"—ry Potter! Are you an imbecile?"
"No sir, Master Sharpe, sir!" Harry exclaimed, picking himself up out of the mud.
"Then why," Sharpe demanded, circling Harry's position around the edge of the pit, "are you down there instead of up on the rope? Shielding charms too much for you, boy?"
Harry was wet and cold and furious—and cursing Snape in his mind—because the instruction style of his Master was so very much like Snape's had been.
"Answer me, Potter. Have I wasted an entire unit's instruction on you? Was the DMLE wrong in its assessment of your potential? Is our little celebrity's reputation greatly exaggerated?"
"Belt up, you loathsome piece of shi—"
Harry choked as he felt the hand wrap around his throat and the press of Snape's—yes, Snape's—body against his. Fuck.
He'd never felt more aroused in his life. He hoped like hell that only Sebastian noticed.
"You will keep a civil tone when addressing me, Novice Potter," Sharpe's voice hissed against his ear. "This isn't Hogwarts, and there's no kindly Headmaster to help you here. This is Auror Training!" the man shouted, loosening his grip on Harry's throat. "Without focus, you could die during your training. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir, Master Sna—arpe, sir!"
His Master pushed Harry away from him so forcefully that Harry found himself on all fours in the mud again. It was mortifying, but at least none of the other novices laughed; they'd all received similar treatment for carelessness in the past. Looking up defiantly at the bastard, Harry remained as he was. He knew from experience that things would only get worse if he took the liberty of acting before "Sharpe" directed him to.
The man's expression suddenly turned from angry to amused. "Well, my novices, it's obvious to me that you require more work on balanced casting. See to it that you practise until dusk," he ordered, as groans issued from most of the class. "And don't blame Potter for it. Not one of you has performed adequately this morning."
"Ah, forgive me, Novice Weasley. You have almost mastered balanced casting. I leave you in charge of the others."
Harry found himself hating Ron more than Snape-Sharpe in that moment—Merlin, but he was confused—yet, he tried to ignore the feeling; he was pants at balanced casting and knew that he'd need his partner's help to master the skill.
Bloody Super Novice Weasley!
"Nice of you to deign to use the showers with the rest of us, your majesty."
"Get stuffed. It wasn't my fault—and he's done worse to me. You know he has."
"Not lately," Harry replied, soaping his hair.
"Least he ain't old Moody," someone remarked, his voice muffled by the water.
"Right," Harry muttered, rinsing his head.
Training wasn't going how he'd envisioned it. It was fucking hell, in fact, and he couldn't seem to do anything right. What was worse, Sebastian had been true to his word; they'd not seen each other privately since New Year's. One second, he'd been pressed into the wall, Sebastian's cock working his arse and making him scream; the next, the first had dawned, and Master Sharpe had ordered Harry to the Novitiate.
He's been a right bastard ever since!
Harry had to admit, however, that although Sebastian's training style was entirely too reminiscent of Snape's teaching one, the man was fair—and much better in his instruction. He was hell bent on teaching his novices how to survive, no matter if it killed them. In fact, he'd told them, "You might die learning to survive. If so, you'll know: you're not meant to be an Auror."
The grin he'd worn while telling them this was in no way a grin that Snape would ever have worn, and it had left Harry feeling aroused and confounded.
"Fuck," he muttered, as his prick stirred.
He cast a now-familiar, non-verbal deflation spell and stalked from the shower towards his waiting clothing. He wanted a wank, several, in fact, but he wasn't going to indulge at the Novitiate. His stubborn prick twitched as Harry thought of the coming day's leave and the battle tunnels within Hogwarts. He'd suffer the frustration of a fitful night's rest, but in the morning . . . .
As he left the locker room, he heard Ron saying, "Yep, pretty much he's always been a moody sort. Just leave it. He'll come 'round."
Come, anyway, thank you very much.
"Your respect of boundaries being what it is, I thought I could do worse than be 'flexible' with regard to one of my personal rules."
"Sebastian," Sebastian corrected Harry, as he pushed off the wall against which he was leaning in the tunnel that led towards Snape's old quarters.
No one had claimed them, yet, which wasn't much of a surprise to Harry. Apparently, the wards were rather unpleasant on the dungeon-side entrance to the chamber.
"If you say so."
"Harry, we've been through this before," Sebastian said, as he approached him and pulled Harry towards him by his robes. "Severus Snape is dead."
Harry's hands, seemingly of their own volition, began to tug at Sebastian's clothing, unbuttoning bone buttons and unlacing leather trouser strings. "Right. Of course."
"Shut up and fuck me, you idiot. I have a meeting this afternoon."
A shiver rushed down Harry's spine and he gasped.
Sebastian smirked. "What? The idea of taking me against the wall doesn't appeal?"
Sucking his lower lip into his mouth, Harry continued to stare at Sebastian, whose half-closed, deep brown eyes darkened. He growled and backed Harry into the wall, spinning him around and murmuring a series of spells that left Harry nude, lubricated, and ready.
"As you like, then. Fucking you is always my pleasure."
There was nothing gentle about Sebastian's first thrust; he slid home and then pulled out almost completely, only to slam Harry's body into the wall again with his next one. This was a motion that he repeated, again and again, until Harry's cheek and torso were cold with rubbed-off dirt and every other part of him was on fire with need.
"Please, please, please." Begging and breathing and feeling—that was all Harry could do until Sebastian made one slight shift in his thrusting and colours exploded behind Harry's eyelids. "Fuck!"
Sebastian gasped in time with Harry's shout and bit Harry's shoulder, muffling his own exclamation. The teeth digging sharply into his skin hurt, but Harry loved it and shuddered mindlessly through the pain. When his orgasm subsided, he discovered that he'd clawed his fingers into the earthen wall before him, and realised that Sebastian was lightly licking the indentations his teeth had made. The tenderness of this gesture surprised Harry.
"Yes, so you did."
"The biting. Liked that a lot."
In response, Sebastian turned Harry to face him before bending down to lightly nibble the vein in the side of Harry's neck, causing him to squirm.
"I should . . . like," Sebastian murmured, in between tiny bites, "to tie . . . you down."
"Oh, that's . . . oh."
