The Last Dance
His hair was in his face again. It made it difficult to even recognise the pallbearers. There was Lupin, who'd barely avoided carrying the casket in wolf form. The Weasley twins were there, as well; sombreness seemed an alien mask on their faces and their forms. Longbottom, Thomas, and Finnigan rounded out the sextet - Severus supposed they were the most likely choices. Ron Weasley had barely spoken, much less moved, since the world went pear-shaped. Black... well, bastard probably deserved it, even if it was a bit unnerving to see him cry.
On the plus side, the ability to watch everything from behind his hair kept the world from seeing the stinging tears that ran slowly, oh, so slowly down his face. Nobody would have believed Severus Snape could shed a tear for Harry Potter; with his luck, someone would have assumed they were meant for Voldemort.
He stood by the wide-flung doors of the Great Hall, watching the ceremony, mind elsewhere while Albus went on with some poignant speech or other about sacrifice and the greater good and destiny and whatever else he'd scraped out of that archaic head of his. Severus stayed at the back as the casket was closed. Under his robes he pinched himself sharply to keep from yowling in agony as Harry's face vanished forever. It wouldn't do to demand just one kiss.
Just one kiss.
Just one last kiss.
Potter jumped, slamming his notebook. "I was only studying, sir," he said sharply. "My detention doesn't start for another ten minutes."
"I was going to ask why you are in my classroom so early. Or have you decided to begin amassing time to make up for everything at which you haven't been caught?"
Potter's pallid face flushed red. It made the faint shadows under his eyes stand out demonically, the pearly pink scar on his forehead livid by comparison. "I didn't have anything better to do. Do you want me to leave, sir?"
Snape held out his hand. "Show me your notes."
Potter drew the book closer. His eyes were narrowed and wary. "They're private, sir."
"Come, come, now, Potter, they can't be that private if you were scribbling them in an unlocked classroom. Anyone could come in and see them." Snape felt his mouth curve in a wicked smile. "Writing a love letter, perhaps? Who is the young lady? Or lad?" He swiped playfully at the book. Potter growled and snatched it away.
"None of your bloody business!" With more than a hint of venom, he added, "Sir."
Snape sighed and shook his head. Tossing a bit of lank, black hair out of his eyes, he said, "That will be ten points from Gryffindor for disobeying a direct order from a teacher, Mister Potter. Have you anything you'd care to say on the matter before I deduct more?" He shot the brat - mind, seventeen was getting a bit old to be a brat - his most alkaline glare, the one that dissolved the will and continence of even the strongest individuals.
Much to his surprise, Potter's green eyes flickered and darkened. They dropped to the desk, then rose to meet Snape's. "As a matter of fact, sir, I have."
"Oh, really?" Severus pulled a chair to the front of Potter's desk and perched on it, eyes narrowed in cold anticipation. "Do go on, then. Don't let me stop you."
"Gladly, Professor." The title fell from Potter's tongue like rotten meat. "I was writing a letter to you."
Snape arched an eyebrow. "To me."
"That's what I just said. Not that I was going to give it to you right now, but I figured I had better get it written so someone could give it to you after I died."
Severus sighed dramatically. "Spare me, Potter. I've heard it a hundred times. 'I'm so depressed, I think I'm going to kill myself, I'd better leave long, angst-laden letters to everyone who's wronged me so that I can make them feel guilty after I'm gone'. One doesn't spend nearly two decades chasing after irrational teenagers without gagging on their particular brand of misery, Potter, and I can guarantee that you are no different. Ten more points from Gryffindor for being a predictable little dolt."
"I hate you," Potter growled through clenched teeth. Before Snape could get a word in, he threw the notebook on the table. "Go on, have a laugh. Only, let me say something first." He leaned across the desk. Snape could feel warm, moist breath on his face. It smelled of peppermint and life. "For six years now I've put up with you treating me and my friends like something you'd scraped off your shoe, Professor. All any of us did was be Sorted into Gryffindor. I'm not going to put up with it anymore. I don't care if you take every point my House has earned, every time you try to push us, I'm going to push back. I reckon a year'll break you down, if I live that long."
"Ten more points for useless melodrama."
"You son of a bitch."
Snape started to take more points. Instead, he smiled. It was a wicked, nasty smile, and he took great pleasure in the way Potter jerked back a fraction of an inch. "Let's keep the pet names to the bedroom, hmm?" Snape said in his silkiest, softest razor wire drawl.
While Potter openly shuddered, Snape yanked the notebook across the desk, spun it easily around, and flipped through pages. "Weasley, Granger, another Weasley, yet another Weasley, Hagrid, Black, McGonagall, Dumbledore - my, I certainly don't rate high on your list of priorities."
"Just fucking read it already."
"Five points for swearing."
"Fuck you, Snape."
"Fuck you, Potter. Ah, here we are!" He cleared his throat and read, "'Dear Professor Snape, If you are reading this then I am dead.'" Snape glanced up. "You look remarkably well preserved."
"Shut up and read it, you bastard."
Severus chuckled softly. I've not had this much fun since... I can't even remember. "'I expect I've died killing Voldemort. Or falling off my broom during a Quidditch match, but I really don't think that's what happened. In any case, I have some things I'd like you to know.
"'First, I hate you. You're a snarky, greasy, nasty bastard who needs to go out and have a damn good shag. Not that anyone would want to shag you. I don't think you could even get Draco Malfoy to shag you, and I know for a fact he's slept with nearly every girl and half the boys in our year. Including Crabbe and Goyle. At once. In the Potions classroom. (By the way, how comfortable is your chair? Draco seemed to like it when I sneaked by in my Invisibility Cloak. Or maybe that was only because he was in Goyle's lap at the time.)'" Severus stifled a shudder, made a mental note to have that chair replaced at the earliest possible convenience, and said, "Very droll, Potter. I'm sure Mister Malfoy would be most interested to hear that you've been spying on his supposed sex life."
"Actually, I was coming down to try and get into the Slytherin common room and wire the place up with Dungbombs. Reckoned after I saw that your lot didn't need any more filth."
Snape flicked an eyebrow. "I see you'll be spending detention with me again tomorrow night."
"I was joking, you know."
"Then I'll give you detention for lying to a teacher."
Potter's fingers curled into claws and tried to dig into the desk. "Are you going to read or not?"
"Certainly. However, where commentary is needed, I shall make it. Or would you prefer this to be a one-way beating?"
