Until Proven
Tira Nog

Author's Note: I would like to thank Leela <lj user=leela_cat> for a truly astounding edit on this story. She caught things my college grammar teacher wouldn't have noticed. Leela edited this monster around moving and work crises. I don't know how she did it. I can't thank her enough for her help. She was incredible.

I would also like to thank Alicia Masters for her input and Meri_Oddities for asking Leela to edit this monster.

As for the story, canon stops for me at Order of the Phoenix. Most of this was written before Half Blood Prince was published. I make no attempt to conform to any of the later books. Also, my beta, Leela, conscientiously made this story conform to JKR's use of capitalization. To me, capitalizing things like "floo" and "dementor" is the same as capitalizing the word "train" or "dragon". I think the usage is wrong, so I don't follow it. Also, Leela made a valiant attempt to bring this story into active tense. Any awkward passive tense clauses or present/past tense errors are completely the author's fault.

Warnings: Graphic, same-sex sexual scenes.


Harry gasped upon returning to consciousness. Everything hurt. Every single muscle he possessed felt like it had been stretched on a rack. A lump throbbed at the back of his head and a warm trail of blood seeped out of it and down his neck. He'd probably gotten it when he'd banged the stone floor in the throes of Cruciatus. It was a wonder he hadn't bitten his tongue off; they'd kept him under so long.

One deep breath, then another, and Harry was ready to take stock of his surroundings. He might be freezing, but at least he was dressed. He was wearing Muggle blue jeans, a grey tee shirt, and black hooded jacket. No wizards robes, and, more importantly, no wizard's wand.

The quality of the light filtering in from the narrow windows high above told him he was in a castle's dungeon, but it wasn't Hogwarts. That much he knew. The rest . . . .

Well, awakening to find one's wrists and ankles shackled to a dungeon wall with iron chains was never a good thing, especially when one's wand was among the missing.

How he'd gotten here was a mystery, as was where here was. The last thing he remembered, he was . . . well, he didn't know where he'd been last. All he remembered was being under Cruciatus.

A sound came from the far side of the chamber, the side with the door. There was a metallic clink of keys jingling, a groan as the tumbler turned, and then a nerve-piercing squeal as the heavy iron door swung open.

Harry blinked as torchlight ripped through his optical nerves the way the Cruciatus had tortured his body earlier. When the light receded to tolerable levels and his eyes adjusted, Harry wished he were blind again.

Six black-robed Death Eaters entered his cell.

The one with the unwashed blond hair in the lead lazily flicked his wand in his direction, and Harry felt his nervous system explode with agony. God, not again . . . .

That was his last thought before the pain took him. His head slammed against the floor once more as he writhed under the onslaught.

There was a different twist to this session, though. While Harry was thrashing around on the icy stone floor, two of the Death Eaters approached him from the side.

Insensible with pain, Harry couldn't protest as the larger of the pair grabbed him and held him as still as it was possible to hold a victim under Cruciatus. The other Death Eater withdrew a long, wicked knife from his pocket.

Harry could only watch as the glinting, razor-sharp blade moved towards him. To his momentary confusion, the knife didn't pierce his skin. Instead, his jacket was grabbed and slit open.

His clothes, they were only after his clothes, Harry thought. Too much pain was assaulting his brain for him to do more than acknowledge their intent. A loud ripping sound followed as his sweatshirt, tee shirt, and then his jeans and underclothes were quickly torn off him.

He couldn't feel the cold of the dungeon floor beneath him as his naked back landed against it. All Harry knew was the red-hot agony ripping through his nerves.

Trying to hold onto the reality outside of himself, refusing to give in to the insanity of the searing pain burning through him, Harry watched as the nearest Death Eater opened his robes and undid his trousers. For a second, Harry thought the man was going to urinate on him, but then he saw the Death Eater's aroused penis and recognized his enemy's intent.

Unable to believe what was happening, he was powerless to prevent the Death Eater from grabbing his legs and lifting his lower body up.

His head thunked against the icy floor, making his lump hurt nearly as much as the curse he was under. Seeing stars, Harry tried to rally his senses, to rise above the pain of Cruciatus. If he didn't get his act together and do something about escaping, this ordeal was going to get a lot worse than the use of an Unforgivable.

Horrified, Harry watched the Death Eater spit into his hand and then transfer the saliva to his monstrously aroused penis. Harry stared wild-eyed at the angry vein pulsing along the oversized shaft. The thing looked like it belonged on a stallion, not a man.

It was all Harry could do not to panic completely. The pain was already surreal, but he knew he couldn't handle what was to come.

Pushed beyond reason, Harry lifted his chained hands in a last ditch effort at defence and called upon his magic in a manner he'd never been taught.

"No-o-o-o-o-o!" Harry screamed and let loose his power as his legs were spread wider and that glistening prick thrust towards his bared anus . . . .

"Harry!" a terrified voice shouted from nearby. "Harry, for Merlin's sake, wake up!"

The Death Eater's fist coming straight for his face struck. Only, the blow wasn't hard and painful the way a man's knuckles ought to be. The assault was soft and the fist that didn't feel like a fist bounced off his face with suspect gentleness.

Utterly confused by where he was and what was happening, Harry forced his eyes apart for what he thought was the second time in perhaps ten minutes. His gaze focused on a charred pillow that was leaking burnt feathers. He watched it tumble to a vaguely familiar brown and rust coloured duvet.

What the . . . ? Frozen with terror, sweat pouring down him like he'd just stepped out from under a shower nozzle, Harry gaped into the equally petrified blue eyes of the man whose pillow he'd just obliterated. They were both standing stark naked in the wreck of the bed, with the destroyed pillow lying between them like a bloody corpse.

Harry took a deep breath as he recognized his surroundings and the frightened man who looked ready to bolt for the door.

"M-Michael?" Harry stammered.

His blue eyes bulging, Michael's classically handsome face was nearly unrecognisable, twisted as it was with terror.

"You – you used mage fire . . . ." the tall blond said, his voice hurt and accusative. "I didn't think that was even real. How can you know how to use mage fire? You're not even as old as me!"

Harry winced at Michael's barely suppressed panic. As ever, he had no explanation, no excuse for these bizarre talents that kept manifesting at almost the drop of a hat. Part of him knew that he should have warned Michael, but what could he have said? That he was a freak? That he didn't know his abilities or limits? That he could never predict what power might manifest itself while he was in the throes of a nightmare?

How could he explain what he didn't understand himself? Ever since Voldemort and Dumbledore had died in that final battle when their minds had been locked with Snape's and his, Harry had found himself developing one unexpected ability after another. He could never anticipate what might appear. Sometimes he couldn't even repeat the event – like that time he'd woken up screaming from a nightmare to find himself completely invisible for six hours.

Nothing in his life made sense anymore or was predictable, not that it ever had been.

So, how could he possibly explain it to an outsider? Harry couldn't even say how much of these developing powers were his natural-born abilities manifesting as he matured, and how much were the result of the raw magical energy that Albus Dumbledore had gifted him with when that great wizard had sacrificed his life in the final fight with Voldemort.

Voldemort's fall wasn't even something that could be related. Most wizards didn't believe that Legilimency and Occlumency existed outside of fiction. That last battle at the gates of Hogwarts had been fought almost entirely on a mental plane. How could Harry possibly explain to a one night stand or casual lover like Michael how Dumbledore, Snape, and his minds and power had been locked so tightly together while resisting Voldemort that he and Snape now knew what it felt like to die because they'd been in mental contact with Dumbledore as he'd passed on?

He couldn't, of course. Harry couldn't explain why he was the freak he was, anymore than he could prevent these damn nightmares that were ripping his life apart.

All he could do was run damage control.

"I-I'm sorry," Harry whispered, staring at the charred pillow. Were it not for Michael's quick thinking, that could just as easily have been Michael lying there singed with his stuffing leaking out. "I-I'd better go."

The last two times his night terrors had awakened them, Michael hadn't let him leave. Michael had laid him back down, held him close, and made sweet love to him to help him get past the shakes that were even now shuddering through him. He really liked this man. Harry hadn't known him even two weeks, but Michael's forbearance had earned him a special place in his heart.

But tonight, Michael simply stood there looking at him as though he were a Death Eater.

"Harry, I, er . . . ." Michael began and stopped.

Knowing what tonight had cost him, Harry took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes shut. "It's okay, Michael. I know the drill. We shouldn't see each other anymore, right?"

Harry tried to keep the recrimination out of his voice, but it was hard, so hard. He hated being a monster. Every lover he'd ever had ended up fearing him. He'd hoped that Michael would be different, for the man had really seemed to care for him, but this was too much to ask anyone to put up with.

"I'm sorry," Michael answered in a strangled tone. "It's just . . . ."

"It's more than you counted on. I know. Don't be sorry. It's not your fault."

Still having no idea where his wand was, Harry flicked his hand at the charred pillow. They both watched the feathers float back through the gaping burn holes before the singed pillowcase returned to pristine white.

If anything, Michael's already pale face turned to chalk.

Of course, Harry sickly recognized. Wandless magic was almost as unheard of as mage fire.

Realizing that he was only making things worse, Harry climbed down from the bed. His clothes were scattered around the bedroom like fallen leaves blown about by an autumn gale. That visible reminder of the passion that had brought him to this bed was bitter as bile.

Harry didn't have the temerity to hunt all his scattered clothes down with those scared eyes watching his every move. At this point, one more wandless spell wasn't going to make a difference. So, Harry silently summoned his clothes to him and climbed quickly into them the old fashioned way. Once he was decent, he took a last look around the room.

Finally spotting his errant wand on the dresser, Harry levitated it over, plucked it out of the air, and stuck it deep in the pocket of his grey robes.

Only then did Harry look back at the man he'd spent the last four hours loving. He'd taken Michael twice tonight, but there wasn't even an echo of that shared intimacy on that wide, handsome, utterly frightened face. Michael was watching him like he were Voldemort reincarnated.

"I'm sorry," Harry voiced the words that had finished every affair he'd had for the last nine years. Then, unable to bear being in Michael's room for another moment, he apparated outside Hogwarts' wards to his favourite spot beside the lake. He materialized with no more sound than the rustling of his grey robes.

The cold air was a shock after the warmth of Michael's bed. His overtired senses were unbalanced by the abrupt change of locale. He took a deep breath and paused to take stock of his surroundings.

He'd apparated to a flat area on the lake trail that afforded a view of both the island in the lake's centre and the far side of the lake. The menhir at his left cast its deep shadow over the spot on which he'd materialized. When Remus had been a teacher here, they'd often walked along this trail and stopped in this very spot to talk. Sometimes he still missed Remus. Losing him had hurt nearly as much as Sirius' death.

The October night was clear and brisk. The wind bit into his skin, chilling him to the bone and whipping his grey robes around him as he stood on the muddy lake bank. The moon was so bright tonight that he could barely see any of the stars around it. He stared up at the full moon, and once again, was reminded of Remus. At least his old friend was in a place now where his curse couldn't torture him.

On nights such as this, it was hard to remember the good in the world. Professor Dumbledore, Sirius, Remus, Tonks, Fred and George . . . they'd lost so many wonderful people trying to put down Voldemort that Harry sometimes had to question if it had been worth it. His inability to make his private life work out only compounded these feelings of hopelessness. What had happened with Michael was just another loss to add to all the others. He was trying to be philosophical about these things and face what came with a brave front, but with every romantic debacle it became harder and harder to keep up his optimism.

Harry started and chuckled as a sudden gust of wind threw a dozen or so dry oak leaves directly into his face. A cosmic 'snap out of it' order, if ever he saw one. Abruptly struck by the savage beauty of the night around him, he released a slow breath and tried to shake off his melancholia.

Michael was gone. The world would go on. Come next Friday, he'd find some other bloke to hang his hopes on.

Taking a deep gulp of the cold air, Harry admired the wild beauty around him and tried to let his disappointment go.

The moon cast a blue hue over almost everything, except the golden leaves of the white birches on the verge of the Forbidden Forest at the lake's far side. The birch leaves were still surprisingly yellow in the eldritch light, although the ghostly illumination had turned the trees' white bark a nearly lavender. The hollies, pines and oaks scattered among the birches formed darker patches of black.

The lake was a shivering pool of choppy black waves with glowing silver caps. A blinding trail of a main led almost from where Harry was standing to the westering moon about to set on the water's far side.

The inky shadow of the giant squid moved lazily across the lake, cutting through the choppy waters as though it were a calm summer evening.

It was a moment of perfect beauty; the sort of calm Harry wished he could soak into his troubled soul.

He hated what these nightmares were doing to his life. There were times he was convinced he was going insane, but Hermione insisted that what he was suffering was a common occurrence among many Muggle soldiers, something called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. She wanted him to see a therapist, and she was probably right – no 'probably' about it, Hermione was always right – but the truth was, he was afraid to bring all this to a Muggle shrink. How could he even begin to explain the war with Voldemort without speaking about magic? And if he did trust his analyst enough to tell the truth, well, he'd end up in a straight jacket in a rubber room somewhere before he was even halfway through his Boy Who Lived tale. No, it was best he deal with it himself.

Movement on the far side of the lake attracted his gaze. Harry's battle-hewn senses automatically pinpointed the source of the motion as he muttered a vision enhancement spell to evaluate the threat. For too many years, the shifting of a shadow was all the warning he'd have before being attacked, and sometimes he hadn't even had that.

Tonight his worries appeared to be unfounded.

Everything in him relaxed when he recognized the tall, dark figure prowling the edge of the woods. It was only Snape.

Curious, Harry watched his former professor and current colleague bend down every now and then to collect something from beneath the shadowy trees and place it in the basket he carried in his left hand.

Snape was still such an odd duck. In the four years Harry had been teaching Defence Against Dark Arts, the Potions master had remained as much of an enigma as he had during Harry's youth. He sat at the same table with the man for three meals a day, and he still didn't know anything more about Snape than he had when he'd been here at school.

That was, if you discounted, having touched each other's souls during battle. That grief-filled, confusing, final fight with Voldemort had shown him one clear thing – that Snape had loved Albus Dumbledore as deeply as he did. But beyond that, Snape was still a cipher.

As he watched the shadowy figure go about its mysterious collecting, Harry couldn't help but wonder what Snape's nights were like. Was he out here because the strictures of harvesting one of his obscure ingredients demanded that the plant only be picked under the full Hunter's moon, or were Snape's nights like his own, marred by night terrors?

Harry knew Snape would die before he answered that question, but he couldn't help but speculate.

And what did that say about the state of his own love life, Harry reflected with a grin, that he'd be standing here alone on a Friday night pondering what Severus Snape's nights were like? But watching Snape go about his mysterious business was somehow comforting. There were only three things in his world that never changed: Hogwarts itself, Hermione and Ron's friendship, and Severus Snape.

Harry stood there observing Snape until his face began to sting from the cold. Only then did he start squelching his way through the mud to Hogwarts.

He reached the school in less than fifteen minutes. Although castles could never be said to be warm, especially when pitch black in the dead of night, Hogwarts' sheltered interior provided a welcome respite from the autumn wind. By the time Harry reached the stairway to his teachers' chambers in Gryffindor Tower, his skin had nearly thawed.

Just another typical Friday night in what passed for his life, Harry thought as he climbed the stairs under the rows of drowsing portraits. Hearing their loud snores, he couldn't help but hope that he might sleep now. The dreams rarely came twice a night. Hell, some months he managed to go an entire two weeks before one reared up, but it seemed that the surest way to have one of those really horrible nightmares was to sleep over at a new lover's place.

That brought his latest debacle right back into his thoughts.

Mage fire . . . was it any wonder Michael had bailed? Harry didn't know a wizard aside from Snape who might have a chance of deflecting that kind of attack.

He'd miss Michael. Michael had been one of the few who'd stuck it out for more than one dream.

Recognizing the danger of wallowing in his losses, he tried to fight off the encroaching depression, but it was hard.

Damn, he couldn't keep grieving over all the might-have-beens, or he'd end up as bitter as Snape. The only way he'd get through this was to put it out of his mind entirely. If he dwelled on all the potential relationships these dreams had cost him, he'd never be able to cope. Trying to replace the memory of Michael's pale and frightened face with the image of the moonlit lake outside, Harry made his way down the Gryffindor hall to his quarters.


The first light of dawn found Harry wide-awake. The headache and gritty, burning eyes were so much a part of his life these days that they didn't even faze him. He cast a quick glamour over himself to disguise his red-rimmed eyes and dark circles, performed a quick cleansing spell, donned fresh clothes, and headed down to breakfast.

Not surprisingly, he was the first teacher to show. He knew Hermione and Ron had been up late last night. Michael and he had left the Three Broomsticks after midnight, and the Weasleys had still been there talking to Seamus. Friday nights out were especially taxing on Ron. His floo commute to and from the Aurors' office in London each day was exhausting, Harry knew, but since Hermione was teaching Arithmancy here at Hogwarts, Ron really didn't have much choice in the matter, not if he wanted to see his wife on anything but weekends.

Headmistress Minerva McGonagall, Professors Sinastra, and Flitwick arrived almost as a group right after he'd taken his seat. As Harry greeted them, golden trays of food appeared on the table before him. Fruits, all types of eggs, bangers, rashers of bacon, cauldrons of porridge, buns, rolls, toast, all manner of breakfast foods imaginable, filled the room with their fragrant bouquet.

Studying the offerings, Harry tried to determine which would be the least objectionable to his queasy stomach.

Harry felt as much as saw the dark figure that entered the Hall through a side door. Snape's progress to his isolated seat at the far end of the table was nearly soundless, despite the fact that he was wearing leather-soled boots and crossing a stone floor. Harry couldn't be that quiet in trainers.

Their gazes met as Snape took his seat. The Potions master gave him a curt nod that probably passed for an effusive greeting in the Snape universe and then turned his sour face towards a towering mound of perfectly cooked bacon. Harry watched Snape attempt to untangle a few pieces without tumbling the entire mountain of food. The hand holding the tongs reaching for the bacon had long, elegant fingers, even if the skin were stained yellow. A fresh, ugly gash ran down the top of Snape's hand, which Harry suspected he'd gotten on his nocturnal harvesting. The cut must have come from a magic-resistant source or Snape would no doubt have healed it by now.

Harry tried not to smile as a pile of bacon hit the crisp white linen tablecloth and he was treated to his first Snape sneer of the day. If the rashers had been a student, the Potions master would have deducted twenty House points, Harry thought, his own day brightening a little.

Such were his joys these days – and how pathetic was that?

Most of the upper class students were already filling the tables, despite the early hour. It was a Hogsmeade Saturday and no one liked to waste a precious moment of their freedom sleeping in late. So the noise level was much higher than it might have been on a normal Saturday morning at the same time.

"Mornin', Harry," Hagrid boomed at him as he took a seat beside him.

"Good morning, Hagrid," Harry returned, passing the brown sugar as his friend poured enough porridge into his bowl to feed a dozen hipogriffs. "How are you?"

"Well enough, but my poor garagoots aren't doing so good," Hagrid lamented, his brown eyes filled with sorrow.

Harry didn't even know what a garagoot was, nor did he have a clue where Hagrid acquired his strange pets. He knew he was making a mistake, but Hagrid's worried expression wouldn't allow him to remain silent. So, he bravely asked, "What's wrong with them?"

Six hours later, he was still regretting that innocent question as he staggered up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower.

"Harry, where have you been? We missed you at lunch." Hermione's sharp voice sliced through his pounding head from behind him. "My god, you look horrible! And what's that smell?"

"You don't want to know, believe me," Harry answered. She came up beside him, looking quite the professor in her long black robes. Even her long, bushy hair was tamed today, pulled back into a neat braid at the back of her neck as it was. Harry felt like a Muggle homeless person beside her in his garagoot-stained jeans.

Her smile and giggle were infectious, even if her nose was crinkled up in a rather insulting expression as she got closer to him.

As he'd known she would, Hermione pulled out her wand and muttered a fast cleansing spell right there on the moving stairs. Harry's clothing and person were spotless before she'd even stopped speaking.

"Thanks. I was too tired to do it myself."

"Hagrid?" she guessed.

"Who else?"

"Well, it could have been Neville. None of us were too clean the last time he asked us to help him harvest those skunk cabbages," Hermione said.

"That's the problem with having friends who teach Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures, we keep getting roped into unpleasant chores," Harry said with a sigh.

"But there are compensations," Hermione cheerfully replied.

"Such as?" Harry groused.

"Well, Neville's wards are often tasty," she pointed out.

"You remember what happened the last time he caught us 'tasting' his babies," Harry reminded.

"Who would have ever thought Neville would get so fast with his wand, ey?" Her laughter seemed to lift his weary spirits.

"Unfortunately, Hagrid's charges don't ever seem to be tasty – or tasteful," Harry joked.

"What was it this time?" she asked, her sympathy almost palpable.

"Garagoots. Well, that's what he called them. They looked more like five foot tall, animate piles of furry manure – suffering from projectile vomiting," Harry said.

Hermione frowned in distaste. "Yuck. What did he want you to do with them?"

"Administer a potion, of course. He's got eight dozen of the things."

"I guess it's sort of pointless to ask if you're hungry," Hermione commented.

Harry just stared at her. "I could use a drink, though."

"Well, come on in with me. Ron's still fuming over the Cannons. You can lament with him over a cup of tea."

"Lament with him? Every time the Cannons lose, he holds me personally responsible," Harry chuckled.

"Well, you were the best Seeker they ever had," she answered, taking his arm after she'd muttered the passwords to lead him into the quarters she shared with Ron, those assigned to Gryffindor's Head of House.

The chambers weren't that different from his own adjoining quarters: large sitting room, dining area, bedroom, and bath. Hermione and Ron's lounge overlooked the lake, their bedroom the quidditch pitch. Harry's was just the opposite.

Ron and Hermione's sitting room always seemed to have a warmth and welcoming feel to it. Like his own, the enormous stone hearth dominated the place. The huge over-stuffed couch in front of it was upholstered in a discrete pink rose bud pattern against a pale blue background. The two wingback chairs on either side of the hearth were a darker blue, the rug a muted grey. The bookshelves, side tables, and coffee table were all dark glossy mahogany.

The sitting room, like every other room in the Weasleys' quarters, was filled with the piles of books that seemed to accumulate wherever Hermione sat for more than half an hour. There was less evidence of Ron's presence here, a few quidditch magazines on the coffee table, a Firebolt in the corner, a picture of Ron and the entire Cannons' team on the mantle from the World Cup game that they'd won in Harry's last year as Seeker.

Ron was sprawled in the corner of the couch in his wrinkled brown house robes. He looked up at them as they entered, a grin splitting his handsome, freckled face. Although Ron was more than a head taller than Harry now, he still had the shaggy red hair and boyish features he'd had when they were kids. Not for the first time, Harry wondered if his best friend's youthful face were a handicap to him as an Auror.

"Hey, there," Ron greeted. "How are you both?"

"I'm better than Harry," Hermione reported, leaning over the couch back to give her husband a hello kiss.

"How's that?" Ron asked a little breathlessly when she pulled back.

"He spent the day helping Hagrid," Hermione answered, taking the wingback chair nearest Ron.

"Oh. Tough luck, mate," Ron commiserated. "Want a beer?"

"That'd be good," Harry said, sinking down onto the couch beside Ron. It was wonderful simply to sit still after spending the day wrestling with mounds of cantankerous, furry offal.

By the grace of the ever-vigilant house elves, two foamy pint glasses and a bowl of crisps appeared on the coffee table before them, along with a steaming silver teapot, mug, creamer, sugar bowl, butter dish, and a plate of scones. The next few minutes passed in contented silence as they sorted out their refreshments.

Ron waited until Harry had drunk half his beer before starting in with, "You should have seen the mess your team made of the match this morning."

"They're not my team anymore, Ron," Harry reminded him.

"Yes, but they could be. You know how brilliant you were. They'd take you back in a second, if you wanted. They're just pathetic without you, truly horrid."

Harry suppressed a smile as his friend continued along that line for the next ten minutes. Hermione wasn't even listening to him. As she munched on her raisin scone, her nose was buried deep in a leather bound tome.

Finally, Ron's diatribe on the Cannons' poor showing seemed to wend to a finish. Hermione actually looked up from the page she was reading when Ron enquired with as much innocence as a Weasley could manage, "So, how'd it go with Michael last night?"

"Ronald, that's rude," Hermione reprimanded him, but Harry could tell she wanted an answer as well.

Harry was lucky that they were accepting enough to care how his dates went. He knew that most wizards like himself, those who were drawn to members of their own sex, were fortunate if their family and friends simply ignored their predilections. It was a sad fact that in most cases a wizard had to make a choice between loving whom he wished and keeping his friends and family. He'd never been put in that position with these two. Hermione and Ron had supported him through everything. But even though Harry appreciated their concern, it was still hard to dredge up these disasters that passed for his love life.

Harry sighed. "It went about the same as it did with the Cannons this morning. I had another nightmare. Michael and I are quits."

"Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry," Hermione said, closing her book and laying it aside. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"What's to talk about?" Harry shrugged. "I, er, apparently used mage fire to defend myself during the nightmare."

"Mage fire?" Ron asked, paling.

Harry nodded. "I didn't hurt Michael, thank God, but I scared him – badly."

"Oh, Harry, this isn't good," Hermione stated the bloody obvious.

Harry wanted to snap her head off, but he knew she was only worried about him. Hell, he was worried about him.

"Can you do it now?" Ron questioned. They were all aware that his new abilities often had a tendency to appear and disappear at will.

Harry shrugged. "I haven't tried."

Ron tossed a nearby quidditch magazine onto the stone floor a few feet away from the grey area rug. "Go on. Try it on that."

Not sure if he wanted to know, Harry rose to his feet, stretched out his hands, and called upon the wellspring of power he'd felt rushing through him last night when he'd ruined that pillow. To his surprise, the power answered immediately. Blue and silver sparks flashed around his fingers, and then, as Harry concentrated his will on the magazine, a lightning bolt of blinding energy flashed from his fingers. The magazine ignited and burned in seconds.

"Bloody hell," Ron muttered as the smoke blew over them.

"Yeah," Harry agreed, sinking back down onto the couch.

Hermione murmured a spell. A second later a cool breeze blew through the room to disperse the smoke.

"Mage fire's not necessarily a bad thing, Harry," she said.

"It is when you're doing it in your sleep," Harry answered.

"We just need to get you past this whole nightmare business," Hermione's optimistic tone belied the fact that he'd been trying to do just that for nine years now.

Before Harry could completely lose his temper, a flare in the hearth attracted their attention. The torso of a grey haired, dignified-looking wizard with a strong, square jaw and hard blue eyes, dressed in scarlet Aurors robes appeared in the hearth.

"Good afternoon, Ron. I'm sorry to disturb you on your day off," the Auror said by way of greeting.

"No problem, sir. This is my wife, Hermione, and my friend, Harry Potter. Harry, Hermione, this is Chief Lawrence," Ron introduced.

"Pleased to meet you both," Lawrence said. It was a testament to the urgency of his business that, although his gaze rested on Harry with open curiosity a moment longer than polite, the Auror said nothing else before returning to his purpose for flooing in on a Saturday afternoon. "I need your help, Ron."

"Of course, sir. Do we need privacy?" Ron answered.

"No, it will become common knowledge too soon as it is, I'm sure," Lawrence answered with a grim expression.

"What can I do for you, sir?" Ron asked, sitting up straighter on the couch.

"Dan Martin and Tom McGregor flooed to the Headmistress' office two minutes ago. I've instructed them to wait for you. I want you to oversee the arrest," Lawrence said.

"What arrest?" Ron asked as Harry and Hermione stared at each other in surprise.

Little happened at Hogwarts that was a secret. An event important enough to merit Aurors and an arrest should have been all over the school in minutes. Remembering that it was a Hogsmeade weekend, Harry wondered what type of mischief the upper class students might have gotten up to in town. It had to have been bad if Aurors were involved.

Hermione and he watched Ron summon his Aurors robes with a mumbled spell and a flick of his wand. Ron was shouldering into the red garments that clashed horribly with his hair as his boss answered, "I've sent them to bring in Severus Snape."

All three of them stared at Lawrence in shock.

"On what charge, sir?" Ron finally asked in a confused voice.

"He's been accused of molesting a third year student in detention this afternoon," Lawrence replied with obvious distaste.

Molesting . . . .

Harry's blood seemed to turn to ice in his veins at the accusation; so unbelievable was it. "That's crazy. Snape would never touch a student!"

Ron's boss continued as though Harry hadn't spoken. "I want you to arrest him and turn him over to Azkaban's warden for holding until trial, Ron. And be careful," Lawrence counselled. "He's the last of You Know Who's living henchmen."

"He wasn't Voldemort's henchman!" Harry heard himself object, still too numbed by the shocking charge to properly react.

Lawrence affected not to hear him. "Let me know when he's in custody."

Ron stood there frozen for a moment before seeming to shake himself into motion, "Are we certain of the charge, sir? I know Professor Snape and –"

"Hogwarts' mediwitch examined the boy and questioned him under Veritaserum. He named Snape as his attacker," Lawrence practically spat. "Bring the bastard in."

"Yes, sir," Ron answered in a shaken tone.

Lawrence retreated into his own hearth and the floo connection was cut, leaving only dancing flames.

All three of them stared at each other in open shock. The crackle of the logs seemed cheerful and out of place in the sudden pall that had fallen on the room.

"There has to be some kind of mistake," Hermione got to her feet and smoothed down her robes.

"Yes, a mistake," Ron repeated, though he didn't sound too certain.

A Veritaserum testimony was difficult to disregard, Harry recognized.

"You don't believe it's true, do you?" Harry asked his best friend. Ron's hesitation was answer in itself. "Ron, it's Snape! We've known him for fifteen years!"

"I know, but . . . Harry, it's a Veritaserum testimony," Ron said.

"But we know Snape. Have you ever heard even a whisper about him touching a student?" Harry demanded.

Ron's face darkened. "I've dealt with this kind of situation before. Most times, the molester continues to prey on his victims for years. There are memory charms to ensure the victim's silence, and even when they aren't used, shame and threats can keep the poor kid just as silent. It's a dirty business, Harry. The worst of the worst," Ron looked quickly away, but not before Harry had caught the nearly haunted expression on his face.

Harry couldn't imagine what it was like having to deal with that type of depravity as part of your job. He supposed they were just lucky that the situation hadn't cropped up here at the school before this. Only, it hadn't cropped up this time, at least, not the way they were saying it had.

"But Snape wouldn't do this," Harry insisted. "You know that!"

Ron expression was torn as he answered, "Look, I don't know that at all, all right? I want to believe he didn't, but . . . we've known him for fifteen years, and in all that time I never once saw him so much as look at a woman, or another man, for that matter. Well, except maybe for you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry snapped.

Those familiar blue eyes were regarding him like he was an idiot. "He watches you all the time. He pretends he isn't, but he always is. But since you've been doing the same thing, I reckoned you knew about it."

Flabbergasted, Harry didn't know how to answer the accusation.

Hermione inserted herself between them where they stood arguing in front of the hearth. As she'd been doing since they were eleven, she focused their attention on the problem at hand. "This isn't the time for this. Ron, you've got to go sort this mess out."

"There isn't anything to sort out. I've been ordered to arrest him," Ron reminded them.

"You can't just march Professor Snape off to Azkaban," Hermione told him in a tone that would brook no argument. "Ron, Harry's right. This doesn't make any sense. Promise me you'll keep an open mind and at least give him a chance to defend himself?"

"What kind of defence is there for raping a child?" Ron challenged.

"He didn't rape a child," Harry shot back. "Or if he did, he was under Imperius."

"He never leaves the bloody school. Who here at Hogwarts even knows how to cast Imperius besides the three of us? Minerva? Hagrid? Flitwick? The spell books with the Unforgivables in them aren't even in the restricted section of the library anymore," Ron said. "I don't have time to argue with you. If you're coming, come along."

Harry nodded. "All right. Let's get up to Minerva's office and see what's going on."

"Flooing's faster," Hermione pointed out as he and Ron turned for the door.

"You're right," Harry agreed, reversing direction towards the fireplace.

"I wonder which student is involved," Hermione fretted as Ron threw a handful of floo powder into the flames and said, "Headmistress McGonagall's office."

A moment later, Harry was hurtling past the fireplaces in Hogwarts. He stumbled as he staggered out of the floo into the Headmistress' familiar office. Ron was already there, along with a very worried-looking Minerva McGonagall and two unfamiliar men in scarlet Aurors' robes.

He and Ron both turned to steady Hermione as the fireplace spat her out.

"I must admit I feel better that you're handling this case, Ron," Minerva said. She hadn't changed much since their schooldays. There was a bit more silver in the dark bun at the back of her head, but she was still one of the most formidable witches of the Wizarding World. "It's just terrible. In all my years at Hogwarts, we've never had a situation like this."

Rarely had Harry seen Minerva so openly upset. Every line on her lovely face was etched twice as deep as they had been yesterday.

Hermione crossed the room immediately to stand beside Minerva and put a hand on her arm. "Which student is involved?"

"Mr. Westfield," Minerva answered. Her wavery voice was strained to the point of sounding on the verge of tears. "Poppy has him sedated in the infirmary."

Harry grimaced. The third year Hufflepuff was one of their best students. The boy had the face of an angel, and the disposition of one as well. As far as he knew, Westfield had never given anyone a bit of trouble. With any professor other than Snape, Harry wouldn't have understood how Westfield could even earn a detention, but Snape would give a pupil detention for breathing too loud in class if the Potions master were in a foul mood.

"Hello, Tom, Dan," Ron nodded to his subordinates, and then introduced them to the Hogwarts' representatives. Tom McGregor was a stocky brunette with brown eyes who put Harry in mind of his dead schoolmate Goyle. Dan Martin, his partner, was a sandy haired, hazel-eyed man who was nearly as tall as Ron.

When the introductions were finished, Dan Martin said, "Ron, Chief Lawrence said we were to answer to you."

That fact made Harry feel somewhat better about all this. For all that Ron was often hot-headed, he was one of the fairest people Harry knew. He'd give Snape a chance. But Ron's orders were to bring Snape to Azkaban. Unless they could find Westfield's actual assailant or prove beyond a doubt that Snape hadn't done it, Snape was going to end up in Azkaban prison. Harry wouldn't condemn his worst enemy to that dementor-infested hellhole, let alone a man he'd known for more than half his life.

"That's right." Ron nodded. "I suppose we'd better get down to the dungeons and make the arrest."

Ron was clearly no more enamoured of his assignment than Harry was.

"Professor Snape isn't in the dungeon," Minerva said as Ron and his associates turned towards the door.

"He's not?" Ron asked. "Where is he, then? He's always in the dungeons."

"When Poppy told me about Mr. Westfield's charge, I called Severus up here. He's waiting in the next room," Minerva answered, gesturing towards a door off to their left where Harry had often been asked to wait during his schooldays when Albus had occupied these rooms.

"Has this room got a silencing spell on it?" Ron asked, his hand slipping into the pocket that held his wand.

Minerva was obviously more concerned about her privacy than Professor Dumbledore had ever been because she gave a peevish, "Of course."

All three Aurors were visibly relieved by her answer.

Harry could see how nervous they were about opening that door and making their arrest. Even Ron seemed reluctant, although perhaps not for the same reason as his associates. Snape's part in the final battle against Voldemort had made him nearly as much of a legend as Harry himself was these days, which was probably why Martin and McGregor were ambivalent about facing Snape. Ron's reluctance no doubt came from the fact that he knew the accused so well.

After a moment, Ron turned decisively for the door. To their credit, his men were right at his side as he moved.

Harry made sure he entered right behind them.

The room was very much as Harry remembered: smaller than the office, lined with towering bookshelves filled with strange tomes and even stranger curios. A large table now stood where several armchairs had been in Dumbledore's day.

Snape sat at the end of the table, his long-nosed face bent over an open book. A wall of bevelled glass windows behind him bathed him in light. Harry knew that assault must be driving him crazy. Snape had never liked bright lights.

Eyes darker than ink glanced up as the door opened. Harry saw Snape's expression go from familiar irritation to confusion as the Potions master caught sight of Ron in his official red robes and the two Aurors beside him.

As Minerva entered, Snape asked with his usual sneer, "Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what I'm doing here, Minerva?"

Before the Headmistress could respond, Ron answered, "I'm afraid you're under arrest, by Order of the Ministry of Magic."

In the nine years that had passed since Voldemort's defeat, Severus Snape hadn't lost any of his espionage abilities. His expression never faltered as he asked with studied calm, "May I enquire as to what charge has been brought against me?"

"Assault, sodomy, and the sexual molestation of a student," the Goyle-like Auror, Tom McGregor, supplied in a disgusted tone that made it plain that he believed they had their perpetrator.

Snape was so good at controlling his emotions in a crisis that Harry knew he was the only person in the room that probably read the shock Snape was hiding.

"What student?" Snape asked after a prolonged silence.

"Carl Westfield," the sandy-haired Auror, Martin, answered.

"But he was at detention just this afternoon . . ." Snape began, finishing with a quiet, "I see. I was alone with him during the hour he served his detention. Is that when this purported assault is supposed to have happened?"

"You know that's when it happened," the shorter Auror, Tom McGregor, angrily answered, his wide cheeks turning red.

Snape took a deep breath. "Mr. Westfield never struck me as the type to engage in such malicious mischief, but a dose of Veritaserum should clear up this matter."

"Mr. Westfield has already been questioned under Veritaserum, Severus," Minerva informed her accused employee in a manner rife with disappointment and betrayal. She barely seemed able to look at Snape. "He claims you were his attacker."

"I . . . see," Snape said slowly, closing the book in front of him. Harry could see the tremor that was running through that scratched hand and its familiar, chemical-stained fingers. "I suppose it wouldn't make any difference to protest my innocence?" That dark gaze went from face to face before he finally answered his own question with, "Apparently not."

"Look, this is crazy. Professor Snape didn't do this," Harry insisted, breaking the ensuing silence.

Everyone, with the possible exceptions of Hermione and Snape, turned to stare their disagreement at him. Clearly, the two Aurors were convinced of Snape's guilt. Ron seemed uncertain, while Minerva looked as though she were bearing the weight of the entire Wizarding World on her slender shoulders.

"I am willing to undergo questioning under Veritaserum myself to prove my innocence," Snape said into the awkward silence.

Harry saw Ron relax at the offer. "Right. That will solve it. Dan, the infirmary is three floors down, west side of the stairs. Go down and ask the mediwitch there for a bottle of – "

"Ron," McGregor, the Auror who resembled Goyle, interrupted. "Snape is a Potions master. If anyone would know how to circumvent Veritaserum, it would be him. He makes the stuff they use in the infirmary, doesn't he?"

Ron's face was as open as Snape's was shuttered. The hope there died with embarrassing clarity at McGregor's observation. "Damn. You're right. He does make Hogwarts' Veritaserum."

"So get some from the Hogsmeade apothecary, then," Harry insisted, losing patience with this scene.

"And how do we know he hasn't invented a potion to circumvent Veritaserum?" McGregor demanded.

"There is no drug to circumvent Veritaserum," Harry reminded. "That's why we use it – because it's foolproof."

"He's a Potions master. Even I've heard how good he is," McGregor shot back. "If anyone could invent a remedy for Veritaserum, he could. He invented all kinds of potions like that for Voldemort."

"He has a point, Harry," Ron said in a pained tone. "We're going to have to bring him in."

"And what about the monster who actually molested Westfield?" Harry demanded.

"What?" Ron asked, sounding so vacuous that Harry wanted to hex him.

"Professor Snape didn't do this. You know that he didn't. That means that the man who did it is still at large," Harry pointed out.

"The boy testified under Veritaserum," McGregor sneered, pulling a small crystal ball from his pocket. "The testimony's recorded here. Would you like to hear the details of how Snape bent the boy over his desk and put it to him?"

"Tom, there are ladies present!" Ron snapped, his freckles standing out against his flushed face.

"I don't care if you've got a dozen Veritaserum-induced testimonies, a hundred eyewitnesses, and a Muggle video recording of the entire crime," Harry said, his temper getting the better of him. "Professor Snape didn't do this."

