Chapter Six: Best Intentions
One of Severus' most treasured memories--and valued all the more for its rarity--was his recollection of the weekend he had spent with Harry upon the completion of her first week of Auror training. He had been preparing to leave Novitiate One after delivering his blistering assessments of the trainees' efforts to brew a basic smoking potion--so useful for distracting an enemy--when he noticed that Apprentice Potter had not fled the lecture room with her peers to begin celebrating the survival of their initial exposure to Alastor Moody's curriculum.
Fools, he thought, watching Harry gather her texts. They have almost forgotten seven years of careful instruction and they have only just graduated!
Harry cleared her throat expectantly, and that was all that was required for Severus to unburden himself of his anger.
"And will you be joining your comrades in killing the few remaining brain cells you possess toward retaining any knowledge that might aid you in saving your life in the field should Moody's educational techniques afford you the opportunity to do so?"
The Auror-in-training rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and moved her lips as if counting.
The Potions master tried not to stare at them.
"Right, then--forty-two," Harry said, looking rather smug.
"Words in your last sentence, of course. Perhaps you should see someone about that problem, Professor. A construction of seven is all an average person expects to take in, you know."
Severus smirked. The minx was teasing him. For that, he would punish her. "How like you to set your sights so low," he said, pointedly allowing some of the hunger he felt for the girl rise in his eyes. "I have never considered the condition of being above average to be a defect."
His volley produced the satisfying result of Harry losing her composure and her texts.
Severus stepped forward to catch the volumes just before they hit the floor, and rose to tower above the girl in one slow, smooth motion. Gazing down at the confusion her features betrayed, he could feel the heat radiating from her slender form. It took a large measure of his control not to press himself into the warmth she unwillingly offered him.
"If you are quite finished examining my . . . linguistic facility, Apprentice Potter," he said, admiring the fact that the young woman did not yield her ground, "I believe I shall return to the castle for dinner."
The witch rallied more quickly than Severus would have liked and reached for her books. "But isn't it too late for that?" she asked as he surrendered her texts.
"Too late for what, Harry?" he asked, using her name in a futile attempt to recapture something of the . . . intimacy of the previous moment.
In the tone of voice that Severus knew indicated her meaning was perfectly clear to anyone paying sufficient attention, she replied, "Why, for dinner in the Great Hall."
The wizard felt a familiar stab of irritation.
"I expect that is true, however--"
"And I have no intention of eating Neville's cooking," Harry continued.
Master Moody disliked the "magicking" of house elves, and insisted that his trainees see to the maintenance of the novitiate and their own gustatory requirements. Clearly, it was Longbottom's turn in the kitchen.
"I am pleased to discover that you retain your sense of self-preservation, but I fail to see what it has to do with my dinner plans."
Harry seemed to lose her nerve. "I just thought . . . I don't want to . . . ."
"What don't you want to do, Apprentice Potter?"
The witch's jaw tightened. Through clenched teeth, she answered, "I don't want to celebrate when nothing has been won."
The sentiment was unexpected.
"I had hoped that I might . . . come up to Hogwarts this evening. I'm rather tired, and I don't want to have to explain myself to everyone."
She does look weary, Severus thought, suddenly concerned for the girl.
It was reasonable that she should be exhausted, given that she had just graduated after the completion of another harrowing year, gone immediately to Albus' vampire for tempering, and then had returned without resting to begin her training as an Auror.
I should not have played with her in so unseemly a fashion when she clearly needs care. "Very well then. If Moody"--for Severus refused to refer to the Auror as Harry's "master"--"will permit it, you are welcome to return to the school with me."
The witch's relief was palpable. "But I get to cook," she stated, a mischievous grin lightening her face.
"My ability to prepare a meal is not--"
"The point. I know that you can follow a recipe, professor, but we both know that you're no cook!"