"Yes, tie . . . you down . . . and have you . . . at my . . . mercy."
Mercy. Now that was something that Snape had never shown. Don't care. Don't care about Snape, Harry lied to himself. "'Bastian, mouth."
His request hadn't been clear, but Sebastian was able to discern Harry's meaning and moved to kiss him in a slow exploration of lips and tongue. He sucked Harry's lower lip into his mouth, worried it lightly, and then chuckled as Harry pressed forward, using his own tongue to deepen the kiss. They danced like this for a while, tongue against tongue, their arms wrapping around each other, their pricks lengthening and thickening with interest at the intimacy, until Harry moved his hands from Sebastian's arse to make a column with them around their cocks.
"Fuck my hands," he whispered, staring at Sebastian and determined to watch him come this time. "Move with me. Fuck them."
He saw some unfamiliar emotion flicker in Sebastian's eyes, but his lover didn't look away. Harry fought to control his breathing, to keep it quiet, as they thrust up against each other's pricks within the column of his fingers, both of them, it seemed, tense with something more than erotic anticipation.
"H—Harry, I . . . you . . . ."
Harry shook his head. "Don't speak. You don't have to say anything. Just—oh, yeah—just look . . . just look . . . at me."
At those words, Sebastian's knees buckled and he fell forward, catching himself by planting his palms against the wall into which Harry was leaning—but he didn't stop fucking Harry's hands.
A thrill of power surged through Harry then. "Look at me," he said again. "You like . . . looking at . . . me, don't you? Works for you, the . . . looking. . . . You, fuck," Harry swore, speeding his thrusts. He was close, so close; Sebastian was, too, given how hard he was shaking. "You wanted . . . me to look . . . at you . . . before. . . . Didn't you? You wanted . . . me to look!"
It was difficult to keep his eyes open as he came, but he managed it, watching Sebastian's joy-grim expression, watching as his lips formed an open-mouthed, silent scream as he came—and then Harry was catching Sebastian as he fell forward, guiding him gently to the floor, where they fell away from one another, gasping.
I wasn't wrong, was I? Harry thought. "I was . . . right. You are. . . . You are," Harry whispered, trying and failing to make his limbs work.
"Sebastian," well, his only response was ragged breathing.
When Harry finally recovered from the intensity of their encounter, he turned to find his lover curled in on himself—still shaking. Somewhat emboldened by this unexpected display of emotion, Harry decided to test his theory.
"Se—everus, I'm sorry. Sorry to press you, but—"
"Sebastian, Harry. Severus Snape is dead."
Harry reached for what he believed to be Snape's long plait of Polyjuiced hair and began to unbraid it, luxuriating in its softness and liking very much its russet-coloured redness. "This is nice, but I'd like to run my fingers through your hair, as well. Perhaps you'll leave off taking your next dose of potion so that I can? I think I understand why you're hiding, but—"
"Let go," the man ordered, picking himself up abruptly.
"There's no reason for you to pretend anymore," Harry protested.
"Idiot. You understand nothing. He's dead. He's been dead. He isn't me. I. Am. Not. Severus. Snape."
"Of course you are," Harry said, standing up and stepping towards "Sebastian," who was dressing himself with stiff, painful-looking movements. But as he said the words and saw how his lover's expression seemed to crumple into sadness, he began to doubt himself again. "Sna—Sharpe—Sebastian, please. Don't go."
Sebastian pulled his phial from a trouser pocket, unstoppered it, and drank more deeply than ever he'd drunk before. Harry watched him shudder and repressed the unbidden desire to laugh when the man belched loudly.
In moments, his familiar grin returned.
"Well now, that was dramatic, but then, fucking sometimes is. I'm for a meeting, but—"
"Hey! What the hell do you think you're playing at?"
"You can't just leave things like this!"
"I can't?" Sebastian asked, his eyes widening in an expression of semi-theatrical surprise. "We've had it off thoroughly enough. What's left?"
"You . . . your entire . . . why are you so bloody different now?"
Sebastian made a toasting gesture with his phial before pocketing it, his gaze locked on Harry's. "Firebright Elixir. I did tell you that without it, I'm not at all this charming." His smile slid into a smirk, and then it faded. "I told you, Harry, Severus Snape is dead. I'm not Severus Snape. I can't, no, I won't be his succedaneum for you, either, so if it's your intention to persist in this . . . fantasy of yours, then I'm afraid we won't be fucking anymore."
With those words, Sebastian turned on his heel and left him. Harry, his eyes burning, tried to call to him, but the words wouldn't come.
"Get dressed, Novice Potter," Sebastian called back without turning. "It's bloody cold down here!"
The heat from the fire of the Burrow's hearth sank into Harry's bones in welcoming waves, but even amidst so much holiday cheer and good company, Harry felt powerfully lonely: he'd tried to ease that feeling by wanking over Snape's letters to Regulus again, but the letters were losing their appeal—especially because of Sebastian's increasingly intrusive and mocking presence in his Snapian fantasies.
Seeing the man almost every day and knowing that he'd fucked things up between them so thoroughly was murder, but Harry didn't know how to revive things. Sebastian remained a hard task master on the training field, but he was supportive off it, and fun, too, occasionally joining his novices down at the pub for a pint and to share stories. Harry had verified them all on his days of leave over the previous few months: there was a Sebastian Sharpe, curse-breaker. He'd been born near Manchester and had no living family. He'd been a Slytherin—and good at Gobstones, Charms, Duelling, and Transfiguration—Harry had seen his awards in the cases at Hogwarts. Sebastian Sharpe was real, personable, and hotter than any man Harry had ever wanted, had ever had, and he could have had him yet if he hadn't have been so bloody fucking stupid.
Harry was doomed to remain without him, however, because he knew, in his gut, that Sebastian was Snape. He supposed that he understood why Snape had reinvented himself.
But why can't he be honest about it with me? Harry thought, poking at the logs forcefully in his frustration.
"Sparks!" Hermione exclaimed, entering the lounge.
"You're sending sparks flying everywhere."
"Thought everyone was in the kitchen," Harry mumbled, putting the poker back into its stand.
"Right, so we all were until I was sent in here to find out what's brought on your current fit of sulks. I think it's because of Professor Snape's statue. Am I right?"