"Then how do you explain Westfield's testimony?" McGregor demanded.

"I can't explain it. The only thing Veritaserum proves is that the boy believes what he's saying is true," Harry reminded them.

"Harry," Minerva reluctantly interjected, "there's medical proof to back up the boy's claim. Mr. Westfield was sexually assaulted. As much as I'd like to believe that Professor Snape is innocent, all the proof lies against him."

"I'm not contesting that Westfield was assaulted or even that he believes that Professor Snape was responsible. All I'm questioning is whether the evidence proved that it was Snape that assaulted him. We'd need a Muggle forensics test on the semen to prove that. Was one done?" Harry questioned.

"You know we don't hold with Muggle ways," the taller Auror, Martin, entered the conversation. He sounded put out by the very idea of employing Muggle tests.

"Well, maybe we should start. Right here, right now," Harry suggested. "Seamus Finnigan's sister is a copper on the London force. We could ask her to –"

"Harry," it was Hermione who interrupted him this time, albeit reluctantly, "I'm sure Poppy has performed a cleansing spell on poor Westfield by now. She wouldn't have had any reason to save the . . . evidence once he'd been questioned under Veritaserum."

"Why are you so damn sure that he's innocent?" McGregor asked, his face hard as stone. "We all know what he was. They say that he still bears the Dark Mark on his arm."

That's what it always came down to in the end, Harry realized, that damn mark on Snape's arm. Harry had seen this attitude time and again, to the point where he almost felt sorry for Snape.

"And I bear a scar on my forehead that's just as old. That Dark Mark is no more who Severus Snape is today than my scar is who I am. I'm sure he's innocent because I know the man. He would never touch a student, not ever," Harry argued.

"No? I've heard horror stories from everyone I know who took his classes. Every one of his students was terrified of him," McGregor replied.

"Look, being a strict teacher makes him disliked; it doesn't make him a monster. If you told me that Snape ridiculed Westfield and the boy flung himself to his death from the Astronomy Tower, that I could believe, but not this, not of Severus Snape. Ron, you know him. Snape just wouldn't do this! For God's sake, he put himself between all three of us and a werewolf when we were Westfield's age."

"Harry," Ron tried to reason with him, "I don't want to do this, but . . . We've got the victim's testimony under Veritaserum. You don't get a more cut and dried case than that. I'm sorry, but I've got my orders."

"It could have been a Polyjuice potion!" Harry suggested, unsure why he was so desperate and so angry over this. If asked yesterday, he wouldn't even have admitted to liking his former teacher, but here he was arguing with his best friend and two Aurors on Snape's behalf.

"The boy said it happened during detention with Snape," McGregor pointed out. "Are you suggesting there were two Snapes there and the real one didn't notice his twin bug – er, molesting his student?"

Every argument they were making was airtight. It couldn't have been Polyjuice Potion, not in light of Westfield's testimony, but Harry knew just as firmly that it couldn't have been Severus Snape who'd assaulted their student.

"I'm sorry, Harry," Ron said, giving a nod to his men. "He'll have his day in court."

"And we know how that will go, don't we?" Harry sneered, furious with them all now. "You know the kind of Kangaroo Court the Ministry puts on. You know what happened to Sirius, what happened to me! Ron, don't do this, please!"

Was he the only sane person in this room? If they arrested Snape, the villain who'd assaulted Westfield would still be running free. With Snape in prison, the Aurors wouldn't even be looking for the actual perpetrator.

"I'm sorry, Harry," Ron repeated, visibly miserable.

McGregor and Martin moved towards Snape, with Martin respectfully requesting, "Your wand, if you would, sir?"

The Aurors hadn't taken two steps towards Snape when Harry planted himself between them and their suspect. His holly wand was out and pointed at both McGregor and Martin before they'd taken their third step and before Harry himself was even aware of what he was doing. Stunned, Harry heard himself threaten, "You're going to have to go through me first."

Both Aurors froze, as any wizard would when faced with the man who'd destroyed Voldemort.

Minerva, Hermione, and Ron appeared as speechless with shock as the Aurors. It was plain from everyone's expression that no one knew how to respond to his action.

Harry himself wasn't even sure what he was going to do now that he'd interfered. All he knew was that he couldn't just stand there and allow Snape to be marched off to Azkaban without a fight.

The air seemed to literally thicken with tension around them as the silence deepened.

The moment stretched until Snape's deep, cultured voice softly asked from behind him, "Potter, what are you doing?"

"You're innocent and they're not feeding you to those damned dementors," Harry answered without blinking or taking his eyes off the two Aurors in front of him. He wasn't concerned with attacks from behind. The one thing the war had taught him was that he could always trust Snape with his back.

The silence stretched. More than uncomfortable, it was actively painful. The air actually felt as if it were solidifying around him.

Harry knew that he could take the two Aurors in front of him faster than either of them could draw breath to voice a spell. The only real threat in the room was Ron; for no matter what, Harry could never hurt him. And Ron knew it. But his best friend was standing as still as his two subordinates, as though Ron were unwilling to push this scene to its inevitable conclusion.


Harry stiffened as that lush, near-hypnotic voice spoke from behind him again. He was about to snap from the prolonged tension, but Snape's soothing voice was a balm to his jangled nerves.

Startled, he realized that Snape had never called him by his first name before.

"This isn't the way. Please lower your wand," Snape requested in a quiet, determined tone. How much it took for him to ask his sole defender to abandon the fight, Harry couldn't guess.

Harry didn't move. Neither did anyone in front of him. Hermione and Minerva were wide-eyed and motionless as statues beside the bookshelf to the left of the door. Looking like he'd been petrified, Ron stood on the right side of the door beside a strange collection of moving spheres that pulsed with all the colours of the spectrum as they circled each other. The two hapless Aurors were halfway across the room, looking as though they were about to wet themselves. The bizarre tableau had every appearance of going on for hours.

Harry heard a chair scrape behind him, and then the whispering sound of shifting fabric. Snape's right hand, the one with the ugly red scratch on the back, reached around from behind Harry and calmly took hold of his wand, acting for all the world as if Harry weren't the primed explosive his friends' horrified stares were making him out to be.

"That is your oldest friend over there. Consider what you're doing. Stop, please. You can't do it this way," Snape said, stepping in front of him to stare deep into his eyes.

Harry would have almost thought Snape were casting Imperius on him, for he did absolutely nothing to prevent Snape from plucking his wand out of his hand.

All hell should have broken loose once Harry was disarmed, but, still, no one moved.

Harry was shocked at Snape's action and darkly amused at the same time, for he recognized that Snape was now the only one in the room holding a wand, and that the two Aurors were just as awed by the former Death Eater as they were by the Boy Who Lived.

Snape reached down and placed Harry's holly wand into the robe pocket where Harry always carried it. Stepping back to his seat at the end of the ornately carved table, Snape removed his own wand from his pocket and held it out to McGregor on his open palm.

Moving as though he expected Avada Kedavra to be used against him at any moment, McGregor took the few steps necessary to do his job.

Once his wand was in the Auror's hand, Snape softly said to McGregor, "I realize that I'm in no position to ask for favours, but I respectfully request that you not hold Professor Potter's actions against him. We fought together in the war. Old loyalties are difficult to forget."

Those words hit Harry like Cruciatus. All he wanted to do was scream in frustration. He'd failed. And Snape was going to end up in Azkaban because he couldn't make this right.

As the potion master's wand was taken from him, Harry could clearly see the fear Snape was holding in check, could sense how close his former teacher was to losing his cool as well. He knew how disastrous it was every time Snape lost his temper, so Harry did his best to tone down his own anger and get his emotions back under control.

The sleepless night and exhausting labours of the day weren't making it easy, though. His emotions were all too close to the surface for his comfort. Standing frozen like an ice sculpture, for fear of what he'd do if he moved, Harry tried to work through the wild feelings coursing through him. He felt like Ron or Hermione were under attack. He was as pushed to his limits as he'd been that awful day when Voldemort had finally made his move on Hogwarts, and he'd learned firsthand why full-grown wizards feared to utter the Dark Lord's name aloud. The turbulent emotions churning through him and the power they called up weren't something he could control; they were something to be unleashed.

But for all their sakes, Harry couldn't unleash them. He had to control himself. For Snape's sake, he had to hold them together and get them through this, the same way Snape had held them together at the final battle once Voldemort had entered his mind.

Belatedly, Harry recognized that Snape was right. Cursing two Aurors wasn't the way to handle this.

Still uncertain as to what course to take, Harry took a deep breath and waited for the rest of the room to defuse.

Snape's actions seemed to have totally derailed the Aurors. Both McGregor and Martin turned to Ron for direction.

Ron looked as though he were about to be sick. He was obviously as upset by the idea of condemning Snape to Azkaban as Harry was himself. After another of those eternal, nerve-wracking pauses, Ron seemed to deflate. "I can't do this. There has to be another way." His best friend's troubled gaze turned where it always did any time the world got the best of him. "Hermione? Any ideas?"

Hermione ran a hand over her hair, which was beginning to escape from its braid. "The only way you can get around having to take him in is to prove beyond a doubt that Professor Snape is innocent and determine who the guilty party is."

"How do we do that when the victim believes Snape attacked him?" Ron asked, rubbing his worried face. Scarlet had never been his colour and his Auror robes were making him look particularly pasty at the moment.

"I don't know, Ron. The Veritaserum testimony is fairly damning. It's a pity we can't just read Professor Snape's mind to prove his innocence, but that's a Dark Art that hasn't been taught in more than two centuries."

"What is?" Ron looked totally perplexed, with reason. Few wizards even knew that the mental disciplines Albus Dumbledore had forced Snape to teach him in fifth year were more than legend. Like mage fire, they were abilities that had been intentionally forgotten throughout the ages.

Beginning to see a way through this, Harry met Snape's eyes.

Snape's emphatic "No," was voiced at the same instant Hermione answered Ron's question with, "Legilimency."

"No to what, Severus?" Minerva asked.

"It's not called Legilimency?" Ron questioned, massacring the Latin pronunciation as badly as ever. Their speaking at cross-purposes would almost have been funny had the situation not been so serious.

"That's what it's called," Hermione insisted. "I read three books that referred to it. None contained instructions on how to work the spell, but I remember its name."

"It's not a spell," Harry softly corrected, his crazed emotions calming as a plan formed in his mind. "It's a discipline, like Muggle yoga. It combines both a wizard's mental and magical abilities, enabling him to perform a type of telepathy. And Legilimency has been taught in the last two centuries. Professor Dumbledore insisted that I learn it."

Harry carefully refrained from mentioning who'd taught him the skills.

"What?" Hermione yelped. "Professor Dumbledore had you taught a forbidden Dark Art?"

Harry hadn't known it was forbidden. "We needed it in the fight against Voldemort. It helped me keep him out of my dreams in fifth year."

Harry held his breath, praying that Minerva wouldn't volunteer the identity of the only teacher he'd had private sessions with that horrible year, but although Minerva's worried blue gaze darted to Snape, she didn't say anything.

"Does anyone else find this awfully convenient?" McGregor asked. "Just when we need a mind reader, the only person here convinced of the suspect's innocence suddenly remembers that he's a telepath."

"I didn't suddenly remember. It's a forbidden art, not one I care to talk about or use. It was taught to me for a very specific purpose and I haven't employed it since," Harry replied.

"You expect us to believe that you can read minds, but choose not to?" McGregor challenged.

Furious again, Harry met those malicious brown eyes. "I don't give a –" recalling Minerva's presence, he toned his response down to, ". . . damn what you believe. Unlike your accusations against Professor Snape, my claim can be backed by empirical evidence."

"What evidence?" McGregor shot back.

"With your permission, I'd be more than happy to prove my abilities," Harry suggested.

"Sure, prove away. What am I thinking right now?" McGregor demanded.

It had been so long since he'd used these arts that Harry wasn't even certain he could still do it. He looked into those flinty brown eyes, then calmed and cleared his mind as much as he could. It was shocking how quickly he remembered. He reached out from inside his own head and sank past McGregor's feeble mental guards.

Normally, it was disconcerting to enter another person's mind. The barrage of thoughts and emotions was always confusing, making it difficult to find anything specific. But McGregor was concentrating so hard on his test that Harry didn't even have to look for the answer. The Auror was practically shouting it at him. Once he got a clear view of the X-rated scene McGregor was projecting at him, Harry immediately pulled back from the images that filled his thoughts. "Choose something I can say in front of the Headmistress, please."

McGregor paled. "You could have guessed that. What am I thinking now?"

Harry made another slight mental probe into the Auror's thoughts. Once again, the answer was right there on the surface. Harry picked the answer up without even having to search. "You had a crup named Homer when you were six. She was eaten by a –"

"Merlin's beard, there's no way he could know that," McGregor whispered, taking an instinctive step back.

"Well, that seems sufficient proof of Harry's abilities," Hermione said, her tone relaying her shock.

McGregor nodded. "Okay, he can do what he claims he can, but -"

"What now?" Harry demanded.

McGregor looked to Ron. "How can we be sure that what he tells us is the truth? He's obviously Snape's friend . . . ."

Hermione, Ron, and Minerva all simultaneously made some type of protest along the lines of, "Harry/Professor Potter wouldn't lie."

Harry stared at McGregor until the man shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. Only then did he explain, "I'm not going to lie to protect a monster. You've got the wrong man. The only way we're going to find the guilty one is to prove Professor Snape's innocence."

"And if you look into his mind and find he's guilty?" McGregor asked.

"I'll take him to Azkaban myself," Harry promised. Only at that moment did he realize just how much he was banking on his faith in the integrity of a man he didn't even like.

At that point Ron seemed to remember that he was in charge of the investigation. "Go ahead, Harry."

"Am I to have no say in this? It is, after all, my mind that is about to be plundered," Snape said from the far end of the table.

All eyes once again turned Snape's way.

As ever, Snape presented a sinister image with his completely black garb and sour expression. If Harry didn't know better, he'd swear the man looked guilty as hell. It was little wonder McGregor was as suspicious.

But from his position at the other end of the table, Harry could see how tense Snape was. Snape sat almost at attention, his spine stiff as his straight-backed chair. Beneath the wings of his severe hair, he was white-lipped with either fear or fury. Harry couldn't tell which. But he knew he was the only one in the room who could tell how upset Snape was; to the rest of the world, the Potions master would probably seem his usual unpleasant, unflappable self. In fact, given his present reluctance to have his mind probed, Snape would probably seem guilty as hell to everyone.

But Harry knew the cause of Snape's hesitation to embrace the one chance he had at retaining his freedom. Feeling his own cheeks heat with shame, he remembered sticking his wand into a shimmering bowl of light and viewing sensitive events that were never meant for his eyes.

Clearing his throat, Harry took a step closer to Snape. "I'm not fifteen anymore, sir. I've learned to respect boundaries."

Harry had rarely seen indecision in those obsidian eyes, and therefore had difficulty recognizing it.

When Snape said nothing, Harry continued, "It's up to you. I won't do anything without your permission, but . . . if we don't confirm your innocence, Ron will have no choice. He'll have to arrest you."

"So, it's either you or the dementors violating my mind – is that the choice?" Snape sneered.

Defeat was another thing Harry had never before seen in this arrogant man.

"I'm afraid so. But it is your choice," Harry said.

That it was such a difficult decision to make startled Harry. The idea that anyone would actually have to choose between him and a dementor hurt. Were he in Snape's shoes, he would have jumped at any chance to prove his innocence.

Or would he, if he were Snape? Were their situations reversed, Harry wouldn't hesitate to allow Snape to probe his mind, for Snape had done it repeatedly during their Legilimency and Occlumency lessons and he trusted Snape's proven integrity, but he was painfully aware that his teacher had had a radically different experience during those lessons than he'd had. Snape hadn't been dealing with an honourable man, but a headstrong, mistrustful teenager who'd violated his privacy and trust in the worst way imaginable. In retrospect, Harry couldn't blame Snape for his reluctance.

"Only a guilty man would refuse the chance to prove himself," McGregor commented, a malicious, triumphant glow lighting his Goyle-like face.

Harry hated him at that moment.

"Or someone who's been victimized by these abilities," Harry snapped back, tired of the Auror's prejudice.

"What do you mean?" McGregor asked.

Everyone knew that Snape had spied for Albus Dumbledore. Was the man an utter moron? But, no, looking at McGregor, Harry realized that the Auror was a full five years his junior. Not stupid, just young, and dedicated. McGregor would have only known of Voldemort through hearsay, after the Dark Lord had been conquered. McGregor would have had no concept of the risks Dumbledore's most trusted agent had taken by walking right into their enemy's court. Doubtless, all McGregor could see was the victimized child up in the infirmary. The Auror was right in that the child needed justice, but justice meant finding the guilty party, not arresting the most convenient suspect.

"Voldemort knew how to use Legilimency. Why do you think Professor Dumbledore had us learn how to defend against it? Every time Professor Dumbledore asked him to, Professor Snape walked alone into that serpent's nest, and every time he did, he had to hide what he was from the Dark Lord, either by placing his thoughts in a pensieve before leaving Hogwarts or by taking a chance and concealing them through his own mental disciplines. You've never had anyone digging through your mind for a secret, McGregor. Be grateful for that. Professor Snape has endured that, and more," Harry explained.

Harry looked back at Snape in time to catch a fleeting expression in his eyes. It was quickly concealed, but Harry saw his surprise.

"Have you decided?" Harry asked Snape, and then threw the potion master's own words back at him. "Will it be me or the dementors?"

The grimace that twisted that homely face was classic Snape as the older wizard spat, "You, I suppose. Get on with it before I change my mind."

Trying to block out his awareness of the other people in the room, Harry stepped up to Snape's chair, as reluctant to read Snape's thoughts as Snape was to have them read. It didn't help that Snape looked like he was braced for a a hostile assault. Muscles tensed, Snape was perched on the end of his seat as if he were ready to flee. Stepping close, Harry could see a glowing sheen of sweat breaking out on the brow visible between the dangling black hair. He could hear how rapidly his former teacher was breathing.

Harry didn't waste any time. He once again cleared his own thoughts, dropped his mental guards, and reached out from the inside as this man had taught him to do years ago.

The sensation was akin to leaving his body behind. For an instant he was nowhere, then he became physically aware again. It was disconcerting to feel the differences between Snape's body and his own: the long hair veiling most of his face, the press of Snape's layered, heavy dark clothes against his skin. The most noticeable difference was the muscular tension; the stiffness in all parts of this body that was completely alien to Harry. It almost felt like Snape were holding himself at attention.

Well, he'd touched Snape on some level; that was clear. Now all he had to do was make the mental connection. Harry opened his mind to the potion master's and reached out.

His probe slammed so hard into a solid metal wall that he actually grunted in surprise. He'd never encountered anything like it. The obstruction was as real as the flagstones under his feet. The gunmetal grey wall rose as tall as his mind could see and went on to the horizon in both directions, higher and longer than the Great Wall of China. Harry could see the bolts that had been pounded into the solid iron strips. It felt thicker than the Forbidden Forest to him.

"Are you all right, Harry?" Ron asked from a million miles away.

Harry stared at the wall he'd hit. No door, no windows, no weak point. It might be sheer illusion, but it was impenetrable.

"Sir," Harry said softly, "you have to let me in. I won't force my way through this."

Behind him, McGregor's voice was saying, "Force through what?"

Hermione reprimanded him in her teacher's voice, "Be quiet, the lot of you. Harry needs to concentrate."

The wall remained as solid as the castle around him.

"Please, sir?" Harry whispered.

The grey iron in front of him seemed to shimmer. After a moment, a narrow break appeared between two bolts. It widened until it was large enough for him to squeeze through – just barely.

Harry stared through the hole. It was pitch black on the other side.

As usual, Snape wasn't making anything easy for him.

Taking a deep breath, Harry pushed his shoulders and then the rest of his body through the barely sufficient break in the icy cold metal. It was fully as thick as he feared, seeming to be at least four feet deep on each side. It was an almost claustrophobic squeeze, and he had the horrible fear that the sides would snap closed when he was in the centre, crushing him like a fly. That would be just like Snape.

But the break stayed open, and Harry sidled through. When he was finally past the walls, he shuffled into total darkness.

There wasn't even a hint of light. Wherever he was, it was blacker than the Chamber of Secrets. But at least he was inside Snape's mind, even if the man were holding him in some nightmarish vestibule. They could communicate thought to thought now, without the need to share what they were saying with everyone else in the Headmistress' office.

I know this isn't what you think about all day, Professor, Harry thought at Snape. Any chance of getting some light in here?

He felt the other man's irritation as though it were his own, and then Snape's chagrin as he realized that he was reading his emotions. The feelings stopped as if Snape had thrown a switch. A heartbeat later, a blinding white light filled what looked like an empty white room. Well, he'd asked for light.

Harry blinked, feeling tears fill his stinging eyes as he tried to focus in the painful brightness.

A moment later, a bubbling black iron cauldron appeared on top of a small fire a few feet in front of him, and Harry felt/sensed Snape's resolve to watch that cauldron bubble for the rest of eternity, if need be.

We don't have the rest of eternity, Harry mentally corrected. If you don't help me prove your innocence, you're not even going to have the rest of the day! You're like me, sir. You have real horrors in your past. You know what the dementors will do to you. You won't survive the night in Azkaban, let alone until your trial. You have to trust me. You have to let me in.

The cauldron kept bubbling, but he heard a nearly ironic voice softly challenge, Trust you, Potter?

Suddenly, Harry knew that Snape was as perturbed as the potion bubbling in that cauldron. Although the illusion of the white room and the brewing cauldron remained firm around him, Harry felt the emotional wounds that a legion of unspecified betrayals had left in this bitter man. The only betrayal he saw clearly was Snape catching his fifteen year old self with his wand in that pensieve, but Harry wasn't certain if that were Snape's memory or his own.

Yes, trust, Harry insisted.

Why should I? You could damn me by confirming the charges and I wouldn't be able to muster a single defence, Snape sneered. The bubbles in the cauldron erupted more violently, as though the heat beneath the pot had been increased.

Snape was furious, and frightened, Harry recognized, surprised by that last. Snape was frightened as he'd never seen this formidable man afraid before, even when they were locked in a life or death battle with Voldemort and losing the fight.

I could have done that without coming in here, if that were my plan. If you don't believe me, read me for yourself, Harry offered, dropping his mental barriers completely to allow Snape to do his own probing.

But Snape didn't enter his mind. After a moment, the cauldron's bubbles calmed to their earlier steady stream. Harry seemed to hear a whisper from the popping bubbles. He is not his father, not his father . . . .

With that echo, Harry pieced the puzzle together. Snape had allowed the illusion to slip ever so slightly. Most people wouldn't have made the connection, but the instant he heard that cauldron whisper, he knew how Snape had created this illusion in a place where there should be only honesty. When he'd reached for Snape's thoughts, he should have entered directly into Snape's mind instead of this surreal holding cell. He'd been confused when he hadn't, but now he recognized that it was impossible for him to have arrived anywhere else other than his destination once Snape had opened the hole in his guards. Therefore, he had to have reached his destination, which meant . . . .

The cauldron was Snape's mind. Now that he knew the truth, Harry could sense that the bubbles were the thoughts and emotions he'd been sent to sift through. All he had to do was focus his will on that madly bubbling pot, and he'd have anything he wanted from Snape – if he were willing to rip through enough barriers to get to it.

No sooner had the whisper that was barely there died then the cauldron started to bubble furiously again as Snape no doubt recognized his error. With Harry in his brain like this he wouldn't be able to create another protective illusion to replace this one, for Harry would pick up on his intention to deceive. He needed only to throw the force of his will against that cauldron, and the entire white room and pot would dissolve around him. He could feel Snape bracing himself for him to do just that.

Harry considered it for all of two seconds. But forcing Snape's memories would make them adversaries. He wasn't here to do battle; he was here to help, even if the cantankerous misanthrope couldn't see that. So, rather than attacking the illusion, Harry sat down on the totally white floor that had neither hardness nor softness to it, but simply was, and watched the cauldron percolate.

I won't force you, sir. It's up to you. Like you said, it's me or the dementors.

The frenzied boiling in the pot gradually slowed to a steady simmer.

Harry could feel Snape all around him, watching him, evaluating. Finally, the white around him started to fade away. The cauldron flickered before his eyes. Between one breath and the next, the illusion vanished.

Instead of a sterile white room, Harry found himself rocked by a dizzying montage of colour, images, emotions, and information that formed the typical chaos of a human mind. After all of that calm whiteness, the din and shifting images were nearly too much. Harry couldn't focus on any one thing. Trying to grab hold of one of Snape's passing thoughts or feelings was akin to attempting to grasp something while being tossed about in the funnel of a tornado. Even so, below the reeling montage, Harry could hear one thought replaying over and over again like a Muggle recording. He is not his father, not his father . . . .

His heart twisted at that desperate mantra. More than a quarter of a century had passed since his dad had died, and Snape was still so scarred by whatever the hell had passed between them that his resemblance to his father was enough to utterly unsettle the man. He wanted to do something to reassure Snape that he was right, that he wasn't his dad, but Harry knew that would only rattle his colleague further. So, he waited silently while the anxiety raged around him.

When it showed no hint of abating, Harry sent a soft call of, Sir? out into the maelstrom.

Ever so slowly, the swirling storm stilled around him, telling Harry that he'd caught Snape's attention.

I need you to show me what happened at detention today. Can you do that?

Snape's snide voice seemed to boom through his entire being as he snarled, Nothing happened in detention today.

Show me, please? Harry requested.

Another prolonged pause followed in which Harry was tossed about in the rocky swirl of the mind around him. In that wild collage of confusion, Harry picked up one clear impression – for the briefest of instants, he experienced the shame and horror Snape was feeling at being accused of this heinous act. It was gone as fast as Harry fixed onto it.

As Snape concentrated on his request, the turmoil around him stilled. As soon as Snape focused on the memory, Harry was abruptly snapped into the Hogwarts' dungeon Potions' classroom. The perspective was Snape's from his desk, where he sat grading a stack of fifth year test papers. Harry stared at the ugly rip across the top of the hand holding the quill as Snape took ten points off a Gryffindor paper for a wrong answer that he'd detracted two points from the previous Slytherin paper for the identical mistake.

There was a sound at the door. Snape, and, perforce, Harry, watched out of the corner of his eye as the black-robed, blond Hufflepuff student reluctantly shuffled into the empty classroom.

"I'm here, Professor Snape," the boy stammered.

Harry felt Snape's irritation at the interruption. He looked up, met the boy's red-rimmed blue eyes and ordered, "The stinkweed is there on your workbench, Mr. Westfield. Kindly chop it all up into even pieces two inches in length," Snape said, waving his scratched right hand in the general direction of a desk with a huge pile of green weeds on it. Then Snape returned his, and, therefore Harry's, attention to a ludicrously inaccurate answer on the paper he was grading.

Harry could hear the rustle of the boy's robes in the quiet dungeon as Westfield took his seat, then, a minute or two later, the sound of steady chopping began.

Westfield had been crying before he came to detention? Harry asked of Snape's mind.

What? Snape responded, the image before them seeming to freeze in place as the Potions master focused on his question.

Look at his eyes, Harry suggested, calling Snape's attention to Westfield's eyes. Snape's mind rewound the image to the instant when he'd looked up as the boy entered the room, seeming to see Westfield's face for the first time. The boy's eyes were as red as Harry's were whenever he'd had the nightmares for three or four nights straight. Harry knew without needing to be told that the boy had cried his heart out recently. He felt Snape share that thought.

I hadn't noticed, Snape said.

What happened next? Harry asked.

Harry absorbed a fast-forward detailing of Westfield's detention, which was really an in-depth fifth year Potions review, since Snape never even looked at the student after Westfield had begun chopping his stinkweed.

It wasn't until a timid, "Professor, I'm done," interrupted his grading that Snape raised his eyes from the tests.

Snape, and, therefore, Harry's gaze, jumped to the worktable to take in the pile of neatly chopped weeds. Harry felt Snape's satisfaction with a job well done as though it were his own as the Potions master appraised his student's work.

There was no praise uttered, however. All Snape did was give a bored sounding, "Very well. You're dismissed. Be sure to get your homework in on schedule next time."

Harry didn't even get to see Westfield leave, for Snape's attention was so firmly focused on his papers as soon as he'd dismissed his student that he never even watched the boy exit the dungeon.

That's it? Harry asked of Snape's mind. He opened every sense he had, searching for subterfuge, for the mind strong enough to create that white room and cauldron illusion was a force to be reckoned with.

In its entirety, came Snape's reply.

Harry felt the body around him tense, but it wasn't with deceit. He had the briefest glimpse of his host's dread of having his mind plundered to verify the memory before those thoughts were closed to him.

But it wasn't thoughts Harry wanted to focus on. It was feelings, for, in his experience, emotions never lied. He focused on those fleeting sensations around him as intensely as he possibly could. There was no place Snape could have hidden, no chance of him lying.

All he could feel was Snape's fear that his memory wouldn't be believed: that there'd be more probing, more examining; that in the end, Potter would see that he'd told the truth, but condemn him out of spite, as Snape had found himself condemned every time he'd ever been vulnerable.

The emotions packed into that last bitter thought hit Harry as hard as Cruciatus, for that was the only comparison he had to the level of pain.

The man lived with that every day?

Harry took a deep breath and tried to shake the almost visceral reverberations that Snape's hurt called forth in his own heart. But it was hard to let go of it. He'd always considered Severus Snape a cold-blooded bastard with a penchant for cruelty and sarcasm. He'd had to learn to trust the Potions master as a brother-in-arms, but he'd never liked him. All he'd ever seen of Snape was his pettiness. He'd never considered what had engendered that mean-spiritedness. Harry realized now that he should have done. The Legilimency and Occlumency lessons Snape had given him had granted him some insight into Snape's unhappy childhood. He'd known that there was more to Snape than his acerbic tongue.

Unsure why he felt so guilty, Harry tried to figure out what his next move should be. His instinct was to reassure, to send comforting feelings flowing across their mental link to Snape. Only, he knew that Snape would not appreciate his empathy. Snape would just be even more incensed that Harry had read his weakness.

So, in the end, Harry focused on his own feelings, savouring his sense of triumph that his faith had been justified. There'd been no rape, no abuse. The detention Snape had shown him was all that had occurred in the Slytherin dungeons this afternoon – just as he'd known that was all there would be. Aside from the absence of baiting, Westfield's detention with Snape hadn't gone any differently from the scores of punishments Harry remembered serving with the man.

Harry sensed a change in the emotions of the environment around him. Thus far, Snape had regarded him as a hostile intruder. He knew that Snape had been hiding every emotion he could as far away from his observation as possible, showing him only what was absolutely required by the memory or what had seeped out by accident. But now unfiltered shock swept through Snape's mental guards.

What is it? Harry asked.

There was a pause, in which he knew Snape was debating the wisdom of answering. Finally, Snape mindspoke to him, You really do believe me innocent.


That simple word seemed to rock Snape's equilibrium.

Unwilling to intrude any more than he'd had to, Harry softly sent, I think that's all I need. Thank you.

Harry prepared for the somewhat more traumatizing process of disentangling himself from the other man's mind. Like fucking, going in always seemed to come naturally to Harry, while pulling out was never nearly as fluid.

Indeed? Harry heard a sardonic voice question and knew he'd let the thought leak out.

Wondering if a person could blush while inside another's mind, Harry ignored the jibe.

Just as the white entry chamber had faded around him, so did the Slytherin dungeon as Snape released the memory.

Harry was momentarily thrown to feel a wave of sheer terror crash over him as he was once again faced with the maelstrom of Snape's consciousness. It was speedily subdued and crushed like every other emotion Snape had experienced since Harry had entered his mind, but Harry had felt this one strongly enough to identify it. He could also sense the other man's dread. Snape's stomach was clenched tighter than a fist, his entire body rigid with an anxiety that even this master of suppression couldn't thwart.

What is it? Harry asked, totally thrown. He'd confirmed the man's innocence. What was wrong now? Snape should be jubilant.

Aren't you going to do a little . . . sightseeing? Satisfy your curiosity? The questions were sneered into Harry's mind, but despite the aggressive attitude, Harry could feel that Snape really was still petrified that his privacy would be violated in this place where he could hide nothing.

It had happened before. Harry knew that as clearly as if he'd hunted down the incident and shone a blinding spotlight upon it.

Of course, Harry was curious – who wouldn't be? But Snape was braced for the mental equivalent of rape, and, as much as he'd like to know what made Severus Snape tick, he wasn't about to ravage Snape's soul to satisfy his curiosity. Even if Snape expected nothing more of him. Even if – as he was beginning to sense – Snape had been prepared to allow it in exchange for his freedom.

Harry couldn't help but wonder exactly what kind of circles Snape had run in, were mind rape the inevitable result of allowing himself to be open to another wizard's mental skills, but then he remembered the Dark Mark on Snape's left forearm and wondered no further.

I came for a purpose, Professor. I'm done now. Thank you for your cooperation. And with that, Harry pulled himself free from the complex web that was Severus Snape's mind. As he broke clear, he plainly felt Snape's absolute shock.

That moment of disengaging was always disorienting. To find yourself abruptly in another body, even if it was your own, took some adjusting, as did the utter absence of another's thoughts and feelings. In the past, it had been enemies' minds he'd probed, so it had always been a relief to return to himself. But today, he felt ridiculously lonely when he broke the contact.

Harry opened his eyes to the room around him. He was standing over Snape's chair, looking down at he potion master's face, which wasn't nearly as tense or as angry as he remembered it being before he'd touched Snape's thoughts. For a long moment, he simply stood there gazing down.

Snape still had his eyes closed. For perhaps the first time in memory, Harry saw Severus Snape's face relaxed and open. He looked as though he were asleep, and he looked . . . he didn't know how to describe it, other than less ugly. It wasn't a flattering description, but it was true. The features were still strong and severe, but there weren't any of the negative connotations that he usually associated with that waspish visage. Perhaps it was merely a lingering resonance of his connection to Snape's most deeply hidden self colouring his perceptions, Harry thought, but Snape didn't look homely to him anymore.

Harry had never had his impression of someone change through telepathic contact, but he'd only used this skill a few times during the war, and, then, mostly on enemies. As an adult, he'd never touched the mind of anyone he knew this well, and, whether he liked the idea or not, that intimate contact with Snape had changed him – or at least changed Snape in his eyes.

Snape's eyelids flickered and opened. Harry couldn't help but note how long and thick his lashes were. He watched suspicion replace the calm as that dark gaze settled on him. Harry could nearly feel the other man tensing as Snape waited for the betrayal he expected.

Harry didn't know how to reassure the man, so he simply reached out and squeezed Snape's shoulder, which was probably a major trespass in Snape's world, if the widening of his eyes were anything to go by, but Harry hadn't a clue as to what else to do. He didn't know what had happened in Snape's past to cause this instinctive mistrust; all he knew was that the man had suffered enough betrayal and abuse to prime him to expect nothing else when he was vulnerable.

The idea of Snape being vulnerable in any way was another new thought.

"Ahumm," Minerva McGonagall cleared her throat behind them, making Harry nearly jump out of his skin, which, of course, roused a malicious glint in Snape's gaze.

Vulnerable, my arse, Harry thought. The man was a vicious viper, always would be.

"Well?" Ron asked as Harry at last turned to face the other five people in the room. The two Aurors were watching him with open scepticism. Hermione and Minerva seemed hopeful. Ron appeared nervous.

Harry met his old friend's worried blue gaze and smiled at Ron. "We were right. It wasn't him. He barely looked at Westfield. He was grading papers the entire time."

"But the boy testified . . . ." McGregor said, while Martin asked, "How can Veritaserum have failed so badly?"

Minerva added to the confusion with, "So who did assault Mr. Westfield? And how is it that the boy blames Professor Snape?"

"That is an excellent question, Minerva," Snape said.

Harry turned back to Snape. The Potions master was hiding it well, but Harry could see how shaken he was. For the first time he could remember, Snape seemed to be having trouble meeting his eyes.

"Sir?" Harry called, forcing Snape's gaze onto him. Confused by the ambivalence in those bottomless dark eyes, he said, "I'm thinking memory charm."

Snape gave a slow nod. "It would have to be elaborate for the details to have passed a Veritaserum questioning."

"It could be done, though, couldn't it? With a combination of Legilimency, Occlumency, and a memory charm. If they used that technique you employed to create the cauldron illusion, they could have implanted a false memory," Harry suggested, checking to see if it were possible. What he didn't know about these mental disciplines Snape had taught him would fill a book, while Snape . . . he'd been skilful enough to fool Voldemort for years. The Potions master was an expert.

"Possibly, but it would be . . . complicated," Snape agreed while Ron asked, "What cauldron illusion?"

Harry turned back to the Headmistress. "The only thing that makes sense is that someone altered Westfield's memory, Minerva, the way the Ministry will often modify a Muggle's memory when they see something magical."

"But the Ministry uses a potion to change Muggles' memories," Hermione pointed out.

"We don't know that such a potion hasn't been used with Westfield. I could try to break through the false programming he's been given, but I . . . I don't even know what I'd be looking for. I'd be afraid I'd only make things worse for him," Harry said. Snape would be much better suited for the job, but, for obvious reasons, that was impossible.

"Harry," Ron said, "My orders were to escort Professor Snape to Azkaban. I'm going to need to be able to tell Chief Lawrence something other than you looked into Snape's mind and saw he was innocent. We need to know who did this to the boy, so we can prevent it from happening again. Westfield is the only one who knows what really happened."

"He's right, Harry," Hermione echoed. "Whoever did this is still out there."

Minerva said, "I think we should speak to Madam Pomfrey and see if Mr. Westfield is up to questioning. I'll see to it."

"I'll come with you," Ron offered.

Hermione flooed with them to the infirmary, leaving Snape and Harry with the two Aurors. Now that Snape was no longer their prime suspect, Ron's co-workers had relaxed considerably. As soon as Ron left the room, the red-robed McGregor and Martin moved to study the weird curios that lined the shelves.

Harry watched the Aurors browse the shelves for a few minutes before sinking down onto a chair near Snape. Totally exhausted, Harry ran a hand through his unruly hair.

He glanced over at Snape, but the Potions master was watching the Aurors. Harry followed that dark gaze to where McGregor was picking up a jewel encrusted, silver box. He recognized the magical artefact from his schooldays. Harry tried to suppress his grin as McGregor lifted the lid. A blood-curdling shriek pierced the room.

"What the devil are you doing?" Martin snapped as McGregor dropped the box to the carpeted floor. "Pick that up and put it back."

Harry quickly looked away, lest they see his amusement. His turn brought Snape back into his line of sight.

Those dark eyes were fixed squarely on him. Harry sensed that Snape wanted to avert his gaze again, but, as many disagreeable traits as the Potions master had, cowardice wasn't among them.

Snape squarely met his eyes. After a moment's silence, Snape said in a low voice. "What you did before – drawing your wand on Aurors – that was an ill conceived action that could have resulted in your death or incarceration."

"I know," Harry agreed, wondering if Snape were going to chew him out now, or if he'd wait until McGregor and Martin were gone.

Harry couldn't read a thing in those bottomless eyes.

After a prolonged pause, Snape said, "Ill conceived and rash as it may have been, I am nonetheless . . . grateful . . . ." Snape fairly choked out that last word, ". . . for your intervention."

Shocked, Harry opened his mouth to reply, only to have a commotion at the fireplace interrupt him.

With all the usual awkwardness involved with flooing, Hermione stumbled out of the hearth and turned quickly to steady Minerva McGonagall as she flooed through directly behind her.

Minerva didn't waste any time, but got straight to the point with her typical directness. "Harry, Madam Pomfrey thinks Mr. Westfield is up to questioning. He has agreed to see you." She turned her gaze to Snape. "Severus, Ron has asked that you remain here until after he has spoken to his superior."

"Of course," Snape replied with ill grace.

"We'll stay here with the professor," McGregor volunteered, still visibly distrustful of Snape.