"Just shut up and read."
"I can do one or the other, Mister Potter. Shall I shut up, or shall I read?"
"Get on with it," Potter muttered. His eyes were slits, and his shoulders hunched and ready to spring.
"Very well." Snape cleared his throat again, more to make a point than anything else. "'Second, even for all the times you've done your best to make me feel like crap, I... respect you.'" Severus arched an eyebrow and read it again silently. "Surely you're joking, Mister Potter."
"If I were joking, I wouldn't have written it down."
"So your jokes are only of the spoken variety. I hope you can explain your last essay, in that case."
Potter moved to grab the notebook. Snape held it away, glaring coolly. "Do you wish for me to read or not?"
"If you're going to read, do it already!"
"Very well, I shall." Severus pushed his hair out of his face, neatly tucking it behind his ears. "'For a long time, I only hated you. I think I started to respect you, too, at the end of my fourth year. When I saw the Dark Mark on your arm. I spent a lot of time that summer thinking about it and wondering why you'd have worked as a spy for so long. (At least, I thought you were probably a spy. Good thing I was right, then.) I suppose I finally decided you weren't just born the disgusting, nasty, slimy, mean Potions master, that you had some reason to be disgusting and nasty and slimy and mean. Doesn't mean I like it, but I can - could - understand it. Sort of.
"'That's all I really wanted to say to you. I don't expect you'll miss me, but if I'm dead maybe Voldemort will be, too, and at least you'll have a chance to not be such a horrid git anymore. Call it a gift, I suppose. You gave me Hell, so I'll give you freedom. Doesn't seem very fair, does it?
"'Sorry to have wasted your time. I'm sure you could have been brewing some potion when you had to read this.
Severus chewed the inside of his lip in thought. It certainly wasn't the letter he'd expected.
"Well?" Potter said. "Aren't you going to say something?"
Severus' eyes skittered over the words again. Very, very softly, he said, "Fetch your ingredients. I assume you shan't have any problems without Mister Zabini present to use your cauldron as a waste bin."
Potter snarled softly. He stormed to his feet and to the back of the room where he wrenched ingredients from the shelves. Severus watched him silently. The thoughts that flitted through his head were neither easy nor welcome.
Black glowered silently with puffy red eyes as the casket was carried out in front of him. Severus didn't respond, only watched the glossy black box with the godforsaken Gryffindor shield on the top. He stayed put, dared not move a step, lest the sob straining his throat, threatening to push his eyes from their sockets, escape. He hung back as a throng of mourners followed. When Albus, the last of the herd, left, he closed the doors and sat quietly at the end of the Hufflepuff table.
His sobs echoed in the empty hall. Thankfully, there was no-one there to hear.
Potter was on time for his next detention, and his next a few days later when he shouted at Snape to stop picking on Longbottom, and his next the day after that for nearly picking a duel with Malfoy after Malfoy tried to sabotage Granger's Dysmorphic Distillation. He'd made good on his oath to speak up against injustice in Snape's class. Since then he'd amassed - and carried out - enough detentions to possibly earn some sort of plaque of achievement. At this rate, Severus and the little bugger were going to end up very well acquainted.
"So what do you want me to gut tonight?" Potter snapped, dropping his cloak over a desk. He sat down hard enough to nearly tip his chair.
"I'd rather hoped you'd clean my supply cabinets, actually. If you're willing." Severus had no doubt his sarcasm would reach any normal individual; Potter's indignant snort ensured him that it had cut through the brat's solid skull as well.
"Aren't you polite tonight? Why don't you just ask me to dance?"
Snape laughed, a short, mirthless sound. "You'll have to pardon me, Potter, but I don't enjoy having my toes trodden on by insipid little hooligans like you."
"I'd be more worried about my own feet." Harry stormed to the back of the room and wrenched open a cabinet. "Not to mention my sanity if I ever did anything like that with you."
"Five points from Gryffindor, Potter, and do remember to make sure the lids are tight before you--" a wet smack hit the floor; hundreds of pickled pixie eyes rolled across the stones and fell into the cracks. Snape sighed. "Ten more... bugger it, Potter, just get this mess cleared away. I shall be in my office if you manage to do something right." Snape swept out, careful to keep the hem of his cloak out of a stray river of pickle.
It was perhaps twenty minutes later that he heard a soft knocking on his door. "What?" he snapped, not looking up from the pathetic excuses for essays he was left marking.
The door cracked open and Potter's disheveled head popped through. "What do you want me to do with the eyes?"
"What do you think? Dispose of them properly, and leave a note for the house-elves to order more as soon as elfishly possible."
Potter snorted. He covered his mouth and nose with a hand. "Yes, sir."
"Why are you sniggering like some drunken fool, Potter?"
Potter shook his messy, dark head. "No real reason, sir, you said something funny."
"I assure you, it was purely an accident."
"Mind if I borrow the 'elfishly possible' line?"
"What you do on your own time is your business, Mister Potter. You have my word that I have no interest in being a part of it."
"Could've fooled me."
Snape put down his quill. "And what, precisely, is that supposed to mean?"
"I've had detention with you at least twice a week for two months, sir. I'm starting to think you fancy me."
Snape pointed sharply at the door. "Get out," he growled.
"I was only joking, sir."
"Do not joke about such things in my presence, Potter. Or do you fancy the notion of expulsion?"
Potter held up a surrendering hand around the edge of the door. "Sorry, only... sorry." He scowled, and a moment later the door closed.
Something was tugging at his sleeve. Severus opened one painfully dry eye and looked down to see a house-elf gazing at him worriedly.
"Is you okay, Professor Snape, sir?"
"Perfectly," he snarled, sitting up and wiping his face. A pool of saliva had formed under his mouth. "Why on Earth are you bothering me?"
"It is being after midnight, sir. We is worried about you. You is missing Harry Potter too, sir?" The pitiful creature's lower lip trembled momentarily at the mention of Harry's name.
"What would ever give you that idea?"
The house-elf fidgeted.
"Speak up. Unless you want to slam your nose in the pantry door for insolence."
The house-elf squeaked softly. Just as softly, it said, "You was whimpering for him in your sleep, sir. We house-elves is worried that Professor Snape is missing his Harry, sir."
"I don't know what you're getting at. That insufferable wretch most certainly wasn't my Harry."
The house-elf nodded quickly. "Doozy is sorry, sir. You is needing help going downstairs?"