"Shite. I didn't think I'd been that obvious about it."
Hermione shook her head. "You're not good at hiding your emotions, Harry, and I know how important he was to—I mean," she said, blushing, "how important it is to you that he be honoured."
"If you're thinking that I fancied Snape, you're wrong."
Hermione's eyes widened. "Merlin, Harry! Of course you did! You were as obsessed with him as ever you were with Malfoy."
"Well, obsession isn't fancy, is it?"
Loud laughter issued from the kitchen, then, and Hermione said, "Let's walk. I expect that people will want the lounge back soon."
Harry followed Hermione to the front door without argument. He had no desire to see anyone else, especially when they might also think he fancied Snape because of his efforts to honour the man's memory. Grabbing his cloak after she took hers, he stepped outside into the snowy coldness of the evening. The chill did nothing to ease the inflammation of his ears and cheeks.
"I know that the statue business bothers you," Hermione said, referring again to the attempt to memorialise Snape in stone on Hogwarts' grounds at the yuletide memorial for the dead, something that Harry, who truly loathed all such ceremonies, had encouraged in spite of his certainty that something would go wrong.
When he'd seen Grapplethorpe in the crowd, he'd been tempted to hex the goblin, particularly when he'd caught sight of Luna's stricken expression; she'd spent months sculpting her statue of Snape, hacking away at the large chunk of Hogwarts' masonry as a means of exorcising the trauma she'd experienced in the Malfoy dungeons—at least, that's what Hermione believed. When the statue had crumbled into dust, everyone had just assumed that it hadn't held for the same reason that no portrait had appeared of Snape with the other former Headmasters. People appeared to believe that Hogwarts, itself, had not forgiven Snape, even if the Boy Who Lived had, and that frustrated Harry terribly.
I should have told them, he thought guiltily, suddenly realising that Hermione was still speaking.
"—know that you're upset that the Ministry has never officially recognised his heroism."
"They did try."
"So they did, but I wish we knew why nothing's working! It's . . . it's almost as if someone is deliberately trying to prevent the professor's achievements from being recognised."
Harry looked around and judged that they'd walked about a quarter mile away from the Burrow, which was far enough; he and Hermione were alone on the path. Sighing, he thought, You might as well tell her. If you don't, she'll eventually figure it out, and it probably wouldn't be good for Hermione or all of goblin kind if she were to take on Gringotts because of you.
"What's the matter?"
"I know why none of the memorials are holding."
"It's because of Snape's will," Harry told her, explaining what he meant more fully.
"Why haven't you told anyone about this before?"
"What good would it have done? He clearly meant it."
Hermione huffed. From anyone else, the exhalation would have been a sigh, but from Hermione, it was a huff—and it was so characteristic of her that it made Harry laugh.
"This isn't funny! Memorials aren't for the dead. They're for the living! And why on earth would he have wanted to be forgotten? That's hardly a Slytherin trait."
"I guess you don't know enough about Slytherins, or Snape, the sodding stubborn bastard!"
"Harry?" Hermione asked, stopping.
"Don't be sharp with me."
"Sorry." Harry ran a hand through his fringe and sneezed, the cold finally affecting him.
"It sounds to me as if you did fancy the professor."
"But I didn't—no," Harry insisted, raising a hand to prevent Hermione from interrupting him. "It wasn't like that. I mean, I suppose it's fair to say that I was obsessed." Hermione's expression became pointed. "Look, I may have wanked over the bastard in school—"
"I did not need to know tha—"
"—but that wasn't until I read the textbook, his textbook."
"Do you mean the Potions text that you cheated from sixth year?" Hermione asked, her eyes narrowing.
"I know you didn't approve of that, but I liked reading it, I liked the person who scribbled in its margins. He was funny and cool and the way his mind worked was—"
"A turn-on, apparently."
Harry sighed; it made him uncomfortable when Hermione said things like that, but he wasn't about to admit it to her. "Yeah, but it was the half-blood prince I was thinking of then, not Snape. I hated Snape. I still do. But I think that I could have been the prince's friend."
"I suppose," Hermione said, after they'd begun to walk again, "that it must be difficult for you to reconcile your impressions of the 'prince' with what you knew of the professor."
"It still is, except now everything's become far more complicated."
"What do you mean?"
Harry took a deep breath to steady himself for his admission. Exhaling, he said, "Severus Snape isn't dead."
Hermione froze, and Harry turned to see her open her mouth as if to speak and then close it again before she exaggeratedly moved her wand hand nearer to the pocket in which she kept her wand sheathed.
"I'm not mad, I swear," Harry insisted, "and I can prove it."
Proving it, or at least, trying to prove it, involved fetching Snape's will from Grimmauld while Hermione returned to the Burrow to reassure everyone that Harry was merely feeling overwhelmed by the holiday. "Overwhelmed" had become something of a Weasley family shorthand for "bugger off, you lot," and it was respected. When Harry returned, he found everyone in bed but Hermione, who was waiting for him in the kitchen.
"Here, read Section Two," he said, handing her the will.
Hermione took it. "Tea?"
"That would be lovely."
Hermione cleared her throat.
"Oh," Harry said. "Right."
As he brought their mugs to the table, Hermione looked up at him and muttered, "Bloody-minded git."
Harry was sure that she meant Snape, and this relieved him; he'd half-expected Hermione to suggest that he be seen at the Janus Thickey Ward. "Does this mean that you believe me?"
"It means that I want to say something, and I don't want you to interrupt me."
Harry smirked. "When have I ever been able to do that?"
"Oh, go on, then. I won't interrupt."
"Harry, are you in love with Master Sharpe?"
That wasn't what he'd been expecting her to say, and it caught him off-guard. "Wouldn't answering that be interruption of a sort?"
"I . . . I don't know, but what about Section—"
"Why don't you know?"
"How can I? Everything's so bloody confused!"
"Because you believe that Master Sharpe is Professor Snape?"
"No, because I like Sebastian, and I never liked Snape—at least, not Professor Snape—we hated each other."
"Royal wank-fodder or no, do you really believe that you could have loved Professor Snape, especially given his . . . history with your mum?"
