. "You're leaving."

Snape stared at him. "Yes. I am leaving."

"Why?"

"There is no reason for you to be obtuse, Potter." Snape turned back to the desk. "And there is no reason for you to be here. Get out."

Harry pressed his hands flat against the door. There was the couch. That was where he had been sitting. That was where Snape had — had—

"Why did you do that?" he burst out. "You can't just leave and, and not tell me."

For a moment, it seemed that Snape hadn't heard him. Then Harry saw that Snape was standing a little bent forward, with his hands on the desk and his head down, more parchment crumpling between his fingers. He straightened and turned around slowly.

"I suppose for once in your life you're entitled to this," he said in a drained voice. "Very well. I apologize. I had been drinking. It will, as should be extremely obvious even to you, never happen again." Snape dropped another piece of parchment on the floor. "Now get out."

"That pale green stuff," Harry said. "You were drunk?" Most of the people he had seen get drunk had been loud and incoherent and full of laughter.

Snape paused. "Yes," he said after a little while.

"Why me?" Harry burst out. "Why did you do that to me?"

"It was pure bad luck." Snape looked icy. "You came along at the wrong moment."

"Oh." Harry stared at the couch. "So it could have been anyone. You," he fumbled in his memory for the words, "you would have been just as happy to kiss any other student." He lifted his hands from the door and took a step into the room. "Have you done that to — to other students?"

"No," Snape said. "Get out, Potter. I would think this is the last place you'd want to be, and I can hardly pack if you keep asking me inane questions."

"But I want to know—" Harry paused as Snape glared at him. "I'll ask you when you come back," he said. "I don't care if you give me detention. I want to know."

"Back?" Snape took a step towards Harry. "Potter, I'm leaving."

"Leaving Hogwarts?" It was like hearing that the Astronomy tower had decided to pack its bags and go. "I thought you were going to, to spy on the Death Eaters or something."

"That seems quite probable, yes." Snape looked as though he had a headache. "There are some things even disgraced Potions masters are good for, after all."

"Disgraced," Harry said blankly. "But why are you leaving?"

Snape stared at him for a long moment. Then he walked over and sat on the arm of the couch. He looked tired, and not like someone who would loom over students and say mean things to them. At the same time, he still looked like Snape, so Harry wasn't really surprised when he said, "You are being remarkably dense, Potter, even for you."

"You're a teacher," Harry said. "You can explain it to me."

"I am leaving Hogwarts," Snape said slowly and clearly, "because I am leaving my job as Potions master. I am leaving my teaching position because last night, I molested a student."

He closed his mouth, very tight.

"You just kissed me," Harry said.

Snape looked as though he would like to do something quite different to Harry than kiss him. "I know I've said this before, but it seems to take some time for anything to penetrate your brain. Get out, Potter."

"No. Wait." Harry took another step closer. "You can't leave Hogwarts because of this."

"Are you going to pretend that you want me to stay?" Snape asked. "How touching, if entirely unconvincing."

"Listen." Harry felt shaky inside, but he made his voice as firm as he could. He didn't try to go any nearer, though. "Have you told everyone that you're leaving?"

"Only Dumbledore. I felt no need to advertise my folly to a wider audience."

"Tell him you've changed your mind, then. That it was, was a misunderstanding or something."

Snape looked strangely at him. "I don't think he would believe me. Nor do I see why you're standing there telling me what to do."

"Because it's important!" Harry burst out. "I — I heard about the Death Eaters. That they only accepted you back because you said you could spy on Dumbledore. You can't pretend you're spying on Dumbledore if you're not even at Hogwarts, can you?"

"I fail to see how this is any of your concern."

Harry discovered that he could take a step closer, after all. "You have to stay at Hogwarts," he said, talking to Snape very slowly the way Snape sometimes did to Neville. "You have to be, be useful. You can't just run away."

"I'm not running away." Snape's voice was cold. "I'm taking responsibility for my actions — not something I expect you to be familiar with, granted, but—"

"Shut up," Harry said, and to his surprise, Snape did. Before he could lose his nerve, he went on, "You're not really being responsible at all. If you go away, you're acting as though this — that — last night — was more important than defeating Voldemort. Was it?" Snape scowled. "Well, was it?"

"It's a question of professional ethics!"

"I don't care!" Harry took another step. "If you feel bad about it, shouldn't you try to make it up to me or something? I want you to stay." He shook his head. "If you go, and it goes wrong, and you get killed and we don't have—" He broke off, horrified at the sound of his own voice. Turning his back on Snape, he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "I don't want anyone else to die," he said, voice a bit muffled by his arms, his sleeves.

