Spellen was laughing at him again.
Bastard, Severus thought, ignoring Spellen as he added a pinch of dragon's blood to the tiny cauldron that he was stirring.
"I thought you were working on a counter-charm for that love spell?" the Highmaster asked, entering Severus' lab and sitting himself down on a stool.
"It's done. I've sent Madam Pomfrey the particulars just this morning."
"Ah. Well, it's good to see you working at anything after your recent experience."
Severus stiffened. He's never going to stop bringing it up, is he? Damned tracking charms!
Spellen, alerted by his charms, had found Severus at the Leaky Cauldron during his "labor."
"I'm still waiting for a show of gratitude from you, you know."
"You laughed at me!" Severus yelled, turning on Spellen and brandishing his spoon.
Spellen raised his eyebrows in mock alarm.
"If you would excuse me, Highmaster," Severus said, turning back to his cauldron, "I'm—"
"No doubt working on some sort of 'Labor Away' potion," a familiar, unexpected feminine voice said.
Severus went rigid.
"Well," said Spellen, "I'll leave you to your guest. It was lovely to meet you, Miss Potter."
"Thank you for bringing me down here, sir," Harry replied, walking to stand in front of Severus.
He stared into his cauldron, stirring it carefully and not evincing any sign that he knew Harry was present.
"Aren't you even going to look at me?"
I'm afraid to look at you, Severus thought, meeting Harry's eyes in spite of himself. "It . . . you don't look like a witch who gave birth a month ago."
Harry smirked, but there was no pleasure in her eyes. "You don't look forty-five."
"My birthday was a week ago."
"Happy," Harry replied, her voice emotionless.
"Your fault, I expect."
"As all things are, according to you," Severus snapped, ceasing his stirring and placing a lid on his cauldron. "Why are you here?"
Because I'm trying to decide if I hate you, you prat. "Aren't you going to ask after Justine?"
"Percy tells me she's well. . . . I'm glad of that." I'm glad you're well, Harry.
"What's Goblin's Toe?" Harry asked, as she began to walk around the laboratory.
Shite. "Why do you ask?"
"No reason," Harry replied casually, stopping to examine something with too many eyes to count that was staring out of a green, fluid-filled jar.
Severus sat down at his desk and sighed. "It's a fungus that grows in the Gringott's vault caves, among other places, that is dried, crumbled, and rolled into—"
"Blunts and smoked."
"If you knew the answer, why did you ask?"
"And people smoke it, why?"
"Because it makes things seem . . . better, brighter."
"Right. So bright and crisp that it damages the optic nerves—what a wonderful way to spend time that must have been for you," Harry said, coming to lean against Severus' desk.
"You seem . . . remarkably well-rested."
"Calm, I think you mean, and no, I haven't been taking anything. I thought I was—for months, actually—but Dobby—"
Severus sat up in consternation. "Your house elf can interfere with you, but I can't?"
"Dobby was only following orders."
"How? I knew you'd take—"
"I was ill, nauseated, and asked Dobby to make sure I didn't take anything to make me sick again. I was talking about food, but you know how literal he is."
"Why didn't you—"
"Break down?" Harry asked, folding her arms against her chest as if she were cold. "He apparently weaned me off of the elixir I was taking. I didn't notice. The rest was me—so you see, I'm not the weak—"
"I never thought you were weak."
Severus stopped himself from speaking. He had no desire to anger Harry.
Don't make her leave. "Because . . . . I know you don't want to hear it, but it's difficult to stop doing something after doing it for so long."
Harry felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise, but she took a deep breath and calmed herself, thinking, He's talking to you. That's good, isn't it? Just don't let him stop. "All right."
"What does that mean?" Severus asked, leaning back in his chair and waving a hand toward the stool to bring it closer to the desk. Transfiguring it into a chair, he continued, "Since we're being so polite . . . ."
"Thank you," Harry replied, moving to the chair.
Severus noticed the black circles under Harry's eyes then and wondered if she was truly as well as she had previously seemed. "You've been crying."
"I went to the . . . the ruins today." They weren't there, she thought, looking down at her hands.
"You were looking for them, weren't you?"
"You think I'm stupid?"
Harry looked up, unshed tears shining in her eyes. "Yeah, I was, but they weren't there. Percy says Ron would never have wanted to . . . get in the way, and Hermione was always fascinated by what might lie behind the Veil. I knew she wouldn't be there."
"Why did you go, then?"
"To say goodbye. I wanted to say goodbye and also, and also to tell them about Justine."
