Growing Pains
by
Tira Nog

Author's Note: Sequel to A Nick in Time
Disclaimer: All characters owned by JK Rowling. No profit made on use of characters.

~~~

The Great Hall sounded as though it were full to bursting. There were the usual childish laughter and shouts, the unceasing susurration of dozens of subdued conversations, the background clatter of utensils and plates being moved, all contained in what amounted to an echoing stone box. It was way too much noise for anyone to have to deal with first thing on a Monday morning.

Severus Snape paused outside the hall entrance, ready to bolt. Two days simply wasn't enough time to reclaim one's life, let alone one's equilibrium. Friday at this very time, he'd been a child, chasing his roommate around the bedroom playing tag instead of getting dressed for school. Now . . . .

Now it was back to normal: no more tag, or quidditch, or even Exploding Snap. He wasn't going to class; he was teaching it. What's more, he had a four-month hiatus for which to make up. He didn't want to think about the state the curriculum was in. There was no way he could correct four months of substandard work in the three that remained to him.

That was really what should be troubling him, Severus thought as he stood paused outside the hall's towering doors. The work missed, the students' that would be ill prepared for their exams – those were the pressing issues, not his emotional problems.

But as he stood there frozen outside the Great Hall, his emotions were the only thing real to him. As soon as he opened that door, he was going to have to face a school full of people who had seen him as a seven-year-old. For some reason, that thought both terrified and shamed him.

It made no sense. He'd faced Voldemort for years while spying without so much as a quiver, but the idea of walking into that hall and feeling all those curious eyes upon him unmanned him. And he didn't know why.

He'd certainly done nothing wrong, nor had he embarrassed himself. Hermione and Ron had seen to it that he was properly dressed and that he behaved well at all times. There had been nothing shameful in any of it, so why was he so sensitive about it? Why did he feel like all his deepest secrets had been paraded in full view?

It was with the thought of Hermione and Ron that he began to understand what was bothering him. The whole school had seen him helpless. He'd been vulnerable and lost, and everyone had known it. They'd seen the Weasleys take him in and give him a home.

A home that was no longer his. That was the root of his problem. Every morning for the last four months when he'd entered the Great Hall, he'd been ensconced between Ron and Harry at the teacher's table. And now that he'd reclaimed his adult life, he was going to have to reclaim his isolated seat down at the end of the table as well. To do anything else would be to reveal a weakness, a need, and Severus was resolved to maintain his dignity at all costs. He'd lost so much; he wasn't about to lose that as well. But . . . .

Severus took a deep breath and tried to relax. He could do this. He'd borne the Cruciatus. He could survive this.

Steeling himself, he opened the door and entered the hall. It was impossible not to notice how all sound seemed to stop at his entrance. He could feel dozens of eyes upon him as he crossed the room to the teacher's table.

He wished that he had his hair to hide behind, but it was still drawn back in that clip Hermione had given him. Startled, he realized that his new hairstyle alone could be reason enough for them to be staring. He'd worn his hair in that same cut for longer than some of his colleagues had been alive. He supposed that the change would be shocking enough. Even so, those stares weighed on his nerves.

"Good morning, Severus," Headmistress McGonagall greeted with a warm smile. "Welcome back again."

She'd been in to see him yesterday. She was the only one of his colleagues other than Harry who had paid him a visit.

"Minerva," he nodded, and then tried to be polite as the others all acknowledged his return.

As he moved down the long table to take his former seat at the secluded far end, he realized that the teachers' table had fallen completely silent around him. The Great Hall as a whole seemed to draw a collective breath, every professor and student seeming to anxiously await his reaction. From the tension in the room, it was clear that no less than a volcanic eruption was anticipated.

Already a nervous wreck, Severus felt his own muscles stiffen up as he prepared for whatever prank awaited him. Damn, couldn't the cretins give him one morning to get his life back in order before once again making him the butt of their brainless jokes? As he turned to deal with whatever ignominy awaited him, Severus promised himself that he'd make the life of whoever had planned this hell.

His steps faltered as he took in the cause of the tension. His normal seat, the chair next to the last at the end of the table, was empty as usual, but it was no longer isolated. Ronald Weasley was sitting in the last chair, next to Severus' empty seat. Harry Potter was in the chair on the opposite side of the chair, with Hermione at Potter's other shoulder – their usual mealtime configuration for the last four months.

As if that weren't shock enough, a terrified looking Neville Longbottom was perched on the edge of the seat next to Hermione, with Blaise Zabini next to him. Merlin knew what they'd done to get Longbottom there. The man appeared on the verge of collapse.

They hadn't left a single empty chair for him to isolate himself behind. His . . . family had set it up so that Severus' only choice was to sit among them. Either that or move to the other end of the table entirely. And the only seat at that end was next to the arrogant Miller. He'd rather eat next to Hagrid's Blast Ended Skrewts.

As he stood there frozen in shock, Severus wondered how he should respond. The absolute silence around him told him that the school as a whole was expecting an amusing spectacle.

He looked at the faces of these people who'd been so kind to him. Hermione's was set with equal degrees of worry and determination. He recognized her hand in this, for only she could manipulate Longbottom into doing something so completely against his nature. Potter appeared nervous, as if he feared this move might damage the uneasy friendship forming between them. Zabini was behaving as a typical Slytherin; the lanky brunette seemed amused by the entire thing.

The only person acting anywhere near normal was Ron. His complete attention was on his bowl as he wolfed down a heaping helping of porridge. As he watched, Ron seemed to become aware of his stare and the silence raging around him. Ron glanced up, scanned down the row of seemingly petrified teachers, gazed out over the equally absorbed House tables, and finally turned to him. Ron rolled his eyes and glared down the teachers' table.

"Enough already! It's not like nobody's ever moved their seats before. Severus, sit down before all the food goes cold!" And with that, Ron went back to his breakfast.

Hermione looked like she wanted to kill Ron. Harry appeared to be waiting to make a decision as to whether to help her or not. Longbottom was attempting to fade into the woodwork. Everyone else was waiting for an entertaining spectacle of Snape proportions.

Severus took his seat.

He gave a droll, "Good morning," as he settled down between Harry and Ron. To his intense relief, conversation started throughout the Great Hall again as though a switch had been flicked.

"Good morning, Severus," Hermione brightly responded, looking as though she might pass out herself from the relief.

Ron's mumbled, "'morning," was lost between chews.

Harry's quiet "Hello," gave him an unexpected shiver. That was not something he'd anticipated having to deal with this morning.

"Hello," he answered, praying that he wasn't blushing as he met Harry's gaze. He'd already made a big enough prat of himself with that entrance.

"How are you today, Severus?" Hermione asked.

Completely too aware of every gaze upon him, Severus shrugged and evaded, "Here," and then silently cursed himself for the concern that filled her gaze.

He reached a shaky hand for the teapot, but a larger one beat him to it. Proving once again that he was nowhere near as oblivious as he let on, Ron poured the tea into Severus' cup, saving him the embarrassment of sloshing it all over the table.

"Harry, what did you think of what Crenshaw and Sinastra did with your classes over the last few months?" Zabini asked from the other side of Longbottom. "They told me they'd dropped by to go over the curriculum they'd covered."

He felt Potter's gaze move from him, the way he'd feel the heat of the summer sun leaving him when he passed into shadow. He was accustomed to controlling his emotions. In his arrogance on Saturday night when he'd told himself he'd be able to maintain the charade of platonic friendship with Harry Potter, he'd assumed that his feelings for Harry would be as simple to ignore as all his other emotions had been. Clearly, he had never had a true test to his controls before.

As Harry answered Zabini's question, Severus drew in a deep breath. His rubbery limbs belonged to a man who'd just fought a life and death battle, not someone who'd simply sat down at the breakfast table. What kind of feckless fool had he become to make such a melodrama out of entering a room? And, obviously, everyone else had expected him to overreact. He was clearly . . . .

His thought broke off as a large, warm hand settled in the middle of his back, Ron's comforting gesture unseen by all. Severus glanced over at Ron.

Weasley was still shovelling porridge into his mouth as fast as he could with his right hand while his left provided that surreptitious comfort, but he met Severus' gaze and gave him a quick wink and a grin before repossessing his left hand. Once he'd swallowed his mouth-load, Ron whispered, "The first step's always the hardest. It will get better."

Had he become that transparent? Was his every thought and fear now on display?

Not knowing how to deal with this, he looked at Ron. His pride was insisting he should snap Weasley's head off for his assumption, but this man had protected him when he was helpless as no one had ever done before. So instead of snarling, he quietly questioned, "Will it?"

"I sure hope so. This morning's been hell," Ron sighed, an uncharacteristic gloom settling over his normally affable features.

Severus gave an enquiring lift of his eyebrow.

Ron took a quick glance at his wife, who was seemingly absorbed in conversation with Zabini and Harry, and explained, "You know how fogged Hermy is first thing. She went to wake you boys for school, only . . . ."

"Ah," Severus nodded, beginning to appreciate that he wasn't the only one for whom this situation was difficult. These people had changed their entire world around to accommodate Harry and him in their time of need. He couldn't imagine what either Ron or Hermione must be going through, to have the children they'd taken into their home and hearts vanish overnight, never to return.

Ron's voice dropped even lower as he leaned in and said, "Thanks for not . . . just thanks. I think it would have killed her if you'd gone over to sit with Miller."

Ron was thanking him?

"Hey," Harry's hand landed on Severus' left arm as he interrupted, "no secrets at the breakfast table. Did you ask him yet?" Harry leaned around him to inquire of Ron.

"Ask me what?" Severus uneasily questioned, leaning back in his seat to try to include both Ron and Harry in his line of sight, which was hard as they were on opposite sides of him.

"Well, to reward ourselves for getting through Mondays without using an Unforgivable on any of the little monsters, we usually get together in the evening to grade papers and homework," Harry said.

"We haven't done it since December because everyone was covering so many classes," Ron explained. "But since things are back to normal now, we thought we'd give it a go tonight."

"We'd like you to join us," Hermione said from Harry's other side. "That is, if you don't have too much else to do."

"I was hoping we might fit in a game of chess," Ron added from his other side.

"You don't have to make up your mind right now," Harry quickly interjected.

"Yeah, take some time and think about it," Ron counselled.

All three of them appeared braced for rejection. From their expressions, it was plain that his compliance was very important to them.

Severus knew this wasn't a good idea. He should be cutting ties, not strengthening them, but . . . as hard as it was to let anyone in, it was harder still to refuse these three anything they might require of him. He owed each of them a debt he could never repay. If they wanted to inflict his company upon themselves, he had no right to deny them.

What incredible twaddle, he chided himself. No right to deny them? He didn't want to deny them. He . . . needed them.

And that scared him.

Severus stared down his fear for a long moment before softly replying, "I don't need time to consider. I would be honoured to attend."

His formality didn't appear to affect them, not if their grins were anything to go by.

"Perfect," Hermione beamed, her eyes twinkling bright as Albus'.

"Come on, you lot," Neville called from Hermione's other side. "We're about to be late!"

"What?" Harry, Hermione, and Ron did a classic double take as they gazed around the emptying Great Hall.

"Severus didn't even get breakfast," Hermione protested as they all scrambled to collect their book bags and personal effects.

"He's not seven anymore, Hermy. He knows when to eat," Ron snorted, but he passed Severus a napkin-wrapped muffin on his way to the door all the same.

With a rushed "See you later!" the Weasleys hit the floor running, leaving Severus standing there in bemusement staring at the pastry in his hand.

"It's a little overwhelming, isn't it? Being an adult again, I mean," a familiar, rich tenor said from his side.

Startled, Severus looked over to find Harry Potter still standing there. The green robe Potter was wearing was an exact match with his eyes.

Still uneasy with this grown up version of the boy who'd befriended him, Severus gave a cautious nod.

"I could barely muster the courage to walk into the hall this morning," Potter continued, giving a self-deprecating smile as he admitted, "Hermione had to take me by the arm."

Thinking how strange it was to hear Potter openly admit to any kind of weakness in his presence, Severus slowly said, "It is, as you said, overwhelming."

"You don't have a first period class either?" Harry asked.

"No. My Monday starts with the second period and ends with the ninth. I have two double potions classes today," he answered. With a vague shock, Severus realized that he was actually making 'small talk.'

"I don't start till third. Walk with me?" Harry asked, gesturing at the French doors to their left that led out into the gardens.

Severus knew it wasn't wise to be alone with Potter. He didn't understand how the affection his childhood self had borne Harry had transformed into this totally inappropriate desire. All he knew was that it hurt to be with Potter now. And hurt even more to be without him.

Still, there was no valid reason to refuse the request. To do so would bring undue attention to his reasons for avoiding Harry. And he had given his word to attempt to be his friend.

So, he gave a nod and followed Potter to the doors.

The weather was hardly conducive to walking. The sky overhead was dark and overcast, the grey clouds spitting down a misty rain. The temperature was cold, the damp biting. Although the ground had thawed; the grass hadn't sprung yet. The earth was a muddy mire that squelched unpleasantly under their boots.

But there was something bracing about the chill. It rather suited his mood, Severus decided. And it was fascinating to watch Harry's skin turn pink as the mist soaked his face and hair.

"We would have had a quidditch match this afternoon," Harry said, staring out over the bare, rain-blackened trees. It was still cold enough that his words emerged as puffs of steam.

"If it weren't cancelled," Severus said, wondering how long it would be before his guts stopped lurching every time he thought of what they'd be doing at a particular moment if they hadn't been restored.

"Yeah, there's that. I miss Adam," Harry said suddenly, referring to the redheaded boy who had befriended them both.

I miss you, Severus thought, but he didn't speak the words.

"Isn't that strange?" Harry asked.

What was strange was that Harry could still trust him enough to share that type of confidence. Feeling those troubled eyes upon his face, Severus looked down at the soggy ground.

"I don't know," Severus answered at last. "He was a friend."

"Yes, he was. I thought of going back to see him," Harry said as they walked among the sleeping rosebushes that lined the narrow walk. This time of the year they were nothing but thorns, which somehow struck Severus as being very appropriate. His life often seemed a thin path between thorn thickets, with no haven in sight. He was so absorbed with the play of expression over those familiar, but now compelling features that he was only half-listening as Harry continued with, "But I thought it would only confuse him."

"That's probably wise," Severus said.

"Probably? Do you think I should see him?" Harry jumped at the idea.

"I don't have any answers, Harry. If you recall, it was I who wanted to remain a child," Severus reminded short-temperedly. He wasn't good at this. Potter should know better than to press him.

"So it's my fault, then?" Harry questioned. His words should have been accusative, but they only sounded miserable.

Six months ago Severus would have said Yes, it's all your fault and blamed everything from their current situation to his twisted longings on Potter. Now such pettiness seemed pointless.

Taking a deep breath of the earth-scented air, Severus softly answered, "No, I don't believe either of us ever had a choice."

Potter was silent. For a long time the only sounds were their squelching footsteps and the drip of the water off the leafless vegetation around them.

"How are you doing?" Harry asked in a soft tone some time later.

"Let's just say that you're not the only one thinking about missed quidditch games," Severus offered at last, wondering if he were being too honest. But this Harry wasn't really all that dissimilar from the boy he'd known. Potter didn't feel a need to attack a weakness simply because it existed.

"I wish . . . ." Potter began and stopped.

"Yes?"

"I wish I could make things better – for us both," Harry said, still very much the optimist that had wanted to make the world a better place.

"There is no better. There is only enduring," Severus replied, voicing the truth of his soul.

"I don't believe that," Harry instantly argued.

"That is your choice. It has, however, been my experience," Severus replied. He didn't want to argue with Potter, but he wasn't going to lie to him, either.

"If that's true, then what's the point in living?" Potter objected, sounding scandalized by the very idea.

Severus shrugged. "Damned if I know."

"Severus!"

"What?" he questioned, his voice as subdued as Potter's had been upset.

"That's not funny!"

"What would you have me say?" he demanded, out of patience already, and he hadn't even faced his first class of dunderheads. "Do you want me to lie to you?"

Harry's stare poked right through his walls.

Severus forced himself to hold that gaze.

"Do you really feel that way?" Harry asked at last.

"I have always felt that way. Except for the last four months," Severus admitted, wondering if his honesty would be enough to drive Potter away.

But his honesty wouldn't have scared the boy off, and it didn't scare the man Harry had become either. Harry was still a head shorter than Severus, but he still seemed larger than life as he reached out to grip Severus' left arm and held on tight.

"We haven't lost it all," Harry insisted.

"Haven't we?" They'd had this discussion on Saturday night. Severus wondered how many times it would be repeated before Harry finally realized that he couldn't be the same person he'd been at seven.

"No, we haven't. I know we're not kids anymore, but we're not back where we were five months ago. Things have changed, for the better. It was different at breakfast this morning, wasn't it?" Harry asked.

Severus thought of that warm, supportive hand on his back this morning and gave a cautious nod.

"I know it's hard right now, but it will get easier. I promise."

I promise, like Potter would personally guarantee him a rosy future. How often had the seven-year-old Potter made that same vow? And every time he'd listened, things had been all right. Not once had Harry ever misled him. But his seven-year-old self had had more courage than Severus could ever aspire to.

"Class is going to start soon. I must return." Severus looked away, but not fast enough to keep him from catching the disappointment in Harry's face.

Harry gave a dispirited, "Yeah," and turned back towards the school.

Side by side, they walked through the soggy April morning.

"We're soaked," Harry said as they paused on the flagstones in front of the French doors that led back into the Great Hall.

Liking neither the gloom in Harry's expression nor the knowledge that he'd put it there, Severus met Potter's gaze and offered in a dry tone, "Fortunately, I know this really neat drying spell."

Severus held his breath. Humour had never been his forte' and Harry's face was blank as a Goyle's for a moment. But then the reference seemed to click. Severus knew the exact instant that Harry remembered the words Potter had spoken to Minerva on the day they'd built that mud fort in the quidditch pitch.

And, suddenly, the laughter was back. It exploded out of Harry in a heart-warming burst of sound.

His hand settling on his back as he ushered Severus into the Great Hall, Harry grinned and said, "Neat!"

It didn't change anything, but putting that smile on Harry's face made it all a bit more bearable. Even if he could no longer think with that hand on his back.

"I'll see you later?" Harry checked once Severus had used his neat drying spell on them both.

Severus looked down at Potter's cold-reddened face. The man had interesting features. His wide, bespectacled green eyes and slightly upturned nose gave Harry the vulnerable air of a young boy, while his high cheekbones and strong, cleft chin did everything in their power to undo that image.

An enticing sheen of moisture gleamed on Harry's sensual lips. The sight of it twisted something inside Severus. Realizing that he was staring, Severus ripped his gaze away and attempted to get his respiration back under control.

Yes, things had certainly changed.

"Later," he agreed.

Another grin and another purposefully childish "Cool!" and Harry seemed nearly as happy as his seven-year-old self. "I'll see you at dinner. Try not to petrify any of the monsters."

To his surprise, Severus found himself responding to Potter's irrepressible cheek. "A Gryffindor or two less – who would notice the loss?"

"Hermione and Ron, when they're counting them at dinner. You want to explain the service you've done mankind by decreasing the Gryffindor horde to her, then, please, be my guest."

"And they accuse Slytherins of having a cruel streak," Severus lamented.

Harry's laughter followed after him as he took his leave.

The day flew by. He only had double potions with the first and second years today.

To Severus' astonishment, his students proved remarkably up to snuff. They didn't have the polish that they might have gained while learning under a master, but they were adequately trained in the basics. What was astounding was the fact that it was apparently Longbottom who had volunteered to take on Snape's first and second years. Minerva had covered his third through fifth years, while Hermione had handled the sixth and seventh years. Severus had no idea how she'd managed to teach the two hardest grades in what were incontestably the school's two most difficult subjects – Arithmancy and Potions.

He was so occupied trying to decipher the rolls of chicken scrawled notes his stand-ins had left that he missed lunch. He would have skipped dinner, too, if Hermione hadn't come to fetch him.

Now, an hour after the Great Hall had emptied out and the students returned to their common rooms, Severus made his way to Gryffindor Tower with an armload of homework to grade. He still wasn't certain this wasn't a mistake.

The door was opened by a grinning, grey-robed Hermione at his first knock. "Severus! Welcome!"

For a horrible moment, Severus thought that she was going to hug him, but then she took his arm and guided him into the sitting room.

"We're all here now," she announced to the room at large.

We turned out to be more than simply the Weasleys, Potter, and himself.

Severus froze.

Clothed in a light blue robe, Neville Longbottom was sitting on the end of the couch with a sheaf of papers in his hands, looking as though he were about to be marched off to Azkaban. Longbottom's presence here really shouldn't have been that much of a shock since the boy had trailed after the famous three since their arrival at Hogwarts.

It was the other Slytherin that surprised him. Blaise Zabini was sprawled at the opposite end of the couch, with his feet drawn up onto the cushion so that they almost touched Longbottom's left leg, test papers in hand, and a goblet of red wine within easy reach. His stockinged feet proclaimed his comfort at the Weasleys'. Zabini's deep red robe was a stark contrast with Longbottom's light blue one.

In his usual brown house robes, Ron was sitting at the table they normally played chess on, working on repairing a school broom. Wearing the same distracting green robe he'd had on this morning, Harry sat across from Ron with another broom in hand. There was a broom repair kit at his elbow on top of a pile of neglected parchments that looked suspiciously like the roll of notes Severus' substitutes had left for him.

Everyone greeted him with some version of hello as Hermione led him to one of the armchairs – which had been turned into the room to face the couch, rather than the hearth.

Feeling intensely out of place amidst his former students, Severus took his seat. He really didn't belong here. Not anymore.

"So, how did it go today?" Hermione asked as she settled into the other armchair. "Harry won't talk about his day at all."

Ron looked up from his broom to shoot what might have been a warning in Hermione's direction, and then returned to polishing the broomstick.

Severus glanced at Potter, who was studiously trimming his broom's errant bristles. Harry's expression was rather tense, and now that he wasn't so absorbed with his own uneasiness, Severus realized that the mood of the room was akin to that of the Great Hall this morning when everyone was waiting for him to explode over the chair incident. Surprised, he recognized that Harry was the source of the tension.

"Oh?" Severus said.

Something in his tone must have challenged Potter, for those green eyes glanced his way, and then Harry encapsulated his day with five truculent words that were enough to chill any teacher's blood, "Trelawney had my third years."

"That's all he'll say," Zabini joked.

"What more need he say?" Severus replied, catching the grateful glance Harry shot him.

"That Miller had his seventh years?" Zabini added with suspect sweetness.

Severus shuddered to think what state Potter's last year students would be in. Miller made Gilderoy Lockhardt seem like a shining example of academia.

"My commiserations," Severus condoled with a nod of his head.

"I don't need your commiserations," Harry said. "I need your help."

The room's other four occupants appeared even more shocked than Severus was by Potter's words.

Severus didn't know how to respond at first, but after a second's thought, he asked, "Do you think it's wise to discuss this in front of four witnesses?"

"What?" Harry blinked, but at least he seemed confused now rather than simmering.

"When Trelawney and Miller are discovered with their throats slit, we will now be the prime suspects," Severus informed.

He was surprised by the reaction his comment received. Even Longbottom was laughing and Harry no longer looked as though his world were ending.

"I don't want you to kill them, you berk," Harry laughed.

"No? Pity, that. What do you want, then?"

"When I left them in December, my seventh years were in fairly decent shape. But now . . . . Shall I show you what I'm dealing with?" Harry asked. At Severus' nod, Harry put the broom down and rose to his feet. "Imagine, if you will, a classroom full of seventeen year olds, most of whom are now sporting wild, shaggy curls like Miller." Harry passed his wand over himself and a fountain of long black ringlets cascaded down his back. Severus was so startled by the effect that he could hardly concentrate on Harry's subsequent words. "I'm one of the lot. My recently returned DADA teacher has just asked me to demonstrate the defensive arts I've learned in his absence. Ron, would you mind being me?"

Ron looked up from his broom. "Only if it's just for the demonstration. I'm all for slitting Miller's throat."

Ron rose to his feet.

"Hermione, would you mediate the duel?" Harry asked.

"Only if I don't have to get up, and if you promise not to break or otherwise demolish anything in the room," Hermione answered, so buried in parchments in the chair beside Severus that it looked like it would take her an hour to clear enough paper away simply to gain her feet.

"Agreed," Harry said.

"Fine, then," Hermione gave in. "Wands out on three, then. One, two, three!"

Ron's wand popped into his hand so quickly that Severus barely caught the movement.

He knew Potter was faster by half, but . . . Harry proceeded to remove his wand from his pocket with a wide, sweeping flourish of a gesture that took up enough time for an opponent to both curse him and dispose of his corpse. Meanwhile, he threw his wild mane of hair back and struck a dramatic pose.

Ron was on the last syllable of "Expelliamus!" before Potter even had his wand pointed in the proper direction.

Harry's wand skittered across the room to land at Longbottom's feet.

"That is what I am dealing with," Harry announced.

Everyone was laughing again. Severus himself was having difficulty maintaining his controls with the lugubrious expression Harry was sporting.

"Surely, they're not all as bad as that," Severus said at last.

"Well, I've one or two Slytherins that are capitalizing on their classmates' stupidity and blasting them silly; figuratively, for the most part, unfortunately. But most are actually worse," Potter said, slumping back down onto his chair, before giving a subdued. "Accio wand . . . and half of them can't do a decent summoning charm, either."

Harry gave a listless wave of his wand once it returned to his hand and his curls disappeared. Staring at his restored hair, Severus decided that he preferred Potter's normal style. The shaggy, just-below-the-ears length suited Harry's rather long, masculine face better.

"So you wish me to murder your students then?" Severus asked, still uncertain what Potter desired of him.

"No, though it's damn tempting. I was hoping you might come in for a demonstration. I thought I might ape their style in a duel with you and let them see you toss me across the room before I've even got my wand out of my pocket."

"Ah, so it is yourself that you are asking me to murder," Severus said with open satisfaction. His uneasiness was fading in spite of himself. He was so accustomed to this room and to gently teasing Harry that this visit was beginning to feel like the many nights he'd spent in these quarters.

He couldn't help but notice how both Longbottom and Zabini were watching the playful exchange between Potter and himself with their jaws practically hanging open. Hermione and Ron were grinning, but seemed unsurprised. After living with him and Potter for four months, the Weasleys were accustomed to their brand of banter, if on a more childish level than tonight's.

"Well, if you put me out of my misery, I won't have to worry about figuring out how to disabuse my third years of the notion that all they have to do to protect themselves against dangerous magical dark creatures is to use their inner eye to psychically make friends with Grindylows and the like," Harry answered.

"What?" Severus couldn't quite conceal his shock at the absurd suggestion.

"Remember," Harry began, the other four joining in like the frog chorus in a Greek comedy, "Trelawney had my/his third years."

While the others erupted into gales of unrepressed laughter, Severus felt his own mouth twitch at the corners.

"So will you do it?" Harry asked with genuine concern while everyone else was still trying to catch their breath.

"Murder you? No. I might finally end up teaching the Dark Arts, and for some reason, my enthusiasm for it has waned this year."

"Severus!" Harry protested.

"What?" he asked, enjoying this.

"Will you?"

"Why should I?" he questioned, fully intending to do it, but wanting to make Harry work for the concession.

"Because you owe me, damn it!" Harry testily responded.

It was true. He did owe Potter. However, it was also not like Harry to rub someone's nose in their indebtedness like this. Abruptly leery, thinking that he might have misjudged everything and made a fool of himself, Severus tightly questioned, "For what?"

Harry's eyes flashed green fire his way. "For the last time I helped you with an experiment when you asked me to."

Hermione and Ron roared with laughter, while Longbottom and Zabini stared at them all in confusion.

Finally, Zabini said, "You've lost Neville and me. What experiment?"

"I helped Severus with a potion last week – " Harry started.

"Last week?" Zabini interrupted. "You were children last week."

Harry nodded. "Yes, but we were doing some potions experimenting and Severus, I mean, we . . . ." Gryffindor to the core, Potter's often incomprehensible sense of honour didn't seem to be able to allow him to reveal any more of the details, all of which would incriminate his companion.

Severus sighed and finished the tale, "I mistook fenwart for fennel. The results were most unfortunate."

"The entire place stank like a rotting corpse for four hours," Ron lamented.

"And we got an hour time out," Harry added. "So you do owe me."

Severus remembered that. Once his mistake had become obvious as the Weasleys' quarters filled with the pungent stench that he hadn't known how to fix, he'd been terrified of the consequences, sure that Ron or Hermione would have to beat him at the very least to punish him for stealing the ingredients from the security cabinet in his former workroom. But all they'd done was tell Harry and him to go sit in chairs in opposite ends of their quarters while the adults dealt with the foul smell. They hadn't even made him miss dinner that night. Severus still couldn't comprehend their forbearance.

Everyone was laughing again at Potter's childish tone.

"I suppose you do have a point," Severus said, forcing his mind back to the present. "I will help you with a demonstration."

"You will?" Potter sounded shocked.

"How could I possibly resist the opportunity to toss you around in front of a room full of people, while safe from all retaliation?" Severus responded

"Who said anything about no retaliation?" Harry challenged.

"That would, of course, be one of the terms of my involvement," Severus said, savouring the interplay.

"It would?" Harry had never sounded so much like his seven-year-old self.

Severus knew he should have jumped right in and confirmed his outrageous demand, but Potter's vulnerable tone completely disarmed him. With the possible exception of Albus Dumbledore, there had never been anyone he couldn't attack once he scented a weakness. For want of a better definition, that malicious streak was as much a part of him as his dark hair. But looking at Harry now, all he wanted to do was reach out and assure his normally optimistic companion that everything would work out. And that was so against his nature that it totally perplexed him.

Feeling all those laughing eyes upon him, and knowing he had to cover his feelings immediately, Severus forced himself to relax and give a droll, "I'm afraid so."

"And your other terms?" Harry questioned, appearing endearingly nervous.

"To be discussed at a later date," Severus decided.

"You're in for it now, Harry," Ron laughed, sitting back down and taking up the broom he was repairing.

"Yeah," Harry agreed, but he didn't seem to be too bothered by the thought. If anything, he looked content.

Severus couldn't remember ever enjoying his co-workers' company as he was doing tonight. He'd feared that his presence would inhibit the proceedings, that he would fall back into being whom he'd been before December to isolate himself. To his shock, that wasn't happening. No one was forcing him to interact or making awkward attempts to include an obvious outsider, yet somehow he was a part of them.

They didn't even seem to mind when he turned his attention to the homework he'd brought when the conversation moved to other topics. One by one, the others picked up their own work, and before long the room was as quiet as the school during finals week.

"It's not Wolfsbane that dispels nervousness, is it?" Zabini asked into the silence.

"Verbaine," Hermione, Longbottom, and he answered in unison and went back to their work.

About an hour later, Hermione said, "My brain hurts. And I'm hungry. Anyone want some tea?"

Digging her way out from under the parchments burying her, Hermione gained her feet, but not before half her papers went scurrying across the rug. As she straightened out her grey robes and knelt down to collect the mess, Ron quickly moved to help her.

For the past two months, any time Ron was on the floor, it was an open invitation to attack. Severus was shocked to find himself seized with the nearly irresistible impulse to wrestle Ronald Weasley to the carpet. Stunned, he looked quickly away . . . to find green eyes watching Ron just as intently.

Seeming to feel his gaze, Harry met his stare.

Severus didn't know how he knew, but he was suddenly certain that Harry was resisting the same inappropriate impulse. It was all he could do to keep from bursting into laughter at Harry's horrified expression.

By the time Hermione's parchments were restored, so was their control. With a last, rueful glance at each other, Harry and he turned back to the room.

Once Ron finished helping Hermione, she moved to the sideboard, while Ron returned to the table. Harry and Ron then stowed their brooms and tack away to make room for the tray she brought over to the table.

Seeing the others occupied, Severus put his own work down on the end table and crossed the room to the other sideboard drawer where the Weasleys stowed their teapot and mugs. The move was automatic, something he would have done on any of the nights they'd spent together in this room.

He was a little self-conscious when he turned to find Hermione beside him. Obviously, she'd come to fetch the pot herself. For a moment, he felt like he'd committed an indiscretion of some kind. After all, he didn't live here anymore. It really wasn't his place to be going into drawers, but the smile she gave him instantly vanished his misgivings.

"Thank you, Severus," she said, giving his arm a soft touch before she moved to the other chest where the plates were stored.

The house elves had outdone themselves in providing snacks, Snape thought as he surveyed their repast. There were the custard tarts that both Ron and Longbottom enjoyed, a small chocolate cake that Harry was currently hungrily eyeing, the cinnamon raisin rolls that Hermione favoured, assorted biscuits . . . and the nut bread for which no one other than Severus himself seemed to care.

Hermione had always made sure that there was some of the nut bread or lemon cake for him as an after-homework treat. That she would remember to include it tonight touched him greatly.

While everyone helped themselves to sweets and tea, he cut a slice of the nut bread and liberally buttered it.

"I was hoping you still liked it," Hermione said beside him, fixing his tea as his adult self preferred – more milk than tea, unsweetened. As a child, he'd liked it milky and sweet.

"Thank you for remembering," Severus murmured, still not entirely easy in either Ron or Hermione's presence. He owed them both so much, but they seemed to want nothing from him, other than his company. Even Albus had always had ulterior motives for befriending him. He didn't know how to deal with people who wanted nothing from him. This was completely outside his experience.

"How could I forget? And you are most welcome." Hermione graced him with one of those blinding smiles he remembered from the past few months, gave him his usual tea mug, and turned to pour Zabini his tea.

A very nervous Neville Longbottom stepped up to the table beside him.

Severus looked at the Herbology teacher, unable to credit how little he'd changed from the boy he'd known. His eyes were still a blue so deep they were nearly violet, and his hair still sported the childish fringe in front. He was still on the plump side, utterly insecure, and visibly terrified of his former Potions teacher. Recognizing that he was in debt to this man as well, Severus cleared his throat and softly said, "Professor Longbottom?"

Longbottom nearly dumped the tarts from his plate, he was so startled. Those deep blue eyes could barely meet his own in their nervousness. "Er . . . yes?"

He'd always found Longbottom's open terror incredibly irritating and was hard pressed to resist the malicious impulse to tell the man to buck up and get a hold of himself. But that wasn't going to aid his purpose. He could hardly malign his co-worker and then thank him for his excellent work, as tempting as the impulse was. And beyond that, he owed Longbottom as well, and not just professionally. During the past four months his former student had had ample opportunity to take his revenge for all the years Snape had terrorized him, but Longbottom had been nothing but kind to his seven-year-old self.

He could feel both Potter and Hermione's worried gazes upon him as he spoke to Longbottom, and knew that he was being closely monitored. Yet another reason for not giving in to his baser instincts.

"I want to thank you for the work you did with my first and second years. I was pleasantly surprised by their level of competence," Severus softly admitted.

"Are – are you being sarcastic?" Longbottom blurted out, apparently so surprised that he forgot his manners.

"Actually, no. You did an excellent job," Severus said, wondering if he'd even be believed.

To his surprise, Longbottom's round cheeks turned pink with embarrassment. "I just followed the work book word by word and step by step."

Severus nearly said, 'Pity you couldn't have done the same while in school, ' but managed to restrain himself. Instead, he offered, "Whatever you did, it was quite effective."

"Er . . . thanks," Longbottom said.

"May I ask a question?" Severus was unable to resist asking the nervous man before him. One of his greatest joys during the last few months had been Harry and his almost daily visits to Hogwarts' greenhouses. They'd spent hours down there, chasing the butterflies and asking a thousand questions of Longbottom.

Still uncertain and obviously wanting to be anywhere else, Longbottom gave an affirmative nod.

Severus tried to find a tactful way to phrase his inquiry, but was unable to do so. There was no polite way to phrase his question, so he just asked it; his confusion was too strong to be denied. "For the past fifteen years, I have been nothing but cruel and scornful of you. Any time the opportunity presented itself, I went out of my way to ridicule you."

Longbottom's milky skin blanched so pale he seemed to have no pigment left at all. "I . . . don't understand what you're asking me."

Severus was extremely conscious of Harry and Hermione hovering beside them. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see that Hermione's mouth was opened, as if to interrupt them. It appeared to be Harry's hand on her arm that had halted her interference.

"Since December, you have had ample opportunity to avenge yourself. You could have made my life miserable, if you'd so chosen." It was only as he finished speaking that Severus realized his words were a statement and not a question at all.

Yet, judging by Longbottom's response, the gist of his inquiry had been understood. His voice dropping and his spine straightening, Longbottom squarely met his eyes and firmly answered, "No, I couldn't have."

"Why not?" Severus questioned, truly at a loss here. "I couldn't have stopped you."

Put on the spot, Longbottom glanced at Hermione, as if for help, but apparently their discussion was not what she'd expected. All she did was give Longbottom an encouraging nod.

After a moment, Longbottom said, "It isn't what a man is capable of doing that tells you his character; it's what he chooses to do."

Severus was hard pressed to keep the sneer out of his voice. "So, it was Gryffindor honour, then?"

To his surprise, Longbottom didn't flinch. Those blue eyes held his own and softly countered, "Not entirely."

"What then?" Severus asked, needing to understand. Hermione and Ron rising above their past differences with their former potions teacher, Severus could almost understand. They were both Gryffindor to the core, and Snape hadn't really treated them any more horribly than he had any other students from their house. But Longbottom . . . he'd gone out of his way to torment the hapless incompetent from day one. He wouldn't have blamed the other man for taking his revenge. But Longbottom hadn't, not once in all the time Severus had spent in the hothouses, even on those rare occasions when Harry hadn't accompanied him down.

"Well, aside from the fact that it wouldn't have been right to punish a little boy for something he hadn't done yet, it would have upset Harry had I been unkind to you," Longbottom answered.

"So you did it for Potter's sake then?" Severus questioned. He could almost accept that. He'd seen what Harry's friends would do for him over the years.

"To some extent," Longbottom responded.

That wasn't the answer he was expecting. Barely masking his irritation, Severus demanded, "Why were you kind to me, if not for Harry's sake?"

The room was too quiet around them. Severus was abruptly aware of the fact that everyone was observing them and waiting for Longbottom's reply. He also belatedly recognized that he'd set the stage for some major payback. Longbottom could disgrace him totally right now and he would have to accept it, because he'd hounded the man for the truth.

But Longbottom didn't seem to be enjoying the situation at all. His corpse pale skin pinking with embarrassment, his former student softly offered, "I wasn't mean to you because I liked you. It's as easy as that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd really rather not discuss this anymore."

With that, Longbottom collected his tea and sweets and returned to his corner of the couch.

Floored, Severus stood frozen by the dessert table, his own plate and mug in danger of dropping to the floor. Neville Longbottom liked him?

A hand came out of nowhere and took his dish and mug from him and placed the nut bread on the table. The vibrant green sleeve, fine-boned wrist, and hand told him it was Harry.

"We left a lot of stuff inside. Come help me sort it, Severus," Potter said.

Severus followed the gentle tug on his arm. The next thing he knew, he was back in the bedroom they'd shared. Harry guided him over to his old bed and sat him on its edge. Then Potter placed the tea mug into his hands.

"Drink," Harry urged as he sat down next to him, entirely too close for Severus' peace of mind.

Severus stared down into the pale tan depths for a moment and then took a sip. Tense, he waited for the inevitable lecture, but Harry didn't say a word for the longest time. As he slowly relaxed in the familiar setting, Severus sipped his tea.

"Did I tell you that I'm proud of you?" Harry said suddenly.

"For causing a spectacle at the dessert table?" Severus snorted.

"No. For having the courage to try and meet us half way. Hermione, Ron, and I pretty much expected you to wall yourself away down in the dungeon. I know none of this is easy for you," Harry said, those piercing green eyes way too close.

Everything was too close, not just those eyes. Severus could feel the other man's body heat.

"And you didn't cause a spectacle," Harry added.

"Oh?"

"No, you should hear Ron and Blaise when they get going on house rivalries if you want to see spectacles," Harry said with a laugh.

Severus ignored the change in topic, "Why did you bring me in here if I wasn't making a fool of myself?"

"You just looked like you needed a break. I know I did. It's been a long day," Harry said.

"And you find being trapped alone with me in here relaxing?" Severus gave into his sarcasm, too discomforted by Potter's proximity to care about being nice.

Harry took a deep breath and leaned against the footboard behind him. "To be honest, it's the first time I've felt normal since Saturday."

"What?" Severus searched Potter's face, trying not to get distracted by the peaches and cream complexion and compelling bone structure of the long, quirky face. Harry didn't seem to be lying.

"I've felt like I'm missing an arm or something since Saturday. When we were joking around before was the first time everything felt normal," Harry replied in a low tone. Severus sensed how uncertain the other man was of the sentiment he'd voiced. "Thank you for that, by the way. It's been one hell of a day."

Seeing how utterly drained Harry abruptly appeared, Severus questioned, "Have you been using a glamour? Those circles weren't under your eyes a moment ago."

"Damn." Harry bounced up from the bed and crossed to the mirror above their old dresser. A few muttered words and Severus saw the purple circles in Harry's reflection disappear again. He was rather touched by the fact that Harry hadn't been able to maintain his facade in his presence. The inability to maintain a glamour was normally an indication of absolute trust between wizards.

"Aren't you sleeping?" Severus asked.

Still peering intently at his reflection, Harry snorted. "I haven't slept since I was one. Well, aside from the past few months, that is." Severus wondered if Harry were aware of how much that qualification revealed. The fact that he kept right on speaking indicated he was probably completely unaware of what he'd said. "The last few nights have been rough. I thought that it'd get better once I was teaching again, but . . . ."

"We'll sort the seven years out on Wednesday," Severus offered. "You've got them again that day, don't you?"

"Yes," Harry glumly replied as he slumped back into his spot at the foot of the bed.

"We'll do a demonstration that will make them think twice about their new defence techniques. I think it would be quite entertaining were they to see those precious curls of yours go up in flames a second before your wand goes flying, don't you?" Severus suggested.

Harry grinned. "That might do the trick." Severus was puzzled to see the smile quickly die. "What are your other terms?"

"What?" Severus asked.

"Before you said that I couldn't retaliate. What other conditions are there?"

The glamour might be up again, but Severus could still see how tired Harry's eyes were. He made his decision quickly. "I was joking before about the no-retaliation clause. You may defend yourself as you see fit. The only condition I must insist upon is a small one."

To his satisfaction, suspicion entered Harry's expression. If nothing else, the years had made Harry less blindly trusting. "What condition is that?"

"That you allow me to give you a sleeping draught, which you will solemnly swear to take on any night you experience difficulty sleeping."

"I don't like sleeping potions," Harry protested. "They make me groggy and cranky the next day."

"The one I give you will not. You have my word on that," Severus promised.

"You've taken it yourself, then?" Harry asked.

"You don't think I could have lasted as Albus' spy for as long as I did without some sleeping aid, do you?" Severus questioned. "There were whole stretches of years that I needed something nearly every night. This potion will not stupefy you, nor is it addictive."

"I notice you make no claims about crankiness," Harry pointed out. "Is that your way of warning me that I'll have the same sweet disposition as you if I take it?"

At first he thought Potter was insulting him, but then he saw the light in those mischievous eyes and the too serious tone registered. Harry was joking. He felt his lips twitch and it was all he could do not to laugh out loud.

"Why do you do that?" Harry asked.

"Do what?" Severus questioned, taking another sip of his tea.

"Stop yourself from laughing. You do it all the time. Sometimes I can tell that something someone said really strikes you as funny, and the laughter is there in your eyes, but you never let it out," Harry noted.

Something squeezed his insides at the innocent question. This was how the contention always started in the few friendships he'd attempted. The Why do you? inevitably became Why can't you? , and the pressure to make him change would begin.

"Does it bother you?" Severus asked tightly, cursing himself as an idiot after the words were out. Of course, it bothered Potter. Why else would he have mentioned it?

Harry's left foot reached out to poke him in the calf, the way Harry would have done last week if he'd said something stupid while they were reading on the same bed. "Don't be a moron. It doesn't bother me. I was just . . . curious, that's all. I mean, you've got a great sense of humour. It just seems strange that you won't let yourself laugh, that's all."

Severus' searching glance could find no traces of subterfuge. "The one thing I have never been accused of is having a sense of humour. Humourless bastard is, I believe, one of my more common appellations."

Harry laughed in his face at that. "Whose fault is that? Maybe they do call you a humourless bastard, but the fact of the matter is that you are usually at your funniest when you're ruthlessly insulting people. Most people just can't appreciate it at the time."

"And do you appreciate it?" Severus questioned, unable to credit how important Harry's answer was to him.

"I don't like when you're truly vicious, but I've always liked that you say what you think," Harry replied before returning to his former topic. "So why don't you laugh?"

"It was a habit I developed when young. It's hard to break." Harry didn't say anything, but Severus could almost feel the other man's curiosity. He flinched as a hand settled on his arm.

"Your grandparents," Harry said. It wasn't a question.

His mouth dry despite all the tea, Severus nodded, staring down into the nearly empty cup. Harry wasn't pressuring him for any information, but something in Severus felt compelled to offer the truth, all the same. "Laughter was the surest way to draw attention to myself."

Harry gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "I know what you mean. The Dursleys always seemed to go out of their way to kill any laughter, not that there was much cause for it back then. But all that's changed. They can't hurt us anymore. We can't let their cruelty poison our lives."

Such courage. Severus bit his lower lip. He didn't know if he had it in him to match Potter's bravery, but he could at least match him in honesty. After a long pause, he admitted, "I was poisoned before I could walk, but . . . It's not just my grandparents. Laughter gives too much away. It gives others too much control over you."

"How so?" Harry questioned, sounding intrigued, rather than put off.

"It can be taken away so easily," Severus said in a low voice.

"It?" Harry asked.

"Your joy," Severus answered.

Harry was silent for a moment, and then he softly asked, "Do you think that anyone in that room out there would purposefully hurt you if you were to laugh with them?"

Put that way, it did sound absurd. But absurd or not, that was his reality. Feeling cornered, Severus quietly reminded. "I have spent forty-eight years building walls, Harry. I don't know that I can stand without them."

Harry once again surmounted one of his tallest barriers, that of touch. Reaching out, Potter hooked his chin and raised his face until their gazes met, acting as though touching him were no big deal. Severus couldn't help but compare Harry's attitude to the reactions he normally received. Most times when he had accidental physical contact with someone, the person would grimace and pull quickly away, as if they'd touched something slimy and repulsive. But Harry didn't respond that way. If anything, Harry's face was softer than normal, his touch sure and comfortable as he said, "If you can't stand, I'll hold you up. That's what friends do."

Severus gulped. Harry's words sounded like a solemn vow.

Those eyes were utterly bewitching. Severus stared into the green depths, stunned by the emotion reflected in them. They terrified him as deeply as they drew him.

And those burning hot fingers were still gripping his chin.

In a semi-daze, he realized that Harry's head was positioned perfectly for a kiss. All he need do was lean down and cover those enticing lips with his own . . . that's all he'd have to do . . . to lose Harry's trust forever.

Getting a hold of himself, Severus concentrated on the topic at hand. "I don't have much experience with friendship."

"That will change," Harry said.

"Will it?" Severus could barely get the words out; he was so mesmerized by Harry's expression.

"Oh, yes, count on it," Harry assured. Confusion seemed to touch his attractive face for a moment as they looked at each other. Severus tensed as Potter's mouth opened as if to question him, but an abrupt knock on the door broke the moment.

His skin felt strangely cold when Harry's hand released his chin.

They both turned as the door opened and Hermione's head popped in. "Everything all right in here?"

As Severus moved guiltily away, Potter grinned over at her. "Yeah. Don't worry, no stink bombs tonight." Harry turned back to him and gave him an encouraging smile. "I guess we'd better join the crowd."

Severus watched his companion get up from the bed and head for the door as though it were perfectly normal for two grown men to be caught sitting on the side of a bed staring into each other's eyes.

When he moved to follow, Hermione stepped up to him and softly said, "I'm sorry. Did my bad timing interrupt something?"

He could not credit how hopeful she appeared at the thought.

Severus resisted the impulse to snap. What he really wanted was to be seven years old again so that he could crawl into her arms and let her hug all his troubles away.

"No, we were just talking," Severus quickly assured.

"Ah," she said, sounding disappointed. "Come on. You barely touched your nut bread. Ron and Neville finished off their tarts and half of Harry's cake. I think your bread will be next if you don't get back to it."

"I'd best protect it, then," he answered as lightly as he could manage. Inside, he felt like he was falling apart.

But Hermione led him back into the brightly lit sitting room, sat him down in his chair with a fresh mug of tea and his nut bread, and took her seat beside him.

No one commented on his discussion with Longbottom. Ron, Zabini, and Longbottom all appeared to be caught up in a heated quidditch discussion at the table, which Potter was immediately hauled into.

Seeing how Hermione was staring off into space and not even attempting to follow the nearby conversation or pay any attention to the papers in her lap, Severus quietly called, "Hermione?"

It felt strange calling her that. For so many years she'd been either Miss Granger or Professor Weasley. But he couldn't go back to that. The formality would hurt her, he knew. Still, he would forever associate her given name with the woman who'd taken such loving care of him. It was an odd sensation to look at her out of his adult eyes, see her obvious youth, and still have all these filial feelings towards someone who'd been his student. He supposed it must be even more difficult for her.

"Yes?" she asked with a smile.

"Are you all right?" Severus softly questioned.

The smile quivered for a moment and then vanished into something sadder. "I miss my boys. I mean, I'm truly happy to have both you and Harry back as adults, but . . . there's a part of me that wishes we could have had it both ways – that your adult selves would be returned, but that we'd have still been able to keep your child selves. I'm just being silly, I suppose."

"It is hardly silly. You spent months caring for us. To have the children to whom you'd devoted all that time to simply vanish overnight must have been quite jarring," Severus said in a low tone. He wasn't used to dispensing solace, but he couldn't ignore her pain, not after all she'd done for him. "If it's any consolation, neither Harry nor I were eager for the restoration."

"I know," Hermione said. "I think that makes it even harder. But at least there have been some positive effects." His scepticism must have been obvious, for Hermione asked, "Tonight hasn't been too terrible for you, has it? It seemed like you were enjoying yourself."

After assuring himself that the others were still occupied with their world cup argument, Severus admitted, "I didn't think that I would be comfortable, but . . . it has been most pleasurable."

His words seemed to reassure her. "I was hoping you would like it. Your presence has had a real effect on Harry, thank heavens."

"How so?" he asked as disinterestedly as possible. The expression in her warm brown eyes told him that Hermione had seen right through his feigned indifference.

"Well, six months ago if Harry had been upset like he was when you arrived tonight, he would have spent the entire night brooding while the rest of us tiptoed around on eggshells," Hermione said. "You got him to laugh. That means a lot."

"He's not sleeping again," Severus reported in an even lower tone.

"I know. Can you see through that glamour he wears, too?" she asked.

He nodded. "He's reinforced it now, but when we were alone together before, it slipped."

"That happens when he's really tired."

"He's worn it before, then?" Severus questioned, wondering why he was so startled. If anyone had cause for sleepless nights, it was the young man upon whom so much of their hope had rested during the war.

Hermione snorted. "The real question is 'when doesn't he wear it?'"

"How long has that been going on?"

"Harry started using the glamour after Sirius died. Aside from those months he spent as a seven-year-old, I really can't remember a time since when he didn't use it," she told him, her concern evident.

"It's not healthy to use a glamour that frequently," Severus said. "It puts a constant drain on his powers."

"I know. Ron and I have had this discussion with him a million times. He's always had so much pressure on him that it's hard to press the issue, though."

"A glamour is no substitute for sleep," Severus said.

"I know," Hermione agreed.

"Well, that will change as of tonight, if I have anything to say about it," Severus said with his old determination.

Hermione's smile was back. "See, I told you something positive had come of it."

"Come of what?" a familiar voice asked from his left side.

Severus turned to see Harry, with the heavy sheaf of parchments under his arm, approaching his chair. Behind them, Ron, Zabini, and Longbottom were still absorbed in a hot debate about the aging Victor Krum's future in quidditch.

After the slightest of hesitations, Harry settled on the thick carpet between Hermione and Severus' chair. For a moment, it had looked like Potter was going to perch on the arm of his chair, as Ron was wont to do with Hermione. He was grateful Harry spared him that trial. It was bad enough gazing down at the unkempt head next to his right knee, without having Harry's thigh within easy reach.

"We were just discussing your sleeping habits, or lack thereof," Severus answered.

"Hermione," Harry began, his anger apparent.

"It's not Hermione's fault," Severus cut him off. "She is concerned about your well-being, as well she should be. You are going to stop using that glamour and get some rest, as of tonight."

The defiant glare was the same one Severus had faced every day as Potter's teacher. "Am I now? Who's going to make me?"

Keeping his calm, for to lose his temper with this man was to lose the fight, Severus replied, "I. You will either accompany me to my lab after we're through here of your own free will or I will petrify you, carry you down the main staircase, and force-feed you the potion like a recalcitrant three year old. The choice is yours."

Severus wondered if he were about to destroy their newfound friendship. The fire blazing in Harry's eyes threatened to carry over into an outburst. Severus knew from his time spent with Potter's child counterpart how close the battle was raging. He could see Hermione bracing herself in the chair across from his.

But after an eternity of glaring up at him out of those enraged green eyes, the ire deflated, replaced by something like amusement. "You would, too, wouldn't you?"

"In a minute," Severus replied, almost weak with relief at the diverted disaster.

"Thought so," Harry said with a self-satisfied smile. Harry turned his attention to the pile of parchments beside him and quietly said a moment later, "Besides, if you recall, I'd already agreed to take your noxious potion – in exchange for your help with my seventh years."

Severus had in fact forgotten.

Hermione shot Severus a grin and went back to her own work. After another moment or two, Severus did the same.

The remainder of the evening passed pleasantly enough.

The high point for Severus was when Harry leaned his back against Snape's chair arm for support.

"Am I bothering you?" Harry looked up and asked when Severus made to shift away to give Potter more room.

Bothering him? He could barely think. Harry's left shoulder was a warm weight against his right knee.

Despite his current problem coping, this wasn't an unfamiliar position. Often during the past four months when Severus would be sitting in this chair at night reading, Harry would come and stretch out on the rug in front of his chair like this and end up leaning against him, most times falling asleep with his head nestled between the chair cushion and Severus' nearest knee. But they weren't seven-year-olds anymore. This wasn't appropriate behaviour for Hogwarts teachers in a semi-public venue.

And yet, there was nothing overtly sexual about their positions. Harry was simply leaning against him. It was the suggested intimacy more than anything that was disturbing.

He opened his mouth to ask Harry to give him some room, but the vulnerable expression in those green eyes stilled his words. He seemed to hear Harry telling him in the bedroom that it was the first time he'd felt normal in days. So he closed his mouth on his protest and attempted to make do.

Lying to Potter for the first time in months, Severus shook his head 'no' and forced his gaze back to the second year homework he was purportedly grading.

At first the contact was distracting and incredibly arousing, but after a time, Severus grew accustomed to that fantastically warm body leaning so trustingly against him.

He couldn't help but note Longbottom and Zabini taking in the unique sight of Harry Potter sprawled at his feet as they returned to the couch and their own work. Severus hoped he'd have some time before the inevitable rumours started to spread and Harry's innocence would be spoilt. Severus knew that he should move away, but right now was the first time he'd felt truly at peace since they'd awoken as adults on Saturday morning. So he stayed put and tolerated the staring.

For his part, Harry seemed oblivious to the attention.

Hours later when they called it a night, Severus was nearly disappointed. There was a part of him that didn't want to leave the Weasleys' comfortable quarters. More than anything, he wanted to follow Harry back to the room they'd shared and fall asleep to the familiar rhythm of Potter's breathing after they'd laughed themselves silly over something inconsequential. But he conducted himself with dignity and managed to bid both Hermione and Ron a gracious farewell as he followed the others out the door.

"I'm glad you came tonight, Professor Snape," Zabini said with what appeared a genuine smile as the Weasleys' door closed behind them. "It was good to have another Slytherin around."

"I guess you guys do feel outnumbered," Potter commented as he struggled to hold onto his parchments and the pile of shrunken clothing he'd reclaimed from the Weasleys' guestroom before leaving.

"Hardly," Severus countered.

"How's that? It was four Gryffindors to two Slytherins tonight," Potter pointed out.

Severus exchanged a glance with Zabini and then drolly replied, "Four Gryffindors aren't any competition for any Slytherin worthy of his house, let alone two of us. I assure you, at no time were Professor Zabini and I outnumbered. Rather, it was the Gryffindors who were outclassed."

Neville Longbottom stiffened on Potter's far side, his fair skin turning pink with either embarrassment or anger. Severus waited for Potter to take issue with his statement, but Harry only shook with laughter and said in a playful, dreadful, fake American accent, "Them's fighting words."

"Perhaps you should wait until you are at less of a disadvantage to make such posturing statements," Severus warned.

"Hmmm?" Harry asked, seemingly undisturbed by the slight that still had Longbottom as scarlet as his house colours.

"Your wand is in your pocket and your hands are occupied at the moment. You're not in a position to fight anyone," Severus noted and then asked, "What are you – three years old?" before he removed his own wand from his pocket and flicked it in the direction of Potter's parchments and clothes, which seemed on the verge of tumbling to the flagstones. "/I>Wingardium leviosa."

Potter's burdens leapt almost gratefully from his arms to float in front of them.

"Now why didn't I think of that?" Harry questioned.

"I haven't a clue. Come along. I'll give you that potion we discussed. Goodnight." Severus nodded to the others.

"Goodnight," Zabini's laughing voice responded, echoed by Longbottom's uncertain one. They could hear a still chuckling Zabini say, "Come on, Neville, show me that cutting you were talking about," as they made their way down the hall.

Once he and Potter turned the corridor that took them clear of Gryffindor Tower, the laughter faded.

As they passed the Great Hall on their way to the stairs that would take them down to the Slytherin end of the castle, Harry softly asked, "Did I embarrass you before when I was leaning against your chair? You seemed . . . uneasy."

Uneasy now and unable to explain why, Severus carefully answered, "We aren't seven anymore."

"You keep saying that," Harry complained.

"I keep saying it because it's true," he snapped.

"So what I did was inappropriate because we're not seven?" Harry sounded genuinely confused and more than a little hurt.

Responding to that pain, in spite of himself, Severus replied, "Not inappropriate, as such. But perhaps ill advised."

"How so?" Harry asked.

"Have you never heard of decorum or propriety? We are Hogwarts professors. We must be conscious of our conduct." Severus snapped, despite his best intentions. Harry wasn't a child anymore. He shouldn't have to explain these things to a full-grown man.

"There wasn't anything improper in our behaviour," Harry hotly denied.

"Professors Longbottom and Zabini were both staring at us," Severus said.

"Of course, they were staring at us. They're used to us being at odds as adults. And neither of them have any right to be throwing stones, what with the way Blaise had his feet tucked under Neville's bum to keep them warm while they were staring at us. How is that acceptable and my leaning against your chair unacceptable?"

Severus started. He hadn't realized where Zabini's feet had been during that time. But, it hardly mattered where the other Slytherin's feet had been. All he'd been aware of was Harry's shoulder pressing against his own knee. Rallying, he shot back with. "Blaise Zabini was not a Death Eater."

"Why does it always have to come back to that with you?" Harry asked, seeming more concerned than angry with him at the moment.

"Because Voldemort's mark never leaves a person, not physically or socially. People immediately assume the worst about me because of my past, and my personality doesn't help matters," he honestly added. "The only way I have maintained my position for this long was by remaining free of scandal. I can't jeopardize my place here at Hogwarts, Harry, not for anything." The weight of Harry's stare was unbearable. After a momentary pause, Severus found himself confessing something he wouldn't have told anyone under pain of death six months ago. "It's the only home I've ever known."

But if he were to jeopardize that home, this man would be the temptation that destroyed him, he silently acknowledged.

Harry's hand touched his arm, stopping him at the top of the deserted stairs while Potter's parchments and clothes bobbed patiently at their side.

"I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking," Harry softly apologized. "But . . . you don't really think that either Blaise or Neville would spread false rumours about us, do you?"

"Longbottom has no cause to love me and Zabini is a Slytherin. No Slytherin can resist the temptation to stir the pot, as it were," Severus candidly assessed.

"Blaise Zabini is my friend. My secrets are safe with him. And Neville would die before he would do anything to hurt me."

"Such faith," Severus had meant to sneer the comment, but even he could hear the bewilderment in his voice.

"I know them as well as I know you," Harry said.

"You don't know me at all." This time Severus didn't have to work for the sneer. It surfaced quite naturally after so idiotic a statement.

Harry didn't react as if he were insulted, angry, or even particularly surprised by Snape's response. Catching his gaze and holding it, Harry softly questioned, "Don't I?"

His mouth went dry at the gentle inquiry. That stare was digging through his walls, piercing him to the soul. Very aware of his pounding heart, Severus tried to refute the other man's quiet certainty . . . and couldn't. If anyone knew him in this world, it was Harry Potter.

After the silence stretched out for an uncomfortable eon or two, Harry gave him a mischievous smile and said, "Best friends for life, remember? We're still alive."

Severus finally managed to swallow.

"Speak for yourself," he rasped.

"I will, and for you, too. You're alive. You're just too stubborn to admit it."

Or too scared, Severus wanted to counter, because it didn't feel like either stubbornness or pride right now; it felt like terror. But he knew he couldn't admit any of that, so he forced himself to rise to the occasion. Calling on every bit of acting talent he possessed, Severus forced a sardonic flair into his voice and questioned, "Sure of that, are you?"

"Entirely," Harry answered with totally irresistible cheek and started walking again.

Severus fell into step beside him.

After they'd gone down a couple of staircases, whose drowsing portraits never even stirred at their passage, Harry said, "I'll try not to embarrass you in public again. Though, I can't make any promises if it's just the group we were with tonight. I don't have any secrets from them. You're my friend now, so are they. You're going to have to learn to trust them."

"Am I?" Severus didn't have to feign his sarcasm this time.

"Yes, you are," Harry's voice was pure steel. "You're not going away; neither are they. The novelty will fade in a week or two. There will be no more staring. Until then, we'll manage. And I promise to behave in public."

"I will believe that when I see it," Severus said, for want of anything wittier. Harry's confidence in his friends and in his continued relationship with his former teacher was astonishing. If pressed to give his opinion, Severus didn't think their friendship had a chance of surviving the week.

"Actually, I was hoping you would give me the chance to prove it," Harry said as they left the stairs at the dungeon level and made for Snape's workroom where the sleeping draught was stored.

"Oh?" Severus absently questioned and then muttered the words to allow them entrance through his security wards. A softly uttered "Lumos," lit the torches.

Harry followed him into the empty lab. The sinks, worktables, cauldrons, and other potions apparatus were all fastidiously clean. Nevertheless, the place had a feel of neglect and disuse about it, as though this room where he'd spent so much of the last twenty-five years took Severus' absence these last four months as a personal slight. For his part, Severus couldn't swear the room didn't. Hogwarts seemed to have a rudimentary intelligence worked into its very stones.

"Yes," Harry continued. "First off, promise me that you won't say no right away."

Totally on guard now, Severus asked, "No to what?"

"Do you promise?" Harry cajoled.

Severus snapped, "Of course, I don't promise. What kind of fool do you take me for? Well, get on with it. Don't just stand there giving me that injured look."

Because if Harry continued to look at him out of those huge, pleading eyes, Severus knew he'd give Potter anything he asked for.

To his relief, nervousness turned Harry's gaze away from him. As if steeling up his courage – the thought of anything so serious that it gave this utterly fearless war veteran pause chilled Severus – Harry seemed to force himself to meet his gaze again. Nowhere near as self-assured as normal, Potter said, "Every Friday night, we usually go to The Three Broomsticks."

"We being?" Severus quizzed. He wasn't going to go, of course, but he was morbidly curious as to exactly what Potter did do with his free time since he no longer seemed to be actively dating.

"Tonight's group," Harry said, and, at Severus' pointed stare, amended, "And one or two others whom you know: Fred and George Weasley, and maybe Seamus Finnigan, if he can get away from his wife and kids for the night. The only strangers will be Neville's girlfriend and whomever Blaise is seeing this week."

"Longbottom has a girlfriend?" Severus couldn't help but gape.

"Yes. Her name is Melody. You'll despise her. She's fully as nice as Neville," Harry informed. "So will you come?"

"I don't like strangers, crowds, or pubs, nor am I a social drinker," Severus replied.

"You won't be among strangers; you'll be with us. And it's not just a regular drinking night. On Fridays Rosmerta has live music."

"As opposed to dead music?" Severus challenged. "At any rate, I would not call anything I have heard anyone in this school listen to music."

"It's not like the groups that perform at Hogwarts' end of year dances," Harry quickly promised. "This isn't music for kids. It's actually a Squib band that performs the music the Muggles of the Celtic Isles used to use to work magic. You won't believe the power they raise."

"Squibs can't raise magical power. That's what defines them as squibs," Severus spoke as if to a moron.

"They don't raise the energy. The music does. It's traditional Gaelic music. I know it's going to sound absurd, but you can feel the power vibrating through the room when they begin to play," Harry said.

"You're making this up," Severus said, intrigued.

"I'm not. Why don't you come and see if you like it. If it's not to your tastes, we'll leave," Harry promised.

"We'll leave?" Severus questioned.

"Yes, we'll leave," Harry confirmed. "If we're going to be friends, we have to find some common ground. I think you'll like this. If you don't, we'll tell the others that we only dropped in to say hello and then we can apparate to a Muggle bookstore that I think you'll like. It's open until midnight on weekends and has a café right in the bookstore."

Harry had obviously been giving this some thought. Severus' stomach fluttered like a battalion of Albus' butterflies had gotten loose in it at the idea of Harry racking his brains to think of things they could do together. And Potter hadn't done a bad job of it. The only thing that might interest him more than power enhancement and unusual books was a new potions apothecary.

"Will you think about it?" Harry asked.

Needing a moment to compose himself, Severus turned to his potions' cabinet without answering. Muttering the unlocking spell, he retrieved a large bottle of his sleeping draught.

"Well, will you?" Harry hounded as Severus rejoined him where he was lurking just inside the doorway.

Rallying his guards, Severus answered, "If you give me your word as a Gryffindor martyr that you'll take three tablespoons of this mixture any night you have difficulty sleeping."

"I already told you I would," Harry groused.

"Yes, but I would feel better about it if I had your word as a Gryffindor. As a Slytherin, I know how malleable promises can be."

"All right," Harry conceded with fire in his eyes. "I give you my solemn word –"

"As a Gryffindor martyr," Severus reminded.

"As a Gryffindor," Harry corrected, "that I will take your nasty potion whenever I can't sleep – providing it doesn't make me sluggish the next day."

"Agreed," Severus said.

"And in turn, you will think about Friday night?"

"If I don't see that glamour again between now and Friday, I will accompany you." He, too, could be gracious when it suited him.

"Just like that? No strings attached?" Harry sounded stunned.

"I told you that I would try to be your friend," Severus reminded, and then gave Harry the full truth. "And both of your suggestions sound intriguing."

The delight in Harry's smile was well worth the chance he took in being so forthright.

"Brilliant!" Potter beamed.

"Hardly. You know I don't react favourably to social situations. It could be a complete disaster," Severus warned.

"Or it could be as much fun as tonight was," his eternal optimist countered.

Severus wished he had the wherewithal to curse him, that damned faith irritated him so much.

"And if it isn't?" Severus questioned.

"Then we'll try something else," Potter said. Seeming to read through his shields, Harry quietly assured, "There's no pressure, Severus. We can go to the pub, or the bookstore, or make more mud castles in the quidditch pitch if we can't think of anything else to do."

Appreciating Harry's encouragement more than he could say, Severus dryly commented, "I'm sure Ron would be delighted by two or three more forts on his field."

"That's the spirit." Harry grinned.

"There's definitely some Slytherin in you somewhere. That was not a kind thought," Severus pointed out, feeling the corners of his lips twitching at Harry's expression.

"Who said Gryffindors have to be kind? We just have to save the world. They're not the same thing. Right now I'm working on saving our world," Harry admitted, something serious lurking beneath his joking facade.

"And if you fail?" Severus questioned, wondering how Harry would react when he finally was forced to recognize that he couldn't teach this old dog new tricks, despite all the good intentions in the world.

"I won't," Harry vowed.

"You realize you're insufferable, don't you?" Severus asked, feeling cornered. It was either strike out or crumble, and striking out had always been easier for him.

Harry simply grinned at him. "Then we're well matched, aren't we?"

Severus wished that he wasn't so weak. More than anything, he wanted to be able to turn away from Potter and have the comfort of his old numb life back, but he was fully addicted to the drug that was Harry Potter. Although he knew this man would be his ruination, he couldn't close Harry out.

After an extended pause during which Severus could find no answer, Harry's grin faded and he softly assured, "It will be all right, Severus." Without waiting for his reply, Potter quickly changed the subject. "Now, tell me again how much of this stuff I have to take."

Severus leapt at the reprieve. "I've written the directions on the label. But in case my suspicions prove correct and you really can't read, it says to take three tablespoons twenty minutes before retiring."

"Very funny," Harry said. "Will I be able to take it tonight? I had a couple of glasses of wine."

"Alcohol won't affect it, within reason," Severus answered.

"Thank you," Harry acknowledged.

"You're welcome. Now, it's late and –"

"We both have class tomorrow. I know. Maybe I won't be such a nuisance when I start sleeping regularly," Harry said.

"Chance would be a fine thing," Severus replied, setting Harry to chuckling again.

"Good night, then," Harry said, seeming reluctant to go.