Harry looked back to Snape. He hated leaving him alone with the Aurors, but knew he had no choice if they were to prove Snape's innocence.

"Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this?" Harry asked Snape. "If the memory adjustment was strong enough to withstand Veritaserum, it's got to be pretty flawless."

Snape nodded. "If there is a weak link at all, it will be in the minute details."

The minute details – of the rape of a thirteen year old. Right.

Harry gave a grim nod and followed Hermione and Minerva back through the floo to the infirmary.

The room they entered was barely large enough to hold a floo-sized hearth. It was cramped with shelves of medicinal potions on one side of the room, and heavy medispell books on the other, with a small desk by the window filling the space between.

When Minerva, Hermione, and Harry appeared, they filled all available floor space.

A white-robed figure hovered just outside the open door.

"Hello, Harry." Poppy met them as they stumbled out of her office fireplace. Her kind features were atypically shadowed beneath her wimple. There was a touch more grey in her blond hair than there'd been during his schooldays, but, like Minerva, she was nearly unchanged by the decade that had passed. "Thank you for your offer to help. I knew there had to be some other explanation."

Harry crossed to the petite mediwitch and gave her arm an encouraging squeeze. "How is he doing?"

"As well as can be expected, the poor dear. I've never, I mean . . . ." Her calm was tenuous. Harry could see how upset the gentle-hearted healer was by the nature of her patient's affliction. It was a testament to the school and the Wizarding World in general that this type of assault was uncommon.

"I know," Harry nodded. "It's terrible. But Carl's got the best care to be found. He will recover, Poppy, and we'll find the monster who did this to him and make sure he never hurts another child."

"Azkaban's too good for him," Minerva muttered under her breath, her fury almost a palpable presence. "It's bad enough this villain would rape a child, but to implicate an innocent man . . . ."

"Harry will get to the bottom of it all," Hermione assured.

Harry wished he had her certainty.

"I'm just so relieved that you were able to clear poor Severus. I can't believe any of this," Madam Pomfrey said, smoothing down her already straight robes in a nervous gesture. "A Hogwarts professor accused of molesting a student . . . it's horrible."

"Harry will help him," Hermione promised. She seemed to have taken the job of supporting the Headmistress and mediwitch through this crisis upon herself. Hermione had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout most of the argument with the Aurors. Harry could sense how upset she was by the attack, and how much she was holding back. She looked around the office and asked, "Where's Ron?"

"He's keeping Carl company," Poppy answered.

"Can I see Carl now?" Harry asked. He wasn't eager to do what he had to do, but Westfield's attacker was still on the loose out there someplace.

"Yes, of course. Follow me. Er," Madam Pomfrey turned to Hermione and Minerva, "I don't think we should crowd the poor dear at this time. Would you mind waiting here?"

Minerva and Hermione both nodded.

"Actually, it would probably be better if we went back to wait at the Headmistress' office," Hermione said.

"If we can help in any way . . . ." Minerva began. Harry could see her frustration with how helpless this situation had left them all feeling.

"I'll fire call you," Poppy assured. Then she took Harry's arm and led him out of the office, through the huge infirmary ward with its long rows of empty beds, to one of the private rooms in the rear.

She gave a soft knock and opened the door.

Harry followed, praying he wouldn't make a mess of this.

The room they entered was small, almost cosy. A hospital bed dominated the room. Its curly-haired blond occupant was propped up on pillows. Ron was sitting in a chair beside the bed.

The stone walls were covered with cheerful pictures of innocuous subjects that might please a sick child – a basket of kittens at play, a herd of zebras crossing a grassy plain, two young girls off in the distance flying a kite. A fire blazed in a small hearth to their right, filling the room with both heat and light.

The sight of Ron offering the boy one of his ever-present chocolate frogs as they entered the room went a long way in calming Harry's jangled nerves. Ron was a natural with kids. All the students loved him.

As the room's occupants became aware of the opening door, Westfield's round face twisted with fear. The chocolate frog in his hand took advantage of his momentary distraction to hop off the bed, and thence under the nearby easy chair.

Harry took quick stock of his student. Snape's memories of the detention had shown him that Westfield hadn't been visibly harmed, but Harry had no idea of the details of the attack, how brutal the molestation had been. With the type of assault he'd suffered, Westfield could be injured quite badly and not show it from the outside, but the boy appeared to be resting comfortably at the moment.

"Hello, Carl," Harry greeted him, staying within the door. "May I come in?"

Westfield gave a stiff nod. "Hello, Professor Potter, Madam Pomfrey."

Harry was glad to see his student responding so well. He'd feared the boy would have completely retreated after what had happened to him, but although the slightly-built teenager was visibly jumpy, he wasn't a basket case. Of course, that could have a lot to do with the potions Madam Pomfrey had administered to calm him.

"Is Madam Pomfrey taking good care of you?" Harry asked with a nervous smile. He had no clue how to even begin to address the issue that had brought him here.

"Yes, sir," Westfield answered.

Harry hadn't any idea what to say next. Asking a brutalized child if he could enter his mind to take a daytrip through the horror of his rape was beyond him.

To his astonishment, Ron came to his rescue. "Carl, I've asked Harry, er, Professor Potter, to come down to help me sort out your case."

"S-ort it out?" Westfield echoed.

"Yes, Harry's come to help," Ron said.

"How?" Westfield questioned.

"Do you know how sometimes when a Muggle has witnessed a bit of magic he shouldn't have seen, the Ministry will adjust his memories so that he forgets about the magic?" Ron asked.

"Yes," Carl answered and sprang to the natural conclusion to be drawn from Ron's words with, "Are you . . . going to make me forget what happened?"

Hearing the hope in that young voice, Harry winced. More than anything, he'd like to take this horror from the boy. And then he'd love to go out and hunt down the beast that had inflicted this pain on an innocent child and see what his newfound mage fire could really do.

Recognizing that such vengeful thoughts weren't going to help anyone at the present time, Harry attempted to calm himself. It was hard, though. The boy was just so damn young. No kid should have to go through this kind of nightmare.

"No, I'm sorry, Carl. That would make you feel better at the moment, but in the long run, it would do you more harm than good," Harry answered gently.

"Oh." Those confused blue eyes turned to Ron. "What does that memory adjustment you talked about have to do with me, then?"

Ron was good at his job. His poise never faltered. He answered the question in a matter-of-fact tone. "Well, we have reason to suspect that someone has done some type of memory adjustment in this case."

"W-what? I don't understand -" Westfield looked on the verge of panic.

But Ron persevered, going on in a soft, reassuring voice, "Nor do we."

"You think I'm lying, don't you?" Westfield demanded, tears brightening his eyes as he turned his face away from them both and hugged his arms across his chest. "He said no one would believe me if I told . . . ."

Harry reached out to stop Madam Pomfrey from flying to the boy's side.

Ron's voice was calm and yet determined, "We believe you, Carl. We just need to make sure that your memories haven't been tampered with. We want to guarantee that the man who hurt you goes to jail for his crime and never gets the chance to hurt anyone else again, not ever."

The boy rocked himself for a moment or two, before getting control of himself and looking back at Ron. "H-how are you going to do that?"

"By making sure that the court can't poke any holes in your testimony," Ron swiftly supplied.

"But . . . how . . . ?" Westfield asked.

"That's why I've asked Harry here to come help us. You've heard about how powerful a wizard he is, haven't you?" Ron asked.

Westfield nodded. "Yes, he's the one who beat You Know Who."

"Right. Well, Harry has some special skills that most wizards don't have. He's able to look into a person's mind and see what they're thinking."

"How is that going to help me?" Westfield asked, seeming more confused than frightened now. "W-what do you think is wrong with my memory?"

"We don't know that there is anything wrong with it. All we know is that Professor Snape was also questioned in a manner that would not allow him to lie or deceive. His testimony and yours conflict, so we need to check both memories to see whose is faulty," Ron explained.

Westfield stared down at the blue blankets covering his lap. "He said no one would believe me, that I'd just get into more trouble if I told . . . ."

Harry's heart twisted in sympathy for the boy. "We believe you, Carl."

"And you're not in trouble. I promise," Ron vowed. "We just want to find out the truth. Someone's memory has been altered, and we need to see whose."

"So, you need to make sure my memories are okay so you can prove that he's somehow lying?" the boy asked.

"Yes, something very like that," Ron agreed.

"What do I need to do?" Westfield's voice was brave, but his haunted eyes made a lie of it.

"First, I need you to give me your permission to look into your mind," Harry said. "I won't do or look at anything you don't agree to."

"Will it hurt?" the boy asked.

Harry gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Not in the least. You'll just be aware of my voice in your head for a while. It should feel like a . . . warm spot."

"That doesn't sound too bad," Westfield replied, seeming to calm.

"It shouldn't be bad at all," Harry assured.

"We're going to do everything we can to make this as easy as possible for you, Carl," Ron promised. "Madam Pomfrey is going to ask you to drink a potion. It will help you relax and put you in something called a hypnotic trance. Do you know what that is?"

Harry was both surprised and relieved by Ron's information. He hadn't thought of hypnosis. He'd dreaded the idea of having to ask the boy to relive the nightmare of his attack. But, then, Ron was a professional and had no doubt had to deal with situations similar to this before.

"That's when they twirl a watch in front of your eyes and make you quack like a duck, isn't it?" Westfield asked, his nervousness visibly increasing.

"Well, that can be done, but mostly the Hyptnoserum is used to help a person recall events that they might find too upsetting to think or talk about on their own. We don't want to do anything to further upset you or hurt you, Carl. We just want to guarantee that -"

"Snape is lying," the boy whispered.

Ron and Harry exchanged a troubled glance.

After a moment, Ron sighed and said, "Precisely."

"All right, I'll do it," Westfield agreed, his lower lip jutting determinedly out.

Obviously, Poppy and Ron had discussed this beforehand, for the mediwitch reached into her robe pocket and extracted a small brown bottle. She brought it over to the boy and said, "I want you to drink this down." She sat down on the bed beside him and reached out to stroke his sweaty blond curls back from his brow. "I'm going to be right here beside you the whole time. You know I'd never let anything hurt you, don't you, dear?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Carl answered, swigging down the potion in one long gulp, and making the expected face at its taste.

Ron stepped up to the bed, motioning Harry to come with him.

"Carl, I want you to take some deep breaths now and close your eyes," Ron said.

With a nervous look at them all, the boy complied.

Harry realized how much trust his student was placing in them. After the events of this afternoon, Harry would have fully understood the boy not wanting to ever be at a disadvantage with a male teacher again. But Westfield closed his eyes and followed Ron's instructions, although, he did reach for Poppy's hand before doing so.

"I'm right here, dear. You're going to be just fine," she murmured to the nervous student. Harry saw her give Westfield's smaller hand a squeeze and take a tight hold on his hand that she did not release.

"You're going to feel a little drifty as the potion starts to take effect," Ron continued. "When your body starts feeling light, I want you to tell me. All right?"

"All right," Carl agreed. A couple of minutes later, he said in a low and sleepy sounding voice, "I feel like I'm floating."

"That's good, Carl," Ron instantly approved. "Is it all right if Harry enters your mind now?"

Carl gave a dreamy sounding, "Yes."

Bracing himself, Harry reached out with his mind yet again. It was strange. He hadn't used this art in over nine years, and now he was employing it numerous times in a single day.

It was as disconcerting to find himself inside Westfield as it had been to share Snape's consciousness. Harry took quick stock of the physical. The boy didn't have any of the horrible tension that Snape did, but Snape hadn't been hurting the way Westfield was. Despite Poppy's potions, the boy's rectum was still raw and sore from the abuse it had taken.

Harry took a deep breath and tried to distance himself from both the discomfort and his own anger at what had been done to his student. Only when he felt calm did he reach for Carl's thoughts.

Unsurprisingly, the boy's mind was less guarded than Snape's. There were no metal walls or freaky white rooms. Harry painlessly sank past the outer guards and into the normal chaos of feelings and thoughts.

He'd dreaded what he'd find in here, the raw emotions that a rape victim had to be experiencing on the same day as the assault, but, if anything, Carl's mind was calmer than most. Harry realized that the tranquillity had to be an effect of the potions Poppy had administered. It had to be, for every time the boy moved, his body made him intensely aware of what had been done to him.

Getting a feel for Carl's mind, Harry relaxed and sent as many reassuring thoughts and feelings to his student as he could. Unlike Snape, Carl was receptive to him. The sedatives and Hyptnoserum were buffering Westfield from much of his emotions, but Harry could feel Carl relax at his mental reassurance.

"Is Harry there now?" Ron asked.

Harry focused his attention, and, therefore Carl's, on Ron's question.

"Yes," Carl replied in that same drugged tone.

"Do you feel all right with him being there?" Ron surprised Harry by asking.

Harry could feel Carl considering the question. After a moment, the low voice replied, "He makes me feel safe, like nothing will hurt me while he's there."

Warmed by the words, Harry opened his emotions a bit more, letting Carl feel how proud he was of his bravery.

Outside of them, Ron said, "Now, you're going to continue to relax. You're going to sink deeper and deeper into this nice, dreamy state. As you do so, I want you to picture a brightly lit staircase. These stairs lead to a good place and nothing will hurt you there. Do you see the stairs, Carl?"

Carl, and therefore Harry, both saw the winding staircase take form.

"Yes," the boy answered.

"That's great," Ron praised. "I want you to go down those stairs. As you descend, you're going to sink deeper and deeper into this dreamy state. Okay?

Impressed, Harry watched his best friend guide the boy into a deep hypnotic trance. Harry had never seen this part of Ron before. He was so used to his old friend being the comic relief in their group that he often forgot the serious job Ron did.

When Carl was sufficiently deep into the trance, Ron said, "You're doing very well, Carl. Now, what I'm going to ask you to do is to picture what you did this morning. I want you to try to think of it as a movie you're watching. Normally, I'd ask you to narrate what you're seeing, but since Harry is there with you, I'll ask you to just picture it. Can you do that for me?"

Carl had to work to find his voice, he was so deep in the trance, "Yes, Ron."

Clearly, Ron must have given Westfield permission to call him by his given name, for as far as Harry could recall, Westfield had always called Ron "Mr. Weasley."

"Very good. Very good, indeed. Now, there's something very important that I need you to remember. What we're going to see is just a picture. It can't hurt you. I want you to pull as far back from the images as you can. You'll see things, but they have no ability to touch or move you. They'll be like shadows on a wall, without substance. Just show Harry what you did today, all right?"

"All right," the boy echoed.

"Begin now. You're leaving the Hufflepuff dorm, on your way down to breakfast this morning…."

Harry instantly found himself popped into the same kind of memory Snape had shared with him earlier. Only, due to his instructions at the beginning of the hypnotherapy, Carl was even further detached emotionally than Snape had been, and that was saying something.

Harry watched Carl joke and laugh with his two best friends as they barrelled down the hall for a fast breakfast before their big day at Hogsmeade. Joe Mangra was a dark skinned boy of Indian descent, while Don Smithers was a blue eyed, chubby brunet who put Harry in mind of Neville in his school days. All three boys were among Harry's favourite students.

Amused, Harry watched a fast forward as the three stuffed themselves to capacity in the Great Hall, pulled on their jumpers, and raced with the rest of the student body for Hogwarts' main doors. The boys were tossing an exploding jelly treat back and forth among each other, with no one watching where they were going as they hurried out of the hall.

Carl gave an 'Omfff,' as he literally ploughed into a towering black obstacle.

Although Westfield was sedated and deep in a hypnotic trance, the sight of Severus Snape's long-nosed, glaring face was enough to make the boy start to tremble.

Carl, Harry mindspoke to his student.Step back a little further. I want you to go down a few more of those stairs that Ron was talking about and distance yourself from this. These are only empty images. Shadows on the wall. They can't hurt you. Remember, I'm right here with you. Slow this part down and let me see what he says.

Westfield gave the mental equivalent of a nod. As his emotional response to Snape receded, Carl's anxiety lessened as he practiced the mental technique Harry had suggested.

The frozen memory began to play out again as Carl regained his focus. Harry found himself back in the corridor outside the Great Hall, his perspective of Snape tilting madly as the unbalanced Westfied listed to the right in an imminent fall.

With an irritated scowl, Snape reached out his wounded right hand to steady the boy as Westfield staggered, and then the Potions master pulled his hand back to smooth down his own wrinkled robes.

"I'm s-sorry, Professor S-Snape, s-sir," Westfield stammered the way any student who'd just barrelled into the cantankerous potion master would.

"Going to Hogsmeade, are you, Mr. Westfield?" Snape asked in that condescending, cultured voice of his. Harry was privately startled that Snape didn't threaten to revoke the boy's Hogsmeade visit to punish him for the accident. But Westfield was a Hufflepuff. It only seemed to be Gryffindors who evoked that degree of spite in Snape.

"Y-yes, sir," Westfield replied.

"Don't forget you've got a three o'clock detention or your friends can join you for the next two weeks after class. Is that understood?" Snape demanded.

"Yes, sir. I'll be there. Three o'clock," Carl promised.

"Be sure that you're on time," Snape snapped and then strode off down the hall with his long robes flapping behind him like raven's wings.

"God, he just makes my skin crawl," Smithers said.

"He's such an ugly git," Mangra added. "Tough luck about the detention, Carl. What'd you do to earn it?"

"You know I got thrown from my broom at quidditch practice on Thursday? I didn't get released from infirmary until Friday morning and never got a chance to do Thursday's homework," Westfield explained to his friend as they left the castle and stepped out into a brilliant October morning. The air was still warm as summer, but the tree leaves around the grounds were beginning to turn from green to red and gold.

Harry felt himself getting as mad at Snape as Westfield's companions did. Ten years had passed and the man was still a petty tyrant.

'That bloody bastard!'' Mangra spat.

"That's so unfair! Did he take any house points?" Smithers asked.

Westfield gave a glum nod. "Five."

"The bastard," Westfield's companions chorused with the same exact unison the Weasley twins used to have, setting the trio to giggling.

The subsequent conversation as the three fell into line with the dozens of other students streaming down the road to Hogsmeade was what might be expected. Harry gave Carl a mental nudge to fast-forward them through the irrelevant incidents of the trip.

The morning and early afternoon passed as any of the dozens Harry had spent on Hogsmeade Saturdays had: Carl and his friends visited Honeydukes, ate enough candy to keep them bouncing off the walls until the next Hogsmeade weekend in three weeks, then a quick trip to Zonko's Joke Shop. They made the prerequisite stop at the Shrieking Shack to determine who was the bravest. Carl went the closest, but even that wasn't as close as Ron was willing to get prior to their learning the shack's secret.

When his friends turned back towards the Three Broomsticks for a butterbeer, Carl bid them farewell and began his solitary trek back towards Hogwarts.

The day was still fine and bright, the road dry underfoot. Carl's memory sped over the trip back, glossing over the woody stretches that smelt like pine, moist ferns, fallen leaves, and acorns. Carl did the same for the farm fields that lay between the Hogsmeade woods and the Forbidden Forest. As the memories skimmed over farmhouse after farmhouse, Harry, who was still monitoring his student closely, noticed that Carl's entire body tensed as they sped past an abandoned farmstead on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. The breath actually seemed to catch in the boy's chest as they passed the abandoned red barn with its caved-in roof and boards missing from its covered shuttered windows, but then Carl's memory rushed to the portion of the road that crossed through the Forbidden Forest, where Carl nearly ran the last mile.

What happened back there? Harry mindspoke as the long, covered bridge that crossed the northern section of the lake and connected the Hogsmeade Road to Hogwarts main gates came into sight. The wind hit their face, rich with the scent of water and damp soil.

Back where? Carl asked, speeding the memory across the bridge.

That deserted farmhouse seemed to upset you,Harry pointed out.

He felt Carl tense. I don't know what it was. It usually doesn't bother me. I guess it was being alone on the road and seeing the ruins on the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Should we continue?

Yes, Harry said, then advised, let's step back from things some more, all right?

Carl used the mental technique Ron had taught him to further buffer himself from his emotions. Feeling almost sedated in the resulting calm, Harry silently urged the boy forward.

Carl passed through the gates of Hogwarts and down the dungeon stairs to the Potions lab, making his detention with time to spare.

Just as in Snape's recollection, the Potions master was at his desk grading papers as the boy entered. Harry stared around the room, trying to absorb the small details as Snape had suggested, but he could see nothing out of place in the Potions lab. It looked exactly the same as it had in Snape's memories.

"I'm here, Professor Snape, sir," Westfield stammered.

"The stinkweed is there on your workbench, Mr. Westfield. Kindly chop it all up into even pieces two inches in length," Snape said, giving a wave of his scratched right hand in the general direction of a students' worktable with a huge pile of green weeds on it.

So far, both versions of the detention were identical.

Carl crossed to his bench and began to chop up the smelly green weeds as directed.

Harry gave Carl a gentle nudge to move them through the chopping a little faster. When Westfield had been at his work for perhaps fifteen minutes, he saw Snape rise from his desk out of the corner of his eye. Since it wasn't unusual for Snape to go about his own business while he had students serving detention, Carl didn't pay very much attention to his teacher's movement.

It was only as a strong hand settled on his shoulder that Carl started. Snape's approach had been totally silent. The unexpected touch nearly made the boy jump out of his skin.

"Stand up and let me see how you're doing," Snape ordered.

Carl jumped to his feet to comply, knocking some of the weed to the floor in his nervousness.

Harry felt Carl brace himself for a caustic comment on his clumsiness, but Snape was atypically silent as he stepped directly behind his student to peer over the boy's shoulder at the chopped stinkweed on the table. Snape was so close that Carl could feel his body heat all the way down his back.

Uncomfortable at the violation of his personal space, Carl gulped and waited for his teacher to finish.

"You're chopping it too large," Snape said in a hoarse voice. "Pick up the knife and I'll show you how you should cut it."

Carl picked up the knife. To his horror, Snape's hand settled on top of his own, directing the knife's fall. Carl stared down at that long-fingered, yellow-stained hand gripping his own. Snape had never touched him before. Just seeing that hand covering his made Carl's stomach clench up, the way it would if he saw something squiggling on his dinner plate when he was halfway through his meal.

"Let me see you do it on your own," Snape instructed.

Carl froze as the man behind him stepped in even closer. Snape was pressing against his back now. His professor leaned in a little further over his shoulder to peer at his progress, and moist, hot breath hit the skin on his neck and ear.

Uncomfortable, Carl stepped forward, but the workbench pressed right into his front, and Snape moved along right behind him.

"You're shivering, Mr. Westfield, trembling like a nervous virgin. Are you?" Snape's voice was a silky whisper down his neck that only increased Carl's helpless shuddering.

Carl gulped. "Am I what, sir?"

"Nervous?" Snape whispered, an abrupt thrust of his hips made his groin bump hard against Carl's bottom.

Carl barely had the chance to gasp before Snape questioned with his trademark, condescending sneer, "A virgin?"

Inside the boy's mind, Harry searched for something, anything, to show that this wasn't Severus Snape doing this, but whoever had created this false memory had done his homework. The Snape was flawless. His voice, his appearance, even his carriage were all classic Snape –menacing and repulsive as only this man could be.

Carl was so shocked to feel his teacher's hard erection pressing through his robes and trousers against his backside that he was temporarily rendered speechless, which was never a good thing in Snape's presence.

The fake Snape capitalized on the boy's weakness the same way the real one would have done in an adversarial situation.

In fact, watching what was transpiring, Harry was beginning to wonder if maybe he had been wrong, that Snape had molested the boy and somehow hidden it from him, but . . . no, he'd felt both Snape's innocence and the man's anger at being wrongly accused. Whatever this memory was, it wasn't real. He just had to find a way to debunk it, but, stars, it was becoming increasingly difficult to focus while viewing what Westfield believed had happened at detention today.

Snape took the knife from the boy and flicked it aside. Then that yellow stained hand slowly moved to cup the front of Westfield's trousers.

Carl yelped as that hot palm gave a knowing squeeze. His entire body was thrown into confusion by the burst of resulting, raw pleasure that rocked through him. And the fear. No one had ever touched him there before. It felt amazing, but . . . .

But it was Professor Snape and it wasn't right that his nasty teacher should be touching him. He knew it wasn't right. His mother had said . . . but it felt so . . . .

Carl, pull back some more, Harry instructed and quickly helped his hypnotized student further distance himself from the scene. He wished he could do the same for himself, but he had to stay lucid and in the moment to suss out the flaws in this false memory.

Harry was undergoing his own crisis as Snape continued to touch Westfield through his clothes. He was here to prove Snape hadn't done this, but he couldn't see anything in the scene to discredit its reality in Carl's eyes. Harry knew Snape hadn't assaulted Westfield because he had touched the man's mind and seen for himself what had actually occurred, but if he hadn't . . . he'd have believed this image in a minute. It was that perfect, that well-crafted. Whoever had created this illusion had done his homework.

Harry's insides clenched in disgust as Snape stepped back far enough to slip the boy's robes from his shoulders.

Deprived of the support of that repulsive presence behind him, Carl staggered forward, almost falling onto the workbench. He caught himself with his hands before his face could hit the cold slate surface and was about to push back up when Snape's hands passed before his field of vision again, moving down towards the front of his trousers.

As if frozen by a Medusa spell, Carl stared in revulsion as those yellow-fingered hands manipulated the top button on his pants and took hold of his zipper. That vampire-like hand carefully lowered the zipper, the 'dzjurrr' of sound blaring through the silent dungeon loud as a shriek.

It was as Harry watched in impotent horror as Snape pushed Carl's pants down that something struck him as wrong. Really wrong. Only, he didn't know what it was, beyond the utter wrongness of what Snape was doing to their student. Yet, something was off.

Uncaring hands tugged Carl's trousers and underpants down to his knees. Though distanced from the event now in his hypnotic trance, the Carl in the scene was sobbing and begging, "No, please, don't . . . ."

Harry braced himself as he saw Snape reach for the boy.

Carl's sob was grating through Harry's body. Harry tried to focus on the molestation scene and remove himself from the emotional content of it. He felt as if he were trapped in one of his own night terrors, impotent and immobile. If he didn't find a way out of this soon, he was going to be sick to his stomach.

Harry knew he had to concentrate. Something was off. He knew that, but that hand of Snape's was wreaking havoc with his own controls as much as the boy's. Both Carl and he were telling themselves that that hand shouldn't be pleasurable. Snape's hand was an interloper, an invader, a rapist. That hand of Snape's was . . . .

That hand of Snape's wasn't scratched! The realization shrieked through Harry's mind as a montage of the day's events reeled through his memory: Snape's scratched hand knocking the bacon from the tray this morning, that same damaged hand steadying Westfield in the corridor, his own mind focusing on that cut skin as Snape held the quill to grade papers in Snape's own recollection of the detention . . . .

Carl? Harry mindspoke to his student, who had pulled so far back from what was happening that the boy was hiding in the mental equivalent of a dark corner.


Do you remember this morning when you ran into Professor Snape in the corridor? Harry questioned.


Would you picture that for me now? Harry requested.

Unsurprisingly, Carl was only too happy to focus on something other than the graphic scene they were currently viewing. The mental picture jumped to the corridor outside the Great Hall, with an angry Snape looming over the clumsy boy.

Carl, look down at Professor Snape's hand on your robe, Harry instructed as Snape steadied Westfield to keep him from falling. Okay, now I want you to bring us back to where Snape opened your trousers in detention. The scene changed around them again and Harry found himself staring down at the young boy's trouser button that was gripped in Snape's smooth-skinned, yellowed right hand. Look at Professor Snape's hand now, Carl.

What am I . . . the cut. There isn't any cut . . . . Carl observed.

I know for a fact that Professor Snape had a scratch on his right hand at breakfast this morning,. . . . Harry stopped, waiting for Carl to piece the puzzle together.

Yes . . . I remember wondering why he hadn't healed it when I saw it in the hall after breakfast. But that means . . . . Rising a few levels in the trance, Carl focused on the scene in front of him. How can this not be real? I felt, I mean . . . ?

Carl, I want you to look at that hand on you. Don't think about who this image is telling you it belongs to, think about the man you know it belongs to. Remember, I'm right here with you. Nothing can hurt you. Just picture the man that hand belongs to and tell yourself that it's all right to remember what really happened.

For an eternity, the dungeon remained firm around them. Then Snape's sleeve seemed to shimmer. Instead of coarse black wool, fine grey brocade covered the forearm.

The Potions' worktable was gone. In its place, Harry saw dry old wood. Harry sent as much reassurance as he could over to his student as the boy began to panic, but Harry didn't know what was happening any more than Carl did.

The one thing that was certain was that whatever had happened, it had not occurred in the dungeon at detention.

Carl and he frantically attempted to take their bearings. The wood Carl was leaning against while a hand manipulated him turned out to be an old barrel.

Over to his right was a row of empty animal stalls with a caved-in roof through which bright autumn sunshine was pouring in and making thousands of dust motes dance in the air. To his left was a wall of loose wooden planks. A few farm tools hung there, but they were so brown with rust and buried under spider webs and birds' nests that it was impossible to tell what they might have been originally.

Recalling Carl's fear of that deserted farmstead, Harry mindspoke, Carl, think back to the road on your way back from Hogsmeade. What really happened by that ruined barn?

Once again, the hypnotized student returned them to the road. The Forbidden Forest was a dark and intimidating wall on all sides of them. The only empty space was the field to his left, which was overgrown with thorny gorse bushes and thick weeds. The decaying barn stood at its centre.

Carl felt that same chill of fear when he looked at the barn; only, this time when Carl made to rush past the desolate ruins, he was stopped in his tracks by a black cloaked wizard apparating directly in front of him.

"Exc-cuse me, sir," Carl stammered, startled by the abrupt manifestation of a stranger on a lonely road.

The man was tall and broad, nearly twice Snape's width and muscular with it. His clothes were well-tailored, and put Harry in mind of Lucius Malfoy as far as style went. The suit beneath the black cloak was grey and appeared to be made of fine lambs' wool. He looked to be near fifty, with dark hair and cold grey eyes.

Harry winced as the boy made his fateful mistake and met the stranger's gaze.

The stranger cast an amused sounding, "Imperius," and said, "Come along, boy. We've much to accomplish in a short time."

As soon as the words were voiced, Carl's body was no longer his own.

Harry felt Carl's absolute terror and impotent fury as his legs moved to accompany the older wizard off the road and into the barn without protest or question, even though everything inside Carl wanted to scream and flee. Carl tried with all his will to turn around and run for Hogwarts, but he could not deny the iron will that had overwhelmed his own.

Carl, we're going to pull back from this again as far as we can, Harry said and did everything in his power to buffer the boy from the subsequent events.

There was a part of Harry that wanted to simply pull Carl out of the memory to safety, but, for all their sakes, they had to know what had really happened. So, Harry braced himself and let the scene play out around him.

The bastard didn't even bother with the foreplay that the illusionary Snape had. The stranger led the enslaved Carl straight to an old rain barrel. With a flick of his wand, and no words, the man magically removed Carl's school robes, while the boy trembled inside and did everything in his will to force his frozen limbs to work.

But Carl's efforts were useless.

The stranger loomed over Carl like a giant as he reached down to undo his trousers. Carl couldn't even gasp as he was bared to the air. He could only stand there in impotent terror with tears streaming down his face as the wizard roughly took hold of him and bent him over that ancient rain barrel. The brittle wood bit into his thighs and belly as he landed against it, scratching the tender skin.

Harry did his best to shield the present Carl from the events that followed. The rape really was like something from Harry's own nightmares. Only, Carl couldn't even scream as he was violated. All he could do was stand there bent over the sharp rim of the barrel, staring down at the mouldering straw on the floor while he was ravaged.

Inside Carl, observing the scene, Harry was so livid with rage he could barely watch. It felt like the bastard took the bespelled boy cold with only saliva for lubrication. The penetration was dry and agonizing, done as fast as the boy's reluctant flesh would permit. Those minutes that Harry spent inside Carl, bent over that barrel while that hateful stranger plundered his virginity, were some of the worst of his life. The terror and pain were fully as surreal as that of his night terrors.

Harry held Carl as far away from it as he could. The Hyptnoserum was the only thing keeping the boy from total meltdown.

When the monster was done, it didn't end there. Then he raped the boy's mind with as little regard as he'd shown for Carl's body.

The man's Legilimency and Occlumency skills were astonishing, his mind cold and ruthless. Harry frantically tried to pick up anything from the attacker's thoughts to reveal his identity, but the bastard was better than Snape at hiding behind mental barricades. There was simply nothing for Harry to grab hold of, just a scimitar probe that ripped everything it wanted from the boy's unprotected mind, while revealing nothing. Harry wasn't even sure if the man were human, there was such an utter dearth of emotion.

Almost spellbound, he watched as the stranger took every memory Carl had of Snape, and used it to create the false memory of Snape assaulting the boy during detention. It was one of the most insidious and brilliant illusions Harry had ever seen. The man left nothing to chance, going so far as to make the trigger to the false memory be Snape's dismissing the boy from detention; that way, should Carl miss today's detention, the memory would surface after the next one.

When it was finally over, the stranger redressed Carl with an absent flick of his wand before apparating from the barn without another word, leaving the boy sobbing on his knees in the rotting straw beside the barrel.

It took Carl some time to pull himself together enough to rise from the spider-infested straw. Every step was an agony to Carl, for it felt as if he had glass shards up inside him every time he moved.

Harry couldn't understand how the kid could have gotten back to Hogwarts while feeling as bad as he did, but the fiend had thought of everything. No sooner had Carl staggered out the barn door, than the subconscious programming took over and masked the assault from the boy's conscious mind with a Feel Good Charm. The rape was buried deep in his subconscious, while Carl was programmed to ignore the pain in his rectum until the proper time, after the false memory was triggered.

But the stranger couldn't erase the memory completely, Harry realized. On some level, Carl had known something terrible had happened at that barn, hence his fear in even the implanted memories of simply passing it on the road.

I think we've seen enough here, Harry said as Carl's memories left them standing on the Hogsmeade road beside the overgrown field.

It – it wan't Professor Snape, Carl mindspoke to him, his emotions dangerously close to the surface.

No, it wasn't, Harry answered, sending as much reassurance to the boy as he could. Carl seemed understandably overwhelmed by the deception that had been foisted upon him. Harry could sense how he felt as though he'd been raped yet again, on all levels.

Harry felt the same himself. He was shaking like he would after one of his dreams, his heart pounding madly against his chest as he struggled to hold onto the contents of his stomach.

You knew all along, didn't you? The Hyptnoserum must have been starting to wear off because Carl's words were an emotion-packed accusation. Or perhaps all of this was just too much for Carl to keep himself distanced from.

I didn't know what had happened; I just knew it wasn't Professor Snape who hurt you, Harry answered. I'm sorry, Carl.

The road, field, and barn dissolved around him, propelling him into Carl's distraught mind. If Snape's mind were a maelstrom, this was an all out tornado of emotion. The anger and pain buffered and beat at Harry the same way his own night terrors did.

Harry did what he could to comfort, but there wasn't much to be done. The wounds and betrayals the boy had suffered went too deep. The most he seemed able to do was let Carl know that he wasn't alone, and that he would do everything in his power to help Carl get through this.

How long he stayed there blanketing the boy with comfort, Harry didn't know.

Finally, Carl seemed to want some privacy in his own mind.

Weary to the bone, Harry struggled to disconnect himself from Carl's mind. As he came to himself, he had the briefest impression of having his face buried in a woman's white-covered bosom, but upon opening his eyes, he realized that he was still picking up Carl's perceptions.

Madam Pomfrey had the boy in her arms and was stroking his back as Carl clung to her and sobbed his heart out.

Harry nearly jumped out of his skin at a gentle touch to his arm.

"You all right, Harry?" Ron asked from beside him, his face lined with concern.

Realizing that it was the wetness on his own cheeks that had no doubt spurred the question, Harry quickly wiped his cheeks dry. Giving a mute nod, he took hold of Ron's arm and all but staggered out of the boy's room.

Once the door was shut behind him, Harry let go of Ron and leaned back against the cold stone wall. Breathing deep, he tried to get control of his emotions. It hadn't happened to him. Carl was the one who'd been raped, but right now, Harry couldn't differentiate between his own memories and Carl's. They hurt the same, no matter where they came from.

For a moment Harry stood there, trying to process all he'd felt and seen, but it was too much. Feeling as raw and violated as the boy, Harry sank down to the floor and buried his face in his knees.

"Harry?" Ron knelt beside him, a strong, loyal presence at his side.

The touch to his shoulder made him flinch. It was all Harry could do to remind himself that this was Ron and that what he'd seen and felt hadn't happened to him.

He was still trying to work his way through all that when Ron reached out and pulled him into his arms. His initial resistance faded as soon as he felt Ron's warmth. Shivering all over, Harry pressed his face into Ron's scarlet Auror robes and breathed in his friend's reassuring, familiar scent.

Strong. Ron was always so damn strong, and always there for him. Ron knelt beside him on the icy flagstones, holding him close and rubbing his back in an unrushed manner that seemed to promise that he'd kneel there forever if need be.

It took a while, but eventually Harry got hold of himself. He pulled back with a shaky smile. Fortunately, they were alone in the infirmary corridor. He'd hate to think what the reporters would have made out of this scene. "Thanks."

"No, thank you," Ron said. "You're the one doing us the favour."

Harry could see the questions in Ron's eyes, and appreciated that they remained unvoiced for the moment. Knowing that time was everything in a case like this, Harry took a deep breath and reported, "Carl was stopped on the way back from Hogsmeade by an unfamiliar wizard in his fifties with brown hair and grey eyes who placed him under Imperius and raped him in a deserted barn. Afterwards, the wizard used Legilimency to plunder the boy's mind for information on Snape, which he then used to create and implant the illusion of the detention molestation. What happened to him in that barn was worse, Ron, much worse than the fantasy the bastard made up. I don't know that I did Carl any favours by helping him remember the truth."

"Maybe not, but you did clear Snape," Ron reminded him.

Harry gave a glum nod, unable to find any real comfort in that fact, not when the memory of that iron rod of a penis ripping into his, no, into Carl's unprepared body was so real in his mind.

"Are you ready to go back to the Headmistress' now?" Ron asked.

All Harry really wanted to do was crawl into his bed and never set foot out of it again, but he managed another nod, and then Ron was helping him to his feet.

To his relief, they walked the two stories up to the Headmistress' office. Harry knew he wasn't up to another floo trip right now. It was strangely calming to walk along the familiar corridors with Ron by his side. The slowly moving staircases and garrulous portraits all helped ground him, distancing him from Carl's memory of the barn.

Minerva, Hermione, and the two Aurors were all clustered together at the end of the long table furthest from Snape in the Headmistress' back room when they arrived. Everyone but Snape jumped to their feet as they entered.

A shiver passed through Harry as he took in the potion master's dark-garbed figure. Carl's memories, both true and implanted, were still too much with him. He could feel those yellow-stained fingers touching his, no, touching Carl's body. Just thinking about it made him shudder with revulsion.

"Well?" Minerva asked, sounding as tense and worn out as Harry felt.

She called Harry's attention away from the hypno session, returning him to the here and now.

Harry didn't even know how to begin to relate what he'd seen. It had been easy to tell Ron when they were alone in the hall, but all those eyes looking at him stopped him cold.

Ron spared him the trial of having to repeat the tale again, earning Harry's eternal gratitude as he supplied the grim details.

A long, shocked silence followed before anyone dared speak.

"Oh, that poor boy," Hermione finally whispered, her face white as a corpse.

"Yes, that monster made Voldemort look benevolent," Harry said, still unable to get past the inhuman coldness of their student's rape. "He wasn't even after the boy personally. It was all just part of his plot to incriminate Professor Snape. Raping Carl was simply a means to an end."

"But how are we going to prove any of this to Chief Lawrence?" Martin finally asked, running a hand through his sandy curls.

"And, more importantly, how are we going to hunt down the actual villain if Potter doesn't know who he is?" McGregor questioned.

"You didn't recognize him at all, Harry?" Hermione asked.

Harry shook his head.

"Maybe we could have someone sketch the man's features like Muggle detectives do?" Hermione suggested.