"Just in case they were . . . listening," Severus said, uncertain as to what he should do. You shouldn't just sit here and watch her cry, he thought, watching the tears roll down Harry's cheeks. "I don't know what to say to you."
"Well, you might try talking to me anyway, you know, without an Arbiter."
"You might have let Spriggs give you something stronger for the pain."
"It was Daphne Greengrass, actually, and you'll be happy to know that she insisted on giving me something for it, anyway. She threatened to report me."
"You made me suffer," Severus replied tightly.
"You did that to yourself," Harry snapped, "and what you did to me—"
"I was trying to help."
Harry stood up.
Severus stood up, as well, so quickly that his chair shot backward into a shelf. Jars broke, and an unpleasant smell rose up into the room.
"I wasn't going. I just—shouldn't you deal with that?" Harry asked, leaning over the desk and pointing at the slime that was spreading underneath of Severus' feet.
"I don't care about the mess," Severus insisted, bending down to kiss Harry.
She drew back immediately and turned her head sharply to glare at the ooze on the floor, which was eating through the soles of Severus' shoes. It disappeared.
Severus looked down, startled. "How did you—"
"Sit down and take those off," Harry ordered, pointing at Severus' shoes. Holding up her hand, she called, "Accio burn salve!" and a jar levitated itself to her.
Sitting down and putting his naked feet up on the desk next to where Harry had sat down, Severus asked, "You can Vanish a mess with a thought, but not my burns?"
"Oh, I could, but I don't want to."
"Thanks for that."
"Not because I want you to hurt, you git—because doing that sort of thing means dealing with him."
Severus felt a coldness spread through his stomach.
Harry sighed in annoyance as she rubbed the salve into Severus' feet. "No, I don't mean what you think. Voldemort's consciousness is gone, but the . . . his knowledge, I still have it. I keep it bound up, you might say—something I worked out with Daphne."
"That's . . . impressive. How?"
"I don't really want to talk about it."
"But you can talk to Daphne."
Harry stopped her ministrations and glared at Severus, who glared back.
"Damn it! I would have gone crazy. I had to talk to her—you didn't help me."
Severus pulled his feet away and tried to stand, but he slipped and fell back into his chair.
"Just keep still," Harry insisted, reaching for one of Severus' legs.
"No. Don't. Why?"
"I just told you that."
"Why always ask for my help—and then blame. Me. For. Giving. It?"
"Urngh!" Harry exclaimed, slamming down the jar and pushing herself off the desk to loom over Severus. "You stupid fuck. I never asked you to do anything but Obliviate me!"
"Albus! Albus said! Albus said 'protect him and don't let him die'—that wasn't me! I just wanted you to lo—damn it, Severus, I—"
Severus was on his feet quickly at Harry's aborted declaration. "What were you going to say?" he demanded, seizing Harry by the shoulders. Tell me, please. Harry, tell me that—
Harry jerked away and stalked around to the desk's other side, turning her back on Severus.
"No. You don't get declarations. Not yet. Maybe . . . ."
"Don't say 'not ever'. Please."
Harry spun around, the shock plain on her face. "You're saying 'please' to me? You think you have a right to ask me anything?"
"If I didn't, you would not be here," Severus replied, with far more certainty than he felt.
"Why should I say something I'm not likely—this is stupid. I don't know why I came here. I'm going."
"You should know, you idiot. You should know by now how I feel for you."
Harry uttered a humorless laugh. "Don't you get it? I don't know. All I know is that you keep protecting me, treating me like I can't—"
"You killed the Dark Lord, Harry. I know that you can pro—"
"I said, 'Voldemort'," Harry repeated, walking back around the desk to stare up at Severus. "Voldemort. Voldemort. Volde—"
Harry did stop because she had never seen Severus visibly tremble before. Suddenly, she felt horribly guilty, and her anger fled.
Reaching out a hand, Harry tried to lay it on Severus' chest, but he jerked away from her as if afraid of her touch.
"No. No," he whispered. "It's a lie. All of this is."
"You. This. You don't get to comfort me when you don't want to love me."
Harry watched Severus, his head bowed, as his shoulders began to shake. Her eyes widened.
Fuck. I made him cry. I made— "Severus, stop. Stop," Harry begged, wrapping her arms around him and holding him, despite his stiffening frame. "That's not true. You think . . . ? Severus, of course I want you to love me. I've always thought that you didn't want to love me."
Severus sniffed, loudly, and looked at Harry. "You . . . have? You mean, you've been such a—so angry because of that?"