Severus, whose entire body was aching with the desire to ask this man to stay, recognized the danger of such lingering. It was too late. He was far too exhausted to properly shield his true feelings, and Harry was far too perceptive.

"I trust you'll get some rest tonight," Severus said as he escorted the shorter man to the door.

"Thanks, I'll try. You, too. Sleep well. I'll see you tomorrow."

Severus gave a nod and finally shut the door behind his visitor. It was ridiculous, of course, but Harry seemed to have taken all the warmth out of the room with him when he left. With a weary sigh, Severus made his way to his quarters, which could be reached via a secret passage behind the far wall. He couldn't help but wonder what tomorrow would bring.

**********

Tomorrow and the subsequent days proved a blur of activity and trials. Severus found his potions classes surprisingly up to snuff, all seven of them. Even though his fears of having to pound seven months worth of work into the cretins' heads with the three months left in the year were not realized, it was still incredibly taxing to step back into his daily routine. Although his students were proficient in the basics, none of his substitutes had covered exactly what he would have in his classes, and consequently, he kept running into unexpected roadblocks. He'd assume a particular potion or method had been taught, only to find a sea of terrified, bewildered faces staring up at him when he barked out an instruction that should have been perfectly clear at this point in the year, and, conversely, he'd find himself teaching things his substitutes had already covered. It was frustrating, but by the end of the week, he was getting a handle on his professional obligations.

Which was a good thing, because Severus couldn't help but feel that he had lost complete control of his private life.

That was mostly because he had one now. The nights of sitting home with a book or inventing busy-work research projects were apparently long gone. No longer did he have to plan out what he would do every night to keep from going insane from the ennui. Through no effort of his own, he found himself occupied nearly every evening. If Hermione and Ron weren't after Harry and him to visit, then Severus would inevitably find himself tripping over Potter as Harry attempted to assist him in whatever medicinal preparation he had used as an excuse to get some time alone. All those years Potter had spent in detention with him had apparently paid off, for Harry made a decent, if garrulous, lab assistant.

It never seemed that he was permitted the chance to catch his breath. And yet, as he struggled to adapt without losing either his temper or his sanity, Severus found himself thriving. Every day that bleak shroud of hopelessness that had surrounded him since his childhood seemed the tiniest bit lighter. That was almost as much of a miracle as the fact that Hermione, Ron, and Harry were still a part of his life. There were moments when Severus was honestly beginning to feel that he couldn't step into the loo without one of them accompanying him.

The change in his lifestyle was extreme, frustrating, and oft-times incontestably comical. Take his current situation, as a point in fact – a forty-eight year old man in shirt sleeves and trousers, standing utterly lost in front of his wardrobe as he stared in at dozens of seemingly identical black jackets and robes, attempting to decide what to wear on his big night out on the town. If he weren't so infernally nervous, he would have laughed at himself for the sheer idiocy of his dilemma. He wasn't one of his sixth year, female students. No one was going to care which of these completely dignified robes he wore.

"Hello? Are you here?" Harry called from the sitting room.

Severus almost groaned in dismay. Potter was early tonight, of course.

"Ah, there you are," Harry announced, entering the open bedroom door after the slightest pause. He was clothed in Hunter green tonight. The rich colour blended in well with the bedroom's Slytherin decor.

"Don't you ever knock?" Severus snapped, trying to ignore how Harry was staring around his bedroom with open curiosity. Seeing him here was too much like one of his late night fantasies for Severus' peace of mind. To keep the imagery associated with Harry in this place out of his thoughts, Severus focused on his disappointing wardrobe.

"You're Slytherin," Harry replied with a laugh. "I figured if you didn't want me to use your passwords, you would have changed the wards by now. What is it you're doing? You haven't got a boggart in there, have you?"

"Of course, I haven't got a boggart in there. I was . . . ." What was he going to say – that he was angsting over his clothing like a hormonal sixteen year old?

"Trying to decide what to wear?" Harry finished. Remarkably, there was no mockery in his voice.

Severus tensed as Harry came to stand beside him and peer into the open wardrobe.

Staring fixedly at the daunting row of dark garments, Severus softly said, "I was looking for something . . . " seeing no other way, he just said it, ". . . less funereal."

Harry chuckled. "Boy, did you come to the wrong closet! Don't you have anything that isn't black?" Harry reached in to dig through the robes and jackets. "Wait. Here's something. It's still mostly black, but at least it's got a touch of colour."

He watched Harry retrieve a burgundy and black brocade jacket that he hadn't looked at in longer than Harry had been alive.

"I've never seen you in this before. It's really nice," Harry remarked, holding the jacket up to the torches for a better look and running his hand over the expensive material.

"No, you wouldn't have. I only wore it once . . . more than thirty years ago now," Severus said, old memories that were better left dead and buried running through him as he looked at the garment.

"Sounds like there's a story there," Harry commented. Severus could feel him peeking at him with what Potter no doubt thought was surreptitious concern.

"There are many stories. All of them outdated, none of them worth the telling," Severus said, eyeing the jacket, wondering if perhaps enough years had finally passed for him to wear it.

"I'd still like to hear that story, if it wouldn't be too intrusive," Harry said, catching and holding his gaze.

To his utter shock, he found himself seriously considering the request. It was quite frightening, really, the things he would do simply because this man asked it of him, Severus acknowledged.

He'd never spoken of this. In all the long years, there had been no one who had cared enough to even ask. He stared into those waiting eyes, torn. It wasn't his nature to wear his heart on his sleeve, but there was a part of him that needed to be known by Harry.

Everything tightening up inside him, because this particular confidence would broach forbidden territory were he not extremely careful, he feigned indifference as he said, "There's nothing particularly interesting about the tale. The central character, as you no doubt have guessed, was a rather dislikeable outsider with more brains and vitriol than sense. In his seventeenth friendless year on the planet, someone quite charming and charismatic made friendly overtures to this pathetic misfit. In his loneliness and stupidity, our central character mistook teenage hormones for love. He purchased this extravagant jacket to wear on his first date after his intended mentioned that his normal black garb was not attractive. The jacket did the trick. Our misfit found himself carried away in a whirlwind of passion and was introduced to the sweet mysteries of life in a haystack halfway to Hogsmeade. After said tryst, the date became redundant and the pair went back to school."

"And?" Harry gently probed.

"What do you mean 'and'?" Severus asked.

"There's always an 'and' with you," Harry said.

Bowing to the inevitable, Severus braced himself and continued as implacably as possible, "And the next morning the besotted moron rose thinking he'd found true love at last. For perhaps an hour he was happy for the first time in his life. That changed at breakfast when he discovered his intended in hot pursuit of a new conquest."

"That intended guy sounds like a real loser," Harry declared, nonchalantly undoing all of Severus' hard work to protect his partner's gender by the judicious editing of pronouns.

"I didn't say it was a man," Severus snapped, unnerved by Harry's perception.

"You didn't have to." At whatever his expression revealed, Harry gave an exasperated sigh and asked, "You're not really going to expect me to believe that some girl, even a Slytherin girl, would take you for a tumble in a haystack on your first date and then dump you the next morning, are you?"

Put that way, it did seem unlikely.

Despite his irritation, Severus was glad to see that Potter didn't seem put off by the fact that he had been interested in another boy. For all that they knew of each other, they were still dreadfully ignorant of some of the most basic facts of each other's character. For all that he knew of Harry's likes and dislikes, Severus couldn't say with any certainty whether Potter preferred bedding men or women. The fact that Harry wasn't disgusted by this trip down memory lane was reassuring. So many wizards were prejudiced against same sex relationships that it made life most difficult for those so inclined.

"It doesn't . . . ." Severus started to ask and then clamped his mouth shut on the intrusive question.

"What?" Harry asked, seeming worried.

They really were from different worlds. If this were any other subject, Severus would have taken great glee in shocking Potter with his normal, savage bluntness, but his inhibitions wouldn't allow him to indulge in the brutal honesty he preferred. If he were blunt with the wrong person about this particular topic, he could well find himself out of a job, even though every instinct he had insisted that Harry would never betray his trust, even if Potter did disapprove of his choices. So, he searched for a diplomatic response, finally settling on, "The Wizarding World isn't normally very accepting of such deviations from the norm."

Harry met his gaze. "I know – from personal experience."

His blank, "Oh," was replaced by a more forceful, "Oh," as the meaning of Harry's words registered. Why it should surprise him so that Potter was like him, he didn't know, but for some reason, it did.

Severus swallowed hard, abruptly aware of the fact that he was standing alone with Harry in his bedroom, not ten feet from his bed, discussing their sexual preferences. The air in the room suddenly seemed very thin and hard to catch.

"I'm sorry that happened to you," Harry said after a silent moment.

It took Severus nearly a full minute to figure out that Harry was referring to his adolescent reminiscence. Somehow, he'd always imagined that the revelation of his sexual orientation would have more impact on the conversation, but Harry seemed to accept it as a given.

There was a part of Severus that couldn't help but be disappointed that Harry was looking at him exactly the same way he had yesterday. But, as he caught his reflection in the nearby mirror, he knew it wasn't any wonder. He was twenty-two years older than Harry, had been the man's teacher and/or nemesis for nearly twenty years, and, beyond that, there was the attraction factor, or, in his case, the lack thereof. No matter how often he bathed, nothing could remove the sallow cast his potion fumes gave his hands and face, and even though the hair he had tied back in a ponytail had just dried, it was so glossy as to appear greasy. And even if all of that hadn't been true, the fact was that the long-nosed, thin-faced man staring out of that mirror at him was just plain homely. There was no getting around that truth, ever. Clearly, Potter didn't even consider him dating material . . . nor should he.

Severus knew that he should be relieved, but the fact that he was so utterly unattractive to Harry still hurt, hurt so bad that he could barely credit it. But he was used to hiding killing blows. Putting on his best game face, he drawled, "Not as sorry as he was, I assure you."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked, still seeming to be stuck in comfort mode.

"There is nothing so dangerous as an enthusiast of the dark arts scorned," Severus paraphrased one of his favourite Muggle playwrights.

"What did you do to him?"

Severus shrugged. "For a year after that tryst, the feckless Lothario developed agonizing, pustulant boils on his penis every time he attained an erection."

Harry's face twisted in an intriguing mixture of horror and humour. Severus wondered which would win out. It had been a terrible thing to do to anyone, even if he were a Malfoy and fully deserved it.

At last, Harry asked a question Severus hadn't anticipated at all, "Where did you learn the spell you cursed him with? I've never heard of it, thank heavens."

"It's amazing how inventive a wizard's mind can be given sufficient stimulation," Severus replied.

"You created that curse?" Harry gaped at him. "At seventeen?"

"Oh, yes. I felt the occasion deserved something with a personal touch," Severus answered.

"Remind me never to get on your bad side, won't you?"

"Harry, you were born on my bad side," Severus countered, but he said it with a lilt in his voice and was pleased to see Harry smile at his tone. Not everyone would have been inclined to stay after that trip down memory lane.

"Well, obviously, you're not wearing this," Harry said. "I think we should burn it tomorrow. You don't need that kind of memory hanging around."

"Why wait?" Severus said, withdrawing his wand from his pocket and flicking it at the jacket. The expensive garment immediately burst into flames.

Harry released the coat with a startled yelp.

The smell of smoke and burnt silk filled the room before being dispersed by another wave of his wand.

Examining his uninjured palms once the jacket's ashes fell to the ground, Harry said, "You're good at controlled fire. I thought I'd burn to death the other day when you set those ridiculous curls of mine on fire during our duel."

"I did tell you I would," Severus reminded, meeting those dangerous green eyes.

"I thought you were joking."

"I wasn't," Severus said.

"So, I learned. And we still haven’t found you anything to wear yet," Harry announced, breaking their stare.

After another minute or two of hunting through Severus' clothes, Harry emerged with a completely black brocade jacket that could have been the twin of the incinerated burgundy one.

"Does this one fit?" Harry questioned.

"Yes."

"And there isn't any dark history associated with it?" Harry checked.

Touched by how upset Harry seemed by his reminiscence, Severus covered with, "Well, I believe I was wearing it on your first day at Hogwarts, but other than that, there are no unpleasant associations. It is, however, as funereal as the others."

"Just put it on, would you?" Harry urged.

Severus tried to control his shiver as Harry lifted his heavy ponytail and assisted him into the jacket. He froze when he turned to find Potter's wand pointed at him.

"Hold still," Harry short-temperedly cautioned and then flicked his holly wand at him.

Startled that he hadn't thought of it himself, Severus stared down at his jacket, which was no longer quite as funereal as it had been seconds before. Although it was still mostly black, the delicate, web work pattern of the brocade was now a rich intermix of green and silver threads – Slytherin's colours.

"Do you like it?" Harry asked.

"Very much so, yes. Thank you," Severus replied.

Harry turned back to the wardrobe, chose one of Severus' more formal robes, one with some stitching bordering the cuffs, neck, and front fastenings. Another flick of the wand, and the robe had the same green and silver stitchery running through it as the brocade jacket.

"There. I think we're ready now," Harry said.

Severus put on the robe and stepped up to the mirror to survey the effect. The crisp white shirt he wore was still a striking contrast with the mostly black jacket and robe covering it, but the hint of green and silver throughout caught the eye as plain black never could.

This wasn't something he would ever have thought to do on his own, since vanity was not one of his many faults. He rarely paid any attention to his clothing, beyond assuring himself of their cleanliness and state of repair. With a shock, he realized that Harry had effectively dressed him as Potter wished.

Given a free hand, this was what Harry had chosen for him – the style with which Severus was most comfortable. The only alterations were those slight touches of colour. He didn't know anyone else who could have resisted the temptation to totally remake him when presented with the same free reign he'd given Potter a minute ago. Harry could have told him to dispense with the outdated jacket that so few wizards wore these days, but which Severus felt comfortable in, and garbed him in a robe that outrageous lilac colour Severus had chosen when seven. But Harry had barely changed him at all. It was almost as though Harry really did like him the way he was.

Shaken by the thought, Severus concentrated on closing his jacket buttons.

"Are you all right?" his damnably perspicuous companion asked after a moment. "Was that 'story' you told me too painful?"

"Hardly," Severus was able to deny without lying too outrageously. "It's ancient history now. At any rate, I had the last laugh."

A glance at Potter's reflection in the mirror beside his own told him that Harry was unconvinced, but as Harry didn't press the point, Severus let the subject drop.

Finally, the last tiny button on his jacket was done and he was ready to go.

"We usually floo over to the Three Broomsticks," Harry said. "Then, if the weather's not too beastly, we walk back afterwards. Is that all right with you?"

Severus inclined his head in agreement and took a deep breath. He still wasn't sure about this.

"I've got floo powder. We can leave from here, if you want," he offered.

"Sure, let's go. Hermione and Ron should already be there. They always leave early on Friday to save our table. And remember – if you don't like it, we can leave."

He followed Harry over to the hearth on the far side of his bedroom. Severus took down the jar of shimmering floo powder and offered it to Potter.

Harry gave him a grin, took a handful of powder, clearly enunciated, "The Three Broomsticks Pub, Hogsmeade," and stepped into the green flames that leapt forth to transport him.

Taking a deep breath, Severus did the same thing. Flooing was fully as unpleasant an experience as he remembered. His stomach felt wrenched as the flames swirled him past seemingly hundreds of fireplaces down the dark and spiralling tunnel.

After what felt a dizzying eternity, he was spat out of a hearth in a crowded, brightly lit public house. There seemed to be hundreds of people crammed into the small area, Severus noted as he blinked owlishly around at his new surroundings and tried to maintain his feet. There was nothing more humiliating than being coughed out of a fireplace onto one's bum in front of a gaggle of laughing strangers.

Harry was standing to the side of the hearth waiting for him and stepped forward immediately to take his arm to steady him as he stumbled inelegantly from the hearth.

"Harry! Severus! We're over here!" Ron's deep voice called out over the din of the laughing crowd.

Unnerved by the sheer number of people crowding the small pub, Severus gratefully allowed Harry to steer him to a large table near the front of a small performing platform that had been erected in the back of the pub. There were three chairs, and two music stands on the flat stage, with a guitar and violin waiting for their masters to arrive.

Hermione, Ron, Neville Longbottom, Blaise Zabini, a couple of redheads that could only be other Weasleys, and an unfamiliar woman with a round face and honey-blonde curls sat at the large round table to the right of the performance platform.

Harry guided him into the empty seat beside Hermione and took the one beside his as a noisy barrage of hellos greeted them. They were in their usual mealtime seating plan, Severus noted with amusement. Harry and he were ensconced between the Weasleys, with Longbottom on Hermione's other side. The only difference was that the honey-blonde stranger was sitting where Zabini normally sat next to Longbottom and Zabini was one seat over, directly across from Potter. The Weasley twins were on Ron's far side, too close for Severus' peace of mind. There were two empty chairs between Zabini and the infamous two, which only proved his housemate's good sense, Severus thought. He'd have felt better himself if there were a couple of empty chairs or, better still, a continent or two between himself and that pair.

Once they were seated, Ron passed Severus a glass of golden cognac.

"Thought you'd need that about now," Ron winked at him and then poured Harry a mug of foamy dark ale from a pitcher that was sitting on the table with four empty mugs.

Murmuring his thanks, Severus tried to ignore the curious stares of his tablemates.

"Severus," Hermione said, "this is Neville's friend, Melody Jefferson. Melody, Professor Severus Snape."

"Good evening," he nodded to the stranger.

To his surprise, she gave him a wide smile that lit up her round face. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Professor Snape. I've heard so much about you."

He liked the note of curiosity in her voice and that she met his eyes unflinchingly. Glancing at Longbottom, who had turned pink to the ears at her remark, Severus gave a droll, "No doubt."

"To be honest, I was expecting the Grim Reaper," Ms. Jefferson confided, earning chuckles all around.

"I would refrain from making judgments just yet. Looks can be deceiving," Severus remarked, his dark tone sending her into open laughter. Beside her, Longbottom looked as though he expected his former teacher to turn his girlfriend into a frog.

"So, I've been told," she replied and then glanced over at her companion. "Oh, Neville. Really."

It would have been far too easy and too much fun to further embarrass his former student, but Severus had the sudden memory of Neville patiently explaining the properties of a poisonous plant to his seven-year-old self and was struck by a sudden burst of sympathy for him. This woman obviously meant something to Longbottom. It would be cruel to belittle him in front of her.

"I'm afraid Professor Longbottom had a difficult time in my classes. Hogwarts can be very demanding on its most gifted students," Severus said conversationally, the sudden silence at their table announcing how he'd shocked them all. "We have high standards, and only the very best can meet them, let alone excel far enough in their fields to be deemed worthy of teaching at Hogwarts after commencement."

There. He was Slytherin; he could lie with the best of them.

"I told you that you couldn't have been as bad as you let on," Ms. Jefferson said to Longbottom, who was gaping open-mouthed at Severus like a banked trout.

Severus quickly turned his gaze away, lest his laughter ruin all his hard work. Harry's expression didn't help his control any. He'd never seen Potter so completely astonished, not since his name had been announced as the fourth champion in the Triwizards' Tournament.

Behind him, he heard Longbottom stutter, "But I was that hopeless. Truly, I was."

Truer words had never been spoken, Severus thought in disgust. A Slytherin would have known when to keep his mouth shut.

"Why would Professor Snape lie about something like that, dear?" Ms. Jefferson asked in what was no doubt intended as a murmur, but which, perforce of the din raging around them, emerged as more of a stage-whisper.

"Maybe he's planning on killing him," Zabini helpfully added from across the table.

"Is that your plan, Professor?" one of the identical Weasleys asked from Ron's far side.

Snape studied the speaker. Red shaggy hair, brown eyes, curved eyebrows, long nose, sprinkling of freckles: the man in the black robe who'd spoken was the mirror image of the grey robed brother beside him. But time was when Severus had been able to tell the infamous duo apart. He racked his memory as to how he'd done it, finally remembering that George was the one who had a small group of freckles under his left eye that formed a tiny line. This twin had no line; hence it was Fred speaking.

"No, Mr. Weasley. Fred, isn't it?" At the other man's shocked nod, he continued completely deadpan, "I thought I would lull Professor Longbottom into a false sense of security and then allow Professor Hagrid's latest pet to do the job for me."

To his immense relief, the table exploded with laughter, even Longbottom joined in.

Once the group quieted, the other twin, presumably George, asked, "What is Hagrid raising now?"

Hermione sighed beside Severus and answered, "He calls them Bloodsquirting Mudgots."

"Do we want to know what they are?" Fred asked.

Ron said from his seat between Fred and Harry, "They look like mud-coloured maggots, and they squirt something that looks like blood, but smells like – "

"Ron, we've just finished dinner!" Hermione reprimanded.

"Well, you get the idea," Ron said, and finished with, "Oh, and they're nearly six feet long."

"Delightful," Fred admired.

"You would think that," Ron chided.

The subject of Hagrid's latest man-eating monster winding to a close, George looked over at Severus and said, "I must say it's surprising to see you here tonight, Professor Snape."

"George," Hermione said in a warning tone, her eyes hard as flint. Severus knew from her attitude that she must have had a talk with the twins about him.

Surprised to find that he was actually enjoying himself, Severus met George Weasley's mischievous brown gaze and calmly replied, "Not nearly as surprising as it is for me, I'm sure. I fully expected the pair of you to be locked up in Azkaban by now."

George's mouth dropped open as though he'd just been coshed with one of Hagrid's Bloodsquirting Mudgots. From the twins' side, Ron howled with laughter. "Score one to the Professor."

"We didn't know you had a sense of humour, sir," Fred said from between his brothers.

Severus turned his dark stare on the other twin, watched Fred shift as nervously in his seat as he would have done in class a dozen years ago, and then softly said, "I don't."

For some reason, that set both Harry and Ron's laughter off again.

Severus sipped his cognac and waited for the next verbal gambit.

But it was the other Slytherin who drew the Gryffindors' attention next.

With what seemed genuine curiosity, Harry asked Zabini, "Are you by yourself tonight, Blaise?"

"Yes, I thought it would be fun to go solo for a change," Zabini replied with such unflustered composure that Severus instantly knew that his housemate was lying.

"Yeah, right," Ron said, both he and Longbottom breaking into boyish giggles.

"Obviously, I missed something," Harry said.

"No, it was Blaise that missed something," Ron replied.

"Not something – someone," Longbottom corrected.

All eyes on him, the handsome Zabini sighed and explained, "I didn't notice Justin in the Seven Gables Restaurant."

"When he walked in with Claire," Longbottom added.

"Poor Justin," Harry said, although he didn't seem very disturbed.

"It was poor Blaise when all the shouting stopped," Zabini said. "I don't think I'll be able to set foot back in that restaurant for at least two months."

Hermione, sounding very much the teacher, said, "You got off easy. Be grateful you're still breathing. You wouldn't have been if it were me."

"Ah, but if it were you, fair lady, there would have been no need for anyone else," Zabini quickly replied with his most ingratiating charm.

"Sweet talk will get you nothing," Hermione giggled as she turned pink, all harshness leaving her attitude.

"Except a punch in the mouth," Ron growled from her other side.

"See, I'm cursed," Zabini lamented to Harry.

"You're not cursed. You're careless," Harry said. "Come on, have another drink. It can't be as bad as it sounds."

Potter poured Zabini another mug and passed it across the table to him.

Severus sat back in his seat and watched Harry converse with Zabini across the table as several discussions simultaneously started up. Despite Potter's initial judgmental words to Zabini, his attitude did appear to be quietly supportive as he worked to cheer Blaise up. Until that moment, Severus had never really believed that Harry should trust his housemate to the degree Potter did. He'd defend Slytherin House to his death, but he more than anyone knew how . . . dangerous his kind could be. Yet, watching the expression in Zabini's brown eyes as he spoke to Harry, Severus realized that Harry was very important to Zabini. He self-consciously recognized that he was just as guilty of prejudice against his own house as the Gryffindors were.

Hermione's hand touched his sleeve, drawing his gaze from Harry's animated face.

"I'm glad you came tonight, Severus," she whispered as he leaned in close to hear her.

Ron and Neville appeared to have been caught up in yet another noisy quidditch discussion, which they were having across Harry, Severus, and Hermione, while Ms. Jefferson was laughing at the Weasley twins' antics.

"Yes, well, Harry did take his sleeping draught as agreed," Severus said, for want of anything better.

"He hasn't worn that glamour in three days now," she said, visibly pleased. "Thank you. And thank you for coming tonight. It feels right having you here with us. I hope it hasn't been too much for you."

Reading her concern, Severus quickly assured, "So far it has been surprisingly tolerable."

She grinned. "In other words, you're enjoying yourself."

Severus gave a slight twist of his lips and nodded.

"I like your jacket and robe," Hermione said, giving him a mischievous look. "They're very dashing."

To his disgust, he felt his cheeks warm as they would have at such a complement when he'd been a seven-year-old in her care.

"Harry did it," he said nonchalantly.

"Ah," she nodded. She glanced over to where Harry and Blaise were hunched over the table talking.

He could see a thousand questions swirling in her eyes and braced himself for an inquisition. She and Ron knew his secret. Severus was fairly certain that Ron would be more than happy to forget that particular conversation ever happened, but Hermione had never been the type to hide her head in the sand. She surprised him, though. All she did was smile and say, "I'm glad to see things are working out so well for you both." At his sharp, enquiring glance, she leaned in and whispered in his ear. "I can't remember the last time I saw Harry as happy as he's been these last few days. He's even sleeping at night."

"It's the potion," Severus reminded.

"You keep telling yourself that," Hermione said with a totally infuriating, knowing smile.

Severus opened his mouth to respond, when a high-pitched, feminine, French accented squeal of "Harry, darling!" almost propelled him out of his seat.

He turned to look at the speaker and came face to face, as it were, with a pair of pink nipples peeking up out of a frighteningly stretched white lace bodice. Severus did his best to raise his eyes to the unknown woman's face, but her bosom was so large as to make that nearly impossible. He could feel Harry shrink back into his seat beside him.

"Hello, Adriana," Potter said softly.

"Where have you been? I haven't seen you in forever," the stranger complained in an irritating whine.

Severus finally managed to rip his eyes from her bosom and find her face. His heart sank when he took in her striking feminine beauty. Although her hair was as black as his own, her eyes were a deep, sapphire blue. Her skin was flawless, her looks so perfect that she didn't need the expertly applied make up that she was wearing. And her figure . . . even a man with such profound homosexual leanings as himself could admire her utter perfection. She looked like one of the female characters in those colourful Muggle magazines that the younger mixed blood students favoured. There was definitely some Veela in her. The gaze of every man at the table was riveted on her. And she was eyeing Harry Potter the way a starving wolf would raw meat.

"I've been pretty busy, Adriana," Harry said without a smile.

"Ah, but now you are not, ey?" her smile revealed two rows of pearly white teeth.

Severus couldn't help but make a mental comparison to his own yellowed teeth. This, then, was the competition, if he were to allow himself to actively pursue his interest in Harry, which he was not . . . as though he could compete with something like this, even if he'd wanted to.

"Is this seat taken?" Adriana asked, her delicate white hand stroking the top of the chair next to Zabini, who was staring straight at her bosom and making no attempt to divert his gaze anywhere else.

"Yes, it's taken," Hermione's sharp voice entered the conversation. "We're waiting for two more friends to arrive, so there isn't any room at our table." After a long pause, she added a totally artificial, "Sorry."

"Ah, too bad. If you'd like to join us, Harry, there is an empty chair at my sisters' table," her chin gestured to the right of the stage, where two blond vamps, a red head, and two more dark haired sirens all sat with adoring male companions, all of whom appeared completely enslaved by the women's beauty.

"Harry's not alone," Hermione answered, no longer even pretending to be civil. "I think you'd better go back to your table, Adriana. The music's about to start."

"Harry can speak for himself, no?" Adriana replied, her dulcet tones revealing none of the irritation she must have felt.

"I'm sorry, Adriana. Hermione's right. I've got a guest tonight," Harry said with what Severus recognized as his public smile pasted on his face. It was the insincere one Potter traditionally wore whenever he had to speak to reporters, fans, or agents from the Ministry.

The dark beauty's gaze moved Severus' way. She looked him up and down. He could see the second she dismissed him as irrelevant from the way the puzzlement smoothed from her brow.

"Some other time, then," Adriana gave Harry a blinding smile and all but floated away from their table.

"I swear, when is that woman ever going to get the message!" Hermione quietly fumed once the Veela woman had left. "And, Blaise, would you please return your eyes to their sockets before someone trips over them! You, too, Ron!"

"Sorry," Ron started, looking dazed.

"You don't understand, Hermione," Zabini said, finally looking back at their table as the temptress took her seat on the other side of the pub.

"You're right. I don't understand. The lot of you act as though you've never seen a woman in your lives," Hermione complained.

"We haven't," George Weasley said, followed close by Fred's admiring, "Not like that one. Harry, there is definitely something wrong with you, my friend!"

"There's nothing wrong with Harry, Fred," Hermione quickly shot back, her cheeks flushed with anger. "Just because he's not making a fool of himself over that tart like the rest of you is no reason to disparage him. Not every man is a slave to his . . ." she stopped short and added, ". . . hormones," which was obviously not the word she'd originally intended.

"Hermione, a man would have to be dead from the neck down not to be affected by that," Fred quickly countered.

"That's me," Harry said in a strained tone that was attempting to be funny, "dead from the neck down."

"Harry, mate, sorry, I didn't mean . . . ." Fred quickly apologized.

"Forget it," Harry said, his cheeks red with embarrassment. "Excuse me a minute."

There was complete silence at the table while Harry sprang to his feet and moved as hurriedly as the crowd would allow to the men's room at the far end of the pub.

"Well done, Fred," Hermione's voice dripped sarcasm, "You are absolutely impossible."

"I'm sorry, Hermione. I wasn't thinking. I didn't mean anything by it. You know I'd cut off my arm before I'd hurt Harry." Severus had never seen either of the Weasley twins look as guilt-stricken as Fred did at the moment. Actually, he'd never seen either of them look guilt-stricken at all, even after poisoning a score of first years while testing out their dubious inventions.

"You should try cutting off your tongue instead," she replied, completely unmollified.

An awkward silence fell over the table, during which everyone sipped their drinks and tried very hard not to stare at either Hermione or her brother-in-law.

Once Neville and Ms. Jefferson began to converse in undertones, Severus leaned across Harry's empty chair and softly asked of Ron, "What just happened here?"

Ron looked at him as if he'd just grown a third eye for a minute, and then he seemed to realize who was asking the question. His face softening, Ron bent close to him and whispered, "Adriana and her sisters were groupies of Harry's when he was with the Cannons. They never missed a game, or an opportunity to approach him. They still show up every now and then when he goes out for a night. They're harmless, but incorrigible."

"Groupies?" Severus questioned.

"Fans with an attitude," Ron translated. "Think Colin Creevey."

"Oh," Severus said and leaned back, still not understanding.

He was somewhat startled by Fred's words. Although none of the Weasleys had ever been known for their tact, they had been loyal to Potter to the death from nearly the instant the Boy Who Lived had set foot in Hogwarts.

He supposed that it were possible that Fred and George didn't know of Potter's sexual leanings to have committed such a faux pas. Stars knew, Severus would never trust the pair with such a sensitive issue, but he didn't think that Harry could keep that large a secret from close friends. Surely, if Zabini, Longbottom, and Ron knew of Harry's sexual orientation, one of them would have disclosed it to the Weasley twins, who had always been in the thick of the Gryffindor pack.

While he puzzled over the meaning of Harry's exchange with Fred Weasley and Hermione's reaction, a hush fell over the noisy pub as three people stepped up onto the platform. A sandy blond man with a long face and curls like a dandelion picked up the guitar from its stand. A short brunet with a dark beard claimed the fiddle. The third chair was taken by a diminutive blonde woman with a flute and several pennywhistles in her hand. Her long golden curls fell halfway down her back, Severus noted. All three performers were dressed in black robes and seemed as comfortable as three squibs could be while under the observation of a roomful of wizards.

Bubbling with good humour, no doubt due to her pub's packed-to-capacity crowd and the sickles she was raking in, Rosmerta stepped up onto the stage. The full-bodied barkeep was quite fetching in her deep red, form-hugging robes as she introduced her entertainers. Apparently, she'd performed the Sonorus spell before taking the stage, for her voice boomed out across the pub. "Welcome, everyone. Our entertainers tonight need no introduction, but I'll give them one anyway. The Three Broomsticks is proud to present Magic's Memory tonight. Please welcome Lynn Casey on flute, pennywhistles, and vocals, Jamie Dorens on guitar, and Ally Duvaney on fiddle."

Loud applause filled the pub. Obviously, the Hogwarts' crowd weren't the only repeat attendees.

When the clapping died down, Rosemerta shouted, "Sonorus musicas. Lumos musicos," and left the stage as the fiddle squealed to life and a magical spotlight lit the group.

At first, Severus was afraid that he was going to be subjected to yet another torture by music session, but after the initial grating note that seemed designed to catch the audience's attention, the violinist played a slow, dreamy air that seemed to tone down the nervous energy of the entire place and forced him to acknowledge that Harry was right. This music had nothing in common with anything Severus had heard before.

He couldn't take his eyes off the musicians as they played. The guitar was carrying the background chords, while the violin and flute made love to each other in minor keys in a truly haunting melody. There was an almost mesmerizing potency to the simple, but compelling music.

It was only as the song finished that he was able to look up from the stage. Harry still hadn't returned from the men's room.

"Oh, great," Ron muttered from his far side.

"Hmm?" Hermione asked, seeming to rouse herself from whatever spell the music had cast upon her.

"Harry's having some luck tonight. First that man-eater, and now Kendil," Ron said, gesturing with his chin to the back of the room.

"Eric's not bad," Hermione said, turning in the direction Ron had indicated.

Severus followed her gaze. Harry had apparently been stopped amidst the overflowing tables by a tall, muscular wizard with hair so blond he could have passed for a Malfoy. But his wide, handsome features were too Nordic to be part of that ancient clan. Severus had never seen the man before; and with that height, he would have been hard to miss. The blue robed stranger seemed to dwarf Harry as the two conversed. But, then, so did Ron and he.

He'd known Harry Potter for nearly sixteen years now. During that time, Severus had become very familiar with Potter's body language. Even before they'd become such fast friends over the last few months, Severus had been able to read tomes in the way Harry carried himself. For the first time in years, he was confused by the signals Potter's body was unconsciously broadcasting. Harry was standing close enough to this Kendil to indicate that he liked the man, but there was a guarded quality to his stance and features that Severus had never seen before. As he watched, Harry laughed at something the taller man said, but even that was off key, like he were holding something back.

Sounding uncertain, Ron said, "Maybe I should go over and – "

"Maybe you should sit right where you are," Hermione quickly countered. "Harry's a big boy. He can take care of himself."

"Yeah, but – "

"Ron, let him be," Hermione insisted.

After taking a quick glance around the table to assure himself that the Weasley twins were still absorbed with regaling Longbotom's lady friend with their school day antics, Severus quietly questioned, "May I ask . . . ?"

"Kendil likes Harry," Ron whispered over to him, looking very much like a worried father at the moment.

"And I take it that Harry doesn't care for Mr. Kendil?" Severus asked.

He watched Ron turn bright red. A light touch to his sleeve brought Severus' gaze to Hermione on his other side. In a soft undertone, she quietly explained, "Harry likes Eric fine. He just won't do anything about it."

"I don't understand," Severus softly admitted.

Hermione and Ron exchanged a meaningful glance around him that left him very irritated. After Ron gave what seemed a consenting nod, Hermione leaned in so close to him that her bushy, soft brown hair tickled Severus' cheek as she whispered into his ear, "Harry had a very bad experience a while ago. He . . . refuses to date anymore. Eric Kendil really likes him and keeps trying, even though Harry turns him down at least once a week."

Severus' mind had frozen at the 'bad experience' part. His blood seeming to run cold in his veins, he pressed his mouth close to Hermione's hair-draped ear and hissed, "Was he assaulted?"

He tried to tell himself that it wasn't any of his business, but there was a part of him that wanted to make it so. He was Slytherin enough to want revenge for wrongs done to his own, and, whether he liked to admit it or not, Harry Potter was now one of his own, if only by dint of the temporary familial relationship the Weasleys had given them when they'd fostered them both. If some stranger had used magic or force to take Harry against his will, Severus was determined to make the culprit pay for the deed. Although, considering Ron Weasley's protective streak, Severus didn't really believe that there was much chance of Harry's attacker still being alive if they were discussing rape or coercion here.

"No, nothing like that, thank heavens," Hermione quickly replied. She, too, glanced around as if to assure herself that they were not being observed before continuing, "Harry fell hard for someone who was more interested in his fame and fortune than him. He hasn't been the same since."

Not knowing what to say to that, Severus nodded. He waited for his anger to recede, but it didn't, and that was disturbing. It didn't make any sense that he would still be upset. His melodramatic fears had been laid to rest. Harry hadn't been physically harmed. So why did he still want to murder someone on Harry's behalf?

They were interrupted before Hermione could say anything further by the sound of the violin starting up another song on the stage. A second later, Harry slid into the seat beside him.

"Are you all right?" Severus leaned over to question as a jaunty reel spilled forth from the stage. Harry appeared tense, but otherwise himself.

"I'm fine," Harry whispered back. "I thought you'd be ready for another one of these by now."

Startled, Severus stared down at the glass Harry slid in front of him. Its rich bouquet and amber colour told him it was cognac.

"Thank you," Severus acknowledged, eyeing the man at his side.

Harry almost seemed braced for battle. As the seconds stretched into minutes, and Severus refrained from further questions, Harry slowly untensed beside him, relaxing in his chair until he was leaning ever so slightly against Severus as he sipped his ale and listened to the music.

When the reel had wound to a close, Harry asked, "Do you like the music?"

"I've never heard anything like it," Severus admitted. "Although, I still haven't heard anything to indicate that any magical power was being raised."

"Just wait," Harry said with a grin, seemingly himself again.

Sure enough, about a half hour later, Severus came to understand what Harry meant. When the guitar and pennywhistle began to perform a duet of an ancient tune written by some long dead Muggle harpist, all noise died in the overcrowded pub. Every witch and wizard's attention was focused fully on the stage as the air vibrated with raw magical power.

Severus hissed in a breath as the waves of energy first hit him. He felt Harry sit up straighter beside him as every wizard present basked in the treat. Each subsequent song seemed to add to the energy level, building a shimmering matrix of power, the likes of which Severus had rarely encountered. Once or twice, he'd felt something like it when Voldemort and his followers had performed some particularly gruesome, dark, and forbidden spell, but the idea that squibs could raise this type of power using Muggle music was incomprehensible.

The only logical explanation was, of course, that it wasn't Muggle music they were hearing. They hadn't taught this form of magic in Wizarding schools for the last three hundred years. He only knew of it himself because his grandfather had been such an ardent Dark Arts practitioner. Severus knew that he was quite possibly the only wizard alive these days that might recognize the magic they'd just been exposed to for what it truly was.

When the note of the last lament finally faded into the Three Broomstick's smoky air and the power dispersed, Severus sagged, as though released from an enchantment, which made perfect sense, since that was what had happened. He heard Hermione give a deep sigh beside him as she sat up in her chair. One by one, the other wizards at the table returned their focus to the present.

The Weasley twins, Longbottom, and his girlfriend all began to excitedly discuss the music at the far end of the table.

It took Severus a few moments to get his thoughts straight. This type of forbidden magic always had a stupefying affect upon its audience.

"They're amazing, aren't they?" Hermione asked in a sleepy tone. "Have you ever felt such power?"

"Voldemort didn't raise that much power when he sacrificed a human life to aid his spells," Severus said, and then asked the question that no dark arts enthusiast could ever refrain from voicing in such a situation, "Can it be channelled?"

Harry answered from his other side, "I've tried, but . . . ."

"Yes?" Severus prodded.

"When the music is playing, you can't focus on anything but the sound, even though you can feel all that power vibrating around you. I can't even levitate a salt shaker while they're playing, let alone use that power to enhance my own," Harry explained.

Severus nodded upon hearing his guess confirmed and then turned to the woman at his side, "And you, Hermione?"

"I've never even tried to use the power," Hermione replied. "I just love the music, and the way it makes me feel."

"I've tried to use it," Zabini said from across the table. Of course he would have. No Slytherin in his right mind could ignore that much raw power rippling around him, free for the taking. "It's just like Harry said. I couldn't even use my own power, much less touch the music's."

"So it nullifies a wizard's natural abilities – while doing what, I wonder?" Severus questioned, totally fascinated by the phenomena. "Perhaps it's a defensive measure to protect Muggles from our people."

"I never thought about that," Harry said. "But if Muggles don't have magic, where is that power coming from to start with? How can they nullify our powers when they don't have any of their own?"

"They didn't have any when they started playing, but what about now?" Severus voiced his thought without thinking.

"What?" Ron asked from Harry's far side.

"They're squibs, not Muggles. Squibs don't have enough magical ability to perform most spells, but many have vestigial abilities that can occasionally be enhanced under the proper circumstances," Severus said.

"What kind of circumstances?" Hermione questioned.

"The same that will enhance a wizard's power," Severus replied.

Harry, who'd been exposed to both methods, supplied, "Either by the forceful extraction of power or by voluntary donation."

"But . . . neither of those things are happening here," Hermione said.

"Aren't they?" Severus questioned. "Everyone at this table just reacted as though released from a charm."

"What are you saying?" Harry asked.

Severus speared Harry with his gaze. "You're the DADA teacher. What's the most close-guarded form of sorcery? What books are so dangerous that we won't even put them in the restricted section of the library?"

"Siren spells," Harry and Hermione simultaneously answered.

"Precisely," Severus nodded.

"Why are the Siren spells so dangerous?" Ron questioned.

Severus, Harry, Hermione, and Blaise Zabini all turned to gawk as one at Ron.

"Yes, you're right. Let's just read it as read that I never listened to a word of any lecture or opened a book on my own, all right?" Ron snapped testily. "Just answer the damn question."

A chastened Harry quickly supplied, "Siren spells are dangerous because the magic is worked into the very sounds or notes voiced. The spells don't depend on intent or incantations. The power is locked into a particular series of sounds. When those notes are played or spoken in their correct order, the spell is activated, with or without the user's knowledge."

"But how can that be?" Ron asked.

Hermione answered in an exasperated voice, "It's magic, Ron."

"So, if I just hummed the tune, whatever spell was tied to the music would be activated?" Ron questioned.

"Well, if you hummed every note in perfect tone in perfect key it would," Harry answered with an amused smile.

Severus looked quickly away, lest his own face betray him. Anyone who had ever been at the Weasleys' while he bathed knew that Ron couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.

"But . . . how could squibs get access to that kind of spell, let alone use it?" Harry asked.

"And I've heard these songs before, Severus, when I was growing up as a Muggle," Hermione added. "They've been played by Muggle musicians for hundreds of years. Most of them are so old that nobody knows when or where they were written. How could they be around that long without anyone recognizing what they were?"

"The only time they'd have an effect were when a wizard or squib were playing them," Severus answered.

"But how could Muggles know them at all?" Ron asked.

"In ancient times we lived among the Muggles. We often masked our abilities using their religious beliefs and superstitions. I think your squib friends over there stumbled upon a Siren-adept wizard's power enhancement charm. It's quite probable that the Bards who created these songs were true wizards. They probably used these songs to siphon their audience of their powers without any of them ever being the wiser. It's a very complex charm," Severus couldn't keep the admiration out of his voice.

"How so?" Zabini asked from across the table.

"Well, what we heard were really three Siren charms woven together. First there was a seduction charm to catch the listener's attention. The songs are really quite simple, but the listener becomes completely enthralled by the music and convinced that he has never heard anything so wonderful in his life. He is so overwhelmed by what he is hearing, that he doesn't really question the music's power over him. The second charm was, of course, the power drain. The wizard who created these was a true master. The drain is so subtle that not even wizards trained in the dark arts like Harry and myself were able to recognize its presence while it was in effect," Severus explained.

"And the third?" Hermione asked.

Severus cast a challenging glance Harry's way. His action had the same response it would have last week when they were wrestling with Ron on the sitting room floor.

Harry rose to the occasion and promptly answered, "A feel-good charm, to keep the listener coming back for more."

If there were a hint of a question about Harry's reply, Severus affected not to notice. "Exactly."

"Is it dangerous?" Ron asked, regarding the stage with obvious uneasiness.

Severus exchanged a glance with Harry. By their very nature, Siren charms were highly dangerous, that was why they were never taught in Wizarding School. A slight tilt of Harry's chin tossed the question into Severus' court. He could tell by the light in Harry's eyes that they'd come to the same conclusion; though how he'd substantiate that belief if asked, Severus hadn't a clue.

"Not in this venue, I would think," Severus replied. "The degree of musical ability necessary to perfectly recreate the songs we just heard is rare in wizards these days. I suspect that the musicians themselves are unaware of what they are doing. No doubt, they simply feel uplifted and energetic after a performance."

"Oh," Ron relaxed. "That's a relief. I really wasn't looking forward to telling Rosemerta that she was going to have to cancel her most popular entertainment."

"Knowing what they are sort of takes the fun out of it, though," Zabini remarked.

"Why?" Severus asked, surprised.

His fellow Slytherin shrugged and said, "We all thought the music was wonderful. Knowing we were duped by a spell takes away the mystery."

"The music is still wonderful," Harry argued. "We just know what it is now."

"Yes, but . . . ." Zabini's words trailed off.

"You don't really believe that you'll ever hear music played this well again, do you?" Severus questioned. "While it's true that recognition of what is occurring has removed some of the mystery from the event, it is equally true that no other musician could replicate what was done here. You've heard the dreck that passes for music these days. These musicians are still unique in their talent."

Severus tried to ignore the fact that his comment had all of those involved in the conversation staring at him again with various degrees of shock on their faces.

After an insufferably long moment, Harry smiled a smile at him that all but took his breath away.

"So are you still going to come every Friday night?" he heard Zabini ask.

"Of course we're going to come," Hermione and Ron said in unison, causing more laughter.

Trapped in the snare of Harry's smile and those bottomless pools of green, Severus was barely aware of any of it. Realizing how long he'd been staring, he forced his gaze away.

The music started up again and the conversations per force died down. Little could stand in the face of such powerful spellcraft.

Severus could feel Harry's heat down his entire left side as Potter relaxed into his chair and leaned against him under the music's effect. Besieged by the power vibrating through the room and Harry's enticing warmth, Severus felt himself go painfully erect. It had been so long since he'd had this reaction to another human that he barely knew how to cope. His arousal was the only thing real to him at that moment. He wanted Harry so bad that he could almost taste him.

Recognizing that thoughts like that weren't going to help him, Severus tried to concentrate on the music. It was magic; it should have had a stronger effect on him than this idiotic infatuation he'd developed. But the longing in the eerie air the violin and flute were playing only seemed to accentuate his need. If he didn't do something about this quickly, Harry was sure to notice. For that matter, everyone would notice. In the state he was in at the moment, he could barely breathe.

As the haunting melody wended to an end and the room exploded in loud applause, Severus staggered to his feet before the lights could come up and expose his problem. He'd never been so grateful for his concealing robes in his life.

"Excuse me," he muttered and stumbled through the crowd towards the men's room.

*****************

Jarred by the abrupt removal of his warm support, Harry Potter watched Severus leave the table. Although Severus turned quickly away from him, he didn't move fast enough to conceal his features. Harry knew that few would have seen the pain in Severus' rigidly controlled face, or cared if they had. But Harry saw it and it sliced right through him. No matter how hard he tried, he didn't seem able to relieve his friend's burdens.

He knew Severus was capable of happiness. Those last two or three months together as children, Severus had laughed, joked, and played as much as he had. And, while Snape might be right that they were no longer seven-year-olds, that didn't mean that all the joy had to go out of their lives. That serious, frightfully intelligent boy he'd come to call friend was still buried somewhere inside the sombre potions master. Harry had frequently seen him peek out past Snape's guards during the last week. But every time he felt they were making gains, that black veil of misery would come crashing down over Severus and Harry would find himself dealing with the cantankerous man who'd been his nemesis throughout his school days. It was frustrating and downright maddening, but, mostly, it made him sad, because he missed that mischievous, sarcastic boy so much it hurt.

His gaze trailed the black-robed figure until Snape entered the men's room on the far side of the pub. Still worrying about Severus, he blinked owlishly around as the Three Broomsticks' normal torches came up to light the pub and tried to figure out what had just happened. He'd hoped that Severus would enjoy the evening out when he'd invited him to join them, and, for a while, it seemed he had, but then something had happened right before that last set that had disturbed him. And for the life of him, Harry couldn't figure out what had gone wrong.

"I don't care if they are using forbidden magic, the music is still wonderful," Hermione sighed.

"Yeah," Ron seconded in an equally dreamy tone. After a moment, his old friend asked, "What's up, Harry? You look a little troubled. You're not still worried about the music, are you?"

Harry gave a guilty start and stared at Ron. As with everything else in his life, things had been complicated between them since Harry's restoration to adulthood. Now, when he looked at Ronald Weasley, he didn't see only the friend he'd grown up with, but the man who'd acted as a father to him and guided him through the most confusing months of his life. While that enlightenment wasn't necessarily a bad thing, it did change their relationship in ways Harry couldn't begin to fathom. Before December, he could have just told Ron what was on his mind, that he was worried about Severus, but now . . . if he admitted to his own concerns, Ron's protective nature would surface and ensure that Severus would be assaulted by dozens of questions upon his return from the loo. Harry instinctively knew that that type of attention would only further hurt his reclusive friend. He didn't know what was wrong with Severus, but he knew that a public inquisition into his feelings wouldn't help. Which left him in the uncomfortable position of having to dissemble with Ron.

Jumping at the opening Ron had given him, Harry quickly extemporized, "I'm not worried about the music. I suppose I'm just a tad self-conscious about not recognizing those siren spells for what they were. I am the DADA teacher, after all. I should have known."

He wasn't proud of how easily his explanation was accepted. Ron's freckled face softened with understanding. "Well, it's not like there was any real threat to defend against, Harry. Only someone like Severus would have figured the music was charmed."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry tried to keep the accusation out of his tone. He didn't really believe that Ron would be putting Severus down in conversation after all that had passed between them during the last four months, but he was still oversensitive on Snape's behalf.

"There's nothing Severus distrusts more than his pleasures," Ron said in a soft tone that would travel no further than Harry. Once again, he was face to face with that part of Ron that was still new to him. He wasn't used to thinking of Ron as wise. For so many years, Hermione had been the voice of reason in their group. Ron had always been the rash one, prone to quick anger and grudges. Apparently, his stint as a stand-in dad had done wonders for him in the maturity department. Whatever was in his expression must have telegraphed his surprise, for Ron went on to explain, "You or me, or most people, for that matter, we just take our joy as it comes to us. But Severus . . . even when he was a seven-year-old he couldn't accept anything at face value. He had to poke at it until he was sure it wasn't going to hurt him."

"He had his reasons," Harry said softly. His recollections of his time as a seven-year-old were fuzzy. He'd been too young to fully understand so much of what had gone on, but one of his clearest memories was of that night when Severus had shared his family history with him and told him of the abuse he'd suffered at his grandparents' hands. Now that he knew, the effects of that long-term abuse were so clear. It explained so much of Severus' behaviour that Harry was surprised that he hadn't considered the possibility before, but, then, when had any of them ever thought about Snape as anything but an irritant?

To his surprise, Ron's expression darkened with anger as he gave a subdued, "Yeah."

"You know." It wasn't a question. He could see by the revulsion and fury in Ron's eyes that he knew all about Severus' tragic childhood.

Ron nodded.

"He didn't tell you," Harry said with equal confidence.

"No. I was passing your room on the way back from the loo the night he told you. If the bastards weren't already dead, I'd've buried them."

Harry was in no doubt of that. He knew how personally Ron took injuries to those he loved.

They both started as a burst of loud laughter from Neville and Melody reminded them that they weren't alone. This was definitely not the place for this conversation.

If the thought weren't enough, the sight of the tall, black-garbed potions master making his way back through the crowd cinched it.

"Harry?"

At the sound of his name, he looked behind him. Blaise was there holding a fresh pitcher of ale. The lean Transfiguration teacher looked very attractive in the Slytherin green robes he was wearing. Blaise reached around him to place the pitcher he'd brought from the bar onto the table beside Harry. He then bent down so that their faces were on a level and that they had a modicum of privacy.

"Are you all right?" Harry asked, concerned by the normally unflappable Zabini's troubled gaze.

"Yes, I just . . . damn, this is going to sound horrible," Blaise muttered more to himself than to Harry.

"What?" Harry questioned, genuinely worried now.

"Would it cause any bad feelings between us if I were to ask Eric out?" Blaise said in a rush. "We were talking at the bar and . . . ."

Harry nearly laughed aloud as the relief rushed through him. That was what was worrying Blaise? "Of course, it wouldn't cause any bad feelings, you berk. I stopped pining over you years ago."

To his delight, Zabini's round cheeks turned red. "It wasn't me I thought you'd be upset about. I know you and Eric – "

"Are acquaintances," Harry firmly finished. "I'd be happy if the two of you had some fun together."

"Really?" Blaise asked as if that were the most incomprehensible concept on the planet.

"Really. Now run along and have a good time. Just be sure you keep your calendar straight if he agrees," Harry counselled.

"Thanks, mate. You're the best," Blaise grinned, giving Harry's shoulder a quick squeeze before he hurried off to rejoin Kendil at the bar.

It seemed that no sooner had Blaise's hand left his shoulder than Severus was sliding into his seat beside him. Harry couldn't help but take a deep breath of the scents that Severus carried with him. The smoke from the bar overwhelmed nearly everything, even that sharp, chemical fragrance that came from Snape's frequent contact with the malodorous ingredients in his potions. No matter how much Severus bathed, those chemical smells always lingered on his skin and clothes, but beneath those, Harry could smell something else, something sweet and spicy that the younger Severus hadn't smelled of.

Realizing that it was rather rude and more than a little peculiar to be sitting here sniffing his friend, Harry raised his gaze to Snape's face. Severus was pale and drawn, his dark eyes filled with pain. He looked weary to the bone.

Yet, Severus seemed to rally as their gazes touched. He asked in a droll, quiet tone that was only slightly forced, "Pining over Zabini?"

Harry sighed. Some things never changed. Eavesdropping was still a favoured form of information gathering for Severus. He knew he should be angry, but the sheer gall of the man impressed him as always. Only Severus Snape would openly question him about something that he shouldn't have been privy to in the first place. So he gave a self-conscious grimace and whispered back as matter-of-factly as possible, "Blaise and I had a brief fling in seventh year."

"You were a victim of the infamous Zabini Romantic Roulette?" Severus hissed directly into his ear, sounding angry as a striking rattlesnake.

Harry stared into that familiar face, that was furious on his behalf at the moment. As ever, he was startled by how protective Severus could be. Snape might joke in front of the others about knocking him off and assuming his DADA position, but the instant an outside threat was perceived Severus became as protective as Ron. Even though it was really none of Severus' business, he quickly assured, "No, nothing like that. We were too young and the house pressures were just too much for either of us to handle."

"You're not too young anymore," Severus seemed to force himself to point out.

"Maybe, but . . . ." Harry shrugged, not knowing how to explain. "Muggles talk about something called a window of opportunity. Ours closed years ago."

"Windows can be reopened," Severus pointed out.

"Once it closes, you can't get it back."

"Do you want it back?" Snape asked.

That was another thing he normally admired about the man, how Severus wasn't afraid to ask those hard questions. He gave a slow shake of his head. "No. His friendship's too important to risk these days. I just wish – "

"If you two don't stop whispering like that, people are going to start to talk," Fred Weasley's laughter-filled observation made Harry jump. "Ouch, Ron! What was that in aid of?"

Having nearly forgotten that they weren't alone, Harry looked over to where an angry Ron was glowering at his older brother Fred, who was rubbing at his ribs as though they hurt.

"I told you that you both were to be on your best behaviour tonight or else!" Ron growled.

"Or else what?" Fred challenged with his typical disregard of common sense.

"Or you'd answer to me is what," Ron quickly shot back.

"You and whose army?" Fred laughed at his younger brother, which was always a mistake.

Before things could progress any further, Hermione's sharp voice cracked across the table, "I, for one. That's enough, Fred."

"Bloody hell! Can't a feller have some fun?" Fred complained. "I was just – "

"Running your mouth," George said from his other side. "Let it go, little brother."

"I'm not the little brother!" Fred protested. "You're the one who was born . . . ."

As the long, familiar argument started up between the twins again, everyone else at the table relaxed.

Harry glanced back at Severus, who was white as a ghost beside him.

"What is it?" Harry questioned.

To his surprise, Ron seemed to have a better handle on what was going on with Severus than he did, for Ron counselled from Severus' other side, "Just ignore Fred. He's an idiot." He watched as Ron gave Severus' back a quick pat before continuing with, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm ready for bed."

"Yes, it is getting late," Hermione said from Snape's far side, with a mischievous light in her eyes and the hint of a blush in her cheeks.

"Do you two want to stay?" Ron asked them, as though they were still seven and unable to make it back to Hogwarts on their own.

Before Harry could answer, Severus replied, "I'm ready to leave . . . unless you'd like to remain?"

He wasn't really surprised by Severus' offer to stay with him. He didn't need to be as intelligent as his companion to see that Severus didn't want to linger here once Ron and Hermione's buffering presence was removed, but he was willing to suffer it for his sake. Severus had been loyal like that when they'd been in the Hogsmeade school together, too, Harry remembered, thinking of his protective, dark shadow. Although he'd never initiate the socializing, Severus had always been willing to join him when he interacted with the other children, but as soon as Harry removed himself from the activity, Severus inevitably followed him. But Severus never left him first, no matter how uncomfortable the other boys had made staying.

"Nah, it's late. Let's go. Goodnight, you lot," Harry said to those still at the table. Considering how close Melody and Neville were sitting, Harry didn't think they'd be hanging around much longer.

As they gathered their cloaks under a barrage of goodbyes, Harry heard Fred protesting, "It's no fun since you all went and got yourselves paired off. George and me end up staring at each other with nothing to say all night after you leave."

"So go over and stare at Adriana and her sisters instead," Harry answered.

"Harry!" Hermione protested.

"You think?" Fred cheered up immediately.

"Yeah. Tell her I sent you," Harry said with what he hoped was an innocent smile.

"Ta, mate. Come on, George. Let's go," Fred said.

"You really think we should, Harry?" George questioned.

"Why not? She's tried to join us often enough. Turn about's fair play, right?" Harry answered, securing his cloak.

"Right you are," George said. In a blur of red hair, grey and black motion, and rushed goodbyes, the twins deserted the table.

"That was cruel, Harry," Hermione said once her brothers-in-law had cleared out.

"To whom?" Severus asked in that deep, droll voice that cracked him up every time.

For a moment, Hermione appeared lost for words, but then she smiled, giggled, and said, "Perhaps you're right. She does have it coming. But really, Harry! Both Fred and George at once! Adriana will never forgive you."

"That's what I'm counting on," he laughed and then elbowed Ron in the ribs. "Stop gaping at them and hurry up before she tosses them back our way."

"Er, right," Ron said. "'Night, Neville, Melody."

"Send him back to us in one piece on Monday, Mellie. There isn't anyone who can cover Herbology," Harry said to Neville's blushing companion.

"Harry!" Hermione was reprimanding again.

"Where'd Blaise disappear to?" Ron asked.

"He's over there at the bar with Eric," Harry said, giving a wave to Zabini, who was glancing his way at the moment.

Zabini grinned and waved back.

His old friend looked good next to the tall blond. With any luck, tonight's events might put an end to two awkward situations. Hermione was right in that Adriana would never forgive him for siccing the Weasley twins on her, while it was clear that Blaise and Eric were getting along famously.

With a final flurry of farewells, the four of them left the pub.

The night was cold, but surprisingly clear and dry for April. Harry pulled his cloak closer to him and watched Severus do the same. "Is it too cold for you?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head, his dark eyes slipping past Harry to something off to their right.

Harry followed his gaze to where the Hogsmeade school sat in moonlit silence at the far end of the road. Its deserted playground and quidditch pitch looked terribly lonely. Harry knew that while it had hurt him to leave behind that world they'd inhabited for such a short time, it had damn near killed Severus to lose it.

Not knowing what to say, Harry bit his lower lip and gave his friend's arm a squeeze. Snape's eyes turned to him, his wounded soul visible for a moment before Severus got control over himself. Harry didn't know how the other man lived with the level of pain he stuffed away on a daily basis.

"You two all right?" Ron asked from their other side.

Severus started and jerked almost guiltily away from him. He did that every time someone interrupted them, Harry realized, confused by the knee-jerk reaction.

"Yes," Harry said, forcing his attention to the other Gryffindors.

Hermione had her hood up against the cold and was already nestled under Ron's arm. Harry knew from past experience precisely how long they'd be aware of the outside world. They'd been married for nearly ten years now and still behaved like newlyweds half the time. It made him feel good to know that love was real, and could last; even if it wasn't something he was destined to experience himself.

Ron was still seeing him at the moment and gave both him and Severus a bright grin. "Guess we're off, then."

"Yeah," Harry said and fell into step beside his old friends, with Severus on his left.

When they'd passed most of the closed shops, Harry glanced over at Hermione and softly said, "It feels strange to be walking this road without holding your hand."

Hermione giggled and replied from the haven of Ron's embrace, "I know. It was all I could do to let you two drink tonight. Did you enjoy yourself, Severus?"

"It was . . . enlightening," Severus quietly answered.

"Is that a yes or no?" Ron asked.

"If pressed, I'd say it was bearable," Severus finally allowed.

His two closest male friends were really polar opposites, Harry realized as Ron soldiered on with, "Does that mean you'll come again next week?"

"Perhaps," Severus said.

"It was good having you there," Hermione said.

"Yeah, thanks for coming," Ron added. "I can't remember the last time anyone put the twins in their place."

"Then you're forgetting last Christmas," Hermione quickly reminded.

As the couple fell to good-natured squabbling, Severus and he drifted back a little. It felt very much like their walks over the last few months when Severus and he would either follow or precede Hermione and Ron. Of course, most of those times they were either playing tag or plotting mischief in subdued giggles, so tonight was a little different. But somehow, it still felt the same. Walking here with Severus beside him in the dark as they followed Ron and Hermione home made him feel strangely at peace. That empty ache he'd had inside for so many years that it had become a part of him wasn't there when he was with Severus.

The shops and houses that were crowded together in town slowly gave way to open fields, farmsteads, and the stretches of wild wood that lay between Hogsmeade and Hogwarts.

"Why do you walk back?" Severus said after a while, even his deep voice hushed in the darkness. By the full moon's light, he was all silver and shadow, his eyes black as ink, his skin corpse white.

Harry chuckled and gestured with his chin to where Ron was stealing a quick kiss. "Look ahead of us."

"Ah, I see." A few minutes later, Severus questioned, "May I ask something of a personal nature?"

He'd been expecting this question since Adriana had come to their table tonight. Even so, Harry's stomach clenched up as though a fist were closing around it. But he kept his voice steady as he answered, "Sure."

Severus seemed to be as nervous asking the question as Harry was waiting for it. "I was somewhat . . . perplexed by certain incidents tonight. That business with that Veela woman and Fred Weasley's comment . . . ."

"What did they tell you when you asked about it?" Harry questioned. At Severus' irritated scowl, he continued, "You don't really expect me to believe that you sat there silent after that scene? What did they say?"

"That someone hurt you and you don't date anymore," Severus succinctly answered.

Well, it was true, if not the full story.

"Was that all Hermione said?" Harry probed.

"How did you know it was Hermione who told me?"

"If Ron had told you, you wouldn't have any questions," Harry said. "He doesn't know the meaning of discretion."

A rueful lift of Severus' left eyebrow told him Severus agreed with his assessment far clearer than any words could have.

"It doesn't seem in character for you to give up after a bad experience," Severus ventured at last, still sounding uneasy with his topic.

Harry was surprised by how much emotion he could hear in Severus' carefully modulated voice when he listened for it.

"It wasn't a bad experience," he answered, trying not to sound as petulant as a child. "It was a lifetime worth of them."

"You are only twenty-eight years old," Severus replied in a condescending tone that was guaranteed to get his dander up. "That is hardly a decade of dating experience, let alone a lifetime's worth of it."

"Yeah, well you try being me for a while and see how you feel about it," he shot back, following it up almost immediately with a short, "Sorry."

After a few more steps, Severus quietly asked, "Is it something you could tell me about or is it too private?"

Harry glanced over at his companion. Severus was nothing but a thick shadow beneath the fragrant pine trees through which the road was currently passing. Everything about Snape was so dark – his clothes, his visage, his past . . . even his outlook. For the past week, Harry had been trying to firmly exorcise all thoughts of their prior adversarial relationship from his consciousness and concentrate on forging a friendship with this man, but all the times that Snape had ridiculed and persecuted him in his class were suddenly there between them like a wall of stone as he considered Severus' request.

How could he expose something like this to that ruthless cynicism? Severus' sarcasm had finished better men than he. Yet, how could he refuse? This was the first time Severus had ever asked for his trust on any level. How many times over the last five months had he asked Severus to trust him? Each and every time, Severus had, albeit, grudgingly. There was no way he could refuse in good conscience, not without letting Severus know in the bluntest way possible that he didn't trust him.

Taking a deep breath, Harry decided to risk it. Either Severus was really his friend or he wasn't. This was one way of proving it. "It's private – or as private as anything gets with me – but . . . I'll tell you. Basically, it's a perception problem."

"A perception problem?" Severus echoed.

"Did you ever think what it's like to be the Boy Who Lived – the much lauded hero of the press who was supposed to free the Wizarding World of Voldemort's shadow forever, even though I didn't have a clue as to how I was supposed to go about it?"

Severus gave a tight, "You did it."

And that answer told Harry how far they truly had come. Six months ago, Snape would have been off on a tirade about his incredible egotism.

Taking heart from that small show of faith, Harry firmly corrected, "No, we did it. You, Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall, Lupin, Tonks, the Weasleys, and a lot of others. I couldn't have done anything without you all, but no one ever saw that."

"I don't understand what the one subject has to do with the other," Severus said in a controlled tone. "We were discussing your private life."

"I never had a private life, not from the moment my name was drawn in that damn Triwizards' Tournament. Every detail about the Boy Who Lived was plastered over every damn newspaper and periodical in the Wizarding World. And when they couldn't get any true details, they'd make them up."

"I can see where that would be irritating, but – "

"Everybody thought they knew me, but it wasn't the real me. It was some media creation that people like Rita Skeeter cooked up to sell newspapers. People either liked or hated me on sight, but it was never for anything the real me had done; it was for whatever line the media was taking that week. It's like . . . everybody wants a piece of me. When I walk into a pub, every eligible witch in the place usually wants to marry me and every man with those types of leanings wants to bugger me, but it's not me that they really want, it's some superhero the papers have made up, someone who doesn't exist. And when I fall short of that fantasy image they've got . . . it's like I've betrayed them on a personal level."

"I can see where that might be true for many, but not everyone can be blinded by the media," Severus softly said.

"Can't they?" Harry challenged.

"There is an entire world out there that doesn't know of your existence, Harry. A world with which you are very familiar."

"That's true. I could find a Muggle lover, and spend the rest of my life keeping secrets or drag him into the freak show that's my life," he said.

"Do you really see your life that way?" Severus sounded startled, which was funny, really, when coming from a man who viewed his own life as an endurance test.

Harry shrugged. "Not when I'm here at Hogwarts or with my friends, but anytime I'm dealing with strangers or possible lovers, then, yes, it does feel that way. I mean, think about it. I don't know anything about whomever I meet, but they automatically know my entire history the second they see my scar. Then I'm not just a bloke they've met in the pub, I become this fantasy person who can never live up to their expectations. It's like being an actor in a play without ever really knowing what role you're playing."

"It sounds rather like people's response to my Dark Mark," Severus said at last in a pensive tone. "They don't know a single fact about me, but they judge me by what they think they know."

Shocked, Harry realized that Severus was right. "See, I told you we had a lot in common."

The lightness he'd forced into his tone went straight over Severus' head. When his friend replied, it was in that same troubled voice. "Has there never been anyone who didn't . . . cast you into roles?"

"I thought there was, once. The last time I really tried to make something work. I thought I'd found someone who could see past all that media hullabaloo."

"And he couldn't?"

Harry tried to figure out a way of telling this without sounding the idiot he'd been. In the end, he had nothing but the truth. So, he took a deep breath and said it. "Oh, he could see past the media hype all right. He just couldn't see past my Gringotts' account. It took me nearly two years to see that he had more interest in my money than me, and even then . . ." He closed his eyes, remembering that horrible night. Finally, he reopened them and stared firmly down at the road beneath his boots as he finished, "Well, it wasn't until I caught him bragging to his latest paramour about what a fool I was when I apparated home early from a cancelled foreign quidditch match that I finally bought a clue."

"Ah," Severus said and asked in his normal sarcastic tone, "And who was this bastion of virtue?"

Hearing the barely concealed anger in the question, Harry debated saying anything else. It had taken all he and Hermione could do to keep Ron from cursing the bastard. He knew Severus never thought straight when his anger came into play. It was actually the only time this highly intellectual man allowed his emotions to rule, usually to Severus' own detriment.

"It's all ancient history now," Harry said, trying to underplay it.

"Which is why you don't date – because it's such ancient history."

"Sarcasm, thy name is Snape," Harry tried to joke.

"Be that as it may, this wound clearly isn't history – ancient or otherwise."

In his own mixed up way, Severus really was attempting to be helpful, Harry realized, but this pain was still too raw for him to have any perspective on it. "What difference does it make? It's done and over now."

"It is neither done nor over if the event hurt you so badly that you can't even date years after the fact," Severus pointed out with a surprising show of calm.

