Harry put the quill down and closed his diary. True, he hadn't had much inclination to write in it these days, but sometimes it was nice to see his thoughts put down on paper. He'd tried using a pensieve for a little while but eventually given it up as being too disturbing.
He picked up his glass of chilled pumpkin juice and strolled out onto the deck. The pumpkin juice had a slightly acrid taste and Harry swallowed quickly. Snape never had bothered to make any of his Potions more palatable, even those like this Headache Potion that was used on a regular basis. But the serenity that surrounded his house helped the Potion work faster. Harry was glad he'd chosen Waiheke Island to do most of his work. Only a few people here knew who he was, and none of those gave a Tartarian fig that he was The Boy Who Lived. To them he was just another person. And the rest of the people -- Muggles and those on the fringes -- he'd met here just knew him as a likeable young man who lived over in Palm Beach. Not like the outside world, where he was lauded as Harry Potter, Boy Wizard and Saviour of the World, etc, etc, etc. There, like it or not, he'd been glued to a pedestal and was forever feeling the need to keep his robes long to stop people getting a glimpse of his clay feet. What with Voldemort and the whole Ice Dragon thing (fiasco, Harry called it privately), people thought he was wisdom and power incarnate. Merlin help him if he ever showed that he was capable of being human and making mistakes...
Here he had the freedom to fall flat on his face and no-one cared a jot. Well, Snape would say something nasty about Harry being unbalanced, of course, and Helen would cluck and check for bruises, but it never made the local paper.
Over on the other side of the bay the sun was picking out the headland in greens and golds. One house, painted a surprisingly unconventional yellow, flared like a buttercup on a grey day. Harry lifted his glass in a salute to that which wasn't afraid to be noticed. Which brought him neatly to the hidden, he mused as he picked up the pair of sunglasses left on the deck table.
Sunonice had just left. A visiting Muggle would have seen him as a human except for those eyes, of course. There is no disguising the eyes of an elemental. Or the descendant of an elemental, Harry knew, thinking of Snape. Thus the sunglasses: instant disguise. And, according to Sunonice, they made him look cool.
After spending the afternoon in his Humagus form with Harry hammering out the latest treaty between Ice Dragons and wizards and snacking on magically-infused ice-cubes, Sunonice had been exhausted. Harry was feeling kind of tired, too. After -- Harry did a quick mental check and was surprised at how fast time had gone -- six years, sometimes it could still be a major headache communicating with Sunonice. Even when the Ice Dragon was in his Humagus form (which showed that Draco Malfoy wouldn't have grown up to look as much like Lucius as everyone had expected), spoken language still tended to give way to the telepathic picto- and emotographs of Sunonice's native language, especially when debates grew heated. And debates turned into arguments on an irregular yet frequent schedule. Sunonice was at least as -- if not more -- stubborn as Draco Malfoy, especially when he felt that the rights of those he represented were being chiselled away by those who had wronged them in the first place.
That could lead to some terrible arguments. Seal burps were a posy of violets compared to some of the images Sunonice could come up with when enraged.
But Harry appreciated the effort the Ice Dragon was making, even if he did finish so many of their meetings with a pounding headache. The Ice Dragons were old and wily and weren't about to be caught out by wizards again. They hoarded their anger like the more standard breed of dragon hoarded gold. And they had significant influence outside ortho-elementals, up to and including house-elves and Veela, so if they ever seriously decided to express their displeasure at being locked away for centuries it would take more than the revival of every witch or wizard who had featured on a chocolate frog trading card to stop them. Harry suspected, though, that Sunonice would have been less than enthusiastic if Snape hadn't personally asked the ortho to put the work in. It was lucky that some of Draco's personality had survived the Ice Dragon's re-hatching. And a significant part of that was Draco's respect for the Potions master.