Ew. Harry screwed up his face at the implication of Hermione's words. "I've never actually thought of things like that, but—"
"No buts, Harry. I don't believe that you could have loved the professor anymore than he could have loved you. Like you said, you hated each other, but Master Sharpe, Sebastian, well, he's free to love whomever he chooses, and at the very least, he likes shagging you."
Harry flushed. He'd tried to be vague about the exact nature of his relationship with Sebastian, but Hermione was sharper in tack terms than most people. "What's your point?"
"Severus Snape is dead."
Harry's mood abruptly soured. "Fine, if you don't believe me, then—"
"I didn't say that I didn't believe you!"
"Well, what then?"
"This is the don't interrupt part," Hermione said, raising her right eyebrow as if in expectation of some indication of his agreement.
Scowling and crossing his arms over his chest, Harry nodded.
"Severus Snape is dead. He died," Hermione told Harry, showing him Snape's will, "upon the Surrendering of his name."
"So that is a rite of some kind."
"It is. To Surrender one's name is to give up one's identity, essentially, to legally erase oneself from the wizarding world."
"How is it that you always know these things?"
Harry rolled his eyes and allowed his hands to fall into his lap.
"And my latest assignment for Advanced History of Magic is an essay on the development of the Magical Code. I've been paying particular attention to old, rarely used legal rituals."
"Of course you have been."
Hermione's left eyebrow, which she always lifted to indicate annoyance, rose, and Harry compressed his lips together to indicate his intention of not interrupting her further.
"Don't you see, Harry? If Professor Snape performed the Rite of Surrender before his physical death, he effectively killed himself. This means that Sebastian can no more claim to be Snape than you or I could, no doubt because of the magic involved in the Surrendering."
"But . . . but if he did perform it, how could he have become Sharpe so completely? Oh, Merlin," Harry said, grabbing the edge of the table with both hands, "do you think—"
"No," Hermione assured him, reaching for his hands. They were warm and small and soft, but her voice was strong as she continued, "I don't believe that Snape would have stolen Sebastian's identity, not given everything he did in life that was noble."
"No matter what he did for Dumbledore, he was still a Death Eater."
"Yes, well, I hardly think that he'd begin a new life for himself by keeping someone a prisoner for his hair, do you?"
"You mean, for Polyjuice purposes? No, I suppose not."
"Even though we don't know if, I mean, how," Hermione corrected herself, squeezing Harry's hands before releasing them, "Professor Snape might have survived, or how he might have arranged to become Sebastian Sharpe, it's obvious that it's the most likely scenario here—assuming that the professor didn't die from Nagini's attack, of course."
Harry's failure to save Snape from Nagini's attack figured prominently in his nightmares. I should have done something. I can't believe that I just let him die! he thought, sighing at Hermione's logic. It was stupid of me to think she'd really believe me about Sharpe. The entire idea is so far-fetched that I can't believe I do believe—
"—brings me back to my first question."
"Hmm?" Harry asked, realising that he'd lost track of what Hermione had been saying again.
"Are you in love with Sebastian?"
"I answered that already. I don't know."
Hermione raised her eyebrows pointedly at him.
"We've just been, I mean, shagging isn't love, but . . . ."
"Assuming you are falling in love with the man, do you think it's because of the connection that you've made between him and the half-blood prince, or is it because of the man, himself? And either way, how can you be falling for someone about whom you know so little?"
Harry didn't know how to answer those questions, not really. There was just something there between Sebastian and himself, something taut and drawing. It wasn't quite what he'd felt from Snape, but it was just as compelling.
Ignoring Hermione's questions, he said, "If Snape is Sebastian, I'd really like to know how he managed to become him. If there's a crime here . . . ."
"If that were truly your concern, you'd have investigated Sebastian's background."
Harry flushed. "I have done."
"I'm not surprised. What you found obviously hasn't sorted your confusion, though, so . . . so try this: pretend that there isn't a crime involved. Pretend that you're not obsessed with reconciling what you know of the professor with his student self. Pretend that your involvement is with Sebastian Sharpe alone. Given all that, can you accept him?"
But Sebastian is Snape, and . . . oh, hell! "I don't know. Truly, I don't. I mean, Snape, he was . . . he's—"
"Dead, legally declared so at the very least, which means that you can't have a relationship with him. And honestly, Harry, I don't know why you'd even want to."
"You mean, because of Mum?"
"That's something I don't want to understand. It's creepy, thinking about Snape wanting me after . . . ."
Hermione leant back and crossed her arms. "Not so creepy to you that you didn't fuck him."
"Oh, don't look at me as if you truly believe I'm ignorant of fucking. I'm dating a Weasley. I 'dated' him fairly vigorously under your roof not long ago."
Harry flushed. "I, er, I try not to think about you like that, sexually, I mean."
"Good," Hermione replied, leaning forward to reach for her teacup. "You know, I think it's interesting that in spite of the many layers of creepiness involved in your fucking someone you suspect of being Snape, you've managed to do it anyway."
"But it wasn't Snape whom I was fucking. It was 'Bastian."
Hermione set down her tea and beamed at Harry. "Exactly."
"Frankly, I'm not sure I see what your problem is with Sebastian. It should be because he's your Master of Instruction, but obviously, that's not a problem for you."
"So, has Sebastian been seeing anyone else since your argument?"
"I don't think so."
"What does that tell you?"
"I don't know what it tells me. Hell, I don't know what to do, but . . . but I miss him, Hermione."
"Then perhaps you could figure out a way to let him know that."
"You really think so? I thought that you disapproved of my seeing my Master of Instruction."
"Oh, Harry, I'd much rather that you pursued a relationship with a living man than a dead one."
Dead tired, that's how Harry felt after Hermione went up to bed and he went to the lounge. He couldn't wait to sleep, but as he approached the door, he heard someone talking in the room. Peering inside of it, he saw George sitting on the hearth. A garishly wrapped package was in his hands, and he was talking to it.
No, he's talking to Fred, Harry realised, feeling twin pangs of sadness and loss.
"And it's probably rubbish, brother, because I developed it myself, but it was . . . it was the best . . . I could do."
George was crying. Harry hated that but wasn't sure that he should intrude. As he backed away from the door, however, George looked up and noticed him.