It was he himself who was lacking that attribute as he shot back, "What does it matter if I date? Why is this such a big deal to everyone? Why should you even care?"

Harry nearly groaned as he realized how loudly he'd spoken. Ron and Hermione hadn't slowed down in front of them, but their heads were no longer pressed intimately together. He knew they were listening.

There was a long silence and then Severus said, "Your friends would like to see you happy, and beyond that . . . there is a certain injustice to this that rankles."

"Injustice? What do you mean?" Harry asked in a far calmer voice.

"From the time you first came to Hogwarts, Albus made allowances for you that were not in your best interests, against my loud protests, I might add."

Harry bit his tongue to keep in check the bitterness the memories of their school day encounters always raised, settling on a tight, "Yeah, I remember how concerned you were about those allowances."

"Contrary to what you might think or may have believed at the time, it wasn't merely mean-spiritedness on my part; although I will admit I took a great deal of glee in catching you at the time."

"Then what was it about? I know you hated me because I looked like my dad – "

"It wasn't about your father," Severus quickly said. "It was about an eleven year old child who was expected to somehow save us all from the most malevolent dark wizard to have risen in a thousand years. That was a terrible burden to place upon so thin a pair of shoulders."

Thinking that he heard truth in those words, Harry softly asked, "So you're saying you were mean to me for my own good?"

Severus actually gave a sharp, mirthless bark of laughter. "I was mean to you because I am mean. Period. But the injustice of what they were doing to you rankled terribly, and you were such a hopeless, Gryffindor martyr that you always played right into their hands. It drove me nearly insane at times."

Harry refrained from agreeing with the 'insane' remark. He remained silent as Severus continued with, "There I'd be, doing back flips to keep you alive long enough to grow into your power, and you'd be sneaking out the door with your little invisibility cloak and map to risk life and limb at every turn."

"I only did what I had to do," he protested.

"You shouldn't have had to do any of it!" Severus hissed. "We were the adults. You were only a child. This was our battle, not yours."

"Voldemort killed my parents. That made it my fight," Harry firmly reminded.

"Maybe it would have been your fight when you'd grown into manhood. But when this burden was laid on your shoulders, you were not even in puberty. From the moment you stepped into Hogwarts, they all looked to you as their saviour, and you were just a child, no different than the other boys your age. I tried to make them understand that you weren't some superhero, that you were only a child, just as innocent, naughty, and fallible as your peers, but they'd have none of it. You were the Boy Who Lived and you could do no wrong." Severus' anger with that philosophy rang clear in his voice. "What Albus refused to see, and what I couldn't get through your thick head at the time, was that all actions have consequences. Absolving you of those consequences wasn't teaching you anything."

"I don't understand what any of this has to do with my not dating," Harry said, trying to make sense of this Gordian knot Severus had made of what should have been a simple conversation. But things were always like that with Severus. They rarely stayed on one level.

"They have used you from the time you were a boy, and given precious little thought to the long term effects on you. From the time you stepped off that boat as a first year, the Headmaster treated you differently than the other students. The others all followed his example. You have never had the opportunity to live a normal life."

"It's not Professor Dumbledore's fault I never had a normal life, and no one used me!" Harry hotly denied. "Voldemort made this my fight when he killed my mum and dad. And none of this explains what it has to do with our former topic."

"Harry, you've spent the last ten minutes explaining to me how your reputation has destroyed your chances for a normal romantic life. It has everything to do with our former topic."

Harry tried to rally an argument to that, but debating logic with Severus was akin to arguing over potions ingredients. There was just no winning that type of debate with this ruthless intellect. Instead, he attempted to focus on something he could dispute. "So what is your point, then, if you're agreeing with me that I'm a screwed up wreck?"

"Don't let them win. You are more than simply the Boy Who Lived. Show them that," Severus all but pleaded.

The words cut him like a knife to the heart. He'd never spoken of this, not even to Ron and Hermione. How could Severus possibly know? How could Severus understand what it was like when the war was won and there was nothing left but his hollow reputation to trade on for the rest of his life, when all the challenges were gone, and he was suddenly just the Boy Who Lived to everyone he met?

Keeping his panic firmly in check, Harry voiced a tight, "How?"

"By allowing yourself some happiness. If anyone deserves it in this world, it is you. Don't let a few bad experiences sideline you. You have more courage than any ten wizards. Your entire life is ahead of you. Don't let it pass you by. Don't end up like me."

"Like you?" he managed to choke out. He touched the soft cashmere of the winter robe that covered Severus' elbow.

"Alone and used up," Severus answered in a weary tone.

Before he could respond, the thing he'd feared for the last six days happened. With a sudden pop of sound, Severus apparated from his side.

"What happened, Harry?" Hermione hurried back to him on the dark road. Ron was standing there up ahead, gazing over to the distant castle with a thoughtful expression on his face.

Harry met her gaze. "Sound travels out here, Hermione."

She had the grace to look self-conscious for a moment before she gave his arm a silent squeeze.

"He's in so much pain. All the time," Harry said.

"I know," she whispered back, adding, "But I think we make a difference, especially you. Should you go after him?"

Harry was wondering the same thing himself, when Ron gave a soft, "No, at least not right away. Give him some time."

It was strange, really, but in the last month or so before Severus and he had been restored to adulthood, ever since Ron had told Severus that he and Hermione had adopted both of them, Ron had developed an uncanny understanding of Severus' moods.

"Maybe you're right," Harry agreed.

"Yes, by the time we've walked back, I'm sure it will have all blown over. Come on, Harry." Hermione hooked her arm through his. Ron fell into step at his other side. After a minute or two, Ron's long arm settled across both his and Hermione's shoulders. It felt good to be nestled there between them like he'd been a week or so ago, but for all its pleasantness, it wasn't nearly as comforting as having Severus there in the dark beside him. As they walked silently back to the school through the lonely forest road, Harry couldn't help but feel that a piece of himself was missing.

They were entering Hogwarts gates when Ron remarked, "He was right, you know. About everything."

"Except that 'used up' bit," Hermione added.

"It's time you came out of your shell a bit, Harry. Julius wasn't worth this," Ron said.

It was almost funny that a simple name should have such power to wound, even after five years.

"I thought you were the one who told me to take it slow and give it time," Harry irritably reminded. But he didn't slip free of Ron's embrace.

"I said give it time, not cut it off," Ron returned, followed quickly by Hermione's sharp, reproving, "Ron!"

The main door opened as they approached it. Harry allowed himself to be guided to the foot of the stairs that led up to Gryffindor Tower before he stopped. "This is as far as I go with you. Have a good night."

"Harry?" Hermione looked and sounded very much the worried mother at the moment.

Loving her very much as he remembered all those months she'd cared for them, he quickly assured, "I'll tread carefully. I won't undo all the gains we've made this week, but . . . I can't leave him alone after a line like that, even if he'd rather lick his wounds in solitude."

He'd been braced for an argument, so her bright, approving smile threw him totally. "All right then. Have a good night."

"Yeah, mate, sleep well," Ron said and then helpfully offered, "Do you want us to go down with you?"

"No, I think Harry should go alone," Hermione said. "That way Severus won't feel as though he's being ganged up upon."

"Hermy . . . ." Ron looked from his wife to Harry, his gaze unaccountably troubled.

"It will be all right, Ron," Hermione assured. "Won't it, Harry?"

"I hope so," he answered, nowhere near as certain as Hermione. He had no illusions about who would win if it came to an outright battle of wills to get behind Severus' guards.

"And, Harry," Hermione said as he made to turn for the stairwell that led down to the Slytherin dungeons.

"Yes?"

"Severus really isn't used up. I know he's more than twenty years older than us, but that really isn't a lot in the Wizarding World."

"Hermione!" Ron protested, his worried expression way out of proportion to her harmless statement.

Confused by an undercurrent he was obviously missing, Harry nodded and said, "Thanks, Hermione."

He watched them start up the stairs before he turned to beard the lion in its den, or, in this case, the serpent in its nest.

His nerves were a wreck by the time he reached Severus' chambers. He was nearly in as bad a state as when he'd visited here for the first time last Saturday, when he'd come on his fool's mission to convince Severus to give their friendship a chance. But against all odds, that had worked out. And this would, too. It had to.

He half-expected the guarding wards to have been changed, but the same password he'd muttered earlier this evening gave him entrance to Snape's sanctum sanctorum.

It was something of an anticlimax to walk freely into Snape's sitting room – which he found dark and long empty. For all he knew, Severus might not have returned here at all. They'd been adult friends for less than a week. He really had no clue as to where Severus would run when upset, if not here.

He stared around the shadowed chamber. The enchanted wall torches were dimmed, the fire in the hearth nothing but glowing orange and gold embers.

Harry was about to stick his head into the open bedroom door, which was equally shadowed, when the wizarding instincts that had kept him alive in his fight with Voldemort let him know that he wasn't alone in the room. He knew that Severus didn't own an Invisibility Cloak, but Professor Dumbledore had claimed that there were ways to remain invisible to the eye that didn't require props. If anyone would know such an art, it would be Severus.

Harry's probing gaze focused on Severus' favourite armchair, where the sense of power was the strongest.

"I don't like talking to empty air. Are you going to show yourself or shall I make it snow in here so that I can see your outline?" he suggested, glaring at where Severus' face would be, were he in the chair.

A heartbeat later, Severus was there in the flesh, glowering back at him, which he supposed was an improvement. Severus was the only person he knew who could snarl without even baring his teeth. Snape's face was a pinched, irritated collection of deep lines and angles as his inky stare gave old Salazar's pet monster a run for its money.

"Thank you," Harry stiffly acknowledged the courtesy. He regarded his friend, trying to judge Snape's mood. Severus had removed his transfigured robes and jacket. He was in his typical high-collared white shirt and trousers. His skin seemed nearly as colourless as the material of his shirt as he sat in the dark room that was lit only by the dying embers, and his face was as tight as a mask.

"I suppose I owe you and the Weasleys another apology," Severus said in that same lifeless tone with which he'd voiced his parting words on the road.

"I didn't come here for an apology," Harry grated out, hating that dead tone. Severus' voice might be the only thing about the man that was incontestably beautiful, but when he used that tone it raised the small hairs on the back of Harry's neck.

"Then why are you here?"

"To tell you something. You're not used up and you're certainly not alone, not anymore," Harry said without preamble, wanting to get the sentiment out before Severus came to his senses and threw him out.

Severus' entire body flinched as if he'd just been hit with an intensely painful curse, but he shoved the reaction down and ignored Harry's statement as though the words had never been spoken.

"Would you like a drink?" Severus continued, rising to his feet and crossing to the side table. "I'm out of cognac, but there's brandy and – "

"Severus! Stop it, please," he was beside his friend in a moment. The arm that he grabbed hold of was stiff as a day old corpse. Now that he was close, he could sense a similar tension tightening Snape's entire long form. He breathed in that sweet, spicy scent that was particular to Severus as he stared into those tortured eyes.

He could see how hard Severus was struggling to maintain his shield of indifference, but the bleak misery that was so much a part of his soul was bleeding out of his open gaze. As always, Harry was appalled and almost crippled under its weight. Maybe it was the Dark Mark's legacy, or the results of his miserable, abused childhood, or even the inevitable outcome of the isolation Severus kept himself in. Harry didn't understand its source, but he could almost feel its depth. He didn't know how this man got out of bed every day with that kind of agony eating away at his heart. It took a type of courage he didn't think he'd ever have to deal with that kind of burden on a daily basis.

Severus was struggling with all his might to mask his pain and hide it like he always did, Harry could see that from his tense expression, but before Snape could stamp it all down and bury it away as usual, Harry softly said, "You're not alone anymore. You never will be again. I promise." Then he wrapped his arms around Severus in the efficient Weasley hug that Ron had taught him years ago.

He fully expected to crash against the stone wall as he'd done on Wednesday during their demonstration with the seventh year DADA class. Severus Snape was not a man with whom you lightly took liberties, especially not physical ones. The potions master guarded nothing so fiercely as his personal dignity. But, for whatever reason, Severus suffered the embrace.

Harry found that his friend was shaking like a victim of a jelly legs charm. Severus made a belated, desperate move to step back, but Harry only tightened his hold, and Snape didn't force the issue.

The next thing Harry knew, arms nearly as long as Ron's were holding him tight, and Severus was leaning into him, clinging to him as he buried his face in Harry's shoulder as though Harry were his last hold on life or sanity.

Perhaps he was, Harry reflected, as Severus buried his face in the crook of his neck and held onto him in that death grip. He couldn't tell if Severus were crying, for his friend had always been unnaturally silent in his grief, but he could feel the tremors that were coursing through that lean form shake them both.

They stood that way for the longest time, locked together in silence as that emotional storm ripped its way through Severus' controls. Harry was too afraid of breaking the fragile trust that the adult Severus had granted him to dare words, so he confined his comfort to rubbing his palm over Severus' thin back, the way Hermione or Ron would have done for them last week when they were upset like this.

When a long time passed without Severus releasing him, Harry backed them over to the couch. He was surprised by how docilely Severus followed him. He manoeuvred them down onto the cushions without breaking the embrace, side by side, facing each other, with their arms wrapped around each other's chests.

Once they were settled, Severus pulled far enough back to look up into his face.

There were no tears, Harry noted with relief. But it was short lived. Confused, he shivered at the utter vulnerability of the expression in those dark eyes. Every instinct he owned was telling him that Severus would have allowed him to do anything he wanted to with him at that moment.

Not wanting the self-consciousness that he knew would soon follow that revelation to ruin the moment, Harry guided his companion's head back down to his shoulder, while his other hand continued to rub across that warm, linen-covered back. He didn't need to be told that no one had ever done this for the adult Snape. Now that he thought about it, Harry couldn't recall anyone ever even touching Severus in casual contact in all the years he'd known the man. Even Professor Dumbledore had respected Severus' no trespassing signs. His heart ached as he contemplated how many years this man had gone without so much as even the touch of a friend's hand. He must be half-starved for contact, Harry thought as his palm stroked over the wiry muscles of Severus' shoulders.

His knuckle collided with the cold silver of the hair tie Hermione had given Severus all those months ago. On impulse, Harry popped it open and let all that thick, glossy black hair fall loose. It was warm as kitten fur as it covered his hand. Severus gave a surprised gulp at the action. Harry waited, but when no other protest was forthcoming, he allowed his hand to stroke through the dark, sweaty length, carding it through his fingers.

Severus sighed, and tensed immediately thereafter, as though he expected to be physically punished for revealing his enjoyment.

Harry pretended not to notice. His right hand continued to play with that silky, long black hair, while his left kept on circling the thin back. They sat that way for what felt like hours.

As the embers in the fireplace slowly faded from gold to black, a contented lassitude crept over Harry. The room was dark and getting colder by the minute, but it was warm here with Severus pressed so close to him on the couch. And, it was the first night in a week that that familiar breathing was there in the dark where it belonged. That steady rhythm, which he'd missed so horribly this last week, lulled him as much as his stroking hand seemed to be soothing Severus.

Harry was only half conscious of his eyes sinking shut, and he didn't notice at all when his right hand stopped moving with those dark strands clutched between his fingers.

His next real awareness was of being jostled about as he was laid straight on the couch. Thinking that he must have fallen asleep in front of the hearth again and that Ron was probably carrying him back to their room, he gave a sleepy, "Mmmm?"

The deep voice that answered wasn't Ron's, but it had the same kind of gentleness to it. "Go back to sleep, Harry."

He felt his glasses being removed from his face and a heavy wool blanket being tucked around his neck. Still more asleep than awake, he grabbed the hand and mumbled, "Don't leave me alone. Stay, please."

The hand he held stayed frozen in place for so long that he fell almost back to sleep. In that drifty place of confusion in between sleeping and waking, it seemed to him that he felt Ron picking him up off the floor and carrying him back to Severus and his room. His clothes were transfigured into his nightshirt, as they were nearly every night he fell asleep on the sitting room rug, and a moment or two later, he felt Severus' warm length slide in beside him.

"Severus?" he muttered fretfully, some part of him knowing that there was a reason why Ron shouldn't be carrying him to bed anymore.

There was no answer at first, but then a familiar, long-boned hand gripped his. He'd know that hand in a pitch-black room from its long fingers and bony wrist. Severus. Clutching that human security blanket, he gave a deep sigh and let himself drift fully over into sleep.

*********************

The persistent irritation of a bladder full of recycled ale woke him.

Before he'd even opened his eyes, Harry tensed. The luxurious, cool texture of the silk pillowcase beneath his cheek, the heavy arm banding his stomach, and the hairy male leg that was thrown over both his own told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn't in his own bed. He tried to ignore the morning erection that was pressed so intimately against his left side, but it was rather like trying to ignore the fact that a scorpion was in the bed with you. Once you were aware of its presence, it was the only thing that existed in your universe until it was dealt with.

He had a moment's sheer panic. The days of waking up with a stranger were long gone. Before his brain fully kicked into gear, he wondered if he'd been fool enough to take Eric up on his open offer. But, no. Although he'd gone to the Three Broomsticks last night, he'd left with Ron, Hermione, and Severus . . . .

Severus! That was it. He'd gone down to Severus' rooms to see how he was doing and fallen asleep on the couch.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Harry relaxed, opened his eyes, and turned his head slowly in the direction of the warm, moist breath that was hitting his shoulder – his nightshirt covered shoulder.

There, nestled beneath the Slytherin green duvet on the silver silk sheets, his mouth parted in sleep, lay Severus Snape, primly clothed in a billowing white nightshirt. His sleeping friend was lying on his right side, facing Harry, with his left arm and leg tossed across him. Harry couldn't count the number of times they'd woken up like this in that last month that they'd bunked in together as seven-year-olds. Severus usually started the night respectfully enough on his own side of the bed, but come morning, Harry would inevitably find the larger boy wrapped around him like this. Some things never changed, he reflected with a smile.

But it died quickly. Some things did change. As Severus was so fond of pointing out to him, they weren't seven-year-olds anymore. He knew he shouldn't be here. They weren't kids, as that erection prodding his hip proved.

Stars, it was big! But then, everything about Severus was big – his hands, his, feet; it only stood to reason that his –

Harry cut off that line of speculation. Common decency required that he move away from Severus and give the man some privacy, but Harry knew that his friend would wake at his slightest motion, and he wasn't ready to spoil the sleepy peace of the morning yet.

He was temporarily bewildered as to precisely how he'd ended up sleeping in Severus Snape's bed, but then he recalled being half awake last night and begging whomever had been sharing the warm couch not to leave him alone in the chilly room. How utterly humiliating!

But, obviously, Severus hadn't been too annoyed with him or he'd have kicked him out of his chambers. Instead of tossing him out on his ear as he should have done or just leaving him to sleep on the couch, Severus had moved him in here to the comfortable warmth of the man's own bed. What's more, Severus hadn't even levitated him. Harry had the clear memory of strong arms that he'd mistaken for Ron's lifting and carrying him in here. Strange.

But everything about his life right now was strange, Harry recognized. Beyond the usual weirdness of being the most eligible bachelor in the Wizarding World who refused to date, there was his current situation. Trying to put his life back together after spending over four months as a child would be hard enough on anyone, without the added bizarro slant of attempting to forge a deep friendship with a man who'd been his adversary for nearly two decades. If anyone had ever told him six months ago that he'd wake up in Severus Snape's bed and be relieved to find himself there, he would have sent the raving lunatic directly to St. Mungo's. Yet here he was, in Severus' bed, with Severus' erection pressing his hip.

Even thinking of Severus Snape as having a morning erection felt peculiar. Although his entire view of Severus had changed over the last few months, he'd never really thought of Snape as a sexual entity, even last night when Severus was relating how he'd acquired that burgundy jacket for his first date. Severus had made it sound like ancient history, like something that no longer pertained to him – in exactly the same manner the younger Snape had treated playing, he realized.

But Hermione was right. Severus wasn't old and he wasn't used up. The man was only forty-eight years old. He wasn't dead by a long stretch, even though Severus might behave as though he'd outgrown such needs.

Now that he thought about it, Harry had to admit that he was curious. Who did Severus sleep with?

He tried to picture his friend with someone, and came up blank. He racked his mind, thinking back over the years that he'd known this man, trying to remember if there were ever any particular men that Snape seemed to spend time with, but there wasn't. For as long as Harry had known him, Severus had lived the life of a monk here at Hogwarts. He supposed that Severus could have confined his sexual encounters to summer holidays, but . . . Severus usually stayed at Hogwarts over the summer breaks, which meant . . . .

No, not even Severus Snape could go that long without, Harry told himself. Yet, everything he knew of Severus told him that he wasn't wrong, that the man really had been alone that long.

Harry tried to imagine what it must have been like for Severus, and couldn't. These past five years since Julius, he'd tried to go solo, but he always fell. Once or twice a year, he'd meet some bloke in a pub and there would be a few nights of blessed relief before he went back to going it alone. Perhaps it was the same for Severus; only, he had the clear memory of Snape saying that he didn't like pubs. If he didn't do the club scene, where else would someone like Severus meet people?

There was only one answer to that. His instincts were probably right. Severus didn't meet people. He just hid away here in his dungeons, feeling alone and used up.

He wasn't alone right now and he certainly wasn't used up, Harry thought with a quick smile as he felt that hard-on nudge his hip. His own morning woodie pulsed harder in mindless reaction. If this were Blaise, he might have reached down and done something about that brainless need, but he knew Severus wouldn't appreciate such a move. Hell, Severus would probably die of humiliation at the thought of anyone knowing he had a morning erection, let alone that he was actually touching someone with it in his sleep.

It didn't mean anything, Harry knew. What guy didn't wake up with that urge every now and then – or, in his own case, every damn morning. It was just human nature. For all his control, Severus was as mortal as the rest of them. So, why did it still seem so strange to think of Severus Snape as having these same human frailties?

He studied the sleeping man's face, as if searching for lost clues.

He remembered how when he was in school, he'd thought that face ugly. He still heard the students say much the same things that he had. Dirty, greasy Snape, the humourless bastard of a potions teacher, with his ugly, long nose, yellowed teeth, hands, and face, and his greasy, stringy hair . . . . How often had he and Ron voiced those very sentiments? He'd believed them true back then, he really had. There had been a time he'd thought Snape so ugly that it had made him wince to look at the man. But now . . . .

He didn't think Severus was hideous anymore. Perhaps he'd simply gotten used to Severus' looks, but when he saw that face now, he didn't automatically think ugly. Yes, Snape's nose was big, and his features harsh and strong, as though chiselled from stone by an angry sculptor. There were frown lines in his face that were etched so deep Harry knew they would never be soothed smooth. His skin was slightly sallow from its constant exposure to all those harsh potion fumes, and his hair was often sweaty for the same reason, but his teeth were no more yellowed than any other forty-year-old wizard's. And when he wasn't sneering, Severus was almost attractive in a rugged way. There was a banked-down sensuality about the man that even his ascetic clothing and lifestyle couldn't completely conceal.

The lifestyle itself was a surprise.

Harry remembered what he'd always expected Snape's private rooms to look like. He'd pictured shelves lining the sitting room, filled with bottles of those disgusting dead things Snape kept in his lab. There would never be a fire in the hearth, no furniture, comfortable or otherwise, in the sitting room, just a single hard-backed chair next to a rickety table with a candle stub to grade test papers by. And the bedroom wouldn't be this lush collection of tasteful antiques; it would contain only a single pallet with a moth-eaten blanket, and have more in common with a monk's or prison cell than this sensual boudoir in which Harry found himself. It shamed him to know that he'd held those misconceptions straight up until last Saturday night when he'd invited himself into Severus' sitting room to fight for their friendship.

He'd gotten so much wrong about Snape over the years. Right up to how he'd react to their restoration to adulthood. Ron, Hermione, and he had all expected Snape to go into seclusion after that, but Severus had had more courage than they had credited him. Although it was pushing him to his emotional limits every single day to allow them into his life, Severus wasn't cutting them off; he wasn't choosing to be cruel. He was keeping the promise he'd made to Albus in that dream world that had started all this to try to open himself to the things he was lacking in his life. Having spent the last five years hiding away himself, Harry appreciated the courage that took.

Harry wasn't kidding himself. Severus was no saint, not by a long shot. He was still petty and cruel. He still liked to run his classes through intimidation and mockery. The potion master's sarcasm was as mighty as his wand, and that was a formidable power in itself. But under all that nastiness, the man was his friend. Harry was going to do everything in his power to view that as the bottom line, no matter what transpired from day to day.

Every instinct he owned was telling him that he was about to experience a major test of his resolve.

As he watched, Severus' nose twitched, as if smelling him in the bed beside him. Before he'd even opened his eyes, Snape's entire body tensed.

Harry held his breath as those dark-lashed lids lifted.

"Harry?" the sleep rough voice was rife with confusion. Obviously, Severus did mornings only slightly better than Hermione.

"Good morning," Harry greeted with what he hoped was a cheerful smile. "Thanks for not tossing me out on my ear last night."

"What?"

He saw the exact moment Severus' remembered. Severus' expression closed down immediately, becoming shuttered and wary. A heartbeat or two later, Severus withdrew his arm and leg from where they covered Harry and moved his lower body clear with seeming nonchalance.

Once again, Harry was impressed as hell with the other man's aplomb. He knew his friend had to be shaking in his boots, figuratively, if not literally.

Thinking that they could both use a minute or two to compose themselves, Harry said, "Excuse me while I borrow your bog for a few minutes."

When he returned from the loo five minutes later, Severus was up, with a Slytherin green towelling robe tied primly shut over his nightshirt. For all that he'd put himself in order, Snape's hair was still loose around his shoulders. The black cascade fell nearly past his shoulder blades now. It was a dark and appealing curtain around that tense face.

Recalling how soft it had felt sliding between his fingers last night, Harry looked away from his friend's hair. What the devil was wrong with him, he wondered, unable to excise that sensual memory from his thoughts.

Trying to centre himself, he stared about the room. The bed was made and all the wall torches lit to provide as much light as the dungeon digs allowed.

Determined not to be embarrassed, Harry sat down on the edge of the bed and drew his knees up to his chest, hugging them with his arms. He saw Severus' dark gaze sweep over his bare, hairy calves, and felt an inexplicable shiver pass through him in its wake.

"I can't imagine what you must think of me," Severus said at last from his tense stance by the armoire.

Was it only yesterday evening that he'd transfigured that jacket for Severus while standing right there? It felt a million years away right now.

"What?" Deciding it was best to play innocent until given no chance, he tried to keep his tone mildly puzzled. This man was a master at sniffing out deceit. He dare not overplay his hand.

"That distasteful emotional scene I inflicted upon you last night – "

Harry blinked. That wasn't what he was expecting.

Severus was worried about last night? Not about Harry knowing about his morning woodie? Only as he thought about it now did he realize that Severus probably believed that he hadn't noticed his morning hard-on pressing into him. After all, anyone with even a modicum of propriety would have moved away from the sleeping man when they'd recognized what was happening. They wouldn't have lain there and . . . .

Abruptly aware of the gross impropriety of his behaviour this morning, Harry thrust the thought out of his mind for later consideration and tried to deal with whatever was bothering Severus now. He knew he was getting off easy. If anyone was owed apologies here, it was certainly not himself.

"Whoa, there," Harry interrupted. "Who's the one who used to wake us up five out of seven nights a week? I don't remember anyone complaining about distasteful emotional scenes then."

"You were a child," Severus said.

"So what? I needed you and you were there for me. That works both ways."

"I don't know what came over me," Severus continued, as though he hadn't heard. And, perhaps, he hadn't.

"I do," Harry countered, waiting until Severus was looking at him and seeing him. "That day we were restored last week, Hermione told me that we were both going to be dealing with a lot of stressful emotional issues as we tried to process the changes going from a child to an adult engendered."

"You seem to be coping just fine," Severus said with a trace of bitterness, as though it were some kind of contest that he had failed.

"Am I?" Harry laughed and then informed, "I don't sleep without potions. And I'm just as lost as you. I spent nearly an hour that first day sitting on the couch wrapped up in Hermione and Ron's arms before I had the nerve to leave their quarters. At least once a day, one of them ends up hugging me. They always say it's for their sakes, but I'm not stupid. I know I'm not dealing well."

"You're not?" Severus sounded amazed.

"Last night was the first night I was able to sleep without taking that potion you prescribed for me," he admitted.

"Your insomnia may not have anything to do with our current situation. You've always had difficulty sleeping," Severus pointed out.

"True, except for those months we shared a room. You were there last night, so I was able to sleep. How screwed up is that? Last night was as much for me as it was for you, so please don't feel guilty about it." He felt very self-conscious about what he'd just admitted once he finished speaking. He could feel Severus' gaze digging into him.

After what felt like an eternity, Severus said in as nervous a tone as that cultured voice could attain, "This isn't the first time you've said something like that. Do you really expect me to believe that my mere presence has a beneficial effect on you?"

Harry realized that Severus really didn't get it.

"Why wouldn't it?" he asked. "For the last four months we weren't out of each other's sight for longer than a trip to the loo, and half the time I followed you in there. I never had a friend like you when I was seven for real. No one ever protected me or looked after me the way you did."

"You and Ronald Weasley were best friends from the moment you met on the Hogwarts Express," Severus coolly countered, as though he suspected he were being had.

Harry sighed. "I was eleven when I met Ron, not seven."

"I don't see what difference that makes," Severus answered.

"I'm not trying to diminish the friendship I had with Ron when we were young, but . . . it's a difference of degree. Ron and I were more grown up when we met. I was too old to ask for some of the things I needed and he was too young to see through my bluffs. You gave me things that I never had in my whole life."

"What sort of things?" Severus asked, totally suspicious.

Harry tried to think of a way to explain without sounding completely inept, but he'd been seven at the time. Inept pretty much described most seven-year-olds, except Severus, who had always been so smart and competent. "The sort of stuff that most people take for granted when they're kids. I guess it had a lot to do with my background. The Dursleys never really went out of their way to make things easy for me. They'd baby Dudley like he was made of glass, and then leave me to struggle along on my own while they cooed and aaahed over him. I'd fall down and no one would comfort me when I cried. Hell, most times no one would even help me back up. They'd lock me in my crib in that cupboard and let me scream half the night. I always had more than my share of skinned knees, bruised elbows, and bumps on my head when growing up because I was trying to do stuff for myself that a toddler or little kid couldn't manage on his own. There was never any attempt to make life comfortable or safe for me."

If possible, Severus' face grew even paler and tighter. He seemed to be working very hard to hold onto his temper. "Their neglect was criminal, and I sincerely wish that our laws would allow me to redress the wrongs done to you. But, what has any of this to do with your friendship with either Ron or me?"

"By the time I met Ron, I was fairly self-sufficient. I was pretty much who I am now, except an inch or two shorter," Harry joked, and then continued in a more serious tone. "I wasn't a baby or a burden. Ron never had to teach me the basics of Wizarding. He never had to help me get my winter cloak buttoned up every day after class, or lift me up so I could reach the bathroom sink to wash my hands, or help me cut my meat in the cafeteria at lunch. He never had to use drying and warming spells on me to keep me from getting frostbite when I played too long in the snow. And he certainly never climbed into bed with me when I had a nightmare or held me when I cried. You did all that. You were the best friend I ever had. That hasn't changed just because we're older."

He heard Severus' gulp from across the room. "But you already have a best friend."

"What?"

Severus quietly said, "Ron . . . ."

Realizing everything this proud man wouldn't allow himself to ask, Harry laid it all on the line. "Ron and I will always be the closest of friends, but I'm not his best friend anymore. I haven't been since we were fifteen. Hermione is. I understand and respect that, but . . . their relationship changed what Ron and I had. We're family. They both love me, but they come first with each other. It's been that way since we were kids. I never had anyone of my own until Professor Dumbledore gave you to me."

As soon as he said the last words, he felt like an idiot. They made Severus sound like a puppy or something. He held his breath, awaiting the no doubt scathing response, but all Severus gave was a subdued, "I see."

That was the catch phrase Severus used whenever he was at a loss for words. That hadn't changed since they were seven.

"I guess that was a bit more than you needed to hear," Harry said a minute or two later, uncomfortable under that bottomless gaze.

"No," Severus quickly said, and then, "I mean – "

"I know," Harry smiled. "It's a lot to take in. Don't worry. I'll clear out and give you some peace for a while." He looked around the bedroom and ended up calling, "Accio Harry Potter's wand," to get his wand back. Then he transfigured his nightshirt back into the clothes they'd been last night.

Fully dressed, he stared at the pale man who seemed almost frightened of him at the moment. "Thanks for everything, Severus."

To his relief, his friend seemed to rally.

"I believe that should be my line," Severus gravely responded, lightening the mood with a nearly playful, "but you are most welcome."

Harry grinned. "Thanks." As he started for the door, he paused to quickly ask before his courage could desert him, "Do you have any plans tonight?"

Severus' face blanched even whiter. "I – "

"We could check out the Muggle bookstore I told you about. Will you come with me?" For some inexplicable reason, he felt as nervous as he had the first time he'd asked Blaise to join him on a Hogsmeade weekend in seventh year. Which was utterly ridiculous, because this was just Severus.

"Yes," Severus answered in a strained tone, as if it took everything he had to get that single syllable out.

"Brilliant. I'll see you at dinner, then." Giving Severus the most encouraging smile he could manage, Harry all but bolted from the room.

He was feeling a little better as he stepped out of Snape's sitting room into the Slytherin dungeon corridor; that was, until he saw Blaise Zabini stopped dead in his tracks, gaping at him as he closed Snape's door behind him.

Abashed, Harry realized how this must look to his friend. He was sneaking out of the potion master's quarters, wearing the same clothes he'd had on at dinner last night.

Trying for normal, Harry forced a smile and greeted, "Hi, Blaise."

"Er, hello, Harry." For some reason, the handsome brunet appeared even more uncomfortable than him. After a tense second, Zabini's irrepressible humour took hold of him and he grinned and asked, "Have a good night, did you?"

"Ah, I guess it'd be stupid to say this isn't what it looks like?" Harry asked, braced for the worst.

For a moment, he had a horrible vision of Blaise teasing him for the rest of eternity over this, but then the mischievous glint entered those warm brown eyes, Blaise loosed an earthy chuckle, and said, "Of course, it's not what it looks like. That's Severus Snape's door, for heaven's sake, Harry!" Blaise concluded with a glummer, "More's the pity."

Wondering whether it was Severus or himself who'd just been insulted, Harry tensely asked, "What?"

"I don’t care who you sleep with, so long as you're back in action again. Even if it were Severus Snape. I'd volunteer myself if I thought you'd take me seriously."

"When have you ever taken anyone seriously?" Harry joked, because it was the only way either of them could handle what had happened between them eleven years ago.

The answer was there in Blaise's eyes, as it was whenever they were alone together for too long, but his old friend forced a grin and played along with, "You've got a point there. So why are you sneaking out of Snape's quarters at this late hour if not the obvious reason?"

Harry flushed and admitted, "I fell asleep on the couch."

He refrained from mentioning the part about waking up with a sexually aroused Severus wrapped around him, wisely deciding that that information would not aid his stand.

"Ah."

"So, how'd it go with Eric last night? You're getting back rather late yourself," Harry remarked.

To his bewilderment, Blaise's cheeks filled with colour. "Er . . . ."

"Don't tell me you're on the outs already," Harry said, genuinely disappointed. He'd hoped that Blaise would keep Eric occupied for at least a few weeks.

"No, we're not on the outs," Blaise quickly assured.

"Then what's up?" For something was. Harry could see it in his friend's expression.

"It's just, it was weird, was all," Blaise uncertainly offered.

"How weird is weird?" Harry questioned, alarmed by anything that could have unnerved his jaded friend in the bedroom. Eric had always seemed such a nice, normal bloke to him. He couldn't imagine the big blond throwing anything Blaise's way that the sensual Slytherin would find disturbing.

"We, er, never made it to the bed," Zabini confessed.

"Ah, more rug burns and stair bruises?" Harry tried to sound sympathetic, but couldn't quite hide his laughter.

"No, you're not getting it. We never did anything. We sat on his couch all night talking – until I fell asleep, that is."

"Oh, poor Blaise. Sorry."

"No, it was great," Blaise swiftly corrected, then, appearing self-conscious, he said, "I mean . . . ."

Seeing something in those dark eyes that Harry hadn't seen there since they were seventeen and trying to make something impossible work, Harry asked, "So are you going to see him again?"

Blaise nodded. "Tonight."

"That's great," Harry approved, meaning it.

"I was wondering . . . do you think anyone would mind if I brought Eric with us to the Three Broomsticks on Friday?"

Anyone being him, Harry correctly interpreted. Not having to fake his approval of Blaise's partner for once, Harry grinned and said, "No, I think everyone would be delighted to see you both there."

He was shocked by how relieved Blaise seemed. "Thanks, mate. If I didn't tell you this over the past week, it's great to have you back as a grownup. You were missed."

"Thanks," Harry blushed.

"Oh, and, Harry?"

"Yes?" he asked, not trusting the light in those bright eyes.

"Take some advice from an expert. Spare yourself some grief. Leave a change of clothes in the serpent's den." Chuckling, Blaise patted him on the shoulder and moved down the corridor to his own door.

"Serpents have nests, not dens, you prat," Harry called after him. "You're a serpent yourself; you should know that!"

Feeling really good about his life for the first time in what was probably years, Harry hurried up to his rooms in Gryffindor Tower before he could run into anyone else observant enough to realize he was still wearing yesterday's clothing.

************************

For the thirty-seven years he'd been here at Hogwarts, one day had been very much like the next to Severus Snape. There had never been anything to distinguish them from each other, except perhaps the degree of ostracism he might experience. His routine as a teacher had been set before most of his co-workers were even born. There were times he was busier than others, but on the whole, his life had always been quiet and predictable.

Until Albus' post-mortem meddling had turned his world on its proverbial heel last Boxing Day. Now his life was inextricably woven with that of Potter and the Weasleys'. He never knew from one day to the next what demands would be made on his time by the strange family he had acquired. He should have been snarling and spitting at each interruption of his routine, but . . . hypocrisy had never been one of his many faults. When Harry showed up at his lab after dinner to help him prepare whatever potion the infirmary needed or when Hermione poked her head in his office door during a shared free period, he couldn't even feign irritation. He was grateful for their presence in his life, even if he didn't always know how to deal with them.

He remembered how on his first visits to the Weasleys' quarters as an adult, he had felt he was making a terrible mistake in coming there, how he'd believed that there was too much history between them to initiate a civil relationship at this late date. He'd thought himself too set in his ways. He was too old to fit in, too unfriendly, too . . . Slytherin. But somehow, despite all expectations to the contrary, they had made it work. For the last five weeks, he'd been a regular visitor to this tower. While most nights it no longer felt strange for him to be walking through Gryffindor Tower's corridor after supper on his way to the Weasleys', tonight's visit was a little more unusual than most, for tonight he walked this hall alone.

The paintings of scarlet and gold clad Gryffindors all muttered and tssked suspiciously as the Head of Slytherin passed below them.

"Professor Snape!" a translucent passer by acknowledged.

"Good evening, Sir Nicholas," he greeted the nearly headless ghost, holding his breath as he waited to be questioned as to his presence here in what was traditionally enemy territory.

But the tall Gryffindor house ghost in his timeless lace and blue satin just smiled and said, "Pleasant evening, is it not?"

"I suppose," Severus allowed, watching out of the corner of his eye until the wraith turned the corner. He shook his head in disgust. Even when dead the damn Gryffindors were too trusting. Although the Bloody Baron rarely made his presence known, Severus knew for a fact that the Slytherin house ghost trailed Potter to his door every time Harry descended into the dungeons.

Finally at the Weasleys' door, Severus took a deep breath and knocked.

"You're right on time," a grinning Ron Weasley said by way of greeting as he opened the door.

"You did say seven thirty," Severus answered, adding a droll, "And good evening to you."

"Good evening." Ron laughed and waved him in. "Come on in. And thanks for coming."

"How could I refuse so desperate a plea?" Severus replied. He still hadn't recovered from the shock of having Ron ask him at dinner if he'd visit with him while Hermione was out tonight.

"I hate when they all run off and leave me on my own like this," Ron said. "Hermione will be ever so grateful to you as well. You'll keep me out of trouble. The last time she left me alone like this, I painted the bedroom. It was a week before she forgave me that."

"Painting the bedroom was a problem?" Severus asked as he stepped into the sitting room.

The chess game was already set up on the table with a silver tea service and something that looked suspiciously like nut bread beside it.

"I painted it orange. It was Halloween week and I got carried away. She said it clashed with my hair . . . and everything else in the room," Ron said in a woebegone tone.

"She might have a point. Is there any colour that doesn't clash with your hair?" Severus questioned in what he hoped would be received as a joking manner. He still wasn't completely sanguine about the difference between friendly teasing and mockery. He had a natural talent for the latter, but the former often confounded him.

To his relief, Ron just laughed. "Green, actually, but seeing as that's a Slytherin colour . . . ."

"You have my permission as Head of House to borrow it anytime," Severus allowed, thinking that even a Weasley in Slytherin colours had to be preferable to Ron in the maroon robe he was currently wearing.

"Thanks, I think. This robe is as bad as I thought it, then?" Ron questioned.

Severus stared into those waiting brown eyes and gave a sombre, "Fully. Whatever possessed you to buy something that colour?"

"Mum made it for me," Ron grinned.

"Ah, another social gaffe." Severus sighed. "My apologies."

"None needed. It's hideous. There's no getting around that."

"So where has Hermione gone tonight?" Severus asked, still not completely at ease. This was the first time he'd been alone with Ron since his restoration to adulthood. He was accustomed to interacting with Hermione and Harry on a one to one basis as an adult, but Ron and he were rarely alone together.

"It's Hogwarts' Young Witches Professionals meeting night. She runs the club. Now that she's given up on House Elf Emancipation, she's crusading for equal rights for witches," Ron said.

Severus tried not to say anything, he really did, but finally, he couldn't hold back another minute and had to point out, "Don't witches and wizards already have equality under the law?"

In the Wizarding World, it was rarely a question of gender or even rank that held one back. Rather, it was the power an individual could wield.

"Not to hear Hermy speak of it." Ron gave an oddly philosophical shrug. "You know how she is."

"Yes."

"Why didn't you go with Harry to help Neville harvest that root in the Dark Forest?" Ron asked. "Harry told me he asked you."

"It's a flower that they are collecting. Moonshade, to be precise. I thought Longbottom would have enough to contend with out there without having to deal with me as well."

"Neville's not afraid of you anymore. He told me just yesterday how much he enjoys those debates that you've been having on the uses of herbs in the Dark Arts. You could have gone. What?" Ron prodded after reading whatever was in his expression.

"Perhaps it isn't Professor Longbottom who is uncomfortable these days," Severus admitted.

"What do you mean?"

"It is . . . difficult to be constantly reminded of one's . . . past transgressions."

Ron didn't seem shocked by his confession. Sounding as though it were no big deal, Ron simply suggested, "So apologize."

"Just like that? How could an apology ever make up for the way I . . . ."

"It'd be a start." Seeming to sense how uneasy he was with the topic, Ron asked, "You feel like a game?" and gave a hopeful glance at the chess set.

"Why not?" Severus said, taking his usual position behind the black king and queen.

"We might actually be able to get in some decent playing tonight," Ron said as he seated himself behind the white pieces. "Do you fancy some tea or maybe a cognac?"

Inhaling the scent of the rich brew in the silver pot beside him, Severus said, "Tea, please. Is that nut bread?"

Ron grinned and passed the dessert tray over.

The next few minutes passed comfortably enough as they sorted out mugs, milk, and sweets. Then they started to play. Though this was hardly the first time they'd begun a game as adults, it was the first time they had any chance of concentrating enough to enjoy the challenge. Normally, there was a roomful of people here on Monday nights when they'd try to play and the interruptions made it impossible.

Severus was stunned by how quickly he found himself playing a defensive game. From a seven-year-old's perspective, he remembered how good Ron was, but he'd dismissed those evaluations as being those of an impressionable child. But Ron really was as accomplished as he remembered; perhaps even better, since Weasley wasn't modifying his game to accommodate the fragile ego of a sulky child.

In a lull between moves, while Severus was studying the board, attempting to save his remaining knight without losing a bishop or another rook, Ron asked, "So how are you doing?"

"In what respect? As you can see, I am in good health," he answered. Finally finding a means of saving his knight, he tried to sacrifice a pawn – only to have Ron ignore the offering and move one of his own pawns on the other side of the board to effectively lock in the black queen. He couldn't move her out of imminent danger without placing her in immediate jeopardy. Ron couldn't take her just yet, but if he didn't get her out of there, Ron's knight would have her in three moves.

"Are things going better for you now?" Ron asked.

"If you mean am I no longer descending into a melodramatic funk every time someone mentions the word quidditch, then the answer is yes," Severus replied as coolly as he could manage without being rude. He really didn't want to discuss this.

"I wouldn't call your reaction to what happened to you melodramatic," Ron said as he moved his rook to close his net around the black queen.

"That's because you're a Gryffindor. Your house always tries to look on the bright side," Severus all but sneered.

A year ago, those same words would have caused an eruption of volcanic proportions, but Ron simply grinned and answered, "That's Hufflepuff, not Gryffindor. We're the judgemental pricks, remember?"

Caught in the act of sipping his tea, Severus nearly spewed the milky brew all over the chessboard. He swallowed the mouthful with difficulty and tried to glare at Ron, but the utter lack of repentance in the strong featured, freckled face made the corners of his lips twitch.

"I had managed to forget for the moment," Severus said at last in a dry tone.

"I'll remind you, then," Ron promised and then said, "And you never answered my question. Is it any better for you now?"

The open concern that Ron wasn't even attempting to conceal threw him. Severus was tempted to dissemble, but this man was the closest thing to a father he'd ever had. As much as his pride smarted, he was unwilling to tell an outright lie to Ron. He wasn't certain how he should answer, but finally settled on a soft, "Yes."

"Good," that was all Ron said as he closed in on Severus' queen.

Severus sighed as she fell with a bang and a shriek.

After another quarter of an hour of silent jousting on the chequered board, Ron remarked, "Hermione made me promise to subtly enquire as to how things are going with you and Harry. She suggested that I work it into the conversation while we were doing our male bonding thing."

"That's your idea of subtle, is it?" Severus asked, as appalled by Ron's lack of pretension as he was by the question. He couldn't understand how anyone could play chess this well and yet be so hopelessly obtuse. The obvious answer was, of course, that Ron wasn't naïve at all, and that the blunt approach was a conscious choice.

Ron shrugged and gave a long-suffering sigh. "Sometimes I wonder if she knows who she's married. I mean, me – subtle?"

Severus stared at that earnest face. "I believe Hermione knows precisely who she married and it is the rest of us who are in error."

"Oh?" Ron said and moved another pawn with lethal results.

"Yes, no one who plays chess as masterfully as you could possibly be this . . ." he stopped. The word 'dense' was not likely to go over well, even if it were accurate.

"It's a different issue. Chess is a game. I like to keep my real life as uncomplicated as possible. So, how are things going with you and Harry?" Ron returned to the former topic with the persistence of one of Hagrid's pets returning to its littermate's corpse.

"We seem to have managed to rise above our former differences," Severus said at last.

"That isn't what I meant." When Severus made no move to further the conversation, Ron carefully commented, "A little bird tells me that Harry's been spending most his nights down in the Slytherin dungeon."

"That little bird wouldn't be named Zabini by any chance?" Severus angrily demanded. Harry had told him about Zabini seeing him leaving his quarters on several occasions. It worried him. Harry wasn't concerned about their reputations, but Severus was very conscious of how much damage even one Slytherin's whispers could cause.

Not that there was anything going on between them. After that first night Severus had seen the danger of moving Harry to his bed. Potter simply fell asleep most nights on his couch and Severus hadn't the heart to interrupt the insomniac's undrugged sleep, but he knew how it would look to outsiders were Potter spotted leaving his room every morning. Harry seemed unconcerned about the repercussions, but Snape knew that propriety had to be maintained.

To his shock, Ron quickly denied, "No, it wasn't Blaise." At his disbelieving, stony silence, Ron nervously offered. "If you must know, Harry told me himself last week. I stopped by his rooms early last Saturday morning to drop off the tests he left in our place and found that his bed hadn't been slept in. He said that he'd fallen asleep on your couch."

"You didn't believe him?" Severus asked, trying to figure out how Harry and Ron's relationship really worked.

"I was hoping he was being discrete. He is capable of discretion, you know, unlike me," Ron added with a self-deprecating smile.

"You were hoping that he was lying to you?" Severus questioned, totally confused.

"Well . . . not lying exactly, just . . . putting off telling me the truth," Ron said.

"Which is lying," Severus said in his best teacher's voice.

Ron sighed and nodded. "If you insist."

Still bewildered, Severus asked, "You seriously hoped that your closest friend had . . . taken up with a former Death Eater? Why would you wish such a thing for him?"

It was beyond his comprehension how either Ron or Hermione could possibly encourage Harry's friendship with him, let alone anything deeper.

"Not just for him. For you both," Ron quickly corrected.

Severus stared down at the chessboard where this man he'd always considered a mental incompetent was destroying him. He felt the same on an emotional plane.

"Severus?" Ron waited until he looked back up at him before continuing. "I know this situation is weird as hell for us all. When Hermione and I look at you and Harry these days, we don't just see the men you are. We see the boys we still miss. We want those boys to be happy – both of them, not just Harry."

"If you want him to be happy, then why would you want him to tie himself to – something like me? I'm not that boy anymore, if I ever was."

Ron's entire face grew hard. "Don't talk about yourself like that. You're still the same person we knew. We can see it, even if you can't."

"Then you're delusional," Severus said.

"Are we? The Severus Snape we knew six months ago would have holed himself up in his dungeon and never acknowledged the time he spent with us. That Severus Snape wouldn't be part of our lives. He would never have joined our Monday night get-togethers or gone with us to the Three Broomsticks every Friday night, and he sure wouldn't have come to play chess alone with me," Ron argued.

Severus met those passionate brown eyes and said as coolly as he could manage, "I would never have been asked or welcomed before Harry befriended me."

Seeing the pain that flashed through those open eyes, Severus instantly regretted his candour.

Silence stretched between them for what felt like forever. During it, Severus wondered if he'd managed to alienate Ron completely. The man was as still as death.

Finally, he heard Ron release a long exhalation. "You're right. It never would have occurred to any of us that you might actually want to spend time with us." A long-fingered hand reached across the chessboard to give his forearm a quick squeeze. "I'm sorry. You're right about the past. But you're wrong about the present. Every fine quality that that little boy had is still there inside you."

"What qualities?" he rasped. Common sense told him that Ron had to be lying to him, only . . . his faith in this man's integrity insisted that Ron wouldn't do that. Gryffindor's Head of House was nearly as blunt as he was. Even now, Ron was always the first to tell him in no uncertain terms when he was out of line in his treatment of a student. Ron wouldn't candy coat anything or tell him an outright lie . . . not unless he had a damn good reason for doing so. Sparing the nasty Potions Master's feelings certainly didn't qualify as such.

"Loyalty, honour, concern, love . . . they're not dirty words, so stop scowling at me," Ron said. "You hide those qualities behind that sneer and your sarcasm, as if they're something to be ashamed of, but you've got them all the same. They're what draws Harry to you so strongly."

Unable to process Ron's statement, Severus decided to deal with their former topic. "It's not what it looks like. Harry really is just sleeping on my couch. He . . . it appears that I've become – what did Hermione call it? – his security duvet."

"Security blanket," Ron corrected.

"Security blanket, then. He needs to sleep and . . . ."

"You don't have to explain it to me," Ron said in a gentle, patient tone. "I know how little sleep he gets without that potion you made up for him. And even with it . . . it's still better for him to sleep without aids."

Severus took a deep breath and another sip of his cooling tea.

After a moment or two of munching on a custard tart, Ron softly asked, "Don't you think the fact that the only time he sleeps well is when you're in the room tells you something about his feelings for you? Harry and I shared a room for over seven years and he still walked the night like a bloody vampire."

Severus sighed. "Feeling safe in someone's presence does not equate to sexual attraction. The only person I ever felt safe with when young was Albus Dumbledore, yet I never once felt anything like desire for him."

"Professor Dumbledore was old enough to be your great-grandfather," Ron said.

Albus had been old enough to be a good deal more than that, but Severus didn't think this the time for such a digression. "And I'm old enough to be Harry's father. He doesn't think of me . . . like that – nor should he."

"I think he could," Ron argued.

"Why would you want him to?" Severus snapped, a heartbeat away from stalking out of the room.

"Because he's happy with you. I know you don't see your relationship with him as anything extraordinary, but you haven't been as close to him as we have for all these years. You don't know how . . . lonely he's been."

"I am not the solution to his problems," Severus insisted.

"Aren't you? Seems to me like you've already solved most of them," Ron remarked in that matter-of-fact tone that always made Severus feel seven again.

"The very idea is obscene," he hissed, averting his gaze.

"Why? Because you're a few years older? Because you made a mistake over thirty years ago? Maybe those things don't matter as much to Harry as they do to you."

Severus' eyes squeezed shut. Having no answer but the truth, he replied in a low, pain-filled whisper, "Because he deserves better. You all may hold some . . . affection for me now, but . . . I know who and what I am. Harry is . . . all that is bright and good in this world. He needs someone like himself, not a reformed Death Eater."

"Harry needs someone who loves him. That person is you," Ron insisted.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Severus whispered, hating the raw emotion in his voice.

"Because I want to see you both happy."

Ron meant well, Severus realized. What's more, his former foster father obviously believed every word he was saying. As much as he wanted to just strike out and end this conversation, he couldn't. No one had ever loved him enough to see past his faults before. Severus knew what a gift this was, even if the other man were totally mistaken. So he simply sat there in this unbearable state of exposure, staring over into the fire blazing in the hearth because he couldn't bear whatever emotions might be in Ron's face.

"Do you think I don't know what it feels like to consider yourself unworthy of someone?" Ron questioned at last in a soft voice.

That drew his attention back. "What?"

Ron gave a rueful smile. "Like you said, I know who and what I am. Hermione could have done much better than the sixth son of a dirt poor wizard."

"You are a pure blood wizard from two of the oldest, most respectable families in the Wizarding World," Severus said, confused. "How could she have possibly done better than you?"

"Do you think bloodlines are all that matters?" Ron snapped.

"They matter when you don't have them," Severus answered.

"Hermione's blood's as good as mine any day!"

"It wasn't Hermione to whom I was referring," Severus quickly interrupted, recognizing how his words might be taken as an insult. "My father's Muggle blood has always been a sore point."

"Oh," Ron flushed. "Sorry."

"No matter. You were saying?"

"It's just that . . . sometimes you have to let the other person decide what they want. Like Hermione and me. She could have married someone smart like you or successful like Harry. Hell, Victor Krum courted her. Talk about unfair competition. I never thought I'd have a chance. He was as smart as her. He had a castle, money, fame. He could wine and dine her on the Riviera and I could barely afford to treat her to the Three Broomsticks for lunch. All I had to offer her was a trunk full of hand-me-down robes and a demented owl."

"You neglect to mention a heart filled with love for her. Hermione was always astute when it came to prioritising," Severus said, not liking the shadow of doubt in Ron's eyes.

The very act of consoling was nearly alien to him, but Hermione and Ron were the rock that had held Harry and his world together when everything had fallen apart. He would see no harm come to either of them, nor would he sit silently by when a word or two from him could lighten their burdens. He owed these people, for what they'd done for him as a child and for what they were attempting to do now.

"Thanks, but . . . can't you see it's the same for Harry?"

"No, it's not. I appreciate the effort you are making on my behalf, but . . . the situations are not comparable. Hermione always saw you in that light. Harry will never see me as anything but a friend – and that is for the best."

"Severus . . . ."

"Why are you pushing this issue?"

"Because I want to see you and Harry happy," Ron repeated with childlike simplicity.

Severus wanted to kill him for it. It was fully as irritating as when Harry did it. He sat there in the heavy silence, trying to figure out a means of ending this conversation without bringing discord between them.

"And because I owe it to Harry," Ron said into the stillness after too long a quiet.

Severus' nose almost twitched as he scented weakness. "For?"

"Eleven years ago, I ruined something that was very special to him. It wasn't something I could ever make up for, even though he forgave me for it."

Eleven years ago would have put Ron in his last year at Hogwarts, Severus realized, once again brought up short by the recognition of how young these people who had parented him were. By contrast, eleven years ago he'd been a teacher here for nearly twenty years.

Reading Ron's sudden uncertainty, as though he thought he'd said too much, Severus took a guess as to what they were obliquely discussing. "You are referring to Harry's relationship with Blaise Zabini."

"He told you about it, then." Ron appeared almost disheartened as he went on, seeming to speak as much to himself as to him, "Of course, he'd've told you. It was probably the cruellest thing anyone ever did to him. And I was solely responsible for it, as I'm sure he mentioned."

Almost preferring the meddling well-wisher to this glum and guilt-ridden version of Ron, Severus quickly assured, "All Harry ever told me was that Zabini and he didn't work out due to house pressures."

Ron looked thoughtful for a moment before he mumbled, "Maybe he really has forgiven me, then."

"May I enquire as to what you're talking about?" Severus asked before he thought better of it. Sometimes when he was with Harry, Ron, or Hermione, he would forget that he wasn't the seven-year-old child they'd loved when he'd ask this kind of personal question and the expression in their eyes would remind him anew that they were seeing their abusive potions master as well as that beloved child. Slamming up against that reminder again, he lowered his gaze and softly said, "Forgive me. I shouldn't have asked that. It is none of my business."

After an awkward silence, Ron said, "No, it's all right. It's just . . . I'm not very proud of what I did back then, so it's rather hard to talk about it."

"Shall I tell you some of the things I did as a Death Eater before I came to my senses? I assure you that no matter what you did to Harry, it will not come close to matching the level of those offences."

"No, that's not necessary. I guess you do understand." Ron's entire body seemed to relax. "You remember what it was like in the school back then. Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle were still here. The Death Eaters were making almost weekly attacks on the families of the members of the Order, so everyone here had lost someone close to them."

"It was a difficult time," Severus said, not really wanting to drag up those memories. The times might have been difficult, but Albus was still alive then, and his house's prefect hadn't yet become a killer.

"Yeah, it was. And in the middle of all that insanity, Harry figured out that he wasn't really drawn to girls, after all. He, ah, started seeing Blaise. They were incredibly discrete about it all. If Harry hadn't told me, I never would've known, though I think Hermione had guessed. But you know Harry. He couldn't live a lie like that indefinitely and he . . . he told me."

"And?" Severus prompted when Ron fell silent.

"I hit the roof, of course. It wasn't that Blaise was another man that upset me. It was that he was Slytherin." Ron looked him right in the eye and softly confessed, "I couldn't see how Harry could possibly risk involvement with someone who'd slept in the same room with Draco Malfoy and company for seven years."

"Zabini and Kerrigan were never part of Malfoy's inner circle," Severus said.

"I know that – now. All I could see then was that Harry was sleeping with a Slytherin, and that it would only be a matter of time before Zabini betrayed Harry to Voldemort. I . . . lost it, totally. Called Harry a traitor, made such a stink that everyone in the dorm knew what had happened. They followed my lead and gave Harry the cold shoulder for months that year. It was horrible. Hermione was the only one who supported him throughout it all, and she wouldn't speak to me for the entire time. I nearly lost them both because of my hate and stupidity."

"I never knew any of this," Severus said, amazed. Whenever there was discord between the three most famous Gryffindors, it had always been apparent.

"We weren't goin' to advertise it. It was bad enough Harry was sleeping with a Slytherin without us letting Malfoy know about it," Ron said.

"What happened?" Severus asked.

Ron gave a mirthless laugh. "I won. You remember the last quidditch match that Gryffindor and Slytherin played before Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle joined the Death Eaters?"

"I'm not likely to forget that particular game," Severus answered. A scuffle had broken out after a particularly offensive Slytherin play, and before it was over, there was an all out riot, with the forces of Darkness and Light battling it out in the stands as their parents were fighting outside of the school. Quidditch had been cancelled for the rest of the year after that.

"Blaise ended up in the thick of it. He barely got out alive," Ron said.

"If I remember rightly, you were the one who pulled him out of the fray," Severus remarked, more curious than ever now.

"He'd never done anything except date Harry . . . and everyone was ready to kill him because of that. It wasn't right." Ron looked down. "And it was all my fault. But it was too late to change anything at that point; the damage was done. Harry broke it off with Blaise the next day."

"Why?" Severus asked, thinking that if he were in Potter's place and going to sever ties with anyone, it would be the friends who had turned on him.

"It wasn't like we could ever really talk about it, but . . . I think he was still blaming himself for Cedric Diggory's death. To have someone he cared about almost murdered because of his relationship with him was more than Harry could probably handle back then."

"It must have been hard on him," Severus said without thinking.

"Yeah. The day he told us he'd broken it off was awful. It was the saddest and bravest thing I've ever seen. He just walked into the Common room after he'd ended it with Blaise. His face was still streaked with tears. He told us that he and Blaise were through, and that Blaise wasn't a target anymore. He warned us that if any of us ever went after Blaise again that he'd take it as a personal attack and deal with it accordingly. Then he turned on his heel and went up to our dorm room. We were all already feeling guilty over what happened, seeing how we'd hurt Harry only made it worse. Everyone tried to make it up to both Harry and Blaise, but . . . it was too late."

Severus took a deep breath, feeling as though he'd been released from a Siren spell. Finally, he asked into the quiet, "How did you . . . get past all that? It sounds like the kind of thing that would end a friendship."

Ron looked down at the board. "It nearly did. Harry didn't even act mad at us. It was like . . . he was dead inside, which was so much worse. Hermione wasn't speaking to any of us. Blaise wouldn't even look at us, let alone accept an apology, not that I blame him. We probably would've gone on that way until we finished school, except . . . ."

"The attack on Hogwarts," Severus supplied.

"Yeah. Blaise, Hermione, and I ended up defending the first year Gryffindor dorms together. The Death Eaters really wanted to take Blaise out because he was Slytherin and hadn't joined them. We spent as much time defending him as the dorms. I guess that helped Blaise get over what I'd done to him. As for Harry . . . do you remember when Gryffindor's main corridor caved in under the Death Eaters' final assault? Harry thought all of us were dead at that point."

"I remember. When we saw the Gryffindor Tower wall come down, Harry lost his focus and they nearly got through." Severus nodded. "He wasn't quite sane for the remainder of the battle. But, then, who among us was?"

"Professor Dumbledore?" Ron suggested with a sad smile.

"Yes, I suppose that when you begin a battle as a lunatic, very little that occurs during it is likely to unhinge you," Severus said.

"Severus! It's not right to speak ill of the dead," Ron chastised.

"I wasn't speaking ill of him. His thought processes were never what anyone would call logical; that was what made him so great. But you were saying about Harry?" he returned to the one subject that was never far from his thoughts these days.

"When he saw that we weren't all dead, he burst into tears and held on to us . . . I think it's the only time I ever really saw him cry. After that, it was like all that other stuff never happened. He was just so happy to have us back. Since Blaise was friendly with us after that, it made everything easier all around. I kept hoping that Harry and he would try again, but . . . ."

"So you think encouraging Harry to . . . take up with me will somehow make up for what happened eleven years ago?" Severus asked. He was trying not to be judgemental, but his heart was aching for Harry. It didn't help when he remembered how hard he'd worked back then to make Potter's charmed life as difficult as possible. Yes, what Ron had done was terrible, but recalling some of the things he'd said and done to Harry hardly put him in a position where he could throw any stones.

"No, I know that nothing can ever make up for what I took away from him, but . . . if I can help him find happiness, I'll do anything I can."

"Then you need to encourage him to find some nice young man who will – " he broke off as the sitting room door banged open and the object of their conversation swept into the room in a flutter of midnight blue robes.

Ron and he both started like thieves.

"I know you can't be plotting my surprise party, it's months away. What's with the guilty faces?" Harry laughed, coming over to the table. He paused beside Severus, reached out and collected his buttered nut bread, and promptly gobbled down the piece. "I don't know how you can stand this stuff. It's awful."

"I notice you didn't leave me any," Severus remarked.

Harry laughed. "This moonshade gathering's thirsty work."

"That was food, not drink," Severus pointed out.

"Oh, right you are," Harry said, and then finished off Snape's tea as well.

"Too milky," Harry complained with a crinkled nose.

Ron was chuckling as Severus tried to decide how he should respond to the audacity.

"So, what are the pair of you up to? Bedroom hasn't got polka dots now, does it?" Harry asked Ron with a mischievous grin.

"A nice tartan, actually, in orange and pink," Ron answered, slapping Harry's hand away as it made a grab for the remaining custard tart.

"You've got to live with her, mate, not me," Harry laughed and snitched the tart with his other hand.

"Some of us mightn't live at all if they don't mind their manners," Ron said.

"Sorry," Harry said. "You want it back?"

Both Severus and Ron stared askance at the half eaten tart as Harry offered it back.

"No, of course I don't want it back. That's not the point. Hermione and I raised you with better manners than that," Ron complained in an elderly sounding voice that set Harry off into spasms of laughter.

"You had fun tonight, didn't you?" Ron said when the merriment calmed.

"Yes. Poor Neville. We'd gotten half the moonshade he needed when a couple of unicorns showed up and started to help us look for the flowers. He's still nervous out there," Harry said.

"With good reason," Severus said. "The forest isn't forbidden on a whim. It is dangerous, sometimes lethally so, as you of all people should know."

"Yeah, but it smelt good tonight. All fresh and growing. We should go for a walk out there tomorrow night," Harry said. He glanced over at the chessboard and asked, "Who's winning?"

"That's a sore point at the moment," Ron said with a grin.

"Severus is just baiting the trap, lulling you into a false sense of security," Harry replied, sitting down in the chair next to Snape's.

Severus attempted a glare. "I am three moves from finding myself checkmated."

"Four, but it's close enough," Ron corrected.

"There you have it," Severus said. "I have no choice but to concede to a greater power."

"You give up too easily," Harry complained. "Here, try this."

"Harry!" Ron chastised as Harry moved Severus' remaining bishop three places over. "Put that back."

"No, it's all right," Severus said. He hadn't seen the move, but it did delay the inevitable. And if Ron didn't move his queen, Severus' bishop would have her with his next move.

Startled, Severus watched the white queen retreat, postponing the threatened checkmate by several moves.

Harry reached for one of Severus' two remaining pawns. Before moving the piece, he asked, "You mind?"

Intrigued, Severus gave a wave at the board. "Feel free. I've already all but forfeited. Unless, of course, Ron feels put at an unfair advantage."

Ron grinned. "What – you two? Dream on."

Severus watched with amazement as Harry tore apart the web Ron had thrown over him with several seemingly unplanned moves. Each time Severus was sure Harry was going to lose the piece he'd moved, but in each case, Ron couldn't take the black player without sacrificing a more important piece of his own.

They spent the next forty-five minutes that way, with Ron chasing Harry around the board, but neither of them losing a single piece.

Harry was about to move their black rook out of danger when Severus reached out to stop him.

"No, wait. This one instead," Severus suggested, moving an adjacent pawn forward.

Harry glanced at him and grinned.

Ron moved his last pawn forward to block this new threat to his queen.

Severus took the pawn with his bishop. The white queen would have the piece with her next move, but Harry had positioned their rook in a straight, unbroken line with their bishop. If Ron took the bishop, he'd sacrifice his queen – and lose his king in the next move, Severus excitedly acknowledged. "I believe you're in check."

"Try mate. Bloody hell," Ron exclaimed in an incredulous voice as he stared at the board. "Brilliant game!"

"Hardly," Severus said. "Together we were barely competition."

"No, you were fantastic. Tell him, Harry," Ron urged.

"He's right. You were fantastic. Ron hasn't lost a game since we were sixteen – to anyone," Harry said.

"I was in defeat before you joined me. The credit must be yours," Severus acknowledged.

Harry laughed. "No way. The only thing I'm good at is being chased around the board. I play him enough to know how to keep out of immediate danger, but eventually, I get bored and he starts picking off my pieces. You at least are able to see his strategies."

"It was sheer luck, I assure you," Severus said, still not sure how they'd won.

"Guess we're just an unbeatable team." Harry smiled as he reached out to cut another slice of nut bread off the loaf and butter it.

"That's what I've been trying to tell him all night," Ron said.

"Huh?" Harry enquired mid-chew.

"Ron," Severus warned.

To his immense relief, Ron blushed and quickly muttered, "Nothing."

"The pair of you are starting to worry me," Harry remarked as he refilled Snape's teacup.

Severus' eyebrows raised as Harry filled the cup until it was pale with milk, instead of the darker brew Harry preferred. Potter passed it over to him. Severus took a sip and then straightened up in his seat as Harry repossessed the cup and guzzled down half of it before passing it back to him again.

"Why's that?" Ron questioned, sounding every bit the guilty conspirator.

"The idea of you two joining forces chills my blood. No one will be – " Harry's words broke off as the door opened again.

"Ah, my three favourite people in the world!" Hermione grinned. Her pale purple robe with its black velvet trim complimented her colouring perfectly.

She came over and gave Ron a fast kiss, ruffled Harry's hair as she would have done two months ago when they were seven, and gave Severus' shoulder a brief touch in passing as she took the seat near Ron. She glanced at them, shook her head, and said in very much the same motherly tone she would have used weeks ago, "Harry, give Severus back his mug and get your own."

Her admonishment might have gone over better had she not reached out and taken a sip out of Ron's cup immediately afterwards. Harry and Ron broke into immediate laughter. It was all Severus could do to keep from joining them as a totally confused Hermione asked, "What?"

Harry calmed himself and said, "Do as I say, not as I do, hmmm?" as he pointed to Ron's cup.

"Ah, well . . . ." an abashed grin lit her face.

"Did you have a good meeting?" Ron asked.