The air was getting chilly outside now that the sun was going down. Harry shut the French doors to the balcony but left the curtains open. Watching the light shift over the waters of the Hauraki Gulf was something he never failed to feel grateful for. When he had been a child Harry had wanted to see the sea. Now he owned a cottage overlooking Palm Beach, which was, in Harry's opinion, the most beautiful beach of a superlatively beautiful island. He had just watched someone he had once viewed as an enemy and now viewed somewhere in that odd space between being a business partner, ambassador, best friend, and spectacular force of nature -- he had just watched jump from the balcony, spread his wings and -- unseen to most Muggles -- glide across the bay before turning and spiralling up on the breeze that blew up the valley and disappearing into a sunbeam.
Headaches or no, there was no way Harry would give up the privilege of being the person he was in this time and place. Dursleys, Malfoys, the Snape of his schooldays, Rita Skeeter, even Voldemort... Harry wouldn't give them up if it meant giving up his life of now, too. All had tried in their different ways to break him. All had failed. They had shown him how strong he was. He had managed to grow up despite (but not to spite -- that was important) them.
He felt like his life was beginning to make sense.
It was tough. It could be unforgiving. It could be filled with the responsibilities that would have crushed someone with less... what had Snape and Grandmother Taniwha called it? Fortitude. That was it. The one compliment Harry Potter ever received from Severus Snape and he'd had to go and look it up in a dictionary.
But it was his life. And he seized it as fiercely as only someone who has faced the worst knows how to do.
Life comes complete with paperwork -- Harry filed away the notes he'd taken from today's talk with Sunonice. It had been such a glorious day they'd taken a break halfway through to go down to the beach and have a swim. He remembered Sunonice standing on the beach and the way the Humagus dug his toes into the wet sand as he thought.
Harry had wondered what Sunonice had been thinking as he stared out to sea with his stormy silver eyes. The Ice Dragon's mind had been opaque to him then -- Draco -- Sunonice -- had been making a conscious effort to use human speech. Harry had presumed the ortho had been thinking of flying, the way he seemed to turn his head to each of the tiniest changes in the breeze blowing off the sea.
So he had been surprised when Sunonice had said: "Are you happy, Hands?"
After a moment's thought while he'd tried to work out the motive behind the question and failed, Harry said, "I think so."
Draco -- sometimes it could be hard thinking of him as Sunonice when he looked so human -- had nodded. "Good," he said. "You won't live very long. You should be happy while you're alive."
Oh. Harry finally managed to place what was nagging at him: it was the way Sunonice stood. The unconsciously arrogant tilt to his head. The sun angling over his grey eyes. The wind stirring his fine hair gave him that final finishing touch of Lucius Malfoy. And his words...
Harry had felt an instant sick knot of dread in his stomach, old and familiar as the smell that took him back to nightmare lessons on the odd occasion when he had to visit Snape down in the Hogwarts Potions Summer School teaching laboratory. It was like that smell, only much, much worse. Sunonice's words took him back to the old feelings of that time just before he had forced himself to owl Rona and ask for help for the things that were too big for a sixteen year old boy who had had too much asked of him. What did Sunonice mean? Did he know something about an upcoming bloodbath where orthos would wipe out all humans capable of magic? Had he somehow heard of a Death Eater reprisal that would involve the slow death-by-torture of all Harry's friends before Harry himself was put out of his misery?
Harry closed his eyes for a minute and reminded himself that he was twenty-two now, and even if he wasn't fearless he was capable of managing that fear. And Lucius Malfoy, last of the active Death Eaters, was dead and wasn't standing in front of him. He swallowed against the rising bile and breathed deep of the salty air. "What do you mean?" he asked in a steady voice.
Draco turned and looked at him with the eyes of an Ice Dragon. In them was nothing of Lucius Malfoy. Lucius' eyes might have held pity for the snivelling weak, but never compassion. Harry had never sensed pity in the Ice Dragon. While Sunonice wasn't overly given to tolerance, quixotically his inherently frosty nature did include warmth for other beings. Compassion occasionally bloomed therein. Sunonice looked a little puzzled and somewhat sad. "Well, you're a human. Even wizards only live for a few hundred years if they're lucky. That's... that's barely enough time to breathe and look around and get your feet under you. I'll still be young when you get old and die."