"There is another way," a deep voice interrupted from the far end of the table.

It was clear everyone had forgotten about Snape.

"Yes, Severus?" Minerva encouraged.

"Do you still have that pensieve of Professor Dumbledore's? Potter could extract what he learned from the boy. Chief Lawrence could then share the memory itself. Also, it's possible that someone else in this room might recognize the suspect. From the man's age, it's possible that either Minerva or I might have knowledge of him," Snape said.

"What do you think, Harry?" Ron asked.

"It makes sense, and, it would certainly convince Chief Lawrence of Professor Snape's innocence, only . . . ."

"Only?" Ron prodded.

Harry looked at the expectant faces turned his way. Sometimes it seemed he had spent his entire life with everyone looking to him for direction. Taking a deep breath, he explained the fact that no one in the room other than Snape would probably have considered. "If we use the pensieve, whoever looks into it will be taking Carl's memories of the brutal rape he suffered into themselves. While it might be helpful for the Aurors here to have as much detail on their suspect as possible, I'm not certain that it would be to everyone's benefit to be exposed to what Carl endured."

"I appreciate your concern, but Severus is right, Harry, I might recognize the man," Minerva said, straightening in her chair.

Everyone's gaze turned to Hermione. "I won't be the only one who doesn't look. I might know him."

Her tone made it clear that Hermione thought she had as much a chance of doing that as Harry did, but as ever, she had the heart of a lion. Recognizing the stubborn set of her jaw, Harry realized how useless further argument would be. His very soul feeling sore, he nodded. "All right, then. Where's the pensieve?"

"Where it's always been – in the top shelf of that cabinet across the room," Minerva replied, pointing out the cabinet Harry recalled from his first, unofficial introduction to the pensieve during his schooldays.

"I'll get it," Hermione offered, and quickly fetched the stone bowl.

Harry approached the dish, pausing as a minor detail presented itself. "I've never used a pensieve before." He looked to Snape. "How do I get the thoughts in there?"

Yesterday Snape would have given him a sneer and made some cutting comment about his ignorance, but this evening, Snape simply crossed to stand beside Harry and the pensieve.

"Come closer to the pensieve. Picture the thoughts you want to transfer in a golden bubble. Now, bring your wand to your temple and picture them running from your brain onto the wand tip. Stick your wand down into the dish," Snape instructed in that deep, cultured voice of his.

Something tensed inside Harry at Snape's proximity and he found himself unable to take a single step closer to him as his insides clenched tight with dread. The man looked so tall and sinister as he stood there beside the table with his homely face all frown lines and his black robes draping him like a dementor's shroud.

"What is it, Harry? Are you all right?" Hermione asked as he all but froze with terror. She moved closer to him and put a hand on his back.

"I . . . ." Shaken, he stared into her worried brown eyes, trying to understand what the hell was wrong with him now. His reaction to Snape was nearly a visceral one. Looking at that dark figure, all he wanted to do was turn tail and run. Just thinking about stepping closer to Snape had brought a sheen of cold sweat to his skin. His stomach was twisted in so tight a knot he was afraid he'd lose that beer he'd had earlier. And, for the life of him, he couldn't understand why the mere thought of getting within touching distance of Snape –

Comprehension hit the same way the fear had. Touching distance. Of course. This wasn't his reaction he was feeling, but a holdover from his contact with Carl. On a mental level, he knew that Snape hadn't molested their student, but he'd lived through that false illusion and the event was still too real to him. He was almost afraid of Snape, in a way he'd never feared the man before.

"Potter?" Snape asked, watching him with those unnervingly impenetrable eyes.

"I'm okay," Harry assured them all, though he wasn't sure himself. Giving Hermione's arm a pat, he took a deep breath, stepped closer to the pensieve, and rested his wand against his right temple as instructed. "What now?"

"You need to concentrate on the thought you wish to isolate," Snape instructed. "Picture it in a golden bubble. Now, imagine that bubble running from your brain to your spine, into your wand, and then move your wand into the pensieve."

Closing his eyes, Harry did as directed. It was difficult to isolate the entire hypno session he'd spent with Carl into a single thought, but eventually he managed it. Actually, he was relieved to wall that depravity off from the rest of his memories. It was fully as bad as his night terrors; only, this had been real – to poor Carl, if not himself.

"Are you concentrating, Potter?" Snape's irritated voice demanded.

Damn. How did the man always know?

"Are you reading my thoughts?" Harry snapped.

"Hardly. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of trying to teach you can recognize the vacuous expression you get when you're not paying attention. This is important. Focus!" Snape snapped.

"I'm trying," Harry defended.

"Do not try, Mr. Potter. Do," Snape commanded.

Mister. Not Professor.. The bastard was making him feel like a first year again.

It was only as Harry angrily focused on the task at hand that he recognized how effective a tactic Snape's use of the word Mister had been. Within a heartbeat, he had the session with Carl encapsulated in an imaginary golden bubble. The instant he imagined that bubble leaving his mind to run down his wand and into the pensieve, he felt the terrible burden of what he'd learned from Carl lift from his mind and heart.

Stunned, Harry stared down at the shimmering light in the bottom of what had previously been an empty bowl. "What just happened? Is it done?"

"What do you mean 'is it done'?" McGregor asked.

Both Ron and Hermione moved closer to him again. Hermione took hold of his arm while Ron laid an encouraging hand on his back.

"Potter," Snape snapped again, his tone instantly gaining Harry's full attention, "what do you remember of your interview with Mr. Westfield this afternoon?"

The question confused him at first, but then he recognized that Snape was asking it to test the boundaries of his memories.

"Ron and I went to see Carl in hospital," Harry answered. "I used Legilimency to touch his mind to find out what really happened to him this afternoon and . . . and I don't remember anything else. Except whatever he showed me must have been bad because we were both very upset afterwards when we came back to ourselves. I know what happened to Carl from what Ron told you all when we returned, but I don't remember getting the images from Carl's mind."

Snape nodded. "It worked. His memory is in the pensieve. Who'd like to go first?"

Hardly surprising, there was no rush for the pensieve. After an uncomfortable pause, Ron said, "I'm in charge of the investigation. I should be first."

Taking a deep breath, Ron removed his wand from his pocket and stuck it deep into the pensieve. He stood frozen over the basin, with his eyes closed. The lights from the thoughts within the pensieve were reflecting off his freckled face. Harry watched the blood drain by slow degrees from Ron's skin as he absorbed whatever was in the memories. Finally, Ron pulled back with a gasp. "The bloody bastard!"

"Did you recognize him, Ron?" Hermione asked.

Ron shook his head, his face still white as chalk, his lips a tight line.

McGregor went next, with similar results, and then Martin. Martin not only blanched at whatever he saw, as soon as he withdrew his wand from the pensieve, he clapped his hand to his mouth and rushed off to the loo on the other side of the room. He was in such a hurry that he didn't even have time to close the door behind him. As the sounds of vomiting filled the room, everyone shifted uncomfortably.

"I'll go next," Hermione offered; although her face was already nearly green.

"No, as Headmistress, I should be next," Minerva protested.

Harry knew it was a totally sexist reaction and that both women present would skin him alive for feeling this way, but he really didn't want either Minerva or Hermione subjected to whatever had happened to Carl. But he'd already lost that particular argument.

To his surprise, Snape stepped in front of Minerva as she moved towards the pensieve. "Might I have the next try?"

"As Headmistress I should really -" Minerva began.

Snape cut her off with his usual poor manners; however, for the first time Harry suspected there was something other than rudeness motivating him. "We both know that there is a far greater chance of my recognizing the suspect. I was, after all, the person he framed. It's only reasonable that I should be next."

Minerva looked as though she might argue the issue, but then her better sense seemed to prevail. "If you insist, Severus."

"I do." Without another word, Snape stepped up to the pensieve, closed his eyes, and dipped his wand down into the memories trapped there.

Perhaps it was a testament to the trials Snape had endured as Albus' spy or perhaps it was simply due to the man's lack of humanity, but absolutely nothing showed on his face. Because he'd removed them totally from his mind, Harry didn't remember precisely what memories he'd placed in the pensieve, but he did know that it involved the debunking of Westfield's Veritaserum testimony, which meant that at least some of the memories down there should involve Snape personally. Yet, for all the reaction Snape gave as he absorbed those memories, he might have been watching a cloud move across the sky on an otherwise clear summer day.

Finally, the Potions master pulled his wand out of the shimmering light in the bowl, stepped back, and opened his eyes.

Harry caught the fleeting flash of some emotion in those nearly black eyes, but it was quickly suppressed.

"Did you recognize him, Professor?" Ron asked as soon as Snape stepped away.

Harry wouldn't have been surprised by a negative answer – after all, Snape was as infamous as he himself was famous. There were scores of Death Eater supporters and family members whom Snape would never have met who would be more than happy to see Severus Snape vivisected – but when Snape gave a slow nod, Harry supposed that it made sense that Snape would recognize the man who'd gone to such lengths to frame him.

"Yes," Snape answered.

When that single word seemed to be all Snape was going to say, McGregor sarcastically asked, "Would you mind sharing his identity with the rest of us?"

Snape turned to look at Ron. "His name is Cascius Burke."

"Never heard of him," Ron said. "I don't remember his name among those of the few Death Eaters still at large, or even remember hearing about him at the trials."

"No, you wouldn't have. He left the Death Eaters long before Voldemort became a true threat," Snape replied.

"Oh," Ron said while Hermione simultaneously reprimanded, "Not all villains were Death Eaters, Ron."

"Severus, I don't recognize that name from our student rolls, and I've taught here for nearly fifty years," Minerva said.

"No, you wouldn't. He was a Hogwarts student, but not during your time," Snape answered. Harry, who knew Snape as well as anyone could ever know Snape, could tell that the Potions master was troubled by something.

"What do you mean, 'Not during my time'?" Minerva argued. "Harry told Ron that the suspect was in his fifties. If he were a Hogwarts' student, I would have to have had him in one of my classes."

"That would be true if Cascius Burke were, indeed, a man in his fifties. He was over 110 when I knew him, and that was thirty years ago," Snape replied, most of his attention still seeming to be focused within himself.

"What are you saying? I saw what happened to the boy. The man wasn't even sixty," Ron said.

"Nevertheless, it was Cascius Burke," Snape insisted.

"So you're saying he was wearing a glamour?" Hermione fixed on the most reasonable explanation.

"There wouldn't have been any reason for a glamour," Harry protested before Snape could answer. "The only person who saw him was Carl, and the blighter as good as wiped the boy's memory clean with that illusion he implanted. He wouldn't have had any reason to hide from Carl."

"But the man in the pensieve wasn't ancient," McGregor said. "I wouldn't even have put him at fifty. How can that be possible?"

"Albus Dumbledore was nearly 200 when he . . . when we lost him," Minerva said.

"Yes, but he looked old," Harry reminded.

"As did Burke when I knew him," Snape said, and Harry at last understood that this was what had him so distracted.

"Then it has to be a glamour," Ron insisted. "Or you're mistaken about his identity."

"I'm not mistaken and it wasn't a glamour," Snape insisted.

"How can you be so sure?" McGregor demanded. "It could be his son, or someone who simply resembles him."

"I'm certain because I knew the man. Like Thomas Riddle, Cascius Burke wasn't someone easily forgotten, even after a casual encounter – and our encounters were never casual," Snape answered. "This was Cascius Burke."

Neither Ron nor his fellow Aurors appeared convinced, but Harry believed Snape.

"Could he be using the Philosopher's Stone?" Harry asked. Professor Dumbledore had said it had been destroyed, but he wasn't an eleven year old child anymore. Harry knew now that Dumbledore hadn't always told him the entire truth, and, although he couldn't recall the headmaster ever telling him an outright lie, he knew he'd often been misdirected. His conversation in the infirmary when he'd awoken there after his encounter with Professor Quirrell and Lord Voldemort in first year was so long ago that Harry had only the vaguest memory of the details. The only clear things he recalled were that the stone was gone and that Nicholas Flamel would die.

Snape turned his way. To Harry's surprise, some of the hardness left those bottomless eyes. Snape seemed almost startled that he'd been believed and his protests taken seriously. After a moment's thought, Snape shook his head. "I saw it destroyed with my own eyes. And, even if it weren't, Nicholas Flamel and those exposed to it merely stopped aging; they didn't grow younger."

"A youth charm, then?" Hermione suggested.

"To what purpose?" Snape challenged. "Burke was already straining his resources by keeping the boy under Imperius while he . . . carried out his plans. There were points where he was running three separate spells simultaneously. I can't imagine that he'd waste the energy a glamour requires simply for vanity's sake."

"Vanity's sake?" Ron repeated.

"His plan left Mr. Westfield with no memory of his actual attacker," Snape reminded him.

"Oh, right," Ron said.

"Is it even possible to run three spells simultaneously?" Hermione fixed on the piece of Snape's statement that had most interested Harry.

"It's possible," Snape answered, his gaze, for some reason, turning Harry's way, "but not often done."

"Why not?" Ron asked.

"Have you cast even two at the same time?" Snape asked them.

Ron, Harry, and most of the others shook their heads.

But Hermione, who'd always been the brightest and most precocious of their group, responded,
"Once. One of my students summoned a merperson from the lake and I summoned some water to keep it alive while I transported it back. I had to simultaneously hold the water together while levitating the creature back outside."

"And what was the result?" Snape questioned.

"The spells worked, but I was utterly drained afterwards and had a splitting headache. I had to dismiss the class because I couldn't even keep my eyes open," Hermione said.

"Precisely. Only the most powerful of wizards can manage even two spells," Snape said.

"And you're saying this Cascius Burke managed three?" Ron asked.

Snape nodded. "The boy was under Imperius the entire time he was with Burke. While holding Westfield under Imperius, Burke magically removed and replaced items of his clothing, used Legilimency, a memory charm, a feel good charm, and apparated away when done."

"But that's . . . ." Ron began.

"Seven," Harry finished.

"Precisely. By my count, he cast three simultaneous spells at one point in the pensieve recollection," Snape said.

"Severus, I've never heard of that," Minerva said.

The room was quiet for a few moments. Even the younger Aurors seemed to appreciate the significance of what Snape was saying.

Finally, Ron broke the silence by asking, "So, did you know this Burke character well?"

"Yes," Snape answered.

Harry wondered if anyone else could hear the tension in that single clipped syllable.

"Just 'yes'?" Ron asked. "That doesn't tell us much. Where did you meet him?"

Snape straightened. "Thirty years ago, Thomas Riddle wanted Cascius Burke to join him. Burke was reluctant at first and had to be convinced. He left Riddle's group right after Riddle became Lord Voldemort."

Harry exchanged a glance with Hermione and Minerva. He could see that they both had reacted to that information the same as he. People didn't just leave Voldemort.

"He can't be all that bad, then," McGregor confirmed his status of village idiot by saying. Perhaps it was meant as a joke, but he was making it to four people who knew the teenager Burke had raped.

"What?" Ron swung on his co-worker, fury heightening his colour. "You just saw what that pervert is capable of in the pensieve. How can you say that?"

"What I meant was that he was smart enough to leave He Who Must Not Be Named before things got bad," McGregor quickly specified.

Harry relaxed a little at the qualification, deciding that the Auror had even less social grace than Snape, and that was saying something.

"What makes you think that intelligence entered into it, Mr. McGregor?" Snape asked in the voice he used to intimidate a roomful of seventh years.

"Well, he must've seen that Voldemort was destined to lose," McGregor offered, obviously feeling defensive.

"Hardly." Snape sneered. "When Burke parted ways with the Dark Lord, there was every probability that Voldemort would emerge the victor in his battle for supremacy in the Wizarding World."

"So why didn't Burke stay with him, then?" Ron asked.

"Burke had no desire to call any man his lord," Snape explained. "He wasn't Riddle's subordinate. He was his peer."

"Do you mean that socially, Severus?" Minerva shifted in her chair.

Harry and Hermione looked nervously at each other and then returned their full attention to Snape.

"No, I do not," Snape said.

"Huh?" Ron was looking from Hermione to Minerva to Harry himself, clearly reading their worry and responding to it.

"I think Professor Snape means that this Burke was Voldemort's equal in power," Hermione said. "That is what you meant, isn't it, Professor?"

"Unfortunately," Snape agreed.

"You mean we're searching for someone -" McGregor began.

"Powerful enough to leave Lord Voldemort and live," Snape completed the sentence.

"So Burke framed you to avenge Voldemort?" Ron asked.

"I sincerely doubt it. The last time Voldemort and Burke met, it was in a duel to the death," Snape said.

"Then why is this Burke alive?" Harry couldn't help but ask. "No wizard just walked away after challenging Lord Voldemort."

"This one did," Snape replied, his tone conveying a world of meaning in those three simple words.

With every bit of information Snape offered them, the situation became more confusing.

"I don't understand why Burke framed you, if his quarrel was with Voldemort," Ron said.

"Suffice it to say that Burke had sufficient resentment to perpetrate this fraud," Snape said after a long pause. Harry could tell that Snape really didn't want to discuss this subject.

"Enough evasion. Why's he got it in for you?" McGregor demanded, his suspicion clear.

Another prolonged pause followed before Snape finally said, "I betrayed Burke's trust by informing Voldemort of Burke's plan to murder him."

"You – what?" Ron gaped, as stunned as everyone in the room.

Harry was so accustomed to thinking of Snape as Professor Dumbledore's inside agent that he often forgot that Snape had been a true Death Eater for years before he'd had whatever change of heart that had driven him to help Dumbledore.

"I'm surprised Burke is still alive, in that case," Harry said as the silence stretched uncomfortably. "Voldemort wasn't particularly forgiving of disloyalty."

Snape met his eyes. "No, he wasn't. However, Burke's power was such that even Voldemort would not lightly challenge him."

"What?" McGregor asked.

"Cascius Burke was one of the most powerful, pureblood wizards of his age. Voldemort courted his favour for more than three years before Burke deigned to join the Death Eaters. When Burke learned the truth about Voldemort's Muggle background, he plotted to kill Voldemort and take his place."

"And you told Voldemort?" McGregor's sneer was so disdainful; it was worthy of Snape.

"Yes," Snape gave another of those single syllable replies in which Harry could sense a world of repressed emotion.

"Why?" Ron asked.

For the most part, Minerva and Hermione seemed as content as Harry to allow the Aurors to ask the difficult questions to which they all wanted answers. He and his co-workers had to deal with Snape on a daily basis, and were, therefore, more reluctant to violate Snape's privacy.

"When he first started to draw followers, Voldemort wanted to elevate Wizardkind over the Muggles, to restore the old ways, and reclaim our noble past. Burke wanted to exterminate the Muggles. What's more, he was almost powerful enough to do so."

"I'd think that would be right up your alley," McGregor said. "We know what Death Eaters think of Muggles."

"Like many men in their early twenties, I held many arrogant beliefs and prejudices that maturity eventually led me to question," Snape said to the twenty-something year old Auror in front of him. The subtlety of the sarcasm was wasted on McGregor, however.

"You betrayed him to Voldemort to save the Muggles?" The taller Auror, Martin, asked in a disbelieving tone.

"Hardly. At that age, I had no concern for a species I considered below my notice," Snape answered with ruthless honesty.

Harry could see how adversely Snape's bluntness affected his companions. Only he seemed to have heard the qualifier with which Snape had begun his answer, the 'at that age'. Wanting to dispel the growing hostility he could feel against Snape in the room, Harry softly asked, "Why'd you do it, then?"

Harry wasn't sure why he felt compelled to dispel the hostility. The prejudices Snape was admitting to were totally reprehensible.

"It was my belief that Burke was underestimating the Muggles. They mightn't have magic, but their recent technological advances mimicked magic in many ways. It was my fear that if we were to attack the Muggles as Burke planned, that they would become aware of us and eventually use their technology to penetrate our world and destroy us," Snape explained.

"Makes sense," Ron said.

"So what happened between Voldemort and Burke?" Harry asked.

"Voldemort was forewarned. When Burke made his play for control, he and his followers were put down by Death Eaters loyal to Voldemort. Burke's only son and three grandsons were killed in the coup. Though grievously injured, Burke himself escaped. I'd always believed him dead of his wounds, but . . . apparently, I was mistaken," Snape said.

"His son and grandchildren were all killed?" Hermione asked.

Snape nodded. "Burke's entire line ended that night, so, as you can see, he has more than sufficient reason to hate me."

"How did you find out about Burke's plan to overthrow Voldemort?" Ron questioned.

Another of those weighty silences followed before Snape replied, "Burke revealed it to me himself. I was . . . in his confidence at that point."

Harry sensed that there was a hell of a lot more to that story than Snape was letting on, but he didn't hound Snape for the details of what must have been a very painful decision for him to have made.

"You've got quite a charming history of betraying people, don't you?" McGregor asked with the kind of self-righteous disgust that Harry had occasionally seen levelled against Snape.

"That's enough," Harry said. "You asked him why Burke would go to such lengths to incriminate him. I think Professor Snape has satisfied your curiosity."

"Getting back to our suspect," Martin said, calling their attention away from what was shaping up to be another argument. "You said that Burke was powerful. How much of a threat do you think he is?"

Harry found himself exchanging a glance with Snape at the preposterous question. It was amazing how much he could read in a flicker of those black eyes. Without Snape altering his expression or voicing a single word, Harry could tell that Snape was as shocked by the Auror's question as he was.

Snape answered in his typically snide tone, "I'd imagine that Cascius Burke is no more of a threat than any wizard who has managed to reduce his age by a century, create a near flawless memory alteration powerful enough to fool a Veritaserum investigation, and survive the combined assault of Lord Voldemort and twenty of his most powerful Death Eaters. I wouldn't give it a moment's worry."

"Burke survived a fight with Voldemort and twenty Death Eaters?" Harry found himself voicing the thought that everyone had to be thinking.

"Burke's son, grandsons, and ten other followers fell in under two minutes. Burke took direct Unforgivable hits from Voldemort, myself, Lucius Malfoy, and four other experienced duellists. He held all of us at bay for over ten minutes and then managed to break Voldemort's security wards and apparate away," Snape said.

"That's not good," Ron said.

"Really?" Snape said with a sarcastic rise of his brow.

"Bloody hell," Ron whispered before shaking himself back into his professionalism. "I've got to get back to the office immediately. Chief Lawrence needs to know about this. We'll need to start a manhunt. I don't suppose you know where this Burke character can be found?"

Snape gave a slow, negative shake of his head. "Even if I did know where he lived, a wizard capable of this level of spellcraft isn't going to be sitting around awaiting capture."

"Yes, that's what I'm thinking. I just hope we have better luck finding Burke than we did finding Sirius when he escaped from Azkaban," Ron said, and then turned to his men. "We'd best get back to headquarters. It's going to be a long night."

"Perhaps I should come as well," Minerva said. "Before the school can chance another Hogsmeade weekend, we have to ensure that the students will be safe on the road. I need to speak to Chief Lawrence about increasing security."

"I'll come with you," Hermione offered.

"Thank you," Minerva seemed relieved by Hermione's offer. Then she turned to him, "Harry, do you mind if we keep your memories in the pensieve to share with Chief Lawrence?"

Before Harry could say that she could keep those particular memories forever if she wished, Ron said, "That won't be necessary. The Ministry has a number of pensieves. I can share anything the Chief needs since I looked in Harry's. We have to go." Ron looked to him. "Thanks again for your help, Harry. We'll see you later."

Ron gave his back an encouraging pat. Hermione gave him a brief hug and a whispered, "We'll see you soon. Take care." Then the three Aurors, Hermione, and Minerva all left the table to move to the floo in the outer office.

It was only after everyone had left that Harry realized that in their rush to get on the job of finding their missing suspect, that none of the Aurors had either apologized to Snape for their error or thanked the man for his assistance.

He turned back towards Snape, wanting to offer the thanks that he felt the man deserved, only to find those black eyes upon him. "Thank you for your help. We wouldn't have known who attacked Carl without your input."

"Yes, the Aurors were overcome with gratitude," Snape said in that lethally sarcastic way he had of effortlessly making a person feel an utter fool.

"I guess that they were eager to start their search now that they know their suspect," Harry tried to excuse what he knew to be bad behaviour.

"I note that they had time to thank you," Snape pointed out.

"Yes, well . . . ." Harry stammered.

"Forget it, Potter." Snape said, averting his eyes.

Harry watched that dark gaze roam over the shelves of books and curios. For one of the first times in their acquaintanceship, Snape appeared at a loss for words.

Harry didn't know what to say himself. Snape might be a thoroughly dislikeable character, but the man had been owed both an apology and thanks.

He heard Snape exhale a long breath, the kind he used himself when he was trying to shake off the after-effects of one of his night terrors, which was probably exactly how Snape was feeling after being threatened with Azkaban.

Wanting to make some kind of real contact with this man whose thoughts he'd touched, Harry softly said, "This was . . . a difficult afternoon. How are you doing?"

Those dark eyes flashed pure malice as Snape spat, "How do you think? A trusted colleague of thirty years believed I molested one of our students."

The malice somehow made Harry feel better. That was the Snape he knew.

"Minerva is Headmistress now. The students have to be her first concern," Harry defended. He tensed, waiting for Snape's next volley. A person could never have a normal conversation with Severus Snape. It was always verbal warfare of some kind.

There was no return fire. The quiet only deepened. Harry looked up at the taller wizard and took in those hard, chiselled features. Normally, that sour face seemed nearly emotionless, but tonight Harry was seeing the barricades for what they were. He'd only seen Snape look like this once before – the night of the final battle with Voldemort, when all the fighting was over and Albus Dumbledore's lifeless corpse was brought in from the courtyard.

God knew what the man must be feeling. To have such an ugly accusation levelled against him, with the airtight proof of a Veritaserum testimony backing it up. To have almost everyone who knew him believe that he had actually done it. To be moments away from Azkaban . . . Harry could only imagine how he'd feel in Snape's boots. He was still shaky himself and there had been no true threat against him. Snape had to be a wreck behind that outer cool.

"I suppose I'm free to leave now," Snape said. The scratched hand that had saved Snape's liberty reached up to push his hair clear of his eyes. Harry could see a faint tremor running through it.

They hadn't even told him he was free to go, Harry realized, disgusted. They'd just taken what knowledge Snape had to offer and left without so much as a thank you. While he understood Ron's need for haste, the lack of common courtesy troubled him. Snape might be a miserable bastard, but they wouldn't have known who their suspect was, were it not for his help. It wasn't right that Snape had just been forgotten about like this.

Bothered more than he could say by the oversight, Harry stared at his former teacher. Probably no one other than him would ever be able to see it, but Snape was shaken by what had happened this evening, badly so.

The thought of the man going down to the dungeons alone to brood over his mistreatment rankled, but Harry could see no way around it. It wasn't as though Snape would ever want to voluntarily spend time with him.

"Yes, I guess we both can go now," Harry agreed, turning for the door.


The sharp voice stopped him in his tracks. "Yes?"

"You're not going to leave that laying around in the open, are you?" Snape asked, gesturing towards the pensieve on the table with its glittering contents.

"Oh, yes." He'd totally forgotten about the memories he'd removed. "How do I get the thoughts back from the pensieve?"

Harry was braced for a cutting remark, but Snape merely said, "Put your wand back into the bowl and imagine the golden bubble returning along the same path you used to expel it."

"Right. Thanks."

To his surprise, Snape didn't leave. Perhaps Snape simply didn't trust him to do it right or do it at all, but Snape lingered, even though there was no longer any reason for him to stay.

Harry stuck his wand tip down into the dancing lights in the bowl and watched as his wand seemed to suck the thoughts up like a Muggle vacuum. He could feel the slight energy shift as the thoughts entered his system, then a heartbeat later, they were back in his mind.

They hit with a vengeance. It felt as if a dementor had just stepped into the room and sucked all the joy out of him. Harry gasped, swaying under the deluge of dark emotions that battered him as the details of Carl Westfield's rape played through his head like some disgusting kiddie porn flick. A cold sweat broke out on his skin and his stomach roiled. The bitter taste of bile filled his mouth and burned his throat.

Harry gulped it back down, and did his damnedest to get a hold of himself.

A firm hand grasped his elbow, both holding him up and grounding him.

"It's never pleasant when these types of memories return," Snape explained. "Give it a moment. It will pass."

Harry nodded. It would pass. The memory of that stranger's penis ripping into Carl's body was so visceral that he almost had sympathetic soreness, but . . . it would pass.

Like hell, it would.

Harry took a few deep breaths and tried to get some perspective, but the whole thing was just too horrid and too real.

"Breathe, deeply," Snape ordered.

Harry sucked in some more air. Very slowly, the repulsion gripping his guts loosened its hold and he no longer felt as if he'd be sick.

Once he could see something beside that brutal barn scene, Harry focused on the hand on his arm. Yellow fingers . . . he remembered those same yellow fingers reaching for his trousers . . . no, that hadn't really happened. And, the parts that were real had happened to someone else.

Abruptly realizing that they were alone in the room, just like Carl had been alone with Snape during detention, Harry was irritated to feel himself shiver again. Everything in him wanted to jerk clear, but . . . Snape was trying to help him.

"It wasn't me," Snape said and withdrew his supporting hand.

Harry staggered and grabbed onto the end of the table for balance.

"And, before you accuse me of reading your mind again, it was your expression, not your thoughts, that told me what you were thinking," Snape explained.

Damn. He couldn't let this go on this way. He hadn't feared this man when he was eleven and had had cause. He wasn't about to give Severus Snape that kind of power over him at this stage of the game.

"I'm sorry," Harry apologized. "I don't know why . . . I mean, I knew from the start that you hadn't . . . ."

To his shock, there was no condemnation in Snape's reply. "Potter, you took the boy's memories into yourself. Burke's illusion was virtually flawless. It would be strange if you weren't having a reaction. The others simply saw what was in the pensieve. You were in the boy's mind and felt it."

Harry stared up into those harsh features, oddly comforted by the distinction Snape had made.

"Are you all right?" Snape questioned after a minute or so of Harry's staring stupidly up at him.

"Are you?" Harry asked, turning the tables, because neither of them was ever comfortable admitting a weakness in front of the other.

The fact that Snape didn't immediately snarl a 'yes' or 'of course' at him was answer in itself. He appreciated that the other man didn't even try to lie to him.

The silence stretched so long that it became uncomfortable. Harry couldn't understand why Snape didn't leave, but then he realized that it might actually be worry for himself that was keeping him here. Or perhaps he simply didn't want to be alone just yet with the images he'd seen in the pensieve. Harry knew he sure as hell didn't.

Harry stared up into that hard, lined face with its long haughty nose. He'd hated this man so much as a boy, but he wasn't a child anymore and he knew that the world wasn't as comfortably black and white as it had seemed back then. Snape wasn't his enemy. He knew that.

Still, he considered his next action very carefully. Snape mightn't be his enemy, but he wasn't his friend, either. This man ripped him apart on a regular basis at staff meetings and seemed to delight in making him appear foolish. He knew that what he was considering would make him vulnerable and give Snape enough fuel to torment him for years.

The wisest move he could make would be to keep his mouth shut and just go back to his rooms to await Hermione and Ron's return, but wisdom had never been his strong suit.

Taking a deep breath, Harry softly said, "Look, I don't know about you, but I'm a bit of a wreck right now. I could use a drink and a change of scenery. Would you care to join me?"

"What?" Snape appeared as stunned as he'd ever seen him.

"In all the excitement, we missed dinner," Harry said, glancing at the bevelled windows to their right. When Ron had first been called to the Headmistress' office, this room had been flooded with bright afternoon light. But the windows behind Snape showed a dark sky now. Night had come to Hogwarts.

"I couldn't eat a bite," Snape denied.

"Neither could I, but I could sure use a drink. I think you could, too. Why don't we floo to the Three Broomsticks?" Harry asked, and held his breath, waiting for all hell to break loose, for Snape to tell him in his typically scathing manner that he'd rather die of thirst than voluntarily drink with James Potter's ill-gotten get.

But Snape didn't scoff at his offer. After searching his features for an uncomfortably long period, Snape softly asked, "Are you seriously asking me to accompany you on a social outing?"

Everything in that careworn face told Harry that Snape thought he was being had. He couldn't imagine how much courage it took for Snape to voice that question, to actually give him the benefit of the doubt and not assume the worst about him, as usual.

Tense, because he still expected to be told where he could stuff his invitation, Harry said, "Considering how we both feel, I'd hardly call it a social outing, but, yeah, I'd seriously like you to join me."

The silence following his words was perhaps the longest and most nerve-wracking of Harry's life. Snape was sure to laugh in his face at his weakness and spend the remainder of his career at Hogwarts tormenting him over it. He knew this was a mistake and that he was being a sentimental idiot, but he couldn't just turn his back on Snape when the man might actually need some human contact, even if his offer did brand him a fool.

But Snape didn't laugh or sneer. After another prolonged pause, he gave a nod and a cautious, "All right," still looking as though he anticipated mockery.

He'd never expected Snape to agree and was stunned that he had, but Harry did his best to hide it. "Great. Let's get the hell out of here."

Harry was pleased to see some of the hardness and suspicion leave Snape's face. It wasn't as if the older wizard's expression changed any. Snape still had that characteristic, studied blankness to his features, but the lines around his eyes didn't seem as deep.

They turned to the door together and left Headmistress McGonagall's inner office behind them. In the outer office, Harry crossed to the hearth and took down the bottle of shimmering floo powder from the mantle. "Do you want to go first?"

"After you," Snape said.

Harry could feel Snape's nervousness. Rather than remarking upon it, he gave Snape as much of a smile as he could manage, took a handful of powder from the jar, passed the bottle over to Snape, and then said, "I'll be waiting on the other side. The Three Broomsticks, Hogsmeade, Scotland."

Even as he stepped into the floo, he wasn't certain that Snape would actually follow him.

For the third time in as many hours Harry found himself hurtling along the floo network. His stomach was doing the roller-coaster ride it usually did as he sped past countless fireplaces. Finally, his journey came to an abrupt halt and he was literally spat out of The Three Broomsticks' hearth.

Around him, the pub was in its typical Saturday night bedlam. A couple of dozen people were crowded at the smoky bar. The tables were packed with witches and wizards whose conversations were competing with the melancholy Celtic air being played by a musicianless guitar and pennywhistle in the corner.

Harry took in the familiar scene at a glance, his attention focusing on the beautiful innkeeper who was talking to a pair of goblins at a nearby table. Even after ten years of near complete disinterest in the opposite sex, Harry still found Rosmerta stunning. The fact that the tousled blonde's heart eclipsed her physical attractiveness only made her all the more beautiful in his eyes. She had always been kind and considerate to him, even through the worst of his publicity. He appreciated how she looked after her patrons. When he came here, he never had to worry about being harassed by reporters or having the staff sell glimpses of his private life to the media.

"Harry!" Rosmerta called as he staggered to regain his balance. Looking way too lovely for a witch her age in her burgundy bodice, black lacy shawl, and black, billowing skirts, the innkeeper came to join him. "I wasn't expecting you tonight."

"Hello, Rosmerta," Harry greeted, and then turned as the fire behind him flared and ejected Snape.

Harry could feel many eyes turning their way as Snape's tall, black-clad form filled the floo. Even though Snape stumbled like every other floo traveller, he seemed a dangerous and menacing figure as he appeared in the busy pub. Power rustled around the Potions master like dried leaves in an autumn wind.

Harry reached out to steady Snape as the man staggered into the public room.

Harry couldn't help but notice how the conversations closest to the hearth stilled as the customers nearest the floo recognized Snape. He heard several whispers of 'Death Eater' before the conversations started up again. He knew Snape had to have heard those words, but he never reacted to them.

"Severus!" Rosmerta's exclamation overwhelmed even the Saturday night din. Her round, pretty face was all grin as she held out both her hands to the dour Potions master.

To his shock, Snape took hold of her offered hands and gave them a squeeze, "Rosmerta."

Snape looked almost human for once. In fact, if Harry didn't know better, he'd say that Snape was pleased by her effusive greeting.

Harry was so shocked to see anyone casually touch Severus Snape that he couldn't help but stare. The fact that Snape allowed it was equally astounding. As Harry took in the sight of the witch with her wild, honey blond curls holding onto the grim Potions master, he couldn't help but think that they looked good together, that Snape didn't seem nearly as menacing or homely when he was behaving like a normal human being instead of a reclusive ogre.

Rosmerta freed her right hand and reached up to touch Snape's cheek.

"I've missed you. It's been way too long," she complained in a heartfelt, meaningful tone that seemed to go over Snape's head entirely. Most men either blushed or smiled when she made that type of overture, but Snape seemed impervious to her charms or perhaps simply unaware, Harry decided, watching them closely.

Snape inclined his head, his voice turning grave again as he answered, "Nine years."

"That's right. You haven't been in since Albus . . . well, it's good to see you now. So good to see you." Her eyes turned Harry's way. "You're not together, are you?"

Snape and he looked at each other. The absurdity of the very idea of them doing anything together socially was clear in Snape's gaze, as it no doubt was in his own.

"Apparently so," Snape drolly replied before Harry could.

Laughter as melodic as wind chimes rolled across them as Rosmerta eyed them both. "Well, I've seen everything now! Severus Snape and a Potter pub-crawling together! The world must be coming to an end!"

"Really, Rosmerta, you're exaggerating," Snape said.

"And we're hardly 'pub crawling'," Harry protested.

"Exaggerating, is it?" She asked, her bright, smiling eyes focused on Snape. "Might I remind you that the last time you and a Potter were together in my pub, I had to have five tables and twenty chairs replaced? And it took my staff three days to get the blood out of the floor stones!"

Snape's dark gaze swept towards Harry for a moment before returning to her. "That was a different Potter."

"Yes, it certainly was," she agreed and reached out to give Harry's arm an affectionate pat. "What can I do you for tonight?"

"Someplace quiet?" Harry asked, looking uncertainly around the crowded, noisy room. He'd forgotten what this place was like on Saturday nights. Though he'd needed a change of scenery, the noisy crowd was too much for him to take right now, and he suspected Snape felt pretty much the same way, if his pale, drawn expression were anything to go by.

"This way, lads," Rosmerta said, leading them through the most populated part of the pub, past the self-playing guitar and pennywhistle to a nearly deserted room off to the side.

The lights were a little dimmer in here and the noise level significantly lower. Harry could barely even hear the instruments and laughter on the other side of the white wattle wall. A pair of young witches sat near the entrance, speaking across the table in such soft tones that their hat points almost touched.

Rosmerta led Snape and him to a table for two at the far end of the side room. An incongruously romantic votive candle sat in a crystal holder in the centre of the table, casting spears of refracted light across the well-polished table planks. "Will this do you?"

"It's perfect," Harry approved. "Thanks, Rosmerta."

Ever the paranoid, Snape slid into the chair that faced the entrance. Harry took the seat across from him.

"Will you be wanting dinner?" Rosmerta asked.

"Drinks for now," Harry said.

"Your usuals?" she glanced from him to Snape, sounding as though they came in here together every week like he and the Weasleys did.

Harry nodded.

"I drink -" Snape began.

"I remember. Davillier cognac. Unless you've changed it?" Rosmerta checked.

"No, it's the same," Snape said.

"Good. I'll be back with your drinks in a moment," she said. Looking to Snape, she added a playful, "Mind my tables. The cost of good workmanship has tripled in the last thirty years," before leaving them with a wink.

"You took out five tables in a fight with my father?" Harry couldn't help but ask as soon as they were alone. In the flickering candlelight, Snape looked knackered, which made him feel guilty for asking, but he couldn't just let an opening like that pass.

Considering how freely Snape had joked with Rosmerta about the incident, Harry was hoping to get his companion to relax a little, but the man seemed to fold into himself. Invisible defensive barriers popped up all around him as he answered in a low, strained voice. "They weren't able to get me from behind that time."

That time. Harry hated the sound of those two words and everything they implied.

"It was just you alone against all four of the Marauders?" he questioned, trying to understand. For all that everyone swore he was just like the man, there were times Harry didn't understand his father at all. He'd hated Draco Malfoy with a passion in school, but they'd never blasted up a pub or attacked each other from behind like his dad and his friends had apparently done to Snape. He supposed this wasn't the best time to be asking this kind of stuff, but it certainly beat dwelling on the memories he'd taken from Westfield.