"Oh, yes. Madam Malkin advised the girls on how to start their own business," Hermione answered. "Is there nothing but nut bread?"

"Well, we weren't expecting you lot back this early, were we?" Ron said.

"There's this," Harry said, once again offering the half-eaten custard tart he'd filched off Ron.

Hermione stared at it for a moment.

As she started to reach for the thing, Severus stopped her. "Honestly, do none of you ever use magic outside of the classroom? Accio scones, sweets, and biscuits."

The words were barely spoken when a gold tray of raisin scones, custard tarts, and various biscuits floated through the nearby window into the room.

Hermione and Harry fell upon them like starving wolves once the tray settled on the table.

Severus shook his head as he watched the pair.

"I really can't understand how the three of you have survived in the Wizarding World this long," Severus commented as his companions' sounds of enjoyment declared their delight with his choices.

"You mean why we don't summon stuff like this?" Harry asked, gesturing with the cherry tart in his hand.

"Well, yes. For a start," Severus said.

"It's easy to explain," Harry said, but instead of explaining, he asked, "Where'd you get this from?"

"What do you mean – where did I get it from? You just saw me summon it," Severus spoke as if to an idiot.

Harry just grinned. "You didn't create it out of whole cloth. Nor did you transfigure it from crumbs. Where did you summon it from?"

Severus opened his mouth and closed it. After a moment's thought, he said, "From the embossing on the tray, I suspect the sweets came from Hogwarts kitchens. Is there anything wrong with that?"

"Not in this case, no," Harry said. "The house elves always make enough to feed an army, plus the school, but in other cases . . . summoning what you want can be a problem. Hermione and I did some research on it."

"On summoning? Isn't that rather like a Muggle researching walking or breathing?" Severus asked. "It's something a wizard instinctively does to make his like easier. Why would you need to research it?"

"Most times when we summon something, it's an article we already own. Most times, that is. But during the Triwizards' Tournament, I was tempted to summon a pair of aqua-lungs before I figured out how to use magic to breathe under water." At Severus' pointed stare, Harry amended, "All right, before Dobby told me how to breathe under water. The point being, had I summoned those aqua-lungs, where would they have come from? Exeter? Paris? Australia? I didn't have any, so they would have had to come from somewhere."

"Presuming you had the power to call something from that distance," Severus said, allowing his tone to convey his feelings on that matter.

Harry simply smiled at his scepticism. "I was desperate; they would have come."

"I still don't see what you're getting at," Severus said. Harry's expression was making it plain that he believed his point to be obvious.

"Well, if Harry had summoned those aqua-lungs, he would have been stealing them from someplace," Hermione said.

Severus looked at her as though she'd lost her mind. "What?"

"Well, he didn't own any and he wasn't old enough or skilled enough to transfigure a pair – not that I'd want to trust my life to a pair of transfigured aqua-lungs – so he would have called somebody else's aqua-lungs to him," Hermione explained.

"But he didn't do it," Severus said. "He used the house elf's advice."

"That's not the point," Harry and Hermione said in unison.

Severus looked to Ron, who just shrugged. Obviously, this was more of an issue for Muggle-born wizards than those raised in the Wizarding World. Trying to make sense of this issue that Hermione and Harry were quite passionate about, Severus asked, "So what sort of research did you do, and what did it show?"

"I planted a number of unusual objects around the school and gave Harry a list to summon," Hermione said. "They all came to him."

"And this was a surprise because?" Severus tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

"And then I gave him a list of very common objects to summon," Hermione said.

"This is fourth year homework," Severus said.

"Yes, it is. But normally, the students are summoning something they own," Harry said. "When I used Hermione's list of common items, the closest object that fit the description responded."

"I still don't understand what the problem is," Severus said, taking another slice of nut bread.

Harry raised his eyebrows, crinkling his lightning bolt scar in a totally compelling manner, and said, "Accio brocade jacket."

Severus gasped in surprise as all his buttons popped open. His jacket peeled off him, incidentally getting smeared with butter as it flew from his body over to Harry, who collected it out of the air with a smirk.

"Now do you see the problem?" Harry asked.

"Unless you specify whose jacket or scone you want, the spell retrieves the nearest one," Hermione added, heroically stifling giggles at whatever was in his expression. "That's why we don't use summoning charms unless absolutely necessary."

"Or unless we're being very specific about the object we're calling," Harry said.

"Point taken. May I have my jacket back, please?" he asked with as much dignity as he could muster while sitting there with butter all over his hand and sleeve.

This time there was no attempt made to hide the laughter as it spilled out of everyone. Even Severus felt his mouth twitching.

Unable to credit how much he was enjoying simply sitting here with these three people, Severus relaxed back into his chair after performing a quiet cleaning charm on himself and his jacket – much to the further amusement of his companions.

*************

The one thing that neither the press nor the history books had ever mentioned about the Boy Who Lived was the fact that Potter would forget his head if it weren't tied onto his shoulders. Severus didn't recall Harry being this forgetful as a student, but now that he had such close contact with the man, he was seeing how absent-minded the young DADA professor could be. The latest example of Potter's forgetfulness was typical. Harry had come down to Severus' laboratory last night to grade his fourth period students' reports and keep Snape company while he worked on a Cold Ease Potion for the infirmary.

Severus' hadn't even felt surprise when he'd looked down from his podium this morning during second period and seen Potter's pile of papers sitting there on the empty desk next to Stanton.

Fortunately, they both had third period free today, so it was only a matter of tracking the nitwit down. By Merlin's beard, he'd never seen anyone as bright as Potter who could be so aggravatingly absentminded.

Severus figured his best bet for finding Potter was the staff room. He never frequented the place himself if he could avoid it, but he knew that most of his co-workers stopped in there to commiserate when they had a break between classes. It was actually one of the easiest rooms for him to access, as there was a hidden passageway between his potions lab and the break room storage pantry.

Severus dimmed the lumos light on his wand as he eased the hidden panel open. As always, the pantry was dark and empty. He closed the panel behind him and approached the door to the break room proper. It was ajar, as usual. The few times he'd used this route, he would use his invisibility charm and then slip over to one of the wing backed easy chairs before he would reappear. But today a grey robed Neville Longbottom was reading in one of them. The bright green robe draping the arm of the other was very familiar.

Well, at least he'd found Harry. The lavatory door was closed, so Potter was probably in there.

Severus was about to step back into the passageway and enter the room by a normal means when he heard his name mentioned further into the room. Actually, it was being mentioned at the break room door where he could see the curly headed Callis Miller and small, blond Alicia Crenshaw just entering the room.

"I tell you, I saw Potter sneaking out of Snape's quarters Saturday morning with my own eyes," Miller insisted in the malicious tone that seemed common to all gossipers.

"Oh, really, Callis. Don't be absurd. Harry Potter and Snape? For heaven's sake," Crenshaw wisely dismissed the very idea. "I told you before I don't want to hear anymore of this nonsense."

"But it's true, I tell you!" Miller insisted.

"So what if it is? What business is it of ours? They're full-grown men, Callis. Keep your nose out of their business," Crenshaw advised.

"They've been inseparable since they were restored to adulthood. It can't be voluntary. Who in their right mind would even speak to Snape unless absolutely necessary? You know how trusting Potter is and what a bastard that Snape is. Who knows what a former Death Eater is capable of? If he even is former. He's got the boy under Imperius. Why else would Potter hang around with that greasy bastard?"

Severus bit his lip. How often had Harry warned him that eavesdroppers rarely heard anything good about themselves?

To his shock, Neville Longbottom snapped his book closed and jumped to his feet. His cheeks were bright with colour, his eyes hard with rage. "I don't think you should be talking about Professor Snape like that."

Callis' laughing blue eyes swept over Longbottom and were understandably unimpressed, for it looked as though it were taking every ounce of Longbottom's courage to stand there, but it was more than Snape had ever expected of the man. "Why ever not?"

"Because it's not right. He wouldn't talk about you behind your back like that. Whatever he had to say; he'd say it to your face," Longbottom admonished with all of Godric Gryffindor's piety.

"Oh, please. Just because the blackguard's stopped kicking you for the moment, you're going to lick his boots?" Miller laughed. "Grow a backbone, Longbottom."

"I don't need to grow one. I've got spine enough to deal with the likes of you," Longbottom shot back, sounding very much like Harry at the moment.

"Oh, you and whose –" Miller's words cut off as the bathroom door opened and a white-lipped Potter emerged.

Harry was nearly five inches shorter than Miller, who was only slightly smaller than Snape himself. It also didn't help that Harry didn't have his robes on at the minute. Those old blue jeans and powder blue sweatshirt looked good on him, but they made Harry look like a Muggle schoolboy.

"Ah, so this is where your courage comes from," Miller said.

"Neville doesn't need me to find his courage. He's got quite enough of it on his own. You mightn't know it, but Neville took out two Death Eaters in a fair fight when he was only fifteen. Not to mention the six he dealt with during the attack on Hogwarts, but you wouldn't know about that, would you, Miller? You weren't involved in that battle," Potter had learned something about the art of implication in the time he'd spent with him, Severus acknowledged, hearing, as everyone else in the room doubtless did, the unspoken insult.

"The Order of the Phoenix was a secret society. It didn't have open membership," Miller stiffly replied. "And don't get your back up with me just because I've told it like it is."

"Told it like it is, did you? And what was it you were saying? Or is it something that you'll only whisper when there's no one there who can dispute it?" Harry did a passable imitation of his sneer as well, Severus acknowledged.

"You want to know what I said? Why not, it's the truth. I was just telling Alicia here –"

"Leave me out of this, Callis. I told you it was all nonsense," Crenshaw quickly interrupted.

"At any rate, I was just telling her how I saw you sneaking out of Snape's quarters on Saturday morning. And how that the only reason you'd be caught dead boffing that Death Eater bastard would be the Imperius spell," Miller spat.

Severus had to hand it to Miller, even as his blood ran cold at the open accusation. He never would have had the nerve to say anything that crudely inflammatory to Potter, even when the boy was in school.

For a heartbeat, Harry's expression twisted with rage, and Severus fully expected Miller to crumble into ash under whatever spell Potter unleashed. But Harry seemed to get control of himself with an effort. In a tight, angry voice that was familiar to Snape from the dozens of squirmishes they'd had with Crater and his cronies at the Hogsmeade school, Harry said, "Severus Snape is my friend and you will not speak of him that way. In or out of my presence."

"Your 'friend', is that what you call it?" Miller laughed. "How do you think the students' parents will feel about your cozening up to Voldemort's henchman?"

Severus braced himself, trying to be prepare himself to hear Harry announce to the world once and for all how absurd the very suggestion that there could ever be anything sexual between himself and Severus Snape was.

"Severus Snape was never Voldemort's henchman. He was fighting the dark wizard for years before anyone in this room was even born," Harry answered, his cold anger far more frightening than the hot rage of moments ago. "You will not speak of him in that manner."

Severus swayed as though he had taken a physical blow. Harry hadn't denied the accusation. Hadn't acted like the very idea was repulsive to him. All Potter had taken issue with was the insult to Snape's name.

"Or?" Miller sneered.

Harry just stared at Miller for a second. Then the older man gasped and stiffened. No wands were drawn, but then, none were needed when Potter was involved. Miller would have done well to remember that.

"Harry," Longbottom re-entered the conversation, "what did you do?"

Fury in his malignant eyes, Miller opened his mouth to spew out whatever poison he had planned. The raucous, sharp tones of a crow filled the stone chamber, nearly deafening them all.

"That'll last until you learn some manners," Harry said. "I expect we'll all have to get used to it for a while."

As though he were no longer worthy of his interest, Harry turned his back on Miller and returned to the armchair beside Longbottom's.

Miller stood in the doorway, his hands clutching his throat as increasingly more hysterical crow calls emanated from his open mouth.

Severus could see Alicia Crenshaw trying very hard not to laugh as she looked at the fool in the door and said, "I suppose I'd better take you down to hospital. Madame Pomfrey isn't going to be able to do anything about this, is she, Harry?"

Harry looked over at Alicia. "I wouldn't think so. Not unless she has something in her potion bottles to impart manners."

"Well, Severus makes them. That's not likely, is it?" She said with an approving grin. Turning to Miller, she said, "Come on, Callis, before class lets out. You don't want everyone to see you like this."

Though, from her tone, it was quite clear Professor Crenshaw wouldn't mind.

A silence fell over the staff room as Crenshaw escorted the croaking Miller away.

"Are you all right, Harry?" Longbottom questioned once they were alone in the room.

Harry shrugged. "I just get so tired of living in a glass bowl. By the way, thank you for what you said to Miller before. You didn't have to do that."

"Yes, I did. I know he'd deny it, but . . . Professor Snape is my friend," Longbottom said with the conviction of a hopeless Gryffindor.

Funny thing was, absurd as the very idea was, Snape knew that he would never refute the claim or say another unkind word about Longbottom, no matter the provocation. What Longbottom had done was extraordinary. Severus had come to expect that kind of loyalty from Harry Potter, but to hear this man whom he had victimized for nearly seventeen years defend him on the grounds of a few weeks' kindness was incomprehensible.

He felt . . . humbled by what he'd just witnessed.

"Harry?" Longbottom said after another silent moment or two in which Harry simply stared into the fire in the hearth in front of him with absolutely no expression on his face.

"Yes?"

"What Miller said before about seeing you leaving Severus' rooms early in the morning – was it true?" Neville asked.

Harry released a loud sigh and then simply said, "Yes."

No explanation or denial of guilt, just 'yes'.

"Are you and Severus dating?" to Severus' eternal shock, there was no judgement or disgust in Longbottom's tone or expression. He seemed merely curious and not the least bit put off by the idea.

Harry started in his chair, looking up at Neville as if he'd only just taken in what they were discussing. For the longest time, Potter said nothing.

Severus thought that he'd sit that way forever. Stony silence, not even justifying the accusation with a response. Perhaps it was another manifestation of the Gryffindor obscure code of honour that Snape had never comprehended.

Finally, Harry sagged back into his chair. "I don’t know what the hell we're doing, Neville. All I know is that I'm not alone anymore. Is that so wrong?"

"Of course, it's not wrong," Longbottom assured, reaching across the space between their chairs to pat Harry's arm.

In the hallway outside, the bell that marked the end of a class sounded. Fourth period would start in ten minutes.

Harry gave another sigh and rose to his feet. "Guess we'd best be off. Thanks again, Neville."

"Any time," the chubby Herbology teacher answered with a smile. "Oh, and, Harry?"

"Yes?"

"Good luck."

"With?" Harry sounded as confused as Severus felt.

For the first time in memory, Neville Longbottom appeared almost sagely. "Whatever. See you at dinner."

Severus waited until Harry started for the door before he slipped back into his hidden passageway. It wasn't until he exited the dark and dusty path into his lab that he noticed the sheaf of parchments he still held in his hand. If he hurried, he might be able to drop them off at the DADA classroom before the fourth period bell sounded.

But that would require that he face Harry Potter, and he wasn't quite sure he was up to that right now. He had a lot to think about.

The door crashed open and a red and gold robed brunet hurried into class.

"Mr. Skipper!" Snape barked.

The heavyset boy jumped, looking as though he were about to wet himself. "Yes, sir?"

"Run these up to the DADA classroom and hand them to Professor Potter," he ordered.

Appearing relieved, the dark haired boy nodded. "Of course, sir. Right away."

As the rotund student nervously moved to collect the papers from him, Severus was put in mind of another Gryffindor student of his who'd seemed equally ill at ease in his own body as Skipper.

"Oh, and, Skipper?"

"Yes, Professor?" the resigned expression in those dark brown eyes declared that the boy knew he'd gotten off too easily.

"Ten points to Gryffindor," Snape said.

The parchments dropped out of the hapless Skipper's hand to cover the floor at their feet. "Sorry, sir."

Severus bit his tongue as the nearly apoplectic student scurried about on his hands and knees to gather the papers up. The boy was shaking all over.

Once he was back on his feet, Skipper quietly asked, "Professor Snape, did I really hear you just award ten points to Gryffindor?"

Snape nodded. "About a dozen years too late. On your way, boy."

As several of his own house students arrived, Severus made a conscious effort to collect himself. One could never reveal weakness to a Slytherin. Just like Slytherins could never expect fair treatment from Gryffindors?

Hardly. Harry was right. His world wasn't the same anymore. Not by a long shot.

Barely able to suppress a sudden wave of gratitude that washed over him, Severus turned to the board to list the ingredients needed for today's lesson. He took special glee in writing 'crow feathers' on the chalkboard.

***************************

"Harry? A word if you would."

Harry Potter froze as he stepped from his DADA classroom after fourth period, wincing at Minerva McGonagall's tone. She sounded very much the Headmaster at the moment.

"Hello, Minerva," he greeted.

"I've just had the most extraordinary interview with Madam Pomfrey. Am I right in believing that one Hogwarts professor has just cursed a colleague?"

Calm was everything at moments like this. Maintaining an iron control over his voice and expression, Harry softly said, "We both know it's true."

"I suppose there is an explanation for this?" she asked.

"Of course there's an explanation. He said some things he shouldn't have said. I lost my temper. I didn't intend to do it – it just . . . happened. I know it's terrible and I should never have done it, but I'm just happy it wasn't an Unforgivable."

"These sort of things do not 'just happen'. Harry, you do understand the severity of this? It isn't something I can simply ignore. Callis is threatening to take it as high as the Ministry."

"I know. I wasn't thinking."

"What did he say? You've never been rash like this. I expect this type of thing from Professor Weasley, not you."

Harry sighed and glanced around the now empty corridor.

"I'm sorry, Minerva. It really wasn't intentional. Callis was calling Severus a Death Eater and implying that he had me under Imperius. Severus fought too long and hard to take that kind of abuse from someone who never even lifted a wand during either war. I lost my temper and cursed him," Harry said with legitimate regret. He wasn't really sorry about what he'd done to Callis. He simply regretted the inconvenience the consequences of his rash action would cause Minerva and the school.

"I see." For a minute she just stared at him. "Well, kindly go up to the infirmary and remove the curse."

"I'm afraid I can't," he declined.

"Harry, this is no time for pride. If the Ministry becomes involved – "

"I meant what I said, Minerva. I can't remove it. It was a self-limiting spell."

He sensed that she was working as hard as he to maintain her controls as she asked, "And the limitations were?"

"That Callis would stay like that until he learned some manners," Harry answered.

For a moment, she just stared at him in shock. "Learned some manners? Callis Miller? Oh, dear."

"I know. I'm sorry. If you want my resignation – "

"Don't you dare even think about resigning. It's bad enough I have one position to cover because of your lack of control. I expect you to cover Callis' third and fifth period classes until he 'learns some manners'. Is that understood?"

"Yes, ma'm," Harry felt like a chastened schoolboy. "What about his other classes?"

"I'll worry about those."

"Do you really think the Ministry will get involved?" Harry asked.

"Were the wizard who laid the curse on him anyone but you, I'd say yes, but we both know what will happen once they hear you're involved," Minerva said. She seemed a little relieved, but such outright favouritism couldn't help but rankle any Gryffindor's spirit of fair play. "Still, I would expect a call from the Minister were I you."

"Yes, Minerva," he answered. Once again, all was to be forgiven because he was the Boy Who Lived.

She stared at him for a moment and then counselled, "I'm sure it will be all right, Harry. Both Alicia and Neville insisted that you were provoked beyond reason. We'll figure something out."

She gave his arm an encouraging pat and left him standing in the hallway. Wondering when he was ever going to really grow up, so that he would stop getting into these types of messes, he turned back into his classroom.

***********

Once again, Albus Dumbledore's philosophy on Hogwarts was proven true. What had happened between Miller and him in the break room should have been a complete secret, so naturally, the entire school knew. Not the reason for the cursing, but the outcome.

Depressed about the entire idiotic thing, Harry chose to skip dinner that night. He'd already told Hermione and Ron what happened when they'd shown up to chat at his classroom door after fifth period. He didn't want to have to explain the whole thing to Blaise at dinner tonight with Severus sitting right there beside him.

He was sprawled on some cushions in front of the fire in his sitting room trying to grade homework when a knock on the door interrupted him. A glance at the clock on the mantel told him that dinner would be over by now. It was probably Hermione and Ron bringing him something to eat. Sighing, he climbed to his feet and opened the door.

The black robed man standing outside it seemed to fill the entire doorway. Harry blinked up at Severus. Every aspect and nuance of Snape's long, chiselled face was familiar to him now. He could see how uneasy his friend was the second he saw his eyes. This was the first time Severus Snape had visited his quarters. Up until now, he hadn't even been certain that Severus even knew where his rooms were.

Martin, the red bearded old wizard whose portrait hung on Harry's door, was watching the head of Slytherin with open suspicion.

Warmth overtook his shock as he noticed the covered plate and goblet Severus carried on a tray before him.

"Hi," he greeted, feeling a grin take his face in spite of his troubles.

"Hello. You missed dinner," Severus said.

"Come on in," he offered, wanting to get Severus away from Martin's prying gaze before the portrait said something to make his friend even more uncomfortable than he already was.

Severus followed him into the room. He watched the dark eyes scan their surroundings, passing over the pictures on the mantle, the bookcases, armchairs, couch, coffee table, and end tables before finally settling on the cushions and schoolwork on the round Persian rug in front of the fire.

"I thought you might be hungry," Severus said at least, thrusting the tray out at him.

"Thanks," Harry said, taking the tray. "Come on in and sit down."

Severus followed him in and sat on the end of the brown couch nearest his cushions. After a moment's thought, Harry wordlessly levitated the coffee table between Severus' position and his cushions so that they could face each other and talk while he ate. They both watched the books, parchments, and clutter on the coffee table scatter to make room for him to put his tray down before he reclaimed his seat on the blue velvet cushion.

Harry lifted the gold cover on his meal. The fragrant scents of roast beef instantly assailed him. He stared down at the food. Mashed potatoes, peas, carrots, and gravy – all his favourites. Severus certainly knew what would tempt him. Suddenly ravenous, he dug in, feeling those dark eyes upon him the entire time.

Not that that was unusual. Severus always seemed to be watching him. At first Harry had thought that his new friend was waiting for him to betray him in some way, but now he knew it was just something Severus did.

"You want some?" he asked, offering a forkful of gravy dripping beef up to the man across from him.

"No thank you. I've already eaten," Severus softly denied.

While Harry attacked the rest of his meal, Severus seemed content to watch him eat and stare around the place. Finally, Snape commented, "Where are your World Cups?"

"Hmm?" Harry asked around a mouthful of peas.

"None of your quidditch trophies are on display. I thought you'd have cases of them."

Harry swallowed his food and softly said, "There were only the two World Cups. They're in a trunk in my bedroom, along with the rest of that stuff." Sensing the question Severus didn't ask, he answered, "It was never about the trophies. At least, not for me. I just liked to play."

Severus nodded, and a quiet fell between them again.

When he'd swallowed his last bite, Harry wordlessly vanished the empty dishes back to the kitchen.

"That's quite a talent you've got there," Severus remarked, staring at the empty space on the coffee table where the tray had been seconds before.

"Yeah, but you were right about it at Christmas," he admitted.

"Right about what?" Severus asked.

"Wandless magic getting a wizard into trouble. I do too much automatically without taking the time to consider the consequences."

"Ah, Miller," Severus remarked.

The lack of artifice was one of the things he loved about this man. There was never any beating around the bush with Severus. When he wanted to talk about something, he was blunt to the point of rudeness.

"You heard, then," Harry said with a sigh, unconsciously drawing his knees up to his chest in a defensive pose.

"Did you think I wouldn't?" Severus asked in return.

"I didn't think at all, obviously," he glumly admitted, wishing he'd kept hold of his temper. He braced himself for the inevitable questions – the why and where of it – but Severus remained silent. Looking up at his visitor, Harry asked, "How much did you hear?"

"Everything," Severus answered.

Harry knew that tone. It was the same one Severus would use when they were seven and got caught doing something wrong, something that the adult questioning them hadn't known the right questions to ask. He could almost hear Neville's voice asking, "Did you see who broke the sunrot vine, Severus?" And Severus' honest, if misleading answer of, "No, sir, I didn't see anyone else near it," when he'd broken it himself.

"Everything being?" Harry asked, sharpening his gaze.

Severus met his stare and replied, "You cursed Callis Miller with a self-limiting spell you can't remove."

Harry knew that much was general knowledge right now. He also sensed Severus was still lying to him, but he couldn't figure out the nature of the lie. Having no patience with Slytherin word games right now, Harry decided to let it pass.

"Hermione wasn't happy with me. Have you come to lecture me on controlling my temper, too?" Because if he had, he could leave right now, Harry decided, in no mood for anyone else telling him how stupid he'd been when he was still smarting from his loss of control himself.

"Hardly. Miller is a fool, who no doubt got what he deserved. It's a miracle it hadn't happened to him years ago," Severus said with honest relish. "I came to bring you food."

"Oh. I'm sorry," Harry said, ashamed of himself. "I'm afraid I'm not very good company right now."

"It isn't a requirement you ever made of me," Severus said.

"What?" Harry asked, confused.

"You never required me to be good company to be your friend. I'm not so hypocritical to demand what I'm unwilling to give myself."

"I never found your company lacking," Harry protested. Though it wasn't always easy being Severus' friend, it was always worth the work.

"Your tastes always did leave something to be desired," Severus replied in that droll, dry tone of his.

Harry couldn't keep his laugh in. It spilled out of him like river water cascading over a fall – wild, uncontainable, and ultimately purifying. When he finally calmed, he wiped his eyes and said, "God, that felt good. Thanks, I really needed the laugh."

The smile didn't touch Severus' lips, but it was there in his glinting eyes as he replied, "You are most welcome. Anytime you feel in need of an insult, please feel free to call on me," which, of course, started him laughing again.

This time his outburst didn't last as long. Belatedly recalling his manners, Harry asked, "Do you want something to drink? I've got brandy, whisky, and butterbeer."

"Brandy, please."

Harry got up and made their drinks by hand. Returning to the couch, he gave Severus his snifter and sat down beside him.

"What is it that's got you so upset?" Severus asked after a few sips and a few moments of silence. "Something that fool Miller said?"

"No, I mean, yes, he upset me at the time, but he's an idiot, who cares what he says? I just . . . hate losing control like that."

"Well, it could be worse. You could have used an Unforgivable."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Harry demanded.

"Hermione is good at making people feel better. I'm just being realistic. Miller has been provoking his colleagues since his arrival. It was inevitable that sooner or later he would push the wrong person too far."

"I just wish it had never happened," Harry lamented.

"And I wish I hadn't been born ugly, but we have to deal with reality," Severus shot back in that dry tone that was normally so amusing.

This time the words weren't funny. Harry stared at the sharp features of his friend's face that had once seemed so homely to him, but were now simply a part of who Severus was. "You're not ugly. Don't talk that way about yourself."

"I own a mirror, Harry. I know what I am," Severus said in a tone completely without self-pity, "But I didn't come here to address my shortcomings. We were discussing what happened with Miller today – "

"I don't care about Miller," Harry snapped, confused by the maelstrom of protective, almost angry emotions churning through him at Severus' casual put down of himself. It was all a holdover of the abuse Severus had suffered growing up, Harry knew. He faced those same demons himself every day. If a child's caretaker and peers tell him he's worthless often enough when little, sooner or later he would come to believe it. But that didn't mean it was true, not in his case, and certainly not in Severus'. Slapping his brandy snifter onto the coffee table, he caught hold of Severus' shoulders and nearly shook him. "I care about you and you are not ugly!"

He read the alarm in Severus' eyes, even though the other man's expression was carefully blanked of emotion. He knew Severus wasn't comfortable being touched, but that rule hadn't applied to him for a long time. Still, he could see he'd worried his friend, but he was too upset to know how to reassure. All he knew was the wild feelings rushing through him and, somehow, Severus was the heart of it. He'd cursed a man on Severus' behalf today. There was no way in hell he was going to sit here and listen to Severus spout the same nonsense Miller had.

For a horrible eternity, it felt like something was going to break inside him or that he was going to explode under the emotions, but then he pulled Severus to him and buried his face in the older man's bony, narrow shoulder and instantly felt better. When those long arms closed around his back, he nearly felt calm again. Or at least sane.

He breathed in that sweet, spicy scent that was Severus Snape and tried to get a hold of his emotions.

Just as had happened last month after their first Friday visit to the Three Broomsticks, Severus was stiff as a board in his arms, every inch of the Potions Master seeming to descry his discomfort with the embrace. But, after a frozen moment, Harry felt his friend's right hand give his back a tentative pat.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, trying to find the strength to pull away. "It's just . . . I screwed up something terrible today, Severus. I can't remove the spell. I can't fix it. When am I ever going to grow up for real and stop doing these kinds of things?"

"Ssssh," that lush voice of Severus' soothed as his long hand rubbed his back. "Growing up is overrated. We both know that."

Harry snorted and took another deep breath of Severus. "I messed up so bad."

Words he never expected to hear spilled out of Severus' mouth, "It will be all right, Harry."

His entire body stilled in shock, even as something wild and triumphant screamed 'Yes!' through his soul.

"It will?" he asked, unable to believe what he'd just heard. This man, who saw his own life as an endurance test, was telling him that things would get better?

"Yes," Severus' tone was firm.

"How?"

"We'll fix it, somehow," Severus promised.

Harry expelled a deep breath, letting it cleanse him. He tried to let go of his anxiety as he rested there in Severus' embrace. He knew he should get up and give his touch-shy friend some room, but he couldn't. He needed this too much.

He racked his mind, trying to recall the last time there had been someone here for him like this, and came up blank. Hermione and Ron had always been there, of course, but that was different. They were family, but they were a couple, neither exclusively his to call his own. The anonymous encounters of the last few years had been fun, in a desperate kind of way, but there was no solace in any of it, just physical relief. And before that? This time, he forced himself to really examine what he'd had with Julius, and recognized that even with what he'd thought had been the love of his life, this kind of supportive intimacy had been lacking. The sex had been great, but when all was said and done, he'd still felt lonely inside, even before Julius started playing the field behind his back. If he were searching for something that felt like this, it would have been what he'd had with Blaise back in school. There was that same fumbling innocence to Severus and his relationship. Only, it wasn't that kind of relationship – or was it?

Abruptly, he remembered Neville's question this afternoon as to whether Severus and he were dating, and his own uncertain response. He didn't know what they were – that was the gods' truth. Everything inside him rebelled at the idea that he was actually dating Severus Snape, but what else could he call it? He asked the man out every Friday and Saturday night, and spent every hour conscience and Severus' sufferance would permit haunting the man's lab and rooms. Every day, he kept pushing to get closer to Severus, and Severus wasn't pushing him away anymore. But was that the same as dating?

He didn't know. All he knew was that it was important to him, more important than anything had been for a long time.

He tried to figure out why, but there was no single answer. All he knew was that whatever it was that he had with Severus, it had real meaning. If he was in any doubt about that fact, all he had to do was think about tonight. When had anything his dates said ever moved his soul the way hearing Severus tell him everything would be all right had?

He wondered what their relationship meant to Severus. His only friend, Severus had said, but that was weeks ago and no longer true. Hermione, Ron, Blaise, and even Neville were his friends now – whether Snape would admit it or not.

Did Severus think they were dating, he wondered.

Whether it was a holdover from their being children together or something else, Severus allowed him liberties he permitted no other person. Take their present position. Who else would Severus allow to hang on him like this? Hermione and Ron, perhaps, but it wasn't the same with them. Both he and Severus saw them as parents as much as friends these days. Their relationship with the Weasleys had become confusing as hell.

It was more than just this, though. There were a million little things that Severus allowed him that no one else would dare do to the dour Potions Master. But was that because everyone else feared Severus too much to be casual in his company, or was it because Severus actually made allowances for him that he did for no one else? And, even if Severus did make those allowances specifically for him, did that necessarily mean anything sexual? Couldn't it just as easily be friendship?

Harry didn't know. There were ways to find out, of course. But those methods could endanger what he'd already found with Severus. Beyond that, there were his own desires to consider. Did he really want to take on Severus Snape, the nasty Potions Master of his childhood, as a lover?

Six months ago the very idea would have been viscerally repulsive, but lying here with those strong arms around him, his head rising and falling with the steady rhythm of Severus' chest, breathing his friend in with every breath as that long fingered hand rubbed reassuringly at his back, the idea was not repulsive. It wasn't even unthinkable.

But it was dangerous, because if he were mistaken, Severus would never forgive him. Still, this felt so good. He knew more would feel better . . . .

Harry sighed. Whether his mind could view Severus Snape on a sexual level was obviously irrelevant. His body and heart were making some decisions here and leaving his brain out of the loop – as usual.

Only, this wasn't going to go as usual, he decided. He wasn't going to muck this up. He wasn't going to risk their hard-won friendship on a hormonal crapshoot. Before he jumped this time, he was going to make damn sure those arms were there to catch him. The way Severus was holding him, it seemed almost a promise that they would be, but . . . flesh could lie. That was the one true thing Julius had taught him. Before he made a move on Severus, he was going to be damn certain that his friend felt exactly the same way about him.

So, he lay still and let Severus hold and rub him, adjusting himself to the sharp bones and lean muscled body supporting him, trying to imagine what it would feel like being naked with that body.

He stayed there for more than an hour. Finally, he couldn't hold the position anymore and had to move. It was either that or fall asleep in Snape's arms again, and, while it wasn't an unattractive idea, he wasn't ready to inflict himself upon Severus like that just yet. Perhaps if he could introduce the concept to Severus slowly, he might be more open to the idea.

"Thanks," Harry said, pulling back a little self-consciously.

"None are needed," Severus dismissed in a rough sounding voice.

Harry stared into those eyes, so deep and dark. He could see twin images of himself reflected back at him. There was no displeasure in that gaze, no sense that this had been an unpleasant task for Severus. To the contrary, Severus appeared as flushed and cosy as he felt.

Taking a deep breath, Harry decided to test the grounds a little, to see how far Severus' forbearance actually went. Severus would let him drink out of his cup and eat off his plate without asking. Would he let him do more than that?

Before his better sense could kick in, Harry followed his impulse and reached up to place a quick, chaste kiss in the centre of Severus' forehead. The skin was warm and dry beneath his lips. It felt good.

Severus gave a gasp and went very still beneath him.

Holding his breath, Harry drew back and waited for all hell to break loose.

The shocked silence that followed stretched uncomfortably long, but nothing horrible happened. Severus didn't yell at him, punch him out, or do any of the other things a disinterested party would do to make it plain that his attentions were unwelcome.

"I have an early class tomorrow," Severus said at last into the silence. "I must go."

"Yeah, me, too," Harry said, sensing how flustered his friend was beneath that imperturbable outer control. What he couldn't tell was if it were a good flustered or a bad one. Never able to just let something go, Harry quickly asked, "Will you come with me to the Three Broomsticks tomorrow night?"

With me, not us. Usually, he voiced the Friday night invitation as a group event. He could see that Severus was conscious of the distinction.

Severus met his gaze, gulped loudly, and nodded. "Yes, if you wish."

"I wish. And . . . thanks for tonight. I feel better," he said, giving a shaky smile, because he was suddenly scared down to his bones by what he was doing. Severus Snape was not a man you trifled with. Harry had the sudden vision of his cock erupting into pustulant boils every time he got a hard on if this did not go well.

"It will work out, Harry," Severus said, in regard to the Miller situation, no doubt, but Harry's hopeful heart couldn't help but read more into it. "Good night."

Then, Severus was up and out the door before Harry could even reply.

Staring about the suddenly empty room, Harry got up from the couch and stumbled to his bedroom – to deal with a raging erection that didn't care if it was headed for pustulant boils.

**************

It was a damn good thing he was working for the side of Light, for if he'd been working on the other side, the school would have fallen decades ago, Severus Snape reflected as he watched Madame Pomfrey make her way up the stairs to the break room and her usual third period tea. Routines were so ingrained in Hogwarts that their practitioners never comprehended that those patterns that were the bulwark of their daily lives could be their ultimate undoing. Minerva was somewhat more scrupulous when it came to the monitoring of the students' behaviour and safety, but Hogwarts was still wide open to internal sabotage.

Sighing at the ease with which he accomplished his goal, Severus slipped into the nearly deserted infirmary. He walked through the ward of empty beds to the private room in back, where a peevish, but low cawing could be heard through the door. Miller speaking to himself, no doubt.

He turned the old brass, dragonhead handle and entered the room unhindered. If he'd been a Death Eater intent on assassination, the patient would already be dead. As it was, Miller was sitting straight up in his bed, pointing his wand at him, and cawing at the top of his lungs. The noise was deafening in the contained stone chamber.

"Unless you are going to skewer me with that useless wand, I suggest you lower it immediately. Or would you like some fancy black feathers to go with your pretty new voice?" This was nearly too much fun, Severus thought, taking in the terrified expression on the other teacher's handsome face as Miller lowered his wand with a mewing croak.

"I expect you're wondering what brings me here?" Severus said with a predatory smile.

The squawk that earned him was oddly eloquent.

"I've come to help you. Well, not for your sake, obviously. Personally, I think this is an unmitigated improvement. However, your current predicament is causing a friend of mine undue distress, so it seemed the sooner this is rectified, the better," Severus said.

Miller finally lowered his wand, snatched up a nearby parchment roll and pen off his nightstand to rapidly scribble one word. How?

"And well you might ask that. A self-limiting spell, the parameters of which seem at first glance insurmountable . . . the prognosis is rather bleak. I suspect that if your condition remains unchanged for another two or three days, the school will have no choice but to ship you off to St. Mungo's. We both know how helpful that will be to your condition."

Once, the despair in those frightened blue eyes would have pleased him, but even though a part of him was enjoying this, another part knew he shouldn't be. Had things worked out just a little differently in his life, it could have been him here in Miller's place.

"Now, where I might feel that you deserve anything that might come your way, Harry Potter doesn't need the additional guilt. Therefore, I have given your situation some thought and believe I have come up with a possible solution. The spell, as I was given to understand it, is that you will remain in this condition until you learn manners. Is that not right?"

Miller gave a despondent nod.

"Fortunately for Wizardkind, spells are very literal devices, even self-limiting ones such as this. The solution to your problem is, of course, to learn manners. I've come to help you with that."

More frantic scribbling followed his announcement.

Severus actually smiled as he read 'YOU'VE come to teach me manners?'

"I must admit that there is a certain irony to this situation. Obviously, I have not come to give you deportment lessons. Were I afflicted with the same curse, we both know I would be cawing right along with you in the next room. However, the person who wrote this," Severus reached into his robes and withdrew a small leather covered book, "knew more about manners and etiquette than any wizard of our age could hope to aspire to."

He passed over Lady Seraphina Malfoy's treatise on proper behaviour and watched the other man's hope plummet as he read the ancient title.

Miller took up his pen and parchment again and quickly wrote, 'You think reading a book will fix this? I've already read those!' Miller gestured at a pile of etiquette books stacked on the nightstand. Severus nearly grinned, recognizing Hermione's handiwork. She was the only one other than himself in this school who wasn't blinded by emotion. She had the right idea, just the wrong method of execution.

"You're right. I do not believe that reading a book on manners is going to help your condition in the least. The spell specified that you had to learn manners, which is why I brought this along as well," Severus explained, removing the second phase of his remedy from his robe pocket.

Miller stared at the small brown bottle as though it contained sulphuric acid.

"You are no doubt wondering what that is. It is a memory-enhancing potion of my own creation that I used during my years as Albus Dumbledore's spy. Once you drink it, whatever you experience in the following hour will be impressed upon your memory for the rest of your life. I used it twice and still recall in gruesome detail the tortures suffered by the Muggles the Death Eaters were amusing themselves with those nights, every word spoken in my presence, and every detail on the documents I perused when I visited Voldemort's private chambers unobserved. If you drink this potion and read that book, I promise you that you will learn manners, to the exact definition of the word 'learn'. Are you interested?"

Of course, he was interested. Miller was a fool, but he wasn't completely brainless. He could see that this was his only chance for success.

Severus savoured the play of expression over the other man's near perfect features. Finally, Miller lowered his head and engaged in another burst of furious writing.

Once again, Severus smiled at the outcome. 'How do I know it won't poison me?'

"You don't, of course. You have only my word on that."

More writing followed. 'And why should I trust you?'

"Because as much as I might enjoy watching you fall over dead, I will not enjoy seeing Harry marched off to Azkaban for your murder. I want this situation to go away, and helping you recover is the fastest means to that goal."

Silence followed, then more writing. 'You really are a cold-blooded bastard.'

"That was never in doubt," Severus replied.

Miller bent his head again and put pen to paper. 'What will I owe you in return for this cure?'

Perhaps the man had a brain, after all, Severus thought, approving of the nearly Slytherin suspicion. "Providing that it is in fact a cure and not poison, all I will require of you is your silence. No one must know of my involvement in this. Are we in agreement?"

Miller nodded and reached for the potion.

Severus lingered only long enough to see him pick up Lady Malfoy's etiquette book before leaving.

Just as he'd planned, he encountered no one on his way back to his lab. As with everything of importance in life, timing was everything in the subterfuge game.

*************

Hermione glanced up from the Arithmancy homework she was grading as she heard her name called. Mediwitch Pomfrey was seated at the far end of the break room table. From the state of her half-eaten scone, it was clear she'd been there for some time.

"Good morning, Poppy. How are you?" she asked, lifting her own cold tea and taking a sip.

"Fine, dear. I was just wondering how Harry was doing? He wasn't at breakfast this morning."

"I think he's still a little embarrassed about what happened with Miller yesterday," Hermione answered, wishing like Harry and everyone else that the situation would just go away.

"I'm sure he was provoked. Callis never did know when to keep his mouth shut. Why just last month he – " An odd expression claimed Madame Pomfrey's face. Pushing her white robe's sleeve aside, she glanced down at her left wrist. "Well, isn't that a surprise!"

"What? Are you all right?" Hermione asked, worried by the older woman's expression.

"Come look at this, dear," Madame Pomfrey instructed.

Hermione quickly crossed to the chair next to hers and stared down at her thin wrist. What appeared to be a watch rested there, but instead of the normal watch face, it showed a tiny picture of Callis Miller's hospital room. Severus Snape's figure stood poised in the doorway as the Charms teacher held up his ineffectual wand.

Hermione gasped as she heard Severus' tinny, amused voice say, "Unless you are going to skewer me with that useless wand, I suggest you lower it immediately. Or would you like some fancy black feathers to go with your pretty new voice?"

"That's amazing," Hermione remarked, staring in awe at the magical video feed. "Is that happening now?"

"Yes," Poppy said. "I'd better get down there. I can't leave Callis defenceless like that."

"Severus won't hurt him," Hermione said a little too sharply.

"How can you be so sure, dear?" Poppy replied. "You've heard the dreadful trash Callis has been talking. Anyone would be angry with him."

"Yes, but Severus won't hurt him. I'm sure of it. Let's watch for a moment and see what he wants, all right?" Hermione suggested. She had no clue what Severus was up to, but she was certain Miller would come to no harm.

"Well, I'll be damned," Poppy laughed as the scene played out. "That old faker."

Feeling very proud of Severus, if somewhat disturbed by the obvious pleasure he'd taken in frightening Miller, Hermione watched the tiny Severus leave the room on the watch face.

"I knew he wouldn't hurt him." Hermione sighed.

"Do you think the potion will cure Miller?" Madame Pomfrey asked.

"We'll know in an hour, won't we?" Hermione laughed. "I take it Severus doesn't know about your watch?"

"No, you know how he is. He thinks we're all stupid here. Like I'd really go off and leave my patients defenceless like that," she huffed, shaking her head.

"I'm sure it was no reflection on you," Hermione quickly assured.

"Of course, it was a reflection upon me. My dear, Severus is not a wicked man, but he isn't a kind one. I've known him for more than thirty years now," Madame Pomfrey said. "Whenever he does something that seems kind, it's always for his own reasons. A more selfish man you'll never see."

"Well, you just saw him do something totally selfless," Hermione argued, unable to believe how angry she still could get on Severus' behalf, even though he was no longer that solemn little boy placed in her care. "Curing Miller wasn't going to gain him anything, especially since he requested that Miller not tell anyone he helped him. How is that selfish?"

Knowing she should calm down, she performed a quick warming spell on her tepid tea and took another sip.

Madame Pomfrey stared at her as though she'd lost her mind and then gently patted her hand, "My dear, a blind man can see that he's head over heels in love with Harry Potter. He did this for Harry."

Just barely, she missed spewing the tea on either her colleague or the homework she was grading.

Poppy patted her back until she stopped choking and asked, "Surely, you knew?"

"W-what makes you say that?" Hermione asked through teary eyes, ignoring the question.

"I've known Severus for thirty years, but I never saw him happy until these last few months. Harry Potter is the best thing that ever happened to him," Poppy said, the obvious affection she bore Severus belying her earlier critical statements.

"You approve, then?" Hermione whispered, because the teacher's break room was really not the proper place for this type of discussion.

"I approve of anything that makes my patients happy," she said with a motherly smile.

"You know that they probably wouldn't want people talking about this – providing it were true, of course," Hermione belatedly covered.

"Well, even if it weren't true, I'm sure you'd realize that it wouldn't be in my patients' best interests to gossip about them. I just felt that you were the only other person in this school who might be . . . glad for Severus," Madame Poppy hesitantly explained.

Hermione smiled into her worried blue eyes. "Yes, I'd be very glad for him. I'm just not certain that their relationship is what you think it is."

"I hardly care what it is, so long as it makes them both happy. A lonelier pair of young men you couldn't find," Poppy sighed. "Well, I'd best get back to the infirmary. Do give Harry my regards. With any luck, we'll have some good news for him shortly."

Hoping the same herself, Hermione turned her attention back to her papers.

*************

A waxing gibbous moon shone down on the Hogsmeade road. The night sky overhead was clear and bejewelled with stars, the damp air perfumed with the scents of wet soil, fresh sprung grass, and moist herbs. The quiet was a welcome respite from the smoke and noise of the Three Broomsticks.

Up ahead, Hermione and Ron were snuggled close together, giggling like teenagers. Spring had a way of doing that to people.

Harry Potter snuck a peek at the dour figure at his side. Severus amazed him sometimes. Hermione had told him what Snape had done to help Miller. The cursed Charms teacher's miraculous recovery had been the talk of the table at the pub tonight, the theories from the Weasley twins growing progressively wilder as the night wore on. Not once in the thick of it had Severus revealed so much as a smug smile. Snape had behaved the entire night as if he genuinely had no clue as to the cause of Miller's recovery.

He could almost hear Severus' rich, cultured voice telling him the other night that everything would be all right. That assurance had been a gift in its own right. But the fact that Severus would secretly aid someone he despised, for no other reason than to make him feel better, moved him on levels that he couldn't even appreciate. If he'd ever needed proof that he was important to Severus, it would be this. A Slytherin taking care of his own, he thought affectionately.

Warmed by the thought, and overwhelmed by an almost gravitational pull to the dark presence at his side, Harry stepped a little closer. But it still wasn't close enough. Taking a deep breath, he calmly slipped his arm under Severus' and linked their arms at the elbow. They always used to walk to and from school like this when they were seven, but hadn't touched this way since their restoration to adulthood.

He held his breath, waiting for Severus to jerk away from him, but aside from tensing, Severus did nothing.

Harry relaxed. For the last two days he'd been waging a conscious campaign to see what his friend would and wouldn't permit. So far, he hadn't hit a single no trespass sign, whether he were snitching food from Severus' plate or doing something unthinkable like touching him, Severus allowed it all.

"Thank you," Harry said, sidling closer as they stepped into the thick, pine-scented shadows that darkened this tract of the road.

"For?" Severus asked, his gaze seeming very intent on the dark path ahead of them. Hermione and Ron weren't even visible up ahead.

"For restoring Miller."

"He told you," Severus didn't sound anything but resigned.

"No. Hermione was in the break room with Poppy. She's got a wristwatch that monitors her patients and they watched the whole thing on it. It was very kind of you," Harry added.

"I suppose the entire school knows now?"

"No, just Hermione, Ron, and me," Harry assured. "Why don't you want anyone to know?"

"I didn't do it for the sake of kindness," Severus snapped.

"I know. You did it for me," Harry said. He waited for some waspish denial, but only the sounds of their footsteps and breathing followed. "Thank you. I think it's the best gift anyone ever gave me."

Realizing that they were in a patch of moonlight where vision might be possible, he stared up to where Severus' face was. Dappled with silver light, his friend looked dark and strangely sensual, like the night itself. He could feel Severus watching him. He was always watching him with an intensity that would have been unnerving were they not friends. Even so, it sent a shiver through him that he hadn't felt in a long time.

"You're exaggerating," Severus softly protested in that beautiful, cultured voice of his. Even when he'd hated Snape in school, there were times during lectures that that voice could almost hypnotize him.

Harry stopped, his hold on Severus anchoring him beside him. "No, I'm not. Whenever I've messed up in the past, all might be forgiven because of who this stupid scar makes me, but no one ever helped me fix what I'd done. You did that, and I want you to know how much I appreciate it."

"I don't want your gratitude," Severus snapped.

"I know," Harry whispered.

"You do?"

He nodded. Mesmerised by the glint in those dark eyes, Harry was beginning to suspect what Severus might want from him. But he wasn't certain. In the past, whenever another man was attracted to him, there had been certain signals that were impossible to miss. Those clues weren't there with Severus. The older man's behaviour towards him had never been anything but proper. But, then, he knew that even if Severus burned for him with all his heart and soul, he wouldn't have acted any differently. The vivid memory of Severus holding out the forearm with the Dark Mark on it and telling him that he was sullied and damned flashed through his mind. Severus believed himself untouchable.

Everything in him rebelling at that, Harry reached up and cupped the taller man's clean-shaven cheek. They were now standing face-to-face, close as lovers, he realized as he breathed in his friend's distinct scent.

Severus froze as if petrified, the rise and fall of his chest even seeming to still.

Sometimes being so short was damned inconvenient, Harry thought, as he slid his hand up and around to cradle the back of Severus' head. The hair there was lush and soft beneath his fingers. He gave a gentle tug downwards.

Severus was stiff as a board, but he allowed himself to be moved as though he were incapable of resisting.

Harry tilted his head to the left. Severus' nose banged hard into his cheek. And then their lips touched in a dry, brushing contact that was awkward in the extreme, but filled with promise. At least that's how it felt to Harry as his insides melted to dancing quicksilver and his heart jolted like he'd just been hit with a dark curse.

He deepened the contact, pushing a little harder against Severus' thin lips.

Long fingers dug into his shoulders like talons and he expected to be pushed away, but they simply held him in place.

Pushing his luck, Harry slipped his tongue out to tickle the tight-guarded mouth he was kissing. Severus' lips parted for him with a gasp. Harry breathed the gasp in and let his tongue slip over into his friend's mouth.

He could taste the cognac Severus had drunk tonight. Somehow, it tasted better on him than it ever did in a glass. Below that, there was Severus' natural flavour, which was strong and juicy.

Severus' tongue flicked against his own and they met in a tentative, incredibly arousing brush.

With a shock, Harry realized that he was French-kissing Severus Snape. Six months ago the idea would have been unthinkable, but tonight the reality was an imperative he couldn't resist. His heart was hammering like he'd run ten miles, his entire body tingling with excitement. He hadn't felt like this since Blaise first kissed him, when he was young and there was still hope for a normal life. Severus was giving him that back, Harry realized. This wasn't about being seen with a celebrity; this wasn't about fame or fortune. What it was about made Harry's head spin, for he'd never thought to find it, not after all these years, and certainly never with Severus Snape.

The tentative quality in Severus' lips seemed to wear off. They kneaded almost frantically against Harry as Snape sucked the juices right out of his mouth. Strong hands scrambled down his back, pressing through the material of his robes as the taller man leaned into him, nearly bending him backwards in an instinctive try for more contact.

Severus' lean form pressed down his front, melding their bodies as tight as their mouths.

Harry let him do it. Holding on to Severus for dear life, he allowed the kiss to progress where it would. It had been so long, so damn long, and this . . . this was wonderful.

"Harry? Severus? Are you back there?" Ron's voice called from around the bend in the road.

Severus froze and immediately pulled back.

Deprived of those supporting hands, Harry stumbled, but Severus reached out to steady him.

Eyes locked on his friend's stunned, dark gaze, Harry found his voice and quickly answered, "We're coming." He opened his mouth to say something to Severus, but didn't know what to say. He was as blown away by what he'd just unleashed on them as Severus.

When Severus turned and started up the road after Ron and Hermione, Harry fell into step beside him. But he didn't link their arms again, didn't touch Severus at all. What he was feeling inside wasn't going to settle for holding hands. From Severus' closed in expression, he was fairly sure his friend felt the same way.

Hermione and Ron were waiting at the last bend to Hogwarts. The castle rose behind their silhouettes like something out of a dream.

"Are you all right?" Ron asked, his arm around an attractively flushed Hermione.

"Never better," Harry assured, throwing Severus a quick look.

"What kept you so long?" Hermione asked.

"Didn't you ever find something unexpectedly beautiful in a place you'd taken for granted your entire life?" he asked, still too buzzed to guard his words with these two.

"Something beautiful in the forest?" Ron questioned.

"No, on the road," Harry said without thinking, which of course inspired Ron's totally predictable, "Show us, then."

Severus' quiet voice answered, "Like most things of beauty, it was transitory in the extreme."

Once again, Harry was forced to acknowledge how good a spy his best friend must have been. Nothing in Snape's tone or demeanour suggested that they were discussing anything other than some natural phenomenon.

Still, he wasn't about to allow Severus to deny what had passed between them, even if neither of them were ready to bring it out into the light yet.

"No, it wasn't transitory. I'm sure we'll find it again," he objected, eyes locked on Severus' unreadable gaze.

"I'm sure you're right, Harry," Hermione stunned him by saying in what sounded like a knowing tone. Her gaze flickered from him to Severus and then she grinned a very happy and impish grin. "It's getting late. Come along."

"Yes, mother," Harry snarked, causing her to giggle uncontrollably.

Side by side, the four of them walked the last half-mile back to the school. The towering doors parted for them when they reached the top of the entrance steps. They paused by the main stairs, where they would normally part with Severus when they returned from the Three Broomsticks on Friday nights.

"Well, good night," Severus said rather stiffly, nodding to them all.

"'night, Severus. See you at breakfast," Ron replied with a stifled yawn.

"Yes, good night, Severus," Hermione echoed.

Not sure how to play this, Harry uncertainly added, "Good night, then."

He didn't want it to be good night. He wanted to touch Severus so badly that he could barely hold his arms still. He knew that neither Hermione nor Ron would mind if he did, but Severus might. He was so private.

After an awkward pause, Severus nodded to him and quickly stalked off towards the dungeon stairs, his black robes flapping behind him like raven's wings.

Unable to mask his disappointment, he stared down at the flagstones beneath his boots. Well, what had he expected? Did he really think that Severus would ask him to spend the night in front of the people who'd acted as their parents?

He looked over to his left as a warm hand touched his arm. Hermione's eyes were filled with concern, her expression tentative as she softly said, "The night's still young, Harry." For a moment, he thought that she was inviting him to accompany her and Ron back to their place, but then she continued with an even more uncertain sounding, "Perhaps Severus would like some company for a while?"

"Hermione . . . ." Ron's voice was even more worried than hers.

He stared from one of his friends to the other, and knew that they knew. Ron had that 'don't push' expression he always wore whenever Hermione would try to counsel him in his love life.

"You saw," he said. He knew their secret was safe with Hermione and Ron, but he also knew that Severus would be upset that they'd been observed. Not that there was any secret to keep, not yet. He didn't know what there was between Severus and him, but he wanted to find out.

"No," she quickly denied, her cheeks warming.

"Then, how . . . ?" Harry stared from Hermione to Ron.

Ron looked to Hermione with a very clear 'you got us into this, now get us out of it' look. Harry returned his gaze to Hermione.

She took a deep breath and then said, "It's written all over you, Harry."

"What is?" he snapped, close to panic at the thought of Severus' response to this.

"How special Severus is to you. That's a rare gift. Don't let it pass you by," she urged.

He gulped as he tried to fit this new concept into his reality. He was attracted to his former Potions teacher, the most Slytherin Slytherin to pass through that house since old Salazar himself, and Hermione approved of it?

"You approve then?" he whispered, looking to Ron in something very like fear. Ron had hit the roof when he'd told him about Blaise, and Blaise had never had half the past Severus did. He could see his old friend remembering that horrible incident as well.

"I'm all for anything that makes you both happy. Go easy, though, mate," Ron advised with a worried frown.

"Huh?" That was the last thing he'd expected to hear from Ron.

Ron shifted uncomfortably in his brown robes and said, "Severus doesn't bounce well. If you're not sure, don't start anything. He can't do casual, Harry. It's not in his nature."

Ron was worried about him hurting Severus?

"Ron!" Hermione scolded. "Don't – "

"No," Harry quickly interjected, "he's right, Hermione. I'll be careful."

An odd pause followed in which his old friends just stood there staring at him: Hermione beaming, Ron uncertain.

"Well," Hermione said at last. "Good night, then. Don't let him give you any of that 'old and used up' nonsense."

Blushing, she threw her arms around him to give him a quick hug and a peck on the cheek.

He looked to Ron as she withdrew. Ron reached out to give his shoulder an encouraging squeeze. Then, he seemed to change his mind and gave him a brief hug as well.

"Everything will work out fine," Hermione encouraged when they were standing apart again.

Another round of good nights followed, and then Harry was watching his friends ascend the stairs to Gryffindor Tower.

Well, there was nothing for it. Committed, he turned to trace the same route Severus had taken.

For the first time in months, he felt uncomfortable descending the stairwell to the Slytherin dungeons. The Bloody Baron watched him from the door to the Slytherin common room, his dark, spectral eyes filled with a suspicion that was nearly hatred.

The ghost's unspoken disapproval seemed to hammer in the seriousness of what he was embarking upon. As if Ron's concern wasn't enough. Severus' reclusive personality aside, there was still so much else they were going to have to deal with if they decided to make a go of it. There were those old House rivalries, not to mention the Wizarding World's ingrained homophobia. The fact that they were both teachers in Britain's most prestigious Wizarding School made it all worse. Harry knew the trouble he was buying into by walking down these stairs.

But his mouth was still burning from that kiss. He didn't have a choice. If he didn't walk down these stairs tonight, he'd be passing up the chance of a lifetime – for, that's what Severus' kiss had felt like, a new lease on life. A chance for them both to join the world of the living again. Neither of them could afford to pass that up.

So, Harry marched himself to Severus' door. Once there, he paused. These last six weeks, he'd just used Severus' password to walk through the wards he'd set to guard his private chambers, but tonight Harry didn't feel that was appropriate. This wasn't something to be entered into lightly. Severus had to have the opportunity to refuse.

With that thought in mind, he raised his hand and knocked. His stomach was twisted in so tight a knot that he could barely breathe.

****************

Harry Potter had kissed him.

Severus Snape touched his mouth for at least the twentieth time in the ten minutes he'd been back in his quarters. It was still the same mouth it had been this morning, with the same thin lips and yellow teeth. Only, this mouth had been kissed, for the first time in over twenty years, kissed by Harry Potter.

It was nearly impossible to incorporate that fact into the world as he knew it. Harry had kissed him. In the grand scheme of the universe, the event had little meaning. It certainly wasn't as eventful as some of the other turning points of his life, say his decision to join Voldemort's followers or his efforts to undo his earlier mistakes. The meeting of two pairs of lips simply couldn't have the same relevance as defeating Lord Voldemort or laying Albus Dumbledore in the cold clay. And, yet, in its own way, the event was as cataclysmic as any of these others, for it made it impossible for Severus to continue his charade of platonic friendship with Harry Potter. How could he possibly fool himself into believing that there was nothing between them but friendship after Potter's tongue had checked out his tonsils? How could Harry expect him to?

It was this last that was troubling him, making him doubt everything that incredible kiss had made him feel. When they'd parted in the hall earlier tonight, he'd felt certain that Harry would follow him down, but it had been close to fifteen minutes, and still no Potter.

Had he misjudged everything? Was he really that big a fool? It had felt amazing to him, but . . . he'd had limited experience and hadn't been kissed in decades. Though hardly promiscuous, Harry was far more sexually active than he. Had Harry found his kiss unpleasant or wanting?

Now that he thought of it, Severus recognized that that was probably what had happened. Moon and ale were powerful aphrodisiacs. Moonlight alone was nearly a narcotic to their kind. The power it generated was extreme, that was why the most potent spells were always cast under the full moon, and there was no stronger moon than that of May, the old Beltaine moon. The ancient Celts had performed their fertility rituals under that same moon, and, now that Severus thought about it, Malfoy had taken his virginity under it. Of course, tonight's moon had been three-quarters and not full, but a gibbous Beltaine moon was stronger than most other full moons in power.

And now he'd made a fool of himself under it yet again. Would he never learn? Harry Potter would no more desire him than he would Filch. The thought was unthinkable, nearly obscene, and, yet . . . Harry had kissed him.

His mind kept coming back to that one point like a post owl returning to home.

Severus sighed and twirled the cognac in his glass. A creature of habit, he'd hung his robe and jacket up immediately upon his return. He'd hoped . . . well, it hardly mattered what he'd hoped. He'd finish his drink and go to bed.

Things would be damn awkward at the breakfast table tomorrow morning, but he knew Potter well enough to know that the man wouldn't ostracize him because of a single lapse of judgement. Likely as not, Harry would never mention the incident. As painful as the thought was, Severus knew he was going to have to follow suite. He could do this. He had no choice.

He took another sip of his false courage, and froze at a knock on his door.

His idiotic heart leapt with hope, but he dashed it immediately. Harry didn't knock at his door anymore. Potter knew his passwords; he just breezed in whenever he felt like it. Severus recognized that it was long past time he changed his wards. Much as it pained him, he was going to have to repossess some of his solitude – for his own self-protection. Potter and he might know the fool he was, but he needn't enlighten the rest of the world. There were appearances to be maintained. He was a Hogwart's professor. He couldn't be seen as weak or pathetic. He had his pride to think about, and his duty to distract him.

It was probably the latter that was responsible for the knock. Though it seemed unbearably late to his weary soul, he knew it had just gone eleven thirty, hardly bedtime for the upper classes. Doubtless there was another teenage tempest brewing in the Slytherin dorms that he was going to have to sort out. Well, whatever fool it was, he'd make him sorry that he'd knocked on this door tonight.

Ready to take his ire out on the hapless Slytherin, Severus flung open the door, and everything stopped as he beheld Harry Potter standing on his threshold with his fist raised to knock a second time. Harry was in his black robes tonight and he looked almost like a student as he stood there, his uncertainty painted all over him.

But he was there, and that was all that counted to Severus' foolish heart.

"Er . . . hello," Harry all but stammered.

It wasn't really a compliment to his personality that the other man's nervousness would put him at ease, but somehow, it did.

"Hello," he answered with an almost urbane lilt, forcing himself to remain calm. Just because Harry had come, didn't mean what he wanted it to mean. Potter could just as easily have come down to apologize for his action and explain that their kiss was nothing but the result of spring fever rather than . . . well, rather than the kind of thing Severus needed it to be.

"Are you busy?" Potter asked.

"It's eleven thirty at night and we've just returned from a pub. Of course, I'm not busy."

"Can I come in, then?" Harry asked.

His courage and acting ability abandoning him, Severus answered, "I don't think that's a wise idea."

Harry nodded. "I know. I still want to come in. May I?"

It didn't matter what Potter wanted from him. Whatever it was, Harry would get it. Feeling as though he had no choice in the matter, Severus opened the door wider and stepped back, totally aware that he was sealing his doom with the invitation.

Harry stepped past him and he closed the door. The snick of the ancient lock catching sounded oddly significant and ominous in the silence.

Severus led them over to the hearth. Too nervous to sit, he stood with the fire at his back and waited to hear what Potter had to say, but all Harry did was stare at him. When the silence had stretched too long for his nerves to bear it another second, he cleared his throat and softly asked, "Do you want a drink?"

"No," Harry said with a negative shake of his dark shaggy head. He stepped towards him, and Severus found himself taking an unconscious step backwards, but he was brought up short by the mantle hitting his shoulders. It was a good job he'd removed his robes earlier; otherwise, he might have ignited himself. As it was, he could feel the fire's heat on the back of his legs and his buttocks. Severus held completely still as Harry reached up to cup his cheek like he had on the road before. The heat of that palm felt hotter than the flames at his back. "I don't want a drink. I want you."

Severus squeezed his eyes shut.

Harry's hand slipped around the back of his neck to give a gentle tug, and then he was falling – into the kiss, and into Harry. They were one and the same.

He wasn't certain exactly what happened – whether his knees had buckled or Harry's had, but they sank down onto their knees, kissing as they knelt there in front of the dancing firelight.

Even with the thick rug carpeting them, the stones on the dungeon's floor were still hard, but Severus barely felt them as his mouth was taken. There was another jolt of movement and they sagged onto their sides, still wrapped up in the same kiss and each other's arms. Then Harry rolled on top of him.

Lying down, their difference in heights hardly mattered. There was more than enough of Harry to cover all the important parts, and cover them, he did. Severus had never felt so sheltered. Harry was a warm weight between him and the rest of the world.

The mouth moving against his knew what it wanted and how to get it. The kiss was the most demanding Severus had known, but there was an inherent protectiveness in it that was as alien as the idea of someone actively desiring him.

When Potter's tongue swiped against his lips again, he didn't even think of denying him. He just opened up wide and tried to suck that sensuous envoy clear out of Harry's mouth.

His response pleased Harry. Even if Severus hadn't sensed it in the kiss, he would have known it from the hard erection that pulsed to life against his right hip.

As if becoming aware of it himself, Harry ground his pelvis down against his groin setting off sensual landmines in his body that Severus had never known existed. Burst after burst of pleasure rocked him. Almost afraid of what he was feeling, he groped at Harry's back. He knew to survive this, he needed to push Harry away, but his traitorous body was pulling Potter closer, and he hadn't the strength to deny it.

When Harry ripped his mouth free of the kiss, Severus thought he might have a chance to reassert some sanity into the situation, but that succulent mouth latched onto his throat then and all he could do was groan and allow it to happen. He simply didn't know how to defend against this kind of assault. Quite frankly, he hadn't believed sensations like this existed.

What had he known of pleasure, after all? His own hand? Inadequate, at best. A tumble in a haystack when he was more child than man? All he could recall of that was some frantic, mutual groping, his pants being opened, straw stabbing his backside for a moment until he was turned over for something harder and more painful to replace the straw. What followed could be called pleasure by no stretch of the imagination.

And the other times? There had been no kissing or caresses at all in those encounters. He didn't know if administering blowjobs and offering his arse to older Death Eaters even counted as romantic trysts. He'd been after information for Albus, which his unsuspecting paramours had been more than happy to supply to his Legilimens skills once he'd put his mouth or bottom to proper use to relax them enough. Sometimes, his Death Eater associates would return the sexual favour and his body would respond, but he usually was so physically repulsed by his partners that he couldn't feel anything but horror at their touching him.

He wondered if Harry felt that way about him. The age difference was about the same. Was Harry as disgusted by his body as he'd been by Voldemort's followers?

But . . . Harry had said he wanted him. And Harry wasn't touching him like he was something foul and loathsome. To the contrary, Harry was stroking him like he couldn't get enough of the feel of his skin. Harry's mouth was sucking and kissing his neck, while his hands petted every place they came in contact with, and they were roaming all over him, his face, his sides . . . everywhere.

Severus cried out as those fingers found his nipple and squeezed it through the layers of his shirt and undergarments. It was too much, too much. He was going to come, just from this, and that would be too embarrassing to be bourn.

Harry's mouth lifted from where it was nuzzling at his neck. Released from the shiversome assault of warm, moist breath and hotter sucking, Severus forced his eyes open and stared up at Harry's face.

Harry's cheeks were flushed like they'd be when they stayed out too long in the cold making their snow forts. His eyes were glittering bright as emeralds, his breathing a raspy pant as his shaking fingers reached for the buttons on Severus' shirt.

He lay still while Potter worked at the buttons. Harry's robe was open and half off his shoulders. Severus reached up to push it all the way off, then grabbed the hem of the blue tee shirt beneath it and tugged upwards.

Harry grinned and obligingly lowered his head so that Severus could remove it. Unlike Severus, Harry wasn't wearing an undershirt.

Gulping, Severus stared up at that bare chest. He'd wondered what Harry would look like. He hadn't seen him without clothes since that first morning they'd been restored, and he'd had too much on his mind at that moment to even think about looking at Harry's naked form.

It was as he'd hoped. The chest had a healthy crop of dark body hair, not too thick, but enough to decorate the surprising musculature there. When he saw the pink nipples peeking artfully out from their hiding places, he couldn't hold back. He strained up and sucked the nearest one in.

It tasted fantastic, like Harry's mouth had. Sweet, a hint of salt, and something addictive that was utterly Harry. He sucked it for all he was worth.

The groan that earned him filled the room. Harry's hands clenched in reaction, and there was a sound of shredding cloth and the pinging of tiny buttons against the hearth. His undershirt was yanked out of his trousers immediately thereafter and Severus had to separate from the tasty nub he was sucking in order for Harry to get his undershirt off him.

But then his chest was bare as well and before Severus could even begin to wonder if the thin, hairless expanse had disappointed his friend, Harry's mouth fixed onto his left nipple like a limpet.

Heads bent to each other's chest, they continued that way for some time. Severus had never known anything like it. He certainly had never experienced the almost painful clench of excitement his insides gave when Harry's hand moved down his belly, over the obstruction of his trouser fastening, to cover the needy bulge there. When Harry's hand gave a carefully judged squeeze, Severus threw his head back and groaned like he'd just taken a lightning bolt curse to the gonads. The energy felt that devastating.