Oh. "How long do your people live?"
Draco -- Sunonice -- shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe a few thousand years."
"Are you happy?"
Again, a nod, the cool, pointed face impassive. "Yes. But sometimes I think about when I was human. I wasn't happy then. I was always clawing for happiness without knowing what it was. Maybe what I really needed was contentment. But it wasn't something that me was capable of. I don't want you to be like that."
Harry had found himself blinking a little more rapidly.
Now, in the evening in his own home, he thought about the conversation. Was he happy? Harry thought so, but sometimes there was that little niggling doubt. Something bad could happen. A new Voldemort -- well, no, the Ice Dragons wouldn't permit that. Remus could forget to take his wolfsba- Again, no. Against all odds, Snape had allowed Remus to work with him and together they had developed a second-generation version of the potion that could, if the werewolf chose to take it only once in his or her lifetime, make the werewolf's transformation at the full moon permanently painless and utterly remove all traces of the bloodlust which made a werewolf so dangerous.
Remus Lupin had so chosen. The lines of fatigue and stress had all but disappeared, only reappearing around exam time at Hogwarts. There was nothing short of dye that could hide the premature grey in his hair, but the DADA professor wore it like a badge of honour.
Harry gave up. He'd heard a Muggle song with a line in it that had resonated in his mind -- something about not worrying about everything because the things that were really worth worrying about were the sort that would blindside you on a Tuesday. He translated that to mean: You couldn't prepare for them, so why worry?
Swallowing the last of his pumpkin juice, Harry grabbed his leather jacket and Apparated to the other side of the island.
A little girl -- well, Harry had to admit, not so little; she'd started school this year -- grabbed his hand as soon as he appeared in the living room. "What? What?" he shouted back, enjoying this game.
She let go and stood back, planting her hands on her hips and pouting. Her enthusiasm (and, luckily, her nose and her smile) had been inherited off her mother. The ebony eyes and scowl, however, were pure Severus Snape. "Are you making fun of me?"
"I would never make fun of you, Sylvie," Harry replied, sweeping her up and kissing her cheek. "I was just surprised to have someone so pleased to see me, that's all."
"Oh, that's all right then," Sylvia Snape replied at her most haughty. The princess routine was ruined by a huge and mischievous grin as she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck, all the better to whisper conspiratorially into Harry's ear: "Do you know what Oscar did?"
"No," Harry replied, solemnly. "What did he do today."
"He... he... he drawed on the walls. In crayon," she added, mock-horror widening her eyes. "Dad's going to go nuts."
"Hmm. Maybe we should clean the walls before your dad gets home."
Sylvie considered this, brows knitted over her ebony eyes as she weighed up what was in it for her if Oscar didn't get into trouble.
Harry thought she was taking too long and gave her conscience a nudge. "You're his big sister. You're meant to take care of him and show him how to behave."
Sylvie heaved a dramatic sigh. "Oh, all right. But only because he's my little brother, you know."
"I know." He gave her another kiss and set her down. She took his hand and led him into the kitchen.
"Oh, thank Merlin," said a harassed Helen. She was kneeling on the kitchen floor with a giggling toddler tucked under one arm while she scrubbed at a wall fetchingly coloured in various shades of crayon. "Take the little horror. He's your godson."
"He's Chad's godson, too. He's the bad influence, not me. Besides, you were the one who wanted us to be godfathers. Blame yourself for the bad choice. Snape probably would have preferred Remus or Neville Longbottom over me."
Helen rolled her eyes and snorted as Harry took the wriggling bundle. Oscar said happily: "Awwy Awwy Awwy!" and tried to colour in Harry's glasses.