As the two of them sat down to dine together almost three hours later--Harry having thrown herself into an orgy of cooking--Severus found himself in agreement with the girl's assessment of their relative culinary abilities. Cookery does require more intuition than exactness, he silently complimented the girl as he took his last bite of her Chicken Biryani, "but you still cannot brew a potion half as well as you ought to do by now."
Harry did not rise to his challenge. "I shall endeavor to hone my skills, then."
"Yes, you must. As an Auror in particular, a rudimentary understanding of potion-brewing and its uses will only serve to get you killed."
The mirth dancing at the corner of Harry's mouth stilled, and she appeared to consider the Potions master's words carefully before responding to his exhortation.
"I won't let you down, Sir."
Sir, Severus thought, conscious of the unwelcome irony in being the recipient of Harry Potter's respect when all he truly desired from her was--No. Do not dwell upon it, he ordered himself, closing his eyes. Clearly, she will never look upon my romantic interest as anything other than a perverse, nightmarish whim. . . . I do not even know if she considers me in light of a friend.
He heard Harry rise and begin to clean the little table before the hearth that sat between their chairs, but could not bring himself to look at her or speak. Allowing himself to sink deeply into a cauldron of his own misery, he was startled by the sensation of softness and warmth draping his body.
His eyes snapped open, and he cursed himself for the unguarded wistfulness of his tone as he asked, "Are you leaving?"
"No," Harry whispered, kneeling before Severus and beginning to unlace his shoes.
In all their years of sharing living quarters, the witch had never once presumed to remove the wizard's shoes and place his sock-clad feet upon a stool.
It was not the gesture of a grateful student.
But to speculate on what the woman's attentions did signify would not answer, so the man forewent his customary practice of classification to revel in the welcome domesticity of the moment.
They fought over breakfast.
The fight was ostensibly about Harry's refusal to confide in Severus about her summer activities with the vampire. In truth, Severus had come to the conclusion during a wakeful night that the girl's care of him could be construed as daughterly.
This possibility was not to be borne.
At last, having apparently endured a sufficient length of parental lecturing on the subject of trusting fell creatures too closely, the witch threw down her buttered toast and stood up.
"You are not my father, you insufferable, arrogant, doomsinging windbag! If you don't leave it," she threatened, collecting the breakfast plates despite the fact that neither of them had finished eating, "then you and I cannot be friends!"
Bells rang--celebratory bells--and the wizard was gracious in victory.
Severus caught Harry's arm as she made to pass him and leave the room. "Then you had better leave me my breakfast so that I have something with which to occupy my mouth other than using it to inflict my prophesies upon you."
The couple spent the remainder of the weekend in homey pursuits, and Severus had never been happier.
But even then, he could never have predicted that he would be on the verge of proposing that he and Harry formalize their bond by taking vows of marriage. After a lifetime of making the wrong decisions, however, this one seemed so completely right. He and Harry belonged to each other, loved each other, and it was only fitting that their feelings be consecrated in an honorable way.
She deserves nothing less, Severus thought, watching his lover's pensive face in the flickering light as they sat on the terrace. He did not blame her for her thoughtfulness; his behavior had been odd.
"What are you thinking?" he asked, extending his arm across the table and offering the woman his hand.
She took it without hesitation.
"No, Albus, I don't think you were right," Alastor Moody said as the clock chimed. It was seven-thirty in the evening, and the two men were pacing the headmaster's study together.
"At the time, you agreed with my reasons for obscuring Harry's memory, Alastor. She would not have allowed herself to rest until she had discovered how the boy survived, and there were . . . other reasons to allow the matter to drop, reasons that were perhaps more compelling than allowing her to recover from her ordeal."
"The girl is who she is, Albus. She would have coped."
"I am not as convinced of that as are you, old friend. Further, the child has allowed herself to be interfered with by those she trusted."
"She trusts you."
Moody grunted, his magical eye glaring in accusation at the other wizard.
Albus ignored the remonstrance of the other man and continued. "Harry's thoughts have never been clear when considering either Draco Malfoy or Blaise Zabini."