He was nearly ashamed by how loud he was being. But since Harry seemed to be matching him moan for moan, he tried not to think on it. In fact, he was having trouble thinking at all. That hand on his penis knew what it was about, and the rhythmic squeezes were destroying him. His control was a dream of the past. In these moments of annihilating pleasure, Harry Potter owned him as completely as if he'd put him under Imperius. There was a part of Severus that wondered if Harry hadn't done just that. Potter was a master of both wandless and wordless magic, but if it were Imperius, it seemed to be operating as strongly on Potter as him, and, as long as that was the case, Severus really couldn't mind it, not so long as it kept him feeling this much.

Severus' entire body stilled in the shock of absolute concentration as Harry's hands fumbled his trouser buttons open. Trousers, underwear, boots, and socks were all peeled off with sensual expertise and tossed aside like so much detritus on his carpet.

Harry pulled his body back from him a bit. Severus stared on in a heated daze as Potter undid his own jeans one-handed, then scrambled out of them in what seemed like a single breath. Another set of clothing joined the jumble on his carpet.

They both paused in the breathy silence that followed to study each other's naked forms.

Harry was far better endowed than his lack of height and slenderness would suggest. Severus stared at the thick red cock rising out of its dark bed of pubic hair and the heavy pink balls that hung below. Magnificent was the only word that came to mind.

Severus absently licked his lips as he hungrily eyed that prize.

Only as an afterthought did he wonder how Harry felt about his own nude body. Height was really his only asset. He was nearly as thin as Harry, and, considering that he was more than a head taller, it didn't look nearly as fetching on him. His chest wasn't nearly as muscular, and he was as hairless there as a first year student. Add to that the collection of pink scar tissue, the mementos of his grandparents' tender care, and there wasn't much to commend itself. He didn't even want to consider what Harry would think when he saw what his back looked like with its cross work of strap marks.

As for what lay below . . . he supposed he was large there, perhaps even unusually so. While most times that would be considered an asset, his hips and thighs were so thin that Severus often thought his penis looked abnormal on him.

"My God," Harry whispered.

Severus raised his gaze to his friend's face, almost afraid of what he'd find.

Harry wasn't looking at him like he was about to lose the contents of his stomach. Those green eyes were hot and slightly unfocused as he whispered, "You're incredible. Sleek and smooth as a race horse."

That sounded good, as if Harry really were pleased with him. And then Harry's fingers stroked straight down the centre of his chest, and it didn't matter anymore how it sounded. All that mattered was how it felt, and it felt sublime.

Severus gasped under the sensual assault, and then released a rough groan as Harry collected him into his palm.

Nothing had ever felt as good as that hand closing around his needy flesh, not his first orgasm, not triumphing over Voldemort, nothing. It was beyond Severus' experience and almost beyond his capacity to endure. He was sure he was going to come from just the hand alone, but somehow he held on.

"It gets bigger?" There was no mistaking the shock in that emotion thick voice.

"I'm afraid so," he rasped out, worried that it might be too much.

"Brilliant!" Harry grinned and lowered his head.

Wet heat surrounded his hungry flesh. It was the most perfect connection Severus had ever felt to another human in his life. If his thundering heart gave out on him in the middle of this, he'd have no regrets. Well, none except that he'd like to have stuck around for an encore.

He managed to avoid disgracing himself by coming right away. Although, the sight of Harry's dark head bent over his groin was more than enough to make him climax; there was a part of him that wanted to relish this as long as he could, for experience had taught him that his pleasures, small as they might be, were always fleeting. And, this joy was anything but small. This all-consuming delight was beyond his ken. He knew he had no chance of holding onto it. He didn't even understand what had made Harry initiate this erotic madness, but he was grateful for it.

Trying to maintain the visual for as long as he could, he caught sight of Harry's genitals. Potter's cock was considerably more enhanced than it had been before, impressive in its own right. The purple vein running through it was pulsing with almost palpable need.

Recognizing how one-sided things were at the moment, and wanting to experience everything offered to him in this unanticipated gift, Severus shifted around until he was close enough to return the favour he was receiving.

Harry moaned around his cock as Severus sucked him in. The vibration in his over-sensitised organ was a whole new pleasure in itself. Then the taste hit him, and he was lost. Salty, a little bitter, but eminently satisfying, Potter's flavour spread through him like one of his potions. He could feel his mouth watering around the exotic taste as he sought to accustom his jaw to Harry's bulk. It had been so long that he was woefully out of practice.

His body finally remembered the way of it and he was able to both breathe and suck. Harry was making the most delightful groans, which shivered right from his throat to Snape's cock. Severus supposed he was giving Harry his own share of vibratory delights with his own suppressed moaning. Their coarse, slurpy chorus filled the room as they thundered towards ecstasy.

Severus had never felt so in sync with anyone or thing in his life. The rhythm seemed to be waiting for them. It didn't feel like something they were creating here tonight. Rather, it had the feel of some long lost treasure that they were rediscovering. Their bodies and very souls seemed to know each other, even if their pride and will had been too blind to acknowledge the connection before. Appalled by the cretinously sentimental idea, Severus attempted to deny it, but how could he? All he could taste, smell, and feel was Harry. How could he possibly deny it at a moment like this?

Like a potion that required prolonged brewing, the sensations built until they boiled over, tumbling both Harry and him into orgasm. Severus stilled in his bobbing as the shaft he was fellating spasmed and shot a hot spurt of liquid against the back of his throat. As if that were the signal he was waiting for, white-hot delight seared through Severus' own body, liquefying his neural network until the overloaded remnants exploded forth like boiling magma into Harry Potter's mouth. Harry drank him down as greedily as he did Potter.

Only when it seemed that they were both deflated beyond hope of rekindling did they raise their heads from each other's groin.

Severus swallowed the last of Harry's seed, attempting to acclimate himself to its bitter aftertaste. He remembered that when younger, he'd always wanted to run and rinse his mouth out after doing this for his fellow Death Eaters, but with Harry, he wanted to savour the flavour.

Moving as though it took every ounce of energy he had left, Harry settled down onto the carpet beside him and turned on his side to face him. He looked so beautiful lying there, still flushed from passion, with his hair a wreck, and his glasses slightly off kilter. Just looking at him took Severus' breath away again.

Wondering what the proper etiquette was in situations like this, Severus slowly met Harry's gaze. Abruptly conscious of their circumstances, Severus realized that they were lying buck naked on his sitting room floor with their clothes scattered around them like fallen leaves.

A grin took Harry's face, and then . . . and then he laughed.

Remembering a haystack and an all too similar reaction, Severus froze. Telling himself that this needn't be what he thought it, he asked with as much control as possible in the circumstances, "What is it?"

"You. When we were kids, we used to speculate what you'd be like, if you did it at all, and – "

He didn't give Potter the opportunity to finish. Unable to credit what a fool he'd been as his world came crashing down around him, Severus rolled away from Potter as though he were a rotting corpse.

"I trust that I have satisfied your curiosity," he sneered, finally understanding what had motivated this tonight. Their souls had known each other . . . what utter twaddle. It was clear he didn't know Harry Potter at all, and never would.

"Severus?" The smile fell from Potter's face, to be replaced by an expression of nearly imbecilic confusion.

"Get out," he whispered.

"What?"

"I said get out!" His wand was lost somewhere in the tangle of their clothes, but for once in his life, Severus didn't need it. His rage was given instant expression, as it hadn't been since he was a very young child.

A hot wind filled the room. Books and parchments swirled around them, along with their discarded clothes. The few knickknacks Snape owned, the entire contents of his bar, candles, couch cushions, and anything else that wasn't nailed down all took flight, becoming dangerous projectiles. There was the sound of glass shattering throughout the room, and Severus felt the tiny shards dig through his skin all over. But he didn't care about the pain. His arms, legs, or head could be hewn off by the flying detritus and it would be nothing next to the betrayal stabbing through him.

The wind picked the naked Potter up from where he lay sprawled on the floor. Harry's shocked yelp filled the room as he was swept towards the front door, which obligingly opened at the whirlwind's first touch.

He watched as Potter was flung arse over teakettle out the door. Severus' last sight of him was his naked butt tumbling midair. And then the door slammed close with a resounding bang behind him.

The wind died as soon as Potter was out. Severus' belongings and their shredded clothing fell with various crashes and thumps, depending on the nature of the item.

Severus squeezed his eyes shut and tried to breathe, but it was as though his lungs were truly frozen. His entire body felt like ice and he was beginning to shudder. Finally, he sobbed in a hoarse breath.

What had he done? How could he be so stupid as to imagine that Harry Potter – or any other normal wizard – would want to fuck him out of anything but morbid curiosity? He wasn't a seventeen-year-old innocent anymore. He knew what he was, and he knew the way of the world. What the devil was wrong with him?

There were a number of things wrong with him at the moment – physically. His skin was speckled with glass shards and cuts for starters. But the emotional rips hurt worse, because he sensed that he was never going to recover from those. He could heal his skin and repair the damage done to his rooms, but what could he do to mend the blow his soul had taken here tonight.

Harry had used him and laughed at him afterwards, just like Malfoy had all those years ago.

Harry . . . .

The thought of Harry, dumped naked without his wand in a similar bloodied physical state in the Slytherin corridor crossed his mind, but he stamped down hard on the thought. What did he care what happened to the bastard? Potter had gotten off easy. He thought of the curse he'd laid on Malfoy, considered it . . . but the memory of the seven-year-old Potter crossed his mind and he couldn't do it. For the sake of the boy Harry had been, he would do no more harm.

It wasn't even Harry's fault things had come to this strait. He'd known what he was, what an obscenity it was to even think that Harry might desire him. It was his own weakness that had caused this. Potter had merely capitalized upon it. Who wouldn't?

The answer Harry whispered through his broken heart, but he ignored it.

Potter had shown his true colours, as he should have known he would. This was his own fault for buying into fantasies.

Knowing himself to be every kind of fool, Severus pulled his bleeding legs close to his chest and lowered his face to his knobbly knees.

Breathe. He had to keep breathing, and not think. That was the only way he was going to survive this.

**********

The silence and cold were intense after the heat of the angry wind. Stunned and dizzy from being tossed about like a feather and then slammed full force into a stonewall, Harry tried to take stock of himself in the abrupt quiet. He didn't think anything was actually broken, but he felt bruised and beaten all over, and he still hadn't a clue as to what had happened, how he had come to be lying here naked in the Slytherin corridor.

He heard a door open.

Thank God. Severus had come to his senses.

"Harry?" the concerned voice was familiar, but it wasn't Severus. Rushed footsteps followed, and then, "My God, Harry, what's happened?"

Strong arms gathered him up, hurting his cuts as they did so. His dazed gaze settled on Blaise Zabini's worried features. "B-Blaise?"

Blaise appeared to have been awoken from a sound sleep, were his sleepy look, tousled brown curls and nightshirt anything to go by.

"Don't talk. I'll get you to the infirmary and then – "

"No, please!" he begged as Blaise rose to his feet with him cradled in his arms. "Just . . . please, just get me out of the hall? Nothing's broken. I promise."

Looking completely uncertain, Blaise reversed direction and carried him into his quarters. Harry took in the messy clutter of his friend's sitting room, wincing as he was deposited onto a comfortable, over-stuffed blue velvet couch in front of the hearth – in which a fire roared immediately to life. The warmth embraced his shivering skin like a lover.

Thinking of his most recent lover, Harry closed his eyes and shied away from the thought. He still didn't know what had happened, what he could have done to so anger Severus – aside from the obvious. Was Severus this furious with him for seducing him?

Blaise leaned over him for a moment. "There's glass in these cuts."

Harry was barely aware of Blaise removing his wand from his nightshirt pocket or the spell his friend muttered. The next thing he was conscious of were dozens of sudden stings as the glass shards exited his cuts. A whispered, "Accio healing cream," brought a brown jar floating in from the bathroom and then relief in the form of cool, white cream. The instant Blaise rubbed it on his skin, the pain stopped and the scores of cuts closed up.

Blaise pulled a red blanket from where it was folded on the back of the couch and wrapped it firmly around him. Then the tall Slytherin rose to his feet and moved outside of Harry's line of vision. Blaise returned momentarily with a glass of amber liquid.

"Drink this," Blaise ordered.

Harry nearly choked on the rough whisky, but its warmth moved reassuringly through him.

"Did Snape do this to you?" Blaise demanded with a tight-lipped anger that would have given Ron's a run for its money.

Did Snape do this to him?

Harry tried to follow the chain of events that had led him to this end. He'd kissed Severus on the road, and then followed the man down to his quarters. They'd made love – perhaps the most beautiful love he'd known in his life. Everything had been perfect. They'd even come at the same moment. Afterwards, he'd climbed up beside Severus for a cuddle. And then everything had gone horribly wrong. Harry tried to remember exactly what he'd said, for he now realized that his words had been the catalyst to his expulsion from Severus' chambers. Something about their being so wrong about Snape as kids – no, he hadn't even gotten that far. He'd mentioned how they'd used to speculate about Snape's sexual habits and then . . . and then he'd laughed.

Mortified, Harry realized how that must have seemed to Severus, who had spent his entire life being an object of ridicule and distrust. Severus must have thought that he was laughing at him. He tried to convince himself that Severus would have more faith in him than that, but the fact that he was sitting here in this condition pretty much proved that wasn't the case.

Damn it. How could he have been so stupid?

He wished he could be angry with Severus, but how could he? The only person to blame here was himself. He'd known how badly Severus' life had scarred him. Severus had been conditioned to expect nothing but humiliation and rejection every time he lowered his defences. Ron had even warned him to tread carefully, but had he? No, after all his promises, and all the time he'd spent earning Severus' trust, when it came down to the wire, he'd barrelled right over Severus like a steamroller.

"Harry," Blaise repeated, "did Snape do this to you?"

Harry looked up into his friend's angry brown eyes. "It wasn't his fault."

"Right," Blaise did a passing imitation of Severus' sneer. "Did he . . . I mean, were you . . . ?"

At first he didn't understand what Blaise was asking of him. But then he saw the blush claim those round cheeks and he unravelled the unspoken question. "I wasn't raped. He never touched me in anger."

"You had at least forty-three cuts when I pulled you out of the hallway," Blaise said.

"I know. But . . . Severus didn't mean to hurt me. If he had, I'd be dead, not bruised."

"What the hell happened?" Blaise asked, still seeming ready to string Severus up by his privates on his behalf.

Harry sighed. How much to tell? He trusted Blaise with his life, but Severus guarded his privacy so closely that anything he said might be viewed as yet another betrayal. Finally, he settled on, "I screwed up, big time. And I hurt him – bad."

"You hurt him?"

Harry gave a short, affirmative nod.

"How?" When he dropped his gaze and refused to meet Blaise's eyes, his old friend continued, "Harry, I've known you since we were kids. It just isn't in you to injure someone you're . . . intimate with."

Blaise knew. Harry sighed. Of course, Blaise knew; the man had found him naked in the hallway.

"Not all hurts are physical," Harry said softly, hating how stupid he'd been. "I was . . . thoughtless, unbelievably thoughtless."

"So you really expect me to believe that this is all your fault?"

He'd been blessed with loyal friends his whole life. Sometimes, though, he wished they'd be less protective of him.

"I know it doesn't look that way, but I caused this. Please, Blaise, I need you on my side. I can't deal with another crisis right now," he all but begged.

As he'd known it would, his plea immediately broke through Blaise's fury. "Of course, I'm on your side. That goes without saying, you idiot. What do you want me to do?"

"Help me floo back to my place and lend me this blanket till we get there?" Harry asked.

"What else?"

"I know I don't have to ask you to keep this to yourself," Harry said.

Blaise went very still. "What about Hermione and Ron? You don't think you're going to be able to hide this from them, do you?"

Harry looked down at the red wool covering his lap. Blaise was right. It wasn't fair of him to expect Zabini to keep this kind of thing from the Weasleys. "No, I suppose you're right."

"Harry, can't you tell me what's happened?"

He shook his head. "Will you help me home?"

"Now?"

He nodded. "Will you?"

"Of course, you prat. Come on." The hands that lifted him to his feet were so gentle his black and blues barely felt the pressure.

Two minutes later those same hands kept him from measuring his length as they flooed into his sitting room hearth.

Without waiting to be asked, Blaise guided him to his bedroom.

His bespelled bedroom hearth flamed to life as they entered the room.

Harry looked up at Blaise's handsome profile as the orange firelight flickered across it. If things had gone differently, this man would have been sleeping here and sharing his life. But it wasn't the handsome Transfigurations teacher he wanted. For better or worse, he'd lost his heart to Severus . . . Severus . . . who might never forgive him.

It was all too much. He allowed Blaise to get him under the covers. Turning to face the wall, he pulled his knees up to his chest and tried to banish the betrayed expression on Severus' face from his mind. But it almost seemed to be pasted on the back of his eyelids. Try as he would, it wouldn't go away.

"You don't have to stay," he whispered as he felt the bed dip behind him as Blaise sat down on it.

"I know. Humour me, all right?"

All he could hear in the quiet that descended was Blaise's breathing and the steady crackle of the fire. After a few minutes, a hand settled on the blankets covering his back and began to rub.

"Close your eyes, Harry," Blaise softly instructed. "Can you hear me breathing?"

Harry squeezed his eyes shut. Blaise remembered. It had to be almost twelve years since he'd told him how he hated the quiet of the dark when he couldn't sleep.

"It will be all right," Blaise said, the promise and soft stroking lulling him in spite of himself.

But it wouldn't be all right. He'd screwed things up royally this time, and he was realist enough to know that Severus would give him neither a second chance nor an opportunity to explain himself.

He didn't deserve this comfort. He wasn't the injured party. He thought of Severus lying alone in the dark and hurting . . . and hated himself.

He wished more than anything that he had that time turner that Professor Dumbledore had loaned Hermione during third year, then he could go back and undo the damage he'd done in the last half hour. But he didn't have the time turner; all he had was the mess he'd made of his life. Hurting all over, he watched the firelight throw shadows on the far wall and listened to Blaise breathe.

It was nearly two hours later when the hand on his back stilled and the breathing deepened to that of sleep. And still he lay there, staring at the wall.

***************

One of his favourite things in life was a lie in on a Saturday morning. The bed was warm and a comfortable wreck from last night's loving, and he was snuggled up on top of his absolute favourite thing in the world. His face was buried in Hermione's soft hair, his right knee sandwiched between her sleek thighs.

Ron couldn't recall falling asleep. She'd let him know if he'd conked out on her at an inopportune moment, but from the lush scent of the sheets, he doubted that had happened. He stroked his hand over a pink-nippled breast, smiling at the sigh she gave. Even sound asleep, she was so damn responsive.

The grandfather clock near the bed chimed seven, but they didn't have to get up this morning, not if they didn't want to. Ron glanced up from the nipple he was fingering, looked towards the pleasantly chiming clock, and froze.

"Damn," he muttered.

"Hmmm? What's wrong, Ron?" Hermione stirred to wakefulness. She'd sleep through an explosion or the castle falling around their bed, but if he said something in a certain tone, it always penetrated.

"The clock," he answered.

"The clock?" She lifted her head. "Oh, dear."

For the last three weeks, both Harry and Severus' clock hands had been in a new designation on the clock called 'Courting'. That had changed this morning. Harry was back in 'Lost' and Severus was in a whole new designation, 'Despair'.

"What do you think happened?" he asked.

"I don't want to think. Maybe – " her words broke off as an uncertain knock sounded at the front door.

"That can't be good," he muttered.

"Really?" Hermione's sarcasm got the better of her. She always did get snarky when one of her schemes didn't work out as planned, and nothing had been as important to her as seeing the boys that had been their own for a few short months find happiness.

She had her wand in her hand already. She passed it over herself, him, and the bed. With a sudden jolt, he found himself totally clean and lying on a pristinely made bed.

"Give us a warning, luv, will you?" he complained, dragging himself to a sitting position. So much for their lazy lie in.

"Hurry," she said, tossing him last night's brown robe.

She was already buttoning up the lavender one she'd worn to the pub last night and hurrying towards the sitting room.

Still more asleep than awake, Ron trailed in her wake. She threw open the front door as nervous looking as any worried mother.

Both of them did a double take at the man standing there. It wasn't Harry or Severus.

"Blaise?" Hermione questioned.

It was barely seven am. Zabini never saw daylight before noon on the weekends.

"Er, I'm sorry to bother you so early, but – " Blaise said.

"Come in," Hermione said, taking his arm and leading him towards the couch and setting him down at the far end.

Ron looked around for the teapot and started it steaming. This had the looks of being a long day.

"Is everything all right?" Hermione asked their guest, taking a seat on the other end of the couch.

Both of them stared at Blaise. The handsome Slytherin looked fine, but he was nearly as good at hiding things as Severus.

"I don't know," Blaise answered. Before they could ask anything else, he continued, "At about one this morning I heard something that sounded like a gale shrieking through the Slytherin corridor outside my quarters. When I opened the door to see what was going on, I found Harry lying out there covered with cuts."

"Oh, my God!" Hermione jumped to her feet. "Is he . . . ?"

"He's not hurt," Blaise quickly assured. "It was just some glass splinters and minor scratches, nothing deep. I healed him up and got him back to his bed."

"Glass splinters," Hermione repeated. "What . . . ?"

"He wouldn't say what happened to him, but I've my suspicions. He was lying stark naked in front of Snape's door," Blaise relayed with obvious anger.

Ron's stomach lurched. Hermione was so sure that Harry and Severus were made for each other, but he wasn't anywhere near as certain.

"Severus would never hurt him," Hermione quickly insisted. She'd gone white as a house ghost.

"Well, someone sure as hell did," Blaise replied.

"What did Harry say?" Ron asked, trying to make sense of it. He mightn't be wearing rose coloured glasses as far as Severus and Harry's potential as a couple were concerned, but everything inside him insisted that Hermione was right. Severus would never knowingly hurt Harry.

"All he'd say was that he hurt Severus and that everything was all his fault." Blaise's frustration was obvious.

He'd hurtSeverus?

The sudden shrieking of the teakettle made them all start.

"I'll get it," Ron said, moving from his standing daze to deal with the tea.

"Where is Harry now?" he heard Hermione ask.

Ron quickly poured three cups of tea, manifested some milk and sugar, and added it to all their likings. He handed the darkest cup to Zabini, the lightest one to Hermy, and perched on the wide, cushioned arm of the couch with his own.

After muttering a soft thank you, Blaise answered, "He's in his rooms. I stayed with him till just a few minutes ago. I haven't seen him this upset since that bastard Julius. He wouldn't let me stay any longer, but . . . I really don't think he should be alone."

"No, of course, he shouldn't," Hermione immediately concurred.

They looked at each other. He could read the fear in her eyes.

"I'll go to Severus," Ron offered to take on the more difficult task. Harry was never easy to deal with when upset, but Severus made Norwegian Ridgebacks look amiable when he was in retreat.

"I can go," she said.

"No. You're more reasonable than me. Harry will need that," Ron argued.

"Let Ron deal with Snape," Blaise advised with something like satisfaction in his tone. Harry must have been in a bad way to get Zabini so angry with his fellow Slytherin, Ron recognized.

"Blaise," Hermione scolded, "you've seen them together. You know Severus would never hurt Harry."

"I don't know that at all," Blaise snapped. "I saw him after Snape was through with him, Hermione, you didn't. If Snape can do that without meaning to, then God help Harry if he ever consciously decides to hurt him."

Hermione bit her lip and looked to him, guilt and worry bright in her eyes. "This is all my fault."

"Oh, for – " Ron started, then, seeing the effect his anger was having on her, he forced himself to calm down. "It's not your fault. And I'm sure it's not Harry or Severus', either. It's just some big misunderstanding that they're both too proud or stupid to sort out on their own. You know Severus would never hurt Harry, Hermy." He turned to fix his stare on Blaise. "And you know it, too. He's your housemate. I know Severus scares the tar out of the students, but when has he ever really physically hurt anyone, even when provoked?"

Blaise looked down. "You're right, of course. It's just . . . ."

"I know," Ron said. "We'll sort it out. Don't worry." Slurping down his tea, he gave Hermione's cheek a quick peck and rose to his feet. "You go see how Harry is doing. I'll deal with Severus."

"You're a brave man, Ron," Blaise said, seemingly in complete seriousness.

Snorting at the compliment, he headed out the door.

There was one flaw in his plan. In order to deal with Severus, he had to see Severus. He hadn't set foot in the Slytherin dungeons since he and Harry had drugged Goyle and Crabbe to do that polyjuice potion in second year. He knew where Snape's quarters were only because Harry had told him. He banged on Severus' door for five minutes straight to no effect. Thinking that Snape might be in the potions lab, he checked there as well. No Severus.

The Great Hall was beginning to fill with students and teachers when he poked his head in to see if Severus were having breakfast, but Snape wasn't there, either.

He was on his way back down to the dungeons when a blood splattered, translucent ghost passed him on the stairs.

"Excuse me, Baron?" Ron nervously called the most intimidating of the house ghosts.

"Yes, young Weasley?"

Even when dead the man knew how to put a rival house member in his place, Ron acknowledged.

"Have you seen Professor Snape this morning?" he asked.

"No." The ghost turned from him.

"Er, is he still in his quarters?" Ron persevered.

"That's for him and me to know and you to find out, ey, Gryffindor?" the Baron laughed and floated away.

Slytherins, even when dead, they made you want to kill them!

"Thanks," Ron said. "Thanks for nothing."

"Is everything all right, Professor Weasley?" a sweet voice asked from behind.

Realizing that he was standing here at the entrance to the Slytherin dungeons, for all intents and purposes, talking to himself, he swung around to see Joan Holland, a third year Slytherin student behind him. She was a petite blond with huge blue eyes, a lovely disposition, and a drive to prove herself that was downright terrifying. She was nearly as smart as Hermione had been at that age, but far more aware of her effect on the opposite sex. From her looks and carriage, Ron had always suspected some connection to the Malfoy house. It was the only reason he could think of for the girl to have been sorted into Slytherin.

"Ah, I'm fine, thanks," he said. Suddenly inspired, Ron asked, "Have you seen Professor Snape this morning, Miss Holland?"

"He's been in his rooms all morning. It’s not like him to be so late in rising," she answered, real worry in her face.

He'd seen this time and again. While at school and when he'd first started teaching here, he hadn't been able to comprehend how even Slytherins could be so fond of Snape, but the children of Snape's house really had a genuine affection for him. Ron belatedly recognized that he should have realized that there was a lot more to Severus than the snarl he turned on the world.

"He's not answering his front door," Ron said. "The Gryffindor house head has a private entrance to the dorms. Is there one in Slytherin?"

She gave a guarded nod, the house rivalries so ingrained that she was even suspicious of a Gryffindor professor.

Ron sighed. He hated being viewed as the enemy. Hermione was right. It was long past time for these divisive conventions to be put aside. But he couldn't deal with that now.

"Does Professor Snape always answer that door?" he questioned.

Seeming slightly chuffed, the young Slytherin insisted, "Professor Snape would never ignore us. It doesn't matter what time of the day or night we knock, he always helps us."

"Do you think I could ask you to deliver a note to him at that door?" Ron asked, almost holding his breath. "It's rather important."

After a moment in which she seemed to weigh the dangers to her house head, she gave a guarded nod. "All right."

"Thank you. Hang on a moment." A quick flick of his wand and a few muttered words brought him parchment, pen, and inkwell. Leaning on the dungeon wall with the inkwell floating beside him, Ron quickly scribbled his message and handed it to the girl. "Thank you, Miss Holland."

"You're welcome, sir," with a blinding smile, she scurried past him to the dungeons.

With a weary sigh, Ron turned back towards the Gryffindor Tower.

***********

This knock he couldn't ignore. Ron had been out there at his front door a while ago, banging for nearly five minutes. Harry had called his floo three times this morning. Deep in his misery, Severus had ignored them all. But as Slytherin head of house, there was no way he could ignore a knock from the dorm door.

He glanced around his quarters. They were pretty much restored, except for the glass. His cuts were healed, his attire totally presentable. Only his soul remained broken.

Severus smoothed his robe down and opened the door.

"Miss Holland," he greeted, somewhat surprised. In the three years she'd been at Hogwarts, he'd never once had to counsel her privately. She had a queen's grace and charm. Even the Gryffindors liked her.

She gave him a smile that would conquer any man in three or four years. "Good morning, sir. I'm sorry to disturb you, but Professor Weasley asked me to deliver this to you. He said it was important."

His stomach roiling, he accepted the offered parchment. "Thank you."

About to turn away and hurry back to the dorm, she paused to ask, "Are you all right, Professor?"

He was going to have to get used to lying again, but he wasn't up to it at the moment. So he just nodded, said, "Thank you," and closed the door.

His blood running cold, he lent against the door and unfolded the parchment. There in Ronald Weasley's messy scrawl, he read:

Severus, I need to see you. My place. Immediately. No excuses.

It was signed only Ron.

So it started. Severus knew this was the beginning of the end. The Weasleys had always sided with Potter in everything. Life as he'd come to know it was about to end. Well, it had been nearly six weeks since his restoration to adulthood. That was the longest he'd ever kept any friend besides Albus, let alone three.

He supposed he could ignore this summons as well, but what was the point? What was done was done. He couldn't undo it. His only choice now was how he would react to the dissolution of his new, beloved world. But as much as he feared this interview with Ron, he was no coward. He'd face it with as much dignity as he could muster.

Taking a deep breath, he went to face the proverbial music. It was only his imagination, of course, for the house elves would have cleaned hours ago, but he thought he could still see some brown stains on the grey flagstone floor opposite his quarters where Harry had come crashing down on the stones last night.

He paused in front of the Weasleys' door, his gaze straying to the next one down. The red bearded wizard in the portrait on the door glared at him in near hatred.

Turning quickly away, he knocked.

The door was flung open immediately. Ronald Weasley stood there in last night's wrinkled brown robe, with an indecipherable expression on his pasty face. Hermione didn't seem to be present, which was probably a statement on how they wanted to handle this. Her peace-making tendencies would probably only hinder whatever Ron had to say to him.

He hadn't known how to approach this meeting, how to deal with Ron now that there could only be hatred between them again. The thought of losing Ron and Hermione hurt nearly as much as losing Harry. Knowing Ron's protective streak, he had a pretty good idea as to how this meeting would go.

Looking at this man who had been the only father he'd ever known, Severus resolved that, whatever happened, it would not come to wands between him and Ron. With that thought in mind, he removed his wand from his pocket and held it out to Ron on his open palm.

It was the most ancient of rituals between their kind, rarely done in the past, and unheard of in modern times. Turning over one's wand left a wizard defenceless and completely at the mercy of the person to whom the wand was offered. In the ancient past, this was a symbol of fealty, always an act of submission, and often an admission of guilt. Severus supposed that all three applied to him this morning.

Ron's eyes had widened as Severus reached for his wand, but he hadn't gone for his own. As Severus held his wand out to him, the strangest expression claimed Ron's freckled features. "What are you doing?"

"I won't fight you," Severus explained, holding that gaze.

"Fight me?" Ron had never been the brightest of students, but rarely had he appeared so cretinous.

"Your summons said no excuses. I offer none," Severus stiffly stated. This was harder than the verbal fencing he used to do with Voldemort fourteen years ago.

"My . . . ." An expression of horrified understanding washed over Ron's pale face. "I needed to see how you were. Harry said that he'd hurt you."

"You . . . ." His knees nearly buckled under the shock. He gaped at Ron, incapable of fitting Ron's words into his reality.

"Put that thing away," Ron ordered and then stepped up to take his arm.

Too stunned to protest, Severus allowed himself to be guided over to the couch.

Ron was only an inch or so taller than him, but he was nearly twice as broad. At the moment, Severus felt as small and uncertain as a seven-year-old beside him as Weasley guided him back to the couch. Ron left him for a moment. When he returned, the mug Severus had used here as a child was placed into his hands.

He stared down into the milky, tan liquid, letting its heat seep through his frozen fingers. It was all he could do to keep from bursting into tears.

He hadn't lost everything.

Taking a deep breath, he sipped his tea and attempted to get control of his emotions. He wasn't thinking very clearly this morning. He was so tired and this hurt so damn much.

"First off, are you all right?" Ron questioned as he took a seat on the cushion beside his, sounding as though that really were the most important thing on his mind.

"In what respect?" Severus attempted to evade.

"In the not needing medical attention respect," Ron snapped. "Quit the word games. We're both too tired for them. Just answer the question."

"I am physically unharmed," he quietly offered.

To his shock, Ron's hand reached out to squeeze his shoulder as his former father murmured, "Thank God," and then asked, "All right, what the devil happened?"

Severus couldn't hold that steady gaze. "Do you want the details?"

"Spare me the sexual hi jinks. Just tell me how Harry ended up bullocks naked out in the hall all cut to pieces."

This must be what it was like to have a father, Severus thought. He could hear the disappointment and anger in Ron's voice, but over it all, he could hear the love and concern.

He didn't want to answer, but he owed this man. Ron was making an attempt to understand. He hadn't just judged him unfit and discarded him from his life. If for no other reason, the novelty of that unprecedented kindness should be rewarded. So, he took a deep breath and tried to answer. "After . . . afterwards . . . Harry laughed at me. I didn't mean to injure him. I just wanted him gone."

"Harry . . . laughed at you?" Ron repeated, sounding shocked.

Feeling like the ostracised seven-year-old this man had befriended, Severus gave a tight nod and stared into his tea.

Ron was quiet for what seemed a very long time. Finally, he asked, "How long have you known Harry?"

"As long as you," Severus snapped, not looking up.

"In all that time, did you ever see him mock anyone? He never even teased Malfoy unless Malfoy started it," Ron reminded in a reasonable tone.

Still not able to meet those eyes, Severus said, "Nevertheless, he laughed at me."

"Tell me what he said – exactly," Ron ordered.

Attempting to remember the painful words he'd been doing his best to forget all day, Severus squeezed his eyes shut. "He started to say something about how that when he was in school, he used to speculate on my . . ." Feeling his cheeks go scarlet, he forced himself to continue, ". . . on my sexual habits. And then he laughed."

"And then?" Ron prodded.

"And then I became angry. A great wind ripped my quarters apart and flung Harry out into the hall," Severus reported as unemotionally as possible.

"That's it?" Ron asked.

"He was laughing at me," Severus said.

"Are you sure?"

"I know laughter when I hear it. I've endured enough of it," he snarled.

"Too much, perhaps," Ron softly countered.

"What do you mean?" he snapped.

"The cruelty you suffered as a child left you very sensitive to any form of teasing – maybe even oversensitive. You and I both know Harry. He isn't cruel. He would never laugh at someone he was . . . intimate with, not in a mean or hurtful way. That's just not part of his character. You know that," Ron insisted.

"What else could he have been laughing at after what he'd said?" Severus demanded.

"How about himself?"

An altogether new kind of chill passed through him at Ron's question.

Seeming to realize that he had his complete attention, Ron continued with, "At a certain age, all kids are curious about what the adults around them get up to in bed. We used to wonder about our teachers. Our current students speculate about us. It's natural."

"Is it?" Severus asked, his stomach tight as a rock again because Ron was right. Mockery simply wasn't Harry Potter's style. That was why this betrayal had hurt so much, because it was something he had never expected from Harry. If betrayal it even was. Ron's words were casting doubt on even his own memories.

"Shall I tell you what I heard Stanton telling his friends last week about what Hermione gets up to with a leather riding crop?" Ron laughed.

"He didn't," Severus said, appalled. The students were so intimidated by him that they never talked freely in his class. He'd seen the easy relationship Ron had with his students. Ron could very well have overheard something of that nature before the speaker was even aware he was around.

"He most certainly did. He'll be serving detention for another three weeks," Ron reported.

"Did you tell Hermione?" Severus shuddered at the thought.

Ron gave an earthy chuckle. "What? And put ideas in her head? She's got enough ideas of her own, believe me. She doesn't need Stanton's help."

Unable to believe how easy Ron was about all of this, Severus shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He was so out of step with the world. He supposed it were possible that he'd misunderstood Potter's meaning completely. It certainly made more sense than thinking Harry would scorn him like that after making love, which meant . . . which meant he'd committed yet another horrible, unforgivable mistake.

"You think my anger was precipitative," he said.

Ron sighed. "I believe you've both been hurt so badly in the past that you can't see clearly. Trust isn't easy, Severus, but you can't get anywhere in life without it."

"Every time I've trusted, I've been betrayed," Severus softly admitted.

"Not every time," Ron firmly countered. "Harry never let you down once in the entire four months you spent together."

He remembered the tiny boy who had defended him like a lion from classmates twice Potter's size. That boy would never have mocked him – nor would the man Harry had grown into. This new guilt taking a stranglehold around his heart, Severus tried to hold on to his anger, to the possibility that he'd been wronged. But he knew Ron was right. Harry just wouldn't do something like that, no matter how it might have sounded at the time.

"I've ruined everything," he whispered, crushed by the weight of this mistake.

Ron's hand returned to his shoulder. "No, you haven't, Severus. It's all part of it."

"Part of what?" he asked, finally looking into those familiar brown eyes.

"Being part of a family. Families don't break up because of a misunderstanding. They work things out. You've got to talk to Harry," Ron said.

"If you're right about Harry's intentions, how could he ever forgive what I did to him?" Severus questioned, utterly lost.

The hand on his shoulder gave another encouraging squeeze. "All Harry seemed to care about was the fact that he hurt you. Talk to him. You'll work it out. It will be all right. You'll see."

"Do you really believe that?"

Ron's gaze was totally guileless as he nodded. "Yes. You're very important to him."

It both warmed and embarrassed him to hear Ron say that.

After an oddly comfortable silence, Severus asked, "Hermione is not here?"

"She's in with Harry."

"I see. Did you lose the coin toss?" he tried to joke.

"Huh?" Ron asked as he moved to pour himself some tea from the magical kettle on the coffee table in front of them.

"Having to deal with me instead of Harry," Severus specified.

Ron's gaze pierced his skin like the glass shards had last night. "I volunteered." When he made no response to that, Ron softly said, "I know what it feels like to be where you're sitting this morning. When you cut through all the superficial stuff, you and I are a lot alike, Severus."

"We are both carbon based, male wizards. That is all we have in common." Severus nearly laughed at the idea of Ronald Weasley, who had been on the side of light and right since birth, comparing himself in any way to a former Death Eater.

"Is it?" Ron mildly replied. "I'll admit that I'm not as smart as you or as good with words – "

"That isn't what I meant," Severus quickly interrupted; less more misunderstandings ensue. He was so exhausted from his sleepless night that he could barely keep his eyes open.

Ron's smile was quick and warm. "I know. But whether you realize it or not, we are a lot alike."

"How?" Severus asked, willing to be distracted from the mess he'd made of things with Harry.

"Our personalities are almost exact opposites, I'll give you that. But under it, well . . . most days, we both operate on a pretty even keel. You're more reserved than I am. You do dark and glowering; I do bright and peppy, but we're both fairly stable from day to day. Until something hits us where we live, and then, we're exactly the same," Ron said.

"The same?" Severus questioned, allowing the arch of a brow to reveal his feelings on that matter.

Ron chuckled at the gesture. "The minute you and I get upset, we stop thinking. We react emotionally to the situation. Our tempers get the better of us and we fly off the handle."

His jaw didn't quite fall open. After last night, he could hardly argue the evaluation. He'd flown off the handle with a vengeance – and had a history of doing so, he realized. Incredible as it might seem, Ron was totally right. They were utterly alike in that respect and it was probably the defining characteristic of both their personalities. It stunned him that Ron had seen this and he never had.

"I stand corrected," he softly acknowledged, dropping his eyes to his cooling tea.

"Severus, Harry knows that about us and loves us anyway. That's how I know it will be all right," Ron said.

He was amazed by how difficult it was to muster the control to meet Ron's gaze. When he did, the hope and acceptance there were enough to finish him.

His throat went so tight he could barely swallow around the lump there. He didn't deserve this. Not after what he'd done to Harry last night. Not after what he'd done as a Death Eater thirty years ago. He wasn't worthy of this kind of love.

"Are you as knackered as you look?" Ron asked.

He gave a quick nod at the potential for escaping without further humiliating himself.

"Why don't you rest for a while in the guest room?" Ron suggested. "Your bed's still in there. I know Hermione is going to want to see you when she gets back."

"I . . . That isn't necessary," he softly refused.

"I know. Humour me, okay? We'll all feel better if you stay close," Ron said.

There was no way he could refuse anything Ron asked of him. If Weasley had asked for his heart on a platter at that moment, Severus would have agreed and handed him the knife.

"As you wish," he whispered.

"Good. Come on. Let's get you settled," Ron said, rising to his feet.

"Ron," Severus said, overcome by a sudden need to acknowledge this man's generosity of spirit.

"Yes?"

"Please don't ever disparage your intelligence in my presence again," he asked.

Ron's face went blank for a moment, then he grinned, and a heartbeat later he did the unthinkable and gathered him close in a hug.

Severus was so shocked by the contact that his body froze up like the lake out front in January. But Ron didn't release him, for all that he'd turned to ice. After a few awkward breaths, Severus relaxed.

He squeezed his eyes shut, took a deep breath, and buried his face in Ron's shoulder.

Harry hugged him sometimes, but any contact with Potter was always coloured by his feelings for him and the need to control and hide them. He didn't have anything to hide from Ron.

When Ron's hand started to rub his back, it was one of the most wonderful things he'd felt in his life. Severus knew that he was being weak, but he couldn't help himself. He just stood there and allowed himself to be held, soaking up the closeness and acceptance.

Ron held him like that until Severus pulled away some time later.

"Are you going to be okay now?" Ron asked as they parted.

"I think so – thanks to you," he acknowledged.

Ron blushed so bright his freckles stood out like spots on a robin's egg. "You would have worked it out for yourself in time. Come on. Let's get you settled."

The guestroom was just as he remembered it: two four-poster beds, two nightstands, the picture with the herd of deer grazing. All that was missing were Harry and his schoolbags and toys.

Ron led him to his bed and peeled the blue duvet back while Severus removed his boots and jacket.

"Sleep well," Ron said, gave his back another pat, and left.

Wand in hand, he crawled under the duvet.

Severus didn't think he'd be able to sleep, despite his exhaustion, but it was almost as if Ron had placed a spell on him, which perhaps he had. As soon as Severus' head hit that familiar pillow, his eyes sank shut and he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When he awoke, he didn't know where he was at first. Recognizing his surroundings, the part of himself that was concerned with his survival relaxed, while at the same time, the part that worried about his dignity recoiled in horror at how he'd come to be here.

Had he really allowed Ron to hug him, comfort him, and put him to bed as though he were still seven?

He remembered what Ron had said about their similarity in characters, how they were both prone to flying off the handle. Perhaps this type of indignity was some form of cosmic punishment for acting like a child.

Only, it didn't feel like punishment.

He was highly self-conscious about the events that had brought him here, but he wasn't sorry to be here. He didn't know what he'd say to Ron when he stepped out of this room, but even though nothing had changed with Harry, Severus' spirit felt healed from his talk with Ron.

Well, there was nothing for it. He couldn't stay in here forever. If nothing else, he had to use the facilities.

Taking a deep breath, he climbed out of bed, slipped his boots on, and moved to the door. As he crossed the room, he was struck by how dark it seemed. It had been no later than ten thirty this morning when Ron had brought him in here, but the patch of sky he could see through the window was pitch black. Wondering how long he'd slept, Severus eased the guestroom door open and silently moved to the loo across the hall.

When he was done, he used the toothbrush he'd neglected to remove when he'd left here last month, washed his hands and face, and finally left the bathroom. His jacket was still in the bedroom, but he didn't require that formality with Hermione and Ron.

He was spared the embarrassment of facing Ron. As he stepped into the sitting room, the only person there was Hermione. She was cuddled in her fuzzy blue bathrobe in the corner of the couch with her legs drawn up beside her, and her nose deep in an oversized book that had to be ten inches thick.

How many times in the months he'd spent here as a child had he seen her thus, head bent over some spell book as she searched for a cure to their condition?

It was a strangely comforting sight. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays Hermione and he spent their shared third period break together; he saw her every day at meals, and socially most evenings. There was no sensible reason for the pang of nostalgia that passed through him, and, yet, looking at her now, he was struck by how terribly much he missed this.

She glanced up at that moment and caught sight of him standing there. Her smile was instant and warm, the same one she would have given him yesterday or the day before that.

"Severus!"

"Hello," he greeted, self-conscious despite her obvious joy.

"I was beginning to think you were going to sleep the night through," she smiled up at him.

"What time is it?" he asked, off-kilter by the lost hours.

"It's just gone nine," she said.

Nine? He'd slept for over eleven hours?

"Did Ron place a sleeping spell on me?" he voiced the only explanation he could come up with.

"I doubt it. Come in and sit down."

He moved into the sitting room to take a seat beside her on the couch after the briefest of hesitations.

She closed her tome and placed it on the coffee table in front of them. Startled, he noticed the tray of nut bread, butter, and tea set there.

"I thought you might be hungry," Hermione said, no doubt noticing the direction of his gaze. "Go on, you must be famished."

Realizing that he was starving, he cut a piece of bread and buttered it while she fixed his tea for him.

"I've made quite a mess of things, haven't I?" he commented almost ruefully after a few bites and sips.

"Rather, a bit. It will get better, though," Hermione assured, her eyes warm with compassion.

Severus looked down at his crumb-laden plate and asked the question his embarrassment had prevented him from asking this morning, "How is Harry?"

"Hurting. The same as you." She patted his arm, and then reached out to cut and butter another piece of nut bread. "Here, eat some more."

Although his favourite treat suddenly tasted like sawdust, he obligingly took a bite of the bread she handed to him. When he'd finished that piece as well and half his tea, he asked, "Where's Ron?"

An impish grin lit her face and she rose to her feet.

"Come see," Hermione invited, offering her hand to him. She did it so easily, as though he were still the child that was dear to her.

Caught off guard yet again, Severus rose slowly to his feet. He placed his hand in her open palm. She gave his hand the same kind of encouraging squeeze she had that night he'd first dared reach out to her when she'd been showing Harry and him the Hogsmeade Christmas decorations.

To his surprise, she steered him to the window seat. Both bedrooms of the Weasleys' quarters overlooked the lake. The sitting room, however, faced the other side, giving a fairly decent view of the quidditch field.

It was a clear night. The moon seemed even larger and more enchanting than it had last night. It cast a bright, silver-blue glow over the seemingly empty quidditch pitch.

Severus' gaze focused on the tiny, turreted mud fort that still stood in the centre of the playing field. Ron hadn't removed it yet. Severus knew that it was sickeningly sentimental for a Slytherin to think this way, but he viewed that rough structure as a kind of monument to Potter and his friendship.

Recalling that he'd asked her where Ron was, he was about to turn and question Hermione when something as fast as the black streak of spilt ink shot across the face of the gibbous moon. Startled, Severus realized that it was someone riding a broom.

Another streak followed fast on its brush. His eyes widening in surprise, Severus watched the two flyers chase each other across the moonlit pitch. They seemed to be engaged in some type of high-speed chase, zooming too close for comfort around each other and the empty spectator stands. In the moment it took him to identify what the flying figures were, they nearly crashed into each other twice.

Though the flyers were nothing more than distant silhouettes against the moon, he immediately recognized them as Ron and Harry.

"It's almost like a mating dance," Severus remarked, unable to force his gaze from the sleek movements of this strange aerial ballet.

Hermione chuckled. "Yes, that's what I always thought. Please don't tell Ron, though. It will make him too self-conscious."

"What are they doing?" he asked, as the dark shadows circled each other in a wide, almost ritualistic pattern.

"Chasing the snitch. It's Harry's idea of stress management," Hermione answered. "I can't watch them for long."

"I can see why," he concurred as the smaller of the pair made an abrupt nose dive for the ground, the larger flyer tight on his tail. If they didn't crash into the wet ground, they were sure to smash into each other.

After waiting until what seemed too late, the larger flyer turned his broom slightly to the left. A long arm reached out, made a grab around the smaller flyer, and then the larger of the pair punched his clenched fist into the air in an unmistakable sign of victory.

"Poor Harry," Hermione laughed. "He's not having a good day."

As the two flyers dismounted below, Hermione took his arm and led him back to the couch.

"How often do they do that?" Severus asked a few minutes after they'd sat down, struck by how little he really knew about Harry. Potter's silhouette streaking across the gibbous moon seemed frozen in his mind.

"Whenever they have a really bad day," she said, refilling their teacups.

"I suppose today qualifies as such," he remarked, daunted by the mess he'd made of everything.

He couldn't help but believe in his heart that tying that graceful flyer to something like himself would be tantamount to cutting off its wings. The sex last night had been the finest experience of Severus' life, but he wasn't fool enough to believe it could possibly have been the same for Potter. Harry was so young and incredibly vibrant. He needed someone more like himself to share his life with, someone like Zabini, or Ron. Not a used up Death Eater.

Hermione snorted. "He's had worse, Severus, much worse. You'll sort this out and things will be fine. Harry – "

Her words cut off as the door burst open. Ron and Harry entered the room. They were both in black quidditch robes, both smiling, and flushed from their exertion.

Harry's smile faltered the instant he saw him. His face went as blank as Severus felt.

From the look Ron threw in Hermione's direction, Severus knew that neither he nor Harry had expected him to still be here. He looked at Hermione himself, wondering if perhaps he'd accused the wrong Weasley of the sleeping charm.

"Did you have a good game?" she asked so smoothly that even a veteran spy like himself could admire her cool.

Ron opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. Harry was still staring at him with a totally unnerving intensity.

Recognizing his own cue, Severus got to his feet. "I should go."

"No!" Hermione and Ron protested as one. But it was only the silent, green-eyed man whose wishes counted at this moment.

Severus was relieved to see that the glass cuts from his thaumaturgic temper tantrum were gone from Harry's face and hands. At least he'd caused him no lasting physical damage. As for the emotional, the chill in that feline green gaze told Severus how effectively he'd wounded Potter.

"Don't leave," Harry said with little to no inflection. Severus hadn't a clue as to what he was thinking or feeling. He supposed his own uneasiness must be mortifyingly obvious.

He braced himself, waiting for the 'we're all adults here' type of comment that usually was voiced in these sort of untenable situations, but Harry never gave the lie that social convention called for. Apparently, his anger or hurt went too deep.

The agonizing silence stretched like Cruciatus.

"You're giving me a crick in the neck. Sit down, all of you!" Hermione said.

No one moved.

Finally, Harry said very stiffly, "I didn't mean what I said last night the way it sounded. I'm sorry."

Harry's gracious acceptance of responsibility for last night's debacle only made him feel worse. Needing to say this for his own sake as much as Harry's, Severus softly replied, "It is you who are owed the apology. I . . . overreacted. I am sorry."

Those bitter words, too rarely spoken, seemed inadequate in light of his offence. Harry seemed to feel so, too, for his expression never changed. He wasn't used to seeing Harry so guarded against him. Even when Potter had first returned to Hogwarts to teach, he'd always looked at him with something like amused affection.

The last of his foolish hopes dying at that cold expression, Severus' stomach clenched into a painful knot. Keeping his face a tight mask, he turned to Hermione, "I really must go. Thank you for your kindness. Both of you."

He added the last without looking at Ron, for to look at Ron, he would have to look at Harry, who was at his side. His gaze on his boots, he took a blind step towards the door, and stopped as he realized that Harry and Ron were blocking his retreat. He knew 123 secret exits in Hogwarts. Not a one of them was in Gryffindor Tower.

He'd faced Voldemort without flinching, yet it took every bit of nerve he possessed to walk past Potter to the door.

"Harry," Ron softly said when Severus was close to them, the word sounding like a reprimand.

Severus almost thought he was home free, until a fine boned hand touched his sleeve and he found himself rooted in place. He looked down into Harry's tense face. Potter's hair was askew from the wind, far messier than normal. His cheeks were still flushed from his exertions. Severus could see the perspiration soaking his black robes, making them conform to the lines of his body instead of concealing them. Though a head shorter than him, Potter was broader – who wasn't? – and still well muscled from his years as a quidditch player.

Taking a deep breath, he could smell Harry's salty sweat. It reminded him of what he'd been free to taste and touch last night. Something deep inside him began to tremble. This had been his for the taking and he'd thrown it away in a fit of pique.

"We need to talk," Harry said.

One wouldn't think that four small, common words could undo a man nearing his fifth decade. But Severus felt his throat totally close up, his mouth running dry as the Sahara. All he could do was nod.

"Fine. Hermy and I will just pop out and – " Ron began.

"Don't be absurd," Harry said. "Hermione's ready for bed. My place is right next door."

"Maybe you should stay and . . . ." Ron's words faltered, as though he'd realized this wasn't a discussion anyone could have with an audience.

"We have to be alone sometime, Ron," Harry said gently, his tone becoming more cautious as he turned to check with him, "Is next door all right with you?"

"Yes." Severus found his voice. Though hardly a shining example of articulation, it was better than the head nodding.

"Good night, then," Harry said to Hermione and Ron. "I'll see you in the morning."

"Goodnight," Ron echoed, his expression making it plain that he thought they were both making a huge mistake.

"Harry, Severus," Hermione waited until they were both looking at her, "some things are more important than pride. Try not to be too hard on each other – or yourselves."

That last was aimed directly at him. Severus gulped and returned to nodding.

"You're incorrigible – you do know that?" Harry said to her, but then he went over and kissed her on the forehead, leaving her smiling.

Her worried, but warm gaze settling on him, Severus debated a moment, and then returned to the couch and mirrored Potter's gesture – plainly startling everyone in the room, except for perhaps Hermione, who was grinning like a proud mother now.

"Many thanks," he whispered before straightening. He turned to Ron and repeated the sentiment.

Ron grinned and patted him on the arm.

It was only as the Weasleys' door closed behind them that he realised he'd left both his jacket and robes behind. Feeling nearly indecent in his trousers and shirtsleeves, he followed Potter to the next door in the dim and drafty corridor, where he withstood the unblinking glare of the red-bearded wizard in the portrait standing guard there.

"Hello, Harry," the portrait greeted.

"Hello, Martin," Harry returned, murmuring the words that would allow them to pass through his wards.

"If you hurt him again, you will regret it, Slytherin," the portrait warned with open hate.

"Martin!" Harry chastised. "Don't be rude."

"If you can be foolish, I can be rude," the picture replied. "You're making a grave error. You saw what he did to you last night. That handsome Slytherin won't always be around to pick up the pieces. He – "

"Martin, enough!" Harry ordered.

"I know his family. Bad blood, all of them, straight back to Solemnus Snape who – "

"Razed a Muggle town to the ground, killing all in it, after they burned his pregnant wife at the stake," Severus completed with as much calm as possible. "I don't believe I've ever been threatened by a portrait before."

Harry finally got the door open and waved him inside. Severus passed the glowering portrait without another word.

"Sorry about that," Harry said once they were inside, where the wall torches and hearth fire blazed immediately to life without so much as a flick of Potter's wand.

Blinking at the sudden onslaught of light, Severus asked in disbelief, "You told the portrait on your door what happened last night?"

Harry looked at him as though he'd lost his mind, which was seriously in question. "Of course, I didn't tell him. I suppose Collie did."

"Who is Collie?" Severus asked.

"That lovely young redhead in the green gown in the portrait at the bottom of the stairs to Slytherin. She's Martin's granddaughter. She comes to visit with him sometimes," Harry said.

"She can't see down the Slytherin corridor," Severus said. "And none of the Slytherins in the pictures on our wall would ever discuss such a thing outside of their house."

Harry sighed. "Then you'd better move that mirror along the far wall because Collie can see everything that goes on in the corridor outside your quarters reflected in it."

Severus digested that and then questioned the one piece of information in the picture's words that had raised some real emotion in him. The last thing this situation needed was jealousy, but he couldn't simply let the comment pass unchallenged. "And what was the bit about the handsome young Slytherin picking up the pieces? I suppose he was referring to Zabini?"

"Oh for – a gale ripped through the hall outside his room last night. What did you expect Blaise to do when he saw me sitting out there naked on the floor, close his door and go back to bed?"

"The entire school knows, then?" Severus voiced his deepest fear. For thirty years he'd managed to keep his reputation spotless, and within six weeks of befriending Potter, he'd turned himself into the laughing stock of Hogwarts. He couldn't even imagine what people were saying about him. He'd be surprised if Minerva didn't call him on the carpet on Monday.

"Are you trying to be an idiot? Of course, the school doesn't know. Just Ron, Hermione, Blaise – "

"And every gossiping portrait in Hogwarts," Severus said.

"Martin and Collie won't tell any of the other pictures," Harry assured with the unshakable faith of a child.

"How can you be so damn certain?" Severus snapped, wanting to throttle the fool already.

"Because Martin's related to my dad eight or nine centuries back," Harry supplied, his glare nearly as irritated as Severus felt. "Is this what you want to spend the night arguing about?"

"I don't want to spend the night arguing," Severus stiffly answered.

"What do you want, then?" Harry demanded.

Severus took a deep breath. There hadn't been this much contention between them since Potter's school days. But it was his own fault, and he had to at least try to make things liveable. He wasn't naïve enough to believe he could make up for what happened. All he could hope for was a return of civility – or, at the very least, perhaps he could remove some of the pain from the eyes behind those ridiculous round spectacles. Harry looked nearly haunted and, while Severus himself was remarkably refreshed from his nap, it was clear that Potter hadn't slept at all since they'd parted.

Remembering how he'd ignored this face in his floo this morning as Harry had all but begged him to talk to him, Severus softly offered, "To apologize."

"You did that already," Harry answered, still stiff and guarded.

"Not well enough," Severus said.

"What are you going to do? Offer up a pound of flesh?" Harry said, obviously trying to lighten the situation.

Severus took the words at face value. "Would it help?"

The birthing humour died completely in Harry's eyes. "You sound serious."

"Would it make a difference if I were?" Severus questioned and then said, "But that would be too easy, wouldn't it?"

"Easy?" Harry echoed, watching him as though trying to sink into his mind.

"If there were some form of reparation to be made for my mistake, it would be over and done with, not another unforgivable sin to be dragged around with all the rest."

"What happened last night wasn't a sin," Harry countered.

"I note that you do not contest the unforgivable," Severus sadly acknowledged.

After a moment, Harry said, "It wasn't unforgivable, either. It wasn't even intentional, I bet."

"No, it is perhaps the first wandless, wordless magic I've managed in my life, for all the good it did me," Severus admitted. "It may not have been intentional, but I know it hurt you. If I could change anything, it would be that."

The atmosphere in the small foyer lightened after his admission. Harry stared at him and said in a low voice, "I wasn't the only one hurt last night. I know how what I said sounded. I've been kicking myself for it ever since."

"I . . . reacted badly. The fault was not yours," Severus insisted.

"Yes, it was. If you'd really trusted me that never would have happened." He knew Harry didn't mean the words as an accusation, but that's how they sounded to him. Severus also sensed that this was the core of what was really bothering Harry.

He wished he could protest the words, but how could he after the events of last night?

"I regret that it has come to this end," he could barely get the words out, but he owed Harry too much to make this any harder on him. "I will endeavour not to make the situation any more awkward than it already is."

"So, we just walk away and call it quits?" From the expression on Harry's face, he'd hurt him again, deeply.

Totally out of his depth, but unwilling to let this end with the acrimony that had followed the few pathetic attempts he'd made to reach out to another of his species, Severus asked with as little aggression as he could manage, "What else is to be done?"

"Oh, Severus," the exclamation was lost somewhere between exasperation and despair. Those turbulent green eyes stared at him for nearly two minutes before Harry seemed to pull himself together and come to some type of decision. "What you said before about making reparation, was it just lip service?"

The chill that passed through him went straight to his soul. He had no clue where this discussion was headed. But . . . his body bore the mementos of every attempt he'd ever made to atone. He'd gladly add Harry's to their ranks. So he shook his head and firmly affirmed, "It was not."

"Okay, let's go inside and discuss this, then," Harry suggested.

Patience had never been his strongest point, but he followed Harry into the sitting room and took a seat on the couch when Harry waved him in. It was the same comfortably furnished room he'd visited Thursday night, Severus thought, looking around at the bookcases and pictures on the mantle, but the room felt entirely different tonight. The titillating thrill of visiting Harry on his own territory was absent tonight. He felt more like an intruder than a guest, but that was all of his own making.

As soon as Severus sat down, Harry moved to the bar and returned with two snifters of amber liquid. Without any apparent hesitation, Potter took a seat next to him on the couch, no farther away than he would have sat in the past.

Grateful for the false courage in his glass, Severus sipped his cognac and practiced waiting. But Harry just sat there staring into the fire in the hearth, as though searching for the right words to say.

Finally, Severus could take it no longer. Putting his glass down on the coffee table, he turned from his own study of the dancing flames to ask Harry, "What do you require of me as reparation?"

"I suppose you could drop trou, bend over the table and I could paddle your bare bottom, but what would that solve?" Harry snapped.

Severus was so caught up in the imagery that he nearly missed the last part. Taking in the disappointed question, he said, "There is no solution for this kind of situation. There are only steps to be taken to make it more bearable."

"And how would that make the situation more bearable? It was a joke, Severus."

"Punishing me would allow you to vent your anger. I am agreeable to your suggestion," Severus added, so there would be no doubt in Harry's mind as to his sincerity.

"It means that much to you?" Harry asked in a completely different tone.

"I will do whatever I can to make amends," Severus stated. It would be humiliating to follow through on Harry's suggestion, but he'd do it and more if it would help undo the damage he'd wrought.

"Do you mean that?" Harry questioned.

He was almost reduced to nodding again, but he managed a hoarse, "Yes."

"And you'll do anything I require of you?"

"Yes," Severus whispered, dying of shame inside at the thought of the ignominy he'd agreed to.

"All right, then, this is what I want from you," Harry said.

Severus stared down at the hands he had clasped tight in his lap, and held his breath.

"First, I require you to answer a question for me – in absolute truth."

"All right," he agreed, confused by the demand. What could Harry possibly want from him that would require absolute truth? He could think of only one thing, the mistake that had aroused the morbid curiosity of everyone he'd known his entire life. He knew his time with the Death Eaters and his motivations for leaving their ranks had to have stirred Harry's curiosity, but Potter had never asked him to delve into those dark memories to share them. He didn't think the issue pertained to their current dilemma, but he could imagine no other subject that would require this kind of build-up.

"Have you ever known me to break my word to anyone once I gave it?" Harry queried.

Severus stared at him. This was so far from what he'd expected that he hardly knew how to respond to it, but after a moment's silence, he shook his head and said, "No. Your word is your bond."

"I've heard the same about you. Is that true?"

Severus dropped his gaze. "I'm a traitor, Harry. How true could it be?"

"You never broke faith with Albus Dumbledore once you'd given your word," Harry protested.

"And I'd made exactly the same promises to Thomas Riddle before him," Severus reminded.

"That doesn't count."

"Why? Because you don't approve of him?" Severus asked.

"No. It doesn't count because the man you betrayed wasn't the same one you made your promise to, was he? Riddle's increasing insanity and bloodlust drove you to that betrayal."

Thunderstruck, he gaped at Potter, almost terrified of him. "How can you know that?"

"Because I know you. It's the only thing that makes sense. I could see you following Malfoy and your other Slytherin friends into Riddle's group when the movement was all about increasing the privileges of wizards and exploring the power of the Dark Arts, but you're too good a judge of character to have been comfortable once Riddle took on that Lord Voldemort title. But that's not what we're here to talk about. Is it true that if you give your word, you keep it?"

Shaking inside, he tried to hide how unnerved he was. No one had ever known him well enough to guess his true motives for joining Dumbledore, but Harry . . . Harry voiced those reasons as though they were confirmed fact, rather than mere conjecture. Recognizing what he would lose here if he didn't salvage this situation, Severus softly replied, "As true as it can be for one such as I."

"Severus!"

"All right, yes. It's true. What's this in aid of?" he snapped.

His sour tone brought the first real smile to Harry's face. "That's better. What it's in aid of is this. I want you to listen to me, and hear what I'm saying. And then I want you to promise me something. Agreed?"

"This is how you wish me to atone?" he asked in open bewilderment.

"If that's how you need to look at it, then, yes, this is how I wish you to atone. Do you agree?"

"Yes," he replied instantly. "What did you want me to listen to?"

Severus braced himself to hear a detailed list of how he'd failed Potter last night.

"Look at me," Harry commanded and then put down his drink to face him. Those compelling green eyes fixing on his with mesmerising intensity, Harry said, "I, Harry James Potter, do hereby most solemnly swear that I will never knowingly betray Severus Snape in heart, word, body, or action, so long as I live, so help me, God."

Severus felt his controlled demeanour falter. There was no condemnation at all in Harry's words.

This was what Harry wanted him to hear? Belatedly recognizing what Harry had just said to him, he felt even more adrift. How could this oath of fidelity possibly count as atonement?

"Did you hear what I just promised, Severus?" Harry asked.

He was back to nodding. It was really all he could manage at the moment. His body was as frozen with shock as if Potter had petrified him.

"Do I keep my promises?"

Another nod. Harry kept his promises – always.

"Now I need a promise from you," Harry said.

Severus gave a dry swallow and croaked, "What?"

"Repeat after me: I, Severus Snape," Potter waited until he'd echoed the words. Normally, he would have demanded to know what was being asked of him up front, but he'd told Harry he'd do anything and he'd meant anything, so he softly echoed, ". . . do hereby solemnly swear," another pause for him to follow along, "to do my utmost to have faith in Harry Potter."

Severus finished parroting Harry and then tensely asked, "What else?"

"Huh?" Harry asked with a stellar lack of intelligence.

"What else do you require of me as reparation?" Severus demanded.

"That's it. You promise to do that and last night's misunderstanding is over and done with, a part of the past."

"I suppose it is best to pretend last night never happened," Severus reluctantly agreed. He knew he was getting off lucky. Every time he'd made errors of this nature in the past, it had cost him his place in the other person's life. At least Harry was willing to continue to interact with him on a civil basis.

Harry vented a long, exasperated sigh. "We're misunderstanding each other again. It's probably my fault. I'm so tired I can barely string two words together."

Needing to retreat and try to process this loss into his being, Severus swiftly said, "I'll leave then. Perhaps tomorrow when you are better rested we can continue our conversation."

Harry's hand shot out to grip his forearm as he made to rise from the couch. "No. We're going to straighten this mess out before it gets any worse than it already is." Potter ran a hand through his already disorderly hair, setting the shaggy black length into complete revolt. "Hermione spent half the morning reading me the riot act for not taking this slow with you."

"The riot act?" Severus questioned, unwilling to jeopardize what was left of their relationship through improper interpretation of vernacular.

"It's a Muggle expression. It means . . ." Harry rubbed his nose and bit his lip, then explained, ". . . it means expressing your displeasure in detail."

"And Hermione was displeased with you on my behalf?" Severus asked, unable to comprehend. Harry had ended up naked and bloody in the Slytherin corridor and Hermione was upset with Harry?

To his further bewilderment, Harry grinned and proclaimed in a very childish tone, "Mom always did like you better."

"Harry, please, I am attempting to understand," he pleaded.

"I know. I'm sorry. I'm just so tired and so happy to have you talking to me again that I'm punch drunk."

Reminded of why Harry was so exhausted, Severus found himself repeating, "I'm sorry."

Harry seemed to force himself to focus. "We're both sorry, that much is clear. Are you angry with me for . . . what happened between us last night?"

"You already explained that you didn't mean your words as I interpreted them," Severus said.

"That's not the part of last night I was referring to," Harry said with a patience that was clearly hard won. "Hermione said that I should have talked things out with you before . . . before we made love. I didn't really give you a chance to refuse."

Apparently, he wasn't the only one who had lost his mind here. Recognizing how very tired Harry was and how cloudy his thinking probably was at the moment, Severus softly reminded, "Harry, I am probably the most powerful Dark Wizard left alive these days. If I had wanted to refuse, there was nothing short of an Unforgivable that you could have done to compel me to stay."

"That's not true," Harry protested, and then explained, "We've both been alone for a long time. When you've been without another's touch, your body will take you places your mind mightn't want to go. I never gave you a chance to think or say no. That was wrong of me."

Severus nearly smiled at that last sentence; it sounded so much like Hermione he suspected that Harry was quoting her verbatim. "Did Hermione tell you that?"

"Among other things. She wasn't happy with me. And she was right. I messed up so bad that you didn't even know why I was there with you. Don't even try to deny it," Harry warned before he could even open his mouth to protest. "There wouldn't have been any of that 'satisfying my curiosity' business if I'd handled things right."

Severus stared at the exhausted young man beside him. If he hadn't lost his soul to Potter months ago, it would have happened right now. Swallowing around the lump in his throat, he softly pointed out, "You can hardly be blamed for my insecurities, Harry."

"Can't I?" Harry asked. "I know you don't trust your emotions, yet I overwhelmed you with them. I never said anything about how I felt about you while we were . . . touching," Severus suspected that the last word had been substituted on his behalf, "and then I went and hurt you when I was trying to compliment you."

"You were complimenting me?" If he could have sunk into the ground and disappeared for good, he would have done it at that moment; he was so mortified by the mistake he'd made. He couldn't comprehend how Harry could stand to be in the same room with him now.

"Of course I was complimenting you, you dolt," Harry said.

Severus watched the firelight shift through his cognac as though it were liquefied topaz for a moment before quietly asking, "I know I've soured everything, but . . . what were you going to say?"

Harry, too, knew how to make silence work for him. Or perhaps he was simply too tired to think fast. Either way, Potter waited until the quiet brought Severus' gaze back to his face before answering. "That I'd always imagined that you'd be very methodical when it came to . . . love making, but the only thing you were methodical about was making sure you melted every nerve I had."