At first he thought Snape wasn't going to answer – no particular surprise, that; the man never did consent to answer any of Harry's questions about his interaction with his father – but after a moment Snape said in a slow, cautious tone, "No. Lupin never joined in their childish pranks, and Pettigrew was worse than useless in a fight. It was just two to one."

This was the first time he'd ever gotten anything other than a rebuke when he'd dared question Snape on this subject.

"Just two to one," Harry repeated, his Gryffindor spirit of fair play offended, even if it were his father they were discussing. "And the blood on the floor?"

"Pettigrew's. He managed to get himself caught between one of Black and my volleys. Pettigrew ended up in infirmary for a week, and your father, Black, and I in detention with Filch every day for six months," Snape succinctly supplied.

Unable to believe he'd received an actual answer, Harry considered his next question. There were a million things he wanted to ask Snape, but he found his tired mind questioning a totally tangential concern. "Did Filch use the thumbscrews on you?"

"What?" Snape looked at him as if he'd lost his mind.

"In first year when he took us to detention in the Forbidden Forest, Filch said he missed being able to torture students," Harry explained, recognizing that it had been a really dumb thing to ask. He felt rather like the fellow in the fairy tale who'd been granted three magic wishes, and then wasted one wishing for a clean hankie.

"Potter, do you have even a passing acquaintance with the word 'gullible'?" Snape asked in a tone that might have been amused.

Harry felt his face heat. "You know what a miserable git Filch is. Nothing would surprise me."

"Albus Dumbledore was Headmaster back then. Can you honestly see him allowing thumbscrews to be used on students? Your godfather barely received detention for attempted murder," Snape said in a tone that sounded nowhere near as upset as he normally became whenever this subject came up.

Like a fat goat tethered to a tree in dragon country, the bait sat out there, tempting him. Harry knew Snape's throwaway comment wasn't a casual oversight. Snape never let things slip. If he mentioned something unexpected in a conversation, it was an intentional opening, but Harry wouldn't put it past the bastard to dangle something like that in front of him and then refuse to illustrate upon it out of sheer, malicious glee.

The Shrieking Shack incident, that was what Snape was referring to. Harry bit his lip to hold back the dozens of questions he'd wanted to ask for so long. There was so much he didn't understand, so much he needed to know, but he wasn't going to push Snape, have him cut the conversation off, and give him his usual reprimand. This was the first time in memory that they actually seemed to be communicating rather than sniping at each other, and, for some reason, that seemed more important to him than satisfying his curiosity.

At last, Harry said, "You, er, usually refuse to even speak to me about that."


That was it, just a flat 'yes', no explanation, no apology.

"May I ask what's changed?" Harry questioned when no further comments seemed forthcoming.

"You could have taken this information and anything else you wanted from my mind earlier. I couldn't have done a thing to stop you," Snape said.

"You don't owe me any answers, at least not for today," Harry snapped, disgusted by the very idea that Snape would now feel he had to sell him a piece of his soul in repayment for his help.

"I owe you something," Snape replied without his usual venom. "If it weren't for you, I'd be in Azkaban right now."

Snape took his debts very seriously, Harry knew, recalling how this man had protected him, his worst enemy's son, from Quirrell in first year when the DADA teacher had tried to curse him. Snape had made it plain that he'd abhorred the life debt he'd owed James Potter, but he'd still honoured it.

Harry didn't want Snape owing him, any more than he wanted to owe Snape.

"You don't owe me a thing," Harry protested. "I didn't do anything that anyone else wouldn't have done if they'd had the abilities."

"Didn't you? Four of the people in that room today have known me fifteen years or longer, yet you were the only one who protested my innocence." Although the words were nearly casually voiced, Harry could tell how disturbed Snape was by that fact.

They both started as Rosmerta bustled over to them with their drinks and a bowl of crisps. She put the lager down in front of Harry and a golden double down in front of Snape. "Here we go. Let me know if you need anything else."

With that, she was off to deal with the crowd in the other room.

Once they were alone again, Harry quietly explained, "I did it because I knew you were innocent."

"How? Minerva has known me for thirty-seven years, and even she had doubts." For all that he had the most refined and cultured voice Harry had ever heard, Snape sounded almost like a hurt child as he repeated the sentiment he'd voiced when they were alone in the headmistress' office. The tone reminded him too much of the one Snape had used on that horrible day in third year when Sirius had nearly suffered the dementor's kiss because of this man's malice.

Clearly, McGonagall's lack of faith had really thrown him. Fortunately for them all, Snape didn't seem to be reacting to this incident on quite the same level of betrayal as he had Dumbledore's refusal to properly punish Sirius for the Shrieking Shack 'prank', but that might be because Snape hadn't had thirty years or more to brood on the unfairness of the incident.

Looking at Snape now, Harry realized for the first time how entirely horrible that Shrieking Shack situation must have been for Snape in fifth year. The attack on his life had barely been deemed worthy of a reprimand by the authorities, and the victim himself had been sworn to secrecy so that he couldn't even vent his feelings with his friends. How much had Dumbledore's gag order hurt this man? Harry wondered if Snape had been able to confide in anyone about the event in the forty years that had passed since then. The only person who had ever had any patience for Snape was Dumbledore, and he'd been dead for years now, and even when he'd been alive, it was Dumbledore who'd refused to properly discipline the wrongdoers. The gross injustice Snape had suffered had obviously been eating at his heart for his entire adult life. Was it any wonder his reactions were nearly unhinged when it came to dealing with that incident?

Well, that wasn't going to happen with today's events, Harry determined. The man was going to know that someone had been on his side from the start, and that the others were as concerned about him as they could have been, given the situation.

"Minerva wanted to believe," Harry insisted. "Her first priority had to be her student. Remember, Westfield gave a Veritaserum testimony that you were the person who assaulted him. That's pretty stiff evidence to overlook. Would you have been any more trusting than Minerva, if you were headmaster and this case were brought to your attention? She had to take the child's side; the same way any of us would have had to in her shoes."

"Yet, you still believed me innocent," Snape said.

"Maybe I just know you a little better than they do," Harry tried to lighten the mood.

"Know me better? We haven't agreed on a single issue since you came to Hogwarts fifteen years ago," Snape pointed out.

"Maybe we don't like each other much, but I think we know each other well enough to understand that there are certain things that the other just wouldn't do. I've had firsthand experience of your integrity that the others haven't. I knew you would never molest a student, or anyone, for that matter."

Snape's entire body seemed to freeze in his chair. For the longest time, he subjected Harry to one of those piercing stares that came a breath away from brushing over into his thoughts. Finally, Snape muttered, "Firsthand experience of my integrity?"

Snape sounded as though it were beyond his ken that anyone could voice those words together, let alone defend him.

Most days, this conversation could never have occurred, Harry recognized. Snape was usually so guarded that he allowed nothing to get close enough to him to hurt him, but the trials of the day had obviously left Snape as battered as the final battle with Voldemort had, perhaps more so, because this had been a personal attack.

Realizing how much it was taking for the other man to be this open with him, Harry quickly answered, "Yes, firsthand experience of your integrity. You don't broadcast it, but you've got it."

"False flattery, Potter? I'd have thought better of you," Snape's sneer dripped venom as those barriers snapped back up in his eyes.

Losing patience with this cantankerous misanthrope, Harry snapped, "Oh, for . . . would you give it a rest, just once? Of course you've got integrity. The entire fate of the Wizarding World depended almost solely upon your personal integrity when you were spying on Voldemort."

"That was self-preservation," Snape dismissed, as if everything he'd risked and sacrificed was irrelevant for that reason. "Don't confuse the two. And you did say 'firsthand experience'. Although your faults are legion, you don't usually lie without a very good reason. You and I both know that from our initial interaction in your first year, I went out of my way to humiliate you. What you said simply cannot be true, so spare me your pity. "

"Pity?" Harry stammered, flummoxed by the very suggestion.

"What else could it be?" Snape asked, sounding simply weary instead of outraged.

"Try the truth," Harry countered. "Look, I'd be the first to agree that you're a right miserable bastard, but . . . when you had the chance to really get back at me, to make me pay for every stupid, petty disagreement we ever had, you didn't take it. That restraint took integrity."

"What the devil are you talking about?"

"My Occlumency lessons in fifth year."

Snape burst out laughing. It wasn't a pleasant sound because the Potions master was clearly laughing at him, but the idea of Snape laughing at all was so strange that Harry couldn't help but enjoy the experience.

"What's so funny?" Harry interrupted when it seemed the mocking laughter would never stop.

"You, Potter. We could barely be in the same room after those lessons for years; they were such an unmitigated disaster. Even Albus was finally forced to see the absurdity of my trying to teach you those skills. And yet you offer that dismal failure as proof of my probity?"

"It wasn't a total failure. You taught me," Harry protested.

"I came a heartbeat away from murdering you," Snape reminded, still chuckling.

Though it was a mean and grating bark of a laugh, the man's face had changed completely. For the briefest instant, Snape didn't look as though he were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He seemed more human, nearly approachable.

"Maybe so, but you still taught me," Harry insisted. "What's more, you showed me what real integrity and honour were during those lessons."

The laughter stopped as if cut off by a switch. Snape subjected him to another of those evaluating stares before saying, "You're serious."


"I haven't a clue what you're referring to. Our behaviour towards each other that entire year was characteristically reprehensible," Snape said.

Nervous under that dark stare, Harry picked up a crisp and ate it. When he'd followed the salty distraction down with a gulp of lager, he softly said, "I admit that at the time I hated your guts so much that I couldn't appreciate what you were doing for me. It wasn't until that final battle with Voldemort when he entered my mind and was searching for weaknesses that I began to understand what you could have done to me, if you'd wanted to be truly vicious. You could have hunted down every lie I ever told you, every secret I ever kept, and then hidden what you'd done with a memory charm like Lockhart used to use, but you didn't."

"Potter, the entire Wizarding World was expecting you to defeat Voldemort for them. Had I indulged myself, and done something 'truly vicious', as you call it, Albus would have nailed my hide to Hogwarts' main door. It was sheer self-interest, and there was nothing integrious in it," Snape denied.

"It wasn't fear of the Headmaster that kept you from misusing me. It was your personal honour," Harry insisted.

"It was common sense, that's all. Only a Gryffindor could attribute such high blown motivation to simple necessity," Snape said.

"Look, I know you're no saint. I know you weren't doing it for me, but I'm also old enough now to recognize that you could have done anything you wanted in my head back then. It could have all been cruel and horrible, and it wasn't. It was merely unpleasant because we disliked each other and neither of us wanted to be doing anything that intimate together."

Although Harry sensed that his words were making Snape intensely uncomfortable, that dark gaze was fixed almost unblinkingly upon him.

"I was doing what Albus commanded me to do – no more, no less, solely because he commanded it," Snape informed him. "There was nothing personal or honourable in it."

"Wasn't there?" Harry asked.

"What do you mean?"

"You didn't want to teach me, and he forced you to. Those lessons put you in a position where you could have taken any revenge you wanted to, but you didn't. You never did anything in my head to hurt or belittle me. You saw a lot of embarrassing stuff, and you never used it against me. Not once. You never even mentioned anything you'd seen in those lessons," Harry reminded him.

Snape broke eye contact and reached for his glass. Harry couldn't help but notice the faint quiver that shook the golden liquor as Snape lifted his drink to his thin lips. He remembered how unsteady that hand had been earlier in Minerva's office and wondered if the man had stopped shaking at all today. Nerves of steel only went so far when faced with the reality of Azkaban.

"Perhaps it didn't occur to you at the time, but I was in a far more vulnerable position," Snape said at last.

"How so?"

"You were a fifteen year old boy, Potter. Nothing I saw in your mind would in any way damage your position were I foolish enough to circulate what I'd seen. What was the worst I could have said? That those degenerates with whom Albus insisted upon leaving you treated you abominably? The only people that would have reflected badly upon were those Muggles, the headmaster – and myself, of course. There wasn't anything there to use against you."

"Malfoy would have had a field day with any of it," Harry softly pointed out.

Snape sighed. "And what would your Gryffindor friends have done, or even Mr. Malfoy, I wonder, had you spoken to your classmates about any of the incidents you'd picked up in my mind or what you saw in the pensieve? It would have been more than embarrassing. If you had revealed any of what you'd learned, it could have seriously impacted my ability to teach."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked, his brow furrowing as he tried to understand this point that Snape seemed to think was self-evident.

"You could have made me a laughing stock, had you wanted. In fact, I spent days after our final lesson preparing for just that event," Snape said. "To this day, I don't understand why you didn't."

All those fears he'd sensed in Snape's brain this afternoon were suddenly there between them. Although there was no clear memory attached to anything, Harry knew how this man expected betrayal as a given. He could only imagine how confused Snape was on the rare occasions it didn't happen. Mercy and courtesy were obviously alien concepts to him.

Knowing that Snape was seeing him for perhaps the first time in their acquaintanceship without viewing him through the filter of being James Potter's son, Harry said something he'd been wanting to say to this unpleasant man for the past eleven years, but had simply never had the courage to approach him about. "I didn't do it because it would have been cruel and wrong . . . and I'd already made such a poor showing of myself."

"In what respect?" Snape asked, although he had to know to what Harry was referring.

"In all respects. You mightn't have been teaching me for my sake, but you were going out of your way to help me. And I . . . I repaid you for your trouble by violating your trust on the most basic level. I truly didn't understand what I was doing when I looked in that pensieve in fifth year. All I knew was that I didn't trust you. That's no excuse. I know how wrong what I did was, and . . . well, I am sorry I did it. You didn't deserve that kind of treatment. You were only trying to help me."

The silence at the table was absolute.

Snape reached out, picked up his drink, and downed half of it. "What is it you want, Potter?"

"What?" Harry asked, thrown by Snape's weary tone.

"What is all this sudden . . . bonhomie in aid of?"

Hating that suspicion, Harry sighed. "I don't want anything from you. I just want to apologize – for my sake, as much as yours. What I did in fifth year has been bothering me for a long time."

Harry braced himself for the inevitable 'and you think an apology makes up for it' snipe that was Snape's typical response to social convention. But no attack came.

After a long pause, Snape gave a grudging answer of, "The fault was hardly yours."

"What? Did I just hear you absolve me of responsibility?" Harry actually laughed at the thought.

Snape didn't laugh again, but something like humour sparked in his glittering dark eyes. "Incredible as that might seem, yes."

"How can you say that? I . . . ."

"You were only fifteen. I told Albus how dangerous it was to teach those particular skills to anyone that young."

"Are you saying that your objections weren't personal?" Harry demanded.

"Of course they were personal. But beyond our mutual dislike, there were moral considerations involved that Albus was once again only too eager to forego on your behalf," Snape answered.

"What type of moral considerations?" Harry challenged, feeling as suspicious as Snape.

"You've been a teacher for years now. Is there a single fifth year student you know to whom you would feel comfortable teaching the arts of Legilimency and Occlumency, no matter how gifted or mature the student seems?" Snape asked. "Would you want a fifteen year old to have the power to look into another person's mind and influence their decisions?"

Harry gaped at the man, stunned. He'd never considered it from that angle before.

He thought of his fifth year students. Snape was right. He had some fantastic students, but there wasn't a single one he'd consider mature enough be trusted with those arts. In retrospect, he realized that his students weren't all that different from the angry, confused teenager he'd been when Snape had taught him those forbidden mental disciplines. He'd always thought that he'd been the one who'd failed, but now, for the first time, he found himself questioning how appropriate it was that they'd tried to teach him those skills at such a tender age. All he'd ever been able to see in the past was how much he and Snape had both hated those lessons, and how horribly he'd betrayed Snape's trust, but now he recognized that something of the sort had been inevitable from the start. He'd simply been too young to appreciate the sensitive nature of the skills he was being taught.

When he could speak again, Harry reminded him. "You didn't teach me Legilimency, only Occlumency. I picked the other up on my own."

"But I made you aware of the possibility of Legilimency. By using it on you, I showed you the path, if not the actual methods to achieve it. You were always precocious. We should have known better."

"Perhaps, but it was a necessary risk," Harry said.

"So, Albus believed at the time."

"I am sorry about how it turned out," Harry repeated.

Snape took another sip of his drink and offered, "You were a fifteen year old child. You could hardly be blamed for behaving your age."

"But you did blame me at the time," Harry reminded him.

"Yes, I did. I believe I also taught you a most important lesson after our last session," Snape said. At his questioning glance, Snape asked, "After the . . . vehemence of my reaction to your snooping in the pensieve, did you ever again casually invade another person's mind or thoughts?"

Harry gave a negative shake of his head and swallowed hard. He knew he'd been lucky to get out of that room alive that day.

"Then you did learn the most important part of the lesson," Snape said.

After a brief pause, Harry said, "But it still wasn't right of me."

"No, it wasn't, but it was predictable. After all, what Slytherin would have been able to resist snooping, if faced with a similar opportunity to spy on my most private thoughts? I dare say, half the staff would be lining up today if they thought they could get away with it," Snape said.

Harry laughed at the image of Flitwick, Minerva, Hagrid, and the others standing in a row awaiting a peek into Snape's pensieve.

"Besides, we were fortunate that the incident you stumbled upon was only of personal embarrassment," Snape said.

"Huh?" Harry reached for more crisps.

"I was actively undercover as a Death Eater, Potter. You don't imagine that the only thing in that pensieve was childhood bullying?"

Harry swallowed his mouthful and said, "I never thought of that, but you're right. There must have been a lot of memories in that pensieve that you didn't want me day tripping through. I guess we just got lucky."

"Yes, lucky," Snape echoed.

Hearing the sarcasm, Harry took a chance, met that inky gaze, gave a mischievous grin, and said, "Well, I know that I got lucky. When you interrupted me, I thought you were going to murder me."

"I should have done," Snape agreed, but his voice lacked its characteristic rancour.

"Guess you missed your golden opportunity," Harry chuckled.

"A much lamented happenstance," Snape said. His serious tone only made Harry laugh all the harder.

Snape didn't seem put off by his merriment. To the contrary, as Snape took another sip of his drink, he appeared almost at ease.

When his laughter calmed, Harry took another swig of his lager and said, "This feels good, doesn't it?"

"What does?" Snape was perhaps a bit more on his guard, but not as armoured as he normally seemed.

"Being able to sit and talk without ripping pieces out of each other."

"I don't know, Potter. There's something eminently satisfying about leaving you a bloodied wreck," Snape drawled.

Harry couldn't help but notice that despite the content of his words, Snape's response wasn't the cutting denial that he knew it would have been yesterday. Something in him would always need to push the envelope, Harry recognized, as he probed the limits of Snape's atypical forbearance with, "When did you ever leave me bloodied, or in danger?"

"I was speaking figuratively, but then the higher thought processes necessary for such subtlety never were your strong point," Snape replied.

"Subtle? You're about as subtle as a howler," Harry chuckled, really pushing it.

But Snape didn't close up and get all snarky with him. Instead, the older man responded with a lazy sounding, utterly self-honest, "And just as welcome, I'd imagine," that had Harry laughing so hard he could barely breathe.

"Damn. Have I been blind all these years? Were you always this funny?" Harry asked, beginning to understand why he so often saw Hagrid convulsed with laughter in the Great Hall whenever the groundskeeper sat near Snape.

"Yes, and no."

"What?" Harry blinked.

"It goes without saying that you have always been blind," Snape answered.

Harry grinned, genuinely enjoying that sharp wit and sharper tongue. "And the 'no'?"

Some of the glittering light left that near-black gaze. "There has been little cause for levity in our association."

Taking a chance, Harry confessed, "I'd like to change that."

Snape didn't immediately rip him to shreds. After another of those long, evaluating searches, Snape softly denied, "It's a little late to be teaching old dogs new tricks, don't you think?"

Don't you think?, not Are you out of your miniscule mind? That was as good as an agreement from this ever-cautious man.

"I always fancied you more a crow than a dog myself, sir," Harry grinned. "Crows are clever creatures, very adaptable."

"Their beaks can sever bones if one gets too close, did you know that about them?" Snape asked.

Harry heard the warning. "I always reckoned they'd pluck out my eyes first."

The breathy snort Snape tried to hold in told him that he'd earned the man's grudging approval, somehow.

"Potter, you fall short of even my astoundingly low estimate of a Gryffindor's capacity to recognize common sense. Have you not even a faint attachment to your eyes and fingers?"

"I'm quite attached to them all, to be honest. But maybe I think it would be worth the risk?" That seemed to shock Snape into silence for a moment. Savouring the unusual pleasure of seeing Severus Snape speechless, Harry added, "You know how a hopeless cause enflames a Gryffindor soul."

"Hopeless is it, then?"

Harry looked into that dour face, unable to tell if the man were offended or amused. "With our history – what else would you call it?"

To his delight, that earned him a dry chuckle. "Touché. Bloody fingers all around, then."

They both started as Rosmerta apparated beside their table. She had a huge tray in her arms and a large grin on her face. "I may take a picture of this and display it over the hearth. History in the making in my very own pub! Severus Snape and a Potter laughing – at the same time!"

"His picture would only be rude to your customers," Harry warned with a laugh.

Snape simply inclined his head in what might have been agreement.

"Now I know you said you only wanted drinks, but it's been nine years since you've been at my table, Severus. You used to enjoy my beef stew. I thought you and Harry might help me finish off the last in the pot?" Before either of them could reply, she'd levitated two steaming bowls, cutlery, an over-flowing bread plate, and new drinks in front of them before disappearing with a cheery, "Enjoy."

"I guess we look hungry," Harry said, eyeing the stew. When he'd arrived, he'd been queasy over everything that had happened today, but now, he felt much better. Picking up a spoon, he took a tentative taste of the savoury broth.

Across from him, Snape did the same.

As the taste exploded across Harry's tongue, their eyes met. "As good as you remember?"

Snape gave a slow nod, and then replied, "Better."

Somehow, Harry got the feeling that he was talking about more than just the stew. Pleased, he dug in, his stomach reminding him that he hadn't eaten since breakfast.

They made short shrift of their meal.

When they were done, Harry took a deep sip of his lager and said, "About today. Burke's age had you puzzled. How do you think he managed it?"

"You're the DADA instructor. You know how he did it. In fact, Voldemort practiced a form of that black art on you in your fourth year."

"You're suggesting that Burke reversed the aging process by stealing other people's lifeforces," Harry said.

"In all probability," Snape agreed, then added an almost wry, "Unless I am totally unhinged and wrong on all counts – a possibility that is becoming more and more of an increasing concern as this day progresses."

Harry actually smiled at the dry statement. "But Voldemort didn't become younger. He -"

"Used the power he stole from your blood to recreate his body instead of simply restoring its youth. It's a similar process."

Harry considered the idea. After a few moments, he said, "You said Burke was 110 when you met him. That would make him close to 140 now. It would take a tremendous amount of power to cut a wizard's age by two-thirds. He would have had to suck the lifeforce out of . . . ."

"Dozens of victims," Snape completed.

"Wouldn't the Ministry have noticed something like that? I mean if dozens of Wizards suddenly turned up dead?" Harry asked.

"We both know that the Ministry couldn't find its own arse with a map and divining rod," Snape said.

And once again, this man whom he would have sworn grim and utterly humourless this morning at breakfast had him howling with laughter. It was just so true. The Aurors were good at their jobs, but the organization that controlled them was as embarrassing as it had been when Harry was a child.

Once Harry's stopped laughing, Snape continued with, "Besides, it's entirely possible that the victims haven't turned up at all. We wizards are a very eccentric group. So many of us go off on our own to study our powers in the wild that we make easy targets for our own kind. Look at what happened to Quirrell. That's how Voldemort got hold of him."

"Yeah, there's that," Harry agreed. "But still, if dozens of us went missing . . . ."

"There is always the possibility that Burke might by preying upon more than wizards. Muggles would do, but he'd need more of them. With the violence and crime in Muggle society, providing he were cautious in his choice of victims, Burke could prey on them for years before their authorities ever noticed a pattern. As long as the Muggle press regarded the deaths as Muggle crimes, the Ministry wouldn't have any reason to suspect a wizard's involvement. The murders wouldn't be as noticeable to us as, say, a werewolf or vampire attack."

"That makes sense." Harry picked at the last of his stew. Waiting until he'd finished the succulent mouthful, he took a sip of his lager, swallowed, and said, "If what we're discussing is true, this Burke is fully as dangerous as Voldemort."

Snape nodded. "I would say more so."

Harry tried to control his reaction to that simple sentence, but couldn't, although he did manage to refrain from spraying stew all over the table and his companion. "More dangerous than Voldemort?"

"Thomas Riddle was an exhibitionist. He made no secret of his desire to rule. He gathered his minions around him, marked them as his own in a manner that was immediately identifiable to the authorities, and waged his play for power out in the open, announcing his foul deeds for all the world to see with the Dark Mark in the sky. Burke, on the other hand, is a loner, who seems to have managed to surreptitiously murder enough people to reverse his age by close to a century. The man I knew had no weak links to exploit. If Burke is following in Lord Voldemort's footsteps, he will not be as easy to find."

"Do you really think he's doing that – following in Voldemort's footsteps?" Harry asked.

"It's possible," Snape answered.

"And you think he framed you out of revenge?" Harry asked.

"It seems the most likely reason. He could also see me as the sole remaining threat to his becoming the new Dark Lord," Snape said. "We are both assuming that his goal was more than merely molesting young Westfield."

"No, he didn't need to frame you to do that. With his grasp of Legilimency and Occlumency, he could have made poor Carl forget the rape had ever happened if he'd wanted to."

"That's true," Snape agreed.

"You said 'sole remaining threat'?" Harry questioned.

"Well, who else is going to stop him? Can you really see Ronald Weasley or his colleagues defeating a wizard of Voldemort's abilities?" Snape asked.

A chill went through Harry, because he knew that was precisely what this situation might come down to if Snape were correct, and, for all their disagreements, he'd never known Snape to be wrong when it came to the Dark Arts. Ron couldn't take someone of Voldemort's power. Hell, Albus Dumbledore, Snape, and he had barely managed the feat combining all three of their strengths.

"There are perhaps a handful of wizards in the entire world who know enough of the Dark Arts to effectively defend against a threat of Voldemort's level," Snape continued. "The only two in Britain are sitting at this table."

"That's rather an elitist statement, don't you think?" Harry tried to argue.

"It's an elite group, Potter. Welcome to its ranks. Thirty years ago, Lord Voldemort would have been courting you to join him or actively attempting to destroy you."

"Like my dad," Harry whispered.

Snape's gaze sharpened. "Whatever makes you say that?"

Harry shrugged. "Voldemort was hunting my parents so ruthlessly that they needed a secret keeper. No one ever said anything about my mom being a powerful witch."

"And the only thing most ever said about your father was that he had a flare for hopeless Gryffindor heroics and attracting trouble. Lord Voldemort was not hunting or courting James Potter because he feared his power," Snape snapped with his usual ire. He sounded almost offended by the very thought.

Harry tried not to take issue with the implied insult to his father, because for Snape that had been a pretty lightweight barb, so he asked instead, "Then why'd they have to go into hiding?"

"The Prophesy had much to do with it. You were one of the two children born that year who fit the description. And your parents were among Albus' staunchest supporters. Voldemort was picking Albus' people off one by one while the Ministry wrung its collective hands and refused to acknowledge what was really happening. Those were dark times, Potter."

Harry nodded. "Today certainly gave them a run for their money."

"Yes," Snape agreed. After a quiet time in which they drank and watched the scraps of their stew start to congeal, Snape said, "What you did for me today – defending me and taking those memories into yourself to prove my innocence – that took great strength of character. I . . . am in your debt."

Harry could see how hard those words came to Snape.

"No, you're not. You don't owe me anything. We were . . . comrades in arms. It was just another battle," Harry tried to dismiss the idea of any obligation existing between them.

Snape insisted, "Nevertheless, I owe you. If there is anything I can do to repay your -"

"If you really feel you owe me, then take me out to dinner again some time," Harry suggested, almost squirming with discomfort.

"Is that all my life is worth to you?" Snape snapped.

"Oh, for . . . don't put words into my mouth, all right? It's more important to me that we try to get along than for you to owe me any kind of debt. I'm not Albus Dumbledore," Harry snapped back. "I don't want to own your soul."

"What do you want then?" Snape sounded nervous..

"A chance to get my eyes poked out and my fingers ripped off?" Harry gave a weak smile as he reprised their earlier teasing.

"So you want me to modify my behaviour to your specifications? Greet you with a grin and a cheerful good morning at the breakfast table every day?" Snape demanded.

"If you ever greeted me with a grin and cheerful good morning, I'd be checking my coffee for poison," Harry replied. "I don't want you to change. That's not what I'm asking. Can't we just have a state of détente? When we were talking before, that wasn't so bad, was it?"

Snape gave a shake of his head and a cautious, "No, but . . . ."

"But?" Harry encouraged.

"Many men would like nothing more than to have me in their debt. Why wouldn't you capitalize upon this opportunity? There has to be something in it for you, something of meaning."

"Don't you think having you treat me like something other than an enemy is something of meaning? You've despised me since I was eleven because of my face and name. Can't you just look at today as . . . proof positive that I'm not my dad?"

"He'd have defended me, too, out of hypocritical, misguided Gryffindor honour." Snape answered, "Only . . . ."

"Only?" Harry encouraged, though his hopes for there ever being peace between them were fading with every passing second.

"Only, he would have pressed every advantage when I was vulnerable this afternoon, then made sure I knew I was in his debt afterwards, and reminded me of it at every opportunity." Snape was quiet for a moment before adding, "In some ways, that was easier."

"Because you could still hate him," Harry said.

Snape nodded. "Nobody helps me without ulterior motives."

That was one of the saddest things he'd ever heard, but Harry was bright enough to keep the thought to himself. He felt like there was an invisible roulette wheel spinning here, upon which his entire Gringotts account was riding.

Harry stared at this proud man, wishing that things could have been different, that this stupid feud with his father had never happened, that he and Snape could just be colleagues like he was with most of the other Hogwarts teachers. But he was beginning to understand how impossible that might be for Snape. He'd seen a bit of what his father had done to Snape in that pensieve memory he'd spied upon in fifth year. God knew what else had transpired between them. Maybe the hate simply ran too deep for Snape to be able to look beyond his superficial resemblance to his father.

"Therefore, I must have them, too?" Harry asked, referring to the ulterior motives Snape suspected everyone of possessing.

"Experience would suggest that is the case," Snape was honest enough to admit.

Harry gave a disappointed sigh. "Well, I guess there's nothing I can do to change your mind about things, then. I'm sorry about that. This has been . . . good."

"This?" Snape questioned.

Recognizing that Snape might find very little good about this day on which he'd been accused of molesting one of their students and threatened with Azkaban, Harry quickly specified, "Talking to you instead of fighting."

"Cessation of hostilities really matters that much to you?" Snape asked.

Harry shrugged and forced a smile. "I've always had a thing for hopeless causes. But don't worry about it. I've survived fifteen years of your barbed tongue. I can take fifteen more. It's no big deal."


"Yes?" Harry braced himself, unsure if he could stand an attack just yet.

"Your actions today have proven that you are not your father; however much you might resemble him. Despite what you said, I do owe you. I'm . . . willing to be convinced," Snape haltingly offered.

Everything Harry knew about his former teacher told him that Snape thought he was making a grave error. A startling warmth rushed through him, the kind of nervous charge he sometimes got when an attractive, unknown wizard responded positively to his first overture. His smile this time wasn't forced. "That's great. Thank you."

"Actually, I believe that is my line. Thank you – for your help today and for this evening. It's getting late now. We should probably start back," Snape suggested, his uneasiness nearly palpable.

"You're welcome, and you're right. I'm beat. Another hour and I'll be too tired to apparate," Harry said.

"There's always the floo," Snape pointed out.

"Three times in one day is my limit," Harry denied with a laugh.

"That is a bit much," Snape agreed.

"If you wait here, I'll find Rosmerta and settle up. Then we can apparate back to the gates together," Harry said.

"I should be the one -"

"No, you're taking me out next time, remember? We already had this argument. I won," Harry tried the kind of grin that he'd usually get over with Hermione or Ron by using.

Snape stared at him as though he were a slug on a Potions lab chopping board. "I suppose that's your idea of charm, is it?"


"That would explain your bachelor status," Snape drolly replied.

"I had a good teacher," Harry shot back, and was up from the table and moving into the common room before Snape could come up with another rejoinder.

The wizard behind the bar was so busy that Harry knew it would be a good five minutes before he could fight his way through the throng to pay. The other waitresses were equally occupied, rushing by with trays and pitchers to satisfy the thriving pub's Saturday night thirsts. Finally, he caught sight of Rosmerta's wild, golden curls. She was laughing in the middle of at least six hopelessly smitten wizards over by the guitar and pennywhistle. When she saw him standing in the doorway, she touched the arm of the blond wizard with whom she was speaking and quickly came over to join him.

"You off now, luv?" Rosmerta asked, stepping up close to him to be heard over the din.

Her perfume played over him like a breeze through a rose garden. Wishing his life were simpler, that he could find peace in someone like this kind-hearted woman whose eyes always offered so much, Harry gave a slow nod. "Yes. Thank you for everything. Should I settle with Mark or have you the time to handle it?"

"Ah, be gone with you. Settle with Mark? When you've given me the joy of seeing Severus Snape's glowering face in my pub again?" Rosmerta laughed. "I never thought I'd see him here again, Harry. You'll bring him back, won't you?"

"I'll try. I've never seen anyone react so . . . positively to Professor Snape," Harry confessed, wondering if she'd take offence. It really wasn't any of his business what kind of relationship Snape might have had with the lovely pub keeper. But he couldn't hide his fascination, improper as it might be.

"And you're the first person I've seen since Albus Dumbledore with the sense not to judge a book by its cover – or its bad press. He's a good man, Harry, despite the snarls. Don't let him fool you."

"And you'd know this because?" Harry softly questioned, truly intrigued.

"The same way I know it about you. I watched you both grow up. He's had a hard life, and a hard deal."

Hearing the protective note in her tone, he asked almost in wonder, "You really do like him, don't you?"

"Always did. I wouldn't have a pub today if it weren't for him," Rosmerta said.

"How so?"

"In his fifth year, we were infested with Cask Skags. You know how wretched those creatures are, and how insidious," she said in a lowered voice. The very mention of those vermin were enough to ruin a pub.

Cask Skags were invisible, magical insects that lived in dead wood. Normally, they weren't much of a problem, unless the wood came in contact with a liquid, then the Cask Skags would produce an odourless excretion that was virtually undetectable until mixed with human saliva – at which point the tainted liquid, in this case beer and ale, acquired the taste of excrement.

"Yes. Once they get into a pub, they usually end up having to burn the building to the ground to get rid of them," Harry replied. "How'd Snape get them out?"

"I'm not sure what he used, but he created a potion that killed the Cask Skags without having to burn all the wood in the building. I think it was Severus' first patent." She sounded proud of Snape.

"He did that at fifteen?" Harry marvelled.

"Oh, yes. He was always precocious."

"What was he like?" Harry asked. The only people who'd ever spoken to him about Snape as a boy were Sirius and Remus, who were often too bitter to have anything like perspective when it came to Snape.

"Severus was always . . . quiet, never a problem. He'd come in here alone for a butterbeer every Hogsmeade Saturday and spend the entire time with his nose stuck in a book. Only time there was ever a problem was if your dad and his friends came in at the same time," she said.

Harry had already figured that last part out. So, he questioned the important portion of the information. "He was always alone?"

"Well, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. The first year he was allowed to visit Hogsmeade, Severus used to trail after that Malfoy boy and his group, but they finished school when Severus started his fourth year and he was pretty much a loner after that. He was a good lad, if a bit too quiet."

"A mistake no one would make these days, to be sure," a familiar, droll voice spoke from behind them. They both swirled like sixth years caught in the Astronomy Tower at midnight to stare up at Snape's intimidating height. "Really, Rosmerta, telling tales out of school? I thought my secrets were safe with you."

To Harry's surprise, she didn't back down or act the least bit upset or embarrassed at being caught. "They are safe with me. He's not that Potter. You said so yourself."

"Nevertheless, I would prefer not to have my private life bandied about in a pub." Snape's glare was hard as unpolished diamonds, but it was totally wasted on Rosmerta.

She giggled in Snape's face. "Your 'private life' could do with a little bandying about, if you don't mind my saying."

"And if I did?" Snape stiffly demanded.

"Well, I'd say it anyway, of course." She laughed and reached out to pat Snape's arm. "Harry's promised to bring you back. I'm holding him to it."

Harry expected Snape to carve her to pieces for her temerity, but instead all he said was, "We shall see."

"Mind you do." She grinned and then stopped Harry's heart by standing on tiptoes to brush a chaste kiss onto Snape's left cheek.

Harry could see the people seated at the table around them taking notice of her action. She turned to Harry as soon as she released Snape and gave him a brief hug.

"Good night, Rosmerta," Harry laughed as she stepped back.

"Remember your promise," she said and waved as they started for the door.

"Meet you at Hogwarts Gates?" Harry asked as they stepped out into the chilly October night. It was always better to apparate from an empty area than from a crowded room where someone could bump into you at an inopportune moment and end up apparating or splinching with you.

The sky above was clear and filled with stars. The wind had picked up and bit Harry's skin, whispering of winter as it flung dry leaves at their booted feet.

Snape nodded and disappeared without a sound. Harry followed, half-expecting the Potions master to be gone when he arrived. But Snape was waiting in front of the towering iron gates.

They fell into step together and walked in silence back to the castle. It wasn't the normal strained silence that usually existed between them. This one was almost comfortable.

When they reached the hall in front of the main stairs where they had to go their separate ways, Harry said, "Well, good night then. Thanks again for coming with me."

Snape gave another of those cautious nods.

As Harry turned to climb the stairs to Gryffindor Tower, Snape called, "Potter?"

"Yes?" he paused, turning back.

Snape reached into his robe pocket and withdrew a small brown, stoppered bottle. "Take this."

"What is it?" Harry tried to keep the suspicion out of his voice.

"A potion for Dreamless Sleep. After the memories you took from young Westfield this afternoon, I think you might need it."

Shocked by the thoughtfulness, Harry quickly said, "Thanks. That's very kind of you."

"Hardly," Snape snorted. "You suffered that unpleasantness on my behalf. It's the least I can do."

"So, is this going to make my fingers fall off or my eyes pop out of their sockets?" Harry joked, referring back to their earlier conversation about the danger of befriending crows.

"Both, but only if you take two teaspoons immediately before bed. Pleasant drams – or not as the case may be." Almost seeming self-conscious, Snape gave him a stiff nod and stalked off to the dungeon stairs.

Harry watched the tall figure recede into the dark stairwell until Snape became part of the shadows, then he turned and made his tired way up the stairs to his own quarters. He was glad that tomorrow was Sunday and that he'd have some time to recuperate before he had to face teaching. Fingering the cool bottle in his robe pocket, Harry began climbing the stairs, pondering the puzzle that was Severus Snape.


"Harry, are you in there?" Hermione's voice blared like a Valkyrie through the bedroom.

Harry shot up in bed. Unused to such deep, untroubled sleep, it took him a moment to get his bearings and figure out where he was. It turned out to be his own chambers at Hogwarts, with Hermione pounding on the other side of his door as loud as his head normally pounded.

Only, this morning he had no headache. His body wasn't throbbing with exhaustion. To the contrary, he felt well rested for the first time in nearly a decade. Most importantly, there'd been no dreams. Snape's potion had worked wonders.

"Harry, are you in there?" she repeated, sounding frantic with worry.

"Yeah, I'm here. Come on in," Harry called, knowing she wouldn't enter without his permission.

The door adjoining their quarters was always left open, so she didn't have to pass his wards to enter. The only boundaries Hermione ever heeded were his bedroom and bathroom doors, and Ron didn't even respect those after all the years they'd spent rooming together.