The house-elf vanished with a pop.
Potter spent his next detentions with Filch.
Severus had the most nagging feeling he missed the little brat.
Deep in the belly of the dungeons, Severus left his cloak and robe in an uncharacteristically messy pile on the floor. His black under-robe, very fine, soft linen this deep into June, made for less than adequate protection against the unusually cool air. Bollocks. One of the heating charms must have decayed. For a moment he stared at the dressing gown hanging inside the wardrobe. A chilly bit of air wormed its way through the fabric, prickling the coarse, dark hairs on his legs. At this rate I'll catch pneumonia and die.
He closed the wardrobe doors in disgust.
From the pocket of his discarded robe, he guiltily fished a miniscule crystal vial with a tight black lid. It fit nicely in his palm, so he kept it there until he had stretched out in the middle of his enormous, lonely bed - especially lonely, now. Biting back a sigh, he held it up to look at it in the firelight.
Its scant contents were clear, perfectly clear, and distorted the fire into a collection of brilliant orange shards. They were also all he had of... things he should never have had. And never would have, now. A shudder went through his chest; he growled softly to himself. "There's no need to act like some heartbroken heroine in an outdated novel."
There was a sudden knock at the door. His eyes darted towards it, and he missed the tiny flash of gold from the middle of the vial.
Fortunately for Severus, Filch came down with the flu the same day the first through fourth years took their middle-of-December Potions exams. It was far too much of a bother to mark them all himself and, given that they were multiple choice, Potter couldn't foul up too badly. Snape tried to tell himself that the wave of good cheer he felt when his office door opened and he saw that sullen sneer was only for the help Potter would (hopefully) provide; or perhaps it was the result of one of Albus' insane attempts to instill some "holiday spirit" into someone who had never cared much for the holiday (but often found use for the spirits).
"Can we get this over with?" Potter snapped, dropping his things on the floor and throwing himself into a chair. "I've got better things to do than look at you, you know."
"As have I, Mister Potter." Snape motioned about the cluttered office. "I challenge you to find a single mirror within these walls."
Potter snorted. The faintest of twitchy smiles crossed his lips. "Did you just make a joke, Professor?"
Snape arched an eyebrow at him and pushed a stack of exams and answer sheets across the desk. "Red ink, two points per question, fifty questions each. All are either multiple choice or true and false because, quite frankly, I can't be ballsed to care."
Potter snorted again, albeit more bitterly and without a trace of a smile. "Brilliant to see a teacher who gives a damn about his students," he muttered under his breath.
"Just get to work, Potter. I really couldn't give a damn what you think."
The next two hours or so were reasonably tolerable. Potter's quill scratched against the parchments. Now and then he would complain about the "confusing" phrasing of a question. At one point he started griping loudly that every single answer on the master sheet was wrong until Snape pointed out that he'd confused the fourth-year Ravenclaw-Hufflepuff answers with the fourth-year Slytherin-Gryffindor. Potter turned very, very red at that.
It was perhaps ten-thirty when the last of the exams was marked and Potter put his quill down. "Can I leave now?"
Severus shook his head and tutted, not looking up from the paper he was writing on the inherent shortcomings of Veritaserum. "So eager, Mister Potter. Have you got a fetching young thing getting tired of waiting for you?"
"Can't I just want to go do my homework?"
"Were you Miss Granger, I would say yes. However, you are not, so I don't believe you." His quill paused and he gave Potter a bitter smile. "Or do you simply wish that desperately to escape my company?"
"Do I have to answer that?"
"Ten points, Mister Potter."
"Can't you give it up for five minutes, Snape?"
Severus looked at him coolly. "Why would I do that?"
"Because maybe you're not the only person in the world who's been screwed over by Voldemort?" The glare Potter sent him would have melted steel. "I never even got to meet my m--ow, fuck." He hissed softly and touched his forehead.
"Is there something wrong, Mister Potter?"
"No, everything's just peachy."
"Five points for sarcasm. Do I need to fetch a house-elf to escort you to the hospital wing?"
Potter bristled faintly. "No," he said, scowling. "Might need to for whoever Voldemort's killed now. God, I hate when he does that!"
Snape flicked an eyebrow. "Please explain, Mister Potter?"
Potter lifted his fringe. "Voldemort kills someone, this thing goes off like a firework. Do I need to use smaller words?"
"I hardly think that shall be necessary. Is it still paining you?"
Potter shook his head sullenly and winced. "I'll be fine."
Snape rolled his eyes. From a drawer of his desk he produced a single-dose phial of Headache Draught. "This ought to alleviate some of it. I don't wish to start rumours that I've been viciously attacking the Golden Boy of Gryffindor during detentions, as will undoubtedly happen if I let you leave this office with any sort of discomfort."
Potter eyed the phial. "No, thanks."
"I'm not trying to poison you, Potter. Believe me, I think killing you would start significantly more rumours, and that sort of thing is somewhat difficult to reverse."
Potter stared at the phial for a long, silent moment. Warily, his fingers crept forward to snatch it. "Thanks," he muttered dryly. Never taking his eyes off Snape, he unscrewed the cap and tossed back the contents. "Ugh!" He shook his head, grimacing. "I can see how this stuff works, tastes so bad you forget your headache."
"Does it? I'm sorry, that must have been my nightshade extract."
"Very funny, Snape." Potter screwed the lid onto the phial and threw it at the desk. It bounced once and rolled; Severus barely caught it before it shattered all over the floor. Potter rubbed his scar a couple of times. "Thanks," he muttered.
"Do you require anything else? A pillow? A foot rub, perhaps?"
Potter responded with a very rude gesture.
"Five points from Gryffindor, Mister Potter. And a detention tomorrow night."
"Oh, come on!" Potter flung his arms wide. "I've had detention nearly every night this week!"
"Perhaps you ought to think of that before you act, then."
"I'm talking to Professor Dumbledore about this."
"And I can assure you that he will side with me. Your recent behaviour in my classroom has gained quite the legendary status. The rest of my colleagues, seeing as they don't have to deal with it first-hand, have written it off as stress regarding the Dark Lord." Snape learned forward. "Fortunately, we know better. Wouldn't you say?"
"Go to Hell."
"Gladly, Mister Potter, although I plan to take that red-eyed monstrosity with me."
Potter stiffened slightly. In the flickering light of torches, his pale skin took on an eerie orange tone. "I thought that was supposed to be my job."