"Oh dear," said Helen as Harry extricated the crayon from the sticky paw. "Sorry about that. I thought I'd got all of them."
"Probably his magical heritage beginning to show through," Harry replied. "I didn't know there were any artists in the family, though. That's an interesting new artistic development. Or should I say creative interior decorating? What do you call it? Post modernist scribble?"
"I call it 'get your bloody wand out Harry Potter and stop being a smart alec and clean this wall before Sev gets home and makes some smart-arse comment about my nesting habits'."
"That's a heck of a title. It'll probably be a hit in the London galleries, then."
"Mum said a bad word!" Sylvie exclaimed gleefully. "Mum, you said ar-"
Helen raised a finger. "Not another word from you, miss," she said. "You already know what soap tastes like."
"Hey," said Harry in his role of peacemaker, "Sylvie, here, I'll show you a spell. Watch the wall carefully now..."
He managed to charm the mess into slowly gyrating spirals, then Hippogriffs that jumped through hoops and bowed to Sylvie. She jumped up and down and clapped her hands. Then, with a final wave that would have done Professor Flitwick proud, Harry magicked the markings so that they swirled together into a whirlpool that swallowed itself up.
"Oh, well done," said Helen. "One of these days I'll get around to learning to use a wand, I swear. But..." She shrugged. "Come on. The chook's still roasting. It won't be ready for another half-hour at least and Benny needs a walk. Let's go down to the beach."
"Yayyyyy!" shouted Sylvie, running to get her shoes. "Here, Benny! Here, Benny!"
Helen took Harry into the lounge where she found Oscar's carry-pack.
Harry took it. "Here, let me."
As Helen did up the domes that would keep the extremely wriggly toddler from wriggling out again, she raised an eyebrow a la Snape and said, "Getting in some practise, are we?"
Harry blushed. "No..." He realised the straps were too tight, and loosened them.
"Uh-huh. So how is Luna Lovegood at the Ministry? Still single?"
"If you don't stop mooning around and ask her out I'll tell Sev you're a chicken."
"Buk, buk, buk-arkh!"
She shrugged. "Can't blame a parrot for trying." She opened the French doors. "Sylvie! Where's that ghastly girl got to...? Sev's genes, of course..."
Eyes gleamed in the darkness.
A huge, shaggy creature prowled out from the bushes and stalked towards the light. It was as tall as a pony and, with its heavily muscled shoulders, much heavier. Teeth glittered in the panting mouth and where ears should have been sprouted two spiralling horns. The quills along its back rattled as it walked and long, gnarled claws clicked on the concrete path.
Harry raised his wand automatically.
"Benny!" screamed Sylvie, and ran forward to wrap her arms around the fearsome head. "There you are. Bad doggie. You didn't come when I called."
The awful beast opened its mouth to show more fangs than Harry cared to count. A long tongue swished out and licked the little girl's face.
"Eeyew." Sylvie wiped her face. "Mu-um, Benny slobbered on me."
Harry realised he'd been holding his wand defensively and put it back in his jacket. He'd seen Benny the narwulf countless times, but the ortho-elemental always managed to unnerve him. Helen stepped forward and put a collar around the narwulf's neck, and as soon as it was buckled up the narwulf disappeared. There in its place stood a golden retriever. The ultimate family dog, as Snape had said in what could have been his idea of a joke when he made the collar. Benny had originally been named Fenris. He was one of the first of the narwulfs released from magical stasis beneath a French dolmen, and gifted by the Ice Dragons to guard the Snapes when they were out of Grandmother Taniwha's sphere of protection.
Eighteen-month-old Sylvie hadn't been able to pronounce "Fenris," so "Benny" he had been renamed.
They walked down the road as the sky darkened. Sylvie, precocious in her bossiness, was trying unsuccessfully to get Benny to heel. Benny, who knew as every good guard-dog knows that his place is at the head of the procession scouting out the path for his family, wasn't having a bar of it.