Looking particularly bright in her pink jumper and blue jeans, Hermione hurried into the bedroom, her haste making her bushy brown hair fly around her face as she crossed to the bed.

"Are you okay?" she asked, sitting down beside his knees as Harry pulled himself up in the bed.

"Yes, why?"

"I came to see you last night when I got back from the Ministry and waited for hours," she said, scanning his face like a worried mother.

Touched by her concern, Harry explained, "Sorry. I should have left a note. The walls were closing in, so we went out for a while."

"We?" Hermione asked.

"Snape and I went to the Three Broomsticks," Harry explained.

"You went drinking with Snape?" Ron's sleepy, shocked voice demanded from near the door.

Harry looked over to see Ron in his rumpled hair and white nightshirt standing just inside his bedroom door. Still bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, Ron had the morning paper in his hand and had obviously poked his head in on his way to or from the loo. He came over and climbed onto the foot of Harry's bed and settled into a comfortable sprawl.

Some things never changed, Harry thought fondly as he took in the sight of his two best friends – Hermione sitting prim and neat as a Headmistress and Ron looking as though he were about to fall back asleep against the footboard. Nearly every weekend morning that he was home and slept in, the pair of them came in to chat before breakfast. They were the only real family he'd ever had and he cherished these moments, awkward as their early morning arrivals could sometimes be.

"I wouldn't call it drinking with him. More like dinner and a chat," Harry corrected.

"With Snape?" Ron repeated.

"Yeah, it wasn't so bad. I actually enjoyed it," Harry said.

"You did?" Ron sounded as thought the concept of anyone enjoying anything with Snape was beyond belief.

"Yes. We were both pretty shaken and it helped," Harry explained.

Ron's tired blue eyes were looking at him like he'd announced a desire to date Filch.

"How is Professor Snape doing?" Hermione asked, sounding genuinely concerned.

Harry shrugged. "Yesterday was hard on him. Which reminds me. Ron?"

"Mmmm?" Ron's eyes jerked open.

"Did you realize that you never thanked Snape for his help yesterday? And no one ever told him he was free to go," Harry said.

"Damn. I'm sorry, Harry. You're right. We cut out of there very quickly. I'll make sure to apologize today. That wasn't at all professional," Ron said.

Mollified by Ron's easy acceptance of responsibility, Harry nodded. "Thanks."

"For what?" Ron asked.

"For bringing me tea?" Harry said with a hopeful grin.

"But we haven't brought you any tea," a clearly under-slept Ron responded, before going, "Oh."

With a giggle, Hermione withdrew her wand from her jeans pocket and summoned a tray that contained a steaming pot of brewed tea, three huge mugs, and condiments. While the tray floated patiently beside her, she poured them all a cuppa and fixed it to their preferences, handing Harry the first one, Ron the next, and keeping her own for last.

"Ta very much," Harry smiled and then took a deep slurp.

"Such subtlety should be rewarded," she sassed.

"Did you have any luck tracking Burke down yesterday?" Harry asked, though he knew Ron hadn't or he would have heard of it. For something like that, someone would have woken or owled him with the news.

"No. The Ministry gave us a list of the Burke holdings that's more than three feet long. You wouldn't believe how many estates the man's got! He's richer than the bloody Malfoys. We went through three manors yesterday. I'm due at work in another hour to head another search."

"Oh. Do you want some help?" Harry asked, not liking the idea of Ron poking around the lair of someone Snape considered Voldemort's equal.

"I appreciate the offer, but you know how the Ministry is about unofficial assistance," Ron said.

"Even from Harry?" Hermione challenged, also clearly concerned.

There were the rare occasions when being the Boy Who Lived and having defeated Voldemort came in handy, Harry reflected at the tone of her question. Dealing with the Ministry was usually one of them.

Ron shrugged. "If it were up to me . . . ."

"Well, if you think you've tracked him down, let me know, okay?" Harry asked. "I won't interfere. I won't even be seen, but I'd like to be there."

Ron appeared uncertain for a moment, but then he nodded. "All right, if I can."

"Thanks," Harry acknowledged, aware that Ron would be going out on a limb for him. If his presence were discovered, there was every possibility Ron would lose his job. The Aurors had been trying to improve their image for the last nine years. Ron's new boss, Lawrence was a stickler for the rules.

"So, what did you and Professor Snape talk about over dinner, Harry?" Hermione asked. "You were gone for a long time."

In between sips, Harry began his tale.

"Rosmerta touched him?" Ron sounded totally shocked when Harry got to that part of his story.

"She didn't just touch him. She kissed him on the cheek before we left," Harry reported.

"And Professor Snape didn't petrify her?" Hermione asked.

Harry gave a negative shake of his head and continued. "I think he genuinely likes her."

"What man wouldn't?" Ron said. "Maybe he's human, after all."

For some reason, Harry found himself miffed by Ron's put down. Since he would have said the same thing himself yesterday morning, he let it pass.

"So Professor Snape really does think this Burke is as dangerous as he let on yesterday?" Hermione asked.

Ron seemed to listen at first as Hermione and he discussed Burke, but when they didn't expand on anything that had been mentioned yesterday, Ron's attention seemed to wander. Deep in conversation with Hermione, Harry watched in amusement out of the corner of his eye as Ron started to nod off, jerked himself awake, and then opened his newspaper in an obvious effort to keep himself from falling back to sleep at the foot of Harry's bed. His old friend really could use a few more hours sleep, Harry thought, returning his full focus to Hermione's question about how Burke might have prolonged his life.

"Bloody hell," Ron cursed, straightening up from his slouch.

"What?" Hermione and Harry chorused as one.

"Look at this! How the hell did this get out? Lawrence is going to be livid!" Ron said as he thrust the Daily Prophet at them.

Harry's gaze focused on the moving photo of a sneering Snape that graced the front of the paper. It was quite probably the ugliest, most threatening photo Harry had ever seen of the man. Beside it was the caption: Former Death Eater Accused of Molesting Hogwarts' Student.

Apparently reading upside down, Hermione gasped as she peered over the top of the paper.

Harry quickly read the Rita Skeeter article, which detailed the rape of an unnamed student and openly accused the Potions master of long-term sexual abuse of other students. Harry could barely finish the article; he was so infuriated by its implications.

"This is terrible," Hermione whispered.

"Damn that woman!" Harry snarled.

Ron added, "If you ever get her in a jar again, I swear I'm going to spray an entire can of Muggle bug spray on her!"

"That's not helping, Ronald!" Hermione chastised.

"I'm serious," Ron said.

"It's still not helping," she responded.

"Can't she leave anyone alone? She knows this isn't true. Anyone at the Ministry who would have leaked the information about the accusations against Professor Snape would have also known of his innocence." Harry slammed his mug down onto the night table and got out of bed.

"We don’t know when she got her information, Harry," Hermione protested. "She could have heard yesterday afternoon when Martin and McGregor were sent to arrest Professor Snape."

"And Voldemort could have been a philanthropist and Mugglelover, if it weren't for a couple of dozen scores of murders," Harry answered. He picked his wand up from the nightstand and stormed into the bathroom to have a quick pee, the only thing he couldn't use magic to cut back time on in his morning routine. As he stood staring down into the white toilet bowl to empty his bladder, he could hear Ron and Hermione talking on the other side of the half open door.

When Harry emerged from the loo a minute later, dressed and ready to go, Ron was dressed and his bed was made. Magic made life so much easier. It would have taken an additional five to ten minutes if they'd had to dress the way Muggles did.

"Do you think Minerva knows yet?" Hermione asked.

"I don't know, it's still early. She doesn't usually get down to the hall this early on a Sunday," Ron answered as they headed for the door.

"What about Professor Snape?" Hermione questioned a little breathless as they raced down the moving stairs like errant first years. Neither he nor Hermione had on their teachers' robes, Harry belatedly realized, silently summoning them as they ran.

"The man lives under a rock," Ron said. "He never reads the paper without a reason."

"This is a pretty good reason, Ron," Hermione pointed out, her words ending on a gasp as her teachers robe came flying up to her fast as the latest model Firebolt.

"God, Harry, warn a girl, will you!" she said, grabbing the garment and pulling it on as Harry did the same with his own.

They slowed their pace to a respectful power walk as a pair of students emerged from a nearby corridor.

When they got to the Great Hall, Snape was already at the teachers' table. Sinistra and Flitwick were at the far end speaking to each other, and Neville was just entering the hall from the other end.

As Ron had mentioned, the hour was still early for a Sunday. Even so, the House tables were filling up fairly fast.

Harry could almost hear the susurration of shock pass through the hall as student after student passed along the morning edition of the Daily Prophet. The chain reaction taking place was amazing, really. Harry watched the Gryffindor table. The dark haired Ruben Willis was laughing and joking with his mates until the blond Jon Peterson tapped his shoulder and passed him the paper. Willis took one glance at the front page, made to pass it on, and then froze as his brain obviously caught up with what he'd read. Then his smile dropped and he concentrated his full attention on the paper. When he was done, he tapped the boy next to him and wordlessly passed it on, then turned to stare up at the Potion Master at the teachers' table in horrified accusation.

Frozen in the doorway, Harry watched as the paper was passed from the Gryffindor table to the Slytherin table, where the exact reaction occurred.

Meanwhile, up at the teachers' table, Snape was utterly oblivious to what was happening below. His nose in a potions journal, his scratched right hand absently stirring a spoon through his teacup, Snape was completely absorbed.

"Come on," Harry said to Ron and Hermione, and led the way to the teachers' table.

Normally, the three of them sat on the other end of the long table with Neville and Hagrid, but today Harry steered them all over to Snape, who habitually sat with at least four empty chairs between himself and his nearest neighbour when he could manage it. He braced himself, knowing that all hell was about to break loose.


Something was definitely going on, Severus Snape thought as he sat at the teachers' table, purportedly reading his journal, but in actuality watching as the students circulated something among themselves in what the dunderheads no doubt considered a surreptitious manner. He was half-tempted to sneak down behind the person now holding whatever it was and teach the fool the true meaning of surreptitious, but as the offending missive was now at the Slytherin table, he refrained from making a scene.

Whatever it was had just passed to the Hufflepuff table, which freed him from his constraints. He was preparing a most amusing and adequately embarrassing illumination, when his attention was diverted.

Harry Potter had arrived in the Great Hall, with the Weasleys trailing behind him as they had done for the last fifteen years. Potter and the former Granger were buttoning their teachers' robes. All three of their faces were flushed as though they'd raced from the teachers' quarters in Gryffindor Tower to the Great Hall.

Snape shook his head in disgust. Did not a one of them have an even passing familiarity with the concept of decorum? Ronald Weasley was an Auror now; Merlin, save them all.

Pretending to read his book, Snape considered how to play the upcoming scene.

Yesterday's events were still very much with him. He had no doubt at all that had it not been for Potter, he would have spent last night, and very likely the remainder of his days, in Azkaban Prison. Even though Potter had denied the existence of any debt, Snape knew that he owed this man his life – just as he'd owed his father before him. The very idea of yet another life debt hanging over his head forever made him shudder with revulsion. Only, this Potter hadn't capitalized upon that obligation the way James had. Harry hadn't made him feel beholden or made him cringe or crawl under the weight of owing his life to another wizard.

To the contrary, Harry Potter had dismissed his actions as those of a comrade in arms – a concept with which Snape was familiar, but which he rationally knew had not pertained to yesterday's situation. When pressed, all Potter had said he wanted from him was a cessation of hostility. Experience had taught him that that couldn't be true, that Potter had to have something else in mind, which he would spring on him at a later date, but the younger wizard had been so earnest in his entreaty for what he'd called a state of détente that Severus didn't feel he could rightly deny the man, at least not until Potter's ulterior motives surfaced. And, even then, he owed him his liberty, so if it were within his means to repay this debt in whatever manner Potter demanded, he would do his best to comply.

But that didn't mean he had to crawl, at least, not until Potter demanded it of him.

Severus expected Potter and his cronies to head to the other end of the table, to what he mentally referred to as the Gryffindor ghetto, but to his horror, Harry Potter made a beeline straight for the empty chair beside him, with the Weasleys trailing him like baby ducks.

"Really, Potter, this is too much," Severus complained as Potter slid into the chair beside him and the uneasy looking Weasleys took seats on Potter's other side. "If you persist in this, I really will poison your coffee."

"Sir, there's something you should see," Potter said with unmistakable urgency as he passed over a copy of the Daily Prophet.

His left hand automatically accepted the rolled-up newspaper, while his right was in the process of bringing his teacup up to his mouth for another sip. As he scanned the front page, saw his own face sneering up at him, and read the headline below it, his grip on his teacup loosened to splash half of its contents into his porridge bowl. He hastily righted the cup and set it down. He could feel his face draining of colour as he forced his stunned mind to translate the horror of the words in front of him. Former Death Eater Accused of Molesting Hogwarts Student.

Yesterday's nightmare wasn't over. Now the entire Wizarding World knew of this false accusation.

Recognizing that his career here was all but finished, Severus read the article through, making sure he kept his face immobile as stone as he did so. It wasn't merely yesterday's rape of which he was accused. The Skeeter woman's article blatantly accused him of on-going sexual abuse of his students. While he could fight the charges concerning the Westfield incident, how could he prove his innocence of crimes that had never occurred, crimes that didn't have an accuser?

All nerves, Severus jerked in his seat as Potter reached out to touch his sleeve and said in perhaps the softest tone anyone had ever used with him, "It will be all right."

Severus supposed the concern was merited. If he'd had a bad heart, being publicly accused of this perversion two days in a row might have finished him. Exhaling a slow breath, he said in a low voice, "I suppose this was to be expected."

"No." Surprisingly, it was Weasley who answered him from Potter's far side, and the man sounded livid, "this wasn't to be expected. This is a disgrace. I'm sorry, Professor. Clearly someone at the Ministry allowed information to slip. I promise you we'll get to the bottom of this with the utmost haste."

"The utmost haste?" Severus echoed.

The shaggy redhead gave a solemn nod and heartfelt, "Yes."

"Yet I note you are here having breakfast," Severus pointed out.

Weasley had the grace to blush with embarrassment.

It was his wife who defended him, "Ron didn't get home until after four this morning. He's due back to head up another eighteen hour search of Burke's holdings in a half hour."

"I promise you, I will find out who leaked this information, sir, and there will be consequences," Weasley vowed. "Also, I need to thank you for your help yesterday and apologize for not doing so sooner. That was very wrong of me."

Severus looked to Potter, knowing he had to be behind this. "Détente, indeed."

Potter shrugged.

"Even if the Prophet posts an official apology, this isn't good, Ron," Hermione Weasley said, pointing at the paper.

"Do tell," Severus snapped.

"We'll just have to run damage control until Burke is found and his guilt proven," Harry said.

"We'll?" Severus echoed.

"Yes, we'll," Potter snapped back, just as testily. "This is an attack on the entire school, not just you. It could have been any male teacher Burke framed."

"Here comes the Headmistress now," Ronald Weasley said, peering past Severus' right shoulder to the nearest side door.

Her haste causing her green and black robes to billow behind her in a manner reminiscent of Severus' own style, Minerva McGonagall stopped before the Headmaster's podium and called the room to attention. Her face once again lined with tension, she addressed the student body, "Good morning. I'm sure that by now you have all seen the article in this morning's Daily Prophet."

His stomach churning in dread, Severus looked out over the students, taking in the sea of nervous faces listening to Minerva. Most had their attention on the headmistress, but many were watching him as well.

As curious as the students, Severus returned his attention to Minerva. Was she about to announce his dismissal to the student body? The accusation alone was enough to merit it.

Minerva's wavery voice filled the hall as she said, "I want to assure you that the charges made in the Prophet are completely false. While it was true that a Hogwarts student was assaulted yesterday afternoon outside Hogsmeade," a murmur passed through the hall at that, "Professor Snape was not involved. Auror Weasley and Professor Potter proved Professor Snape's innocence yesterday."

Severus had to give her credit. She was nearly as good at manipulating people as Albus these days. Minerva knew that the students adored both Potter and Ronald Weasley, and that exoneration by those two men would go much further with the students than any Ministry proclamation or journalistic smear campaign ever could.

Severus was abruptly grateful to have them both sitting at his side. Potter's hand was still carelessly touching his sleeve. He could see dozens of young eyes scouring him with open distrust, and see that expression alter as it moved to Potter and the Weasleys. Their silent endorsement was calming the student body in a way no headmaster's speech ever could.

Minerva continued with, "The Ministry is now searching for the actual culprit, who tried to blame his crime on Professor Snape. Please rest assured that everything within our power is being done to assure your safety until the Ministry apprehends the villain responsible for this crime. With that in mind, I am cancelling Hogsmeade visits until further notice."

A groan went through the audience, but it wasn't nearly as loud as it might have been under other circumstances.

"The Board of Governors has contacted our barristers and have begun a libel suit against the Daily Prophetin Professor Snape's defence," Minerva informed them. "We will not take these terrible charges lightly. I have already spoken to the Prophet's editor. A retraction and apology will be forthcoming."

Severus' head snapped up at that, turning to face her. The damage, of course, had been done by the accusation itself, but . . . he hadn't expected that.

"I want you to know that Professor Snape has our complete confidence. He has been one of Hogwarts finest and most respected teachers for more than twenty-five years now, without ever a hint of scandal. I will expect each and every one of you to treat him with the respect and support each of our fine educators deserves. I know you'll make me proud," Minerva said. Her gaze turned to the teachers assembled at the table, many of whom appeared as shocked by the charges levelled against Snape as the student body obviously was, before returning to the students as she went on, "If anyone is distressed over these false accusations, please see your head of house, Madam Pomfrey, or myself. We are all here to help you. Thank you."

With that, Minerva stepped down from the headmaster's podium and took her seat in the centre of the table.

As the Great Hall burst into a rumble of discussion, Severus met Minerva's glittering blue gaze from down the table. She gave him an encouraging smile, the same as she bestowed on Potter when the publicity hounds were making the Boy Who Lived's life a misery.

Severus was still stunned by her public show of support. He'd expected to be sacked the second he'd seen that headline. True or false, no parent wanted a man accused of paedophilia teaching their children. The fact that she'd chosen to stand by him was going to be a very unpopular decision among the parents and society.

"I told you Minerva was on your side," Potter said from beside him.

Normally, Severus would have glared and offered a withering comment at such a blatant I told you so, but for once he didn't mind being proven wrong.

"So it would seem," Severus replied, trying to get control of his shaky emotions.

"Who do you think leaked the information to Skeeter?" Hermione asked her husband.

Severus was relieved to feel Potter's hand leave his arm as Potter turned to hear Weasley's response. Casual touch might be common to Potter and his cronies, but he found it very distracting.

He was somewhat amazed that Potter would touch him like that at all. While they had known each other for more than fifteen years, they didn't have that kind of relationship. Truth be told, Severus had never enjoyed that type of casual camaraderie with anyone, except perhaps Lucius. But then, Malfoy had had his own reasons for befriending him.

He knew Potter also had to have some ulterior motive for what he'd done these last two days. No one troubled themselves on his behalf for his sake alone. But whatever Potter's motivation for extending his loyalty and protection, Severus thought he knew Potter well enough to know that it wouldn't be anything sinister or demeaning. And right now, he was deriving far more from Potter's support than Potter was.

Severus couldn't remember the last time he'd been publicly accused of something and had someone on his side. Albus had always supported him, of course, but that was because he was risking his life while working for him. But as for everyone else . . . Severus knew he was regarded as a social leper. Minerva had always been unceasingly civil and polite to him, even when he'd been brought to trial after Voldemort's first defeat. However, she was the exception, rather than the rule. For the most part, his co-workers kept their distance, speaking and interacting with him only when absolutely necessary, which normally didn't bother him at all.

Now that he thought about it, Potter and the former Granger were really the only two teachers other than Flitwick and Hagrid who consistently greeted him or tried to interact with him on a regular basis. He'd always thought the pair did it to annoy him. Ronald Weasley had never been that two-faced and pretty much ignored him, which was just fine with Severus, but now that he saw Potter and Granger sitting beside him, with unmistakable worry on their faces, he wondered if perhaps he had been wrong about them. Maybe they hadn't been trying to purposefully irritate him. Perhaps they had been legitimately attempting to reach out to him. Potter had called him a comrade-in-arms yesterday. The man was enough of an idealist to extend the courtesy and honours the title entailed even to such as he.

It was certainly food for thought, and far preferable to dwelling on the horrible accusations in today's paper.

Severus jerked back in his seat as he saw a hand coming his way, but it was only Hermione Weasley reaching across Potter to refill his teacup.

"Can you get the cream, Harry?" she asked.

Severus could feel hundreds of eyes upon him as she and Potter fixed his tea. He was startled that neither of them had to ask how he preferred it. Potter simply filled the tea with cream until it was the light tan, milky brew Severus always drank. Clearly, he wasn't the only silent observer at the teachers' table.

"You should eat, sir," Hermione advised.

Severus turned on her, ready to snap her head off. Her expression told him that that was precisely the reaction she was expecting. Potter looked like he was holding his breath as well.

For what felt like an eternity, they stared at each other. Well, he glared, while his two former students sat there looking like snared rabbits waiting for the hunter to wring their necks.

Severus really didn't know how to handle this situation. He hated the hypocrisy and civility that convention forced upon people. He'd much rather someone who hated him snarl at him than smile and offer a pleasantry. But . . . Potter and Granger's actions had demonstrated that, despite his best efforts over the years, they really didn't hate him.

Severus was irritated to feel his heart start pounding faster, almost as if in fear. It made no sense. There was every possibility he would still lose his job over the article, yet it was this insignificant event that was causing him the most discomfort. He didn't know why, but their kindness made him feel more . . . vulnerable. There was a part of him that feared the moment he gave in to their offered concern, that they'd turn around and mock him for his weakness. It didn't help that it had happened before. His school days were filled with such incidents, many of which had transpired in this very hall.

But not with these people, Severus reminded himself. They might be Gryffindors, and one of them might be wearing James Potter's accursed face, but that man wasn't James, and the woman beside him rivalled Minerva for her sense of honour and fair play. There were many things either of the two could do to hurt him, but Severus was fairly certain that they would never publicly humiliate him for fun.

Taking a deep breath, Severus met Hermione Weasley's wide, almost frightened eyes and gave a short nod.

The tension deflated like a released bellows.

Hermione's face broke into a grin. Without another word, she loaded a nearby plate with the crisp bacon Severus preferred, added a heaping helping of scrambled eggs, and buttered toast, then passed it across Potter to him.

Severus could feel almost every gaze in the hall, including the teachers at the other end of the table, focused upon him as he accepted the plate with a murmured thanks. Although he was no longer hungry, he understood how important it was to keep up a normal front at such moments. So, he ate the eggs and toast as best he could, while trying to ignore the dozens of eyes watching him.

He'd taken his first nibble of bacon, when several dozen post owls burst into the Hall, spreading envelopes, packages, and down throughout the place.

It was with no great surprise that Severus watched numerous owls approach Minerva and his seats to dump their ominous red howler burdens in front of them before fluttering away. Even the owls knew better than to expect a treat after delivering a howler.

When the last envelope had been deposited on the considerable pile in front of his plate, Severus gathered them together.

Giving Potter and the Weasleys a quick glance, Severus said, "Excuse me while I deal with these."

Severus made damn certain that his pace was unrushed as he left the hall, for all he wanted to flee it.


The rest of the day and following morning went better than Severus expected. After safely disposing of the howlers, he spent the remainder of the day in his lab working on a new batch of Cold Ease for the Infirmary. He avoided the Great Hall and kept to himself. To his immense relief, no one from the board of Governors came calling to give him his walking papers. In fact, if it weren't for the nervous stares of his students when he emerged from his solitude to teach class the following morning, he would have thought Monday just another day at Hogwarts. That was, until mid-afternoon drove home to him just how much things had changed in the last few days.

Severus was on his way to the infirmary to deliver Cold Ease potion to Madam Pomfrey when a horrified shriek on the second floor brought him off the stairs into the corridor.

He'd taught in this school for nearly thirty years. Normally, he was unflappable when it came to the dunderheads' antics. But Severus eyes bulged in shock when he turned into the crowded corridor and saw three seemingly naked female students walking away from him, and another robed, blonde young lady backed up against the wall screaming. A fourth year Ravenclaw, William Jodfries, was sniggering in the front of the crowd of students as he watched the naked girls.

The three sixth year girls turned at the commotion behind them, causing a stir from their other side as students beyond them did likewise and saw the girls' revealed rear views.

Severus was startled to see that all three girls appeared clothed from the front.

One of the oblivious three, a striking blonde named Allison Conwell, rushed to the screaming brunette and asked, "Nellie, what's wrong?"

The distraught Nellie gestured over Allison's shoulder, but it was too late, for Allison's two friends were now yelling something along the line of, "Allison, the back of your robe is invisible!" while behind them another joker informed them that their robes were missing as well.

In the seconds it took Severus to appraise the situation, bedlam ensued.

"What is the meaning of this?" Severus demanded in a loud voice and stalked over to where all four female students were now backed up against the wall in various stages of emotional distress.

Absolute silence fell over the crowded hallway as everyone froze at his unexpected interruption. Even the near-hysterical Nellie muffled her sobs.

One of the four affected girls, Filomena Anderson, a plump, dark haired Slytherin, answered, "Someone charmed our robes so that the backs are see-through, sir. I just tried to remove the charm, but it's warded so that only the person who threw the charm can remove it."

Under other circumstances, Severus would have been impressed by the skill displayed. Most full-grown wizards couldn't cast a locking spell on a charm like that. However, in this instance, he was only further annoyed. Also, the public humiliation of the four girls was too akin to the indignities he'd suffered under the Marauders attacks for him to have anything like objectivity when dealing with this situation. He swung around towards where William Jodfries was attempting to blend into the crowd. Since Jodfries classmates kept stepping further away from him, it was crystal clear they all knew who the culprit was.

"Mr. Jodfries, over here. Now," Severus snapped.

The sandy blond Ravenclaw reluctantly joined them.

"You have ten seconds to restore their robes before you find yourself expelled," Severus snapped.

"But -" the boy protested.

"Seven seconds. Six . . . ." Severus said.

Jodfries quickly fumbled his wand out of his robe, pointed it at the girls, and muttered, "Finite Incantatem."

Allison Conwell cautiously peered behind Nellie Tapson before announcing, "It's okay. The robes are back."

Apparently recognizing the danger he was in as the four attractive witches glared at him with open hatred, the red-faced Jodfries quickly muttered, "I'm sorry. It was stupid. I shouldn't have done it. I know that now. I'm . . . really sorry."

There was silence for a moment, then Filomena Anderson responded in the tone of a Slytherin promise, "You're not sorry now, but you will be. Mark my words. Can we go, Professor Snape?"

Severus nodded and the four girls who'd been the butt of Jodfries cruel jest hurried off with as much dignity as they could muster.

Once the girls were gone, Severus glowered down at Jodfries. "Were you a Slytherin, you would be expelled right now. Since I'm not your head of house, I will do what I can to properly discipline you. Your Hogsmede liberties are cancelled for the rest of the year and you will spend the next six months in detention every day for two hours. I will expect you in the Potions classroom after supper today."

It was at this point that most students would plead quidditch or music practice. Severus knew that Jodfries was the Ravenclaws' newest beater, so he was expecting an outraged protest. What he wasn't anticipating was for the fourth year student to turn corpse white and burst into tears like a four year old.

"Please, no . . . . I'll never do it again. I promise. Don't . . . I can't . . . ." sheer terror was visible in the boy's face and hazel eyes.

Severus was so confounded by the reaction that he could only stare as his student sobbed louder than the girl he'd embarrassed a few minutes ago. He had no clue how to even address this turn of events, nor did he initially comprehend why Jodfries was reacting this way. Even Neville Longbottom had never broken into hysterics like this.

Severus had opened his mouth to demand that the boy stop that infernal caterwauling when he realized what the cause of Jodfries' ridiculous reaction had to be. The biting comment he'd been about to voice died stillborn.

Severus was accustomed to being an object of terror to his students. It gave him a perverse delight to watch their faces drain of colour and see the fear in their eyes as they anticipated the house points he'd deduct and the detentions he'd assign whenever he caught one of them breaking the rules. It was especially fun to be lenient with his Slytherins, while punishing only the students of the other Houses for infractions in which both Houses had been involved. He shamelessly revelled in that type of petty cruelty. However, he was not comfortable with the idea of the dunderheads fearing for their physical safety in his presence. That was a different matter entirely. Fear of the consequences of their own stupidity was one thing, but fear for their safety was intolerable.

Close as he'd come with Potter in the boy's fifth year when Potter had snuck a peek into his pensieve, he'd never yet laid hands in anger on a student. As for touching them sexually, the very idea made him nauseous. They were repulsive children with less intelligence and common sense than some of the specimens floating in jars in his lab. Even the seventh years were despicable – all they cared about were quidditch and sex, usually in that order. What grown man would find that appealing?

How anyone could think he'd have interest in these disgusting adolescents was beyond him. Even as a Death Eater, he'd never sunk to those depths. Pimpled faces, rampant hormones, and teenage angst might appeal to some men, but he wasn't amongst their ranks. His tastes had always run towards powerful wizards, not undisciplined children. Severus prided himself on the fact that while he might be bent, he wasn't twisted. The very accusation insulted him.

But it wasn't the insult that was the hardest thing to handle. It was the terror in their eyes. All his life he'd been accused of being a monster, but it was only facing Jodfries' mindless fear that made Severus actually feel like one.

For the first time in his career, he had no idea how to handle a discipline problem. He was floundering, unsure how to proceed when a calm, male, adult tenor asked from behind him, "What's going on?"

Feeling almost guilty to be caught in the presence of a sobbing student, Severus turned as Harry Potter stepped up beside him. Completely at a loss, he stared into the deep green eyes behind those ridiculous round spectacles Potter had worn his whole life here at Hogwarts.

With his dark, dishevelled hair and clean-cut, attractive features, Potter perfectly fit the super-hero role that had been thrust on him. While it was true that Potter wasn't very tall, beneath his loose robes, he had the sleek, athletic form of a professional athlete. The feline, fluid grace of his movement bespoke his confidence. Of course, with a power that rivalled Lord Voldemort's at his apex, there was little wonder Potter was confident. Not even Albus, the greatest wizard of their age, had possessed this kind of presence. To those who were sensitive to such things, Potter's power played along the skin like the energy in the air before a lightning storm. And Severus had always been sensitive to this kind of power.

Normally, Severus would have been mortified to have Potter interrupt him at a moment like this. The students all worshipped the bloody Boy Who'd Lived to the point where Severus was almost envious of his popularity with the dunderheads. Beyond that, he hated ever seeming at a loss in front of his former student. But today he was almost grateful for the interruption. Having no idea how to deal with Jodfries' terror, he explained in a low tone that was almost intimate, "Mr. Jodfries just charmed four female students' robes to be invisible from behind. I gave him detention and . . . ."

"Please, Professor Potter," Jodfries begged. "Don't make me go to detention alone with him! You know what he did to Carl Westfield! Please -"

Severus tried to control his features, but he could feel the heat in his face at the accusation. It seemed he'd been fighting a losing battle against these types of false accusations his entire life. He waited for his Gryffindor colleague to fly to their student's defence. Experience warned him that this scene could only go from bad to worse.

Severus watched as the habitually easygoing Potter's eyes darkened. At that moment, Potter's long attractive face looked less like James, whom he usually resembled, and more like Lily at her most self-righteous. With the avenging angel light in those eerie green eyes, it was like being under the stare of an enraged tiger.

Severus knew he was in for it. He was standing here with a near-hysterical boy. There were at least forty students gaping at them. He knew how bad this looked.

Potter might have been willing to clear his name on Saturday for the sake of their shared adversity, but this was a different scenario altogether. Even if he hadn't done anything malicious, Severus knew it looked as though he were presently menacing a child. Potter was always harping on about how ruthlessly he treated the students, how unfair he was in handing out so many detentions. The day after that horrible Prophet child molestation article aired was hardly the time to be caught with a crying student in the hall.

In retrospect, Severus realized that he should probably have brought the miscreant to Minerva to be disciplined and stayed out of the situation. But he hadn't, and now he was about to reap the consequences of his mistake.

Even if Potter didn't jump to the conclusion that he'd mistreated Jodfries, this was the perfect opportunity for Potter to avenge himself for all the lost house points, the detentions he'd suffered in school, and all the be-kind-to-the-dunderheads arguments the younger professor had lost at staff meetings. At that moment, Severus was intensely aware of every time he had publicly slighted Potter, both in his schooldays and as a co-worker.

To his utter confusion, Potter's angry visage turned away from him and focused on Jodfries. "Professor Snape is innocent of the crime you just accused him of. Stop that whinging right now and act your age!"

Potter's furious demand clearly shocked Jodfries into silence.

"That's better. You're lucky Professor Snape caught you. Had it been Professor Weasley or the Headmistress, you'd be wishing you'd been expelled about now." Visibly calming himself, Potter turned back to face Severus. "Actually, I was coming to ask a favour of you that might work out to both our advantages."

"What favour?" Severus demanded. He'd known Potter's support was too good to be true. Potter had lulled him into a false sense of security and was no doubt now about to humiliate him before the crowd of students.

"I promised to help Professor Longbottom harvest his pomegranates later this afternoon. However, I had to give Phillips and Montgomery detention this morning. Can I send them down to you to sit detention with Jodfries here?" Potter's eyes locked with Severus' own, silently urging his compliance.

Braced for an embarrassing demand, Severus could barely understand why Potter was making such a simple request with such intensity. Why would Potter place significance on this? One or three, it hardly mattered how many students were in the room during detention. But then, Severus realized that it did make a difference. It would prevent Saturday's accusation from being repeated.

Impressed by the logic, Severus gave a tight nod. "Very well. Send them down after supper ends."

"Thank you." Potter looked back at Jodfries. "I don't want to hear another word about this nonsense. If you don't want detention, then stop acting like an idiot. Get out of here before I double whatever Professor Snape gave you." The pasty-faced boy nodded and quickly hurried down the still crowded hall. Potter stared at the remaining audience and said, "Fourth period bell sounded three minutes ago. Unless all of you want to join Jodfries in detention, I suggest you get where you need to be."

A heartbeat later, they were alone in the hall.

Severus stared at Potter. He knew a thank you was called for, but his head was still swirling from young Jodfries' near-hysterical response to his assigning detention. After a moment, he heard himself ask, "How can I maintain discipline if I can't administer detention?"

Horrified that he'd spoken the thought aloud, Severus avoided Potter's gaze, staring somewhere past Potter's left temple.

"You can administer detention. In fact, it would probably be a good idea if you don't alter your habits. Only, perhaps you shouldn't have any solitary detentions for a while?" Potter tentatively suggested.

"Are you suggesting that I punish the innocent as well as the guilty?" Severus snapped, meeting Potter's eyes again to glare at him.

An almost playful light entered Potter's gaze as he replied, "It wouldn't be the first time, would it?"

Severus opened his mouth to deny the accusation, but . . . the words hadn't exactly been voiced as a complaint. They were teasing, without malice, spoken with the same familiarity Potter used when he joked with the Weasleys. As there was also a certain degree of truth to the claim, Severus swallowed his denial and cautiously allowed, "No, we both know it wouldn't."

There were days in Potter's youth when he'd given him detention for breathing, simply because Potter resembled his father.

"What's the harm then in continuing a tried and true tradition, at least until we get this situation sorted out?" Potter asked.

"I'm sure the dunderheads could think of a reason or two," Severus said.

"When has that ever bothered you?" Potter challenged with a grin. "What time did you give Jodfries detention?"

"After seventh period."

"I'll send Montgomery and Phillips down at three. Thanks for that."

"We both know that the pomegranates don't have to be harvested this afternoon," Severus pointed out.

"Maybe I just prefer to make you the bad guy rather than give them detention myself."

"And you think that sending them down to me is going to make you their hero?" Severus couldn't keep from asking.

Potter chuckled. "You always did say I wasn't very bright. See you at dinner, Professor."

As he watched Potter turn and walk down the hall to the staircase, an unnatural warmth fluttered through insides that were accustomed to being held tight as stone in self-defence. Shaking off the reaction, Severus headed up to the infirmary to deliver the potions he'd made last night.


A week later, Severus stood at the blackboard finishing up the instructions for his third year Hufflepuff-Ravenclaw double Potions class. His back was to the classroom and he could hear the low conversations of the students who had arrived at his class early. The socializing noise was never as loud in his Potions lab as it was in other classrooms he'd observed, so he usually allowed it to continue until the bulk of the class arrived.

Once he'd completed the instructions, he returned to his seat and resumed grading the tests from his earlier fifth year class. Severus had just turned to the second paper in the pile when he noticed an unnatural hush fall over the room around him.

Wondering what the fools had gotten up to now, Severus raised his head, only to have the breath catch in his chest as his gaze met Carl Westfield's nervous blue eyes.

The boy who'd accused him of molesting him stopped dead in his tracks. Even from the front of the room, Severus could see Westfield's Adam's apple jump as he gulped.

The dark-skinned boy standing at Westfield's side, his friend, Joseph Mangra, placed his hand on Westfield's back. Westfield seemed to take a deep breath before continuing into the room.

Westfield had been gone from class a week now. This was his first day back.

Severus wasn't really surprised to find that he was as anxious as his student at the present moment. He'd never been in this type of awkward situation before and hadn't a clue how to treat the boy. His normal menacing attitude didn't seem appropriate in light of what young Westfield had suffered.

Severus watched Westfield follow Mangra to their workbench. As Westfield put down his schoolbag, normal conversation started up again, perhaps with a more excited edge.

Severus had returned his own attention to the tests before him when the class fell silent yet again. Glancing up, he was surprised to see the light glinting off Westfield's blond curls as he strode purposefully up to his professor's desk.

His heart inexplicably pounding against the wall of his chest, Severus managed a dry swallow and met Westfield's determined blue gaze.

"Professor Snape?" Westfield tentatively began.

"Yes, Mr. Westfield?" Severus replied in what he hoped was a normal, un-menacing tone.

"I, er . . . would like to apologize, sir," Westfield said.

"What?" Severus tried very hard not to gape at the boy.

His voice level and steady, carrying through the entire lab in the room's abrupt, dead silence, Westfield continued with, "I accused you of a terrible crime that you didn't commit. I – I'm sorry."

Severus could never remember being stunned speechless by a student before, at least not pleasantly so. He could almost feel the shock Westfield's peers were experiencing. Severus could sense every eye in the room upon him as he cleared his throat and searched for an appropriate response. After a moment, he settled on, "You can hardly be held responsible for anything that happened, Mr. Westfield. You don't owe me an apology."

"I . . . still feel bad about . . . accusing you, sir," Westfield said.

Severus had never expected this. He could see how hard it was for the boy to stand there and speak to him. Recalling what he'd viewed in Potter's pensieve more than a week ago, Severus could feel the same memories moving through Westfield. He could see how Westfield was trembling.

Taking a deep breath, Severus quietly said, "We were both deceived, Mr. Westfield."

Westfield's curly head nodded and his eyes dropped uncomfortably.

Severus found himself impulsively saying, "Our foe underestimated your courage. Rarely have I seen anyone your age conduct himself with such honour and integrity. I award fifty house points to Hufflepuff for your bravery and resilience."

The entire room seemed to gasp as one as their parsimonious and infamously despotic Potions teacher awarded more points in a second than the head of Slytherin usually gave out to the other houses in an entire year.

Severus knew his action wasn't exactly appropriate. He couldn't make up for the horrors Westfield had endured by the superficial gift of house points, but he didn't know what else to do to convey his respect for the boy's courage. He wouldn't have been surprised or resentful if Westfield had spent the remainder of his time at Hogwarts sending his homework into class through his friends and taking Potions through private tutoring as he'd been doing the last week. For the boy to walk so boldly into Severus' class and apologize for his mistake a mere ten days after he'd been brainwashed to believe that his teacher had molested him took a degree of courage worthy of the Boy Who Lived.

Severus could see he'd shocked Westfield. The anxiety was temporarily gone from his eyes and his jaw hung open. "I, er . . . thank you, Professor."