Snape shrugged. "We shall see, shan't we?"
Potter blinked. Slowly, he started to gather up his cloak. "Same time tomorrow?"
"Hmm. Here again, I think. This place could use a dusting."
"Oh, so I'm your maid, now, am I?"
"Of course you are, Potter. I expect you to transfigure a decent uniform by the time you arrive. French, perhaps?"
Potter sneered at him in confusion. "I hope you're joking."
"Of course I am, Potter. I have no great desire to see either your legs or your insubstantial cleavage."
Potter's cheeks flushed crimson. He cleared his throat quickly to hide it, and snapped, "Can I leave now, sir?"
Snape waved a hand towards the door. "If you're that insistent, go on. I shall see you tomorrow at eight o'clock precisely."
"Sleep well, Mister Potter. I assure you, you will need it."
Snape cracked the door just enough to peek out. "Yes?"
A house-elf - a different one, this time - stood there, clutching an envelope in its thin hands. "You has a letter, Professor Snape, sir." It held it out. "From Harry Potter."
Something in Severus' chest deflated. He opened the door a little more, giving the world a clear view of his under-robe, too annoyed to care. Snatching the letter, he snarled, "Get out of here."
The house-elf squeaked and ran away. Better than that Disapparation trick of theirs. How on Earth are they able to use it on school grounds?
Grumbling to himself about anything to take his mind off the letter he'd already read, he kicked the door shut, locked it as heavily as his formidable skills would allow, and collapsed on the bed once again to sulk. The envelope crinkled in his hands. Much to his surprise, one finger had worked into the flap and was slowly twisting, breaking fibers and having its circulation cut off in general. With a sigh, he opened it the rest of the way and unfolded the letter. If nothing else, he could wallow in memories for a while.
Severus blinked. The letter hadn't started out like that.
If you are reading this, then I am dead. This time, I mean it. We both know how I've died. I know you said you wanted to take the red-eyed monstrosity into Hell yourself, but, well, sucks to be you.
First, I want to say you're the most disagreeable, sadistic, cantankerous bastard ever to grace Hogwarts. You'd better be nice to everyone (especially Neville) now that I'm not there to take care of them. Otherwise, I'll haunt you. You know I'll do it. And I'll take that fancy brandy of yours and turn it into Frangelico. And then I'll blame Peeves. He does that sort of thing.
Second, I want to say I respect you. You've earned the right to be a snarky son of a bitch, what with the life you've had. I wish I had half your bravery. Coming from a Gryffindor, that's saying a lot. Or maybe I'm not that brave. I might just be reckless. In any case, I'm dead now, so it doesn't really matter. I still wish I'd had half as much bravery and courage and intelligence and stamina as you.
Third... god, this is the hard one. I don't know if you're just going to drop the letter and laugh or what when you read this. I... love you. And not in the stupid "I love you as a friend" way, either. I must have lost my marbles someplace, but... I know I never did more than kiss you, and you wouldn't have done "that" with a student anyway (and up until recently I wouldn't have done it with a bloke), but somewhere along the way I realised that I love your snarkiness, I love your courage, I love your intelligence, I hate cleaning out your cabinets with a passion, I love your wit and the way you dance and the nasty little comments you make about people like Voldemort and Rita Skeeter, and... I just love you. I know, too late, and you probably don't have any interest in necrophilia. I don't really expect you to return it, but I had to get that off my chest.
I reckon that's it. I've embarrassed myself from beyond the grave, which has got to be a feat in itself. Take care of yourself, please? Voldemort's dead now, you can live properly. Call it the only gift I was ever able to give you. Maybe one of these days you can gripe at me about how much you hated it.
I love you,
The page trembled. It took a moment for Severus to realise the trembling was coming from his hands. The parchment fell to the bed. "Oh, god," he whimpered softly. A hand covered his eyes before they could begin to leak; searing drops slid down his cheek, his wrist, the heel of his hand. Rolling over to howl into the pillow, he felt the glass vial underneath his ribcage. He picked it up, blinking at it mournfully.
Something at the heart of the liquid flashed gold.
Severus blinked. It must have been the fire. Get hold of yourself, man! There's nothing you can do, and grasping at sparks isn't going to help anyone. He cupped the vial in his palm until the firelight couldn't reach it anymore.
It flashed again, a bit more urgently.
Less than a minute later he was dressed and running through the castle, robe inside-out and his shoes on the wrong feet.
"You can stop fidgeting, Potter. I assure you, I shall let you go in plenty of time for Father Christmas to visit."
Potter looked up from the bottles he was re-labeling. He shifted his weight on his knees again, knocking over (and nearly breaking) a superb horseshoe crab specimen. "Sorry, sir."
"I hope this teaches you a lesson about shouting at your teachers over holidays."
Potter grumbled something.
"Five points, Potter. Speak up."
"I said, sir, that I hope you've learned something about picking on Neville when he's only trying to find his toad! It's not as if he meant to trip you."
"It's not as if I came down to breakfast and meant to stumble over him for the entire school to see. If he would watch where he goes, you wouldn't be in this predicament, would you, Mister Potter?"
"Fuck off, Snape."
"Are you that intent on missing the Yule Ball tomorrow?"
Potter didn't answer. His lips moved silently as he tried to make out a faded, dust-encrusted label.
"I asked you a question, Mister Potter."
"And I decided not to answer it."
Snape felt his mouth twist into a wicked grin. "Has the famous Harry Potter been unable to find an escort? Dear, dear, dear, this is certainly a black letter day for Gryffindor."
The sharp narrowing of Potter's green eyes was nearly enough to make Snape jump. "I'm taking Ginny Weasley, if it's all the same to you, Professor. How about you? Could you find a date, or are you going to spend the entire night standing in the corner serving punch?"
Severus sniffed. "I'm a teacher, Potter. We don't have dates. And for your information, Madam Hooch has already claimed me as her unofficial escort for the evening."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Potter mumbled under his breath.
"Pardon?" Snape asked coldly. He folded his arms, glaring down at the pile of brat in the middle of his office floor.
"If you were any skinnier, sir, I'd mistake you for a broomstick myself."
"Care to make it more?"
Potter pursed his mouth. He said nothing.
"I see you've finally grown some sense."
"Yes, sir." Potter scribbled a label and stuck it on a jar. Snape nodded approvingly.