It was quiet in the room. Harry rubbed at his eyes and blinked hard and stared at the door until the flush started to go out of his cheeks.

"People will, you know," Snape said behind him in a quiet voice Harry had never heard from him before.

"No," Harry said stubbornly.

"Yes." There was a rustle of cloth, and the next time Snape spoke, he was closer. "I'll stay, then. And I apologize. And now, will you finally get out of here and leave me in peace?" By the time he got to the last words, he sounded just like his old self, mean and irritated.

"All right." Harry went to the door and put his hand on it again. He looked back over his shoulder. Snape still looked tired. "Paracelsus," Harry said, and went out.

The next class was Herbology. He met Hermione and Neville outside greenhouse four and realized that he was still carrying his broken quill around. Neville tugged at the sleeves of Harry's robe, trying to get them down over his wrists. "You can order by owl from Madam Malkin," Hermione said.

Neville nodded. He looked resigned. "I was saving up for an owl of my own. I think I have enough for a set of robes."

Ron came running at the last minute, just when Professor Sprout let them into the greenhouse. He was grinning and had a smudge of dirt on one cheek. "I ran into Malfoy," he said.

"Didn't realize that was so much fun," Harry said.

"No, no, I ran into Malfoy. Right by the big mud puddle outside the tower door." Ron looked blissful. "He won't be clean for a week."

Harry laughed, and everything seemed completely normal. It was warm and damp inside the greenhouse, and he worked with Hermione on coaxing Timidula seed pods to open by tickling them gently on the underside. Professor Sprout asked Neville to help her with the Biting Hydrangea again, because he'd done so well with it last time. Neville looked nervously at Harry as he went off.

After class, Ron asked Hermione to go with him around the lake to look at a tree that had a funny mark on one side. "I have to look at my Arithmancy homework," Hermione said. "I should have worked on it last night."

"You said you weren't too busy last night," Ron said, sounding a little aggrieved.

"That was because I thought I could look at my Arithmancy homework today. And that's what I'm going to do." Hermione brushed her hands on her robe. "Mind your sleeves, you're going to spill the seeds on the floor."

She walked away. Ron turned to Harry.

"I don't understand girls."

"I didn't know you were trying," Harry said, and Ron thumped him on the shoulder. "Maybe you should have asked her to go look at something more interesting than a tree."

"Like what?" Ron scowled.

"I don't know. The gardens by moonlight?"

"During lunch?"

They went back to the castle and caught up with Neville and Dean and Seamus in the entrance hall. There were sausages and mashed potatoes for lunch, and mushy peas. Neville looked very apologetic. The Biting Hydrangea had put a hole in the sleeve of Harry's robes.

"I asked Professor Sprout," Neville said, "and Hydrangea bites are magical, so mending charms don't work." He poked his finger through the hole. "I'm really sorry, Harry. Professor Sprout promised that she would show me how to patch it."

"It's okay," Harry said and took some more mashed potatoes. He couldn't wear more than one set of robes at a time, anyway. He reached for the salt and looked up towards the teachers' table. Snape wasn't there. Dumbledore was, and Harry met his eyes for a fleeting moment and then looked away really fast.

In the afternoon, they had Transfiguration and turned mice into goldfish. Seamus managed to drown his mouse, and Hermione was unhappy because her goldfish kept swimming into the glass of its bowl, trying to get at a piece of cheese outside. She was still fretting about it when she went off to her Arithmancy class.

Harry wished he had stopped taking Divination, but he thought it was too late for him to switch to something else now. He climbed up the ladder to Professor Trelawney's classroom and sank into an armchair. This term, they were studying tarot cards. Ron had an old pack of cards that had been in his family for ages, and that was good, at least according to Professor Trelawney. Harry had a brand new pack, and all the cards looked suspiciously at him, and he looked suspiciously back at them.

Professor Trelawney talked and talked, and Harry's attention drifted. He shuffled the cards idly back and forth, wondering if they would spend the whole school year getting lectured on the major arcana. He picked out a card and looked at it. It was the Hanged Man. He stuck his tongue out at Harry.

In the middle of a very long sentence about the Chariot, Professor Trelawney was interrupted by the trapdoor opening. It was Dumbledore. He looked around the classroom, and then smiled at Professor Trelawney. "I apologize for interrupting you, Sybill," he said with a smile, "but I need a word with Harry."

Harry jammed the card back in with the others. He didn't look at Dumbledore.

"Surely you didn't think that that would surprise me, Headmaster," Professor Trelawney said in her mistiest voice. She looked at Harry. "Try to be on better terms with your cards by our next lesson, dear."

