Summary: Where do you look for a ghost but in the city of the dead?
Harry finds him in New Orleans, seven years after the war ends. A ruined man, in a ruined city: a shadow on the edge of a television screen, part of something Harry doesn't want to believe is happening. He goes after it anyway, Apparates to Houston and hitches a ride to Louisiana on a bus full of student volunteers, kids who've never been in the middle of a war or a natural disaster, kids who tear up when they talk about dead dogs and cats. They ask Harry, awkwardly, what he's looking for, who he's looking for.
“My father,” Harry says. “He wouldn't evacuate. He was in the French Quarter when the flooding started.” They're still young enough they try to reassure him, still naive enough to believe that nothing terrible could happen to someone they've met. He was that young, when he was eleven. They get him a t-shirt and a hat and a clipboard, and they take him to the refugee camp.
He walks from there. It is very dark, but Harry is not as afraid of anything that might be waiting in the dark as he is of Snape. In seven years Snape has become a name to conjure by, a name small children will not say aloud. Harry knelt beside him once, in a puddle of blood: Harry walked away from him once, and left him for dead. Even Harry is no longer sure what to believe about him.
He comes into the city from the west, across the graceful arc of a deserted bridge. New Orleans smells like death, and a part of Harry wants to turn and run, and not stop running until he is safe in England, in Ginny's arms. But he will never feel safe until he knows the man he saw on the news is not Snape.
The truth is, it could have been. Harry saw him only for a moment, and only in profile: a tall dark man with long hair tied back, a ferocious nose, thin lips, a black long-sleeved shirt with the collar buttoned despite the heat. It could have been, except that Snape is supposed to be dead. But no one Harry trusts saw his body after the last battle, and there is no portrait of him hanging in the Headmaster's office at Hogwarts, no grave with his name on it.
He does not look down at the swollen, black depths of the Mississippi as he crosses. He looks forward, at the broken, unlit city that waits, like a wounded animal, for salvation or death. The route he's chosen is as dry as it can be, given the amount of rain that fell, but the streets are littered with shattered glass, branches, garbage. Harry has his wand in his hand, and the Invisibility Cloak in his bag, but no one challenges him.
Dawn is breaking by the time he reaches Jackson Square. The sun glints on unbroken windows, on the brave bright painted faces of the buildings. In the video he saw, Snape was standing on the sidewalk outside a bar. He finds the place and leans down to touch the concrete, but there is no evidence at all that Snape was there, that anyone in particular was.
A half a block away he finds a car with the rear windscreen missing, and climbs inside. Now that he's sitting still, he's too hot to sleep. With the last of his energy he casts a cooling charm and pulls the cloak over himself and crashes.
He wakes to voices in the street, to the smell of coffee. In daylight the city is less a corpse and more a skeleton. He rolls out of the car and into the street, on the side where the people aren't standing. He has a bottle of water that never runs dry in his bag, and he splashes some on his face and drinks more.
By the time he reaches the two men, he knows that neither of them is Snape. He has a picture in his hand, a Muggle print of a wizarding photograph, and his most innocent smile on his face. “I'm looking for my father,” he says. “Have you seen him?”
They look at the picture. Harry looks at them. Older men, unshaven, unarmed as far as Harry can tell. One of them spits in the street. Neither of them seem to recognize Snape. They point him to a bar three doors down. Harry can hear music playing inside. He walks inside, fingers clenched around his wand, but none of the people inside look particularly bloodthirsty. He asks for a cup of coffee and drops his photograph on the bar.
Someone picks it up almost immediately. “I've seen him,” she says. “Down the street a little. He did magic tricks for the tourists. Rabbits out of hats, scarves in his sleeves. He always wore a big black cloak, like a real magician.”
“Do you think he's still around?” Harry asks, and she shrugs. But it's something, anyway, evidence that maybe Harry isn't entirely crazy to have come here. He can't imagine Snape as a magician; he can't imagine him as anything else.