Several minutes later, when Severus had settled behind his desk with a copy of The New England Journal of Potions, Potter piped up softly, "Sir?"
Snape lowered his journal and arched an eyebrow. "Do you have a question, Potter, or are you simply trying to annoy me?"
Potter fidgeted. "How much do you want to go to the Yule Ball?"
"That's a rather personal question. Why?"
"Um... could I get detention again?" Green eyes flickered nervously towards Severus.
"Why on Earth would you want to do that, Potter?"
Potter raked a hand through his hair. It stuck out like a scattered haystack. "Ginny's going to want to dance," he mumbled.
Snape bit the inside of his lip, hard, to stifle a laugh that would have most certainly gotten him hexed. "Suddenly, Potter, I'm quite eager to attend."
Instead of the biting comeback he expected, Potter's shoulders drooped. In his enormous student robe he looked more like the first year he'd been than the seventh year he'd grown to be. "Oh."
"Cheer up, perhaps you'll lose the bones in your arm again and be unable to lead."
Potter bristled at that. "Believe me, sir, if I could remember what Lockhart did I'd do it to every bone in my body."
"And promptly die as your internal organs lost both their protection and their ability to function."
"'Least I wouldn't have to dance."
Snape looked at him. Swallowing his pride in favour of trying to make the brat blush, he asked, "Potter, would you like me to teach you how to dance?"
His head snapped up. If his eyes grew any wider, they were going to pop out of his head. "You mean it, sir?" he asked in a voice two octaves too high.
Snape blinked. "You're really that desperate to learn."
Potter shook his head frantically. A moment later it changed to sullen nodding. "I can do all the usual stuff, but... what if there's... you know..."
Potter flushed and hid his face in the taxonomy book.
Snape snorted softly. "What do you wish to learn? I can't teach you to tango overnight if that's what you're after, but I can show you how not to make an utter prat of yourself."
"You can do the tango?"
Severus rolled his eyes. "For your information, no. Nor can I lambada, flamenco, or do the Twist, nor would I teach you any of those abominations, but I can teach you a basic waltz."
Potter blinked. "Where in Hell did you learn to do the waltz?"
"Arthur Murray," Snape muttered sarcastically.
"Nobody, Potter. Do you wish me to teach you or not?"
"Um... I suppose. Let me finish this jar." He wrote out a label as quickly as he legibly could, slapped it at an angle onto a jar of banana slugs, and hurriedly cleared the middle of the floor.
Snape sniffed in mild disgust and dug the old Bakelite wireless out from behind a stack of books. He flicked the power and tuned into the WWN. He gritted his teeth at the wailing noise that issued forth.
"Uh... bagpipes, sir?"
"Certainly, Potter. If you can learn to waltz to bagpipes, you can learn to waltz to anything." He went from gritting his teeth to grinding them, desperately wishing for Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie.
"Okay... um, floor's clear." Potter shifted from foot to foot. "Um... what do I do now?"
"The first thing you do is wait for your partner, unless you wish to try dancing with yourself."
"Er..." Potter's upper lip curled in horror. "You mean you're going to make me dance with you?"
"How else do you expect to learn a partnered dance?"
Potter shrugged. "I thought you were just going to tell me what to do," he said from between clenched teeth.
"Yes, and why don't I simply tell you the basics of brewing a Nightshade Restorative Draught and expect you to make it correctly first time? While the image of you turning blue and falling over on my classroom floor is most amusing, I suspect I'd have a job explaining it to the headmaster."
Potter growled softly. "Can we get it over with, then?"
Snape smiled nastily. "As you wish, Mister Astaire."
Severus glowered wearily. "Are you sure you were raised by Muggles?"
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"Nothing, Potter." Severus stepped in front of the brat. "First thing is to bow to your partner, like this." He gave a low, stiff, utterly dignified bow.
"Er... do I have to?"
"I said so."
Potter stared at him for a moment. With a look of supreme disgust and disbelief, he gave a halfhearted bow.
Snape folded his arms. "My, don't I feel special? I think I'll go dance with that spotty fourth year over there picking his nose."
"Oi! It wasn't that bad!"
"I beg to differ. Do it again. With feeling this time."
Potter sighed and bent with an exaggerated flourish. "Better?"
Severus took a step past Potter. "That fourth year is looking less and less horrid."
"Oi!" A hand on his arm stopped him and jerked back just as quickly. Potter looked a bit flushed and flustered, but took a deep breath. Very slowly and staidly, he bent at the hips until he was parallel with the floor. He arched an eyebrow when he'd straightened up. "Is that what you meant?"
"Quite." Severus roughly grabbed Potter's right hand in his left and jerked him closer.
"None of that, now!" Potter stepped back, trying to disentangle his hand. "I thought you were trying to teach me to dance, not make out!"
Severus shuddered mightily. "Believe me, Mister Potter, as disgusting as that thought may be to you, it is doubly so to me." He pulled the little brat to arm's length again, grabbing him tightly by the waist. "Hand on my shoulder, right now."
Potter stared up at him.
"Well? Are you deaf? The Ball is tomorrow, you know, we haven't got forever to do this."
Grumbling, Potter put his hand on Snape's shoulder. It was a bit of a reach, and Snape noted that he barely brushed his curled fingers again the heavy wool of the winter robe.
"Now what?" he asked, not looking at Severus.
"Now I lead. Keep in mind that a waltz is a three-step dance, moving in a non-stationary triangle, and I will deduct a point every time you step on either of my feet."
"I shall also deduct a point every time you say, 'oi'. Have you any objections, Potter?"
Potter growled. "No, sir."
"Good. Let's begin, shall we?" Severus stepped forward with his right. Potter stepped back with his right, thus causing Snape to trod on his left.
"OW! Watch it, you idiot!"
"I think you shall find, Potter, that was entirely your own idiocy. Next time, I suggest you remember that you and your partner must move together."
"Yeah, whatever." Potter glared sullenly up at him. "Can we just try this again?"
Snape grinned. Much to his delight, Potter shuddered.
The next night at the Yule Ball, for the first half-hour or so before Merlin's Beard took the stage, Potter kept glancing up at Snape with a questioning look. Snape nodded subtly; every time he did, Potter relaxed a little. He felt quite pleased with himself, as neither Potter nor Miss Weasley landed on their backsides, and the little brat only stepped on his date's feet a couple of times.