"Where've you been?" he demanded, wiping his nose on one sleeve and sniffling loudly.
"Just . . . out for a walk."
"Not making moves on my little brother's girl, were you?"
The ghost of a smile flitting over George's face told Harry that he was teasing. "Wouldn't dare. Ron's a much better novice than I am."
George issued a half-chuckle at that and gestured for Harry to come in, which he did, sitting down next to George on the hearth.
"So . . . what is that?" Harry asked, nodding at the present that George held.
"New Wheeze. Made it for . . . ."
"Yeah. It's rubbish. Everything I do's rubbish since—oh, sod this," George spat, standing abruptly and tossing the box aside.
Harry heard a clinking sound as it hit the hearth and winced, feeling out of his depth in the face of George's grief. Not knowing what else to say, he asked, "That's not going to explode or anything, is it?"
"Don't care if it does."
Harry moved immediately to the sofa, and George shook his head.
"No, it isn't. Sorry. I just . . . I keep thinking it'll get easier, but it doesn't. He was always here, here, damn it!" he exclaimed, thumping his chest with a fist. "I hate that he isn't now, Harry. I hate . . . it."
Alarmed by George's renewed sobbing, Harry stood up and nervously clasped his shoulder, squeezing it too hard and otherwise standing there like a git. I should say something.
But there were no words that Harry knew to ease George's pain. He couldn't imagine what it must be like, being a twin and losing one's other half, and he felt horribly guilty to realise that he'd kept himself so busy with his training and his confusion over Sebastian that he'd neatly avoided having to comfort anyone.
Arsehole, he thought, meaning himself. George is family, and you left him alone. Arsehole! Loneliness and confusion did not bring out the best in him, but Harry knew there was no excuse for withdrawing from everyone as he'd done. I'm not the only one having a hard time of it.
Determined to do what he could for George, he moved his free hand up to George's other shoulder, and squeezed it rather too tightly, as well, saying, "I doubt it's rubbish."
"Your gift for Fred. Bet he'd love it, bet he'd be chuffed to know you were making new Wheezes again."
George blinked rapidly and snorted, clearing his throat before breaking away from Harry to spit into the fire. "P'raps. Maybe. I don't know. . . . Want to see it?"
While George sat down to unwrap the package's trimmings with shaking hands, Harry thought about Snape. He supposed that he vaguely understood what George was feeling to have lost Fred because Snape had been his constant, always there since he was a kid, glaring and shouting and hating. It wasn't the same, of course; Fred and George had loved each other, but for Harry, Snape had been as much a part of his life as Fred had been a part of George's.
How do you accept that kind of loss? And what if . . . what if it's not the loss, but of what it means to hold onto it?
That was it, wasn't it? He'd been so determined not to think about, well, everything that he'd focussed all his energy on Snape and the mystery of Sebastian instead of dealing with his own pain—and helping his family and friends deal with theirs.
I really am an arsehole, he told himself, as George finally got the present open.
"Here," he said, handing Harry two small, plain beige cloth dolls, an Every Colour Inkpot, a quill, and a square bit of parchment.
"What's this, then?"
"It's . . . it's stupid."
"They're . . . friendship dolls. You paint one to represent yourself, and one to look like someone . . . you miss, and . . . and then you . . . you fill the dolls' bellies with something like hair from each person and . . . ."
"Cast the spell on the parchment, which," Harry said, scanning the spell, "makes the dolls come alive?"
"But only in the same way that Chocolate Frog cards do."
Oh, Merlin. George . . . . "So that you and your . . . friend can . . . always be together," Harry whispered, as his eyes stung.
George nodded. "Rubbish."
"I think it's brilliant," Harry said, blinking rapidly.
"You're an idiot, then. Fred would have hated it."
"Fred," Harry replied, as he sat down next to George again, "would have painted himself and some bird and spent hours posing the dolls in filthy positions."
Unexpectedly, George burst out laughing. "Fuck, oh . . . fuck, Harry. That's exactly what he . . . would have done!"
Harry rubbed George's back lightly as his laughter gave way to tears and until his tears finally subsided. "Christmas is hard," he whispered, once George was breathing steadily.
"Won't be, not always."
"And you know, I think you're wrong about Fred," Harry whispered, turning to face George so that he could lay a hand over his heart. "I think . . . I think he's still here."
George spluttered. "Don't be such a girl."
Stung, Harry tried to pull away his hand, but George grabbed his forearm and wouldn't let him. They stared at each other for a long moment.
"Sorry," George said finally, releasing Harry's arm. "And . . . and thanks."
"Don't mention it."
"Won't," George told him, gathering up the components of his Wheeze and leaving the room.
Harry breathed a sigh of relief and stood up, only to throw himself down on the sofa in emotional exhaustion. He'd had entirely too much of talking, but none of it with the person who'd been foremost on his mind.
Wonder what Sebastian's doing for the hols?
He expected that it wasn't thinking of him.
Harry discovered differently, however, later that morning as he, the Weasleys, Hermione, and Neville sat around the Christmas tree after opening presents and a knock fell upon the front door.
"Now who could that be?" Mrs Weasley asked, going to answer it.
"Probably Muriel," said Mr Weasley, taking another biscuit from the tray levitating by his chair and popping it into his mouth.
The room quieted down as they listened to Mrs Weasley greet the guest, who spoke too quietly to be heard. "Oh, yes, Bill said that . . . . No, not at all! . . . Happy Christmas! . . . Come in, come in!"
"Oh, excellent! He could come," Bill said, rising as his mother returned to the room.
Ron and Harry shared a confused glance as she stopped just inside the door. "Well, here's a nice surprise! It's Master Sharpe, Bill's friend," she said, stepping aside to let the man enter the room.
"Sebastian, please," he said, favouring them all with a grin.
His eyes rested on Harry for half a heartbeat longer than anyone else, and Harry's stomach clenched with nerves.
The moment was broken when Bill greeted Sebastian with, "Happy Christmas, Sharpe!" They shook hands. "You remember Fleur, of course?"
How? How could he remember Fleur? Harry wondered.
"Sharpe and I last worked together on a rather nasty piece of work at the wizarding wing of the Louvre two summers back," Bill explained, to which Sebastian replied, "Yes, and that was just the curator of Cursed Objects. The object in question wasn't nearly as awful."