All day, doggedly, he walks the streets of the Quarter, asking everyone he passes. By late afternoon he's run out of strangers, out of streets, and out of hope. He staggers back to where he began and sinks down on the curb. He sits there for a long time, staring at the ground, thinking how much he'd like a shower and an air-conditioned hotel room.
Someone passes behind him, and he sees, out of the corner of his eye, the edge of a black robe, the shadow of a beak-like nose. By the time he scrambles to his feet, Snape is at the corner, and a dozen people surround him. Harry recognizes all their faces, but not the expressions of wonder they wear. The things Snape does are not tricks. They are wandless magic.
Harry stands at the back of the crowd and watches, horrified, as Snape creates light and dismisses it, sets pavement on fire, transfigures a handkerchief into a bird that flies away. No one else realizes what they're seeing; they think he's exceptionally good at sleight of hand. Only Harry knows the truth.
When Snape finishes, people drop things in the hat at his feet. Coins, but folded bills, too, and a bottle of water, and a box of Pop Tarts. Snape nods at each of them, like an emperor receiving tribute. Death, or the proximity of death, has done nothing to reduce his arrogance. Eventually, only Harry is left, and Snape nods to him, too, and picks up his props and turns to go.
Harry catches his wrist. It's narrower than he expected. He has never touched Snape before, and he is surprised to find him so delicate. But the skin under his fingers is warm and soft over the bone, and he can feel the beat of Snape's heart in the pulse.
“Mr. Potter,” Snape says. “A tip is customary. Manhandling is not.” But he follows Harry without resisting. It's a good thing, because Harry is furious, angry enough to draw on him where they are and try to kill him. Which might be enough to get the trigger happy locals involved.
They turn the corner and Snape pulls away from Harry and moves smoothly in front of him. “This would be best discussed in private,” he says, and he leads Harry down a narrow street into a black alley. Harry's fist clenches on his wand, but Snape takes him up a wrought iron staircase to the third floor of a tiny, dilapidated house.
The flat is very small, though still much bigger than it should be. There are almost no furnishings: a bed, a pile of books, a table and two chairs that don't match. Harry sits down, gratefully, and fishes his water out of his bag and drinks. After a moment Snape sits across from him, elbows on the table, relaxed as a cat.
“You're meant to be dead,” Harry says gracelessly.
“I'm sorry to be a disappointment to you.” Snape smiles like a death's head, and his black eyes burn. He is not dead, but he does not seem precisely alive, either.
“I didn't mean it like that,” Harry says. Somehow, ten minutes with Snape has caused him to regress to an angry, bitter thirteen year old. While he struggles to get his temper under control, Snape stands and shrugs his robes off, dropping them on the bed. Underneath, he wears a close fitting black coat, and he takes that off as well. His shirt is starched, very white, buttoned to the top and cuffed at the wrists. He undoes the top two buttons, rolls his sleeves up, and sits again.
Harry stares him, and Snape tilts his head to better reveal his ruined throat, his marked arm. He is beautiful in the way the city is beautiful, in the way ugly, broken things are beautiful, scars in plain sight on fair skin. Harry hates him, hates New Orleans, for their secrets and their lies and their pride. He owes Snape his life, and that's the last thing he wants.
“I've seen Dumbledore's Pensieve,” he says. “I know what you are. I know everything.”
Snape has the grace to look startled. “Do you?” he asks, and before Harry can answer: “Yes, I believe you do.” And, very gently, “Then why didn't you let me go? Surely you owe me that much?”
“More than that,” Harry says. “I owe you a Life Debt. I owe you your life back.”
Snape smiles again, and this time there is honest amusement in the twist of his lip. “I don't want my life back,” he says. “What is there to have back?”
“Then I owe you a life. Something better than this. Redemption.”
“Gryffindor to the bone. Redemption may be what you need, Potter. I haven't done anything wrong.”
“Haven't you,” Harry demands, and stands up so quickly that his chair falls backward. “You were a Death Eater. You did things--.”