The crypts at Hogwarts had long been forgotten in favour of less morbid attractions. The occasional student still crept to the sub-dungeon to see the graves or try to steal a snog - Severus himself had caught the Weasley twins down there no less than half a dozen times - but, for the most part, the cold, dank, dark labyrinth was left to the dead. Three of the Four Founders were buried here (Salazar Slytherin's grave having been lost to time), as were their earliest descendants and various and sundry of the most famous Hogwartians. Many a headmaster kept rooms down in these cobweb-filled chambers. Now a child joined them - young man, Severus should say - not for the first time but certainly the first in a very, very long time.
Harry's casket sat near the entrance in case any mourners wished to visit. Soon, it would be moved to a more permanent spot. Or it would if Severus' suspicions proved false. Quietly, he opened the lid of the casket. Harry lay there, silent and still and pale, his scar barely visible between locks of hair that refused to behave even in death.
Severus traced the outline of his cheek, the cool, stiff flesh of his bluish lips. Tenderly, he leaned forward for a kiss. In the back of his mind suddenly ran the story of Snow White, awakened from death by a kiss from Prince Charming. He shuddered. "Daft," he whispered to the dripping stones. "Utterly daft."
The phial was in his hand. He looked at it, at the tiny gold spark flashing insistently every several seconds. He'd not even been thinking of magic when he'd caught them, when he'd picked Harry's limp, warm body off the ground. It had only seemed right, when he saw the tears starting down that young face, to bottle them and keep them as his only reminder. He'd barely even cast a look at Voldemort, who had fallen at the same moment as Harry, hadn't even considered the murky, grey tears sliding down that chalky face.
"Could it be, old boy, that you've finally managed to stopper death?" he whispered, gazing at the bottle.
There was only one way to find out.
Biting his lip in hope, he unscrewed the lid of the vial and pressed the opening to Harry's slightly parted lips. "There you go, take your potion," he murmured before he'd realised what he was saying. Severus resisted an urge to stroke Harry's throat to force a swallowing reflex. It would have been useless. Instead, he waited.
For - by his rough calculation - two hours or more, he stood there, stroking the mussed hair, the pallid skin, laying warm kisses on Harry's lips and murmuring, "Breathe, Harry. You can do it. Time to wake up, it's all been a dream. Come on, breathe." He forced the boy's mouth open, inflated his cold lungs carefully, listened for an independent breath. All he heard was the whimper and wheeze of air escaping dead flesh.
It was in the wee hours, when his burningly dry eyes refused to stay open, that Severus finally closed the casket lid. Cursing himself for wasting the only thing of Harry he had, he pocketed the empty vial and left the crypt. Perhaps, if he was lucky, he might be buried there in many a year and possibly be close to his Harry.
Since sometime after the start of Spring term, when Severus had actually apologised to Longbottom for shouting at him when his cauldron melted again, Potter's frequent detentions had grown almost amicable. While Severus marked or read or whatnot, and Potter performed whatever task he'd been assigned, when not happily miserable and silent they had taken to chatting, or sniping, or whatever one might call it. The brat turned out to have rather a keen wit, when he wanted. In a school full of cowering imbeciles and strutting rogues, it was a pleasant change to have an argument with a sour-tongued dissident. Voldemort's killing spree had taken a sharp upswing after Christmas, and seemed to be moving erratically closer to Hogwarts as well; Snape sometimes suspected Potter spent so much time in the dungeons just for the steady supply of Headache Draught.
It was an unusually chilly night in mid-March that Severus looked up from his journal at the sound of teeth chattering. "Yes?"
Potter glanced up from the file he was organising. "I didn't s-say anything." A heavy shiver went through his body. He sneezed.
Snape sighed. "You're frozen to the bone."
"I'll be fine, sir." His blue lips were drawn back around his teeth. Due to a warm afternoon, the brat had left his cloak god-knows-where.
"Follow me, Potter. Leave that here." Severus stood up, cursing himself in the back of his mind for what he was about to do. Quietly, he locked the office and led the brat to his private chambers. They were warmer than the rest of the dungeons due to a network of strategically placed heating charms and a collection of heavy curtains covering the walls. Potter hung in the doorway, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
"Sir?" he asked hesitantly.
"I'm not going to molest you, Potter. I simply have no great desire for you to die of pneumonia." With a flick of his wand, the fire roared. He motioned to one of the chairs in front of it. "Sit down, boy, before you catch your death!"
Skittishly, Potter obeyed. He settled into a chair while Severus dug through a cabinet until he pulled a very old, very dusty decanter of brandy from the back. Blowing off the dust, he asked, "Have you any decent tolerance for alcohol?"
Potter shrugged. "Don't know, sir."
"Hmm." Snape glanced back at him. "Well, soon to find out." He popped the stopper out of the decanter and fished a dusty, upside-down snifter from the cabinet as well. Wiping the dust from the outside with his sleeve (a less than sanitary practise, but certainly better than a mouthful of grime), he filled the glass partway and handed it over. "This ought to warm you up."
Potter arched an eyebrow, but took the snifter anyway. "Thank you, Professor." He sat there suspiciously, holding it and narrowing his eyes at Snape.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Potter, I haven't poisoned it!" Severus yanked the glass from Potter's hands, took a generous sip, and closed his eyes as the liquid ran hot and tingling down to his stomach. He gave a little sigh, thrust the snifter back into Potter's hands, and poured himself one.
"What is it now, Potter?" Snape turned around, brandy in hand, and glared.
"Er... should you be doing this?" Potter stared at the contents of his glass, a look of great perturbation on his face.
"No, but I'll let it slide. Go on, drink it! This is hundred-and-fifty-year-old brandy from Normandy. Believe me, if I were attempting to blackmail you, I would have given you alcoholic cack."
"Urgh." Potter wrinkled his nose. "That's... do I want to know what counts as alcoholic cack?"
"Nothing literal, don't worry." Snape took a sip. Tendrils of warmth and flavour worked their way into his sinuses. He held them there for as long as he could, finally releasing a long, slow breath through his nose. "If you must know specifics, Frangelico."
Potter blinked. "You mean that stuff that's supposed to taste like hazelnuts?"
Severus' spine bristled. "Yes, that." He snorted. "The headmaster deemed to find me a bottle of it for my last birthday. Apparently, he fancies the shite. I'd much rather be kicked in the teeth."
A small giggle filled the air. "Know what to get you for your birthday then, sir."