Helen tucked her arm through Harry's. "Had a good day?" she asked.
"So-so," he replied. "Sun said something odd today."
"Only today? As opposed to every other day of his life?"
Harry grinned. "He asked me if I was happy."
Helen pursed her lips. "And what did you say?"
"I told him that yes, I think I am."
"You only think you are?" Helen gave him a sideways look. "Don't you know?"
Harry steadied her as her ankle twisted on a loose bit on tar seal. "I guess I still have a little bit of, I don't know... something. Maybe it's a superstition. I don't want to say that everything's great in case something terrible happens."
Helen nodded. They walked in a comfortable silence for a while, listening to Sylvie lecture Benny about how real dogs were supposed to behave.
"Funny you should taIk about happiness. I scared my husband this morning," Helen said.
"Oh?" said Harry, not quite sure what else to say. Sometimes with Helen it was best to keep a slight distance from the conversation and try and jump on as it turned a corner.
"Yes. I woke up this morning and the sun was shining in through a crack in the curtains and I knew it was going to be a beautiful day. And then I started crying."
Harry had no idea what to say to this. Moments like these reminded him that Helen, for all the work she had put into being human, was at rock-bottom an alien mind.
Helen didn't need his feedback. She continued. "Sev woke up. He put his arms around me and kept saying 'What's wrong? What's wrong?' Then when I could talk I said to him, 'I'm in a house that I love with my husband who I love beyond love and I have friends and people who love me and skills I'm good at and the two most beautiful children that ever existed. There's nothing wrong, Sev, I'm just so happy. I'm not crying because I'm upset, I'm crying because my life is so wonderful and I can't express my joy any other way than by crying.'"
Harry didn't ask what Snape's reply had been.
Helen squeezed his arm. "He didn't tell me I was crazy, if that's what you're wondering. He just held me and said that he was glad I was happy." She looked up at Harry, who was a lot taller than her these days. For once her face was oddly serious. "These moments of... of... sublime happiness... they happen so rarely that I know I have to treasure them. And that's the way it should be. Have you ever been so happy you wanted to share it with someone else?"
Harry looked away. "I was today," he said at last.
"Then one day you'll find someone else to share it with. If you want to. But you'll live a long time. Don't be in a hurry. You are quite simply the most... sincerely good person I have ever met. Not just in a moral way. I can't explain what I mean, but... You have so much love in you and there's so much about you to love. You're not perfect, and that's your saving grace. Goodness knows but you drive Severus wild from time to time. I swear he was frothing at the mouth when you and Draco-chick let those narwulfs out before the Ministry had finished going over the paperwork. But it makes you human, this imperfection. It lets other people come close to you, just by knowing that you're not some sort of unattainable god or a statue on a pedestal. You're a living, breathing human being, which is so much better than a statue. And gods are overrated."
"Blasphemer," he joked, hoping to Merlin he wasn't blushing as brightly as it felt like he was.
"Ah -- I should bow down to the shrine that is set up for the Great and Powerful Harry Potter."
"Now you sound like Severus."
Helen laughed, a clear sound in the dusk. "Why, thank you. When he's not tying himself in knots of bitterness and penitence he can be quite sensible."
Harry grinned and chose not to reply.
Rocky Bay was... rocky. There was a little cove Muggles tended not to notice just around from it and this was even more so, and so different to the golden sands of the northern beaches that you would have thought it was a different island. Pebbles shifted and rattled under their feet as they walked down to the water's edge. Little wavelets hissed through the rough mix of sand and stone.
A louder hiss announced the breathing presence of something in the water close to shore.
A gleaming fin sliced through the flat water. A black lump, reflecting the last of the light, rose and aimed itself for the beach just along from where the small group of humans and narwulf were standing. Water surged into the pebbles with a muted roar.
To the delighted squeal of "Daddy!" from Sylvie, the orca beached itself.