“I saved more lives as a spy than I took as a Death Eater,” Snape says, sounding annoyed. “I saved your life, more than once.”
“Because you loved my mother,” Harry shouts. “You never changed, all those years—you never did anything for the right reason!”
“Maybe not,” Snape shrugs. “But there's no one keeping score, you know. No one's going to give you House points for your self-righteousness.”
Harry gathers his things and turns to go. As he crosses the room there's the sound of a chair scraping the floor, and then Snape is on him. Harry almost hexes him, in that first second when Snape's hand closes on his shoulder. But Snape spins him around, and Snape says dryly, “Now that I think about it, there is something you can do for me.” And his mouth closes hard on Harry's.
Harry is too shocked to protest. Snape kisses him very gently and very thoroughly, and with his eyes closed. Harry remembers the Pensieve, remembers the longing on Snape's face as he speaks of Lily Potter. But it is Harry Snape guides toward the bed, Harry that Snape pushes down. And Harry could fight him, could probably get away, but he doesn't want to.
There's a tenderness to Snape that Harry never dreamed could exist, but there is no kindness in those long white hands, no supplication in the baring of that scarred throat. It's not meant for Harry, this ravishment, but Harry wants it all the same. He lies back and thinks of New Orleans waiting to be ruined.
Snape kisses his eyes, his earlobes, the hollow of his throat, the places where his shoulder join his neck. He undresses Harry, and Harry lets him. It is so hot in the flat that he's sweating everywhere Snape touches him, and even the places he isn't. He closes his eyes so he won't see Snape's face, won't see Snape's mouth shaping his mother's name, and he gives himself up to the tongue on his nipple, to the hand closing around his cock.
Magic or murder, lust or love, Snape is as precise, as skilled, in this as he is in everything. He brings Harry to the edge with his fingers and his mouth, and every time he touches Harry with the hand of his marked arm it burns.
When Snape pushes into him it's without lubricant, without even a thin layer of latex between them. It should hurt more than it does, but despite everything, the roughness of it, the awkwardness of the angle, the friction of the bare mattress under his back, the rotting smell of the city around them: despite everything he is mad for it. It is all he can do to keep himself from begging for Snape to do it harder, faster, for Snape to hurt him.
For seven years everyone he loves has touched him as if he were made of glass. It makes sense that only someone he hates can give him what he wants. And what he wants is to be used, a cock splitting him and teeth on him. He wants to be damaged. He spent seven years learning to fight, and seven years wanting to surrender. Snape has seen his white flags flying, and taken him at his word.
He is not Lily, but he is happy to pretend to be. He is happy to finally be able to make someone else happy. If he can do this one thing, eradicate this one debt--.
Snape comes and Harry comes with him, so hard that he can't understand what Snape says, whether it's “Lily,” or “Harry,” or “Jesus,” or “Scram.” He can't think, can barely breathe, and he lies quietly while Snape gets up and charms them both clean and does up his trousers. But he can hear Snape gathering his things, and he knows Snape is leaving.
“Wait,” he says plaintively. “Where are you going?”
“Did you think I was going to come back to England with you?” Snape asks, sounding amused. “Were you going to make me your mistress? There's nothing left for me there.”
“What do I do now?” Harry asks.
“Live,” Snape says, “or don't. Whichever you want. I loved your mother. I won't be responsible for you forever.”
Harry watches him do up his cufflinks, like a child watching his father dress. “Will I see you again?” he asks quietly.
“Maybe,” Snape says. “Not here, though.” He does not slam the door, only closes it behind him, which is as final as anything Harry could have imagined.
After a long time, Harry goes. There is no one to watch him, and so he does not try to hide the fact that he is limping. There were a thousand questions he meant to ask Snape, and did not. It is dark in the Quarter, and there are no street lights, but three blocks away a bonfire is burning in the street. For a moment Harry thinks he sees a shadowy figure, a tall man in robes and a cloak, holding a wand.
He walks away. If Snape wants to be found again, he will be. Until then Harry will wait.