Snape arched an eyebrow at him and took a fortifying sip. "Bollocks. Do it and I'll have you testing Potions experiments. Taste-testing, I mean." He smirked.
They sat for a while, Severus sipping his brandy in a refined sort of way and Potter slurping - slurping - it from the glass. They chatted about Quidditch, and the stories going around that Professor Flitwick fancied Professor McGonagall, and a little about Voldemort and his ongoing reign of terror. Potter drooped a bit when the question of destroying the abomination came up; he'd convinced himself for god-knows-what-reason that if one of them died, the other would as well.
"Sometimes I wonder if I ought to kill myself and get it over with," he said softly.
"I hardly think that should be necessary, Potter. Anyway, who's to say you aren't wrong?"
Potter shrugged. "I'm paranoid, then."
"Of this I have no doubts." Snape leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes and letting the warmth of the brandy, the warmth of the fire seduce him towards sleep. It took a moment for him to remember exactly who was in the room with him. His eyes snapped open. "How do you like the brandy?"
"Um... it's different. Um... think I'd prefer the Frangelico if it's all the same to you." He looked up sheepishly and gave a halfhearted smile of apology.
"As soon as you're of age, Mister Potter, you're welcome to it."
"Uh... thanks, sir. I think." Potter blinked at him quizzically. He drained his brandy in one long go that made Snape grind his teeth, and set the snifter down. "Whoa... a little dizzy."
"So the answer to my question, then, is no, you don't have any decent alcohol tolerance. Tell me, do you get drunk off of Butterbeer?"
Potter stuck his tongue out. "No. I'm not a house-elf."
"Pity. You might be more useful if you were."
Snape snorted into his glass and took another slow sip. "Two of them, thank you."
Potter blushed. "Professor!"
"Yes?" Snape asked innocently.
Potter clutched his hair and muttered, "I really didn't need to know that."
"Surely you must know that the average male has two bollocks."
"Yeah, but that's a little different from hearing it first-hand from a greasy-haired git like you!"
"Would you rather hear it from the headmaster?"
Harry shuddered. "I think I'm going to be ill."
Severus pointed towards the bathroom. "In there, if you must. I'd rather not have to clean the rug tonight."
Harry flipped him two fingers. Severus smirked.
"Two points from Gryffindor, then?"
Harry very quickly pulled one of them into his fist.
"Ah. So one point from America."
Harry laughed out loud. "A hundred points from the Salem Witches' Institute!"
"Hear, hear!" Severus raised his snifter and drained it. "Time to take back the Colonies, show the Yanks it was only a loan!"
"Second wave, attention!" Harry giggled into his hand.
Snape looked at him, grinning a little. "You're not as bad as your father was, Potter."
Harry blushed, but smiled. "Give me time."
Severus snorted. "Of that I have no doubt." Setting his empty snifter down, he said, "You haven't mentioned Miss Weasley in a while. I rather thought you'd take after your damnable father and settle down with the first redhead to fall into your lap."
Potter shrugged. "We broke up."
Harry shrugged again. "I suppose... I don't know. Only, she acted like she was dating The Boy Who Lived all the time, I couldn't get used to it. Anyway, she couldn't dance."
Snape glanced at him. Harry's eyes were lowered, and his hair had completely covered his scar. "Considering the source," Snape said silkily, "I think I'll give her a bit of leeway next Yule Ball."
"Heh. Yeah." He glanced at Snape. "Wish I could find a girl who danced like you."
Severus arched an eyebrow. "I could put on a dress if you wish, but I fear the consequences wouldn't be pleasant."
Harry snickered. "I think I can live without seeing you in drag again, thanks." He went silent a moment. "Professor?"
"Um... god, this sounds so stupid... um... this is probably just the brandy talking, but... could you teach me how to dance some more?"
"You're right, Potter. That is most certainly the brandy talking."
"Severus!" Harry flushed scarlet and slapped a hand over his mouth. "Where in Hell did that come from?"
"My father's side of the family, his Great-Uncle Severus. As for your decision to use it, I haven't the foggiest."
Harry sighed softly. "Reckon that's a no to teaching me some more, then." He shifted in his chair, tucking one leg underneath him.
Severus looked at him a moment. Finally, he sighed. "Get up, Potter, push these chairs out of the way. By the bedroom door will do nicely."
Harry blinked at him. "What?"
Snape pointed across the room at the door to his large, toasty bedroom. "Over there. You don't think I sleep in my chair, do you?"
"Er... hadn't really thought about it."
Severus made a noise. "I have to say I'm not terribly disappointed about that." He pushed himself out of his chair. "Go on, move the chairs out of the way." He fiddled with the antique wireless sitting on top of the mantel. When he switched it on, a newscaster was talking about the Ministry of Magic's new policy regarding Voldemort's advance. "Blasted box," he muttered, turning the dial. It went through a couple of Muggle stations blaring that hideous "rock and roll" tosh and finally settled on something from the Big Band era. "Glenn Miller," he murmured, smiling. "My mother raised me on this."
"Were you raised by Muggles, sir?"
"What? Oh, no, good god, of course not." He touched his left arm. "I wouldn't be wearing this if I had," he said with an edge of bitterness. "My mother was a pianist. She studied all types of music, Muggle included. This was her favourite." He closed his eyes for a moment, listening to the brash brass, smirking. "She taught my sister and I to swing dance before I'd even left for school."
Harry giggled. There was a soft thump as a chair set down on the stone floor. Severus glanced back to see him levitating the table carefully, making sure the snifters didn't fall. "Can you teach me?" Harry asked impishly.
"Hardly. I barely remember a thing."
"Could your mother teach me?"
Severus pursed his mouth. "Not unless you know of a way to stopper death," he said quietly.
"Oh. I'm sorry," Harry said. "Um... you don't have to if you don't want. Teach me, I mean."
Severus shook his head. "Water under the bridge, Potter."
"Could I say something, sir?"
"Um, you're not so bad when you're being nice. Human, even."
Severus snorted softly. "Shows how much you know." He turned with a flourish. "Shall we get this over with?"
Harry nodded. Automatically, he bowed, deeply, soundly, properly. "Very nice," Severus murmured, and copied him. Holding out his hands he asked, "Are we ready?"
Potter nodded. Gingerly, he took Snape's left hand in his right, and placed his left hand on his shoulder. Severus noticed it wasn't nearly as reluctant a touch this time, laying properly over his shoulder, weight and texture and comfort. He smirked down at the brat and put a gentle hand at his waist.