"I think we may yet have a candidate for that list other than yourself."
"Severus has my complete trust."
"That is only because you believe you control him."
The headmaster inclined his head. "As you say, Alastor. However, I no longer have any active hold over Severus. I have not believed it necessary for many long years."
Moody took a chair next to the desk. "I never would have thought to call you a trusting fool, old man, but I don't agree with you."
"I wouldn't expect you to, old friend," the other wizard replied, allowing his face to harden somewhat, "but I do expect that you will judge Severus by his actions since his . . . mistake, and acknowledge our debt to him--particularly now that he is about to begin a new phase in his life."
"You said it yourself, man. There are those who remain loyal to the Dark Lord--or at least to his ideals--who's to say that Snape isn't playing a deep game?"
"The girl ought to know everything she can about her . . . about Snape--and the rest of it."
"I do not intend to allow Harry to become confused, Alastor. Do you desire the child to bind her fate to that of young Malfoy's? . . . No?" he asked expectantly. "Good. I, too, would protect her from such a future."
The old Auror considered the wizard staring at him for a long moment before speaking. "It seems to me that your kind of protection has led to disaster in the past. Lily and James Pot--"
Standing abruptly, the sudden surge of his power being summoned caused Albus' beard to crackle with magic. "Do not presume to blame me for their deaths!"
"I don't have to--clearly."
"Forgive me," Albus said, allowing the current of energy to diffuse as he retook his seat.
"What for? You're not all-powerful, man, no matter what you may have come to believe. You and I, we've had our adventures, we know a thing or two, but allowing guilt to guide you is not the wisest course."
"What would you have of me, Alastor?"
"I'd have you confess what you did to the girl. She may not forgive you for it, but she'll at least be free to make an informed decision before entering the next phase of her life! If she can focus on the Malfoy brat's survival, she might be in a position to help us explain it. Zabini has certainly betrayed nothing."
"It's not at all clear that young Blaise had anything to do with it."
"Oh no? Well, like as not he did. The entire situation reeks of the kind of magicking his people are known for."
"He was your apprentice. Didn't that teach you anything about him, Alastor?"
"It taught me plenty, Albus, and none of it useful to our purposes. He makes my good eye itch."
The headmaster's eyes twinkled. "Which one would that be?"
Moody found himself disgusted by his friend's ability to find something to smile about in most situations. Ridiculous old fool. But he merely grunted in response.
"Why are we here?" Harry asked Severus in answer to his question.
She had been impressed by the apparent trouble he had taken to ensure the two of them had their privacy. The Terrace of the Gryphon's Foote looked lovely. It had been transformed from the sophisticated ballroom it had been the first and only time she had seen it as a guest at a charity function hosted by Narcissa Malfoy to an intimate garden, complete with fairy lights, and redolent of rosemary that had been wound in boughs around the columns of the gazebo under which they were now sitting. Gentle, wordless music emanated from the foliage. But why Severus had felt the need to set a seduction scene when she had made her desire for him as plain as she knew how was a mystery.
"We could be in bed by now, you know," she prompted when her lover did not speak.
Severus squeezed her hand, and something of a smile lit his eyes. "I would enjoy nothing more, Harry, but . . . ."
"But what, love?"
Withdrawing his hand gently from hers, the wizard straightened in his chair and looked at Harry with something like concern in his eyes.
Oh, dear, she thought, trying to feel more amused than worried by the change in the man's position. He's going to lecture me. And he seems nervous about the subject, doesn't he?
"There is a story I would tell you, with your permission."
So formal, she thought, making herself more comfortable in the cushioned chair in which she was sitting and composing her face into an expression of anticipation.
"You know, of course, that Slytherin House has long been home to the Bloody Baron?"
"Yes. He's the only ghost who can control Peeves. What does--"
"Patience, Miss Potter."
"As you wish."