Everyone laughed. Surreptitiously, Harry pinched himself.
Nope. Not dreaming.
"Should've known there'd be no escaping him, even over the hols," Ron whispered, although he didn't sound annoyed at all.
"Where shall I put these?" Sebastian asked, indicating a small, apparently full sack that he was carrying and opening it to reveal the presents it contained.
"How 'bout directly into our hands, sir?" Ron asked.
Snorting over Mrs Weasley's protestations that gifts hadn't been necessary, Sebastian proceeded to pass out small boxes to everyone. "I couldn't have trespassed on your hospitality without showing my gratitude, now could I have?"
Bill laughed. "Good man!"
"Oh, zees are from my favourite chocolatier at 'ome. Zhank you," Fleur said, as she unwrapped her present.
Harry found that he also had chocolates, but rather than the intricately carved flowers that Fleur, Mrs Weasley, and Ginny had received, his were gold lions.
"Mr Longbottom, let me shake your hand," Sebastian said then, and Neville, his eyes wide, accepted the man's hand. "Bill mentioned you might be here." Looking at Ginny, Sebastian continued, "With such an inducement, it's no wonder."
Ginny wrapped her arm around Neville's waist and beamed at Sebastian. "It's lovely to meet you."
"It's an honour to meet you, Miss Weasley, and you, Mr Longbottom. I've read a great deal about your time at Hogwarts during the war, very brave, both of you."
Hermione caught Harry's eye and mouthed, "That's not Severus Snape."
"Well, since you've come bearing gifts—Arthur! That's my chocolate," Mrs Weasley said, Summoning her gift and turning back to Sebastian—"it's only right that you should receive one," she continued, handing Sebastian an obviously hastily re-wrapped present.
Ginny giggled, and Neville smiled at her as if he, too, knew what was coming. Harry supposed that he probably did. He was surprised to find that he didn't mind it . . . much.
Making a half-hearted protestation, Sebastian nevertheless opened his gift and laughed. Pulling a still moving knitting needle from the jumper, he said, "I believe this is yours, madam."
"Oh!" Molly exclaimed, snatching the knitting needle away. "Well, Bill didn't know your size, but I think the length I've just added should do it."
Sebastian shook out the dark blue jumper he'd removed from the tissue paper and pulled it on. "I'd say that it fits beautifully, and this is a delightful orange ess," he said, holding up the front of the jumper and admiring it.
"Happy Christmas!" everyone exclaimed, almost as one.
Everyone but Harry, who was too gobsmacked to speak, and George and Charlie, who were mock fighting with their chocolate confections, jostling Percy in the process.
Sniffing at them, Percy asked Sebastian, who had lowered himself to the floor looking as if he'd always been a part of Weasley Christmas, "So, have you worked much with Bill?"
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing, Perce," said Bill, "it's just that work is play with Sharpe, here."
It is? Harry thought, for such was not his impression of Sebastian from training.
"Well, most curses are puzzles of a sort, and I do enjoy puzzles."
Percy frowned. "I'd hardly call curses puzzles."
"Perhaps not," Sebastian said, his expression sobering. "It's just that, as a boy, I endured a rather long, tedious apprenticeship in the history of . . . magical warfare and its related arts, shall we say, and thinking about those subjects as puzzles was better than dwelling on their true nature, especially once my second master provided me with a deeper understanding of them."
Harry and Hermione shared a significant glance.
"So what you're saying," she said, her tone neutral, "is that scholarship is boring?"
"Not at all, Miss Granger, but too much immersion in certain subjects can be . . . draining. There's a refreshing ethical simplicity to curse-breaking that I find very satisfying."
"How do you like being your own master?" Ron asked.
"It has its advantages," Sebastian replied, his eyes resting on Harry briefly before smirking at Ron.
"Right, like torturing your own novices."
"Knowing what I do of what you might face in your work, it's my pleasure to help you prepare for it. But come! This isn't a particularly festive topic, is it?" Sebastian said, turning to Mrs Weasley. "How may I be of use to you, Molly? I'm a fair hand in the kitchen."
Somehow, Sebastian managed to persuade Mrs Weasley to allow him to help her, and everyone who didn't follow them into the kitchen broke apart into separate conversations.
"Harry!" Ron hissed, nudging him, "Master Sharpe studied under Dark wizards!"
"Be that as it may, there's nothing off about him," Bill said.
"I don't think that Ron meant to imply otherwise."
"I know, Hermione, and I'll admit that I don't actually know much about Sharpe's early studies. He and I were Potions partners at school, but we didn't become friends until we began working together occasionally."
"Why not?" Ron asked.
"Sharpe's a Slytherin," Harry said, and Bill nodded.
"I'm glad you became friends with him in spite of that," Hermione said. "Everyone needs friends."
"Oh, Sharpe had plenty of friends—acquaintances, at any rate—at Hogwarts," Bill told her. "He was rather popular, if aloof in many ways."
Fleur took his arm. "Well, cheerful company opens ze tongue. Come, let's join your friend."
Harry bit into a lion head and frowned as Fleur pulled Bill away. "Cheerful company"—he expected that "Sebastian" had never had much of that. He did say that he wanted things to be different this time, Harry thought, aching to remember the first time he'd fallen asleep in Sebastian's arms.
His prick twitched at this line of thought, and he was relieved when Ron declared that a little pre-dinner Quidditch would be in order because getting hard under the Christmas tree definitely wasn't something that he needed.
Frustrated and confused, Harry made a point of avoiding Sebastian as best he could for the rest of the afternoon.
After dinner, which had been undeniably all the more enjoyable for Sebastian's cheerful presence—no matter how much his cheer seemed to be aided by his ever-present phial—Harry found himself doing the washing up with Ron and their Master of Instruction.
"So many dishes!" Ron grumbled—again.
Sebastian chuckled. "Perhaps you should see to your girlfriend. I'm sure that Novice Potter and I can manage the rest of these."
Damn, Harry thought, nervously scouring a plate and hoping that Ron would refuse.
But Ron was already drying his hands. "Thanks, sir. Don't mind if I do."
Harry swallowed down his rising nerves and said nothing as Ron left them.