"Oh." No one had ever said anything like that to him before. He'd melted Harry's nerves?

"I guess I should have said the good part first," Harry said, more to himself than to him. It was clear he was still blaming himself for what had happened.

"No, the error was completely mine. I . . . I really did muck everything up, didn't I?" Severus said, not even trying to mask his despair.

"That all depends," Harry softly answered in a tone that might have been playful had that not been such an utter impossibility.

"On?"

"Whether or not Hermione was right about me pushing you into something you weren't ready for," Harry said, his face almost eager.

"What are you saying?" Severus croaked.

"That it doesn't have to be over. If you think you could have enough faith in me to try again, we could give it another go," Harry suggested, more nervous than Severus could recall seeing him.

"You can't seriously be suggesting that you'd be willing to – " Severus shut his mouth before he could say too much. Clearly, he had to be misunderstanding something again.

"We were good together. We can't throw that away because we don't communicate well. When we cut the words out, we communicate just fine," Harry insisted.

"You are serious," Severus whispered, unable to believe that Harry would be willing to give him a second chance. Never in his life had anyone made this sort of allowance for him.

"Of course, I'm serious. You're my best friend. And, even if you weren't . . . we work in the same place. I wouldn't risk this if it didn't mean so much," Harry said.

Mean so much . . . when had he ever meant anything to anyone? Harry didn't lie. If he said this was important to him, it was important to him. Severus simply didn't know how to respond to it all.

Harry seemed to take in his expression and silence for a while. After a few minutes, he said, "Let's try this another way. Severus, what are you looking for?"

"Looking for?" he echoed, still too overwhelmed to think straight.

"In a companion, in a . . . mate," Harry added a little hesitantly.

A mate . . . Potter said the word as though it were a possibility, in the same way he might have asked Neville or Zabini. Grateful for that courtesy, Severus softly explained, "Harry, I'm not the sort of man people look at that way."

"I'm not asking about how people look at you. I'm asking what kind of person you, Severus Snape, wants in his life."

Severus lowered his gaze. "I've never really thought about it."

"What?!"

"I don't torment myself by dwelling on impossibilities. Once I'd recognized the error I'd made by following Riddle, I knew that the best I could ever hope for was to redeem myself enough to secure a respectable position where I could live my life out in peace and pursue my Potions studies," Severus said.

Harry was so quiet he couldn't even hear Potter breathing anymore. After a moment, Harry's hand touched his arm.

"There was never anyone . . . in your personal life?" Harry softly asked, as though afraid of the answer.

"There was the time I told you about while I was in school, but that ended badly. When I was in Ablus' service as a spy before Voldemort's first fall, I would occasionally seduce my fellow Death Eaters to relax them enough to use my Legilimens skills on them to secure information, but I don't suppose that counts."

"And after that?" Harry questioned.

Severus shrugged. "Twice I engaged in sexual relations with other wizards, but . . . both times it ended disastrously." Sensing Harry's unspoken question, he softly explained, "There are some men who will be drawn to someone with my past out of curiosity. Once their curiosity is satisfied, the relationship is usually over."

"You mean they only slept with you because you were a Death Eater?" Harry sounded almost sick.

Severus gave another of those nods that appeared to be his only means of communication tonight.

"God, no wonder you got so upset with me when I made that stupid comment. I'm so sorry, Severus." Harry sounded crushed with guilt.

"My past is hardly your fault," he softly dismissed.

"You know that's not why I'm with you, right?" Harry asked.

Now it was Severus' turn to stare at his companion as though he'd taken leave of his senses. "I might not understand why you are interested in me, Harry, but I know it is not to satisfy your curiosity as to what a Death Eater gets up to in the bedroom."

"Oh, Severus," that same exasperation flavoured Harry's words, but this time there was no despair. "I'm interested in you because I care about you and want to be close to you. The only curiosity I've got is about how good we can make each other feel."

Severus gulped. His pulse jumped at those words, his entire body reacting as though Potter had just squeezed his gonads.

He swallowed hard and tried to think straight. Harry was right. They could not afford any more misunderstandings. With that thought in mind, he cleared his throat and asked as calmly as he could, "May I ask you the same question you just asked me? What are you looking for?"

An unattractive curmudgeon with an unsavoury past was unlikely to be anyone's answer to that question, but Severus felt he had to ask.

Harry's tired gaze speared him. "Something solid, something that will last. Someone who will be there for me when I need him . . . someone like you."

Harry's expression was that of a man who'd stepped out onto a very thin, shaky tree limb to cross a bottomless chasm. Severus could appreciate the feeling.

Dragging in a breath of air, he rasped out, "Someone like me?"

He knew his incredulity was obvious, but there was no way he could blithely accept those three words. He'd never been anyone's idea of the perfect mate. Hell, he'd never been anyone's idea of so much as a good shag. When he'd been at his most sexually active, seducing fellow Death Eaters to gather information for Albus, it had been his youth and his married victims' rare opportunity to indulge their socially unacceptable urges that had worked in his favour. It had never been his attractiveness.

Some of the uncertainty left Harry's features as he stared into his eyes. "No, not someone like you. You. I want to try with you. If you're interested and willing, that is."

Harry said that last bit as though he really believed he mightn't want to be with him. It made Severus appreciate anew how badly Potter had been wounded in that last relationship he'd told him about.

Normally, he was not a man given to expressing his emotions, especially in situations that had the capacity to wound him – and nothing had ever had more power to hurt him than dwelling on the absolute emotional isolation that had been his life – but Harry looked so worried and had been so incredibly generous and gracious about this entire debacle that Severus felt he owned his friend something in return, something that would have meaning to Harry. So, he took a deep breath and whispered, "How could I not be willing? It's like asking someone if they want their next breath."

He felt those words hit Potter like a dark curse. Harry's entire body seemed to tighten up and he hissed in a sudden breath. For the briefest instant, hunger and triumph flashed through Harry's ever-open gaze, and then, as if realizing how much his expression was betraying, Harry jumped to his feet and crossed the few feet to the hearth.

With his back turned to him, Harry stared down into the flames. Severus watched Harry's right hand rise to run through his wild hair. The flickering firelight cast both shadows and orange light over Harry in shifting patterns.

If this were anyone but Harry, he would have thought that his words were unwelcome, but he'd seen this reaction in his seven-year-old friend enough times not to mistake the fear for anything other than what it was.

Finally, Severus asked, "Did I say something wrong?"

Harry shook his head. "No. Sorry. I . . . I promised both Hermione and Ron that I wouldn't just jump your bones again, that I'd try to talk this out, but . . . ."

"But?" he softly prompted, trying to keep his promise and have faith, even though his guts were clenching up in dread.

"But when you say something like that, I just want to –" Harry stopped his words so abruptly that Severus thought he might actually have bitten his tongue to hold them back. Harry's arms came up to hug his chest, his head lowering. He looked so lost and hurt that Severus couldn't maintain either his distance or his guards.

Harry had said 'jump his bones.' Harry was standing there holding himself back from doing just that, Severus realized, nearly frozen in shock. He didn't know how Harry could possibly still want him after the events of last night, but it was clear that Harry did and was suffering because of it. Well, that wasn't going to continue. Severus was still not sanguine about the possibilities of this relationship working out, their age difference alone was daunting, but . . . . Harry had asked him to have faith in him, and he would do his utmost to believe.

Rising to his feet, he joined Harry in front of the hearth. He didn't think about his next action; he just did it. His arms slipped easily around Harry. There was no resistance as he drew the shorter man to his chest.

That muscular back felt warm and strong beneath the clammy, perspiration-soaked robes as Severus rubbed his palm over it. He breathed in the warm bouquet of a sweaty Harry, learning the scent, loving it.

Harry remained tight and stiff in his arms for perhaps all of two minutes, but then he released a long shuddering breath and sagged into him. Severus caught and held him as Harry's arms slipped around his waist.

"I thought I'd ruined everything," Harry mumbled into Severus' shirtfront as he tightened his embrace to a near painful hug.

Severus hugged him back. "No, it was me – "

"Let's not start that again, please?" Harry begged.

"Did you get any sleep at all today?" Severus softly questioned as Harry trusted more and more of his weight to him.

"No. I guess I mucked everything up again. I think I've got some Pepper Up in here somewhere. I'll just – "

"You'll just forget that idea. You need some rest," Severus said. "After you've slept, we'll talk some more. Perhaps it won't seem so overwhelming then."

"I don't want you to go," Harry protested.

"Then I'll stay," Severus soothed in a calming tone that betrayed none of the nervousness with which the very idea filled him.

"You will?"

How Harry could sound so overjoyed by that small concession was beyond him, but Harry was obviously pleased by his words, and his happiness eased Severus' own nerves.

"Yes. But I don't want us to sleep on the cold floor again," Severus remarked, the memory of the bitter hours he'd spent naked in front of his own hearth last night too raw to ignore right now.

"I've a bed inside," Harry said in a playful tone, tilting his head back to look up at him with a smiling face. "A big bed. Want to see it?"

There might come a day when he was relaxed enough to banter about such a thing, but that day was far off in a murky future. For now, Severus could only answer in dead seriousness, "Yes."

"Come on, then," Harry said and stepped back. Taking his hand as though it were the most natural thing in the world, Potter led him to the door on the far side of the sitting room.

His nervousness was back tenfold as he entered.

The torchlights in their wall sconces and hearth fire lit immediately in here, too, as Potter stepped into the room. Harry released his hand, standing close without being too intrusive as he took stock of his surroundings.

Severus looked around him in open curiosity. The big four-poster bed was very much like his own, except this one was draped with royal blue curtains. The duvet was the same rich blue, the pillowcases a stark, snowy white. Severus gulped and looked quickly away from the bed. He knew that was what they were here for, but he was still shy enough to be somewhat uncomfortable.

The rug beneath his feet was cream coloured with crescent moons, trees, stags, and owls stitched through it in predominantly brown, green, and blue patterns. The dresser, armoire, and night tables were a rich, highly polished cherry wood.

Potter's white owl sat its perch beside the bay window's seat. She gave Severus a curious once over as he entered the bedroom. Unnerved by her golden stare, Severus turned his gaze to the window, which looked out over the moonlit lake. The view was breathtaking. He could see the trail the giant squid left behind as it passed under the far side of the lake.

There was a well-stuffed armchair for reading by the hearth. On the mantle were a number of pictures. Most featured Ron and Hermione who were waving wildly and hopping around with grins on their faces trying to attract his attention, but it was the larger picture in the centre that caught his gaze.

He remembered that June day in Potter's sixth year as though it were yesterday. Albus had insisted that Weasley take a picture of Potter, Snape, and himself when they'd come upon the three Gryffindors trying out Ron's new camera. He'd always figured that the shot had been disposed of. It had never occurred to him that any of his students would ever keep, let alone display a picture of him.

"Did you put this up recently?" Severus asked Harry; only to have Albus' image quickly deny, "No, he did not. We've been standing on his mantel for decades now, haven't we, Severus?" Dumbledore asked of his picture self.

The tiny Snape in the picture gave a glum nod, which only made Albus chuckle insanely. Severus felt sorry for his image self. He'd loved Albus dearly, but that man would try the nerves of a statue. He didn't want to think about what it must have been like for that image of himself frozen next to his insane, beloved friend for decades.

"Don't be telling all my secrets, sir," Harry laughed as he came up to the hearth beside him. "In fact, I'm thinking that you all should probably give us some privacy for a while."

With that, Harry gently turned all the wizard photos face down on the mantle.

"I'll pick you up first thing in the morning. Promise," Harry chuckled as Albus' muffled protests vibrated through the mantle. As he met his gaze, Harry gave a shrug and grinned. "I hate to say it, but I really think he'd watch."

Perhaps it was a result of his heightened nervousness at finally being here in Harry's bedroom, but for the first time since he'd been restored to adulthood, Severus found himself unable to stop a chuckle. Within seconds, it broke out into an all out laugh, with Harry's rich laughter ringing along.

"Damn it, I've missed your laugh!" Harry exclaimed when they calmed, his features sobering.

Severus felt his own expression return to normal. Staring down into Harry's fire lit face, he found the courage to admit, "So have I. I think it was the thing I missed most when we were restored."

"Thank you for letting me hear it again," Harry said with an odd formality. Then he reached up to gently brush his fingers over Snape's bound hair. "Do you have any idea how you look right now with that fire light shifting over you?"

"How I look?" he whispered, his voice hoarse and raspy.

"All sleek and sensual . . . dark and mysterious," Harry said in a low tone that shivered right through him.

Every horrible experience in his past warned him not to heed those words. He knew what he was, what he looked like, and yet . . . Harry had asked him to promise to have faith in him.

He swallowed hard and tried to find something to say, but no words would come out. His gaze dropped under Harry's frankly appraising eyes. Heat flushed through him. Light headed and confused, he wished himself back in the sanctuary of his own rooms. Alone was bad, but it didn't leave him off balance like this. Last night's disaster was too much with him. He knew he couldn't do this. Despite Harry's willingness to put it all behind them, Severus knew it would all fall apart again. The anxiety of waiting for this new catastrophe to strike was making it difficult to even draw breath. He couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't . . . . He just couldn't.

"Severus?" a warm, moist palm cupped his cheek.

Severus snapped his eyes open at the heat of the sudden contact. His stomach was twisted in knots, the nut bread and tea he'd consumed threatening to make a reappearance. And, wouldn't that go over well?

He stared into Harry's tired eyes, not knowing what to say or how to say it.

"It's okay," Harry murmured in the tone one might use to soothe a frightened horse.

"I don't know – " He didn't even know how to finish that sentence.

"I do. It will be all right. Do you trust me?" Harry asked.

He gave a tight, affirmative nod and added a choked, "Yes," in case the gesture wasn't enough assurance.

"Close your eyes for a moment, then," Harry requested.

His nerves stretched tight, he did as requested. A strange sensation rushed across his skin and he could feel the power surge through the air. Suddenly, his legs felt cold, his waist, chest, and shoulders looser. Startled, he opened his eyes again and stared down at himself. Harry had transfigured his clothing. Instead of trousers, shirt, and boots, he found himself wearing his nightclothes. To be precise, he was wearing his favourite grey and white striped flannel nightshirt and a pair of fuzzy sheepskin slippers, the tea stains on the top of which exactly matched his own. Harry hadn't transfigured his clothes; he'd replaced them.

Shocked at the matter-of-fact display of a tremendously complex manifestation and substitution spell, he stared down at Harry's face. It was the same attractive, quirky face he'd known these last few months. The same innocent eyes. There wasn't a hint of pride or hubris over the incredible spellcraft Potter had just worked without a wand. At the peak of his power, Voldemort hadn't been capable of anything near that impressive. The only wizard he'd known who could come close to that level of ability was Albus, who was several hundred years old at his death.

Harry silently held out Severus' wand to him and said as though nothing extraordinary had occurred, "We'll just make like we're kids and going to bed at Hermione's and Ron's again, all right? That was never nerve-wracking, was it?"

He opened his mouth to comment and didn't know what to say. How did you ask someone powerful enough to rule the Wizarding World what he was doing teaching thirteen year olds how to avoid grindylows? So, he gave a quiet, "No," and watched as Harry unselfconsciously removed his own robes and clothes down to his underpants the old fashioned way.

Leaving the clothes in a messy pile on the floor, Harry retrieved his wand from the pocket of his fallen robes and passed it over himself, performing what Severus knew to be a quick cleansing spell that Hermione had taught them both five months ago as children. Clad only in a pair of sweaty, white cotton boxers that hugged his well-shaped arse, Harry moved to the dresser across the room to place his holly wand on top of it and pull his nightshirt from the second drawer.

He watched as Harry shouldered his way into a brown flannel nightshirt. As its loose folds fell around him, concealing that lean and muscular form, Severus decided that the woodsy colour suited his friend well.

Harry gave him a gamin grin and then reached up beneath his brown nightshirt to peel off his boxers. They, too, remained where they fell. At his pointed stare, Harry shrugged and said, "Dobby gets upset if I don't leave him something to do." Potter returned to him at the side of the bed and asked, "You ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Severus replied, calmed in spite of himself. It was foolish, really. There was no less pressure going to bed with Harry now than there had been five minutes ago, but the thoughtful manifestation of his own nightshirt and bedroom slippers had eased him immensely. The nightclothes didn't make any true difference, he knew. Nothing but two thin layers of flannel separated them now, but Severus still felt . . . protected by that shield.

Harry's insight, his ability to know what would comfort him, astounded Severus. Recognizing anew the gift he was being given here, Severus moved to the far side of the bed, toed out of his slippers, and climbed in as he would have done in the Weasleys' guest room two months ago, while Potter did the same on the other side. After slipping his wand beneath the fluffy feather pillow, Severus smoothed the royal blue duvet over his chest and laid back.

Once Harry settled in, the wall torch lights immediately dimmed. Only the hearth fire remained lit.

As they lie side by side in the dimly lit room, a new nervousness consumed him as Severus wondered what would happen now. This wasn't like anything he had known in his past. There was an almost wrenching innocence to the whole thing that moved him to the core, and, yet, it was the most joltingly erotic experience he could recall. Lying here in Harry's huge bed, smelling him on the sheets, feeling the other man's body heat seeping across the big bed, he'd gone instantly hard. He hadn't a clue what to do about it – if anything. Harry had said like at the Weasleys'.

Just when he thought the nervous tension would shatter him, Harry turned on his side to face him and asked in a soft tone, "How're you doing?"

The 'fine' died on his lips as he rolled onto his side and met Harry's gaze across the pillows. A whole three feet of space separated them. He wanted to be closer; yet, it wasn't his way to ask for such a thing. But Harry had asked him to have faith in him, and, why else was he here, if not for them to be closer?

His mouth dry, he tried to swallow. Failing that, he rasped out, "The bed seems so much larger than the one we shared at Hermione and Ron's."

"We don't have to stay at opposite ends, you know. I could move closer to you," Harry suggested with endearing care. He obviously knew how difficult all of this was for him.

Severus silently lifted the duvet and Harry slid over into the middle of the bed, his head now resting on the middle pillow instead of the one at the far end.

"You must be finding this terribly tedious," Severus remarked, embarrassed by his anxiety.

Harry's right hand reached out to touch his arm. "You're here. That's all that matters. The rest will work itself out."

"It will?" Severus asked, wondering where Harry got his certainty from – and his patience. This really couldn't be all that exciting for the younger man.

"Severus, I'm exhausted. It's been a hard two days. I'm not up for much more than a kiss and a cuddle." The reluctance with which Harry voiced that last bit convinced him of its truth.

A kiss and a cuddle. It sounded like heaven to his jumpy body.

Reading the nervousness and the silent plea in Harry's eyes, Severus shifted closer. Feeling strangely self-conscious, he laid his right arm over Harry's right side and leaned in for a kiss.

His nose got there two days before the rest of him as usual, and there was the unavoidable awkwardness of positioning his face so that this didn't turn into a comedy act. But Harry's body seemed to meld itself to meet him. Harry's head tilted in exactly the right angle for Severus' nose to avoid the painful, humiliating crush that normally was the result of those first few kisses. Harry didn't so much as crack a smile at his clumsiness. His lips just moved to meet his. Dry lips against dry lips, and then it was all moist, and warm, and juicy.

Harry's mouth opened to him and their bodies slid together for that cuddle Harry had requested. Within moments he was lost in the taste and vibrant warmth that was Harry Potter.

Harry rolled over onto his back. Severus felt himself being pulled over on top of him by arms that had been strengthened by years of hanging onto a speeding broomstick. Settling on top of that warm, hard body was the most incredible sensation Severus could remember feeling. He was intensely aware of their bare, hairy legs twining together, and the bony feel of Harry's hip as his erection pressed instinctively against it.

He pulled back from the kiss and froze, remembering that Harry had asked for only a kiss and hug. He started to pull his lower body away, but Harry made a protesting mewl and his hand slid straight down Severus' back to his butt and pushed him back to where he'd been. The hand stayed there on his bottom, a warm pressure that made him tremble with anticipation.

It had been so long since anyone . . . would Harry even want that from him? His breath hitched in his chest at the possibility and his blood turned to quicksilver in his veins.

Their culture made it so hard for men to ask to be taken, even when they were in bed together. Always in the past when Severus had found the nerve to request it from a partner, they'd been more than happy to indulge him, but afterwards their attitudes had made it plain what they'd thought of him, how his need had diminished him in their eyes, and he'd always felt dirty afterwards. Dirty and used. Somehow, he knew in his soul that if Harry were to indulge him that way, it would be different with Potter.

But that wasn't for tonight. Tonight was for kisses, and cuddles, and whatever else Harry was up for.

Harry's other hand hooked his neck and pulled him down into another kiss. Once they were absorbed again, the hand left his neck to stroke his hair. Severus shivered as the silver and leather clasp that bound it in place was popped open and dropped onto the bed. His hair cascaded down around their faces like a silky black curtain.

Harry's fingers proceeded to tangle themselves in it, grasping it like he'd never let go. The kiss deepened, their tongues met in a dance that was becoming wonderfully familiar.

Severus buried his own hands in the bird's nest of shaggy black tangles that was Harry's hair. It felt soft as ermine fur beneath his fingers.

The kiss was all he was, all he wanted to be. Its sweetness ran through him. In its enticing depths he found an acceptance and a promise such as he'd never known. This wasn't furtive; it wasn't dirty. The feeling he felt here in Harry's arms was transformative. For perhaps the first time in his life, Severus knew that come morning, his lover would still be there – and still be his lover. This wasn't just an urge of the flesh, an itch to be scratched and forgotten come morning. This was . . . .

He gasped into Harry's mouth as the hand left his hair to trail down his back, joining its companion at his bum. Those strong fingers pressed down through his nightshirt, learning the shape of his arse.

His heart jolting at the sensations those exploring fingers induced, Severus broke the kiss, threw back his head, and moaned.

"You like that?" Harry's passion roughened voice whispered. "Is it okay?"

He wanted to answer, truly he did, but the rush of pleasure made words impossible. All he could do was whimper, thrust down at Harry, and hope that Harry understood.

Harry seemed to. His fingers gave the flat mounds he was touching a tentative squeeze.

Red-hot ecstasy ripped through him. Severus couldn't believe that the cry that filled the room was his own. Another minute or two of this and he'd be reduced to a puddle of pulsating protoplasm. Merlin knew, his cock was certainly headed that way with the way it was throbbing.

It almost seemed Harry read his mind, for Potter's hands pushed and prodded at him until Severus slid his hips a little to the right. They both made a startled noise as their flannel covered groins settled together.

"That's not going to work," Harry said.

Severus gave a protesting cry as those hands abandoned his bum. Harry grabbed hold of his nightshirt and tugged it up above Snape's nonexistent waist. Then Harry struggled to do the same with his own. Severus lifted his hips a bit to allow the obstruction to be removed, and then . . . and then Harry's calloused palms reclaimed his bare bum and guided him back down.

Their cocks met in a steamy bump that sent skyrockets shooting off through his nervous system. One of Harry's hands abandoned his butt long enough to guide his head back down into one of those marvellous kisses. Then it was back on his bottom, cupping and squeezing his most sensitive area along with its partner and Severus lost all higher thought.

All he was was sensation, and that sensation was going to immolate him. Everything he was, everything he was ever going to be, was offered up to this feeling. He would have sacrificed his life, his integrity, his entire world to keep it. Only, for the first time in his miserable existence, Severus knew that his joy was not going to come with that kind of price tag. Loving Harry wasn't going to diminish him or weaken him in any way. To the contrary, Severus could feel the power of this emotion warming and healing all those cold and hurt parts of himself that had all but shrivelled up and died from atrophy.

It was simple frottage; it shouldn't have felt this good, but the sensations rushing through him as he humped down against Harry's sweaty erection were nearly sublime. And, every time those knowing fingers squeezed his bum, the 'nearly' that had qualified his earlier assessment disappeared and he knew true perfection.

Had he been more self-aware, he would have held in the noises he was making. But there was no control left in him. As he rocked against Harry and reacted to those masterful squeezes, he cried out in a truly embarrassing manner.

Harry didn't seem disturbed or put off by it, though. He was making his own share of noise as he bucked up to meet him.

It seemed forever and no time at all before he felt the gathering in his body and the world seemed to melt around him as ecstasy transformed him into pure power. This was what the heart of magic felt like, he realized as every touch-starved cell in his body rejoiced at this never before sharing. No pain, no shame, no hurting, there was nothing but pleasure and tenderness here in Harry's arms.

Harry froze below him, and he felt hot spurts hit his stomach as his own shaft sprayed Harry's belly with its sticky, hot gift.

When it was through, he collapsed down on top of Harry, buried his nose between Harry's shaggy hair and sleek neck, and tried to remember how to breathe. He could feel Harry going through a similar process below him. He knew that he was too heavy to stay here on top of his smaller partner, but when he made to roll off, Harry's fingers dug into his naked bum and refused to allow him to move. Those fingers stayed there, and he was preternaturally aware of them as his breathing steadied to something near normal.

"You okay?" Harry murmured after a long time of just hanging on to each other.

"I'd say that was considerably more than a kiss and a cuddle," Severus said when the various pleasure-blasted pieces of his brain reassembled enough for coherency. Because he was free to do it, he leaned down and kissed the tip of Potter's slightly upturned nose, the action veiling both their faces behind a curtain of black hair.

Harry's hands rose from his butt to either side of his face. His fingers carded through his hair and then pulled him down into another kiss that was slower than the previous ones, but no less sweet.

When he raised his head for air an eternity or two later, he stared down at Harry in absolute wonder. Never had he seen Harry so relaxed or so happy. There actually seemed to be a glow to Harry's features. His sleepy, green eyes certainly had a strange light in them as he smiled up at him.

"I could kiss you forever," Harry said, reaching up to run his index finger along the line of Snape's jaw.

Even after the incredible orgasm Harry had just given him, that tender touch made him shiver.

"I wouldn't object," Severus replied.

Relief washed over Harry's features, as though he'd been in some doubt of that fact. "Good, that's good."

Severus felt a small smile twist the corners of his lips as Harry nearly cracked his jaw on an enormous yawn. He looked so beautiful with his cheeks flushed with pleasure and eyes still a little dazed. He felt so warm and welcoming beneath him. Severus didn't know if he'd ever felt this warm in his life.

Harry's hand slipped down to his back and started to softly stroke. "Do you think you could sleep? I know you had a nap at Hermione and Ron's."

"I'll be fine," he promised, already feeling a pleasant lassitude seeping through him. It had been nearly twenty years since he'd had sex two nights in a row.

"You'll stay, won't you? I mean, you won't sneak back to your rooms once I fall asleep?" Harry looked legitimately concerned by the possibility.

"If I leave, then you won't be able to kiss me forever," Severus answered, because he knew it would make Harry smile.

"Brilliant," Harry sighed and settled back against the pillows.

After the briefest of hesitations, Severus shifted to the left and slid off Harry onto the cool sheets. He settled his head on same pillow with Harry's, and threw his right arm and leg across Harry's warmth.

Not surprisingly, Harry was asleep within moments. Feeling how sticky his stomach and groin were, and guessing that his companion must be in a similar state, Severus strained to reach his hand over under the far pillow for his wand, without disturbing Harry. He snagged its end, pulled it to him and performed a quick cleansing spell on them both. Once their bodies and nightshirts were returned to their former cleanliness, he tucked his wand under their pillow, settled back down, and took a deep breath of the Harry/sex scented air.

No disasters, not tonight. Barely able to believe the living reality he was now free to touch, he lay on his side watching the firelight shift across his sleeping lover's face.

Seventeen years ago when he'd first laid eyes on the boy, Harry had been the picture of his father, hated for no more reason than that on first sight. But now . . . though the resemblance was still strong, Harry's face wasn't nearly as broad as James' had been. And James hadn't had that cleft in his chin. But more than all of that, James had never had the kindness in his face that Harry did. Both Potters had been handsome men, but James' looks had been a bit too perfect, his features etched with an arrogance born of cruelty, while Harry . . . .

The sickeningly sentimental side he was developing where his lover was concerned wanted to insist that Harry had the innocence of an angel in his features. To some degree, it was probably true. Throughout his school years, Harry had traded on that wide-eyed innocence to talk his way out of trouble, just as his father before him had used his charm to do the same. But there was more to Harry than just that, so much more. The pain and loneliness he'd suffered as a child had left their marks there, too. Even when asleep, there was the slightest hint of worry to his features. It moved Severus more than the innocence ever could, because it was something to which he could relate. There had never been a time when he himself could be deemed truly innocent, but pain and loneliness, he knew them well. Finding them there in Harry's face, he resolved to do his best to sooth them away. He mightn't be able to do anything about the past that had put them there, but he could do his best to see that the future was different for Harry.

Providing Harry wanted him to, of course. Normally, he would have chided himself that he was making some major assumptions here, but Harry had promised – as had he. I, Severus Snape, shall do my utmost to have faith in Harry Potter. With the way the Wizarding World was, that might be the only vow he'd ever be able to give Harry, but somehow, he sensed that it just might be enough – for both of them. And, wasn't that an unusual thought for him to be entertaining, he thought, almost chuckling out loud at the absurdity of him having faith in anything.

But if there ever were anything in this world that he could allow himself to believe in, it would be the man slumbering at his side. The fact that he was here at all with Harry was a miracle in itself. Choosing to indulge Harry and try to believe, Severus closed his eyes, breathed in another deep breath of Harry, and allowed sleep to claim him.

********************

He wasn't used to sleeping with anyone anymore. The two months Severus had bunked in with him when they'd been children had accustomed Harry to having someone warm snuggled around him in the night, but the six weeks since their restoration to adulthood had reinstated his former patterns. As much as he loved having Severus there with him, he was intensely aware of his presence, even when deeply asleep. That was why his eyes snapped instantly open when he felt Snape's banding arms carefully release him and all that wonderful warmth pull away. Then the bed dipped and Severus slipped out, furtive as a thief.

After being up for nearly forty-eight hours, a few hours sleep wasn't going to be enough for him. Harry was still so tired that it was difficult to think straight, let alone figure out what was going on. The room was pitch black, so it was still deep night in the castle. There was only one reason Severus would be sneaking out like that.

So much for promises, Harry thought, squeezing his eyes shut so that he wouldn't have to see Severus walking away. There was a part of him that wanted to sit up and make it as difficult as possible for Severus to leave, but what was the point? If a vow of honour and the sweetest loving in memory weren't enough to keep Severus here with him, what would? He had nothing to give but himself, and, obviously, that was never going to be enough for anyone.

He hadn't cried since he was a schoolboy, but as he felt Severus moving further and further from the bed, he wanted to do so now. He heard a door ease open and close, and then nothing but resounding silence.

The cynical voice of experience, which sounded very much like Severus at his worst, laughed at him inside his head, berating him for being such an utter fool. It was Severus Snape he was dealing with. The man was so damaged and bitter he couldn't even understand simple friendship. How could he ever have expected Snape to stay? If there were any blame to be apportioned here, Harry knew it wouldn't be falling on Snape's shoulders. Severus had warned him from the start that he couldn't manage even a friendship. Why hadn't he listened? Why had he set himself up for this incredible heartache, yet again? Was he insane? Severus Snape was –

The thunderous gurgle and gush of one of Hogwarts' ancient toilets flushing filled the bedroom, cutting Harry's thoughts short. The bathroom . . . Severus had simply gone to the loo . . . .

Nearly giddy with relief, Harry squeezed his eyes shut and waited. Another rush of water sounded. Was the man really in there washing his hands with the freezing water at this god forsaken hour of the morning, Harry wondered, nearly laughing at the idea. He'd had his hands and mouth all over that cock in the last few days. Though he was impressed with his lover's fastidiousness, he did feel that it was taking things a bit too far. But, god, he loved him for it.

Brought up short by the sleepy thought, Harry stared at it. Loved him for it.

Did he love Severus? Well, as a friend, of course, he did, but was he in love with Severus Snape? They'd had fantastic sex a couple of times, and Severus was his best friend in the world right now, but, did that equate to being in love? And, if it didn't, what were the promises they'd made last night in aid of?

It was too late in the night, or too early in the morning, to tackle anything too profound, but even half asleep, Harry knew this was important.

Although Severus' exit from the lavatory was nearly soundless, Harry felt the stirring of power in the air that was the earmark of the greatest of wizards. A second later, the duvet lifted, blowing icy air in over him, and then Severus slipped back into the other side of the bed. Although Harry could feel his friend shivering from the cold, Severus made no attempt to come closer. Probably to keep from waking him, Harry realized.

Harry shifted across the three feet or so of space separating them, twined his arms and legs around his shivering lover, and pressed a wet kiss onto Severus' temple. Severus' feet were freezing as they curled around him and leached all the warmth out of his own. But Harry just gasped, tucked his head onto his lover's chest, and let the sleep vibes unfurl through him. It felt incredible to have someone here in the dark to snuggle up to, even if that someone had feet like icicles. But, for all that he was rather bony and had the coldest feet in the Wizarding World, if not the entire planet, Severus was the most wonderful pillow he'd found. And he smelt so good.

"I'd hoped not to wake you," Severus whispered in a sleepy voice.

Harry felt his lover's arms settle around his back in a welcoming, if tentative, embrace. Severus was always so unsure of his reception, so uncertain in even the simplest of social interactions. Though he could barely think straight, let alone force his eyes open, Harry appreciated how much courage it was taking for his friend to even attempt intimacy.

"'mmm not awake," he replied. Breathing that sweet scent that was particular to Severus deep into his lungs, he made himself totally comfortable by distributing most of his weight onto his bedfellow. Severus' flannel nightshirt felt soft as velvet beneath his cheek.

Severus gave a grunt and breathy chuckle that thrilled him even though he was still mostly asleep.

It made him so happy that Severus was comfortable enough with him to allow himself to laugh that Harry felt he ought to say something. What he was trying for was 'Love your laugh,' but that wasn't what came out. His brain definitely living a separate, estranged life from his better sense, Harry heard himself mumble, "Love you."

In a perfect world, his companion would have been too drowsy to notice and the incident would have passed, but he felt Severus freeze beneath him like he'd just doused him with ice water.

Suddenly far too awake, Harry held his breath, waiting to be told what a sentimental idiot he was to be making such blubbering statements two days into a rocky relationship. But after a few minutes of that muscular lockdown, Severus' body relaxed beneath him and became his organic pillow again. The older man released a shuddery sounding breath, his right hand began to rub Harry's back in reassuring circles that felt utterly amazing, and Severus leaned down to press a soft kiss to the crown of his head.

When it became clear that Severus wasn't going to kill him or leave him for his indiscretion, Harry gave up worrying about it and allowed sleep to seduce him again.

The next time he opened his eyes, grey light filled the room. The waterfall-like rush of rain outside the casement windows announced that it was pouring again. The air biting at his ear told him that the bedroom was still cold and damp outside his duvet, as castles were wont to be, but under those covers, he was warm and snug.

The most wonderful part of it all was that he was still curled around Severus, in seemingly the same position that he'd been in when he'd fallen asleep the last time. The quality of his companion's breathing told him that Severus wasn't sleeping. Snape's hand was still on his back, but it wasn't rubbing him anymore. He had the terrible suspicion that his friend had lain awake since his early morning trip to the loo. Probably because of what he'd said, Harry self-consciously realized.

"Good morning," he greeted, not quite ready to raise his head or face what might be in Severus' eyes.

"Good morning," Severus replied, sounding as formal as though they were in the Great Hall at the teacher's table.

Feeling his lover's tension, Harry forced his head up to gaze down at Snape's face. Severus' hair was mussed, but not much. Though it was the same stark profile and long nose he'd been staring at for fifteen years, a shiver of desire went through him as he took in that familiar visage. Severus seemed changed somehow – less distant, less homely, no that was wrong. He didn't seem homely at all. At the moment, Severus was one of the most exciting sights he'd ever laid eyes on – sleek, sensual, and downright sexy, for all that he could nearly touch the other man's nervousness.

"Do I owe you another apology?" Harry asked, hating the awkwardness, wondering if it would be between them every time they woke up together – providing what he'd said last night didn't send Severus running for the hills again.

"For?" Severus asked, something like dread hardening his eyes.

"For what I said when you came back to bed this morning. I wasn't thinking straight."

"Are you claiming diminished capacity?"

Harry recognized that tone. It was the one Severus would use in the schoolyard whenever Crater and his goons started that Death Eater garbage.

"No, but . . . . You, er, mightn't have wanted to hear that yet," Harry said. He debated cutting off the 'yet,' but left it in because he knew if this was going to work, they both had to start trusting, had to start taking risks. But, for all he knew, Severus might never want to hear those words from him.

"I've never heard it at all, at least, not in a romantic context. Hermione said it to me five times when we were children, and Ron once," Severus reported.

Once again, Harry was reminded of the differences between them. For all that they'd both had abusive childhoods, he'd known love in his life. He couldn't recall how often someone had said 'I love you' to him. They mightn't have always meant it, but they'd said it.

His friend was forty-eight years old. What must it have felt like to go that long without ever being told that he was loved? If not for Hermione and Ron, Severus might never have heard those words at all. That Severus had kept count of the number of times he had heard the words told Harry how much it mattered to him. But that still didn't necessarily mean that Severus wanted to hear it from him, as a lover.

Deciding to go for broke, he asked, "Did it bother you that I said it?"

"That depends."

"On?" Harry questioned.

"Whether you meant it," Severus said, in a tight and brittle tone that would have been all too easy to fracture.

Remembering how just such a tone had precipitated their argument Friday night, Harry sighed. He wished they'd have had longer to get used to each other before he had to go and get so sloppy. But it was a done deal now and all he could do was try to run damage control. Which, of course, was impossible, because all he had was the inconvenient truth. "Yes, I meant it."

Severus' eyes slid closed and he hissed in a sharp breath.

Harry couldn't interpret the emotions that flashed across those abruptly vulnerable features, but it didn't look like anger. When Severus reopened his eyes, something had changed. Harry couldn't say what, but there was a certain quality to Severus' expression that had never been there before. Meeting his gaze, Severus softly whispered, "Then no apologies are necessary."

Harry grinned. "We're all right, then?"

"So it would seem," Severus replied, obviously trying for his normal cool. He didn't quite make it, but even so, Severus was far more reserved than anyone Harry had ever slept with in the past.

He didn't know how to deal with it. Last night Severus had said that asking him if he wanted to be with him was like asking if he wanted to continue breathing. That sounded like Severus had it bad for him. Yet, he could see how hard Severus was struggling to hide his feelings. The mixed signals he was getting were frustrating, but the way Severus was looking at him gave him the feeling that it had nothing to do with him. If this was strange for him and he had no idea how to act, how strange must it be for Severus, who'd had no real relationships at all?

Hoping that it was all just nerves, Harry softly questioned, "How are you doing?"

Severus reached out to touch his cheek with his long, elegant, yellow-stained fingers. That, in itself, was encouraging, because if Severus didn't feel confident of him, he certainly wouldn't have been caressing him. "I don't know."

That touch slithered right through him. Harry gasped in a sharp breath and tried to ignore how his morning woodie pulsed to life as he asked, "Did I overwhelm you again?"

"No . . . yes . . . . I don't know," Severus answered, his fingers playing havoc with his control. Even though it made it hard to think, Harry was grateful for the contact. If it were going badly, Severus wouldn't have wanted to touch him at all. Beyond being merely reassuring, the way Snape's fingers were stroking over his cheekbone in an absent-minded manner was very endearing. It was almost like Severus couldn't stop himself from touching him or wasn't doing it consciously.

"Well, that's definite," Harry laughed. Turning his face to press a kiss onto Severus' knuckles, he asked, "How do you feel?"

"Like I've just added magnesium sulphate to electric eel hearts," Severus replied swiftly enough.

"English, Severus," Harry requested, stifling a chuckle. After Friday night, he was nervous about taking things too lightly with Severus, at least until they were more accustomed to each other.

"It feels . . . as though something is about to explode," Severus said.

"I know. It feels that way to me, too," Harry admitted.

"It does? But you said . . . ."

"I said . . . ?" Harry prompted.

He watched a faint blush touch Severus' cheeks. "That we were all right."

"We are all right, and we'll be even better," Harry assured. "But that doesn't mean we can't be nervous, does it?"

"You're nervous?" Severus sounded astonished.

"Of course, I'm nervous," Harry answered, reaching down to cup Severus' cheek. With his long hair falling back from his face, Snape's strong bone structure was highly accentuated. "I want to make you happy, but I don't know what you like. I'm sure you're feeling the same way. We have a lot to learn about each other."

"I have much to learn, in general. I've never done this before."

Harry could tell how much it took for his proud lover to admit that. "Neither have I – with you. This is a new world to us both. We'll be all right, Severus. May I kiss you?"

"Yes, please," the reply was almost shy, but Harry was beginning to love that quality in his friend.

The instant their mouths touched, Harry knew that his words were true. Unbelievable as it was, this was going to work. They were going to be all right. The kiss felt like finally coming home after a three-month quidditch tour. Only, there had never been anything this real waiting for him then.

Severus' lips were pliant beneath his. The moment he swiped his tongue across them, they parted to allow entry. Startled, Harry realized that Severus must have performed some teeth cleansing charm, for his mouth tasted like cinnamon and cloves.

He wished that he'd had similar foresight, but Severus didn't seem dissatisfied with his kiss. To the contrary, Severus gave a pleased sounding grunt and those long-fingered hands came up to grip his hair and pull him in closer. An eternity or two later, they parted for air.

Harry gazed down at his lover. Severus' eyes were bright as polished onyx, his cheeks flushed with passion, his lips berry red from kissing. With the long, thick locks of his glossy hair spilling across the white pillowcase, Severus Snape looked downright edible, which was a strange thought to have about someone dressed in a primly buttoned nightshirt.

Catching sight of the long, somewhat delicate line of Severus' neck, Harry lowered his head to explore it. The moan Severus released when his tongue licked the back of his ear sounded as though it had been torn from the depths of his being. Loving the silky, tasty glide of skin beneath his mouth, he nuzzled his way down that sleek throat.

This was definitely a sensitive spot for Severus. Every sucking kiss and nibble brought a startled cry of reaction from Severus. Harry spent a long time exploring that pale skin before he hit the obstruction of flannel nightshirt.

"Can we get rid of this?" Harry asked, tugging on the offending collar.

Feeling the sudden stillness that claimed his friend, Harry raised his head to meet Severus' eyes. The open trepidation there was bewildering. It wasn't as though this was their first time. They'd been naked together on Friday night.

"Of course," Severus agreed, though everything Harry knew about the other man was telling him that this was something Snape very strongly didn't want to do.

He didn't want to get naked? Confused, Harry sat up.

"You do want to do this, don't you?" Harry checked. After Friday night, he was unwilling to take any chances.

There was hunger in Severus' eyes as they regarded him, Harry could see it without even looking for it. Yet, there was uneasiness as well, more than there should be given the fact that they'd made such amazing love for the last two nights.

"Yes, I do. It's just . . . ."

"It's just?" Harry gently prodded.

Severus took a deep breath and said, "It's very bright in here this morning."

Abruptly understanding the cause of the hesitation, Harry looked at this man whom everyone he knew had called 'ugly' at some point or another. His heart hurt for his friend. Sex shouldn't be this hard. Doing his best to hide anything that might be viewed as sympathy or pity, Harry gave a mischievous smile and asked, "Don't you want to see me in the light? I mightn't be very tall, but what there is of me is choice."

The joking approach worked as he'd hoped it would. Severus seemed to rally as he gave a droll, "Is it now?"

"So I've been told. You could check it out for yourself, if you'd like?"

The corners of Severus' mouth briefly twisted upwards and he gave a sharp nod. "I'd like, very much so."

"So would I," Harry said and tugged his own nightshirt off. He could have used magic to remove both their pyjamas, but somehow doing it oneself seemed more exciting.

Apparently, it was almost too exciting for Severus' tastes or perhaps simply too nerve-wracking. Harry saw that pronounced Adam's apple he'd been nuzzling bob in a sudden gulp. Then Severus sat up, threw him a strangely speculative look, and shouldered out of his nightshirt. If Harry didn't know better, he'd say his lover was actually frightened, if not downright terrified – which made no sense. Granted, they'd both been blinded by a haze of passion and firelight on Friday night, but he'd seen Severus naked.

Harry's gaze followed the grey and white striped nightshirt as it rose upwards. Severus' lap was revealed first. That huge, beautiful cock was still mostly somnolent, but Harry sensed that it was Severus' nerves that were responsible for that rather than any lack of interest. Snape's flat belly came next, followed by bony ribcage and slender, smooth chest. Harry watched all that long black hair come settling down around Severus' bare shoulders, and felt the breath catch in his lungs. Severus was so damn beautiful. Perhaps no one else on this earth would have the same reaction he was feeling right now, but Harry didn't think he'd ever seen anything as arousing as that long, slender form.

"Gods, you're incredible," Harry whispered.

Severus' lowered gaze jumped to his face as if to verify his sincerity, then Severus gave another gulp and reached for him.

That kiss was fast becoming the foundation of his universe. Harry revelled in it, letting Severus take the lead, welcoming the other man's tongue into his mouth. He couldn't believe how damn good it felt. He melted against Severus, and slipped his arms around him to move in closer.

Needing to feel more, he flattened his palms against Severus' thin back and started to stroke, only to freeze at an unexpected obstruction. His fingertips felt around. The skin over that painfully slender back wasn't as smooth and soft as it was everywhere else. Feeling the deep rills and bumps in what should have been just warm flesh, Harry pulled back from the kiss in confusion.

Severus went still as death in his arms. Harry hated the barely masked fear that hardened Severus' features as he opened his eyes and visibly shook off the sensual haze that had been softening his face. Without a word, Severus pulled free of his embrace and turned so that his back was clearly visible to him.

Harry didn't know what to say as his horrified gaze took in the patchwork of long, slender pink scars crisscrossing Severus' back. This, then, was why Severus had been so hesitant. Stars knew, it was reason enough. There was hardly an inch of flesh anywhere that hadn't been torn up. The scars didn't look like they'd all come at once, for some of the marks were clearly laid down across older ones. Harry didn't know if that made it better or worse. He couldn't conceive the amount of pain these injuries must have given Severus. That they'd gone completely untreated and healed naturally was obvious from their presence. Had Poppy or any other mediwitch worked on these wounds, there wouldn't have been these kinds of scars.

"I suppose I should have warned you about this," Severus said in that dead sounding voice he used whenever something hurt him too much to hide.

Harry swallowed hard and tried for calm. He could sense how close Severus was to balking. The murderous rage gripping him wasn't going to help the situation. He could tell by how pale those marks were that most of them had been there longer than he'd been alive. Losing his temper at this point was only going to hurt his friend.

Taking a deep breath, Harry fought for control as he choked out, "Your grandparents?"

It was a damn good thing the bastards were dead. If they weren't, Harry knew fully well he'd end up in Azkaban over this.

The gulp Severus gave seemed to shake his whole body. Then he stiffly whispered, "Most."

Most? What the hell did that mean? Not even sure he wanted to know, Harry nonetheless heard himself echo, "Most?"

"The majority are mementos of my loving grandparents," Severus said in a brittle tone. "But the others . . . you saw how Voldemort punished his followers for failure. Often in the course of my career as Albus' spy, the conflict of interests would force me to appear . . . less than competent in Voldemort's eyes. Because of the importance of my Potions expertise to his cause, Voldemort couldn't maim me as he did the others who failed him, but he would always make his displeasure known."

"Did Professor Dumbledore know about these?" Harry asked, his stomach churning at the damage to Severus' back and the idea that the leader they'd both loved had knowingly sent Severus back for more of the same.

"Of course not," Severus snapped. "Albus would never have allowed me to return had he known, and I had to go back. The information I was able to obtain was invaluable. That pipeline to Voldemort's plans couldn't be risked because of Albus' sentimentality."

So, Severus had kept what he'd suffered to himself for the sake of their cause. Humbled by his lover's courage, Harry stared at yet another cost of their victory. Shamed, he remembered how every member of the Order, besides Albus Dumbledore, had mistrusted Snape. Whenever the Order of the Phoenix assembled for those rare, but necessary, parties to let off steam, Severus had never been invited, or, if he had, he had never deigned to attend. If Tonks or Remus stopped by the Order's Headquarters to report after a mission, it nearly always turned into a friendly dinner, but never with Severus Snape. The man would show up, report his information, and then quickly leave. Not that Severus would have accepted an invitation or made it easy for any of the others to become close to him, but the fact that none of them had ever tried to befriend this man who had suffered so much for their cause weighed heavily on Harry's conscience now.

"The scars are . . . quite repulsive, I know," Severus said into the ensuing silence.

Harry took a deep, shuddery breath. The past was over and buried. He couldn't dig the wrongdoers up to punish them for their crimes against his friend, any more than he could change how he'd behaved towards Severus when young. All he could do was offer what comfort he could – as though anything he could possibly say or do would ever alleviate the pain Severus had endured alone and unloved. Well, not any more. Severus wasn't alone, and he would never again be unloved, not if he had anything to say about it.

Finding his voice, Harry firmly corrected, "The cruelty that inflicted them is repulsive. The scars are just skin and memories, like the one on my forehead."

Then, because he could almost feel Severus' disbelief, he leaned forward and pressed his lips against the most garish and horrible of the collection, a deep line that ran from Severus' left shoulder blade straight down to the top of his right buttock.

Severus released a shocked hiss of breath in response, his entire body jerking at the unexpected action.

Harry took hold of those bony shoulders in a sturdy grip, then slipped his tongue out and bent to trail that scar straight across Severus' back. It was harder and slicker than the rest of Severus' skin, but no less appealing for all of that. If anything, these souvenirs of ancient hurts made him feel more for Severus, for they moved him in ways that Harry didn't even understand. All he knew was that those scars made him feel even more protective and devoted to his lover than he'd ever thought possible. Not that Severus Snape needed his protection. The child or man who could endure this was probably strong enough to withstand anything alone, but that proud self-sufficiency made him want to ease Severus' burdens.

He seemed to be doing a pretty good job of just that now. Apparently, Severus really enjoyed what he was doing. As his tongue moved across that reminder of old cruelties, Severus' response wasn't just a hiss, it was an all out cry.

Harry raised his head back up and studied his lover. Without being told, he knew that no one had ever before caressed or loved these scars. Severus was still so self-conscious about them. Taking in the stiff spine, Harry would almost say Severus was ashamed. No way was that going to continue. He mightn't be able to change the past, but he could affect the present and future.

A thousand words of reassurance leapt into his mind, but he instantly disregarded them. Severus didn't trust words. It was always actions that proved truth to him. So, action it would be.

Placing a kiss on Severus' left shoulder, Harry manoeuvred himself so that he was sitting behind Severus, with his legs stretched out on either side of his taller friend. As he shifted around behind him, Severus never even moved, sitting still as a statue, almost as though he were still expecting Harry to bail on him.

Once he was settled to his satisfaction, Harry slipped his arms around Severus' thin waist, rested his chin on his lover's right shoulder, pressed his chest against that scarred back, pulled Severus as close as possible to him, and stared down Snape's front.

Although he could sense how emotionally uncomfortable Severus was, Severus made no protest.

Harry pushed his face through the sleek curtain of Severus' hair to find his neck. He nuzzled behind the right ear, and felt the helpless shiver that coursed through his lover.

Harry ran his hands over Severus' smooth chest, refamiliarizing himself with the area. There were several scars here as well, something that looked like a knife wound at the top of Severus' right breast, another that looked like a burn below the shallow belly button, and a larger one whose origin Harry couldn't even guess above his left hip. His friend was no stranger to pain, be it physical or emotional. Harry was resolved to make Severus equally acquainted with pleasure.

"What are you thinking?" he whispered into a nearby ear.

"That it is unfortunate that you will be short-changed in regards to your partner's attractiveness," Severus surprised him by actually admitting.

Harry caught the end of Severus' rather small earlobe between his teeth and gave it a playful nip before contesting, "I'm just short, not short-changed. Besides, nobody with this on them," Harry reached down to collect Severus' impressive cock into his hand and was pleased to see it grow even bigger, "could possibly 'short-change' a lover."

Severus gasped in reaction, his head tilted back over Harry's left shoulder, exposing the full line of his throat. While Harry's hand pumped that beautiful shaft to fullness, his mouth feasted on the vulnerable expanse of white neck. He loved the feel of that rock hard, moist shaft in his palm, almost as much as he loved getting past Severus' guards enough to drive his reserved friend crazy enough to make these kinds of noises.

He'd meant only to make a point, but the pleading, sensual cries Severus was emitting as Harry manipulated that mighty cock made him realize how cruel it would be to stop. Severus had known so little joy in life, and it wasn't like this was a hardship. He loved making Severus lose his cool, loved feeling the shudders his touch caused shake them both. Enjoying every gasp, pant, and helpless outcry he elicited, Harry worked at his lover's pleasure.

Every time Severus cried out, the sound vibrated through Harry's lips, which were still nuzzling Severus' neck, and reverberated through his chest, which was still pressed tight to Snape's back. It was a tickly sensation that shivered through him like the play of warm breath over his neck. Those sounds and vibrations were erotic as hell, and Harry found his own penis rising to the occasion, pushing mindlessly at the flat, muscular behind pressed against it.

Harry slowed in his ministrations as he became aware of something strange. He wasn't just feeling Severus with his fingertips and epidermis. There was an odd tingling running through him wherever their flesh was touching. Although it was unique to Harry in a sexual encounter, it wasn't completely new to him. He'd experienced that same sensation every time Severus, Albus Dumbledore, or Hermione walked into a room. Great wizards projected their power, the way fire radiated its heat. It was Severus' wizards' power he could feel thrumming through the thin body he held so close, seeping from Severus into him, while his own distinct energy did the same to Severus.

His mind seemed to freeze as he realized what was happening. There was a reason sex and magic had been so closely linked for millennia. Sexual intercourse raised both psychic and magical power. The love they were making right now was sending both their internal power reservoirs skyrocketing.

He'd never had intercourse with another wizard anywhere near his own strength. Severus' thaumaturgical energy called to his own, causing lightning bolts of energy to spark through him. Those psychic energy bursts were as thrilling as the physical stimulation, giving him the same kind of jolt he'd received the day Mr. Olivander placed his wand in his hand, like he'd just found the perfect circuit. It was a rush like nothing he'd ever known, fierce and almost frightening, because the potential seemed limitless.

As those unique sensations rocked through him, Harry couldn't help but wonder why they hadn't felt this before. But maybe the connection had to do with the comfort level between the wizards. The last two times they'd made love, it had been too rushed and there had probably been too much nervousness for them to relax enough to sense each other's power, but this morning, it was like taking hold of a live electrical wire – sizzling and intense. Every touch, every nuzzling kiss, seemed to feed the psychic power-well, building until the energy felt like it would explode and take both of them along with it.

Harry gasped as the magical energy crested, shooting such a sheer blast of power through them both that Harry felt as though his nerves were literally melting. He gave one last mindless tug on Severus' shaft and felt his lover shower his fist with his warm, sticky gift. The ejaculate gushed so high that it splattered not only Severus' belly, but his chest as well.

Severus' groan was still tingling through him as Harry clutched his panting lover while his friend came down to earth. His own world was focused completely on the warm body in his arms. His cock was still a swollen, needy torment, but he was so blown away by the energy exchange that they'd experienced that he was hardly aware of it.

He'd read about that kind of union in Wizarding World novels, but he'd never believed it real. It had sounded too much like a literary invention or piece of fantasy. He wracked his mind, trying to recall what those books of Hermione's had said about this.

It was rare, that much he knew, very rare. The level of trust required for this type of power exchange, and the degree of emotional investment needed were nearly unheard of. Though Harry had never had an easy life, the Wizarding World was a savage and brutal place even by Dursley standards. There were so few means of viable employment and such limited marriage potential that wizards were forced to compete with each other almost from birth. Your family and your housemates were about the only people you could ever totally rely on in the Wizarding World, and even within the school houses, competition was encouraged through such institutions as house prefect and Best Boy and Best Girl. Marriages were still frequently arranged, and what with the Wizarding World's almost Victorian approach to sex, it was damn near impossible for a wizard or witch to ever be as free to explore their sexuality as Muggles were. Sometimes a person got lucky and they found a mate that suited them, like Ron and Hermione or Molly and Arthur Weasley, but most wizards ended up like Seamus Finnegan, marrying for all the wrong reasons, and paying for it for the rest of their lives. It wasn't even easy to find sexual compatibility in the Wizarding World, as Harry had learned through his disastrous affair with Julius, let alone the kind of affinity that would permit the co-mingling of power.

But he'd found this nearly mythical connection here with Severus Snape on his third day of loving him. What that said about their feelings for each other, and their sexual and emotional compatibility awed him. He'd been lovers with Julius for over three years and never felt a hint of it once.

Eventually, Severus seemed to rouse himself. Snape took hold of the hand that was still resting on his now limp penis and lifted it to his face.

Harry shivered at the gentle kiss that Severus gave his sticky hand, and then gasped as his lover's tongue lapped the spilt semen off. Then Severus turned to face him.

For perhaps the first time, there wasn't even a hint of uncertainty in Severus' gaze. The man looked stunned beyond reckoning, but not nervous or insecure as he asked, "I take it that power exchange is not a normal part of intercourse for you?"

He knew he was staring at Severus like he'd lost his mind, but he couldn't help it. How could something like that ever be 'normal'? He felt like Severus' power had just branded his soul.

Barely able to speak, between his astonishment and arousal, Harry shook his head 'no' and grated out, "You?"

"Kindness isn't even a normal component in my affairs." Severus looked away from him for a moment, then met his gaze again and asked, "You do realize how . . . uncommon such a connection is?"

Harry nodded again and admitted, "I never believed it was real."

"Oh, it's real enough," Severus countered, but despite his words, there was still an air of utter shock about him.

"I . . . I never felt anything like that in my life," Harry confessed.

"Nor have I." Severus' eyes studied him for a moment, and then he softly said, "I don't believe that it is something we can control. If it displeases you – "

"No, it doesn't displease me – how could it?" Harry quickly answered. "I . . . it awes me." Worried, because Severus was such an intensely private person and this was the most intensely not-private, intrusive experience he'd ever encountered, he softly questioned, "What about you? Is it too much too soon?"

Severus took a deep breath and then answered, "The existence of this . . . connection tells me that everything you said last night is true."

"That's a good thing, right?" Harry supposed he should have been upset that Severus had still doubted his veracity, but there had never been anything in Severus' life that inspired either trust or belief. After seeing the scars that his caretakers had left on Severus' back, he was amazed that his friend could have faith in anything.

"A very good thing," Severus murmured and leaned forward to kiss him.

"Gods," Snape gasped, pulling back as another power burst shot between them. "Doesn't it abate after climax?"

Harry chuckled at the expression on his lover's face, though he could sympathize with the worry. It really did feel like the pleasure bursts would kill them if the energy levels got much stronger.

"I don't know. The books said . . . ." Harry broke off.

Their gazes locked. Harry could almost see Severus remembering the same details he was.

Severus licked his lips and voiced the thought that was in both their heads, "That it grows exponentially with each union."

"Can you live with it?" Harry asked, scared because he was almost afraid of the power of the connection himself. He couldn't imagine how it must feel to Severus, who knew so little of pleasure to start with.

"Either I learn to live with it, or I live without you," Severus said in that lush cultured voice of his. He nearly melted Harry's bones as he continued, "I don't find the latter an acceptable option."

"I don't think I could live without you now," Harry gave into his mushy impulse, but then qualified with a wry, "Well, at least not comfortably."

Severus gave another of those earthy chuckles that Harry loved and said, "Certainly not with that erection burdening you. Would you like me to do something about it?"

Relaxing at the urbane teasing, Harry widened his eyes to their most innocent, and whispered, "Please."

It worked like a charm. Severus gulped, all levity leaving his expression. It really did seem that Severus couldn't resist him at all.

That dark gaze trailed down his front to his still throbbing erection, which Severus' words had turned into a frenzied, needy demon. Severus' yellow-stained fingers reached almost tentatively for him.

This power flare was even worse than the last. From the breath Severus hissed in, one would have thought he'd just had his erection squeezed instead of having done it to someone else.

"Let's get more comfortable. Perhaps that will help," Harry suggested.

Severus gave him one of those 'surely, you jest' looks, but made no other protest.

Lying back on the mattress, he guided Severus down beside him, turned on his side to face him, and took the man's mouth in a deep kiss, doing his best to ignore or try to integrate the power exchange into their loving. But it was like trying to integrate the lightning of a summer thunderstorm into your nervous system. Every flash was that explosive.

Giving up on the idea of regulating the power, Harry decided to just concentrate on the kiss.

Severus didn't taste like cloves and cinnamon anymore. He tasted like his own semen, and that was somehow better. It was certainly hotter. Between the taste and the power exchange, Harry didn't think he had a chance of holding out for two minutes.

Those long-fingered hands were stroking his back, setting off a shiversome series of sensations that rivalled the kiss.

Finally, the need for air forced them apart again. Gasping in Severus-scented breaths, he stared at his lover, barely able to believe what Severus was doing to him – physically, emotionally, or psychically.

Severus' right hand slipped between them. Still lost in the mysterious depths of those dark eyes, Harry cried out as his left nipple was lightly squeezed, his hips bucking forward in instinctive response as his nerve endings sizzled under the joint barrage of pleasure and power.

"You're amazingly sensitive," Severus whispered, even the warm brush of his breath against Harry's skin feeling like a caress.

"You're . . . amazingly good. Oh, God . . . ." Harry sobbed as that talented hand collected his penis.

He squeezed his eyes shut as the feelings became too much. Something soft and rather ticklish swept across his upper thighs – Severus' hair, he absently realized – and seconds later a hot, wet suction surrounded his shaft. Then his testicles were gathered up in Severus' hand and masterfully rolled.

Panting, he tried to take in enough air, but that wasn't happening. All there was was feeling: Severus' hot mouth surrounding his cock, Severus' hair surrounding his groin, and Severus' power all around and inside him. He arched up into that warm mouth and palm. More than just accommodating or accepting him, Severus seemed to flow with him. His partner's free hand slipped around to his bum to encourage closer contact as Severus deep-throated him with the expertise of a Muggle porn star.

It made no sense at all that this man who had known nothing but pain and ostracism in his life could possibly be so lethally efficient in bed. Harry had had dozens of lovers in his life, and not a single one of them had been as in sync with him as Severus. Because of how close they were, Harry had expected it to work with Severus, but he'd expected it to be work as well. He'd imagined that it would all be like it was when they'd first woken up this morning, awkward and stumbling. He'd anticipated having to coax Severus like a frightened colt through everything they did, but once Severus moved beyond his initial apprehension – most of which was caused by his friend's lack of confidence in his appearance and sexual appeal – Severus Snape was as formidable a lover as he was a wizard, and that was quite formidable, indeed. When this power conduit that was opening between them was added to the mix, there wasn't anything or anyone that Harry had known before in his life that held a candle to what Severus made him feel. The sex alone was unbearably intense, but the melding of their magics and the emotion of it all was beyond comprehension. The human body simply wasn't designed to endure this much joy.

Harry felt himself undone. There was no other word for it. There was simply too much pleasure coursing through him. His heart was pounding so loud, he thought it would deafen them both, if it didn't burst. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. All he could do was feel, and there was too much of that. Ecstasy this sharp wasn't supposed to come from a blowjob. This level of response was reserved for some of the arcane positions in those tantric yoga books that Hermione had. It wasn't part of the real world. At least, it had never been part of his until now, with Severus.

Burying his fingers in that silky fall of hair, he moaned with each glorious suck, crying out helplessly as the sharpest of delights coursed through him. Sanity a distant memory, he was mindlessly begging – for what, he wasn't sure – mercy or more, or perhaps both, though he knew he couldn't take much more and remain sane.

Severus' name was on his lips as the delight raging through him obliterated him. His reality and body exploding at the same time, Harry grasped onto Severus' bare shoulders for dear life as he came in Severus' mouth. Stunned, he felt a hot pulse of ejaculate spray his right knee as his lover climaxed again . . . with no physical encouragement from him, but, then, who needed the physical when their Wizards' power was doing all it could to fuse them into one entity?

The orgasm seemed to go on forever. When it finally released him, Harry felt like he'd been cut down from a rack.

Their hoarse, rasping breaths filled the room, drowning out the rush of rain outside the window and the crackling flames in his hearth.

Totally annihilated, he lay there for a long time, gasping for breath. Severus' head was pillowed on his left hip. His lover's warm breath brushed over his deflated organ with every exhalation, causing stirrings in it that should have been utterly impossible in the wake of such an overwhelming orgasm.

Needing more contact, he reached blindly downwards. His hand landed in the centre of Severus' back, on top of the thickest batch of scars. His mind still more gone than present, Harry absently stroked over the bumpy flesh, learning the indentations by feel. Already, he could tell which one was that thick strap mark he'd kissed earlier.

Severus lifted his head to look up at him, and all that hair came falling down to veil his face.

Harry used the hand not occupied with Severus' back to brush the hair clear. Never had he seen those strong features look so soft or open.

They stared at each other, neither seeming to know what to say in the wake of such an immolating climax.

Finally, Harry found his voice and the words that had to be said. "I know I didn't mean to say it to you this morning, but I do love you. You need to know that."

Even after everything that had passed between them in this bed, it still seemed difficult to impossible for Severus to accept his words. Harry saw how abruptly uneasy Severus became.

"You don't have to say anything," Harry quickly assured. "I just . . . wanted you to know. Is that all right?"

Because if it wasn't, he'd just blown everything here.

Severus swallowed loudly. "It is . . . more than all right. Do you require a similar declaration from me?"

Require. Harry stifled a sigh. Severus still didn't get it – possibly never would, Harry recognized. But that was all right. Severus felt it. What they'd just shared proved how much Severus loved him in a way words never could.

"All I require of you," Harry replied, leaning over to kiss Severus' blue-stubbled chin before rising back up to meet his gaze, "is that you keep your promise to have faith in me. Can you do that?"

He released the breath he'd been unconsciously holding as Severus nodded. Those dark eyes were studying him as though they were committing every detail of his features to memory. "Harry?"

"Yes?"

"Except for what Hermione and Ron showed me, I know naught of love, but . . . if ever I did feel it for someone, that someone would be you. Is that enough?"

He couldn't possibly be as nervous as he looked, Harry thought. His insides were clenched so tight in reaction to Severus' admission that he could barely breathe. Severus had given him more than he'd ever dreamed possible with that last avowal, yet his lover looked almost afraid. Staring into that uneasy visage, Harry could see every betrayal and disappointment Severus had endured etched in his face. Well, this wasn't going to be one of them.

Finally finding his voice, Harry whispered, "You're enough . . . for me."

It was clear that Severus didn't know how to respond.

Sensing that neither of them could take much more of this naked honesty, Harry pulled Severus close to him and simply held on for the longest time. Gradually, the tension left that long, warm form.

"If we're going to make breakfast, we'd better start moving," Harry said into the quiet a long time later.

"Breakfast?" Severus repeated, as though he'd never heard the word before.

Harry chuckled. "Yes, breakfast. I don't know about you, but I'm famished, and if we don't make an appearance after last night, Hermione will be flooing in here the minute breakfast ends."

"She wouldn't," Severus said, but he didn't sound quite certain of that fact.

"Oh no?" Harry challenged. "It's Hermione we're talking about here."

He had to smile at the alacrity with which Severus attained the vertical.

Harry grabbed his wand off the night table, passed it over them both while mumbling a quick cleansing spell, and then fell upon his armoire while Severus sat naked on the bed and watched him gather his clothes together with maniacal speed. Two minutes later, he was completely dressed in blue jeans, black tee shirt, his black boots, and brown robes.

Looking back at the bed, he felt his pulse drum and his throat tighten. Severus was sitting with his back propped up on a mound of crisp white pillows against the headboard and his hands tucked behind his head. His skin was nearly as pale as the bed linens. Except for what he had on his head – the lustrous black cascade that fell like silk over his slender shoulders and the pillowcases and made Harry's fingers twitch to touch it just looking at it – Severus was nearly hairless. He had a faint smattering under his arms, nothing at all on his chest and belly. His pubic mound, however, was as well endowed as his scalp. The black curls rose in an artful swirl against his creamy belly. While his legs . . . they were as furry as Harry's own.

Gazing at the sensual sprawl that was normally considered Hogwarts' most uptight professor, Harry wanted nothing so much as to fling himself back onto the bed and start all over again. The bluish-black shadow of stubble on Severus' jaw was looking especially lickable at the moment.

But the thought of Hermione interrupting him was enough to chill even his ardour. Swallowing hard, he said, "Come on. We'll floo over to your place, so you can change, and then walk up to breakfast together. We should be able to make it."

"I can floo back and join you in the Great Hall in a few minutes," Severus said. "We needn't both be delayed."

"If you think I'm walking into that Hall without you, you've got another think coming. We'll scare Hermione and Ron to death if we don't arrive together." Seeing the hesitation enter Severus features, he demanded, "What? What's wrong now?"

"If you floo back with me, everyone will see us leaving my quarters together," Severus stiffly answered as he sat up, all that sensuous looseness leaving his body.

For almost a minute, Harry really didn't get it. "You can't be serious? We've been leaving your quarters together for breakfast for weeks now."

"Yes, but . . . ."

"But?" Harry prompted, totally confused.

"If the Headmistress were to question me on those previous occasions, I could say in all honesty that nothing improper had passed between us," Severus softly replied. "I can't say that anymore, Harry."

"Nothing 'improper' has passed between us," Harry gently corrected.

"Perhaps not in our eyes, but the Headmistress – "

"Isn't going to call us on the carpet for falling in love," Harry said. "I told Minerva that I was a homosexual before I signed my contract. I made it clear to her that I didn't intend to spend my entire life alone, that if I should find someone, I would want that person to live with me here at Hogwarts."

"You did?" Severus appeared pole-axed by the concept. "What did she say?"

"I'm here, aren't I?" Realizing that his trite response wasn't going to satisfy his worried friend, Harry softly supplied, "Minerva said that it wouldn't be a problem as long as I maintained proper decorum. As long as you don't plan on shagging me in the corridors, I think we'll be all right."