Harry nodded. He got up, nearly overturning the small round table he'd been sitting at, and walked over to the round trapdoor. Dumbledore had already climbed down, and Harry followed him. He went down slowly, but it was a short ladder.

"Harry," Dumbledore said, and he looked very grave. "Would you mind coming along to my office?"

"All right," Harry said. He didn't think Dumbledore would believe him if he said he'd rather stay in Divination class.

Harry thought it was a long way to get there, but Dumbledore led him along corridors and staircases he'd never seen before, and they were there in no time. The gargoyle looked unfriendly. "Cockroach cluster," Dumbledore said, and they walked inside. "Would you like some tea, Harry?"

"Yeah, please," he said. He walked over to where Fawkes was sitting. "Hello, Fawkes."

The phoenix opened its eyes and blinked sleepily, then stretched his neck out and put his head on Harry's shoulder. His feathers tickled that spot on the side of Harry's neck. Harry stood very still, until Dumbledore cleared his throat.

"Harry?"

Harry stroked Fawkes' soft feathers and turned back towards the headmaster, accepting the mug of tea that Dumbledore held out. "Thank you."

Dumbledore sat in a chair by the fire, and Harry sat down in the chair opposite. He sipped at his tea.

"Harry," Dumbledore said slowly, "I was very surprised last night when Professor Snape quit his teaching position without telling me why, but I was even more surprised today, when he came to me with a rather disturbing story."

Harry tried to crawl into the mug. He burned his tongue. "Ow." He put the mug down. "Why did you let him do that? You were going to just let him leave." He looked at Dumbledore and became aware of a sinking feeling. "Was it all part of a plan, that he was going to leave? I just thought—"

"No, it wasn't a plan." Dumbledore looked troubled. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Harry said. He made an effort to meet Dumbledore's eyes. "Whatever he told you, it, it wasn't. Isn't. It doesn't matter."

"Harry." Dumbledore looked even more troubled.

"I'm fine," Harry said again.

Dumbledore picked up his own mug and sat with it cradled in his hands, staring into the fire. Harry took a biscuit from a plate, one with pink icing on it, and ate it slowly and watched Fawkes, who had gone back to sleeping with his head under one wing. Fawkes' long tail feathers twitched, sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Maybe it was like dogs running in their sleep. Harry ate another biscuit and drank his tea when it wasn't so hot any more.

"Are you telling me it was nothing because you think it's necessary for Professor Snape to stay here at Hogwarts?" Dumbledore asked mildly, still looking at the fire. "Because when he talked about it, my impression was that it was not, in fact, nothing. I want you, and every other student, to be safe and comfortable here, Harry."

Harry opened his mouth and closed it again. Melted icing was sticky on his fingertips. "It was weird," he said after a while, not looking at Dumbledore. "I just want everything to be like it was."

"Ah. Yes. We could all use a little comfortable familiarity in days like these." Dumbledore seemed to be choosing his words with great care. "Changes cannot be undone, though, and pretending that things are as they once were can place us in strange situations at times. Even dangerous ones."

"It wasn't dangerous," Harry said. He shifted in the chair. "I'm not scared." He paused. "I yelled at him today," he said.

"So I was given to understand." There was a faint smile in Dumbledore's voice now, and Harry slumped down a little. "Nevertheless, I cannot overlook a violation of this school's ethical standards."

Harry looked up. "You could make him polish all the trophies in the trophy room," he said. "Or scrub the underside of the library tables."

Dumbledore looked amused, and something went out of his eyes and something else took its place, and Harry relaxed and took another biscuit. Fawkes woke up, and Harry went over and fed him biscuit crumbs. Dumbledore made more tea, and later he showed Harry a picture of his father playing Quidditch, swooping through the picture like a blur in red and gold Gryffindor robes. The broom looked a bit old-fashioned and clunky. Harry smiled.

Later, he went back to the Gryffindor tower and put his books and his tarot cards and his broken quill away. Ron came in and sat on the edge of his bed and looked worriedly at him. "What was that all about?" he asked. "What did Dumbledore want?"

Harry bent down to shove his dirty shoes under the bed. "It was about that thing with Snape, when I didn't get detention," he said. "But I, um, I explained it to him, it's all right."

"Snape would go to Dumbledore with it," Ron said, sounding disgusted. "You're sure it's all right?"

Harry nodded. "Let's go down to dinner," he said.

Dean stared at Susan all through dinner, and Ron accidentally spilled half a glass of pumpkin juice on Hermione, and Neville had lost his Transfiguration notes, and Harry looked up at the teachers' table and caught Dumbledore's eyes and nodded, and everything was just as usual.