"Are you enjoying your hols?" Sebastian asked after a moment, his fingers brushing Harry's as he took a clean, wet plate from him and began to dry it.
Harry nodded, and then he realised that Sebastian wouldn't have been able to see the gesture as they were standing side by side. When he looked up, however, he saw in the dark, reflective window that Sebastian was regarding him closely.
"It's good to finally have you to myself," he said to Harry's reflection.
"M—Master Sharpe," Harry stammered, unable to think of anything else to say.
"We're alone, so it's Sebastian, remember?" he asked, before pulling his phial from a pocket and sipping from it.
Just how harmful is that? Harry wondered, not sure if Sebastian were taking Polyjuice, Firebright Elixir, or, as he'd come to suspect, his own mixture of the two potions.
Sebastian appeared to understand his concern as he said, "It's perfectly innocuous. . . . I brewed it myself."
His mocking tone set Harry's already taxed nerves more on edge, but he refused to rise to the bait. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he said, "Except that you wouldn't be as charming without it."
"Quite right, and I find that I enjoy being charming."
I expect you do, all the better not to be despised in your new life. "Then congratulations. Everyone seems to enjoy your being charming."
"Everyone?" Sebastian asked, turning to lean against the edge of the counter.
"I think I'd like you better if I could trust your charm. That," Harry said, nodding at the phial that Sebastian still held, "can't be good for you."
"Perhaps you'd like a sip to reassure yourself I'm not doing myself a harm?"
Harry shook his head and clutched the edge of the sink. "As it happens, I do know what Polyjuice tastes like."
"Yes, but have you ever tried Firebright Elixir?" Sebastian asked, holding the phial out to Harry. "In small doses, it's really rather stimulating."
Harry shivered at the invitation in Sebastian's tone and squeezed the edge of the sink harder, determined not to allow Sebastian to provoke him to anger—or to anything else. Not like this. Not when he can't even be himself. "No," he said hoarsely, "thank you."
Sebastian returned the potion to his pocket. "Does your refusal to test me mean that you've put all that," he waved a hand, "Snape-related nonsense behind you?"
"Does the fact that you're here mean that your impulse control is as bad as ever?" Harry snapped.
As if he hadn't heard the warning in Harry's tone, Sebastian grinned and replied, "What's the harm in indulging that failing if it's brought me here to you? I've missed you."
Harry relaxed his grip on the edge of the sink and sighed. "What's so . . . intriguing about me?"
Sebastian's expression sobered. "I have a thing for moody young men, always have had," he whispered.
Harry drew in a long breath. In one of Snape's letters, he'd called Regulus his "moody young man," and Harry found that he objected to the comparison being drawn between himself and "Sebastian's" dead male lover. "That's hardly flattering. I could be any moody someone to you."
"But you're not."
"Who am I, then?"
"You're . . . the person with whom I wanted to spend Christmas. Isn't it obvious?" Sebastian's mouth curved into a slight, hopeful yet uncertain smile, and Harry couldn't deny its charm.
He raised his eyes to Sebastian's; they weren't Snape's eyes. No, they were liquid shining brown and beautiful, and Harry felt mesmerised by them. It would be so easy to stop thinking, stop doubting, and just drown in them, but that wasn't enough to make him relinquish his "Snape-related nonsense." It couldn't be, not as it occurred to him that while it didn't matter to him who Sebastian really was, it did matter to him that Sebastian understand with whom he was.
I don't want to be anyone's succedaneum, either. "Sebastian, nothing's obvious to me where you're concerned."
"I'm not so very complicated," he replied, pushing off the counter and turning Harry to face him, "and I thought I'd made my desires plain."
"T—ry again?" Harry asked, stuttering at the caress of Sebastian's thumb against his lower lip.
"In general, I want what most people do—to be useful, to be respected, to have friends, to love and . . . be loved in return."
The caressing thumb was maddening, and Harry found himself leaning into it, his resolve weakening.
"And in particular, I want you."
Merlin, I wish that were true. "Then why . . . why won't you trust me?"
"What makes you think that I don't?" Sebastian asked, frowning.
Harry closed his eyes against the intensity of Sebastian's expression, the sudden, irrational urge to shout filling him. Because you've no reason to want me, not me, not quite this much. Mastering his sadness, he whispered, "I really like you. You've no idea how much, but I can't—"
"Don't," Sebastian interrupted, his expression blanking but for the glimmer of fear in his eyes as he dropped his hands to his sides. "Please don't say 'can't'."
"I can't, Harry mercilessly continued, sliding one hand into Sebastian's trouser pocket to remove his phial and holding it up between them, "love someone who's hiding from himself." He stepped back. "Hide from the world if you must—I don't care about that anymore—but don't hide from me. Don't pretend with me. It's not something that I can accept."
"And why not?" Sebastian demanded, his expression darkening. "Have you so many other better options that you're free to reject the offer of a charming, attractive companion and excellent sex?"
Harry shook his head. "Your charm comes from a bottle."
"So what if it does? So fucking what? Do you . . . do you truly believe that Weasley is ever going to make good your every wank fantasy where he's concerned?"
Harry started at this non sequitur, the memory of one particularly horrifying 'Remedial Potions' lesson coming to mind, but he shook off his embarrassment; he did have a thing for Weasleys, that was true. But I haven't been in love with Ron for ages. "Ron's got nothing to do with this, you git, but now I know—"
"You spent a great deal of time with him today. You were sitting with him when I arrived, and then there was Quidditch, and you avoided—"
"Ron's my family, you arse! He's my training partner and my best mate—he's not you."
"And who am I?" Sebastian challenged him.
"Well, you're sure as hell not Severus Snape, are you?"
"Oh, and how have you come to this astonishing realisation?" Sebastian hissed, his fists clenching.
"Because even being the miserable bastard that he was, he never threw those memories of Ron in my face."
Sebastian appeared stricken, but Harry didn't relent.
"You're really going to have to try harder to hide, I think, because what's in that phial of yours is never going to give you what you truly need. Hell, even you couldn't brew enough of it to save yourself."
"Brew enough of what?"
"And Snape never even had to try," Harry pressed, more sure of himself, now. "Snape was brave, full stop. I don't know what the hell you are, but I know you're not someone I can love."