"Harry, that's you. The authorities have always made exceptions to the rules to accommodate you. Even if Minerva were willing to look the other way, the Board of Governors would surely terminate my contract. They've been looking for an excuse to dispense with my services for over twenty years."

Harry considered the argument, and then gently asked, "What if they do? If they fire you, they're going to have to fire me, too."

Severus stared silently up at him for a long moment, as if judging his seriousness. Apparently seeing that he wasn't joking, a faint flush touched Severus' cheeks and he lowered his gaze. "You know how limited employment opportunities are in the Wizarding World. If I lose my position here . . . ."

"You'll what? Have to give up teaching? You don't even like teaching, Severus. It's the research opportunities here at Hogwarts that have always interested you more than the teaching end of your job ever did. If they won't let you teach, then you can spend all your time doing the research you love."

"Where? Harry, I am as infamous as you are famous. Everyone knows of the Dark Mark I bear. If I lose my position at Hogwarts, I will not find another. I must be sensible."

He hated the note of fear in his proud friend's voice. Taking a deep breath, because he knew how explosive an issue this could become, he softly said, "You know I made a bloody fortune playing quidditch. If they kick us out of Hogwarts for being lovers, we'll form a partnership and open a lab."

"A partnership," Severus echoed.

"Yes, a partnership. We have options, Severus."

Slowly, the anxiety eased from those tense features. Confusion seemed to take its place as Severus softly said, "But . . . you love teaching. You would sacrifice that for . . . ?"

"I sacrifice nothing," Harry said. "I want us to be together. That's the important thing for me. I'd prefer us to be together here, but if that's not possible, then we'll start a lab and you can do your potions work full time."

"While you?"

Not really giving it his full attention when faced with the absolute shock in Severus' eyes, Harry shrugged, "Who knows? Maybe I'll crusade for gay rights in the Wizarding World. It doesn't really matter, as long as we get to be together. We've earned some happiness."

"You . . . wish to be open about what is between us?" Severus questioned, his misgivings almost palpable.

A tight fist seemed to close around his heart. He knew he was pushing too hard here, but he couldn't live a lie again, not even for Severus. Hoping he could make himself understood, he softly said, "I know you're a very private person. I won't ever embarrass you in public, but . . . I won't sneak around like we're doing something wrong, either. I did that last time. Never again."

"Last time?" Severus asked.

Harry took a deep breath and explained, "He didn't want anyone knowing about us, not even Ron and Hermione. I couldn't keep something that big from them, of course. He was never comfortable with them, and it was a total disaster. I can't do it that way again, Severus. Please don't ask it of me." He reached out and cupped Severus' cheek. "I want us to begin as we plan to go along. I love you and I'm not ashamed of people knowing it. I know we can't broadcast it or anything, but I refuse to hide what I feel for you like it's something dirty, because it's not. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Severus gulped. His lips parted as though he were about to speak and then closed shut again.

"What?" Harry asked, running his index finger over those lips, loving the tremor he caused in them.

Severus swallowed loudly and said in a thick voice, "It's all . . . so much to take in."

"I know," Harry said.

"You do?"

"Yes."

Those dark eyes studied him for a long moment. Finally, Severus said, "You underplay its importance, but I know your family and home are here at Hogwarts. If this goes badly, you will lose it all."

"Your family and home are here, too," Harry reminded.

"No one has ever risked anything for me before," Severus said.

"Me, neither. It will work, Severus. We just have to refuse to let anything rattle us. Will you try?"

The two breaths it took before Severus once again nodded seemed the longest wait of his life. All the tension seemed to drain out of him as he realized that Severus was willing to try to meet him half way.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"No, thank you, Harry," Severus said.

Their lips were suddenly mashed together and they were holding onto each other for dear life. Knowing what would happen if they didn't douse these flames quickly, Harry ripped his mouth free and reminded, "Unless we want Hermione here in a half hour, we'd best get moving."

Severus gave another nod. Harry was beginning to recognize that it was something Severus did when he was feeling too much. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing this morning.

A fast kiss, followed by a frantic search for Severus' discarded nightshirt, and they were on their way to meet the day.

*********************

The best thing that ever happened to him. Harry Potter had said that he was the best thing that ever happened to him. Said it, and meant it.

Severus took a deep breath and did his best to force his attention back to the quizzes he was grading, but despite his best efforts, all he could really think about was the sex this morning, and last night, and the night before that. Too aware of his body, he shifted in his seat before his sitting room desk. He was still tingling from what Harry had done to him. So much so, that the third year test answers looked like nothing so much as chicken scrawl.

Not that they weren't, of course. He was certain that he could put parchment down on a barnyard floor and receive more intelligent communication than some of the gobbledegook his students had spewn up this time. However, Harry's loving had left him unbearably distracted, and he couldn't muster his usual glee for taking off points. He wished the dunderheads would actually listen and learn for once, so that he wouldn't have to waste hours disavowing them of their delusions. To save time, he was trying to be as lenient as possible, but Stanton's illuminating answer of "So Professor Snape won't yell at me and the spoon won't melt," answer to the question "Why must we take precautions when dealing with dragon venom?" simply could not be ignored. Sighing, Severus tried to focus enough to manage a deservedly scathing response, but . . . but Harry Potter had said he was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

After having spent the night and morning in Harry's company, it felt strange to be alone in his own quarters, but he'd had students to counsel and papers to grade, as had Harry, and the sooner he got through this mess, the sooner he'd be free to spend time with Harry. It felt strange to have something to look forward to, stranger still to know with absolute certainty that everything was not going to fall apart this time. Beyond the fact that Harry never lied, that Harry had said that he loved him no less than four times this morning and had said – he felt his lips twist up again – that he was the best thing that ever happened to him, there was that energy exchange to consider. If he'd wanted proof of Harry's intentions, he couldn't have gotten anything more concrete than that. Words and even actions could be faked, but never that.

A wizard's power didn't call to simple paramours. It didn't come into play with one night stands. And it certainly wasn't a component in relationships based on pity, which had been Severus' deepest fear here. That psychic exchange of magical force was beyond a wizard's ability to manipulate. One couldn't choose with whom one shared the experience. Thaumaturgical chemistry, emotional commitment, and factors that even the wisest of wizards had failed to comprehend ordained that exchange. It was so rare that most wizards never experienced it at all; that commingling of power didn't even grace most marriages. Severus knew how unique and rare a gift it was. That he would experience it with Harry Potter was nothing short of miraculous, but, then, he felt that way about their entire relationship. That Harry could like him at all, let alone find him worthy of love, was more than he'd ever dreamed possible.

Severus stared down at the hopeless Stanton's answer of "So Professor Snape won't yell at me." Normally, he'd deduct twenty-five points for such impertinence, and spend half a page denoting the idiot's intellectual shortcomings, but today he found himself suppressing a smile as he wrote in his neat script beside the ink stained mess, "Personally, I'd be far more concerned about the venom eating through my cauldron, desk, and trousers had I failed to contain it in a ceramic receptacle than my professor's wrath, but Gryffindors have never been noted for their common sense. –5."

Fortunately, the remainder of Stanton's answers weren't nearly as imaginative. Severus placed Stanton's quiz on the finished pile. Only two left. With luck . . . .

He straightened in his chair as he heard the corridor door open and felt the prickle of power against his skin, which was the signal Harry Potter's magic unconsciously generated.

Harry didn't say anything, and he pretended not to be aware of Potter's arrival, but the test paper was a blur in front of him now. His concentration was focused fully on the man behind him. He could feel Harry standing there staring at him. His gaze was like a hot spotlight on his back.

Irritated with himself, Severus realized that he'd gone hard. A sudden sweat dewed his flesh and a telltale tremor ran through the hand that held his black-feathered quill.

He felt Harry come up behind him, so close that he could nearly feel his body heat vibrating through the air between them.

"Still grading?" Harry asked in a hushed tone that turned Severus' faint tremor into an all out shake.

Severus hissed in a breath, and forced normality into his voice as he replied, "As you can see."

"Ah," Harry whispered, and simply stood there, not touching him, but not moving away. After an eternity of silence seemed to crawl by between them, in which Severus couldn't even pretend to be grading the papers he couldn't focus on, Harry said in that same sexy sub tone, "I missed you."

"It's only been since lunch."

Lunch, with a grinning Hermione and Ron, who'd looked as though they'd known everything that had passed between him and Harry at a glance. Lunch, where he'd been brought up short by that shared knowledge, where Harry's warm hand on his back had guided him to his seat. Lunch, where everyone in their corner had seemed to know just by looking at them that they were lovers. Lunch, where Harry had been beside him through it all, and because of that, none of it had seemed as bad, even the imminent conversation with the glowering Blaise Zabini that he could sense hovering in his immediate future.

"That was hours and hours ago," Harry complained and finally touched him.

Harry's hands settled tentatively on his shoulders, as if giving him a chance to protest and finish his work. His quill dropped from his limp fingers, fortunately hitting the blotter instead of the test papers. Severus knew that there was no way he could even see his papers, let alone read them with the erection raging inside his pants. His gasp was apparently taken as permission to proceed.

Those strong fingers squeezed the muscles on his shoulders.

Potter's right hand skimmed up his neck to his ponytail. A quick movement, and Harry flicked his hair clasp open so that all his hair fell loose around his shoulders. Then both his hands returned to those shoulders, where Potter's fingers began to move in small, rhythmic circles.

"You're tight," Harry observed.

"Yesss," Severus agreed, not referring to the muscles Harry's fingers were exploring. The muscles he was concerned with were lower and much more demanding at the moment. Still, the pressure of Harry's fingers as they kneaded his dreadfully thin shoulders felt almost sexual in itself. In fact, the more Harry manipulated the kinks out of the area, the better he felt all over.

"My god, Severus, these muscles are like rock. You carry all your tension here," Harry murmured, leaning in to kiss his neck and add a shiver to the melting sensation that his hands were inducing. "Can I work on them a while?"

"You can neuter me if you keep that up," he grated out, ending on a groan as Harry tackled a particularly sore spot.

Harry's chuckle was like music to him. The moist air from it tickled over his exposed neck, adding even more shivers.

"That's the furthest thing from my mind at this moment," Harry assured in a silky tone that had as much effect on him as those talented fingers.

Maybe it was the fact that no one had ever given him a massage before, or perhaps Harry was simply that good at it, but within moments Severus felt himself slipping into a dreamy state of lassitude. His arousal no longer so demanding in light of the pleasure seeping through him, he allowed Harry to do as he would.

"Can we get rid of this?" Harry asked, tugging at the collar of his jacket.

Severus gave an absent nod of consent and moved like a puppet as Harry manoeuvred the jacket off him.

"The vest's nearly as thick," Harry jokingly complained, his hands coming around Severus from behind to start undoing the dozens of tiny buttons that held his waistcoat closed. "Jeez, how many of these are there?"

"Thirty-eight," Severus answered in a sleepy tone.

"That's all, ey?" Harry chuckled and continued to carefully unbutton.

"You could use magic to remove it," Severus suggested.

"What, and miss out on living one of my fantasies?"

"You . . . fantasized about my waistcoat?" Severus questioned, nonplussed by the idea of anyone entertaining a sexual fantasy about him, let alone his clothing.

"Well, not about the waistcoat, but definitely about undoing all these buttons, one by one, to get at what's under it," Harry replied with what sounded like perfect, if breathless, candour.

"You had this fantasy today?" That might explain Harry's stare at lunch.

"I've had it for weeks now," Harry laughed. "These tiny buttons are just so . . . distracting . . . and sexy. So damn sexy."

"Weeks, but we only . . . I mean, it was just Friday that we . . . ."

"I guess I've been noticing you for a while now," Harry confessed. "Is that all right?"

He tilted his head back so that he could see Harry's face. He appeared legitimately concerned. "Harry, I've been called many things in my day, but never a hypocrite."

At first Harry didn't seem to understand what he was saying, but then the proverbial light went off behind those smoky green eyes, and they widened in surprise. "You mean that you . . . . " The confusion transformed into a bright grin, " . . . brilliant!"

Once again, this incredible man made the unthinkable acceptable. Harry was happy he'd been having lascivious thoughts about him? How often in the past had his attention even been tolerated, let alone welcomed with such enthusiasm? The few times his interest had been returned, it hadn't been him his paramours had wanted to know, but the Death Eater. What Harry gave him truly was miraculous.

Still feeling as though this were all a dream, he watched Harry's somewhat delicately shaped hands open his buttons.

The last little black button was finally undone and Harry eased the waistcoat from his shoulders.

He sighed in contentment as Harry's hands urged him to lean forward in his high backed chair so that Harry could work the same sensual magic on his spine. The edge of his desk pressed into his chest as he propped his head up on his elbows. His eyes drooped closed in pleasure as Harry dismantled his vertebrae one by one. Those fingers were so sure and skilful, so seductive.

"Can we move inside, Severus?" Harry whispered after a long while.

Lost in a sensual daze, Severus opened his eyes, sat back up, and stared about his fire lit sitting room. He almost felt as though he didn't know where he was.

Strong hands guided him to his feet. His gaze took in his discarded jacket and waistcoat, which were flung over the back of the nearest wingback armchair. The top test paper on his unfinished stack was crumpled from where he'd leaned on it, and his quill was lying on his blotter in a pooling black stain with all the ink bled out of it, but Harry's hand was on his elbow, gently urging him to move, and none of that other stuff seemed the least bit important.

"Lumos," Harry murmured as they entered his bedroom. The wall torches and hearth fire immediately leapt to life as they would in Potter's own chambers.

Harry stopped them by the bed. Those hands that had given him so much pleasure framed his face, holding his hair up around it as Harry guided him downwards so their mouths could meet. As if under Imperius, Severus allowed himself to be kissed. His hair fell like a black curtain around both their faces, cloaking them in warm, moist darkness.

Harry took his mouth with a passion that sent shivers quaking through him. Potter was so strong, so charismatic, so powerful that Severus was utterly intoxicated by him. The actual power exchange that was going on wasn't helping matters any, either. It wasn't as intrusive as before, but Severus could feel Harry's wizards power seeping into him at all points of contact: their hands, mouths, jaws, even through both their clothes where their fronts were pressed together.

Harry's hands snaked around his back to recommence that seductive massage while kissing him. It was nearly more than he could take. Overwhelmed by the triple assault of lips, fingers, and power, the strength seemed to go out of Severus' legs.

Harry's arms tightened around him as Potter positioned his body to prop him up. When they parted for air an unhurried time later, Harry murmured, "Bed?"

Severus thought he knew what the word meant, so he nodded.

Harry's smoky gaze was expectant for a moment, then a delighted smile spilled over his face and he manoeuvred them over to the bedside. The mattress caught the back of Snape's boneless legs, and he sank down onto it with a gasp.

Harry's hands moved towards him. Trapped in that wonderful daze, Severus watched Harry undo the buttons on his white linen shirt. Then, before taking it from his shoulders, Harry lifted each of his hands in turn to remove his cufflinks, which Potter carefully placed on the nightstand. Only when the silver and emerald baubles were safely stowed did Harry slip the damp shirt from him.

Severus sobbed in a breath as Harry undid his trousers, and then peeled off his undershirt. Severus knew that there was some reason he would normally be concerned at this point in the proceedings, but, for the life of him, he couldn't remember what it was. All he could remember was how good that slightly swollen mouth tasted, and how incredible those hands felt on him.

Harry's hand landed in the centre of his chest. The soft pressure he exerted guided Severus against the pillows. The silk sheets and duvet felt slick and cool against his bare back, causing a shiver.

Harry bent to scoop his legs up and lay him straight out on the bed.

Clad only in his trousers and boots now, Severus shook with need as that hungry green gaze behind those ridiculous round-lensed spectacles surveyed him.

"You're magnificent," Harry murmured.

"And you're blind as a bat, but thank you," Severus gave a gaspy response.

Harry smiled and chuckled. "You don't take a compliment well."

"They're not something to which I'm accustomed," Severus replied, doing everything in his power to maintain coherency.

"You'll learn to be," Harry said in the tone of a promise. Since he ran his hand down the centre of Severus' chest immediately after speaking, his words might just as well have been voiced in Swahili, for all the sense they made to Severus. The roving hand paused at the top of his trousers and gave a tug while Harry asked in a stronger voice. "Can I get rid of these?"

Severus was back to nodding, but it seemed enough for Harry at the moment. He watched as Harry knelt beside the bed to remove his boots and socks.

"You've got fantastic feet, you know," Harry whispered in a thick tone. "All long and sleek and sexy – like the rest of you."

To his horror, Harry's hand took hold on his left foot and gave the sweaty appendage a squeeze.

Severus was braced for the touch to tickle, but once again the sensuality of that firm grip overcame his lack of tactile experience. He didn't embarrass himself like a giddy schoolgirl by giggling. Bemused, he stared down at his kneeling lover as Harry gripped his left foot in both his hands. His bare foot looked almost ghostly white under the cuff of his black trousers, and the contrast with Harry's weather-tanned hands didn't help any. He looked like a corpse against Harry's healthy, quidditch induced colour.

Yet Harry didn't seem put off by his unhealthy pallor. Harry gave his foot an affectionate squeeze and then his thumbs dug into the sole to deliver the same kind of massage Harry had given his shoulders earlier. If his shoulders had felt good, the pleasure here was even more intense and visceral. Who would have thought his feet could be this sensitive, that feet could possibly be an erogenous zone? Never him, that was for certain. But what Harry was doing to him was redefining his definition of what was sensual with every touch.

By the time Harry reached for his right foot, Severus felt malleable as putty. That touch had him floating, lost in a sensual daze. No one had ever taken this kind of time with him or been this concerned with his pleasure. There was nothing in this for Harry. It was all for him, and, yet, Harry appeared happy. His face was relaxed, for all that his concentration seemed completely focused on his unprepossessing foot. He seemed to really be enjoying what he was doing.

"Severus?" Harry softly called a long time later.

"Mmmm?" He tried to rally – truly, he did – but that was the best he could manage.

"I want to learn you from head to toe, will you let me?" Harry asked.

Meeting that heated gaze, he gave a nod.

"I . . . don't know how long I'll be able to . . . hold out," he warned, feeling his cheeks warm. He was forty-eight years old. He should have some control over his body at this age, but he felt ready to come just from what Harry had done to his feet and shoulders. And, at forty-eight, one climax was all that could be expected. That mightn't occur to Harry, who was still in his twenties.

Harry gave his bony foot another of those absurd, affectionate squeezes. His smile was very tender as he replied, "I don't want you to hold out. I want you to give in, again and again and again."

Severus felt the ends of his lips twitch at Harry's preposterous statement. "You overestimate my capacity. I'm forty-eight years old, Harry. I . . . don't want to disappoint your expectations."

He held his breath at the shadow that passed through those sea green eyes. To his unending shock, it wasn't disappointment that touched Harry's features. It looked more like desperation, he thought.

"We've both been alone way too long. I don't care if you come once or a dozen times, just so long as you're enjoying yourself. I want to learn all of you. Let me have this, Severus. Please?"

What could he refuse Potter when he looked at him with that expression? Despite his reservations, Severus found himself nodding again. "I place myself in your capable hands. Do as you will to and with me."

From his expression, it was clear that Harry was astute enough to understand the distinction.

"Thank you," Harry whispered, and then did something extraordinary.

Severus couldn't contain his gasp as Harry pressed a kiss against the top of his foot, right above his scrawny toes.

Harry's grin was wicked when he lifted his head again.

Severus' insides clenched tight, because he knew he was in for the time of his life. Harry was so far outside his ken that he didn't even know what to expect. The power that was flowing between them with every caress made everything that much more intense and unbearable, made it impossible to think.

Potter raised his right hand expectantly into the air and whispered, "Accio Harry Potter's massage oil."

A moment later, a clear bottle with a green liquid in it came floating through the narrow, high placed dungeon windows to land in Harry's outstretched palm. Harry put the bottle down on the bed beside his narrow hips. Then he removed his glasses and placed them safely on the nightstand.

Severus started to pant as Harry's hands reached for the opening of his already unfastened trousers. Harry snagged the band of his underwear as he pulled the trousers down, taking them along. Severus lifted his hips to aid in their removal, and then settled back against the bed to await Harry's pleasure.

His skin pricked up in goose flesh as those green eyes surveyed his naked form. For so many years he'd been ashamed to reveal his body. Even though Harry knew what he looked like naked, it was difficult to lie still under such close scrutiny. Harry was still fully clothed in his black robes with Muggle clothing beneath, while he lay stark naked before him. The inequity of their positions was palpable. Yet, somehow, even that was exciting – with Harry. For the first time in his life, he didn't mind being naked and vulnerable before another.

He swallowed hard and let Harry look his full, doing his best not to be embarrassed as his erection pulsed even larger under Harry's gaze.

Harry reached for the bottle. When he unstopped it, the lush scent of a pine forest filled the air. Harry poured some of the oil onto his left palm, and then placed the bottle on the nightstand.

He watched Harry rub the oil between his palms. The hopes of his hungry shaft were dashed as Harry took hold of his right foot again. The massage felt even better this time with the oil. Severus found himself forgetting the eight inches of need made flesh at his groin, while Harry awakened pleasure centres he'd never even known he possessed in his foot, heel, and then up to his calf, knee, and higher.

Totally desperate, his hips surged upwards as Harry's kneading fingers worked their way midway up his thigh, but then Harry abandoned that leg and took hold of his left foot to repeat the procedure. The denial should have been horrible, but somehow, Severus wasn't upset by it. Harry wasn't rejecting, teasing, or torturing him. Rather, Harry was introducing him to delights he'd never dreamed existed before. How could he possibly begrudge Harry that? He'd never been this aware of his legs and feet. Everything below his waist was tingling in a slick web of sensation.

Severus held his breath as Harry reached the top of his left thigh, certain that Potter would have no choice but to deal with the situation he'd created. To his shock and frustration, Harry re-oiled his hands, shifted on the bed so that he was facing his head, instead of his feet and legs, and then he reached out to begin working his shoulders again.

Every muscle of his neck, shoulders, and arms felt as if it were dissembled and put back together, minus the tension that kept him so stiff all the time.

Harry's hands were still working his shoulders when Harry bent his head to nuzzle his left nipple.

Severus cried out and arched upwards, nearly sobbing as Potter's tongue came into play.

His body froze as Harry's mouth shifted further left. Potter grabbed hold of his arm and pushed it upwards above their heads. Severus was confused at first until Harry buried his face in the moist hair at his armpit, kissing and sucking there as though it were some tasty treat and not an area most people avoided contact with.

Severus wasn't prepared for the pleasure bursts that exploded through him. It was his underarm Harry was touching, not his cock. This shouldn't have felt so amazing, but somehow, it did. He rode the attention out, trying not to be unnerved by anything Harry did. Obviously, when Potter said 'head to toe' that was precisely what he meant.

Severus was almost relieved when Harry's mouth finally stopped nuzzling his armpit to move back to more normal areas. What followed was a tormenting, delightful mix of massage and foreplay, as Harry learnt his chest, ribs, and tender belly by feel and taste.

He'd had tongues in his navel before, but what Harry was doing there felt as intense as anal penetration. The increased sensitivity had to do with the power exchange, and how close Harry was to one of his most potent chakra points, Severus knew. The influx of Potter's magical energy was wrecking havoc with his own, creating crests of power that were as much of an assault to his nervous system as Cruciatus, only, in this case, the experience was intense ecstasy instead of torture. Severus understood the cause of his extreme reaction, but no amount of empirical, scientific reasoning could remove the almost mystical sense of wonder he experienced as those sensations crashed through him. Gone was that floaty lassitude; gone was that dazed dream state.

The intensity, the sheer, visceral thrill of Harry's touches was transforming his view of himself. How long had he believed himself old and used up? Since forty? Thirty? Or perhaps even before that? For so many years, he'd believed he'd missed out on the possibility of sexual fulfilment forever, his body had been all but dead to him.

With every touch, Harry was teaching him the error of his ways. Severus had never felt so connected to his flesh. As Harry's tongue and fingers transformed his torso into boneless protoplasm, he was intensely aware of every neuron firing up with mind-blowing delight. He could almost feel every separate cell throb in reaction.

He sobbed in each breath. His body was soaked with sweat, or perhaps it was Harry's saliva, for Potter seemed to be drinking the perspiration down as fast as it dewed on him. He was vaguely aware of the fact that Harry was still fully dressed, knew that there was something not right about that, but couldn't figure out what the problem was.

Finally, Harry's journey brought him down to the area Severus had been the most conscious of, but once again his hopes were thwarted. When Harry's tongue and fingers reached the top of his pubic mound, Harry lifted his head, gave him a gamin grin that made him want to shriek in frustration and then . . . and then Harry scooted down to the bottom of the bed.

What the devil? Was Potter going to start on his feet again?

Panting for breath, every inch of him soaked with sweat, Severus stared wild-eyed up at his lover.

There was a time when he would have known what this interruption signified. Lying there in this boneless need, Severus was struck by the memory of the handsome, blond Death Eater Warren Folta grinning sadistically down at him in a similar moment of interrupted passion. 'Let this be a lesson to you, you mudblood pervert.' That was all Folta had said before walking out the door.

It was hard not to harken back to all the horrors of his past as Harry pulled back from him. But . . . Harry wouldn't do that. Harry would never abandon him like this at the apex of agony. Others he'd known in his past were cruel enough to do it to him, but not his Harry.

Their gazes touched. Harry's face seemed tense at first, but then he gave him a gentle smile, and Severus knew that, whatever was going on, it wasn't about abandonment.

Harry whispered something and all his clothes seemed to melt from him, leaving him sitting naked and erect beside Severus' knobbly knees. Severus' eyes followed the trail of liquid garments as they slithered over the bedclothes and down to the floor, where they coalesced into a neat pile of normal clothing again.

Even in this state of mindless stupor, Severus was struck by what he'd just seen. If he'd had any sense, he'd be terrified of this man, and not simply for the emotional wounds Harry could inflict upon him. Wizardry like this could rule the world, if Harry were so inclined. There weren't spells for what Potter had just done. You could remove clothes magically, but they didn't just melt from your flesh. Buttons and zippers had to be dealt with in their normal, if magically enhanced, fashion, and limbs likewise manipulated to remove the clothes. Harry had bypassed all of that, using a complex transmutation spell that he had invented on the spot for his convenience.

Lord Voldemort at the peak of his power hadn't been able to manage something like that. After several hundred years of life, Albus Dumbledore hadn't, either. Yet, this precocious young man, who hadn't even reached his thirtieth year, did it without thought. Somehow, that made Harry's power even more frightening. Severus didn't want to consider what Potter could do when he set his mind to being inventive, if this type of thing happened without thought. If it were anybody else, Severus would have been petrified with fear, but he knew Harry. The entire world might have been Potter's for the taking, but Harry wasn't interested in ruling the world. At the moment, there was only one thing the greatest wizard ever born was interested in.

His handsome face transfigured into a mask of raw need, Harry reached for him.

Severus shivered as Harry took hold of his knees to spread them wide apart, prepared for nearly anything – except for what Harry actually did.

Potter bent down, and for a second or two of relief so intense it felt like orgasm, Severus thought that his lover had finally taken mercy on him and was about to deep throat him. Beyond pride, he whimpered as Harry's tongue tip made contact with the hairy, inner thigh of his right leg. Harry licked a wet swab down to his knee, and then . . . he blew over all that wet skin and hair.

Severus' cry nearly deafened his own ears. He bucked up on the bed like a galvanized toad as the pleasure exploded through him. Harry repeated the caress on his other thigh, with similar results. Then Harry brought his pine-scented fingers into play and worked at Severus' utter destruction.

There was no other word for it. He had no control left, not even a vestigial remnant of pride or dignity. If Potter asked him to beg for it, he would, but Harry wasn't asking. Harry seemed to have an agenda all his own as he sucked, caressed, and kneaded his inner thighs until he was literally sobbing with need.

Every drop of blood he had was in his throbbing prick at this point. His penis had always been large when aroused, but tonight it seemed almost monstrous as it pulsed and trembled, waiting for the release that he was beginning to fear would never come.

Finally, Harry appeared to have done all he could with his thighs for he lifted his head up.

Time seemed to stop for Severus as Harry opened his mouth and matter-of-factly sucked in his long neglected shaft. At the same time, those slick, oil saturated fingers took possession of his balls, and then Potter's power sizzled through him from each point of contact.

Severus couldn't help himself. Screaming as he had only in his life as a small child under his grandfather's belt, he bucked up off the bed and thrust as deep into that hot, wet mouth as he could. Horrified by his lack of regard, Severus tried to hold back, but there was no moderating his response at his point. He thrust into Harry's mouth wild as a rutting bull, and Harry took him. More than that, Potter's hands slid around to his backside to hold him up and encourage his pumping.

It didn't take long. How could it? Between the wait and the thaumaturgical power exchange, Severus was helpless. His body and mind liquefied in one searing flash of ecstasy that took all he was and gave it to Harry, who swallowed him down as though his semen were nectar of the gods.

He seemed to come forever. At last it stopped, and he lay there panting with his deflated cock still in Harry's juicy mouth and Harry's wizard's energy still thrumming through him like a drum beat. Harry released him at last, but Harry stayed where he was, with his head pillowed on his bony hip and sweaty pubic mound, every breath he breathed causing a shiver as it played across his limp penis.

After a few more minutes, Harry rubbed his cheek against Severus' radically minimized shaft. Looking down at him, Severus knew he had never seen anything more beautiful than this dishevelled man with his passion swollen mouth, flushed cheeks, and myopic gaze, not even a full blooded Veela male.

As if sensing his gaze, Harry cut off the feline rubbing and raised his head to meet his eyes. "Mmmm, you're exquisite. Do you know that?"

His stomach clenched tight in reaction. Harry thought he was exquisite – not bony, not ugly, not perverted. He didn't know how to respond to such a statement, and Harry was clearly awaiting some type of reaction from him. All he could manage was a negative shake of his head.

"Are you doing all right?" Harry asked.

There was no way he could answer that. After forty-eight years, he'd finally discovered what it meant to be alive. It was nearly too much for him to handle. Lost, all he could do was nod.

Harry's dark green gaze took a leisurely sweep of his body. "Okay, I've learnt the front. On to the next tasty treat."

"There's more?" Severus wondered aloud, astonished. How could there possibly be anything more than what Harry had made him feel?

"There's a whole other side, isn't there? Will you turn over so I can learn your back now?"

After that tremendous orgasm, there shouldn't have been anything like tension left inside him, but Harry's request twisted his guts like a fist squeezing them. Turning over meant revealing his back, and even though Harry hadn't been put off by his scars before, showcasing them still wasn't something he was comfortable with. He couldn't. It was too much.

Just like everything with Harry was too much – too much pleasure, too much feeling.

"What is it?" Harry's pine scented palm reached up to cup his cheek.

"My back. The scars. I don't . . . I mean . . . ." Clearly, he didn't know what he meant. Frustrated with his inability to articulate his misgivings, Severus closed his eyes tight, so he wouldn't see how huge a coward Harry thought him.

He felt Harry shift around a bit. A moment later, strong arms pulled him close and Harry pressed a gentle kiss to his brow.

"They're just skin and memories, remember?" Harry whispered, repeating the sentiment he'd voiced earlier. "Just like mine. You've touched and kissed mine every time we've been together. Why won't you let me do the same for you?"

Severus opened his eyes again and tried to glare. "It's not the same."

"How's it different?" Harry questioned, his index finger spreading a slick trail of oil down the bridge of his nose as Harry traced it.

"You've only got the one and it isn't . . . ugly."

"Neither are yours – to me," Harry qualified. "I know all this is new and scary to us both, but . . . we're the ones who choose what it is. Severus, I don't want to feel that half my lover's body is off limits because of what those monsters did to you. Please, don't let their cruelty taint what's between us?"

Severus' gaze shifted nervously away. He looked over at the fire dancing merrily in his hearth. Then looked to the armoire, the bureau with his brush and comb neatly on its polished top, the landscape paintings on his wall, the books piled on his nightstand beside his pewter candleholder . . . the familiarity of his surroundings was in some way reassuring. Nothing bad had ever happened to him in this room.

To the contrary, Harry had happened to him here. And now Harry was asking him to trust him enough to allow him free access to the part of him that had repulsed every other man he'd ever been with.

Taking a deep breath, Severus stared his fear down. Without further ado, he pulled back from Harry and rolled over, this seemingly simple concession taking every ounce of courage he possessed.

He wrapped his arms around the pillow and rested his cheek and chest against its cool silver silk surface. Though he'd just had the most fantastic orgasm of his life, he felt tense as a strung bow as he waited. This position in itself stirred up so many bad memories, reminding him as it did of all the times in his childhood he'd lain naked on his belly like this waiting for the strap or the whip to fall.

Caught up in the nightmares he'd lived, Severus was only barely aware of Harry shifting on the bed behind him and fiddling with something.

He jerked when he was touched. Warm, slick hands settled on his shoulders.

"Ssssh," Harry soothed, and then his fingers began to move. The pattern of kneading was becoming familiar to him, but, trapped as he'd been in his memories, Harry's gentle touch was still a shock. Flesh that recalled all too well the bite of stinging leather and rush of blood was unprepared for this tender manipulation. Severus knew that his lover had spent over an hour massaging him before, but this really felt like the first time he'd ever been touched with kindness this way.

A sob caught in his throat at the shock of it, and he buried his face in the pillow. Harry . . . .

Harry's fingers courted his flesh, seducing the tension and memory of pain out of muscles and skin that had known little of gentleness in their time. His neck was totally dismantled, his shoulders turned to gel, and then Harry set to work on the field of scars that was his back.

He felt Harry's oily fingertips learning the length and depth of each mark. They kneaded and stroked him as if every one of those disgusting disfigurations were dear to Harry, and then . . . then Potter brought his mouth into play. Severus hoped that that oil was safe for consumption, for Harry seemed to be nuzzling and licking off every drop his fingers had deposited.

After a long time, Harry lifted his head again and his fingers returned. Making his way slowly down his spine, Harry's manipulating hands called forth every lingering trace of tension as they worked from vertebrae to vertebrae. Severus almost felt as though Harry were performing some kind of healing spell on him as the memory of pain was gently kneaded from his scarred flesh, to be replaced by something he'd had little truck with – the knowledge of pleasure.

With a shock, he recognized that he mightn't be imagining things. There was so much power seeping from Harry's fingers into his body that Potter might be working some more unintentional magic. While Severus was normally quite vehement in his refusal to allow another wizard any type of magical access to him, he could refuse Harry no more than he could his next breath. Whatever Harry was doing to him, it was something he'd needed for his entire life. He gloried in those caresses, his lonely soul embracing them as eagerly as his touch-starved body.

Finally, Harry reached the base of his spine. Remembering Harry's sensual modis operendi from the front side, Severus was ready this time when Harry moved down to his feet to work his way up the back of his skinny right calf. Harry's talented fingers homed in on the knot in the centre of his calf that often contracted without warning while he slept, leaving him in agony in the dead of night. Harry worked that damaged muscle for a very long while before moving upwards.

His thigh was treated to similar attention before Harry started on his left leg. The sheer, unadulterated love in every one of Harry's caresses was unmistakable. Although the passion they shared was unprecedented in Severus' life, it was the near reverence in Harry's attitude that moved him most. He'd never been cherished like this before.

All too soon, Harry was finished with his left thigh.

Severus held his breath. There was only one part of him that Harry hadn't 'learned' yet.

He didn't have much of a bottom. His arse was as skinny and bony as the rest of him. Perhaps Harry wouldn't want to . . . .

His foolish concern broke off as those wonderful hands settled on his bum. Harry spread the oil across his skin, as he'd done everywhere else, then his fingers pressed into the tight muscles of his lean butt and did their best to turn him to melting butter there as well. Always oversensitive in this particular area, Severus gasped as Harry's kneading fingers reminded him of needs he never allowed himself to consciously acknowledge. When those hands cupped his cheeks and squeezed, his body sparked with delight bright as a magnesium flare and he couldn't contain his pleading moan.

Harry's hands froze as that needy sound filled the room.

"Good or bad?" Harry asked, his voice thick with emotion.

"G-g-goood," he rasped out.

There was another pause, in which Severus could almost feel Harry's uncertainty. Then the fingers of Harry's right hand tentatively slipped into the cleft of his arse and Harry whispered, "Do you like this?"

Like it? The touch all but melted his brain. He cried out like an animal as quicksilver delight danced through his loins, his hips humping mindlessly against his Slytherin green silk duvet.

In an utterly embarrassing display, he spread his legs wide and whimpered like the wanton whore this need always made of him. Once he got to this point, there was no dignity left, no refinement. Like some rutting beast, all he wanted was to be mounted and penetrated. Though his feelings would change as soon as the blood heat passed, when he was on fire like this, it didn't matter that this act would cost him the respect of his partner, that Death Eaters would snicker at him even as they buggered him, that they'd all but spit on him when through with him. None of that inevitable humiliation ever mattered, as long as a cock slid into him and gave him what he needed.

He supposed he should have warned Harry of the consequences of touching him there, but what would he have said: that he had no pride when his anus was stimulated, that he'd do anything to satisfy this disgusting need, anything at all?

While he was fighting for the coherency to broach the topic with Harry in something other than four-letter invective, Harry removed the necessity of doing so by the simple expedient of pulling his hand back.

Well, he'd known that would happen. The . . . depravity of this particular act was pounded into their heads from birth. This wasn't something that a 'real man' submitted to willingly, even men who liked the company of other men. A wizard never allowed himself to be taken, though most with such inclinations would take if it were on offer – sometimes, even if it weren't. But to allow oneself to be mounted, to be used, was considered unmanly. If it weren't so painful, the hypocrisy of that double standard would have been laughable.

But Severus wasn't laughing. He'd finally found someone who could care about him, and he had to ruin it by revealing this . . . this perversion. Everything in Harry's manner had suggested that he was looking for a partner, an equal, not a . . . not whatever this need made him into.

No doubt he'd shocked Harry, perhaps even put him off entirely. Severus squeezed his eyes shut. He wished he were dead. There was no way he could salvage this situation. He'd fought – and lost – this particular battle his entire life. This was why he didn't engage in sexual relations anymore. He couldn't change what he was, what he needed.

He tensed up as he felt Harry shift away – of course. He was lying there with his face buried in his pillow, hating and berating himself, when Harry's freshly oiled fingers pressed back between his cheeks. This time there was nothing tentative as they felt around for his anus.

An embarrassing whimper was torn out of him as that long middle finger carefully brushed his puckered entrance. The sparks that lambent touch ignited through him were all out of proportion to the slight contact. Harry lightly stroked the pad of his middle finger over that long-denied pleasure centre, the gentle contact reminding Severus as to why he enjoyed this so much.

It had been so long, so terribly long . . . .

Severus tried not to betray himself, tried to hold the sounds in his throat, but it was impossible. The desperate cries escaped him as the reanimated corpse that was his body begged inarticulately for what it needed.

Harry indulged him there for an amazingly long time before his fingers pulled back.

Severus unconsciously tensed as both of his cheeks were gripped in a strong hold and forced apart, baring his anus to the light.

He now believed that Harry would never intentionally harm him, but he couldn't help but wonder if touching that forbidden spot had aroused Harry past reason. Would Potter enter him, without even breaching him first with so much as a single finger to stretch and lubricate him? Was Harry that far gone with passion? And, more to the point, what was he to do about it?

As far as Severus could see with his admittedly diminished common sense, he had three options. He could refuse Harry and end this madness, and possibly their relationship. He could allow Harry to penetrate him dry and suffer the inevitable damage. It had been more than twenty years since he'd been intimate with another man. He was like a virgin again back there and a dry penetration would be agony. Or he could try to invent a spell on the spot to lube himself before Harry took possession.

That last seeming the most sensible course, Severus frantically searched his mind for the Latin to voice his command. In his state of heightened arousal, it was a near impossible task. He'd thought he'd remembered the proper declension for the verb when Harry shifted around behind him and panic thrust all thought from his mind.

He'd waited too long. Harry was . . . .

"Ahhh," Severus' shocked gasp filled the room as warm breath wafted over his vulnerable anus, followed immediately by the slick brush of a tongue tip. As the tongue moved knowingly on that tender hot spot, Severus threw back his head and screamed. Gods, no one had ever . . . . There was absolutely no point of reference in Severus' universe to prepare him for the delightful barrage that followed. All there was was reaction.

Severus wasn't even conscious of the noises he was making. He had a vague awareness of Harry's hands holding his bucking hips still so that he could work his tongue around and into that tight little aperture, but there was nothing like higher thought left. His entire being was focused on his anus, and the unprecedented caresses Harry was bestowing on him.

Totally destroyed, he lay there a quivering mass, utterly at Harry's mercy. After an eternity of that beloved torture, the warm breath and slick tormentor left him again.

Glad of the reprieve, Severus rasped in a breath, which was expelled in a sharp cry as Harry's oil laden finger pierced his saliva-slicked entrance. The tongue play had left him incredibly relaxed, but after nearly a quarter of a century of neglect, there was no way anything solid could easily enter him there.

Severus' body clenched up with an almost virginal, instinctive fear of violation. But once again, Harry astounded him. He petted, brushed, and played with that tensed ring of muscle until it had no choice but to grant him entry, only then did Harry push past that initial resistance in a manner that clearly demonstrated that he knew what he was about.

Slowly, as though Harry were feeling his body's reluctance to accommodate him, Potter insinuated his middle finger up that tender tract. At a certain point, Harry's finger gave a sharp twist and . . . Severus nearly passed out under the burst of sensation that contact shot through him. It was just his prostate, Severus told himself, but it was just his prostate the way Cruciatus was just a spell. Beyond how long it had been since anyone had touched him there, no one had ever inundated that sensitive, hidden gland with magical energy the way Harry's finger was doing. Harry wasn't just stimulating his prostate in the usual manner. His fingertip was depositing bursts of magical energy that supercharged the poor gland.

There was no possibility of control at this point. Severus knew he was screaming like he was being murdered, but there was nothing he could do about it. Their magical conduit was intensifying every sensation to unbearable proportions.

Harry's finger pulled back, returning momentarily with a partner. The stretch was easier this time. Harry flexed his fingers around inside him, stretching the tight channel, opening him to what would follow, blasting so much raw power into his body that it was all Severus could do to hang onto consciousness.

He was probed and played with until his rectum was loose as a Knockturn Alley hustler's.

Finally, the fingers left him.

His hips were tugged up and back, Severus following along until he found himself on all fours. He heard Harry's shifting around behind him again. Then there was a stifled groan, and then Harry's hands took hold of his bum again and parted his cheeks.

A moment of frozen anticipation followed, during which Severus had the clear understanding that nothing was ever going to be the same for him again. The snub head of Harry's cock slipped between his cheeks, causing a helpless shudder to pass through him at the irreversibility of this action, and then . . . and then Harry's thick penis pierced him.

Harry was well-greased, and his sphincter was slick and pliable as butter. That initial penetration felt more like a homecoming than the violation it had always been in the past for those first few moments. There was no burn, no freeze up. Harry just slid home, and Severus' body and soul welcomed the man as though he'd been waiting his entire life for Harry Potter's cock to take up residence inside him – and perhaps he had.

They both grunted at the shock of it, at the unnatural flare of power that swept through them both, and then Harry began to move. In and out, harder and harder with every thrust. Harry's hand fumbled around in front of him to collect Severus' once-again erect penis and milk it as they rocked together. Severus thrust back with all his might to meet Harry's every thrust, wanting to take his lover as far inside himself as possible.

The angle was just right. Every time Harry entered him, he nailed his prostate, and that bizarre energy conduit shot a whole new blast of power through him.

This time two sets of incoherent, pleading cries filled the room. Severus knew he was a gibbering wreck of his former self, and he didn't care. All he cared about was the fact that Harry was filling all those empty, used up places, and, if there was as much pain as pleasure in it, so be it. On his hands and knees before James Potter's son, Severus was introduced to a whole new level of being. With his masterful cock and his tremendous energy output, Harry Potter was branding every part of his being as his personal property, opening him up and exposing everything he was to the blinding light that was Harry Potter.

Severus didn't know if he could bear to be known this intimately, but it wasn't as if he was being given a choice. By granting Harry access to his body, it seemed he'd opened his soul to the other man as well, and there could be no pulling back now, no erecting of barriers. Harry would take what he would, and he took it all. Every last dark and lonely corner in Severus' heart and mind was penetrated by the piercing brightness of Harry's thaumaturgical energy. He was blasted with the sheerest, most sensual delights until there was nothing left of his former self.

Harry screamed his name as he exploded inside him. Severus knew it wasn't physically possible, but he swore he felt those hot spurts of semen hit his anal wall. The fire in his own body coalesced into melting magma, and he came himself, spraying Harry's hand and the silk bedspread with his sticky gift.

With a grunt, he fell face down on the bed. Harry landed on top of him. He could still feel Harry inside him, remarkably deflated, but still there, physically and psychically.

"My God," Harry whispered a long time later.

Severus gasped at the unpleasant sensation of Harry's withdrawal.

Tender lips nuzzled his neck as Potter took most of his weight off him and lay half covering him, half on the bed. Severus quivered as the fingertips that had been so deep inside him brushed over his scarred back. He felt utterly exposed, utterly destroyed . . . utterly owned.

He didn't know what to say, how to act. All he knew was that he would never be able to return to his former state of self-sufficiency. If this had been too much for Harry, if it had been more than he'd bargained on and needed to retreat to their former distance, Severus knew he wouldn't survive.

"Severus?" Harry sounded nearly afraid.

Severus squeezed his eyes shut, and searched himself for the strength to bluff. It simply wasn't there. He felt blasted open. There was nothing left inside him. There were no places left to hide where Harry couldn't see right through him.

He lay still as Harry brushed the hair out of his face. Cool air touched his warm, wet cheeks.

Wet? Recognizing what that hot liquid must be, he felt even more exposed.

He could feel Harry staring at him and opened his eyes.

There was no victory, no arrogance in Harry's expression, only concern, and a light in his brilliant gaze that Severus had never seen before. Those green eyes were so bright; they were nearly incandescent.

When Harry leaned down to silently kiss the embarrassing wetness from his cheeks, the awful tension gripping him seemed to reach critical mass and shatter. There was nothing he could do to conceal the fact that he was trembling again, but there was no need to.

As soon as Harry felt it, he snaked his left arm under him, his right on top, and then gathered him close.

Almost timidly, he pillowed his head on Harry's chest. The light dusting of chest hair beneath his cheek felt wonderful. Harry's hand momentarily left his back, and a second later, Severus felt a warm duvet settle over them. It wasn't his. The green silk one was still beneath them. A glance at the royal blue fabric spilling over his shoulder identified the duvet as Potter's. Then Harry's hand returned to his back and started to rub in reassuring circles.

Severus choked in a shuddery breath. That sense of being cherished hadn't vanished. It was different now than when Harry was worshipping his flesh, but in no way weaker.

He knew there were things they should talk about, words that probably needed saying at such a time, but Severus simply wasn't up to dissecting what had transpired between them. Harry hadn't betrayed him, hadn't mocked him, hadn't abandoned him. Right now, that was all that mattered to him.

He lay there listening to the intimate beat of Harry's heart, his head rising and falling ever so slightly with the regular pattern of Harry's relaxed breathing. Harry's scent was all around him. There wasn't an inch of their flesh that wasn't in contact. Warm, safe, and loved for the first time in memory, Severus gave into the demands of his emotionally and physically exhausted body and allowed his mind to drift away. There'd be time enough tomorrow for words. The one thing he knew with absolute certainty was that Harry would be there.

******************

"Clearly, I am missing something, Mr. Fletcher. Explain to me once again why it is preferable to remain in the form of an animated snake skin boot rather than remove the curse from Stanton?" Severus asked with dwindling patience. He tried not to stare agape at the pitiful creature before him, but it was near impossible to resist. The boy, if the legless, armless, scaled creature in its Slytherin robes lying in the infirmary bed could be called a boy, was a bizarre mix of a human and reptile. Stanton hadn't managed a completely successful transfiguration. Fletcher was still shaped like a human, but he'd lost his limbs and hair. He was now sporting silver and green scales, a forked tongue, and unnerving amber, almond shaped eyes.

"I'mmm nott a sssssnake ssskin vhoot," the boy hissed.

"No, that, at least would have some use," Severus snapped. Catching sight of the time on the clock in the corner of the hospital room, he turned to Madame Pomfrey and asked, "May I borrow your floo for a moment?" At her nod, he requested, "Perhaps you can talk some sense into this fool while I'm gone," and stalked from the infirmary into Pomfrey's office.

Five minutes to eight. He'd told Harry he'd meet him in Potter's room a half hour ago. His guts clenched at the very thought of Harry. It felt like centuries since he'd seen him, though, in reality, it had only been since breakfast.

He took a handful of floo powder from the jar atop Poppy's mantel and tossed it into the flames, clearly enunciated, "Harry Potter's room," and leaned down into the fire. By the time he'd fully immersed his torso in the floo, Harry's sitting room could be seen on the other side of the flames. He only hoped that Harry was still there. They normally left for the Monday night gathering at the Weasleys' at a quarter to eight. "Harry?"

"Coming," Potter's voice called from the bedroom. A second later, his blue robed lover rushed into sight, skidding to a halt on the area rug before the hearth like an excited six year old. "Severus!"

"Hello." All coherent thought froze in his brain as he stared up into the long, handsome face of the man who'd put his tongue and penis inside him last night. His body had been reminding him all day of what they'd gotten up to last night and again this morning before heading down to breakfast. To his horror, he felt his cheeks warm. He was nearly fifty years of age, but Harry made him feel like a schoolboy.

"Hello, yourself!" Harry grinned at him, looking fully as sappy as Severus felt.

It was an odd feeling to know he was wanted as much as he wanted. This was all so new to him. He didn't even know what he intended to say. All he knew was that he'd had to make contact.

"I miss you," Harry said.

"I – " Recalling his circumstances, he looked quickly behind him, but there was nothing but Pomfrey's desk and bookshelves filled with medical tomes behind him.

"Where are you?" Harry asked, seeming to take in his reaction.

"In Madame Pomfrey's office," he answered, beginning to feel foolish. What had he bothered Harry for? What could he possibly say through a floo?

"So you're not really free to talk," Harry startled him by saying.

"Not really. I just . . . ."

"Yeah, me, too," Harry softly said. "How long do you think you'll be?"

"Forever, from the sound of it," Severus said with a sigh.

"You're dealing with the other end of the Stanton issue?" Harry asked.

"Yes. Fletcher is being quite recalcitrant. Although I can understand where he'd be tempted to leave Stanton with that donkey's head and tail indefinitely, I can't see where he'd want to remain as that scaled lump in the infirmary himself."

Harry chuckled. "Stanton's being just as impossible. Ron was in with him for three hours, but Stanton's still braying like an ass and refusing to lift the curse he put on Fletcher. Hermione's up there now trying to talk sense into him. Were we this bad in third year?" Harry asked with a soft smile.

Severus felt his lips twitch up at the ends. "You were worse, far worse."

"I don't believe you." Harry's chuckle filled the room.

"Oh? At least Stanton and Fletcher haven't gotten themselves mixed up with wanted felons and Dementors," Severus pointed out.

It was a testament to how far they'd come in these last few months of their adult friendship that there was no sting to the reference. That humiliating incident had been one of the worst days of his life, but now . . . it all seemed like ancient history, like events that had happened to someone else.

Apparently, Harry felt the same, for his smile was quick and easy as he replied, "No, one of them is just stuck in hospital unable to move out of the bed, and the other one is hiding under his bed in the dorm refusing to show his face. At least we never transfigured each other."

"Might I remind you of Draco Malfoy's unfortunate train ride in fifth year? As I recall, he spent several days in slug form," Severus reminded.

"Oh, I forgot about that," Harry laughed.

"I thought you might have. At any rate, I just wanted to let you know that I don't know when I'll be able to join you at the Weasleys'," Severus said.

"Well, Hermione's stuck with Stanton, so you won't be the only one late. You can come straight over once you've sorted this mess out. I dropped by your rooms to pick up the papers you put aside for grading."

"You did?" he asked, hoping he didn't sound nearly as stupid to Harry as he did to himself. He'd never had anyone this thoughtful in his life. He was accustomed to self-sufficiency and didn't mind it much, but it was nice to know that there was someone he could rely on for unrequested support when he wasn't able to deal with all the small details of his life.

"Yes, so try to hurry. I'll save you some nut bread," Harry promised.

"Thank you. I suppose I should return to the slug, I mean, Fletcher now," Severus said, reluctant to break the connection.

"Severus?" Harry called as he made to pull back into Madame Pomfrey's hearth.

"Yes?"

"Fletcher is sweet on Joan Holland. You might use that to your advantage," Harry suggested.

"How?" As ever, he was amazed by the things his lover knew about their students. Fletcher was in his own House and he hadn't been aware of the infatuation.

"Well, if logic won't work, maybe pride will. I'm sure Fletcher wouldn't want her seeing him in his slug form, especially since he was having such trouble keeping his trousers on once his limbs disappeared." Harry's earthy chuckle rolled over him like a wave of heat from the fire.

"This isn't funny," Severus reprimanded, although it was all he could do not to laugh himself.

"Not at the moment, it's not, but it will be. Take my word for it."

"If you say so," Severus allowed.

"I do. "

"Well, I really must go now," Severus reluctantly said.

"Good luck and . . . ."

"Yes?" Severus prompted.

Harry shrugged, something like self-consciousness fleeting across his features. "Nothing that wouldn't embarrass you. See you soon, I hope."

Warmed by the sentiment, in spite of his reserve, Severus allowed a small smile to touch his lips. "Thank you."

"For?" Harry appeared puzzled.

What was he going to do – thank the man for being his lover? It was what he really wanted to say, but he knew he'd never get the words out. Still he had to say something.

Severus resisted the impulse to glance over his shoulder again. He knew he was alone. Harry was alone. He was simply being paranoid, but old habits were difficult to break. Forcing himself, he quietly said, "For last night. It was . . . unprecedented."

That was all he was able to say, but it seemed to have been sufficient to completely shock Harry, who was gaping at him with rather the same expression he suspected he'd been wearing himself with Fletcher earlier. Tempted beyond resistance, Severus reached out through the floo to grip Harry’s cleft chin. Leaning forward, he deposited a quick kiss on the lightning scar that was peeking out from under Harry's messy bangs, and then indulged himself with a slower, deeper kiss to those luscious, moist lips. When he finally pulled back, the green eyes behind the ridiculously adorable round glasses seemed slightly dazed.

"You don't fight fair," Harry complained in a breathless voice.

"No, but then, I am Slytherin. Let me see how my tactics will fare on the unfortunate Fletcher."

"You better not use the method you just used on me," Harry warned with a laugh.

"Bite your tongue," Severus said, unable to suppress a shudder at the very idea of that kind of contact with one of their obnoxious students.

"I'd rather you bite it," Harry joked.

Unable to believe how easy and open things felt with Harry, Severus allowed his face to reveal his satisfaction as he said, "Later," and finally pulled back into Poppy's shadowed office. His instincts wouldn't allow him to resist taking a fast look around the room, but it was still deserted. Feeling absurdly refreshed, Severus returned to his slug-like student's infirmary room.

Harry's information on Fletcher's infatuation did prove invaluable. Even so, teenage tenacity being what it was, it was nearly an hour before he was able to floo Hermione in the Gryffindor dorms to inform her that Fletcher had agreed to relent first. Rarely had he seen his foster mother appear so frazzled. The smile she gave him as she thanked him before flooing over to the infirmary with Stanton to affect the cure looked as though it had taken the last of her strength.

"I'm glad that's done with," a green robed Hermione sighed once the restored boys were sent to their dorms.

"Yes, they were particularly recalcitrant," Severus agreed, taking her arm as they finally left the infirmary.

"I don't remember us being that unreasonable at that age," Hermione said, leaning on him a bit as they started up the moving main stairway for the Gryffindor tower.

"I do," Severus said, pleased by her infectious chuckle. "Strangely enough, Harry shares your selective amnesia on that subject."

"Ah, is that what ails us?" she laughed.

"Unfortunately, a great deal addles you all. However, selective, collective amnesia is my prognosis on this topic."

"And how do you explain this selective, collective amnesia?" she playfully asked as they approached her quarters.

"I suspect it to be a by-product of Gryffindor brainwashing," Severus said in a secretive tone. "When the world at large refuses to fit Gryffindor standards, Gryffindors rewrite reality."

"Oh, we do, do we?" Hermione challenged in a mock-dangerous tone.

"Without fail. Look at Harry and me, if you need proof," Severus advised. "Would anyone with any common sense at all, who'd been my student and was treated the way I treated Potter, take up with me, were he not capable of selectively erasing his memory and rewriting the past?"

"You're too hard on yourself," Hermione protested with the unflinching loyalty that was another of the Gryffindors' greatest flaws.

"And you are a victim of the same brainwashing, so you are hardly an objective judge in this," Severus quipped.

"And you are taking unfair advantage of my exhaustion," Hermione complained.

"Of course, I am Slytherin," he said with a droll arch of his brow, which sent her into gales of laughter as they finally entered the Weasleys' quarters.

"You two are having far too much fun," Blaise Zabini, who was perched on a pile of cushions in the area immediately near the door with a stack of test papers in his lap, said as they entered. The curly haired Zabini was wearing black velvet robes tonight that made him look especially attractive. The glare that the handsome Slytherin had been giving Snape since Friday night was absent at the moment. In its place was a guarded curiosity that was far easier to handle.

Severus was temporarily puzzled by Zabini's seating choice, until he caught sight of Hagrid on the sofa in Zabini's usual seat. Hagrid didn't often attend their gatherings, but when he did, it was always memorable. Apparently, the Care of Magical Creatures teacher was once again having difficulty grading the mandatory quizzes Minerva required they give. Hagrid and Neville Longbottom were sitting on the couch, bent over a pile of papers that Longbottom was apparently trying to explain to the giant. Severus, who had frequently been in the unfortunate position of trying to help Hagrid himself, didn't envy Longbottom.

"Hermione!" Ron's shout filled the chambers. He sounded like his wife had been gone for a year instead of the five hours it had taken to sort out the student debacle. Severus watched in bewilderment as Ron raced across the room to take Hermione in an embrace that lifted her clear off her feet.

He thought his former foster father's reaction was completely over the top . . . until he caught sight of Harry sitting at the dessert-laden table and found himself experiencing the same ridiculous urge.

Harry rose to his feet as Severus joined him. "Hello. I guess everything worked out, then. Stanton's not an ass anymore?"

Seeing the hungry look in Harry's eyes, Severus swallowed hard and tried to answer. "Stanton is still an ass. However, he no longer has a donkey head and tail. I suppose it's an improvement."

Harry's laughter spilled over his thirsty heart like cool spring water. "God, I'm so glad you're here. You won't believe how much I missed you." All the laughter abruptly died in Harry's expression. Potter's words broke off. For a moment, Harry stared past Severus' shoulder, with an almost hurt expression on his face.

Confused, Severus followed Harry's stare to where Ron was still kissing a giggling Hermione near the door. "What is it?"

"I know it's just the way the world is, but I always envy them that freedom," Harry whispered. "I want to kiss you so bad it hurts." His gaze dropping to the floor, Harry assured, "Don't worry. I won't embarrass you. It's just hard, you know?"

He didn't know. There had never been anyone in his life to offer that kind of temptation before Harry, but now that Harry was here . . . . His thoughts suddenly flashed back to yesterday morning, to Harry's unmistakable pain as he'd told him how his last lover had refused to be open with even Hermione and Ron about the nature of their relationship. That had hurt Harry so deeply.

Unable to credit the thought he was considering, Severus studied his lover's down bent head. He hated the near-defeat there. The knowledge that it was totally within his power to change that weighed heavily on his conscience. But to do so, he would have to . . . have to what? Hermione, Ron, Blaise Zabini, and Neville Longbottom all already knew about their relationship. For all he knew, so did Hagrid. And even if Hagrid wasn't aware of what was between him and Potter, the giant had been one of Harry's closest friends for over fifteen years now. Although Hagrid was discrete by no one's standards, Severus knew he would never do anything to intentionally hurt Potter – or him for that matter. Even when he'd been at his most unpopular and mistrusted in the past, Hagrid had never been anything but friendly and respectful towards him. Surely, that wouldn't change simply because Harry had taken him as a lover?

He spent a long moment weighing his fears against Harry's pain. In the end, he bowed to the more important power.

"Harry?" he softly called.

Harry looked up at him, everything he was feeling clear in the eyes behind his round silver glasses.

Severus took a certain perverse delight in watching those eyes snap wide open as he lowered his head towards Harry's mouth. Almost petrified inside, he frantically prayed he'd made the right decision, that this would go right and not turn into another humiliating fiasco.

Somehow, his nose managed not to bang itself into Harry. Their heads tilted exactly the right way. Severus' hands gripped Harry's shoulders as he bent far enough down for their mouths to meet, and meet they did. He could feel Potter's visceral shock as their lips first touched, but then Harry's entire body seemed to melt into his, his mouth opened, and Severus found himself drowning in the chocolate flavoured depths. Apparently, Harry had been satisfying his sweet tooth with his favourite chocolate cake before he'd arrived.

He knew this was one of the most irrational, reckless, potentially disastrous things he'd ever done, but he also knew it was the only decision possible. This was a pain he could ease, and, from the way Harry was turning to butter in his arms, his foolhardy gesture seemed to be fulfilling its intended goal. So, Severus did his best to cease worrying and kiss. What would come, would come. He'd find out the cost of his impetuosity as soon as they parted. If they parted. It felt as though they might stay melded together in the kiss forever.

Finally, his stunned-looking lover gently disengaged. Harry's hand stroked his bound hair even as Potter pulled away, as though Harry were feeling the same irresistible pull to mesh that he was.

Harry just stared at him, seeming beyond words. But his face was shining with a joy that told Severus that no matter what disaster might befall them because of his rash action, Harry wasn't angry with him. To the contrary, Potter looked as though he were glowing.

Although he was aware of the intensity and quality of the absolute silence raging behind them, Severus knew that he would never regret following through on that impulse, not if it put that light in Harry's eyes.

"Is it hot in here or is it just me?" Blaise Zabini's sardonic question shattered the quiet.

Dread turned his muscles to stone as the possible consequences of his action became real to him. He was preternaturally aware of Harry stepping closer to him and their sides brushing as they looked back into the room.

Ron had his arm around Hermione's shoulders. They were watching them, like everyone else in the room. The Weasleys both had incredibly sappy, parental grins on their faces.

Severus looked to the couch. Both Hagrid and Longbottom were blushing furiously. Longbottom gave him a strangely shy smile.

When he met Hagrid's gaze, this man who had known him since he was eleven grinned and said, "I never would've thought it, sir, but you look like you fit together. Best of luck to you both."

"Thank you, Rubius," Severus softly replied.

"Thanks, Hagrid," Harry echoed.

His gaze moved to the only other occupant of the room, the most dangerous. Severus was Slytherin himself. He knew how destructive his kind could be when they set their minds to it, and Zabini had no reason to be pleased with their relationship. Beyond being Harry's ex-lover, it was Zabini who'd found Harry after his temper tantrum Friday night had flung Potter bleeding and naked into the corridor. Zabini had no cause to love him or support him.

But Zabini didn't appear to disapprove of what he'd done. He didn't even seem angry. The handsome Slytherin's gaze was focused solely on Harry as he asked, "This is what you want, ey?"

He could almost feel the tension in his lover's body as Harry answered with a simple, "Yes."

"Then go for it, my friend. Only, do us a favour and get a room, all right? Some of us have overactive libidos and papers to grade." Zabini grinned at Potter, and then his dark gaze moved on to him. To his astonishment, Zabini gave him a mischievous wink and then returned his attention to the test papers in his lap as the rest of the room erupted into laughter at his comment.

Severus nearly sagged in relief. A part of him couldn't believe that disaster hadn't struck.

Harry's hand settled on his back. As the Weasleys started to speak to each other in undertones and Hagrid asked poor Longbottom another question about the meaning of a student's answer, Severus looked back at Harry.

"We appear to have survived that unscathed," he whispered.

Harry grinned, his gaze nearly incandescent as he replied, "Speak for yourself. I'm still reeling. I never thought . . . well, you surprised me. Really surprised me."

Despite the tightness in his stomach, surprising him seemed to be a good thing, were Harry's grin anything to go by. "I'm not a coward, Harry. I'm merely . . . reticent when uncertain."

"And you're not uncertain now?" Harry whispered, his hope clear.

He didn't know how to answer. His gaze dropped to Harry's royal blue robes, which were the same colour as Harry's duvet. He was beginning to suspect that shade of blue was his lover's favourite colour.

"Severus?" Harry gently prompted.

Collecting himself, he met that waiting gaze. "I know what you want to hear, but . . . I don't know if I'll ever be certain."

"Yet you acted." Somehow, it was a question.

"You were hurting," he whispered back.

"And that was more important to you than self-protection." He could see how touched Harry was.

"So it seems," he replied, trembling deep inside as he gave this man a power over him he'd given no other.

But Harry didn't exalt in his victory, although Severus could tell by the emotion in his eyes that Harry fully understood what he was feeling. Potter just reached out and gave his arm a squeeze.

"Here, have some tea and nut bread," Harry said, guiding him to the seat next to the one Harry had vacated at the table.

While he buttered his bread, Harry prepared his tea. Hermione and Ron joined them at the table a few moments later.

As they took seats beside them, Severus held his breath, waiting for some type of comment on what he'd done. But aside from squeezing his shoulder as she passed, neither Hermione nor Ron behaved as if he'd done anything out of the ordinary. As the pair sat down and started sorting out cups, sweets, and tea, Severus began to realize that nothing untoward had occurred in their eyes.

"I had some interesting news from Minerva today," Hermione mentioned between munches on her cinnamon roll.

"Whas' that?" Ron asked around a disgustingly visible mouthful of custard pie.

"Miller's turned in his resignation. He won't be returning next September. Minerva's going to announce it at the staff meeting tomorrow afternoon," Hermione said.

"No way!" Ron grinned.

"Way," Hermione insisted. "Minerva asked me to let you all know so that you can suggest candidates for the Charms position."

Ron and Hermione both stared expectantly at Harry, who dropped his gaze to the table. Although no one looked his way, Severus knew all three of his companions were very conscious of him at the moment.

He didn't have to practice his Legilimens skills to know what they were thinking. Every time an opening had come up at Hogwarts in the last three years, Harry had doggedly recommended Remus Lupin for the position. And just as doggedly, Severus himself had argued against it. It was the only argument he consistently won, mostly because Minerva was unwilling to risk another scandalous revelation.

In retrospect, those were really the only occasions that Potter and he had been angry at each other recently. At most staff meetings prior to their being turned into children, Ron and he argued, while Potter maintained an almost amused air with them both. The subject of Remus Lupin's employment was the only subject that left Harry and him shouting furiously at each other these days.

Severus tensed, waiting for someone to mention Lupin, but as the silence stretched, it became obvious that no one was going to broach the topic. Hating this type of hypocrisy, he addressed the subject himself.

"I expect you will be recommending the werewolf again." He tried not to sneer the question, but even he could hear the vitriol dripping in his voice. The moment the words were out, it was like a door slammed shut between him and Harry.

Harry flinched as though he'd struck him, and then those eyes that had been so happy mere minutes ago speared him as Harry quietly asked, "What would be the point?" Harry looked as though he wanted to say more, but he snapped his mouth shut and gave a tight, "Excuse me a moment," before rising to his feet and hurrying to the loo.

The silence after Harry left was deafening.

Hermione's sigh spoke volumes.

Severus shot a glare her way, ready to snap her head off, but the open disappointment in her eyes all but toppled him. Ron was white-lipped beside her with the effort it was taking to hold back whatever he was feeling. He wasn't expecting their disapproval to hit him as hard as it did, but looking at them made him feel almost nauseous. Gathering his nerve about him, he hissed, "Just say it."

"Like Harry said – what's the point?" Ron answered, his fury palpable. "Excuse me."

Without another word, Ron got up and went over to sit on the floor near Blaise. As Ron settled against the wall near him, Zabini looked over and said something that made Ron smile. As the two fell into conversation, Severus turned to his remaining companion and demanded, "Aren't you going to leave too?"

"No," Hermione shot back just as snarkily. "Stop pushing, Severus. You're hurting us for no reason. We all know how you feel on this issue."

"And, of course, I am in the wrong, even though the events that generated my opinion happened years before any of you were born." Sarcasm was always his last refuge, but tonight even that old faithful seemed to fail him under Hermione's hurt expression.

"No one said you were in the wrong," Hermione replied, sounding weary. "I know Harry's dad and his friends were cruel to you."

He wondered how much she actually did know. If Potter had ever revealed what he'd learned in the pensive during his Occlumancy lessons in fifth year, no one had let on. Severus remembered how he'd been braced for taunting after Potter's betrayal of his trust, but there had been no ramifications beyond the anger Harry's act had raised between them.

"If I'm not in the wrong, then what is the issue?" he asked, genuinely at a loss.

"Cruelty is never right, Severus," she answered.

"How does my reluctance to work with a werewolf that once tried to kill me translate to cruelty?"

"You know better than anyone that your Wolfbane Potion has removed the danger of working with a werewolf," Hermione said.

"I am not speaking of danger. Lupin tried to rip me to pieces. You don't forget a thing like that," Severus argued.

"Like I said, cruelty is never right," she repeated, her eyes seeming to dig straight into his soul.

"How is it cruel?"

"Remus hasn't been able to obtain a job of any kind since you disclosed his nature," Hermione said.

"That's regrettable, but hardly unexpected. Who in their right mind would want to work with a werewolf?" he questioned. "I am not responsible for his nature."

"But you are responsible for the Wizarding World knowing about it."

"So what if I am? I told no lies. Everything I said was the truth," Severus argued.

"Perhaps what you said was true, but you didn't reveal Remus' secret for the good of the Wizarding World. You did it out of anger."