One last wriggle, then the killer whale disappeared and Severus Snape, wearing swimming shorts and shaking water out of his hair, stood up and walked along the beach towards them. He paused to pick up Sylvie and rest her on his hip.
"Thank you," he said to Harry as the younger wizard, unasked but used to the transformations, performed a drying spell.
"What happened to you?" Helen demanded anxiously, seeing a cut on her husband's lip.
Snape looked shifty.
Helen planted her hands on her hips. "Have you been snacking on stingrays again?" Snape's non-answer proclaimed his guilt. "You know I'm cooking tonight," scolded Helen.
Snape caught Harry's eye.
Helen saw the exchange. "Oh -- if this is another one of those 'this is the day my people fast' days then you'll be sleeping on the couch! My cooking is excellent these days."
Snape sighed and looked apologetic. "I know," he said. "Force of habit. And..." he grinned evilly "...stingrays are fun to chase. Crunchy, too. Cartilage instead of bone. And the wings are really juicy with the way they..."
"Yes, I'm sure they are." No-one had yet succeeded in putting Helen off her food. "But we're having roast chicken tonight. With yams and kumara as well as potatoes. Don't you dare tell me you've got no appetite by the time we get home."
"Yes, dear." He smiled and kissed her temple. She handed him a sweatshirt. "Thank you," he said, and put it on. "How did it go today?" he asked Harry.
"Good," replied Harry. "It's funny, but I really like working with Sunonice. Not something Trelawney would have predicted."
"It's taken you this long to realise?"
"Yes." Harry shrugged. "It's easier to see the bad stuff than the good, I guess."
"Human nature," said Snape, who would need major surgery to be turned into an optimist.
They walked along the beach, Sylvia taking Harry by one hand and her father by the other. Helen took Benny's leash and broke into a run with him to chase a few of the seagulls who were out late. Helen hated seagulls with a passion. Harry never had learned what Snape thought of that, given his early dreams of being a seagull Animagus.
Snape's eyes smiled as he watched his wife run. "It's a lot of responsibility. To be honest I didn't think you'd want the job for more than a year. There must be so many other things you want to do..."
Harry, also watching Helen and Benny and listening to the rhythm of breathing from the toddler on his back that told him that Oscar was asleep, said, "None that are this fulfilling. It's still left me scope for other things, like living here where I can be anonymous and have a proper social life. Maybe one day I'll meet someone and we'll get married and have a family." He mentally crossed his fingers that Snape didn't know about Luna. Harry wanted a bit of time to sort out just how serious his feelings towards her were. "I'd like to do that. But there's no hurry. As someone pointed out today, I'm a wizard and could live for up to two centuries. That's a lot of living for me to do and I'm looking forward to it. But best of all I don't have to be around people who are reading the latest Rita Skeeter articles about me. Or -- worse -- reading them out to other people around me."
"Ah. I can see how that could appeal."
"I bet you can." Only occasionally did Harry dare brush the boundaries of being impertinent to the man he had once hated. Helen had taught him that it was more fun to save it up. He cleared his throat. "So yes, I want to keep going with the work. Sometimes it gets tough -- oh, and I'm grateful for all the Headache Potion you give me, by the way -- but sometimes there are moments of epiphany where everything becomes clear and I know I'm in the right place at the right time doing the right thing."
Snape was silent. Then, "Yes. Getting the three in balance is tricky. If you ever find yourself at a point in your life when you can honestly say to yourself that yes, you're achieving this balance, then count yourself fortunate. Happiness is a bonus." He stopped and let go of his daughter's hand. Sylvie dropped Harry's hand, too, and raced off along the beach after her mother. Snape turned a little and Harry saw, as he had seen that first day in Potions class, Snape's eyes like tunnels to another dimension. But now, instead of being dead and frightening, there were stars in the darkness.
"Are you happy, Harry?" Severus asked.
"Yes," said Harry. "Yes. I know I am."
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