The next day, Neville patched Harry's robes, and Harry had a late Quidditch practice. On Wednesday, Ron found out that Snape was teaching again. "But he was supposed to go away!" he said.

"Maybe he'll go away later," Seamus said hopefully. Wednesday night at dinner Snape sat in his usual place at the teachers' table, and on Thursday they had Potions again.

Harry had a new quill. He sat next to Hermione, and Ron sat next to Seamus, and Neville sat next to Dean, and Dean tried to look right through Neville to see Susan. They made Awakening Potions, and Snape got out the silvery metal globe and made Neville touch it so they could try their potions on him. He didn't look at Harry. Harry didn't look at him.

On Friday, Neville borrowed Harry's patched robes for Herbology, and the Biting Hydrangea put another hole in them. Hermione got full marks for her Arithmancy homework and forgave Ron for the pumpkin juice. Harry asked Ron after dinner if he wanted to come along to Quidditch practice.

Ron shuffled his feet. "Actually," he said. He turned a bit pink around the ears.

Harry looked at him. "What?"

"I asked Hermione if she wanted to see thegardensbymoonlight," Ron said very quickly.

Harry grinned. "Maybe you can find a funny-looking tree," he said.

He went to Quidditch practice. Halfway through, it started raining. Even with the Impervious charm on his glasses, the rain made it more difficult to see the Snitch. He walked slowly up to the castle with the others. His wet robes dragged on the ground. Harry wondered what Ron and Hermione were doing in the rainy garden with no moonlight.

When he came into the Gryffindor common room, they were sitting in front of the fire, drying their damp robes and laughing about something. Harry waved at them and went to the dormitory to get some clean, dry clothes. He went to the bathroom and stripped off everything that was wet or muddy, which was everything, and took a hot bath. "Well, you're certainly looking perkier," one of the mirrors said.

Harry poked at a bruise on his leg from a Bludger that had come too close. He put on some ointment that Madam Pomfrey had made for all the Quidditch players. It smelled nice, a kind of spicy green scent. Pale green, when he looked at it. He put the lid on the pot and went to the mirror to comb his wet hair, and water ran from the comb and down his neck, over that spot right above where his collar would be when he got dressed again. The water felt cold and shivery, though it had been warm only moments ago in the tub. Harry rubbed at his neck and put the comb away. It wasn't working, anyway.

He got dressed in clean, warm clothes, pulling on one of Mrs. Weasley's hand-knitted sweaters to stop the shivers. This one was sort of rust-colored, and the sleeves were a bit long on him. Harry pushed them up, and they slid down again, falling over his knuckles. At least his trousers fit right. He polished his glasses halfheartedly and went back down the stairs.

The common room was full of people and noise. Harry looked for Ron and Hermione, but he didn't see them. Neville was sitting by the fire, chewing a sugar quill and staring at his Herbology notes. He looked up and waved at Harry for a moment, then stared at his notes again, wrinkling his nose. Harry wondered if he should just give his second set of robes to Neville.

Dean stood by the wall on his own, flipping a coin between his fingers. Harry went over to him. "Have you seen Ron and Hermione?"

Dean looked around the room. "I thought they were here." He dropped the coin. "Or maybe they went out." He pushed away from the wall. "I'm going to the library. If I see them there, I can tell them you're looking for them."

"I'll come with you," Harry said, and they went out through the portrait hole together. They went down the staircase, and Harry asked, "Are you meeting Susan?"

"No!" Dean said loudly. He looked around and dropped his voice and grinned a little sheepishly. "Yeah. I am."

People were talking and laughing and running up and down the stairs, but the library was mostly quiet, with hushed conversations here and there. Susan Bones sat at the end of one long table, with a very large book open in front of her, and when she saw Dean she smiled, and then ducked her head.

Harry wandered off between the shelves. He didn't see Ron or Hermione. He stood in the Quidditch section for a while and looked at the books, but didn't take anything out. Someone was in the restricted section, he saw, reading from one of the chained books. He could only see a hand and a trailing black sleeve.

There was a scuffle on the other side of the stack, and Harry went around it. Then he went back again very quickly. Padma Patil and Blaise Zabini were kissing. He wandered past the restricted section again and looked in.

The hand and the trailing sleeve belonged to Snape. Snape was standing with his back very straight and his head slightly bent, and his hair fell forward, hiding his face. He turned a page, then another. Harry shifted, and his sole scraped against the floor. Snape looked up.

He was frowning before he even really saw Harry, and then his mouth tightened even more. They stared at each other for a few moments. Snape turned away and went on reading.