"What difference does it make why I did it? What I said was still true," he insisted.

"Perhaps," Hermione allowed. "But you did it to hurt Remus. He has spent the last thirteen years suffering because of your anger."

"That's not my concern," Severus said, unable to understand why she was being so difficult about this. "Neither Harry, Ron, nor you have lost any sleep over the fate of the Malfoys. How is this different? Lucius died because of your testimony."

"Remus was just trying to survive. He wasn't a killer like the Malfoys," she said. "He wasn't hurting anyone."

"That still doesn't make anything I said or did wrong. He is what he is. It's no concern of mine what hand fate has dealt him."

"I see," Hermione said with that icy tone that anyone associated with her learned to fear. "And what if everyone felt that way?"

"What if they did?" Severus snapped, losing patience with the whole stupid argument. You could never argue logic with Gryffindors.

"Where do you think you'd be if everyone believed as you do?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, although he knew.

"You know Hogwarts' Board of Governors was petitioned to remove you because of your former association with the Death Eaters. Neither Harry nor Arthur Weasley were particularly fond of you at that point in time, but they both moved heaven and earth to keep you at Hogwarts, even though absolutely everything the petitioners claimed was true about you. Had Harry and Arthur believed as you do, you would be in Remus Lupin's shoes at this very moment," Hermione said.

Even though nothing she said was news to him, his blood turned to ice at the matter of fact tone of her pronouncement.

"Are you calling the marker due for that debt?" he hoarsely whispered, unable to believe how terribly the night had degenerated in the last fifteen minutes.

To his astonishment, the anger left her eyes. She reached over and took hold of his rock hard forearm and said, "Severus, there is no debt. Harry and Arthur did what they did because it was right."

"Then what are we arguing about?" he questioned, at his wits end.

"You really don't get it, do you?" she asked, something uncomfortably close to pity in her eyes. When he didn't deny her words, Hermione softly said, "Harry is in love with you. Your behaviour seems to indicate that you feel the same towards him."

He stared down at the half-eaten nut bread on his plate and whispered, "You know I do."

"Love isn't just about accepting the person you're involved with, it's about accepting the people in their life as well. When I married Ron, I didn't just marry him, I married his entire family. Whether you like it or not, Remus is family to Harry."

He frowned down at his plate. "But I haven't married Harry. You know that's not possible in our situation."

"Perhaps not, but everything both you and Harry have said to me leads me to believe that you're both interested in something more lasting than a brief affair."

Though everything inside him rebelled at being open about his feelings, Hermione had encouraged his interest in Harry from the start. He owed her the truth. So, he looked up, met her gaze, and admitted, "I want as long as he'll give me."

"How long do you think a relationship can last where one partner is actively cruel to a member of his lover's family? Remus is the only person who knew Harry's parents well who is still in his life. He's been like an uncle to Harry since Sirius died. Hurting Remus is like hurting Ron or me to Harry."

"So what Lupin did to me is once again considered irrelevant? The man tried to kill me," Severus reminded, all the old outrage over that ancient cover-up burning through him.

Hermione squeezed the arm she was still holding onto.

He looked down at her pale hand against his dark robes, grateful even when angry at her that she was one of the few people who didn't mind physical contact with him.

"It matters, Severus. That was a terrible trauma and it should never have happened," she astounded him by saying.

"But?" he prodded, hearing something unspoken behind the assurance.

"But hatred has to stop somewhere. Remus was not in his right mind when that event occurred. He was used as a weapon by someone he trusted. What happened that day scarred him as much as it did you."

Severus looked away. He knew that. Afterwards, Lupin hadn't even remembered the attack. When he'd learned of the close call, Remus had been as horrified by what Black had done as James Potter had been.

But Lupin's lack of responsibility still didn't change what had happened or in any way diminish the risks involved with hiring a werewolf. His objections were still legitimate, no matter how guilty Hermione's observations made him feel.

Focusing on the one portion of Hermione's words that actively worried him, he asked in a low voice, "The morality of the issue aside, are you suggesting that Harry's feelings for me would . . . change because of this?"

Hermione's sigh told him that he was still missing the point. "I really couldn't say. I suppose it would depend on how vindictive you are about it. Harry knew your feelings on Lupin before you became close, so I doubt if he would hold it against you. But if you taunt him with werewolf snipes, you will hurt him more than your attitude already hurts him. Is that what you want to do, Severus?"

Abruptly understanding, he sucked in a breath, feeling as though she'd just punched him in the gut. Stricken, he looked into her troubled eyes, searching for a reply, but before he could get his thoughts together, someone gave his shoulder a pat from behind.

A second later, Harry slid back into the chair he'd vacated.

"So," Harry said with renewed cheer, sounding as though their disagreement had never happened – clearly, he hadn't been eavesdropping; Hermione had been speaking low enough that it shouldn't have travelled any further than where he was sitting, "tell me how you talked Fletcher into relenting."

"Severus was brilliant," Hermione stunned him by letting the former topic drop as well. "Poppy told me how he threatened to bring Joan Holland in to see Fletcher."

"Oh?" Harry said, as though it hadn't been his idea.

Bewildered by the warm smile Harry gave him, Severus sat very still as Harry shifted into his usual sprawl in his chair. Potter didn't settle until he was leaning heavily against him.

His thoughts on the Lupin discussion, he allowed his companions' conversation to flow over him while he pondered Hermione's words. He remained tense for the remainder of the night, waiting for someone to revive the Lupin argument, but no one did. By the time the get together broke up, even Ron was himself again, clapping him on the shoulder and wishing him a normal goodnight.

As the others all dispersed in a noisy chorus of goodbyes, Severus stood still as stone outside the Weasleys' quarters, unsure what would happen now. It was their first real quarrel since they'd worked things out on Saturday night. Although Harry had been acting friendly while in the group, Severus was socially aware enough to know that Harry mightn't have wanted to air their dirty laundry by fighting in front of people. Harry mightn't want to spend tonight with him.

"'night, Hagrid," Harry called as the giant trailed the hapless Longbottom back towards his quarters. Once the last of them had left, Harry turned to him and said in a soft voice, "You've been very quiet tonight. Is everything all right?"

"Perhaps you should be the one to answer that," he stiffly replied, refusing to give in to his nerves and fiddle with the graded test papers he carried in his hands.

"What?"

"I'm told my comment on Lupin was cruel." As a guarded expression clouded Harry's previously relaxed features, Severus stiffly said, "I regret my lack of . . . courtesy. I fully understand if you wish to be alone tonight."

Harry's sigh sounded as weary as Hermione's had. "If we start sleeping apart every time we disagree on something, we're never going to be together. Come on, let's go home."

Almost dazed under the rush of relief, Severus felt a hand land on his back to guide him to the stairs down to the dungeon. Home was the Slytherin dungeons to Harry?

As they passed beneath the sleeping portraits in the main stairwell, he peeked over at his companion. Harry's handsome face was tense. Everything he knew about the other man was telling him Potter was still upset.

Hating the silence, he walked with Harry to his quarters. The torches and hearth blazed to life without so much as a mumbled word from Potter.

Once inside, Harry headed straight to the bedroom. Severus paused in the sitting room long enough to place the completed schoolwork on his desk and then followed his lover inside.

Harry was in the loo. Apparently, his friend had done a quick strip, because Potter's clothes were in a messy heap on the chair in the corner. There was nothing unusual in that. It was just the silence that was new between them. Normally, Harry would have announced where he was headed.

Wishing he had Hermione's gift for peacemaking, Severus slowly disrobed. Not feeling comfortable enough to be naked while suffering the distance he'd created between them, he crossed to the dresser to pull out a nightshirt. He didn't want the nightclothes to make Harry think he was uninterested in sex, but by the same token, he wasn't comfortable enough to wait naked with this silence between them. After a moment's hesitation, he shouldered into the nightshirt.

When Harry eventually exited the bathroom, he was bundled in his black bathrobe. Although he knew that Harry was highly sensitive to the chill of the dungeons, Severus couldn't help but view the robe as yet another barrier between them.

His heart heavy, he took his own turn in the bathroom for his nightly ablutions. When he came out ten minutes later, the wall torches were down. The room was only lit by hearth fire – which was also perfectly normal.

Still, as Severus approached his own bed, he was unsure of his welcome.

Harry gave him a small smile and lifted the duvet. Relieved by the sight of his lover's naked flesh, Severus climbed in beside him. As he settled down onto the middle pillow, Harry turned to face him.

"I know who and what you are, Severus. It will be all right," Harry assured.

"Perhaps you could enlighten me as to your meaning?" he snapped, hearing a put down. His nerves were stretched too thin to take anything lightly.

"My meaning is that I know how different we are. I wasn't expecting this to be easy or perfect. We've both got to accept that there are going to be things we strongly disagree about. We can't let that change our feelings for each other. To be honest, I've been shocked by how well we've been getting along these past few days. Something was bound to come up to rock the boat," Harry said in a philosophical tone, but beneath it, Severus could sense how upset he was, how much he was holding back.

"I don't want the boat to be rocked," he answered, petulant as a child.

"Neither do I," Harry said.

Severus breathed a sigh of relief as Harry leaned in to kiss him. When they came up for air a long time later, Severus stared into those slightly unfocused, dazed green eyes. Harry really did seem to be willing to put their disagreement in the past. Being Slytherin, it astounded him that his lover wasn't attempting to change his mind or influence him with sex.

Harry seemed to notice something strange in his reaction, for he asked, "What is it? You look . . . I don't know . . . surprised."

"I suppose I was expecting you to ask me to agree to hiring Lupin as a favour to you," Severus reluctantly admitted. "It's what a Slytherin would do."

"Is that what I can expect from you?" Harry asked. He didn't appear too bothered by the prospect.

He looked away, met Harry's gaze again, and gave him the truth, "Probably."

"Thanks for the warning," Harry said with a confusingly playful smile as he reached out to tweak the clasp out of his hair.

As his hair cascaded down around his shoulders, Severus attempted to concentrate on the topic. "Well, aren't you going to ask me?"

His face becoming suddenly serious, Harry reached out to cup his cheek. "I know what my father and his friends did to you, how they treated you. Any reminder of that time's got to be painful. I'm not going to ask you to do something you hate for me. Hogwarts is your home. I don't want you to feel miserable or unhappy here."

Harry meant the words. Gulping around a sudden tightness in his throat, Severus looked away for a moment. When he thought he was in control, he turned back and said, "But you still want Minerva to hire Lupin for the Charms position."

"I'm not going to lie to you. It would make my life a lot simpler if my best friend and honorary uncle could be civil to each other, but I'm not a child. I know everything can't be the way I want it. It's just . . . Remus has spent the last nine years in hell, knocking around Sirius' house with nothing to do."

"You made him the caretaker, didn't you?" Severus checked his sketchy information. He saw Lupin three nights a month to deliver his Wolfbane Potion, but they never spoke beyond the most basic of acknowledgements. He knew Black had left everything he owned to Potter and that Lupin had been living in Black's family home since the war ended, but that was about all he knew. Harry went to see Lupin several times a month, but they never discussed his visits.

"It was the only way he'd accept assistance, but . . . there's nothing for him to do there. He puts on a good face, but I know how hard it is on him. I just . . . I know that one day when I go over there for my weekly visit, I'm going to find him with a silver bullet through his head." Though he could see how hard Harry was working to say that last part lightly, he could feel his lover's horror, how real a worry this was to him.

Severus tried to tell himself that it was none of his concern what happened to the damn werewolf, but the idea of Harry coming upon such a grisly suicide scene chilled his blood.

"But enough of that," Harry said, wrapping his arms around him. The scent and warmth that was Harry filled him, lulling his jagged nerves.

Severus allowed himself to be kissed, even though his mind was still on their conversation. Troubled more than he cared to admit by Harry's words, he pulled back to assist Harry in removing his nightshirt.

They settled back, facing each other, flesh against flesh, with their power seeping through each other's skin the same way their body heat did. Severus was amazed by how comforting he found that energy exchange. With a start, he realized that was part of what had discomforted him in their argument before. The minute they'd started to disagree, the energy conduit between them had closed off. Now that it was open again, Severus felt much more at ease.

Harry's mouth was as addictive as ever. It was no time before he lost himself completely in its sweet depths. Wanting more, Severus rolled onto his back and pulled Harry up on top of him.

As their tongues slid around between their mouths in an intimate dance, their genitals nestled with mind-blowing familiarity. The resulting power spike was nearly as overwhelming as the physical sensation. Harry rocked his hips, sending wave upon wave of pleasure crashing through them.

Still, it wasn't enough.

Hungry for that most perfect of connections, Severus parted his legs, letting Harry slip between his thighs.

To his surprise, Harry lifted his head up, pulling back from the kiss to stare down at him.

Severus shivered as Harry's finger played along his collarbone, but it was the unusually pensive expression in his lover's face that drew his attention. At a time like this, Harry shouldn't be thinking. Since the power exchange didn't break off again, he didn't think that anything was wrong, but it was clear Harry had something important on his mind.

"Is something wrong?" he asked, his muscles tightening at the uncertainty in Harry's face.

"No, I just . . . ." Harry's cheeks warmed with colour. "You've been . . . incredibly accommodating these last few days. I was just wondering if you wanted to turn the tables?"

"Turn the tables?" he echoed, wondering if he sounded as idiotically blank as he felt.

"You know," Harry prompted, scarlet as his House colour now, "do you want to be on top tonight?"

"Oh," he looked away from that waiting gaze, feeling inexplicably trapped.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he was conscious of the fact that this was the first time a lover had offered him this gift, but he was too busy trying to find a way to gracefully decline to give the thought the attention it deserved.

"What is it?" Harry softly asked.

"This is . . . difficult," he found himself confessing to those patient eyes.

"What is?" Harry sounded totally bewildered.

"I . . . ." The words simply wouldn't come. All his life he'd been made to feel less than a man because of this need. How could he admit that he preferred to be buggered than to bugger out loud to the person he respected above all others?

"You . . . ?" Harry gently prompted.

Seeing nothing for it, Severus took a deep breath. Feeling his own cheeks heat to probably an even deeper hue than Potter's, he looked for the words. They still weren't there.

"Severus?" When he once again met Harry's gaze, Harry asked, "There's a reason the last few times have felt perfect, isn't there?" As if sensing his increased tension, Harry swiftly continued, "It was perfect because we both were doing what we prefer to do, weren't we?"

"You . . . ?"

Harry looked as though he were having a bit of trouble finding words himself. "It was always an issue with Julius and me. We both always wanted to be on top."

Julius. The bastard's name had been Julius. However, this was hardly the time for such details.

Confused by Harry's original offer in light of this disclosure, Severus found himself saying, "But you offered to allow me to . . . ."

"I'm not making the same mistakes again," Harry said. "What we've found together, it's about more than just who does what to whom. We don't really talk too much about . . . what we like in bed, but I wanted to make sure I was giving you what you needed."

Severus realized that he might as well just cut his tongue out when dealing with Harry, for the man robbed him of speech so often he might as well be mute. Finally finding words again, Severus hoarsely rasped out, "You give me what I need – you're the only one who ever has."

"You mightn't believe this, but the same is true here," Harry quietly offered.

Severus heard the truth in Harry's voice. And, if he hadn't heard it, Harry's forbearance on the werewolf issue tonight would have proven it to him. As it was, he was feeling too much to answer with words. So, he pulled Harry back down into another kiss and let touch work for him.

The influx of magical energy set his nerves reeling, but somehow he held on. Harry's hands and lips seemed to be all over him, caressing and kissing with near frantic ardour. Before long, he was a shuddering mass of boneless, tingling protoplasm. Harry appeared to be only slightly more together. His lover's breathing sounded like a bellows as Harry explored his by now familiar body.

He let out a desperate mewing sound as his knees were pushed up to his shoulders and his bottom bared to Harry's sight. He was all sweat and panting, desperate breaths as Harry's head once again lowered to perform that incredible licking at his anus. As it had last night, his nervous system short-circuited at the sensual assault. The magical power alone seeping out of Harry's wet tongue into his most sensitive orifice was enough to undo him, when combined with that slick tongue action, it left him a gibbering wreck. He couldn't think; he couldn't speak; he didn't even have enough sentience left to initiate touches of his own anymore. All he could do was feel and react, and react he did.

Were this anyone but Harry, the frantic whimpers emerging from his throat would have mortified him. But he was barely aware of them, or anything aside from that moving tongue.

Severus didn't even notice when Harry summoned the lubricant. His first awareness of it was when Harry's slippery fingers replaced that no doubt weary tongue and eased inside him. His moan as those clever voyagers made contact with his prostate filled the entire room. If he hadn't had silence wards on his chambers, the noise probably would have woken half of the Slytherin dorms.

Although he'd called Thomas Riddle 'master', he'd never known what it was to be truly owned until Harry Potter's cock had slid into him the other night. It was the same now. When Harry's snub nosed, wide cock pressed its way inside him, his body and soul ceded dominion to this irresistible conqueror. Every cell he owned was blasted apart and branded by the concentrated delight Harry's penetration inspired.

It was a deliciously long and slow entry. Every considerable inch of Harry filled and stretched him, and then . . . and then Harry began to move, slow at first, but faster by degree as the passion claimed the last of his lover's restraints.

Harry was groaning like a cow giving birth, deep, reverberating cries that trembled through both their tight-pressed bodies. The sounds Severus was making himself were somewhere between sobs and whimpers. This pleasure was just so intense it left him feeling unbearably naked and exposed.

Falling into that ancient rhythm, Harry moved faster and harder into him, until Harry was slamming home full force so hard that Severus found himself sliding up the bed until his head would bump the headboard. Harry's hands on his hips would immediately pull him back down to safety, but then the next thrust would send him slipping back up the bed in what was quite possibly the wildest, most feral sex of his life.

All too soon, Harry froze within him and he sensed, rather than felt, the spurts of hot liquid deep inside him. His own body was aware of it, though. He spouted like a geyser as soon as Harry let loose.

Senses reeling, this most intense of ecstasies seemed to go on forever.

At last, Harry gave a final groan and collapsed on top of him. Severus buried his face in the untidy mass of black hair at the crown of Harry's head and just breathed in his lover's sweet scent as his chambers spun around him.

He gave a gasp as Harry's now-deflated penis slipped clear of his somewhat sore anus. Manoeuvring his legs down until the dead weight that was Harry Potter was resting between his wide-spread, thoroughly shagged out thighs, Severus groaned in agony as every muscle in his lower back reminded him that he wasn't seventeen anymore.

Stars, they were going to kill each other if they kept this up! But what a way to go, he thought, unable to suppress an evil chuckle.

His partner's breathing told him that Harry was already sound asleep. Part of him felt that he should be offended, but he knew his lover's loss of consciousness was a testament to the quality of the love they'd just made.

Stunned by what they'd just shared, he stared down at Harry. He'd never met anyone like him.

Potter hadn't balked when he'd told him he preferred not to take the dominant role in bed, hadn't seemed to think any less of him at all for his preference. To the contrary, Harry had seemed pleased that their different needs complimented each other so well. There was no hint that Harry thought anything less of him for allowing himself to be buggered. To the contrary, Harry seemed to cherish him all the more for it. He couldn't believe any of this was real, let alone that it would last.

But the heavy weight of the sleeping man pressing down on him was undeniably real. As Severus gazed down at his lover, he knew he'd never feel this much for anyone again in his life. He'd never thought himself capable of this depth of attachment. He loved Harry so damn much that it terrified him. There was nothing he wouldn't do to make this man happy.

Oh no, his conscience questioned, sounding remarkably like Hermione at the moment. His heart stinging, he recalled the pain in Harry's eyes as he spoke of his fears of finding Lupin dead by his own hand. While once it would have pleased him immensely to see all of the Marauders dead and gone, the part of him that loved Harry recoiled at the idea of anything inflicting that kind of pain on his lover. His selfish side couldn't help but wonder what type of impact Lupin's suicide would have on their relationship. Harry might be magnanimous enough of spirit to forgive his being cruel to Lupin while Lupin lived, but if the werewolf should be driven to such desperate straits as to take his own life, how could Harry possibly forgive the man who was almost solely responsible for the misery to which his old friend had been condemned after the public revelation of his nature? Harry was a great man, but he was no saint. Lupin's death was bound to taint their relationship.

And Severus would not stand for that to happen. Harry Potter was the only completely good thing that had happened to him in his life. No matter the cost, he would not jeopardize what he had with Harry. But he didn't know if he could pay this price.

Harry hadn't asked it of him. In fact, Harry had sworn he wouldn't. The Slytherin in him wondered if Potter's words were all a subtle plan to play on his guilt and make him change his mind. If it were, the plan was working perfectly. Only, his heart knew better. He or Zabini would engage in such an underhanded campaign, but not Harry. If Harry had really wanted him to change his mind, he would have asked him straight out. Harry had only been sharing his fears with him when he'd talked about Lupin's suicide, the same way Harry shared his thoughts about almost everything else.

It was a hard thing knowing that he was the only impediment to making Harry happy. Somehow, kissing Potter in front of a group of people seemed much easier than the moral dilemma with which he was currently wrestling.

If he relented and asked Minerva to hire Lupin, he knew she would. Minerva was no fool. Even in his admittedly prejudiced opinion, Lupin was one of the most competent professors Dumbledore had ever hired. Were it not for his cursed nature, any school would be lucky to get a teacher of Lupin's calibre. Severus couldn't deny that even his childhood nemesis would be an improvement over Miller.

Should he relent and ask Minerva to hire Remus Lupin, it would make Harry, Hermione, Ron, and everyone else immensely happy.

It would also mean facing the last of James Potter's thugs every day. Could he do it? He'd managed to coexist in Hogwarts with Lupin during Harry's third year, but it had been hard. The mere sight of Lupin at the teacher's table was like having salt rubbed into his humiliating history on a daily basis. Every time he brought Lupin that Wolfbane Potion, he'd find himself thrust back into all those old feelings as he remembered events he spent the better part of his time trying to forget. Just the thought of having Lupin here on a daily basis, interacting with him as he did the others, made his stomach churn.

No, he couldn't do it. Not even for Harry. It was too much to ask.

But Harry hadn't asked it of him, his conscious reminded.

Harry hadn't asked it. That was the bottom line. Until Harry did, it really wasn't his problem. Or so Severus tried to tell himself as his breathing slowed and the dungeon night closed in around him.

******************

"Once again, thank you all for your hard work. It looks as though the OWL and NEWT exams will be especially comprehensive this year. I hope the students are up to it; your reports seem to indicate they are. Good work all around. If there aren't any more issues to be addressed, I suggest we end our meeting early and enjoy the fine weather," Minerva said with a bright smile as she called an end to the staff meeting a full twenty minutes early.

The sun was spilling in over the table, shining in his and Hermione's eyes. Even from five floors up, they could hear a robin singing in the gardens below.

They were all experiencing a touch of spring fever, Harry realized as Neville and Blaise disappeared from the room before most of them had even pulled their chairs back from the table.

"I have some homework I must grade," Severus softly said from his other side.

Harry looked at the nine-inch pile of messy parchments in front of his lover. If he had to wait until Severus worked his way through that, it would be July before he saw him. "Why don't you take it back to my place to do it? My rooms are only one floor away. We'll save time, and you know you always get through that stuff faster when I'm around," Harry joked in an undertone. Even though there was enough noise of scraping chairs and conversation as their co-workers left the break room table to cover anything private he might be saying, he hated the idea of embarrassing Severus in public.

Severus gave him a halfway decent glare as he whispered back, "That's because I can't think around you."

"I promise to be good," Harry whispered directly into Severus' ear, pleased by the helpless shiver he caused.

Those unamused eyes pinned him. To his surprise, Severus softly said, "Your being good was never in question."

Tickled by the compliment, he whispered back, "I'll even behave."

"Chance would be a fine thing," Severus groused.

But Harry smiled because he knew he'd won. When he looked up, it was just Severus, Ron, Hermione, and him left at the table.

He glanced over to where Ron was trying to help Hermione sort through about a foot of parchment that had spilled across the staff room table. She was currently bent under the table retrieving some of the casualties of her husband's earlier efforts to be of use.

When Ron felt his gaze upon him, he looked over and commented, "Minerva never said anything about Miller's position opening up. You don't think the bugger's gone and changed his mind, do you?"

"No," Hermione's strained voice emerged from under the table. "Miller told me this morning that he's been offered a position at Beauxbatons."

"So why do you think Minerva didn't ask us for recommendations?" Harry asked, giving in to the inevitable by taking the parchments away from Ron, who was only making a bigger mess of things and dropping every third paper.

"Perhaps she wished to avoid the usual argument on such a fine day," Severus said from beside him and added. "I'll meet you back at your quarters shortly."

Apparently, Minerva wasn't the only one who wished to avoid an argument.

Harry suppressed a sigh as Severus took his papers and left with a flap of his black, raven wing robes.

"I was so sure he'd come around," Hermione said as she finally achieved the vertical again.

Harry waited until he was sure the door was firmly closed behind his lover before he answered, "He's got his reasons. My dad and Sirius were right bastards to him."

"It's just a pity that Remus is getting caught in the fallout," Hermione said.

"I could just shake Severus; he's being so pig-headed about this," Ron said. "You know what a vicious streak he's got when he's mad. You know half of all those bad feelings had to be Severus' fault."

Harry found himself sighing again. "Maybe it was partially his fault, or even all his fault. But it was usually four to one when things got out of hand. It was never a fair fight, Ron, and my dad's group usually got off scot free."

"But Severus told me himself that Remus never baited him," Hermione said.

"He did?" Ron sounded stunned. "When?"

"When I was talking to him this morning during our third period break," she answered, finally getting the papers in order.

"Even so, Remus isn't completely blameless in everything that happened, either," Harry insisted, hating to see them so torn apart over this.

"What do you mean?" Ron questioned, pulling his hand back from the paper pile as Hermione swatted at it.

"Remus might never have taunted Severus like my dad and Sirius did, but he never stopped them, either. He knew it wasn't right and he just stood there and let it happen. I think that's what Severus has such trouble forgiving," Harry confided.

"Sirius and your dad were the only friends Remus had ever had," Hermione reminded.

"I know," Harry said. "But . . . we were the only friends Neville had at school during first year and he still found the courage to stand up to us when he thought we were doing wrong. I understand why Remus did what he did back then, Hermione. But I also understand why Severus can't forgive him."

"I just wish he could get past all that hate," Hermione said. "It's not good for anybody."

"Yeah, me, too," Harry said. Then, to lighten the sombre mood, he asked, "So, do you want to come to my place and help me be good while Severus grades his papers?"

"Absolutely not," Ron laughed. "I'm taking Hermione out to the far side of the lake so that we can be very bad. You and Severus are welcome to join us, providing you find your own spot." Ron looked at Hermione's tower of parchments. "No papers allowed, though."

"Thanks, but I think Severus really wants to get that work finished," Harry said, knowing that the last thing either he or Severus were going to want during a romantic tryst by the lake was to be several yards away from their foster parents.

"Well, you'd best go distract him, then," Hermione laughed, stuffing her mountain of papers into a bag that was large enough to hold a Holstein cow.

"Did you ever hear of size reduction spells?" Harry asked her.

"Did you ever try to find size-reduced papers after they'd tumbled into the grass?" she sassed back. Rising to her feet, she gave his cheek a quick peck.

Ron took her bag from her and the pair left him with a chorus of good byes and rude suggestions.

"Hello, Martin," Harry greeted the picture on his door five minutes later.

"The Slytherin is in there. He had your password, so I couldn't keep him out," the portrait of the red-bearded wizard reported, disapproval souring his usually kind face.

"We've had this discussion before, Martin," Harry said, trying to keep his temper. "You weren't rude, were you?"

"No more so than Solemnus' ill-gotten get," Martin reported.

Sighing, Harry went through the door without another word. Sometimes he could understand why Severus didn't want a portrait guarding his door.

He had to smile when he saw the state of his sitting room. In the ten minutes he'd been here alone, Severus had covered the coffee table with neat piles of parchment. His lover was currently sitting in the corner of the couch, grading homework on a large potions book in his lap, with a cup of tea perilously perched on the couch arm beside him.

"Wingardia leviosa," Harry said, levitating the mug before disaster could strike.

The movement of his cup seemed to attract Severus' attention from the paper he was working on, for he gave a distracted, "Hello."

"Hello, yourself," Harry answered, feeling his face crack into a happy grin as he took in how comfortable Severus seemed here. "How awful was Martin to you?"

"It's remarkable how effective reminding one of those portraits about varnish's flammability can be," Severus drolled.

"You didn't," Harry laughed.

"I most certainly did. Then I reminded him how I'd won the seventh year contest for controlled fire starting," Severus said.

"And here I was feeling sorry for you," Harry replied, his laughter deepening.

"Whatever for?" Severus asked, finally looking over at him.

Harry grinned as he moved to the couch. "I can't imagine." He looked at the piled papers on the coffee table. "How many classes do you have there? All seven?"

Severus gave a resigned nod.

"This is going to take you all night to get through," Harry complained.

"Thank you for pointing that out," Severus snarked.

Harry picked up the nearest pile. "Where's the answer sheet?"

The expression Severus shot him was priceless. "I've been teaching this subject for more than thirty years. There isn't an answer sheet."

"So how am I going to be able to help you grade this mess if you haven't got answer sheets?"

"You want to help me?" Severus seemed startled.

"I want to suck you, but I know there's no chance of that happening until we get through this." Pleased by how totally his words seemed to have derailed his normally unflappable lover, he asked, "So, how am I going to know if the answer's right?"

Severus gave a loud swallow and replied with impressive dryness, "I suppose it would be too much to hope that you actually might remember something you'd learned in first or second year Potions?" Severus paused to look at him hopefully. Whatever was in his expression caused the ends of those slender lips to twitch in a reaction that might have been either humour or irritation. After a moment, Severus gave an even dryer, "Apparently not. Well, sort through that pile in front of you and pass me Lydia Hanna's paper."

He did as requested. Severus spent a moment examining each of the answers before handing it back to Harry. "It's totally correct. If the answer sounds even vaguely like it, give them credit –"

"Even if they're a Gryffindor?" Harry quipped.

Severus gave him a mock glare. "Especially if they're a Gryffindor. If that pathetic excuse for a house doesn't pull their grades up this week, Minerva will be cross with me. At any rate, if there are more than four answers wrong, put the paper on the side for me to grade. Can you do that?"

"You know, I have been teaching for years now," Harry reminded, tickled as ever by his lover's sarcastic streak.

"So I've been told," Severus said completely deadpan, and then returned his attention to the pile in his lap.

Chuckling, Harry dug into the papers.

Within three minutes, he began to understand why Severus was so frequently frustrated with his students. The second years had missed answers that even he remembered without checking his cheat sheet, mistakes that clearly indicated that the students weren't paying any attention at all to the subject.

The sun had moved more than a foot across the floor in front of the window before there was any sound other than their breathing and the scratch of their quills against the homework parchments. Harry looked over at Severus' frustrated sigh.

"They do seem to be uncommonly dense when it comes to Potions," Harry commiserated.

Severus glowered at him and short-temperedly demanded, "Perhaps you understand now why I constantly petitioned Albus to give me the flashy DADA position. At least the dunderheads pay some attention in Dark Arts."

"But you're gifted at Potions, Severus. Even I remember some of this," Harry assured.

"Like?" Severus snapped.

"That you use ceramics when dealing with dragon venom," Harry quickly answered.

Severus' expression darkened. "The only reason you have any memory of that at all is because Longbottom didn't remember it in class and nearly ended his family line in Potions Lab that day."

Harry had to laugh, for it was true. Even now, he could vividly recall having to pull his face out of the way of a ceramic dish that was rushing past his desk faster than the proverbial speeding bullet to get to Neville before the dragon venom ate through his desk and dripped down onto his pants. Now that he thought about it, he was stunned by the number of similar close calls he remembered Severus averting. Though Snape was never kind afterwards, he always did seem to keep his students from coming to physical harm in his classroom, which, considering the nature of the subject he taught, was nothing short of miraculous.

"You're right. But . . . come on. Let's take a mental health break."

"A what?" Severus asked. His voice and expression were suspicious, but he didn't resist as Harry removed the homework from his hand to place it safely on the table.

"A mental health break. It's driving me crazy sitting so close to you," he complained, leaning in to kiss that scowling face.

"It's a very short trip," Severus sniped, but he didn't pull back.

When Harry's lips found Snape's mouth, all the tension seemed to seep out of that long, dark clad body he was leaning against. Harry breathed deep of Severus' sweet scent as he finally came up for air.

It still amazed him that Severus would allow this. But as his right hand started working the first of the dozens of tiny buttons on Severus' brocade vest open, his friend made no protest. To the contrary, Severus simply sighed as Harry's lips found his exposed neck.

"You like that?" Harry checked, simply because he loved to hear Severus admit to it out loud.

"No, it's utterly repulsive," Severus snarked, spoiling the effect with a desperate, "Lower . . . please."

Harry was only too happy to indulge him. The tender flesh of Severus' neck had a special flavour all its own. Harry sucked and nipped there, being careful not to mark – too much. The pleased sighs Severus was emitting told him his lover needed this as much as he did. It was so perfect, so right. It was so hard to believe that this could have been here within arms' reach his entire life and that he'd just failed to notice it. He could happily drown in Severus' mouth, spend forever in these arms, live for . . . .

"Harry?"

Both Severus and he froze as his name was called several feet away from where they were busily necking. Horrified, Harry realized that he hadn't closed off his floo to visitors.

"Harry, you won't believe the news I've just had!" the familiar voice rattled away seemingly before the image even solidified in the hearth. "Minerva flooed me first thing this morning to – Oh, I'm terribly sorry," Embarrassment filled the deep voice. "I'll just . . . Severus!?"

As they both seemed to simultaneously recognize Remus Lupin's voice, Severus froze beneath him. Harry met his lover's horrified gaze for an instant before he slowly pulled back, making certain that there was nothing guilty or rushed in his attitude. He gave Severus' arm an encouraging squeeze before turning to face his hearth.

"Hello, Remus," he sat up and greeted the white-faced, black robed man with the shaggy grey hair gaping out of the flames at them. His old friend's facial scars were especially vivid against his ghostly white face. His erection wilted like a May daffodil at the interruption.

"Remus," Severus guardedly acknowledged as he sat up. His vest and shirtfront were open halfway down his chest.

Harry had to admire his lover's cool as Severus matter-of-factly buttoned his clothes, behaving as though it were perfectly normal for his childhood adversary to pop into the floo when he was having it away on the sofa.

"I'm sorry to disturb you. I'll . . . talk to you later," the completely weirded out Lupin said and quickly withdrew into the floo.

Worried that Lupin's interruption would upset his very private lover, Harry said once the flames were just fire again, "I'm sorry. I didn't think to turn the floo off when I got back."

"I'm sure you didn't expect to be snogging on the sofa," Severus said in a tone that was somewhere near normal.

Harry stared at Severus. Their gazes locked. He could see the shock in Severus' dark eyes, but there wasn't even a hint of the recrimination he'd dreaded. To his immense relief and delight, a spark of humour flared in the inky depths at the absurdity of the whole thing.

"I should have known us and taken proper precautions," Harry insisted. "I'm sorry."

"You don't owe me any apology. I'm an adult. I know what I'm doing. But perhaps you should go smooth things over with Lupin?" Severus stunned him by suggesting.

"I suppose you're right, but . . . we were in the middle of something." He hoped that didn't come out as whiny as it felt, but if the ironic smile that touched Severus' face were any indication, his complaint had emerged as bad as he'd feared.

"Yes, we were grading homework, which I must get through if we are going to have any time at all together this evening," Severus said.

"Touché," he laughed.

"Hardly. Another touché and none of my classes will get their homework back in time to prepare for their finals. Go talk to Lupin. I'll try to be done by your return," Severus promised.

Harry looked at the mounds of papers in front of them. "Do you really think I'll be gone that long?"

Severus stared at him as though he were as insane as he felt at the moment. "Lupin just discovered you in flagrante delicto with me. Do you really imagine it will be a short conversation?"

"God, how do I get into these situations?" he asked, running a distracted hand over his face. He didn't even know how he was going to address this issue with Remus. He could only imagine how his old friend must have felt upon finding him in a clinch with Severus Snape.

"You distract busy Potions Masters from their work; that's how you get into these situations. Now, straighten your robes and run along before Lupin dies of shock," Severus advised, picking up his pile of papers and quill again.

"You're being awfully good about this," he said as he rose to his feet, shaking his robes into shape around him. It was hopeless. They were as mussed as his hair. He did a quick straightening spell on both, which only worked on his clothes, as usual. "I rather thought you'd be happy to hear that Lupin died of shock."

Severus' gaze was unnervingly penetrating. "I would have . . . before you. I'm not a kind man, Harry, but . . . I don't want to intentionally hurt you."

Harry felt his stomach drop at the words. He could see how troubled Severus seemed by the very idea of hurting him. He'd never expected Severus to change at all when he'd entered this relationship. He'd expected every bloody day to be a battle between them. The efforts Severus was making to fit him into his life and make sure he was happy there amazed him. More than anything else, those gestures told him how much he meant to his lover. Maybe Severus might never heal enough to entertain the thought of teaching or associating with Remus Lupin, but if Severus could go this far for him, maybe it was more than enough.

He stepped back to the couch and leaned down for another deep kiss. Despite his workload, Severus never pulled back. It was finally Harry himself who disengaged from the kiss. Savouring Severus' taste in his mouth and the power seeping between them, Harry drew in a deep breath. When his head had cleared and his hopeful erection faded, he whispered, "I love you, in case you've forgotten. You still keeping count?"

Severus' eyebrow rose in an eloquent gesture that seemed both self-deprecating and slightly amused. "That was fifty-eight."

"In only four days?" Harry was a little stunned. He'd never been that verbal, but then, he'd never been with anyone like Severus before.

Severus nodded. He was trying to play it unimpressed, but Harry could see how pleased his lover was beneath his outer cool.

"Well, it's true," Harry said.

"If you plan on leaving, you'd better do so now. Another word, and you won't get out of here until breakfast," Severus warned.

Truly tempted, Harry chuckled and forced himself to step back from the couch. He really had to deal with Remus. "Don't tempt me. I feel like an errant schoolboy. How the hell am I going to talk to Remus about us?"

That got him a genuine, if evil, smile. "Fortunately, that is your problem, not mine. Enjoy your visit."

"Bastard," Harry groused.

"Yes, in all respects," Severus smugly agreed.

Recognizing that his throwaway comment might have been painful in light of Severus' actual family history, Harry found himself stumbling over his words to apologize. "I'm sorry. I didn't think. I didn't mean – "

"Harry, I know what you meant. Now, please, go visit your friend and allow me to finish this work."

Wanting nothing more than to crawl back into Severus' arms, Harry gave a reluctant nod and turned to the floo to collect his floo powder from the jar atop the mantle. A minute later he was tumbling out of the fireplace in the Black family's sitting room.

The room had undergone quite a few changes in the years that Remus had lived here. The walls were all freshly painted. Large, comfy, black leather couches and armchairs had replaced the mouldering antiques he remembered from his youth. Light and houseplants filled the room with life and vitality.

About the only thing out of place was the visibly upset man sitting in the middle of the sofa. Lupin looked almost shell-shocked by what he'd seen; his scarred, bookish features were blank and numb looking.

"Hello, Remus," Harry nervously greeted as he straightened up from his ignominious arrival and dusted the ashes off his blue robe.

Relieved, he saw Remus meet his gaze. "Hi, Harry."

Not knowing exactly how to begin, he started with a nervous, "I guess that was a bit of a shock, ey?"

"You mean finding you shagging Severus Snape in the middle of the afternoon? Yes, I'd say that was something of a shock," Remus answered with atypical sarcasm. Harry could hear the barely suppressed anger in his old friend's voice.

He sighed. "I'm sorry you had to find out that way, Remus. I was planning on telling you as soon as I saw you, but it's a pretty new development and I hadn't spoken to you since . . . ."

"Since you lost your mind?" Remus suggested. "Harry, has he got you under Imperius? How did something like this happen? I mean, I know you were close to him when you were both changed into children, but now that you're adults I thought . . . for God's sake, he's Severus Snape. He was a Death Eater. He was your father's worst enemy – "

This wasn't like Remus. Remus was always gentle, always supportive of him.

"I don't need the history lesson, thank you all the same," Harry interrupted before things could get too far out of hand. "And, no, Severus does not have me under Imperius. If it's any of your business, the entire thing was my idea."

"Your idea," Remus repeated, as though the words had no meaning.

"I know you're going to find this hard to believe, but I'm in love with him, Remus. I think . . . I think he might be the person I've been searching for my entire life," Harry softly confessed.

"Merlin's beard! He does have you under Imperius!" Remus insisted, appearing seriously concerned by the possibility.

"Oh, for . . ." His words died at the absolute concern on Remus' face. His scars were standing out like fresh wounds. Remus' blue eyes were flashing as Harry had only seen them do once before – on that fateful night at the Shrieking Shack when he'd actually seen his teacher transform into a werewolf. Remus was obviously deeply troubled. "Look, there's nothing underhanded going on here. He's the best friend I ever had, and . . . ."

That worried look on Remus' face wasn't getting any better. "Harry, I've known Severus Snape for thirty-eight years. He's not capable of friendship or loyalty. After Thomas Riddle, I think he is the most powerful dark wizard Hogwarts has ever turned out. When he was eleven – "

"He knew more curses than a fourth year. I've heard it all before," Harry said.

"He was so powerful no one in the same year as him could face him one on one. It seemed sometimes like he could get right into your thoughts. He was the scariest bastard I ever faced, and I'm including Voldemort in that estimation."

"Which was why you Marauders always ganged up on him?" Harry snapped back, truly angry now.

Remus blinked. "What?"

"I know what my dad and Sirius used to do to him. It was never a fair fight. He was always outnumbered."

Remus' face grew red with anger. "He was a treacherous Slytherin bastard with no loyalty. He wasn't even true to the members of his own House, Harry. For years, he was Lucius Malfoy's lapdog, but then he had an affair with Lucius in seventh year and put a curse on him that – "

So, Severus' seventh year 'intended' had been Malfoy. He'd suspected as much, but hadn't felt it his place to pry that far into Severus' private life.

"Gave the bastard boils every time he got it up. I know," Harry completed.

"He told you about that?" Remus seemed as shocked by this as by discovering them on the couch before.

"All of that is ancient history, Remus," Harry insisted. "You don't know the real Severus, and you never did."

"And you think you do?" Remus challenged, staring at him like he was an impertinent ten-year-old. "Voldemort practiced Legilimens and he never sussed on that Snape was spying on him. What makes you think you're smarter than Voldemort?"

Tired of the pointless argument, Harry tried to remove all the anger from his response as he said, "I'm not smarter. I just know Severus, in my soul kind of know him. Remus, our wizards powers blend into each other."

Remus' mouth, which was opened for another round of quarrelling, snapped shut with an audible click of his teeth. After a stunned silence, he asked, "They do?"

Harry gave a cautious nod, unsure how his honorary uncle would take that bit of personal information. For that matter, he wasn't even certain that Severus would want anyone to know about it, but that power exchange was the only thing he could think of that would convince his prejudiced friend that Severus wasn't using him.

"I never felt that, not ever," Remus softly confessed.

"Me neither. I know you have a really bad history with Severus, but . . . he's good to me. I swear it. We . . . fit." Seeing that Remus was actually listening to him, he added, "It would really make me happy if you could accept that. I know the two of you could never be mates or anything, but . . . it would be nice if I didn't have to choose between you."

Remus' expression was hard to judge at the moment. He still looked stunned, but the numbed quality had left his blue eyes. In its place was something that Harry would almost identify as a grudging respect, if he didn't know how outright impossible that would be.

After a moment's silence, Remus said, "I'd lose, wouldn't I?"

Giving the answering nod of confirmation to that question was one of the hardest things Harry had ever had to do. Remus was one of the foundations of his life. He didn't want to lose him. But, he wouldn't abide this type of open warfare over his choice of lover. Severus was in his life for the long haul, if Remus couldn't accept that, he would never be comfortable with either of them.

"God, Harry, you never take the easy path, do you?" Remus asked, a slight smile quirking his lips.

His knees nearly giving out upon the return of his friend's normal good cheer, Harry crossed to the couch and sat down beside Remus. "No, but Severus makes it easier for me."

"He does?" Remus sounded interested rather than doubtful.

"Yes. I know it's hard to believe, but . . . under all that snark, he's a good man."

"I'll have to take your word for that, Harry. I . . . I hope you're right, for your sake. I wish you'd chosen anyone else on the planet, but . . . I wish you luck. You deserve some happiness." Remus seemed to mean the words.

"Thanks," he whispered, all choked up.

They stared into the flames in the hearth, obviously both at a loss for words.

Finally, Harry turned to Remus and asked, "What was your news? You seemed awful excited when you first flooed in?"

Remus chuckled. "Well, I'd actually come to thank you."

"Thank me?" Harry echoed.

"For recommending me to Minerva for the Charms Position. I start in September. She told me that one of her most respected professors had come to her to argue my case. I – I don't know how to thank you enough, Harry," Remus' voice shook with emotion.

"Remus?"

"Yes?" Lupin responded, seeming to get a hold of himself.

"It wasn't me, though I wanted to," he confessed.

"What?"

"Severus had made it plain that he would shoot me down at the staff meeting like he does every time I recommend you. It seemed like a hopeless cause," Harry reluctantly said.

Lupin didn't seem offended by his statement. Instead, his confused friend asked, "Ron or Hermione, then?"

"I doubt it. Everyone knows how Severus feels about you. They know Minerva won't risk another scandal like that one in our third year," Harry said.

"But who else would have done it, if not the three of you? Neville?" Remus questioned.

Harry thought about it, but it didn't feel right. "No, if none of us were willing to take on Severus over the issue, I doubt Neville would. He always supports us, but he leaves the actual suggesting to one of us."

"Who does that leave, then?" Remus asked.

Harry considered the question. There was only one viable possibility. "It had to be Severus."

"Are you insane? He wouldn't piss on me if I were on fire."

"He makes your Wolfbane potion for you every month," Harry reminded.

"For the protection of the Wizarding World, not for me. He'd never do anything to help any of the Marauders." After a silent moment, Remus added, "Nor would I, were I in his shoes to be honest."

"Maybe he didn't do it for you," Harry voiced his sudden realization.

"How's that, then?" Remus asked.

"Maybe he did it for me. We were discussing, well, arguing the issue last night and I told him how worried I was about you. I think he went to Minerva this morning. It's the only thing that makes sense. She would never hire you on if she thought Severus would cause another scandal. He must have done it."

"I can't see it, Harry. Severus Snape just isn't that self-sacrificing," Remus argued.

"Remus, you don't know him – you really don't. He – "

"Yes?" Remus encouraged, seeming willing to listen.

"He'd die for me," Harry softly admitted.

"You sound so sure of that," Remus said, his voice sounding oddly hushed.

"I am," Harry answered. "I think I'm the only person who's ever really known the real Severus."

"Well, if what you say is true about his recommending me to Minerva, that might just be the case," Remus surprised him by agreeing. "But you'll have to excuse me if I withhold judgment at the moment. It's nearly too much to take in. I'm going to make us some tea. Then, I want you to tell me how you fell for Severus Snape."

Hearing the disbelief that still lingered in his old friend's voice, Harry chuckled and promised, "I'll do my best. Most of it's private, though."

It was nearly four hours later when he flooed back to his rooms, totally exhausted from talking. Harry knew that, if nothing else, he had managed to convince Remus that his feelings for Severus were legitimate, and not the product of any dark magic. He could tell that Remus still thought he was crazy for loving Severus, but at least his father's sole remaining friend wouldn't be openly accusing Severus of Imperius. That was probably the best he'd ever be able to hope for in this situation.

As he steadied himself upon landing in his sitting room, his smile turned into a grin. Severus was still there. Not surprisingly, his lover was still on the couch, but to Harry's astonishment, the homework pile was done. Severus was relaxing in his grey and white striped nightshirt and bathrobe over a potions journal, with a cup of tea steaming at his side.

The only illumination was that of the hearth he'd just flooed in through. The room was filled with islands of orange light among the comfortable dark shadows of his furnishings. Severus looked particularly sexy with the firelight playing across his features.

Harry couldn't believe how good it felt to come home and find Severus waiting here, how . . . established it made their relationship feel to him. In all the time he'd been with Julius while touring with the Cannons, he hadn't once come home to find Julius waiting for him like this. Well, aside from that time that he'd caught him in bed with someone else, but he wasn't sure that counted.

This counted.

"Welcome back," Severus greeted, something like nervousness in his dark eyes as their gazes met.

"Hello, yourself," Harry grinned.

Severus searched his features for a long moment and then said, almost inanely, as if searching for something to say, "I take it you've eaten?"

"Yes," Harry answered. He knew he was missing an entire level to the conversation here, but his distracted mind was caught by the pile of completed homework on the corner of his coffee table and could move no farther. He knew how long it would have taken him to get through that work had it been his. "You got through that entire mess while I was gone?"

"You were gone for hours, Harry, and, I have been teaching this subject for more than thirty years," Severus replied. He offered up his mug to him as Harry approached the couch. Even from three feet away, he could feel Severus' power embrace him with a warmth like stepping into sunlight. It reminded him of his mostly pointless discussion with Remus. What he had with Severus wasn't something he could ever explain to anyone, it was a gift to be savoured. More grateful than he could say, Harry took a deep sip of the milky brew as he settled at Severus' side as Snape quietly asked, "So, how did it go?"

Abruptly recognizing Severus' nervousness, he moved closer and laid his arm across the back of the couch, so that he was touching his lover down his entire left side.

"Not bad, once he got past the initial shock," Harry answered, leaning over to kiss Severus' cheekbone.

"How did you convince him that I don't have you under Imperius?" Severus asked, sounding as though he'd been privy to their entire conversation.

"You weren't monitoring us, were you?" Harry asked with an indignant chuckle.

"Hardly. It's what I'd suspect, were I Lupin," Severus calmly replied.

Harry was startled to see something like worry in the back of Severus' eyes. It suddenly occurred to him how difficult it must have been for Severus to send him off to speak to Lupin about their relationship. Severus knew Remus had no reason to support or encourage their relationship, and would doubtless be doing his best to discourage him from pursuing it. Severus wasn't confident in them lasting at the best of times. It must have been hard for his lover to let him go, knowing someone he'd respected from childhood would be bad-mouthing him.

Appreciating what Severus must be feeling right now, he softly said, "You're right. He was suspicious at first, but I managed to convince him that there was nothing nefarious going on."

"How did you do that? In his place it would have taken nothing short of Veritaserum to convince me," Severus said.

"Well, now that you mention it . . . ." Harry laughed, even though he knew Severus was dead serious. "Fortunately, I'm a bit more verbal about my feelings than you are. I, ah, told him that our wizards powers blend together. I hope that's all right?"

Severus gave a tight nod. "What was his reaction?"

"Well, I think he still believes that I've lost my mind, but by the end of the evening, Remus was in no doubt that I was exactly where I wanted to be."

"And are you . . . exactly where you want to be?" Severus quietly questioned, his muscle tension betraying that the inquiry wasn't nearly as light-hearted as he might have wished.

Harry held his lover's stare, hating the nervousness that was still there. But at least Severus had had the courage to ask. A few days ago, even that would have been beyond him. "Well, I'd rather that we were making each other all sweaty and crazy in bed, but barring that, this will do."

For once, he said the right thing. Severus' lips twitched upwards in the corners and after a moment's hesitation, he allowed a real, if small, smile to show.

"You, ah, spoke to Minerva this morning about Remus, didn't you?" Harry asked.

He didn't know what type of response he anticipated. Denial seemed the most likely. But Severus simply stared at him for a moment before answering, "The recommendation had to come from me, Harry, or she would never have chanced taking him on again."

"I didn't ask you to do that," he reminded. "I wouldn't ask you to do something that made you so . . . uncomfortable."

"I know. Whatever happens, it's entirely on my head," Severus said, obviously expecting the worst.

"You did it for me," Harry said.

This time Severus didn't even attempt to control his laughter. It was harsh with irony, but welcome all the same. "Well, I certainly didn't do it for Lupin."

"Thank you," Harry whispered, sinking in for another lazy kiss.

When he pulled back a breathless time later, Severus warned, "Don't thank me too quickly. We may all live to regret this. I'm not . . . well, contact with any of the Marauders has never brought out my finer qualities."

Hearing the legitimate worry, Harry brushed his fingers across Severus' brow. "Remus isn't a Marauder anymore, Severus. He's just a man, the same as you and me."

"A werewolf, actually," Severus corrected. "There is a bit of a difference. You do recognize that if he fails to take his potion, my sentimental impulse will have put all of our students in mortal peril?"

Reading the legitimate concern, Harry nodded. "I know . . . and I appreciate the chance you're taking, but . . . Remus hasn't missed taking his potion once since my third year, has he?"

"Harry, I stand over him until he consumes it. I don't give him that option anymore." Severus seemed braced for an explosion after his words.

It didn't take much for Harry to imagine how strained those full moon meetings must be if Severus were making it clear each time that he didn't believe that Remus had the integrity to be trusted to take his potion on his own. Beginning to realize how embarrassing this entire situation must be to Remus, Harry began to appreciate how much he was asking of these two old enemies to coexist here for his sake.

"Well, at least we'll know he's had it, then. We won't have to worry," Harry said at last. He didn't like the idea of Remus being humiliated like that every month, but . . . his old friend had missed his potion in his third year, to near disastrous results. While it was true the circumstances on the night Sirius had escaped Hogwarts had been extenuating beyond belief, Harry could see Severus' point. Someone could have died.

"That's all you're going to say? No 'he can be trusted'?" Severus practically sneered.

Clearly, Severus had been bracing himself for all out war over this.

Harry sighed. "Remus is a werewolf, Severus, and this is a school full of innocent children. Precautions have to be taken. Personally, I can't think of anyone who would be better at guaranteeing the students' safety than you." When he saw Severus' gaze lower, he softly said, "It will all work out."

"Will it?"

Hearing his lover's fear, he hugged Severus close to him and assured, "Yes, I promise."

"How can you know that? Remus and I barely managed during your third year, and there was so much less hatred between us back then," Severus said. "I . . . don't want you to end up hating me, Harry."

Reading how real that fear was, Harry stroked his lover's back and challenged. "How could I hate you? Every time there has been a conflict between us, you have chosen my happiness over your own. I know how hard this was for you to do and I know that you only did it because of me. Remus might be one of my oldest friends, but you're my lover, Severus. You come first with me. You always will."

He could see how much Severus wanted to believe those words; he could also see how impossible that much faith still was for him.

Wondering if the subjects he'd been waiting for the right time to address would ease Severus' worries, he turned on the couch so that he was facing his friend and threw his right arm across Severus' robe-covered stomach.

"There are some things I've been wanting to discuss with you," Harry said. "Important things. Do you think this is a good time?"

"That sounds ominous," Severus quipped as dozens of invisible barriers popped up around him.

"No, not ominous, just . . . important," Harry promised. "Okay?" At Severus' guarded nod, he began, "You know that school is closing for the summer in less than three weeks." Another tight nod met his words. Harry could tell how his friend's tension had increased nearly astronomically. "Well, I know you normally stay here at Hogwarts all summer. Were you planning on doing that again this year?"

Harry was careful to ask. He knew what he wanted for them, but he was also leery of forcing Severus into too much, too soon. If Severus wanted to stay here at Hogwarts, he wanted his lover to know that he'd be right here with him.

Severus' gaze dropped and he gave a subdued, "I hadn't really thought that far ahead."

"You hadn't? That doesn't sound like you," Harry tried to lighten the mood.

His effort failed miserably. Severus met his gaze and softly admitted, "It's hard to make future plans when you're living in the moment, waiting for everything to fall apart."

That was the truth Severus lived with day in, day out, Harry recognized. The man had spent his entire life waiting for disaster to strike. Well, no more. He was here to make sure that didn't happen to Severus anymore, that his life was more than endurance and misery.

"I, ah, was hoping our talk might keep that from happening," Harry said. At the eloquent arch of Severus' left brow, he continued, "Since I started teaching at Hogwarts, Ron, Hermione, and I normally spend the holidays together. We usually spend the summer travelling, and then stop off at the Burrow for a week or so."

"The Burrow?" Severus repeated, totally blank.

That ramshackle homestead had been so much a part of his world since he was eleven that Harry had just naturally assumed that Severus would know about it as well, but now he realized that Severus would have had little cause to know anything personal about the Weasleys until this past year.

"The Burrow is Molly and Arthur Weasleys' place. It's not as bad as it sounds. Since everyone's all grown up and got their own place, there's actually plenty of room for guests now. If you don't want to stay with them, we could always come back here early," Harry quickly offered.

"You . . . wish me to come?" Severus appeared legitimately stunned.

"Of course, I want you to come," Harry tried hard not to snap. "What do you think I'm telling you all this for?"

"To inform me of your plans?" Severus replied.

Seeing that Severus wasn't trying to be difficult, but that he really had feared that he would be put aside for the entire summer, Harry took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Trust didn't come overnight, or even after four days of incredible loving, he reminded himself.

"Our plans," he corrected.

"Our plans?" Severus echoed.

"Yes. I want us to be together. If you don't want to travel, then we'll stay here, but . . . I hope you'll consider going. It's always great fun. This year we were planning on touring the Greek Islands. I've only ever seen them in passing on quidditch tours, and, well . . . I'd like to get you alone on a deserted beach. I want to see the world with you at my side, Severus. What do you think?" he ended in a rush.

He could tell how thrown Severus was by his expression. His lover looked nearly as shell shocked as Remus had before.

"I've never been farther than London in my entire life," Severus said.

"I know," Harry said, stroking Severus' shoulder.

"I . . . don't travel well," Severus warned.

"You don't know that. You've never done it before. You're so curious about everything . . . you might love it. We could try it, and, if you didn't care for it, we could come back here."

"You would do that? Cancel your plans for me?" Severus seemed astonished.

"My plans are to be with you. If we're not together on a Grecian beach, then we'll spend the summer working our way through Hogwarts' rooms, one by one," Harry grinned.

"Working . . . oh." Severus flushed.

Loving how flustered his lover was by all this, Harry asked, "So, will you think about it?"

Severus' gaze slipped away for a moment. When next it met his own, the panic seemed to be under control. "I don't need to think about it. I'll go."

"Fantastic!" Harry cheered, hugging his friend tight.

"You may regret it," Severus seemed compelled to point out.

"No chance. We're going to have the time of our lives," Harry promised his sheltered lover.

Severus reached out a hand to brush back his ever-rowdy hair from his brow. "Was that all you wished to discuss? You did say important 'things'."

Harry grinned. Severus never missed anything. "There was just one other thing. You, ah, mightn't be as eager about this one."

Severus appeared amused, rather than alarmed, as he replied, "I consider myself forewarned. Go ahead."

Harry took a deep breath. This was just Severus. There was no reason to be nervous. Severus loved him. If he knew nothing else, he knew that. But there were degrees to loving anyone, and his next request was going to push Severus pretty hard.

"I want us to be together," Harry said, needing that said upfront.

"Yes, and . . . ?" Severus prompted.

"I want us to live together. When we get back from our holiday, I want to move down into the Slytherin dungeon with you," Harry announced as calmly as he could in the face of Severus' utter shock.

"You want to . . . move into the Slytherin dungeon?" Severus repeated.

"With you," Harry confirmed. "I thought about inviting you to live here with me. These quarters are bigger and have more light and a better view, but you're Head of House. You've got to be accessible to the Slytherin dorm on a 24-hour basis. I figured it would make a lot more sense for me to move down there with you."

"You've given this some thought, I see," Severus said. His luscious, deep voice was slow and lazy, but Harry could see how hard his brain was working.

"It's all I've been able to think about for days," he admitted. "Well, that and the holiday. I know it's a pretty big step."

Severus shifted back a bit from him, but only far enough away so that they had an easier line of sight to each other's eyes.

"Is it too big a commitment?" Harry asked as the silence deepened.

Severus gave a negative shake of his head, which Harry supposed was good.

"What, then? You don't exactly seem . . . happy," Harry pointed out, trying not to be upset over that fact.

Severus' hand moved from his hair to his cheek. He couldn't even define the emotions in Severus' eyes at the moment as that dark gaze studied him.

Severus finally appeared to force himself to answer. "I don't know how to take this . . . how to take you in stride. It's all so much, Harry, after spending your entire life alone."

Harry nearly sagged in relief. "I know."

"You do?"

He held those doubt-filled eyes and tried to explain. He knew he had as much of a chance of convincing his sceptical lover as he'd had of swaying Remus to their cause this afternoon, but he still had to try to relay his feelings to this incredible man. "Do you think there's ever been anyone who cares about me the way you do? This morning you campaigned to have someone who has been your enemy longer than I've been alive come to work here – all for my sake. I know what that took, and what it's going to cost you to coexist with Remus. That . . . kind of love isn't an easy thing to accept with a shrug, Severus. No one's ever . . . moved me the way you do. So, I do get what you're talking about."

He wasn't disbelieved. Severus didn't look as though he believed it himself, but the softening of his expression made it plain that he accepted that his lover felt that way.

Severus leaned in to hug him. He held on for a long time, feeling the power seeping between them while he breathed in the heat and scent of his lover, the closeness relaxing him.

He smiled as Severus caught a hank of the hair at the front of his head between his fingers and slowly let the thick, dark tufts rain down to cover his lightning scar. After a moment or two of that, Severus quietly questioned, "You seriously wish to move into the Slytherin dungeon?"

"More than anything," he admitted, not caring how needy it sounded.

Severus appeared to consider the idea for an eternity or two longer, before he cautiously allowed, "I suppose we could give it a try, see how it works out."

Just like that, Harry knew how it would work out, the same way everything else had between them – brilliantly. He was meshing their mouths together before Severus had finished his sentence, then, a heartbeat later, he was drawing his taller lover down onto the sofa. The way their flesh accommodated each other's bodies was almost a promise of how their lives would fit together. Harry felt it with every kiss, and, just as importantly, he could tell that Severus did, too.

"Harr-reee . . . ." that breathy, drawn out sound was the last he heard nearly every night.

Loving the glazed look that was coming over Severus' face, he quickly stripped his companion down, and then dealt with his own clothes just as fast. Their garments landed in a wide circle around the sofa, but that was par for the course most nights with them.

The couch was small, but neither of them seemed to mind. He settled on top of Severus as comfortably as he would have in the centre of their king sized beds. Those slender, but powerful thighs spread wide, and his hips sank down between them. There was nothing in the world like that feeling of sliding down between Severus' thighs, of feeling them grip him tight and hold him between them.

His hands reached out to stroke Severus' sides and chest. These places might all be familiar to him now, but the rush touching them gave him would never become old.

Just like their kisses. Every day they just got hotter and deeper. Tonight, they were feeding off each other's mouths as though they were buddy breathing and kissing was the only way to get oxygen into their lungs. It certainly felt that way to Harry as his tongue got friendly with Severus' tonsils.

Severus' large hands were moving restlessly over his back and butt, spurring him on. His lover's power was seeping through every inch of skin where they came into sweaty contact, and he could feel his own doing the same. It truly was an open channel.

Harry felt the thighs gripping him spread even farther apart. Severus gave a grunt and sudden movement as he doubled himself over by pulling his legs up between them, leaving himself completely vulnerable, completely open.

The move sent Harry's throbbing erection sliding between his lover's flat buttocks. He gasped as he ended up where he wanted to be.

This was the part that always blew his mind. For his entire life, he'd viewed Severus Snape as the most aggressive, alpha wizard he'd ever met. It didn't get any more formidable than Severus in the Wizarding World. To have this man surrender to him night after night, to not just tolerate his penetration, but to actively seek it, was the greatest blessing he'd known.

There was no change in the routine tonight. The breath caught in Harry's chest as Severus manoeuvred himself to where he wanted to be, lifting his bottom up at him for easy access.

This was so different from what he'd had with Julius. There was never any disagreement, never any jostling as to who'd top, never any hard feelings. There was only sex, and joy, and mind-blowing love. All the things he'd always known intercourse should have been, but never was – before Severus.

As Severus shifted up to meet him, Harry silently summoned the lubricant from the bedroom and carefully coated his fingers.

The hiss Severus gave when Harry's slicked forefinger finally slid inside almost undid him. Everything was so intense with Severus. Half the time, he could almost come from simply the noises his lover made.

The keening, whimpering one currently sounding was probably his favourite, but he loved them all.

Harry spent a long while caressing and working that snug ring of muscle to earn its permission to enter. When it finally gave its silent agreement, Harry quickly coated his shaft with the pine-scented lubricant. He positioned himself, and then slowly eased in. He loved to watch his cock disappear into that tiny opening.

Focusing on what he was doing, Harry pushed his glans through the guarding sphincter muscle. It was like piercing a virgin every time, for Severus' entrance was as tight as the first night he'd taken him.

The squeeze was sublime, the most perfect fit he'd ever known. The penetration was nerve-wrackingly slow, but that seemed to be the way they both preferred it.

It still amazed him that they were so well matched, that their needs dovetailed each other's so perfectly.

Those first few nights together, he'd been terrified that Severus was simply humouring him by allowing him to be on top. He'd been waiting for inevitable night when Severus would demand to turn to the tables, or, worse yet, do what Julius had done and use his accommodation as a bargaining tool to get what he wanted in other parts of their relationship. But, that hadn't played out as he'd feared. After sex, it was always Severus who acted as though he'd been granted what he wanted most; it was Severus who had behaved as though his partner had the upper hand and that he was at his mercy. It was only in the last day or so that Harry had come to understand that Severus really did look at it that way, as though he were doing him some incredible favour by taking him.

Harry's brain had some trouble getting around that concept. To him, taking had always been natural, as it had seemed to be for the majority of his partners. Throughout his life, he had constantly been in the position of having to convince another dominant male to permit him to be on top. To him, it was a miracle that Severus would want him to take him, for he knew how rare it was for one wizard to be able to trust another far enough to admit to that kind of need. He would be grateful till the day he died that Severus would permit him to take the dominant role in bed, even occasionally, let alone every night.

But apparently, his reaction wasn't typical. What little Severus had told him of his experiences seemed to indicate that there was some type of stigma in the Wizarding World to preferring to be on the bottom that Harry couldn't comprehend. It was clear that Severus had been belittled by the men who'd taken him – because he'd permitted himself to be mounted. The entire idea made him sick to his stomach.

It was bad enough trying to convince another dominant male to let him do what he wanted, but what must it have been like for Severus? To be willing to take the submissive role in bed, perhaps even to need to take the submissive role, only to have the man whom you'd gifted with your trust and body turn around and ridicule you?

Was it any wonder Severus had such trust issues? His lover's courage still amazed him. He'd never loved anyone as much as he did this often-disagreeable man.

Their mouths still fused together, Harry began to thrust. The rhythm found him immediately and caught him up in its irresistible pull. In, out, in out . . . They were the perfect circuit, his shaft in and out of Severus' tight body, both their powers coursing back and forth between their close pressed flesh, the incandescent pleasure blasting through their every nerve . . . .

He lost himself in Severus and knew that his lover was doing the same. For this perfect moment in time, they were one being, one need, one love. With every thrust and kiss, the pleasure grew, until their bodies were a single flare of burning desire.

All too soon, ecstasy melted them. The delight crashed through him like a tsunami. Harry felt himself still and spasm deep inside Severus, and, almost instantaneously, his stomach and chest were spurted with his lover's sticky gift. It went on and on forever, claiming all they were and all they would ever be.

They remained frozen together in climax for that eternal moment, and then, finally, that searing heat receded. Reality ripped them into two separate entities again, with only the open and still bleeding power conduit reminding them of what they'd been but a few breaths ago.

Harry sighed as his penis deflated and he slipped out of Severus. It was always over too soon. They never seemed to be able to hold onto that instant of perfection – which was probably a good thing, since it only made them want to try all the harder as soon as they were able again.

He reached out to carefully ease Severus' hips back down onto the couch and help him straighten out his cramped legs.

Though Severus winced with pain, no comment was given. He'd never yet voiced a single complaint, Harry realized, even when they'd gotten too wild and Harry knew his lover had to be hurting.

Despite Severus' silence, Harry always tried to make sure he took care of Severus afterwards. As soon as they were both semi-coherent, Harry scooted them around until he was lying on the bottom with Severus on top of him. Struck by the night chill of the castle, he summoned an afghan from the bedroom to cover them both. As the sweat cooled off them, he rubbed the scarred skin of Severus' lower back until the other man was openly dozing in his arms, sated and as at ease as a pampered cat.

For a long time after Severus drifted off to sleep, Harry laid awake, simply holding him, his mind racing with the events of the day. There was a part of him that loved these quiet times best.

Occasionally, he'd find himself staring at Severus' harsh profile while he slept and it would strike him how strange it was that they should be lying here together. Six months ago they had barely been able to have a civil conversation, and now . . . now Severus Snape was his entire world.

If he'd needed any proof that it was the same for Severus, today would have given him more than sufficient evidence. In less than a day, Severus had shown mercy to a hated enemy for his sake, agreed to change the habits of a lifetime by travelling with him, and consented to give up his close-guarded privacy to share his entire life and home with him. You didn't get much more proof than that, Harry decided, not without someone dying.

But Harry didn't want anyone to die. He wanted them to live. In fact, lying here tonight squashed in this too-small couch with Severus, Harry felt as if a whole new world and life were opening up for them. Loving Severus certainly felt like he'd been given a new lease on life.

He didn't know where this new life would lead them, or what trials might befall them in this sometimes small-minded world, but the one thing he knew with utter certainty was that Severus Snape would be there beside him, loving him. And, somehow, he knew that would be more than enough, for them both.

Soaking in Severus' warmth and power, Harry released a deep breath and gave himself over to sleep, and the new life that awaited them.

The End

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