Severus snorted a bit, but continued. "Of late, I have discovered that the baron is not, in fact, a ghost at all, but--"
"Not if you persist in interrupting me," the wizard said in an approximation of his usual severity.
Harry laughed. "Go on."
"It seems that one of Hogwarts' former teachers, one of the old nurses, as it happens, who was a colleague of the Baron's, cursed the man after he--" here, Severus interrupted himself. This is not the way to go about it, is it? You've already begun, you idiot. You must finish. There is no other way to explain! "After he . . . murdered his wife."
"Knowing that I began life as a boy, I can appreciate that the thought of romancing me in a traditional manner might seem problematic to you, Severus. But I'm not certain that even I would have felt it necessary to woo someone with both romantic surroundings and a startling ghost tale!"
The wizard looked uncomfortable. "There is more."
"It seems that the Baron's family disapproved so strongly of the match that they sent emissaries after him as he was making his way out of the country to kill his new bride. He slaughtered them, and brought her safely to Hogwarts where he became the school's first Defense Against the Dark Arts professor."
"And did the lady appreciate his sacrifice?"
"No. She was . . . rather young, and not accustomed to being on her own, so . . . ."
"She took a lover," Harry finished for him. "A younger lover."
"It wasn't Peeves, was it?"
"Harry. . . . No. At least, the Baron did not allow that it was."
"Did he allow as to how he had been cursed? I mean, the particulars? What do you mean when you say that he's 'not actually a ghost'?"
"Although I can understand your curiosity to know about such matters, they really are not germane to my tale."
"Yes, but isn't the object of any story-teller to please his listener?"
"If you insist," Severus said, smirking a bit. "The witch took offense to his actions and cursed him to a, how did he phrase it? Ah, to a 'twilight existence' until such time as he had wrought as much joy as destruction."
"I suppose it isn't much of a surprise that there has been dark magic practiced at Hogwarts in the past, is it?" Harry asked, starting a little as her empty wine glass began refilling of its own accord.
"Not everything about the school has made it into the pages of Hogwarts, A History, to be sure."
"So, I assume that when the baron found his wife, she was with her lover?"
"And that is when he killed them. . . . Tell me, is this your way of providing me with a warning?"
"What?" Severus asked, stunned.
"I am teasing, you know," the witch said, suddenly growing serious. "I expect this story explains why Hermione's been in the Bloody Baron's good graces. Since Ron . . . died, Hermione hasn't moved on, and . . . ."
The wizard saw the look of pain cross Harry's face and rose to join her. Drawing her up from her chair, he embraced Harry warmly. "Miss Granger's fidelity to Ronald Weasley would be pleasing to him, I expect. But I am sorry that my telling you this story has caused you pain. It is important to me that you understand how very much I . . . want to do right by you."
Encouraged by the contact, Harry attempted to kiss Severus, but the wizard pulled away from her.
"Now is not the time for that," he said.
Why not? she thought, growing frustrated by the man's repeatedly putting her off. Something is wrong. She broke their embrace completely and looked at her lover. "Severus, tell me exactly what happened."
"The Baron materialized in my chambers and instructed me that taking you to my bed in secret would only lead to disappointment. He said that if I loved you, I would . . . court you properly and with the permission of your family. When I argued that I did not require lessons in traditional courtship, he laughed at me. And then he set Peeves to destroying my workroom."
"Oh, that's unfortunate. But how did he make your rooms disappear?"
"How did the old nurse curse the man to walk half in and half out of his own life? I do not know, Harry, but I do think now that perhaps the Baron meant well. He said that he wanted to prevent me from making his mistake."
"You're paying his words serious attention? Our situation is nothing remotely like his, and with all due respect to the murderous busy-body, you and I don't need anyone's approval!"