Harry went up to the door that led to the restricted section. He put his hand on it, looked back over his shoulder, and then went inside. He walked over to where Snape stood, right up to him, and Snape looked up again. "Do you have permission to be in the restricted section, Potter?"

"I want to talk to you," Harry said.

"I am not particularly concerned with what you want." Snape marked his place with one long finger. "And since you don't have permission to be here, that will be five points from Gryffindor."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Listen. I just want to know—"

"Ten points." Snape opened the book again.

Harry stood for a while and watched the heavy parchment pages and the way Snape's sleeve draped over his wrist. Then he pulled out a chained volume at random and opened it. It screamed, and Snape dropped his book. "I want to talk to you," Harry said again.

Snape slammed the screaming book shut and put it back on the shelf. He turned and his robes moved with him like shadows, and he gripped Harry's elbow very hard and dragged him out of the restricted section. Harry stumbled along, gaining momentum as he tried to keep up with Snape's longer steps, and when they came out into the library proper and Snape let go, Harry couldn't stop the next few steps that sent him shoulder first into the side of a stack. He straightened up, rubbing the point of his shoulder, and looked at Snape, who said, "What makes you think you're entitled to disturb everyone in the library?"

"I wouldn't have if you'd only listened to me," Harry said. He looked up at Snape, and for a moment, he felt as though he'd forgotten to put his glasses on. Everything was unclear. He drew his brows together and tried to make his eyes focus. "I need to talk to you."

Snape tightened his mouth and looked to the side. His eyes grew distant. He muttered something and flung out his fingers, and there was the sound of something falling, and a couple of surprised and slightly pained squeaks, and Padma's and Blaise's retreating footsteps. Other than that, the library was quiet. No one had come to investigate the scream from the book.

"Very well," Snape said.

Harry drew a deeper breath. "Not here." He looked around and saw neither Madam Pince nor any students. Still, he said again, "Not here."

Snape nodded curtly. He looked at Harry in silence until Harry turned and led the way out of the library. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry caught a glimpse of Dean and Susan holding hands. He went down to the dungeons, and Snape followed him without saying anything. People looked at them, but Harry kept looking straight ahead.

The air was cooler in the dungeons. Harry went to the door he remembered and stood to one side, waiting for Snape. "Paracelsus," Snape said.

"I thought you would have changed that." Harry walked into the room. The rolltop desk was closed, and all the crushed scraps of parchment were gone from the floor. The low table next to the couch was bare. There was no fire in the fireplace.

Snape walked past Harry and sat on the couch. "Talk," he said.

Harry drew a deep breath. "I want you to kiss me again."

"What?" Snape's head jerked up. "Absolutely not."

Harry perched on the armrest of the couch and looked down into Snape's furious eyes. It was like looking down from the edge of a high cliff. "Yes," he said defiantly. "You owe it to me."

"You have some extremely odd notions," Snape said, and his voice grated a little. "I do not owe you anything of the kind." He looked up at Harry and didn't shift away. His mouth looked thin and unpleasant. "I can't think why you imagine that you want—"

"It wasn't supposed to be like that," Harry said really fast. "And I need to know. I have to know."

Snape closed his eyes and opened them again. He shifted on the couch, turning towards Harry. "I see," he said, in that quiet voice again. He unlaced his hands, and his fingers looked very long when he fanned them out.

The room was colder than it had been that night. Harry blinked rapidly as Snape reached up and took a firm hold on his chin, nails digging in a little. Their noses bumped, and then Snape's mouth was against his, and there was no pale green taste. Their teeth clicked together. Harry lifted one hand, quite slowly, and then let it fall again.

Snape pulled away, sitting back on the couch and looking up at Harry with opaque eyes. Harry fought the urge to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand.

"That was," he said. Then he tried again. "That wasn't."

"No," Snape agreed. "It wasn't, was it? Try to remember that." He laced his hands together once more and looked at Harry the same way he sometimes looked at Neville in class. "Now, do get out, Potter. I have work to do."

Harry nodded. He slid off the armrest and went to the door. "Paracelsus," he said, and when it swung open, he walked out and didn't look back.

He wiped his mouth with his sleeve on his way up the stairs.

When he came back to the Gryffindor common room, Ron and Hermione were sitting over by the fire with Neville, and Hermione and Neville were comparing Herbology notes. Harry sat down with them and stretched his feet towards the fire. He leaned back on his arms, and his fingers brushed the cool glass of an empty bottle of Butterbeer, left behind under the couch.

"Where were you?" Ron asked, holding out a handful of lemon sherbets. "Dean said you got in trouble with Snape again."

Harry shook his head. "No," he said. "No. It was nothing, really." He pushed the bottle in deeper under the couch, and reached for a sherbet.

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