Severus nodded and softly suggested, "Perhaps you should take your seat now."

With a blank nod, Westfield returned to his workbench.

Doing his best to ignore his students' stupefied faces, Severus rose to begin his lesson.


"Professor Snape didn't come to dinner again tonight," Harry commented as he finished off the last of his chocolate cake. Even though most of the staff were in their regular seats and the evening meal had been as sumptuous as ever, without Ron and Snape there, the teachers' table felt strangely empty.

Hermione looked up from the papers she was grading beside her custard tart. "Can you blame him?"

"It's not like him to miss this many meals in a row," Harry said.

"Well, with everything that's happened . . . ." Hermione began.

"That's not why he's missing," Neville offered from Harry's other side.

"Oh?" Harry turned to look at Neville. Neville hadn't changed that much from their schooldays. He was still quiet, kind, and slightly timid. He'd lost most of his schoolboy chubbiness, but he still had those deep, earnest blue eyes that made him look extremely young and innocent. "What do you mean?"

Neville smiled. "I heard the students talking in seventh period today. Apparently, Adam Viers managed to cause a problem in the third period Potions class that made my mistakes look insignificant."

Harry shuddered at the thought. From an adult, teacher's perspective, he knew that they were all lucky to have made it out of Potions class alive with Neville in the same room. He couldn't imagine anything that would make Neville's exploding cauldrons seem insignificant. At least, nothing his classmates and the dungeons would have survived.

He and Hermione exchanged a worried glance before Harry asked Neville as innocently as possible, "What sort of problem?"

Neville shrugged. "Something to do with bugs, I think."

"Bugs?" Harry repeated.

Beside him, Hermione stage-whispered, "Professor Snape uses all kinds of poisonous insects in his ingredients."

She'd know that, of course. He and Neville were lucky to remember what a cauldron looked like, much less what type of ingredients went into it.

"We'd have heard if half the sixth year class were poisoned, bit, or hospitalised, wouldn't we?" Harry asked.

"One would think," Hermione answered. Her gaze strayed out over the crowded hall. "It looks like everyone's here. Just what happened, Neville?"

Neville shrugged. "Munson stopped talking when he realized I was listening. All I heard was that the Potions lab was a war zone. They said that Snape dismissed his third period class forty minutes early and cancelled all other Potions classes for the day."

"He didn't make the class stay to help him clean up?" Hermione questioned.

"No, and he always used to make us stay, so I'm thinking that whatever happened was really bad," Neville replied.

Thinking the same thing, Harry lowered his fork to his plate. "I'll go check on Snape. Make sure he and the rooms are all right."

Harry added the part about the rooms because Neville was giving him a strange look.

"If carpet beetles were involved, they could have eaten the flesh off his bones by now," Neville said, not sounding particularly broken up by the possibility.

Hermione's predictably sharp, "Neville! That's a horrible thing to say," was ringing through Harry's ears as he rose to his feet. Stifling a grin, he left the hapless Neville stammering and headed out of the Great Hall.

Better you than me, mate, Harry thought as he made good his escape. He'd been on the receiving end of Hermione's tirades often enough to do almost anything to avoid them.

The corridors were still crowded with scores of students bustling about, so it took him nearly fifteen minutes to reach the dungeon stairs amidst all the greetings and questions that were a normal part of his traversing Hogwarts' halls. Sometimes when he was in a hurry, he understood why Snape was so obnoxious to their students. No one in their right mind detained Professor Snape when he was passing through the halls. Even the other teachers gave him a wide berth.

It felt like forever since he'd last had cause to visit the dungeons, but even after more than nine years absence, Harry's feet remembered the way. After the scores of detentions he'd served down here, it would be strange if they hadn't, he wryly acknowledged.

Unsurprisingly, he passed few students loitering in the halls of Snape's domain. What few Slytherins he did encounter gave him a courteous hello and went about their business.

Finally, Harry reached the arched doorway of the Potions classroom. The thick oak door was closed, but unwarded, which told him that Snape was probably still inside.

Feeling as if he were thirteen again, prowling the halls in his invisibility cloak, Harry put his ear to the door and listened. A strange, mechanical sounding hum came from inside the classroom, but there were no shrieks or groans to indicate someone being eaten alive by carpet beetles or the like.

A rap on the door produced no change in the strange humming.

Knowing that he would regret this later, Harry slowly tried the knob. The door swung easily open.

The volume of the humming increased astronomically. The sound bounced off the dungeons' stone walls, making the vibration all the louder. It sounded rather like a special effect in a Muggle science fiction movie, like the mother ship's engine, Harry thought, feeling the noise reverberate through his bones.

Stepping into the deafeningly loud room, all Harry could see was a shifting, black, amorphous veil clouding the classroom. Eventually, as his vision adjusted to it, he could distinguish a couple dozen student benches, all littered with cauldrons, half-chopped ingredients, quills, parchments, and books – clear indications of a hasty departure – before his eyes snapped protectively closed as something large whizzed right at his face.

At the same time, a familiar, enraged voice barked, "Shut that door now!"

Harry instinctively followed the order. Something bumped into his left biceps and stayed there, startling him so much that he opened his eyes. Something else touched his head and settled there in his hair as well.

Stunned, Harry stared down at the enormous orange-eyed bug resting on the left arm of his teachers' robes. The insect was about three inches long, had a snubbed, black bullet shaped body and clear, dark-veined wings. As he watched, another landed on his arm and took up residence there. That shifting black veil he'd spied upon opening the door was apparently a mass of the insects.

His stomach lurched as he realized how many of them there were. They were all over everything – the workbenches, the walls, the floors, the windows, his robes . . . .

The Potions classroom was swarming with the things, Harry thought, taking in the sight of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of the strange insects swirling about the room in an almost drunken manner. It was the bugs that were responsible for the noise, he recognized, hearing the one on his arm take up the deafening chorus.

Harry looked around the classroom and caught sight of the incongruous image of Severus Snape with a green mesh butterfly net swiping at the bugs as they blundered around the Potions lab. Snape had a large black metal box floating patiently at his side that seemed to be charmed to allow the bugs to enter, but not leave. As he waved his net around him, Snape presented a strange picture with his black garb, pale skin, and the dark hair dangling in his eyes. He looked rather like a vampire on a butterfly hunt, Harry thought, resisting the impulse to laugh at the incongruous sight.

"What do you want, Potter?" Snape demanded. "As you can see, I am somewhat occupied at the moment."

Harry had to admire the other man's aplomb. Though annoyed, Snape sounded as though it were paper grading being interrupted rather than an attempt to thwart an insect invasion of biblical proportions. The affronted act might have gone over better if one of the red-eyed bugs hadn't landed on Snape's pronounced nose as soon as he finished speaking.

To his surprise, Snape neither flinched nor swatted at the creature. He simply reached up with his bare hand and carefully transferred the insect to the floating box.

Although his face was twitching with the need to grin, Harry knew it would be worth his life to show any amusement at a moment like this. He might have defeated Lord Voldemort nine years ago, but he had no illusions about how he'd fare against an enraged Snape.

"Are you here for a specific purpose or did you surmise that inflicting your presence upon me would be the perfect ending to the idyllic day I'm experiencing?" Snape snapped.

Knowing the perfect way to disarm Snape, Harry gave him the truth, "Actually, I came down to see how you were doing. Neville mentioned at dinner tonight that there had been some problem in the Potions lab."

As he'd expected, his explanation erased the sneer. Uneasiness and suspicion replaced the sour look. Harry couldn't decide which he preferred. A suspicious Snape wasn't any more appealing than a snarky Snape.

"As you can see, I am perfectly fine," Snape stiffly said. As if its timing had been staged, one of the drunkenly reeling insects collided with, rather than landed upon, Snape's right cheek at that exact moment.

Harry tried, he really did, but his laughter poured out at that.

With an audible sigh, Snape reached up to transfer the insect from his cheek to the black metal box.

"They don't bite, I take it?" Harry asked, finally stifling his laughter.

"Would I be standing here with them crawling all over my face and hands if they did? Use your brain, Potter. Minerva assures me that you have one; although I've seen precious little evidence to support her claim during our fifteen year association."

Harry's smile broadened. "What are they?"

"Magicicada septendecim," Snape absently replied as he swung his net to fish another three passing insects from the air.

"Magic . . . ?"

This time Snape's sigh was louder. "Not magic. Magi-cicada. You do remember Latin, don't you?"

"Vaguely. It means . . . seventy -"

Clearly unwilling to suffer through his poor showing, Snape interrupted to explain, "It's the scientific name for the American seventeen year cicadas."

"What are they doing here?" Harry asked, shifting as about four more of the insects took up what seemed to be permanent residence on him. He realized that if he stood here long enough, he'd be cloaked in a living mass of the things like the victim in a Muggle horror movie.

"At the moment they are flying, landing, and attempting to attract a mate," Snape supplied.

Now it was Harry's turn to sigh. "What I meant was how did they get here? You didn't want them to swarm like this, did you?"

"Potter, that has to rate as the most cretinous question you have ever asked in a lifetime of cretinous questions. Of course, I didn't desire a biblical plague of locusts in the Potions classroom. And to spare myself the agony of having to suffer through your next painfully obvious inquiry, they are in this state because Mr. Viers felt the need to practice his Transfiguration homework in Potions class, while Miss Adair was simultaneously casting an equally inappropriate Impervious charm."

"Their spells crossed?" Harry asked after a horrified pause. Even a first year knew the danger of mixing spells. Not only were the results of such experimentation unpredictable, but they also tended to be irreversible. St. Mungo's was full of the victims of accidental magic.

Snape nodded. "Both spells hit the ingredients table at the exact moment. Had this been a homework assignment in which they'd been asked to combine their spells, the dolts would never have been able to manage it. But as it was the outcome of sheer ignorance, the combination of spells was perfectly executed. Their castings hit the Magicicada septendecim larvae at the same instant, transforming the immature, dormant cicadas to their adult states. You see the outcome before you."

"Er, why don't you just use a summoning charm to collect them?" Harry asked.

"Now, why didn't I think of that? Please, be my guest," Snape's long fingered hand made a sweeping gesture at the cloud of flying cicadas, many of whom had landed on his hair, chest, and shoulders as they spoke.

As Harry's hand moved towards his pocket, he saw Snape patiently remove each of the cicadas that were resting on him and transfer them to his box.

Suspicious of Snape's tone, Harry withdrew his holly wand from his pocket and cast a summoning charm on the cicadas that was strong enough to have summoned the bugs from Exeter had he so desired. The cicadas less than a foot away continued to stagger by in their graceless flights.

"It's not working," Harry said after a moment. He knew how much power he'd put into that charm. It should have worked.

"Congratulations for once again stating the bloody obvious, Potter," Snape sneered.

Harry ignored the tone and asked, "Why isn't it working?"

"I assume Miss Adair's Impervious charm has something to do with it."

Abruptly concerned with the fate of the two students who'd caused this mess, Harry eyed the swarm of bugs blundering almost blindly around the lab and voiced his worry, "Maggie and Adam aren't in with this lot, are they?"


"Well, I can't imagine that you responded . . . well to this," Harry gestured at the bugs.

Snape gave a humourless chuckle. "I admit that I was tempted to curse the pair of them, but, no, the perpetrators of this plague are not amongst their creations. Mr. Viers and Miss Adair will, however, be serving detention with Jodfries for the remainder -"

"Of their lives?" Harry interrupted, another grin stealing over his face.

"Believe me, if I'd had the ability to -" Snape shut his mouth on whatever he'd been about to say just before another cicada blundered into his lips.

Harry watched him calmly collect this bug and add it to his box.

"Can't we just exterminate them?" Harry didn't have any insect phobias, but the swarm of red-eyed bugs was getting on his nerves. He couldn't imagine what this scenario would have done to Ron.

"Any curse we might try putting on them would be deflected as easily as the summoning charm you just tried," Snape answered.

"There are Muggle pest controls we could use," Harry suggested.

"Potter, the larvae had to be imported from the States and were exorbitantly expensive. These cicadas are only available every seventeen years. Due to their natural cycle, it will be twelve more years before I can replace them. I'm not going to destroy these valuable insects."

"Well, what are you going to do with them?"

"At the moment, my goal is capturing them," Snape said, accentuating his words with a swipe at a few more drifting cicadas.

"That will take hours, maybe even days."

"Then I'd best get back to it, hadn't I?" Snape said.

Harry took a moment, well several moments, to rid himself of the cicadas resting on him. Their squirming feet against the skin of his palms made him nauseous.

Staring at the thick cloud of bugs swarming through the classroom, Harry thought Snape's goal a Herculean task. Unwilling to leave anyone, even Snape, alone with so daunting a job, he picked up an abandoned quill off the nearest student desk and transfigured it into a net like Snape's.

"What are you doing?" Snape asked as Harry fished a few cicadas out of the air before they could join their friends resting on him.

"You'll be at this all night if you do it alone," Harry said, moving to the box and beginning the tricky process of transferring the cicadas from the net to the bespelled opening slot in the top of the box. The insects' legs were so fine that they kept catching in the net's mesh. The bugs felt strangely warm in his hand. Every time they moved their legs while he was transferring them to the box, his stomach lurched in revulsion. Looking down into the container, Harry could see hundreds of the cicadas crawling all over each other inside.

Snape stiffened. "I didn't ask for your assistance."

"I know that. Are you refusing it?" Harry replied, meeting and holding Snape's gaze.

Those seemingly bottomless dark eyes moved from him to the cloud of bugs, then back again, before Snape voiced a reluctant, "No."

Stifling his grin at the ill-graced concession to necessity, Harry said, "Fine."

Harry was turning to set to work collecting more of the bugs when he noticed the number of cicadas that had lighted on Snape's back. "Hold still a moment. They're all over you."

Stepping up to his companion, Harry picked the cicadas off Snape's black robes and transferred them to the box. His vantage point gave him a side view of that closed in face as he worked. The profile was sharp and harsh, but not ugly as he'd thought it in boyhood. It was the kind of strong-featured face that you saw on Greek statues in the Louvre, he realized.

As if intent on reinforcing that statue imagery, Snape stood still as stone while Harry worked, appearing incredibly uncomfortable as he was debugged. Noticing one of the cicadas trying to blend into the dark hair at Snape's neck, Harry moved a step in front of Snape to reach for it. The cicada's six bristly legs clung tenaciously to the thick locks, lifting the hair as he tried to extract the bug without any painful tugging.

Harry was surprised by how soft that hair felt against his fingers as he coaxed the cicada free. As the long, startlingly clean black length fell back against Snape's neck, the other man visibly tensed, his back stiffening to ramrod straightness.

Their eyes met and locked. Snape's profile might have been like stone, but his gaze was anything but. Harry had never seen anything as human as the shocked pleasure Snape so quickly masked.

That fleeting emotion was only visible for a few heartbeats, but in that instant, Harry's breath caught in his chest and he was rocked by an unexpected sense of . . . intimacy. Instinctively, he knew that that quickly squelched pleasure was something that very few people had seen, and, as with any rare occurrence, there was a certain excitement to experiencing it.

If nothing else, the reaction answered a question that had always perplexed him. For the last fifteen years, he'd wondered why Snape kept his hair so unfashionably long. With his dour, ascetic manner and Victorian wardrobe, a military, no-nonsense crew cut would have been more appropriate for Snape's style and yet the man had worn this long, stringy cut for as long as Harry had known him. Now Harry knew why. Severus Snape, the nasty, untouchable Potions master of his childhood, enjoyed having his hair played with. The concept was utterly shocking.

Following close on the heels of that revelation was an even more inappropriate musing. As he watched Snape blank all emotion from his eyes and face, Harry couldn't help but wonder who played with that hair. Just who did Severus Snape allow to touch him?

"That will be sufficient, thank you," Snape said stiffly, stepping away.

The retreat was hardly surprising. What did confound Harry was his own sense of . . . disappointment. Something inside him clenched tight at the withdrawal. He felt almost rejected, which didn't make any sense. Did he really want to be touching Snape?

His brain screamed No, but his racing heart told a different, more honest story. Confused by his body's reaction, Harry gawked at the other man. Snape was supposed to repulse him as much as touching those bugs had. Except, revulsion was the last thing he was feeling.

As close as they were standing, Harry couldn't help but notice how that strong face hardened until it was as immutable as a granite cliff. Still bewildered by his own untoward emotional response to touching Snape's hair, he couldn't figure out what was wrong. The other man looked braced for Armageddon, or for ridicule, he belatedly recognized. That was the same guarded expression that Snape had worn on Saturday after their minds had touched.

Not knowing what to say to make things better, Harry awkwardly offered, "It's very soft."

"What?" Snape snapped, his gaze scouring Harry's face as if searching for mockery.

Realizing what a mess he was making of things, Harry tried to explain, "Your hair. It's very soft."

A frown line formed between Snape's dark brows. "If you're attempting to be humorous -"

"No, I was just . . . ." Just what? Bewitched by the feel of Snape's greasy hair sliding between his fingers? Only, it hadn't been at all greasy. It had been lush and luxurious, for all that the unkempt length looked as though the dungeons' rats had spent the night chewing on it. "I'm sorry. That was a very personal comment. I should have kept it to myself. Can we just forget I said it?" Thinking that a change of topic was definitely called for, Harry all but stammered, "We, er, better start collecting the rest of these bugs if we want to get finished any time tonight."

Still appearing suspicious, Snape nodded.

Harry could feel that dark gaze upon him as he tried to concentrate on catching cicadas. After a moment, Snape turned to his own collection efforts. But a tension had seeped into the room that hadn't been there before. Whenever their collection efforts brought them within arms reach of each other, Harry was intensely aware of the other man, and every time he caught sight of that long hair dangling in Snape's eyes as Snape bent over the floating black box to deposit more cicadas, he couldn't help but remember how it had felt sliding between his fingers.

What the hell was wrong with him? Was he crazy, standing here mooning over Severus Snape, of all people? If Snape ever caught wind of what he was thinking, he'd hex him into the next century, or drop him off at St. Mungo's, with good reason. Forcing all those weird thoughts out of his mind, Harry tried to focus on the task at hand.

Three exhausting hours later, the last cicada was located and transferred to the deafeningly loud box. The insects might be impervious to having magic performed upon their bodies, but, fortunately for their captors, they were subject to locating spells.

Harry watched Snape coax the last bug out of his net with surprising care. The long fingers were gentle and wary of causing injury to the little creature. Harry had never suspected Snape capable of such consideration.

"I think that's the last of them," Harry said, casting the locating spell once again, just to be certain there weren't anymore hiding under the workbenches or seats. A bell-like alarm went off over the bug in Snape's net, but the remainder of the room remained blessedly quiet, the stillness informing him that there wasn't yet another stowaway lurking under the furniture. The Potions lab was now officially clear of loose cicadas.

Once Snape had moved that last cicada into the collection box, Harry asked, "Now what?"

"Now I transfer them to a more suitable habitat," Snape said.

"Are you portkeying them back to the States?" Harry questioned, thinking of the insects' homeland. The hard work had dissipated the tension between them. He felt almost comfortable standing next to his old nemesis.

Snape snorted. "Hardly. It's late autumn there as well. The cicadas wouldn't last overnight."

"Where are you sending them, then?"

"Gryffindor Tower," Snape replied, totally deadpan.

For a second, Harry thought Snape was serious, and then he caught the gleam in those obsidian-dark eyes and chuckled.

"Hermione has a worse temper than Professor McGonagall ever did," Harry warned. "But be my guest if you want to inflict a biblical plague upon her in the dead of night. I'll come by in a few minutes and collect your charred remains, shall I?"

To his shock, Snape gave a legitimate chuckle. With his deep, rich voice, it was a pleasing sound.

"My untimely demise would delight the students no end, so we can't have that," Snape said. "Perhaps I will make alternate arrangements."

"What alternate arrangements? Where do you bring a couple of thousand summer bugs at the beginning of winter? Not the hot houses, surely?" Harry voiced the only solution he could think of.

"It would serve Longbottom right if I did," Snape muttered.

"What has poor Neville done to deserve that?" Harry asked, and then, at the look he received, added, "Recently." When Snape made no reply, he continued, "Neville was concerned when he heard about the bug accident in the Potions lab. He feared that flesh eating carpet beetles might have been involved."

Snape met his gaze. "Hoped for, more like."

Harry laughed, but didn't deny it. To his surprise, he rather liked this sarcastic Snape. "So what are you going to do with them?"

"Come see, if you like," Snape cryptically offered. With a flick of his wand, he directed the floating collection box towards the classroom door.

Intrigued, Harry followed.

The halls were dark and deserted this time of the night, with only Filch and his cat prowling out in the open.

"You don't need to light your wand to see?" Harry asked as they climbed the dungeon stairs. In the darkness beside him, Snape was a mere suggestion of a thicker shadow. The bug box floating three feet in front of them was all but invisible.

A glistening flash of something white that might have been a smile or a sneer sparked beside him. Snape was so tall that the teeth were almost at Harry's eye level. Then Harry heard a smug, "I note that you don't need your wand to illuminate the corridors, either. A result of your misspent youth, I imagine."

"What's your excuse, then?" Harry quizzed, not really expecting an answer.

To his surprise, a subdued, "Insomnia," floated out of the darkness to him. Were he with anyone else, Harry would have enquired further, but it didn't take someone of Hermione's intelligence to figure out that a man posing as a spy in Voldemort's ranks would have had as much cause for sleepless nights as the hapless saviour of the wizarding world.

They passed the Great Hall and out through Hogwarts' main doors, which were tall enough to let a two story Muggle house pass through them.

The night was overcast and bitterly cold. The wind howling in off the lake smelt of snow.

Harry pulled his teacher's robes tighter around himself and followed Snape, through the courtyard with its waterless fountain and relic walls, out to the path that led to Hagrid's hut.

For a moment Harry wondered if Snape were daft enough to put the cicadas in Hagrid's care, but they passed the dark-windowed hut, and continued on to where the path ended at the foot of the Forbidden Forest.

Snape didn't hesitate at the thick wall of winter-bare brush and towering trees. He pushed through the outer barrier.

Harry followed through the thorny bramble, lifting his robes and holding them close to him so that they didn't snag on the thorns. He was grateful he'd worn jeans underneath. The thick denim protected his legs.

To his intense relief, once they were completely under the canopy of massive conifers and other old-growth forest, Snape lit his wand. Harry quickly followed suit.

As the tip of Harry's holly wand began to glow, Snape asked in an almost conversational tone, "Tell me, Potter, if I hadn't lit my wand would you have blundered blindly through this?"

Harry debated lying, and then reluctantly offered the truth. "Probably."

Snape chuckled and started walking. Harry could see nothing that looked like a path between the massive trees that were so thick around that six grown men wouldn't have been able to encompass the girth of their trunks. Still, Snape seemed to know where he was going, so he followed along in Snape's wake and concentrated on not measuring his length on a root or rock in the frozen woods.

A warming charm helped with the cold, but it did nothing to keep the wind out. Even here among the thickest part of the forest, the north winds were howling down like an insane banshee. The bare tree branches overhead moved in an eerie, noisy dance that left Harry nervous and on edge. This type of setting wreaked havoc on his battle instincts, tricking him into seeing threats everywhere. Trying not to be too obvious about jumping at shadows, he followed Snape through the woods.

Their wands' light illuminated only a few feet in front of them. Outside of those two, small rings of silver light, the winter forest was dark and ominous. Its utter blackness was an oppressive weight.

After about twenty minutes of brisk walking, Snape came to a stop. "We're here."

At first Harry couldn't see what was different between 'here' and half a mile back. He peered at the shadowy forest just outside the ring of his wand light. Beyond the ferns and skunk cabbages . . . wait, the ferns and skunk cabbages they'd passed earlier had all been dead and brown, frozen with the first frost yesterday morning, but these were as green as June growth.

Harry raised his wand towards the nearest tree and saw lush green oak leaves dangling down overhead. His gaze following the trunk down, he could see delicate white ginseng blossoms around the roots. Now that he thought about it, he could smell the rich perfume of growing herbs and moist plants. The wind wasn't bothering him anymore either. Astonished, Harry realized that the forest in front of him was alive with unseasonable vegetation.

"It's like June," Harry marvelled aloud.

"May, actually," Snape corrected.

"How far does it extend?" Harry asked, thinking he saw more leaves on the understory trees further back.

"One square mile. I estimated that would be a sufficient range for this number of cicadas."

"You bespelled miles of forest to be spring in October?" Harry asked.

"Obviously. Why so shocked, Potter? You saw Albus enchant the rose garden to bloom in December during your fourth year."

"Yes, but . . . that was just the garden. This is . . . ." his words faltered as he took in the scope of Snape's accomplishment. This wasn't a glamour like the one that concealed Hogwarts from Muggle eyes. Four miles of terrain had been transformed to suit a wizard's will. This was extraordinary.

"Much more difficult," Snape finished his sentence for him.

"When did you do this?" Harry asked.

"After I dismissed third period, I walked out here to find a suitable habitat. I thought this would do them. It's far enough back that most of the students won't stumble upon it."

Harry gazed up at Snape's stark-featured face. He could tell that the other man was pleased with his accomplishment beneath his outer reserve. Startled, he realized that Snape must have invited him out here to show off his work.

As Harry stared at that imposing face, he considered how frustrating and lonely it must be to be Severus Snape. Professor Dumbledore had really been the only person who bothered with the cantankerous Potions master. Since Dumbledore's death, the rest of the staff had been more than happy to honour Snape's wishes and give him the wide berth he demanded. But there had to be times when that self-imposed solitude was daunting, times like this when Snape had done something truly amazing and there was no one to share it with.

Holding that dark gaze, Harry softly praised, "It's incredible." After looking around, he asked, "What about wildlife? Won't the other forest creatures devour the cicadas this time of year? This place would be like a buffet to the other Forbidden Forest residents."

"I verified that no sentient magical creatures live in the affected square mile. I've warded the area so that only the creatures who have nests or dens will be able to freely enter and leave the enchanted radius."

"You placed a security ward around it?"

"Yes," Snape answered. "No outsiders will be able to enter until the cicadas have retreated back into the ground."

"But I'm standing inside it now," Harry pointed out.

"You're standing with me," Snape answered.

"Oh. What about birds? Won't they eat the cicadas?"

"Normally, the cicadas number a hundred thousand per acre. Millions are sacrificed every time they swarm. Fortunately, most of the avian population has already migrated. Those which remain will do only marginal damage to the cicada population."

"You've thought of everything, haven't you?" Harry admired.

"I'm sure there's something I've overlooked, but on the whole, I think that the majority of the cicada population will be safe here," Snape sounded pleased with himself, and well he should, Harry thought. This was no small feat the Potions master had managed.

"I'm going to release them now," Snape said.

Harry watched Snape's wand guide the floating black cicada container past the point where the frost hardened ground gave way to moist fragrant loam. With another flick of his glowing wand, the containment spell ended. Like bats swarming from a communal cave at sunset, the thousands of cicadas they'd laboriously gathered tonight rose from the box like a shifting, black genie.

Some of them naturally spiralled towards the winter end of the woods. As they did so, the cicadas seemed to hit an invisible barrier that herded them back towards the spring eco-system.

His wonder-widened eyes trailed the strange bugs as they dispersed in the verdant forest. For a while, Harry could hear their humming call, but as the insects lighted for the night, their noise died down, leaving the spring portion of the forest as strangely silent as the winter wood.

It was moments like this when the true magic of what wizards could do touched Harry with awe. That this man he'd always considered ugly and callous could create such incredibly detailed beauty stunned him as much as Snape's enchantment of the forest.

Harry looked up at Snape's shadowed face. Their wands' light cast a blue tinge to both their skins. Catching that dark gaze, he softly said, "You've done something extraordinary here -" The 'sir' he'd been about to tag on felt wrong. Swallowing hard, he asked, "May I use your first name?"

He'd expected some hesitation, but Snape readily answered. "Yes, of course, you may." As if sensing his surprise, Snape said, "We're colleagues. Longbottom, you, and Professor Weasley are the only staff members who don't call me by my given name."

"It always seemed disrespectful somehow," Harry said.

"When has respect ever influenced any of our interactions?" Snape asked.

Harry thought that the question had been intended as a joke, but there was too much truth in the inquiry for laughter. Snape's lowered gaze told him that the man had recognized how off his question had sounded. Seeing that discomfort, Harry cautiously offered, "Now?"

After a brief pause, Snape gave a consenting nod. "Yes, perhaps you're right."

Those words, as close as he'd ever come to genuine praise from Snape, should have elated him, but that strange tension seemed to be back between them, only ten-fold. Harry could tell that Snape was aware of it, too, by the way the other man hastily averted his gaze.

"Severus?" Harry tested the name, liking the way it rolled off his tongue.

Snape gave a cautious sounding "Yes?" in response.

"Will you call me Harry? Like you said, we're colleagues. You're the only one who calls me by my surname."

Snape clearly didn't want to do it. Even though he couldn't read any clear emotion by the limited light of their wands, Harry could tell by the way those dark eyes shifted from his own.

"How come it's okay for me to call you Severus and not the reverse?"

"For one thing, your name isn't Severus," Snape replied.

"You know what I mean!" Harry snapped.

"If you are heard calling me by my first name, it could be dismissed as something done to irritate me. But if I should start to call you by your given name . . . . "

"What? The world will stop spinning?" Venting a loud, defeated sigh, Harry asked, "Why has it got to be so damned hard between us? This isn't a big deal. My name is Harry. You can call me by it."

"I've called you Potter for nearly sixteen years. If I begin to suddenly address you as Harry -"

"What? People will talk?" Harry joked and stopped dead as he realized that was precisely the issue. "That's it, isn't it? My god, I can't believe this. Why would you even care? You despise most people."

"For good reason. However, my personal feelings aside, I'm not the Boy Who Lived. I'm a former Death Eater. People assume the worst where I'm concerned. If I deviate from my normal behaviour patterns, scandal will follow as surely as day does night."

"Scandal? How is calling me by my name a scandal?" Harry demanded, totally pole-axed.

The silence stretched. Finally, Snape spoke in a much calmer, if far more reluctant tone, "If I were to suddenly begin calling you by your given name at staff meetings and official functions, it would be noticed. Certain . . . conclusions might be drawn, conclusions that you would no doubt prefer to avoid."

"What are you talking about? What conclusions?" Harry asked, completely bewildered. From Snape's tone, it was clear he expected to be instantly understood.

"You've been on the teaching staff for more than four years. Surely, someone must have told you about me?"

"Told me what?" Harry asked, completely at a loss. Did Snape really think his co-workers had nothing better to do than to sit around gossiping about him? But, then, when Harry thought back over some of the things he'd heard in the staff room since that damned Prophet article came out, he understood what Snape might be referring to. Hogwarts was a very small place. Close contact tended to bring out the worst in some people.

"That I . . . " Snape drew a deep breath, ". . . that I'm a homosexual."

Snape was gay!

Harry knew he was gaping at the other man, but he couldn't help it. The revelation totally threw him.

He'd been prepared for anything but that. For a second, the words hardly even registered; they were so anti-climatic. But then as their sense penetrated, so did the humour of the situation. Laughter burst out of him at the absurdity of it all. That they could be standing here miles from anyone in an isolated wood, and Snape would openly confess to having been a Death Eater, but reluctantly admit to his sexuality – while speaking to another man with the same proclivities – amused the hell out of him.

Snape straightened to his full height, his features going as cold as the winter-locked forest behind them as he snarled, "I'm glad you find this so amusing, Potter –"

"Oh, for . . . calm down. And, we've already established that my name is Harry. I'm not laughing at you! That'd be the kettle calling the pot black, all right?"

"What are you blithering on about?" Snape demanded. "What do you mean 'the kettle calling the pot black'?"

Once again, the separation between Muggle and Wizard world was hammered home to him. Snape clearly had no clue what the metaphor meant.

"Obviously, the same co-workers who never told me about you, never told you about me," Harry offered with a chuckle.

"Told me what?" Snape asked, his voice still filled with asperity and anger.

"That I prefer men. You mean you haven't read the headlines in the Prophet? Boy Who Lived a Poof, Saviour of the Wizarding World Grows Into Pervert – those were two of my favourites."

"I never read that trash," Snape answered. After a moment, he thoughtfully asked, "You're . . . ?"

"Similarly inclined, and the whole bloody Wizarding World knows about it, thanks to Rita Skeeter," Harry answered the question Snape didn't seem able to voice. "So don't worry about smearing my reputation, such as it is."

"But surely you wouldn't want your name . . . tied to mine in such a manner?" Snape questioned.

"Profes – er, I mean, Severus, my name's been tied that way to everyone from Professor Flitwick to Ron's dad. I'm used to it."

"That's still no reason to foolhardily court disaster," Snape chided.

"People are going to believe whatever they want to believe. The ones who matter will know the stories are rubbish. As for the rest of the world," Harry shrugged, "I can't live my life worrying about what people will say about me. It hardly matters if you call me 'Harry' or not. If we're seen speaking in public, the slander sheets will turn it into a sordid interlude." After a moment's thought, Harry softly said, "But, maybe you're right. Perhaps you'd better still call me Potter – to protect your own reputation."

At the bark of laughter that earned him, Harry looked up at Snape's shadowed face.

"Do you seriously think my reputation could sink lower than it is at the present moment?"

"I suppose even a sordid affair with the Boy Who Lived would be an improvement over Saturday's accusation," Harry chuckled.

"Well, I wouldn't go that far."

Hearing the sardonic lilt, Harry recognized Snape's brand of humour and didn't take insult at the reply. "In any case, why don't you just call me whatever you're most comfortable with?" Seeing a flash of white teeth in the shadowy wand light that could only be a totally predatory sneer, Harry laughed, "I meant either Harry or Potter."

"Pity. I've been waiting for years to call you some of those names aloud," Snape lamented.

"I'm sure you'll get around to them in time," Harry said. His gaze turned to the empty box and the now silent forest around them. "Looks like we're done here."

"Yes, we should be starting back," Snape said, not seeming in any more of a hurry to return to the castle than he was.

If nothing else, their midnight brushes over the years had established that they were both insomniacs. He knew that Snape would probably get as little sleep as he would if they returned to Hogwarts right now without unwinding first.

Harry considered the hour, and the company, and then softly said, "I don't know about you, but I'm starving. Do you want to stop into the Three Broomsticks for a late supper? We could apparate from here."

"Late supper? It's past midnight," Snape said.

Harry was becoming sensitive enough to the nuances of Snape's speech patterns to translate his words. Anything not phrased as an outright negative usually meant that Snape was interested, but wanted to be convinced. Snape's inherently cautious and suspicious nature demanded that he make the idea of any social contact firmly the other person's responsibility. Harry couldn't help but wonder what kind of rejection it had taken to instil that type of caution in this proud man.

Harry tried a grin and lightly teasing tone. "Rosmerta's open for another two hours. Her roast pork's even better than her stew. What do you say?"

To his confusion, Snape tensed beside him. After a moment, he warily asked, "How do you know I enjoy roast pork?"

Harry sighed. "We've been eating at the same table for four years. It's the only meal you ever take seconds on. I'm sure you know what my favourites are, too, don't you?"

A longer pause followed. Snape seemed to be internally debating something. Finally, he gave a waspish, "If you think that I have nothing better to do than memorize your food preferences, then you're a bigger egomaniac than even I imagined."

Harry's new understanding allowed him to laugh at words that as little as a week ago would have had him sniping back. Pushing it to see just how far Snape would allow him to go, he joked, "You're just irritated because I noticed something that the Army of Light's most famous spy failed to note!"

Harry held his breath, waiting for explosion or cold denial.

To his delight, Snape gave an exasperated sounding huff and said, "If we are going to the Three Broomsticks, we should do so now."

As far as concessions went, it wasn't much. But, considering their tumultuous relationship, Harry felt like he'd won a major victory. Diversion was better than an outright lie. He knew how rare an honour it was for Snape to trust anyone enough to be honest in their presence when self-protection might call for deceit.

Feeling a strange lightness inside that he finally recognized as happiness, Harry didn't remark upon the evasion, saying instead, "I'll meet you in front of Rosmerta's, all right?"

Unlike their last venture there, tonight when Snape nodded in agreement, Harry was totally confident that the other man would keep their assignation. That odd buoyancy growing stronger, Harry apparated out of the Forbidden Forest to await his dinner companion on Hogsmeade's main street.

It might be strange as hell to be friends with Severus Snape, but he was enjoying it immensely.


"Good morning," a wry sounding voice greeted him as Harry stood before his bathroom mirror trying to do something to, if not tame, then, at least capture, his errant hair. He was way overdue for a haircut.

"Ron!" Harry cried, turning with a wide grin. For a second, he just stared into his friend's tired blue eyes, then he flung his arms around the taller man for a quick, slightly self-conscious hug. Ron might be sleeping a room away, but Hermione was the only one who'd seen him for any length of time since the attack on poor Carl. "It's been weeks!"

"I know," Ron said, patting his back as they disengaged. "I'm only here for a few hours before I'm due for another sweep."

"Still looking for Burke?"

"It's become our life's work," Ron grumpily answered.

"Ah." Giving the hair up as a lost cause, Harry led Ron back into his bedroom. "So what have you been doing?"

Ron launched into a list of all the estates, holdings, and possible hideouts he and the Auror team he commanded had searched in the last three weeks. It was a staggering number. Harry was exhausted just listening to him. While they talked, they headed back through the adjoining door into the Weasleys' sitting room, taking a seat on the blue couch.

"Morning, Harry," Hermione greeted as she came out of the loo in her white bathrobe with her wet hair wrapped up in a turbaned brown towel.

"Hi," Harry replied, grinning as she hurried into the bedroom to dress for class. Fortunately, he was already dressed himself, so he'd have some time to spend with Ron before he had to teach his first class of the day. "Gods, I've missed you!"

Ron grinned back at him. "Me, too. I get to see Hermione awake every now and then, but it seems like forever since we were both conscious at the same time."

"Speak for yourself." Harry chuckled.

"Don't even pretend that you're not sleeping. Every time I've stuck my nose in your door when I get home in the wee hours, you've been snoring like a hibernating dragon."

Harry smiled at the exaggeration. "Severus gave me a large bottle of his Dreamless Sleep potion. It works really well."

"I'm glad to hear it. It's about time you got some decent rest," Ron said, then enquired in a wry tone with a lift of his brow, "Severus, huh?"

"Er . . . ."

"Hermione tells me that you've been spending a lot of time with the greasy . . . with Snape," Ron seemed to catch himself. "What's up with that?"

Feeling strangely self-conscious, Harry shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I like him."

"You what?"

Harry answered defensively. "He's not so bad once you get to know him."

"We've known him for over fifteen years," Ron shot back. "What's changed about him in the last three weeks?"

Surprised by how . . . protective he felt on Snape's behalf, Harry softly answered, "Maybe I've changed then. Maybe I stopped living in the past."


"Well, think about it. Even when we finished school, we still treated him like we expected him to deduct house points from us just for breathing."

"That's because he would deduct house points from us for breathing if he still could," Ron argued.

Harry opened his mouth to protest, thought of Snape, and then laughed. "Well, perhaps you're right. He'd probably enjoy that."

"My God," Ron said, a stunned look on his face, "you really do like him. What's got into you? I leave you alone for three weeks and you end up mates with Snape!"

Harry knew he should be mad on Snape's behalf, but Ron just looked so horrified that he couldn't help but smile. "He's actually rather funny when you get to know him."

"We are talking about the humourless bastard who tortured us for seven years in class, right?"

"Ron, we were kids then. Think how Hermione or I would react if we caught first, second, and third year students prowling the halls at one a.m. the way he used to catch us."

"You wouldn't verbally crucify them or be spiteful and unjust to them in class," Ron answered. "This is the same guy who abhors all Gryffindors, who hated your father, and whom you blamed for Sirius' death, right?"

Harry sighed. "Most of that's ancient history."

"What about the abhorring Gryffindor part? That's not so ancient. Just last month, he -"

"I know," Harry said. "Look, I can't explain it or justify it, all right? I just . . . like talking to him. It's not a crime, is it?"