The song ended. The programme apparently was simply older music because it changed from "Pennsylvania 6-5000" to Nat King Cole. "Sounds different," Harry said.
"It is, by several years." Severus hadn't heard "Mona Lisa" since his mother was alive. Closing his eyes to lazy slits, he started to lead Potter around the floor in a basic waltz, trying to ignore the absurdity of the situation in favour of the brandy's effects. The rhythm, though, and the wistful mood of the song lulled him out of it and into a simple swaying motion. Tension drained from his shoulders, and the warmth of the brandy seemed to resurge in his stomach. Very, very softly, not really thinking about what he was doing, he sang, "Is it only 'cause you're lonely they have blamed you? For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile...?"
"Nice," Harry murmured.
Severus shut his mouth abruptly. "Sorry," he said tersely.
"It's okay." Harry glanced up briefly. "I never really imagined you singing, y'know. Or dancing, really, but..." he trailed off.
Harry shook his head. "Nothing. Only, I like you better like this than as snarky old Professor Snape."
"I am snarky old Professor Snape, in case you've forgotten, Potter."
Harry arched an eyebrow most impressively. "No, you're not," he muttered. Tentatively, he moved a little closer. Severus couldn't be bothered to push him away.
Harry snorted softly. "Bet you didn't think you were going to end up dancing with one of your students tonight."
"No, I can certainly say I didn't. Of course, I also didn't think I would be feeding my good brandy to an underaged miscreant with a taste for Frangelico."
"M'not a miscreant." Harry moved a little closer. His head was nearly resting on Severus' chest. Something that should have set off every warning bell in his brain seemed to have been bypassed, whether due to alcohol or the simple, rare pleasure of being so close to someone with whom he was... comfortable. A small thrill went through him as he realised what it was. Severus barely restrained himself from resting his cheek in the boy's hair.
"If you weren't a miscreant, you wouldn't have been in detention with me for the last seven months."
"Well, maybe I fancy you." Harry chuckled under his breath.
Severus glanced down at him. "I think you need to speak to Madam Pomfrey about having your head examined."
"Probably." He sighed softly, and lay his head against Severus' chest. "Mm. Sleepy."
"That would be the brandy." Snape moved his hand to the small of Harry's back to steady him. Gently, absently, he stroked through layers of robe with his thumb. Harry wriggled slightly and made a purring noise.
"Never had a backrub," he murmured.
Harry shook his head.
"Not even from your string of girlfriends?"
He shook his head again. "Only been three of them. Never really felt comfortable enough with them for a backrub."
"But you do with me."
"Your sarcastic, old, ex-Death Eater Potions master."
Harry shrugged. He slid his hand from Severus' shoulder to between his shoulder blades. "Reckon so."
"Are you sure it's not the brandy talking again?"
Harry nodded. A most unexpected burst of heat (he was certain it was misguided sunlight) ran through Severus' chest. Silently, he ran his hand up and down Harry's back, inciting another purr.
"Don't stop," Harry mumbled.
A smile twitched on Snape's lips. "Awfully demanding, aren't we?"
Severus laughed. It was an unfamiliar act and an unfamiliar sound, but it neither broke nor hurt. "Impossible whelp. I may have to demand more detentions if you continue with such bravado."
"Keep rubbing or else," Harry mumbled into Severus' chest.
"Or else what?"
Harry looked up. His eyes were half-closed, like a cat's, and took a moment to focus. The underside of his chin rested against Severus' breastbone. "I'll think of something."
Harry keened. "Why'd you stop?"
"I want to see what you think of."
"It'll be bad."
"I have no doubts."
"And then I'll make you rub my back again."
"You truly have a sadistic streak, don't you, Mister Potter?"
"You can call me Harry, y'know."
"I can, or I may?"
"Both, I suppose. Can I call you Severus?"
"You can. I don't know if you may."
Harry rolled his eyes. "May I call you Severus?"
"Hmm. I'll have to think about that."
"Thought about it yet?"
"You've hardly given me a chance."
"What about now?"
"What would you do if I said yes?"
"Yes, you've thought about it, or yes, I c--may call you Severus?"
Harry's face broke into a wide, brilliant, beaming smile, warm and open and a little bit coy. "But not during lessons, right?"
"Not if you ever want detention again."
Harry giggled, burying his face in Severus' chest. Severus arched an amused eyebrow. "Yes, I know, the irony of it all."
Harry nodded fervently. "Sort of like taking dancing lessons from Professor Snape."
Harry looked up again. "Anything I do right now is probably the brandy, right?"
Severus arched an eyebrow. "Why?"
"No reason. I thought of something, that's all. It's sort of strange."
Severus looked straight down into Harry's eyes. The underside of the brat's chin was pressed against his breastbone again. Sneakered feet moved gently between Severus' shoes. It dawned on him how close they were, physically, closer than he'd ever been to another man since his father had hugged him as a boy. Part of his mind tried to panic, but the rest was perfectly happy where it was.
"What, precisely, did you have in mind that I might plausibly blame on the brandy?" His own chin had fallen to his chest, and it occurred to him how close their lips were, that if Potter were only to tilt his head a little to the left, just like he was doing--
It took a moment for him to comprehend that Harry was kissing him.
It took another moment to comprehend that he was kissing back.
It was only the barest chaste press of lips, soft and ever so slightly dry. The shock of it all held him there until Harry let it break. He screamed inside, half in panic that he had kissed a man, half in panic that it was over. "Harry," he rasped. "Potter..."
"It was the brandy, wasn't it?"
Severus stared at him a moment. Finally, his lips moved, his vocal cords vibrated, and he said, "Probably."
Harry fidgeted a little in his arms. "I probably ought to go sleep it off." He looked around, as though waking up in an unfamiliar place. Which, in all likelihood, he is. I certainly am.
"That may be for the best." Severus rubbed his hand over Harry's back one last time and reluctantly stepped away. "Did you leave anything in my office?"
"No," Harry whispered. His eyes were focused on something invisible. He looked sad.
"I'm not canceling detentions, you know."
Harry's eyes darted towards his. "Good. I'm not sure what I'd do with my time if you did."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Like I said."
Severus smiled weakly. He silently showed Harry the door. As soon as he was gone, Severus took his snifter, refilled it, and spent a long, long time staring at the fire while the wireless played softly in the background.
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