Harry drew away and raised an irritated eyebrow. "Oh, no. You don't get to think that, you—you know I'm mad at you, and you know I have a right to be. You can't do things to me—for me—near me without my consent!"
"But you love—"
"Does it matter when we can't even talk to each other?"
"It matters to me," Severus replied. Fuck. What a sniveling idiot I am! he thought, scrubbing at his face with his sleeve.
The set of Harry's jaw relaxed a bit. "Fine. I love you, Severus. I don't know why, but I do."
Harry. Harry, you love me! Attempting to preserve what little dignity he felt he had left, Severus forced himself not to grin like a fool and replied, "I know exactly why I love you."
Don't you dare cry, Harry ordered herself, staring into Severus' eyes and trying to understand how she could be so furious, happy, and relieved all at once. This doesn't change things, Harry, she counseled herself, wondering what to do.
Things were far from settled.
"This doesn't change things, Severus. We're still—"
"My potion!" Severus exclaimed, rushing back to the vessel and beginning to tend to it.
Harry was gobsmacked. "We're in the middle of something!"
"Yes, fighting, but I still need to tend this—it's for Mrs. Weasley."
"You mean Fleur?" Harry asked, placing her hands on her hips. "And since when did two people declaring mutual love become fighting?"
Severus looked up and said, "Since we tried to do it."
Harry went back to feeling gobsmacked. It did not last long.
Frowning, she asked, "Why can't you say his name?"
"His name was Tom Marvolo Riddle," Severus quipped, without looking up.
But that isn't the name that scares you. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have tried to make you do it. I was angry."
"You're still angry."
"If it's any consolation, I'm still terrified of him."
It's not. "Would you hand me that jar on the worktable?"
Harry levitated the jar toward Severus' shoulder without even pretending to use a wand or a gesture, and he took it from the air, nodding to her.
"What? Being an Auror? You know I have."
"It's a bad idea."
"Have we not just been discussing how I don't need you to tell me what to do?"
"Fuck, Harry, we've said so many things that—honestly, the only things we've said that I give a damn about are—"
Harry strode toward Severus and stopped in front of the cauldron. "Look, stop telling me what to do. Stop thinking you know what's best. Stop. Trying. To. Protect. Me. I won't have you if you don't."
Severus froze. Try to get rid of me, woman. "I dare you."
"To try to get rid of me."
"Stop it! I'm not . . . I'm not going to smile at you, you prat," Harry retorted, turning away.
Severus replaced the lid on his cauldron and came to stand in front of Harry, but he did not touch her. Harry, he thought, staring down at the top of her head. Look at me.
"Don't. Don't do that—you know I don't like it."
"I forgot," Severus said hastily, remembering how much Harry despised Legilimentical communication. "He used to—"
"Yes. Voldemort did," Harry said, regretting her use of the name as Severus flinched. "Fuck. I'm sorry. I—"
Severus wrapped his arms around Harry and drew her into a hug. He was not surprised when she began to shake.
"I didn't mean to make you cry," he whispered into her hair, before gently pressing his lips to her head. "You know that I didn't."
Severus felt Harry nod, and held her more tightly.
"Hard," she murmured.
"What was that?"
"Why is everything so hard?" Harry said, turning her head up to gaze into Severus' eyes.
"'Life is pain'," Severus intoned, thinking of Spellen.
"What the hell kind of useless philosophy is that?"
Severus grimaced. "One that I'd like to prove wrong?" he asked, holding his breath without realizing it.
He's going to suffocate if you don't say something, Harry thought, allowing herself to relax. "Severus, I'm a mother now. I can't just be having it off with you whenever—"
"That's not what I meant."
Oh. No. Please don't—
Severus' shoulders slumped. "You don't want me."
"That's not true."
"I see it in your face. You—"
"Don't pull away," Harry insisted, tightening her hold. "I do want you, but we can't just pretend like everything's perfect—normal."
"What should we do, then? Pretend like we don't care?"
Harry leaned her head against Severus' chest and replied, "I don't actually know what the hell to do, and . . . ."
"And you're exhausted. Come, I'll see you home—or is it the Burrow?"
Harry looked up and, on impulse, kissed Severus.
He did not resist.
When they broke their embrace, Harry said, "I went home today. Fleur and Bill are watching Justine."
"It's a long story. I don't want to talk about it. Things are . . . fine, though. Apparently, I pass whatever test of French witch motherhood Fleur believes in."
"Good. That means I won't need the poison I've been brewing."
Harry grinned. "Aw, for me? And here I thought that was a pain relief potion."
"How would you know?"
Harry laughed. "Point."