Sebastian reached for Harry, his hands trembling, but then abruptly dropped them again. "You aren't supposed to . . . this isn't how . . . fuck. You don't know half as much about Snape as you think you do!"
"You're right. I just know what he wanted me to know about him—what I could glean about him from a chest full of mementoes—but it's been enough to prove to me that you're not him. You couldn't possibly be him because . . . because Severus Snape is dead."
Whatever Sebastian might have said was lost as the kitchen door opened and Fleur and Bill entered the Burrow, stopping short at the sight of them.
"Oh, 'ave we interrupted—"
Harry watched in horrified fascination as Sebastian's rigid posture liquified and he made Fleur a deep bow.
Rising, he told her, "Snow-kissed cheeks only add to your beauty, madam, and I'm pleased to have been able to see you this way before taking my leave."
"Sorry to see you go, old man," Bill replied, while Fleur giggled and they made their goodbyes.
Unable to endure any further pretense, Harry stalked up the back stairs to the second floor and sat down on the landing, breathing heavily. He was relieved when he finally heard Bill, Fleur, and Sebastian leave the kitchen and hoped that he'd have a moment to compose himself before he had to say goodnight to everyone.
"Fuck!" Harry, exclaimed, turning to find Bill behind him. "You startled me."
"Wouldn't have guessed," he replied, sitting down. "So . . . no goodbye for your Master of Instruction?"
Harry looked away. "Already did that."
"Sounded more like a fight to me."
Shite. "What did you hear?" he whispered, too embarrassed to look at Bill.
"Just enough to make a few assumptions."
Harry swallowed but said nothing as he heard Bill mumble a charm.
"That's better. There are too many eager ears in this house."
Harry huffed and crossed his arms. "We don't have to talk—"
"Assumption one," Bill interrupted. "Sharpe's more to you than an instructor."
"Assumption two: he's jealous of your preoccupation with honouring Snape."
Harry closed his eyes and took a deep, relieved breath to know that Bill really hadn't heard that much. As disgusted with Sebastian as he was, it wasn't up to him to share his secret.
"Want to talk about it?"
Harry glared at Bill.
"You know, you and Ron have the exact same glare—it's very effective, really."
"Right, no teasing. Would you like to know about Fleur's rather interesting idea about your preoccupation?"
"Were you all just talking about me?" Harry asked, uncurling from himself and preparing to bolt.
"Relax, Harry. It was just Fleur and me."
"Oh," he said, settling back down on the landing. "Well, what is it, then?"
"Fleur would have it that you blame yourself for Snape's death."
Harry swore under his breath.
Ignoring him, Bill continued, "She also believes that it's guilt driving you to see him honoured. She's right, isn't she?"
Harry looked down at his hands and laced his fingers together, squeezing them hard. "I let him die, Bill."
"You did no such thing, you bloody idiot."
His head snapping up again, Harry said, "You don't know—"
"Oh, for fuck's sake. What could you have possibly done with Voldemort standing there?"
"But he left! He left and . . . and all I did was take Snape's memories and watch him die. And for that, for that, people call me a hero! They put up statues and plaques and paintings! They never think of what Snape did. It's not right!"
Bill raised a hand in a placating gesture. "So that explains why Sharpe was shouting about your not knowing that much about Snape. He's jealous."
"He wants me to stop. Trying to honour Snape, I mean. He . . . he doesn't understand."
"I'm not sure I do, either. Perhaps you should stop."
"How can you say that?"
Bill gave Harry's leg a pat, and stood up to stretch, yawning. "Look," he said, glancing down at him, "I don't know that much about Sharpe's apprenticeships, but I do know that they were hard on him. He's fascinated by Dark magic, but he hates it, too, no matter how he tries to hide that with jokes and charm. I've worked with him maybe five times, and I've never seen a curse-breaker more determined to destroy evil than he is."
"I don't understand how he could feel that way after having been apprenticed to Dark wizards."
"Neither do I, but he has my respect for getting himself out of an ugly situation and doing right by himself, even if he's not exactly doing right by you."
"What do you mean by that?"
"He's your Master of Instruction, Harry. It's . . . I can't say as I approve of him involving himself with you."
Harry stood up. "That's really none of your business."
"True enough, but you're family, which makes you my business."
"Need to forgive yourself, or you're never going to move on—with anyone."
"Great, everyone's an expert on me now."
"Don't be an arse. You know I'm right. And in case no one's made it clear to you, you did enough, Harry. You did more than anyone should have asked you to, and you deserve to be happy."
"Just not with Sharpe, yeah?"
"Not my place to say."
"Look, I don't know what's going to happen between Sharpe and me, but I can't stand the thought of Snape not being properly honoured after everything he did."
"So honour his memory by living the life he tried so hard to save. I expect that's what he would have wanted for you."
Harry snorted. "Right, like he gave a damn about my happiness. Snape hated me."
"Snape hated himself. He hated himself for the choices he made and the bitterness of his life because of those choices."
"Even if what you're saying is true, I don't think it's wrong to try to honour him for his right choices."
"Even if guilt is truly what's motivating you? It was never your job to save Snape, Harry. You were just a kid. And no matter how hard you try, you can't save a dead man—or a living one who might be too much in love with his phial to love anyone else."
"You know about that?" Harry asked, leaning back against the railing and running a hand through his hair.
"Plenty of curse-breakers take to Firebright, but it's a right bitch. I've never met anyone who could stop taking it. There's a reason it's a banned potion. There's a reason that people addicted to Firebright tend to form . . . fleeting, intense attachments."
Harry flushed. "You think that's all I am to Sebastian?"
"I don't know what you are to him, but I wonder . . . ."
"If Sharpe's being just a bit forbidden and awfully heroic isn't more a draw to you than it should be. You did fancy Snape, didn't you?"
"Damn it, why does everyone—"
"All of us fancied our professors. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but you're not a kid, anymore."
"That a mature decision on your part would be not taking a lover because he reminds you of someone else."
Bill's words hit too close to the mark, and Harry suddenly worried that he'd overheard more than he'd admitted.
"Let Snape go, Harry. It's not as if he's around to give a shite about statues and the like, is it?"