"Do we not? If you knew that Sirius and Remus did not approve of our . . . involvement, would you be happy to be with me?" Severus asked her, returning to his chair. "I know that you tend to do the first thing that you feel, Harry, but it seems to me that before we . . . proceed, we must take into consideration the consequences of our actions. People will talk, you know, people who will not be concerned with your happiness. And given my history, they will doubt us--doubt our commitment."
A feeling of worry crept up Harry's spine as she sat down. "Severus, do you doubt us?"
"No, but I wonder if you have considered the attention our . . . relationship will engender."
"Involvement," "relationship," why doesn't he say "our love," or something more personal? Why is he so hesitant? "Severus, I haven't given it a moment's thought. I don't care about what other people think. Do you?"
"Harry, I think you will come to care, which is why I have sought to spare you any unpleasantness resulting from your choice."
My choice. "What do you mean?"
Severus took a deep breath. Quit stalling, man! It's time to tell her everything. "I have given the matter significant thought, Harry, which is why I have presented my Declaration of Intent to your family and enrolled in the Courtship Rites of the Assembly--no, do not interrupt me. This is too important--if we are to be wed, then we shall be so with the armor of tradition and ritual on our side. No one will be able to say that you have entered into a coerced relationship if we follow the old forms--and you need not worry about the particulars of the courtship rites or the procedures of the wedding ceremony. I will see to it myself that everything is done properly," he finished, proud of himself for getting all of that out on his first go.
But Harry's reaction was not what he had expected. She was standing again. Indeed, she had stood so quickly that her movement caused her chair to rattle across the gazebo. And the expression on her face was not one of love, gratitude, or even comprehension.
"I'm sorry, are we getting married?" she asked in a small, cold voice.
It boded ill.
"Harry, I--" Severus said, attempting to stand--and found that he could not.
"Are we getting married?" she asked again.
But Severus could not speak, either. He considered, for the first time, that Harry was not just the woman he loved, but a powerful witch in her own right, and alarming to look upon when angered.
"It seems that you're quite settled as to that point, aren't you? You've decided, and quite properly, too," she mocked, "that, without a proposal, without even a declaration of your love, that you are going to make me your wife in some wizarding tradition I had no idea even existed!"
Harry left the raised platform of the gazebo's floor and began to pace in the little garden behind Severus. He thought she might be crying, but could not turn around to be certain.
"I am such an idiot. Why didn't I realize it before? You've been acting weirdly all day, haven't you? And I must be worth something to you for you to have gone to all the trouble of inventing that story about the Bloody Baron. 'Half-life' my arse! If you thought that I was a mistake, then why not just tell me? Why go to so much bloody trouble? Oh, I realize that you would marry me. You aren't lying about that, are you? You would have married me--properly--but only out of some bizarre sense of obligation!"
She was crying now.
Harry was remembering her fight with Severus when she had returned from Evie Toadhopple's care. She had knocked on his door and entered his rooms to find the Potions master drunk and sullen, and he had attacked her with such unexpected verbal ferocity that she had barely been able to scream her own responses. She remembered the last thing he had said to her now, despite the fact that his other words had long faded: "Albus would have me undertake to keep you as my special obligation, but I find myself too tired at present to endure the burden. Perhaps in time I shall again feel up to the challenge of looking after you properly."
"Oh, I am sorry, Professor Snape. I have been a terrible burden to you--but I shall be one no longer. I release you from whatever obligation you believe you have toward me. Please accept my sincerest assurance that my welfare is no longer anything to do with you, as I shall be happy to convey to the headmaster should he tax you with any inattention to your duty."
She paused to catch her breath, and then continued in a voice that seemed detached from all emotion. "Be good enough to alert me to the necessity of speaking with Headmaster Dumbledore if it becomes an issue, won't you? And accept my congratulations on your freedom."
Severus, recalling at once to what Harry's words alluded, felt as though his heart would burst with sadness. No, Harry! I was drunk--I meant nothing of what I said to you that night, and you misunderstand me now. "Harry!" he cried, as the witch's spell dissipated.
But when he turned around, it was to find himself quite alone.
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