From Ron's expression, Harry would have thought he'd just announced a desire to eat hippogriff manure.

"No, not unless he's put you under Imperius." Ron seemed totally serious.

"Oh, for . . . !"

"Harry, you've got to admit it's weird as hell. The bastard's treated us like dirt for more than fifteen years, and suddenly he wants to talk to you? Why? There's got to be a reason."

"Did you ever think that maybe he's lonely? It's not like any of the staff go out of their way to talk to him," Harry said.

"Because he wants it that way. He's the one who snaps and snarls at everyone whenever they try to make polite conversation with him. If he's talking to you, he's got to want something from you."

"You sound just like him. Do you know that?" Harry commented.

"What?" Ron squawked.

"Severus says that the only time anyone troubles with him is when they need something from him. I've been watching over the last few weeks, Ron, and he's right. The only time anyone really speaks to him is if they want him to brew them a potion or help them with something."

"That's because he insists that people have a reason for bothering him," Ron replied. "You know that."

"Yeah, it's something of a vicious circle, isn't it?" Harry said.

"It's his own damn fault. He's the one who's vicious."

Realizing he was fighting a losing battle here, Harry vented a deep breath and said, "Maybe you're right. But I like him anyway. There isn't any harm in that, is there?"

Ron shook his head. "That would depend on what he's after."

"Let's not fight about this anymore." Knowing what he was setting himself up for, Harry asked, "Did you hear about Sunday's Cannons' game?"

The match had been an absolute disaster, and Ron's feelings on it were predictable. Still, hearing Ron gripe about his former team beat the hell out of having him disparage Snape.

He'd never been so relieved to have Hermione ordering them around as he was when she interrupted them fifteen minutes later to shoo them down to breakfast.

It appeared to be a day for startling surprises, Harry thought to himself three hours later. He'd just finished teaching his second period class, which was composed of third year Hufflepuff and Gryffindors, when a visibly tentative Carl Westfield approached him after class.

"Professor Potter?" Westfield asked, coming up to him at his desk as the rest of the class cleared out of the room.

"Yes, Carl? Did you need some help with the Grindylow Repulsion spell?" Harry asked, a little confused. Carl was one of his best students, outshining even the bravest Gryffindors and most devious Slytherins in his mastery of the Defence against the Dark Arts.

"No, I wondered if I could speak to you about . . . something personal?" Carl's uncertainty was almost palpable.

"Are you . . . all right?" Harry awkwardly questioned. Carl had been a lot quieter in class since the attack in October, but he seemed to be dealing with the events remarkably well. "You know that you're welcome here any time you need to speak to someone."

The shadow that passed across Carl's face immediately told Harry that he'd guessed wrong. But his student persevered with his usual courage and answered Harry's question with an honest, "Thank you. I'm doing all right. Professor Weasley wrote to my parents and suggested that I go to a Squib friend of hers for . . . counselling. I floo over a couple of days a week after class. Talking to the . . . physicist helps."

Harry stifled a smile. "I think it's 'psychiatrist', Carl."

The boy blushed. "Oh, I always get them mixed up."

"That's understandable," Harry said. "What can I do for you?"

Carl shifted uncomfortably and then said, "I, er, noticed that you and Professor Snape talk a lot at the teachers' table now."

After his discussion with Ron this morning, he was still smarting on Severus' behalf. Wondering if his student were about to disparage him for befriending Snape as well, he cautiously nodded. "That's right. I don't understand what that has to do with you, however."

Seeming to realize how inappropriate his remark was, Carl flushed and quickly said, "I was hoping that maybe you could talk to him for me."

"Talk to him?" Harry was totally lost now. "About what? I thought you were getting on all right in his class. Professor Snape told me how impressed he was by your courage in apologizing to him when you returned to class. I've asked him about you several times and he always says you're doing very well in Potions."

"That's just the problem," Carl said in a troubled tone.

"What is?" Harry asked, relaxing a little as he realized that the boy wasn't here out of concerns for his safety or because he couldn't stand facing Snape every day.

"Ever since . . . October . . . whenever I get my homework and tests back from Professor Snape, he takes one point off for wrong answers, while he takes ten or even fifteen off Joe and Don's papers for exactly the same answer. It's, er, getting a little weird, Professor Potter."

Harry stared into those troubled eyes and found himself unable to repress his smile. "I think that, in his own way, Professor Snape is trying to . . . reassure you that you have nothing to fear from him."

"I guess. He doesn't even yell at me in class or get snarky with me anymore. He treats me like he usually treats the Slytherins," Carl complained.

Harry knew that he shouldn't lightly dismiss his student's concerns, but he couldn't help but say, "Just be happy he doesn't treat you like a Gryffindor."

Carl burst out laughing. "Yeah. I guess that would be worse. But, seriously, Professor Potter, what am I going to do? I can't really ask him . . . to stop being nice to me, but it's getting on my nerves. It's already hard enough going to class everyday with everybody knowing what happened to me. Professor Snape's giving me special treatment only reminds me of . . . it."

All levity abruptly leaving the situation, Harry looked at Carl and promised, "I'll talk to him tonight. I'm sure he's not trying to . . . make you uncomfortable."

"I know. He's just trying to make up for what happened, I think, but he doesn't have anything to make up for," Carl said.

"Not many people in your situation would be able to see that so clearly," Harry said. "I know Professor Snape still feels uncomfortable that his image was used to hurt you."

Looking a little pale, Carl nodded, "I know. Sometimes, it's still hard to separate what really happened from . . . the false stuff. But I know Professor Snape didn't do anything bad to me."

Impressed by how the young man was dealing with a situation that would have destroyed a weaker person, Harry softly admitted, "I'm very proud of you, Carl."

Carl flushed with pleasure and nodded. "Thanks. I should probably get to class now."

"Do you need a note?" Harry asked.

Carl gave him a long look, shook his head, and said with an embarrassed smile, "Probably not. It's Potions class."

Biting back his own smile as he realized how extreme the situation must be if a student were comfortable breezing into Snape's Potions class ten minutes late without a written excuse from another teacher, Harry said, "I'll give you one, anyway. And I'll talk to him about it tonight. I promise."

"Thanks, Professor Potter."

After hastily scrawling an excuse on a nearby piece of parchment, Harry watched his student leave the classroom.

He hadn't lied when he'd said he was proud of Carl. The boy was handling the trauma like a real trooper. But at the moment, Carl wasn't the only person he was proud of.

Severus' preferential treatment might be disconcerting to Carl, but Harry was touched that Severus was trying to make the boy more comfortable around him. The ogre of his younger days would never have bothered to try to ease the boy's fear. Harry wasn't sure if Severus had really changed so much over the last few weeks, or if he were simply beginning to see through the man's smokescreens.

The closer he got to Severus, the more he had begun to realize how poorly socialized Severus really was. It was more than simply bitterness and malice that motivated much of Severus' poor behaviour. Harry was beginning to recognize that Severus really didn't know how to behave in many situations, and there were few as stressful as the one he now found himself in with Carl Westfield. Harry felt like he was walking on eggs around Carl himself most days. He couldn't imagine how much worse it must be for Severus.

Still, Harry found the awkward way Severus was attempting to make amends for what had been done to Carl in his image strangely touching.

As his next class began to drift noisily into the DADA classroom, Harry resolved to address the subject with Severus tonight. But carefully. It was a delicate situation, and he didn't want to offend Severus.

Six hours later, Harry was sitting across from Severus at what he'd come to think of as their table in the Three Broomsticks' quiet backroom.

Harry sipped his drink, watching the subtle flashes of expression that played across Severus' candlelit, strong-boned face as Severus spoke of some discovery he'd made this afternoon. As usual for a school night, the backroom was empty and they had the place to themselves.

"When I added the goldenseal, the potion turned bright orange and . . . ." Severus abruptly stopped speaking.

"And?" Harry prompted, unable to place the expression on Severus' face.

"You can't really be interested in the gruelling details of potion experimentation. I didn't intend to run on as I did," Severus softly said.

"You weren't running on. I asked you what you did this afternoon," Harry reminded him.

"Still, you can't really want to hear the particulars of the experiment," Severus said, pushing the oily wings of his hair clear of his eyes.

"I mightn't understand a lot of what you're talking about, but I can follow it well enough to know that you've done something special," Harry admitted. "Friends share their triumphs and challenges with each other. I understand Higher Arithmancy even less than I do Potions, but Hermione is always telling me about the latest problem she's working on. Friends share this kind of thing."

"Friends?" Severus repeated, his sudden tension telling Harry that he'd been deeply startled. At least the one word question wasn't dripping with sarcasm as it would have been a month ago.

Sometimes, Harry felt like he was dealing with someone raised on another planet. He couldn't comprehend why Severus would accept his invitation to this kind of quiet socializing if he didn't consider them friends. Holding onto his temper, he quietly said, "You spend time with me. You listen to my problems. I consider you a friend. Whether you want to own up to being mine or not is up to you."

Harry turned his gaze to the bowl of crisps that sat on the table between them, covering his uncertainty by taking a handful. He didn't understand why he kept stumbling into these kinds of issues with Severus. When he'd requested this state of détente last month, he'd simply thought that their working relationship would become less combative. He'd never imagined he'd be spending this much time in Snape's company or be actively seeking the man out as he did. Nor had he ever expected that he'd be having arguments with Ron like he'd had this morning over Severus.

"Denial of one's reality is both fruitless and hypocritical, don't you think?" Severus said after what felt like the longest pause in history.

Harry's chin snapped back up and a wide smile spread across his face. It was a small thing, but it felt like a major victory to him. Severus hadn't actually called him his friend, but that's what that whole 'denying reality' was intended to convey without the open declaration. For whatever reason, Severus seemed nearly fundamentally incapable of openly declaring his affections and likes, which Harry didn't get, because Severus was quite articulate when it came to voicing his disapproval and dislikes.

Rather than making a fuss over the landmark admission, Harry prompted, "So about the potion?"

Severus' dark, glinting eyes seemed to soften as he picked up his story. Ten very confusing minutes later, Severus finished up with, "The new potion should cure pneumonia twice as fast as those presently in use. I applied to the Ministry for a patent this afternoon."

"So this is a victory celebration, then," Harry said with a grin. "Congratulations!"

To his delight, a pleased blush lightly tinted Severus' sallow cheeks. "Thank you." Severus seemed to consciously force himself to ask, "And what of you? How was your day?"

This was another breakthrough of sorts. For the last month, Harry had pretty much carried the conversation by bringing up subjects and events or enquiring into how Severus passed the time. This was the first instance where Severus returned the favour and attempted to make small talk.

Harry considered how best to answer. When Hermione had asked him the same question at dinner tonight, Harry had told her of his spat with Ron over his friendship with Severus and then gone on to his discussion with Carl Westfield later in the day. Harry knew that mentioning what had happened with Ron this morning would only alienate Severus at this point. Taking a deep breath, he approached what should have been the more sensitive topic. "Carl Westfield stopped by to see me after class today."

Harry didn't miss the sudden tension that claimed Severus' lean form. The other man straightened in his seat.

"Oh?" Snape said.

Feeling nervous himself, Harry softly said, "He, er, asked if I could talk to you about something."

Harry hated the guarded expression that removed all traces of Severus' earlier good humour. "What was it Mr. Westfield couldn't speak to me directly about?"

Wishing he could just tell Severus that it was okay, he tried to do so without offering the idiotic platitude that Severus would probably only sneer at. "It's nothing dire or ominous. Carl couldn't help but notice that you're grading him far more leniently than his friends for the same mistakes."

Severus was silent for a moment before he tentatively said, "I've been attempting to make Mr. Westfield's Potions class as non-threatening an environment as possible."

"That's why he asked me to talk to you about it. He didn't want to hurt your feelings because he knew you were being nice to him," Harry explained.

Severus muttered a suspicious sounding, "But?"

"But the kid gloves treatment reminds him of why you're being so nice to him. I think Carl just wants things to be normal again," Harry said. "I . . . imagine you don't know how to treat him right now. I know I've had some trouble figuring out how to treat him and I'm not in the horrible situation you are with him."

Harry expected Severus to explode with anger, but Severus surprised him with a subdued, "Your estimation is correct. I don't know how to interact with Mr. Westfield now."

"So you're treating him like one of your Slytherins?" Harry asked.

Severus gave a slow nod. "It seemed wiser to err on the side of caution than to risk . . . . I don't mind the dunderheads hating or fearing me for things I've actually done to them, but this is . . . difficult."

"Try impossible." Harry could hardly believe that Severus was actually talking to him about this. But, then, who else did Severus have to discuss his problems with? Feeling guilty for not having thought to ask Severus how he was coping with the Westfield issue more frequently, he softly added, "I think both you and Carl are handling the situation very well."

"We both know if that were the case, Mr. Westfield would have spoken to me himself," Severus softly denied.

"Not necessarily. Carl is very confused right now. I don't think he knows how to behave around you any more than you know how to behave around him," Harry said.

Severus took a sip of his golden cognac and said, "You seem to have a rapport with Mr. Westfield. With all the students, if we're being honest." Harry could hear the resentment that Severus was no doubt attempting to conceal. "Have you any suggestions on how to proceed in this situation?"

That Severus would ask his advice both shocked and honoured Harry. Trying to remain as casual as possible, he tentatively suggested, "Well, I wouldn't stop being nice to him. I think he needs that kind of reassurance right now. But perhaps you could grade his papers the same way you do his friends'? That way he wouldn't feel so . . . signalled out."

Of course, Severus wouldn't be in this situation if he graded everyone's papers fairly, but Harry knew better than to voice such a thought. Right now there were larger issues to be dealt with than Severus' unfortunate despotism.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. Misters Mangra and Smithers aren't bad students. There can be no harm in it," Severus agreed.

At first, Harry didn't understand Severus' bewildering reply, but then he finally realized that Severus was now intending to extend his preferential treatment to Westfield's two best friends. Harry felt his jaw drop open as he searched for something to say. He simply could not understand the way Severus' mind worked sometimes. After a moment, he closed his mouth and said nothing.

He didn't think Carl was broadcasting what Severus was doing to the entire student population or even his entire house. As long as Carl's marks weren't wildly different from those of his two best friends, it was possible the boy would never realize what was going on, and that was really all that mattered, that Carl feel more comfortable in class.

"Thank you for the suggestion," Severus said in a pleased tone, breaking Harry's shocked silence.

Seeing the humour in the situation, Harry smiled and said, "Any time." Then, thinking that they could both stand a change of subject, he asked in an interested tone, "Just how many patents do you hold?"

"Seventy-two, including this afternoon's discovery," Severus promptly replied.

"For?" Harry bravely enquired, uncertain if he were up to the minutiae of arcane Potion experimentation.

Severus' startled expression gave him the feeling that he wasn't asked that question very frequently.

"Do you seriously want to know all that information?" Severus questioned.

Sensing the genuine eagerness behind Severus' hesitant inquiry, Harry knew what his answer had to be. "Yes, I do."

Harry leaned back in his seat and watched the play of expression over Severus' face as he detailed his life's work. It was the most passion he'd ever heard in Severus' voice – well, aside from when the man was screaming at him.

Being Severus Snape's friend might be weird as hell, but it was definitely worth the strangeness, Harry decided as he listened to the impressive list of accomplishments. He didn't understand it, but every peculiar peccadillo he unearthed in Severus made him want to know the man better.


Potter was back again. This was the third time this week that Severus' former nemesis had shown up at his lab door. Two school evenings, and now a Saturday afternoon.

Under the pretext of stirring a brewed cauldron, Severus surreptitiously watched the younger wizard patiently chop slugs.

Potter's shaggy black hair was as unkempt as usual, but Severus was beginning to appreciate how the unruly locks framed the attractive face. The disorderly hair wouldn't have even been presentable on another wizard, but somehow on Potter, it was appropriate.

Severus watched those square, capable fingers as they moved the slug and knife, chopping with an easy rhythm, looking for all the world as if it were something Potter enjoyed doing. Those fingers were calloused from holding onto a quidditch broom and darkened from years of daily exposure to the elements during his time with the Cannons. They were a sharp contrast to Severus' own pale-skinned hands with their chemical-stained, yellowed fingers.

Adjust the slug, chop. Adjust the slug, chop. Potter looked content to dice the slimy molluscs forever. The night before last it had been stinkweed Potter had cut with an equally unperturbed attitude. The man almost seemed happy to be in the dungeon doing tasks so unpleasant that even Severus disliked them. In between bouts of sporadic conversation, Potter was humming softly under his breath.

He's doing it simply to annoy me, Severus told himself, irritated by how well Potter was succeeding.

Severus kept giving the man the most noisome tasks to help him with, knowing that sooner or later, the adult Potter would tire of doing the same chores as he had as an adolescent in detention and then his own life could then return to normal. But Potter accomplished the work without complaining, for the dubious reward of nothing but his company. What's more, Potter kept coming back for more.

Severus was at his wit's end, for he had no clue what Potter truly wanted from him.

A cessation of hostilities, Potter had said, a state of détente. But there was a difference between non-aggression and . . . well, the companionship Potter had been offering over the last month and a half.

Severus knew it couldn't be real. He wasn't the kind of man who inspired this type of camaraderie. And even if he were, there was simply too much history between them. Every self-preservation instinct he possessed kept insisting that he was being set up.

But for what? What purpose could this interaction possibly serve? It wasn't as though Potter were planning to publicly embarrass him, for everything they did was private – helping him here in the lab, a dinner or drink in Hogsmeade, stopping in to see him during a shared free period – if Potter abruptly stopped any of these bizarre behaviours, it wasn't as though anyone besides the two of them would know.

Still, Potter had to want something, something more than the Dreamless Sleep potion Severus had been giving him. In case that were the fool's sole motive for inflicting his company upon him, the other night he'd told Potter that he didn't have to keep coming by, that he'd still supply him with the potion. All that had earned him was a hurt look before Potter had asked if he wanted to go to the Three Broomsticks for drinks that night. It was driving Severus mad.

The worst part of it all was that he didn't seem to be able to turn away from the friendship being so mysteriously offered to him. Severus knew all it would take to put an end to this nonsense was a legitimate attack – not the insults he heaped on Potter daily that the younger man simply laughed off, but a truly Slytherin campaign of malice – only, he didn't seem to be able to muster the resolve to do it.

He tried to tell himself that he'd given Potter his word that he would attempt a state of détente, that his forbearance was a matter of honour. However, he wasn't that good at self-deception.

In his heart, he knew the truth. Potter's company, his incessant cheerful chatter, had eased the gaping void of loneliness that had been his life since Albus' death. No matter how insulting he was or how often he turned a sour expression on Potter, the other man simply laughed it off and kept coming back for more. It was such a novel experience to have someone smile when they saw him, instead of grimace and avert their eyes, that Severus found himself savouring their time together, even though he knew it couldn't last and that there had to be an ulterior motive for it all. But like a true Slytherin, he would take advantage of the situation until it all went to hell, which it inevitably would. If Potter didn't get tired of playing this masochistic game, Severus knew his own personality would sooner or later drive Potter away, as it had everyone before him. He knew that. Yet, there was a part of him that hoped he was wrong.

It was that unfamiliar emotion that was troubling him the most. Nothing had ever frightened him so much as hope, not even the insane Dark Lord he'd served.

He'd learned the hard way that hope was the most traitorous and cruel of emotions. Every time he'd dared trust in it; he'd paid dearly for his foolishness. He'd hoped for acceptance, power, and prestige when he'd joined Voldemort's cause at seventeen. Instead, he'd received a life of slavery and revilement. He'd hoped to make amends for that error by joining the side of light. That venture had cost him more years of slavery and the only childhood friend he'd ever had. His hopes for the Dark Arts position had been permanently thwarted, for not even Albus Dumbledore would dare place a former Death Eater in that position. As for Severus' hopes as far as social interaction went, every time he'd tried to accept someone's overture of friendship over the years to ease his solitude, he'd ended up being played for a fool. With regards to romance, those humiliating lessons still stung his pride. In no area of his life had hope ever panned out, not without presenting him with a price tag too dear to pay. He was an addled, old fool to think that would change this late in his life. And with Harry Potter, of all people.

For both their sakes, Severus wished Potter would get to his point soon, so that this ridiculous charade would end and he could go back to his simple, solitary existence. The longer this farce took to play out, the more it was going to hurt when it ended. Already, he was placing too much significance on the time they spent together.

"Severus?" Potter called him back to the present.


"When we're done here, do you want to go check the cicadas and then stop in at the Three Broomsticks?" Potter's melodic voice echoed through the cavernous Potions lab.

That was another thing Severus didn't understand. For some reason Potter seemed to enjoy going to check on the section of the forest he'd charmed. This man had defeated the most malevolent dark wizard Britain had seen in three thousand years; Potter had enough power to raze or enslave this land single-handedly if he so chose, yet the man acted like an enraptured first year over that stretch of woods.

Just like the fact that Potter was here with him at all, it made no sense.

Once, Severus would have gone out of his way to squash the excitement and anticipation in those moss green eyes. Tonight, he merely glanced at the grey, cloudy sky visible through his laboratory's narrow, high dungeon window to ensure that the rain had stopped and then agreed, "If you wish."

There were charms, of course, for keeping warm and dry, but magic could only do so much where weather was concerned. He hated slogging through mud.

Those full, attractive lips curved upwards. Harry grinned like Severus had just handed him another First Class Order of Merlin medal and said, "Brilliant," with such enthusiasm that Severus really had to wonder at his social life.

"If you don't mind my saying, you need to get out more, Potter."

"You'd say it even if I did mind, so what's the point? Anyway, that's the kettle calling the pot black again," Potter replied.

Again with the kettle and pot.

"I fail to understand your fascination with those woods. They're just trees and plants charmed to bloom out of season. Any fifth year could manage that."

"Could a fifth year have created those security wards?" Potter challenged.

"No, but you could have without draining a hundredth of your power," Severus answered.

"Don't be too sure of that. Remember, my solution to the problem was send the bugs back to America. You had the foresight and imagination to solve the problem. Your creation is both practical and beautiful. You should be proud of it," Harry said.

Irritated, Severus felt himself warm to the words. Did Potter think he was a child to be placated with compliments?

That he was so terribly susceptible to the kind words angered him all the more. Severus grit his teeth to keep from shouting a demand at Potter as to what he really wanted, why he was here, and what he was playing at. Forcing his gaze onto the bubbling blue liquid in his cauldron, he stirred steadily. Though it wasn't strictly required, extra boiling time would only strengthen this brew.

"How much longer are you going to keep us here doing busy work?" Potter softly asked after another few minutes.

"What are you talking about?" Severus snapped.

Potter paused to think before speaking, which was never a good sign with Potter. "You've had Jodfries, Viers, and Adair in detention for the last six weeks. I know for a fact that you're up to your ears in chopped slugs, toads, and stinkweed."

Severus tensed. "You weren't invited. If you don't want to be here, Potter -"

"That's not what I'm saying!" Potter insisted.

"Then what are you saying?"

"I was just wondering why you're wasting our time," Potter said.

Even though the words weren't voiced as an accusation, they hit Severus as such. "I hardly consider the brewing of medicinal potions for the infirmary time wasting."

"That's Cold Ease you're making in that cauldron. You've been stirring it for the last twenty minutes, even though it turned blue a half hour ago like it should when it's done."

"You astound me," Severus sneered. "I thought you'd forgotten everything you'd learned at Hogwarts for your NEWTs the instant the Cannons signed you. I had no idea you remembered so much of your Potions classes."

Once again, Potter refused to be baited. Rather than return the insult, Potter calmly said, "You're right. I don't remember it from school. But you had me stirring Cold Ease when I visited last Tuesday, and you told me that it was done when it turned blue."

Severus opened his mouth for another volley, realized that he had no idea what to say at being caught, and looked down at the potion in his cauldron. Finally, he just muttered, "So I did."

"I'm not complaining. I just wondered why we're doing work that obviously isn't necessary."

Severus ran a hand through hair that he'd once again forgotten to wash this morning. Its slightly oily feel seemed to drive home the illogic of this situation. He was the Greasy Git. Potter was the Boy Who Lived. Why, in Merlin's name, would the darling of the Wizarding World want to spend time with him?

Severus searched his mind for an evasion that would salve his pride, but there wasn't any explanation other than the truth. Knowing he was committing yet another grave, tactical error, which compounded his first mistake of agreeing to this détente insanity, he softly said, "Perhaps detention is the only level on which I know how to deal with you."

"That's bullshit," Harry answered. "We don't have any trouble talking at the Three Broomsticks or out in the forest or even at the teachers' table. It's only when I come to visit you down here that . . . things are different. I was just wondering why that is."

Severus wished Potter would get angry and yell at him. He wished that they were still communicating on the level they had six months ago. He'd understood the ground rules of that interaction. This new civility left him without a point of reference.

Severus considered a number of possible responses, from an outright lie to light evasion, but once again, his mind circled mysteriously back to the truth. Over the last month, he'd given Potter a number of opportunities to attack a vulnerability. Potter had yet to do so.

Taking a deep breath, Severus braced himself, and offered, "I'm sure it's painfully obvious that I'm unaccustomed to entertaining visitors."

A chuckle that was neither cruel nor mocking greeted his confession. In an almost fond sounding tone, Potter said, "Well, if you set them all to chopping up slugs and stinkweed, that's hardly any wonder, is it?"

"You are the first . . . well, the only visitor here since Albus . . . died. And he never needed much to entertain him. Give that man an empty paper sack, and he'd be happy for hours. One could hardly credit he was the greatest wizard of his age," Severus said, thinking that the young man before him held that title now.

"You miss him as much as I do, don't you?" Potter gently questioned.

That being too open a statement of his private feelings to answer, Severus deflected the question, "We were acquainted for more than thirty-five years."

Although Severus saw from the expression in his eyes that his tactic didn't fool Potter for a moment, the younger man didn't seem inclined to call him on it.

Severus was beginning to appreciate that quality in Potter. In all his previous interactions with people, those who'd been foolish enough to attempt to befriend him had tried to pressure him into being more like them – more open and communicative about his emotions. Potter didn't seem to be trying to change him. Potter asked the same type of questions the others had, but seemed content to decipher his answers himself, rather than force Severus to openly admit things that made him uncomfortable.

"You used to play chess with him, didn't you?" At his slow nod, Potter continued, "Well, I'm not in Ron's league, but I'm a decent player, if you want to give it a go some evening."

His guts clenched at the suggestion. Severus looked back down at the furiously bubbling blue potion in the cauldron. Chess was one of the few entertainments he'd ever been able to share with others. It was one of his true pleasures.

He hadn't touched his board since Albus' death. He missed it more than he would have his right hand. Minerva had asked him once several weeks after Albus' funeral if he'd wanted to play a game with her, but the offer had so obviously been motivated by pity that his refusal had been predictably savage. She'd never asked him again. Nor had anyone else in nine years.

That Potter could so casually offer . . . .

His pride wouldn't allow him to reveal how tempted he was. Severus took a deep breath to dispel the tightness in his gut and then turned back to face Potter. Needing to put some distance between himself and his reaction to both the memories and Potter's offer, he looked for a diversion.

Fortunately, Potter had neatly provided him one. A less likely candidate than Ronald Weasley for the mastery of any intellectual pursuit could hardly be imagined.

"Not in Weasley's league?" Severus questioned, letting his tone and raised brow convey his feelings on Ronald Weasley's intelligence. That not being enough, he felt compelled to continue, "The creatures you're chopping have more formidable mental faculties."

Potter laughed, caught himself, and then said, "That's a terrible thing to say, even if it was funny. It might surprise you to know that Ron has been beating the Headmistress regularly at Wizards' Chess for the last ten years."

"There have been several documented cases of idiot savants in Wizards' Chess. I wasn't aware we had one at Hogwarts, however," Severus replied.

Once again, Potter seemed to laugh in spite of himself. "You're awful. You do know that, don't you?"

Liking what amusement did to Potter's striking features, Severus gave a slight bow and said at his most urbane, "I pride myself on it."

"Well, you've met your goal. Come on. I'll put these things away and help you decant that, and then we can head out to the forest."

Although Potter's assistance wasn't necessary, Severus allowed him to help.

"Damn, it's cold," Potter announced in a white puff of steam thirty minutes later, pulling up his black cloak's hood as they made their way across the frozen ground on the outskirts of the castle.

The wind was howling down out of the north, blowing out the last of the day's storm clouds, making their eyes water, and stinging the skin on their faces. Off to their right to the west, the sun was starting its slow slide behind the mountains.

Severus carefully set his foot down in the icy-crisp dead grass on the slope down to Hagrid's hut and pointed out, "We are halfway through November."

"I know," Potter laughed, and Severus couldn't help but note how red his cheeks were becoming from the cold. "It's just bloody freezing."

"This was your idea," Severus reminded him.

"I know. But can't I complain about it? I mean, it was your idea to teach, and you've got tomes of complaints when it comes to what you call the dunderheads."

"Actually, it wasn't my idea; it was Albus'. But you have a point. And, I must say, that is a rather Slytherin reaction, so whinge away."

As he'd expected, that brought his Gryffindor companion up short. Severus turned his gaze towards the cloudy sunset to hide the smile that was twitching the corners of his mouth at the irritated consternation playing over Potter's hopelessly open features.

"I hate it when you do that," Potter said after a minute or two of quiet walking.

Severus paused for effect, and then gave an urbane, "I know," the tone of which set Potter laughing.

It still startled him how willing Potter was to be entertained by his humour. Most of their co-workers were too dim to get his sarcasm and those few who had some faint inkling of what he'd said, generally discounted that he could have possibly intended his words to be taken humorously. It felt like a lifetime since there had been anyone around who got his jokes. That it would be Harry Potter who did so was the ultimate irony.

They walked on in an oddly contented silence, passing into the Forbidden Forest's chill shadows. This time of the year, the bare trees allowed more light to penetrate than in summer, but the light was still diffused because of the height and breadth of the tree trunks.

Severus had to admit that he was pleasantly startled himself when they entered the border of the charmed woods. One moment they were standing in a brutally cold, wind-tortured setting and the next, fragrant summer heat embraced them as they passed through the security wards. The moaning wind was replaced by the mechanical buzz of the cicadas. A robin trilled in a nearby tree while a brown hare munching on some watercress at the edge of the nearby trickling stream raised its head to stare at them, its nose twitching.

"That feels amazing," Potter said, throwing off his hood and removing his cloak as he took a deep, theatrical breath. "I forgot how much I miss the scent of wildflowers."

Severus undid his own winter cloak as the unseasonable warmth washed over him. It was a lush night, warm and sultry in here, the complete antithesis of the wind-battered land they'd left minutes ago.

"I love coming here," Potter said over his shoulder as he moved through the forest to a spot he seemed to particularly fancy. The site was slightly uphill near the stream, filled with ferns, boulders, and the rotting, behemoth skeletons of fallen trees. When he reached it, Potter paused beside some deadfall and leaned back against a fern-laden trunk that smelt of moisture and of life.

Pausing a couple of yards away, Severus distractedly noted that Potter's eyes were a deeper, richer green than that of the fern frond dangling off the deadfall next to his left ear.

"I'd noticed," Snape answered as he followed the path Potter had taken through the understory bushes, small rowan, and oak trees that were crowding the open space on the stream bank. As he passed through the tangled leaves, it occurred to him that a charm against ticks might be in order.

"This is so peaceful. I think we should create a spot like this every year."

"Doubtless such continuous manipulation would have a detrimental effect on the trees," Severus warned.

Severus stopped near Potter, beside a convenient moss-covered boulder. They both laid their cloaks on the grey rock, which was mostly dry.

"Look back the way we came," Potter directed, stepping into Severus' personal space as he touched his arm and pointed off into the distance with his free hand.

Distracted by the proximity and touch, Severus uncomfortably did as requested. At first he didn't understand what Potter was going on about, but then he noticed how the setting sun had turned the clouds on the western horizon a blazing shade of orange interspersed with brushstrokes of magenta and a colour suspiciously close to lavender.

"It's breathtaking," Potter whispered, his hushed tone sending an inexplicable shiver through Severus.

Once again, Severus found himself wondering what the devil Potter was doing knocking about with him. The younger wizard should be out here with another good-looking young whippersnapper, sowing his wild oats in his precious time away from the students. What possible enjoyment could the other man be getting sharing this romantic scene with him, of all people?

His brain seemed to freeze as he recognized just how romantic this setting was. Severus thought back on the last six weeks – to all the times Potter had dragged him out here alone, to the dinners, the going out for drinks, the stopping by for a chat. An utterly preposterous explanation for Potter's attention presented itself. The very idea was insane. But as with all unthinkable thoughts, the moment Severus thought it, it became unshakable.

Was it possible that Harry Potter was courting him?

The concept was laughable, and yet . . . it was a viable, if unlikely, explanation for this unprecedented interaction.

Potter had admitted to being a homosexual. Severus didn't think for one moment that Potter thought him sexually attractive, but he'd lived long enough to know that some men had a morbid interest in bedding someone with his dark past. Potter had never struck him as that type, but he'd been wrong before.

The idea should have repulsed him. Aside from his lightning bolt scar, eye colour, and the cleft in his chin, the Boy Who Lived was all but James Potter's clone in appearance. But if the last six weeks had taught Severus nothing else, he'd learned beyond a doubt that Harry Potter was not his father. Even so, he knew the idea of them together in that regard was a ridiculous notion, but one that wouldn't leave his mind.

Severus reminded himself of all the reasons why he must be mistaken. But for every objection his rational mind suggested, experience provided a counter argument. The foremost obstacle was the fact that Potter was over twenty years younger than him and had been his student. That acknowledgement should have killed the idea right there. However, Minerva had been forty years younger than Albus and Albus' student as well, yet he'd never seen a happier pair. The fact that Potter and he had been at each other's throats for years should have deterred him from thinking of Potter as a potential sexual partner, but the same could be said for most of the Slytherins and Death Eaters he'd slept with in his younger days. There were a million more reasons why it was a very bad idea, the least being its capacity to ruin their working relationship.

Severus had no illusions that this would do anything but destroy him in the long run. Yet, as he stared at Potter's handsome profile, backlit by the brilliant colours of the sunset behind the silhouetted trees, his mouth ran dry at the thought of covering those lush lips with his own. Severus' breathing hitched painfully in his chest when he pictured running the tip of his tongue down the cleft in that strong chin and then sucking his way down the pronounced Adam's apple. It had been so damn long since he'd touched another man sexually that he didn't even care if Potter's motivation were purely prurient curiosity.

He must have made some type of sound when the breath caught in his chest, for Potter turned to look at him. A frown wrinkled the lightning bolt scar on Potter's forehead as he asked, "Are you all right?"

The unmistakable concern in those open features caused a lump to form in the pit of Severus' stomach. His guts were clenched tighter than a fist. His throat and lungs were so fiercely constricted that he could barely draw air, and Potter asked if he were all right. He would have laughed if he could have found the breath.

Instead, Severus gulped with embarrassing loudness.

As if he'd needed any more stimulation, he abruptly became aware of the power coursing through Potter. The man was like a reservoir of magical energy. Potter acted like a carefree young man most of the time. But like Albus, Potter had invented his own camouflage, and sometimes Severus could nearly believe that Potter believed himself to be no more than the simple image he presented to the world. But every time Potter got close to him, there was no denying the raw energy simmering right below the surface, a power strong enough to rule the world, were it his inclination. Dumbledore, Cascius Burke, and Voldemort had possessed this type of magical crackle to their presence, but Severus thought that Potter's exceeded any of theirs.

That magical current pulled Severus like loadstone to magnet. He'd sold his soul to touch this kind of power once, and had been convinced by a wizard of equal force to try to buy it back. There was little Severus wouldn't give to experience that kind of energy, even for a little while. From the time he'd been a child, this kind of power had been his downfall.

"Severus, are you all right?" Potter repeated.

That green gaze held his own, almost mesmerizing him. All Severus could do was watch those lips move while he basked in the energy shooting off Potter like a sleepy cat soaking up the sun's warmth. Such amazing brightness . . . .

The moment felt frozen in time. As on the night when he'd stretched out his left arm and taken the Dark Mark onto his flesh, he sensed that he was at one of those crossroads in time that would forever alter the path of his life. If he took the road more travelled, he could draw back, claim to be fine, and his life would continue along its current course of isolated discontent. But if he took the alternative, the road rarely travelled . . . there would be scandal and shame in his near future, perhaps even ruination. But there would also be a chance to feel alive, if only for the brief instant of copulation.

Just as he had when seventeen, Severus found himself longing for experience. A chance to move beyond his books and potions. A chance to touch and to feel the warmth of another human being. Was it so much to ask?

Perhaps not, but Severus had to weigh whether it was worth his entire life, for that was what acting upon this impulse could cost him.

Severus wavered on the knife-edge for another moment, while Harry Potter stared at him out of those deep and worried eyes.

Then, Severus succumbed to temptation. If nothing else, this would drive Potter permanently away.

He saw those green eyes bulge in astonishment as his mouth descended towards Potter. The absolute shock, the stiffness of the warm, moist lips beneath his own immediately conveyed to him how totally mistaken he had been.

Potter hadn't been courting him. Clearly, the idea had never even occurred to Potter, were the tension that gripped his nicely muscled form anything to go by.

Stars, but the man's closed lips felt and tasted incredible. There was something of spring and perfectly aged wine to the flavour Severus took off the closed mouth, a sweetness that wasn't cloying, counterbalanced by a tanginess that was neither sharp nor bitter. It was the most seductive organic flavour he could remember sampling in his life. He was almost frightened by the hunger those oblivious lips aroused in him.

Even as he continued pressing his mouth against his utterly unresponsive companion's, Severus braced himself for disaster.

He sensed Potter's hands rising behind his back. Briefly, he wondered if Potter would physically throw him off or curse him to put an end to this travesty. Either way, Severus was prepared to accept responsibility for his mistake. Still, the idea of attempting to explain this to Minerva before she fired him made him cringe.

Once again, he wondered what he'd been thinking, how he could have made such a ridiculous mistake. There was as much likelihood of Potter wanting him as there was of Potter wanting Filch.

His muscles tensed as he felt the air stir behind him as those hands moved. Severus closed his eyes, not wanting to see the hatred and disgust transform those soft, sunset-lit features into something ugly. Though his subsequent action was a heinous error, he'd keep the memory of how Harry Potter had looked silhouetted by the orange sunset two minutes ago in his heart until his dying day. True beauty was so rare in his life.

The seconds stretched. Potter's hands neither punched, tugged, nor otherwise inhibited him. Then something very strange and unprecedented happened all at once. Potter appeared to start. A puff of sweet warm breath escaped into his mouth as Potter opened his lips.

When had he last shared breath with someone?

The hands he'd sensed moving in the air behind him settled on his back. As Severus had expected, those calloused fingers dug into his robes, no doubt preparing to toss him off.

Only . . . instead of pulling him away, they simply clutched tight in the woollen fabric. The tension in those clenched lips seemed to crumble all at once. To Severus' complete incredulity, Harry Potter kissed him back – deeply. Potter's mouth opened, his tongue poked out, and within moments, Severus found himself sucking on that rough velvet visitor. Juicy, Harry Potter was so damn wet and juicy. He couldn't get enough of the flavour.

There was nothing restrained in Potter's response. He flung himself enthusiastically into the kiss. Severus literally found himself being devoured orally, and yet, he was still convinced that Potter had never even considered the concept before he'd felt their lips meet. This was sheer Gryffindor impulsiveness, and Severus had never experienced anything quite so intoxicating or exciting.

When they finally came up for oxygen, Severus didn't pause. He gulped in a few lungfuls of air that combined the lush smells of the ferns and balsam trees around them with the equally fragrant bouquet of Harry Potter's personal scent, then licked down the indent in the pronounced cleft in Potter's chin and followed it down. As his lips fastened limpet-like to the skin of Potter's neck and he began to nuzzle his way down the Adam's apple, Potter released a deep groan.

Severus almost smiled around the tender skin in his mouth. He considered the obstructions of the buttons of Potter's black robes and blue shirt below it while his kiss moved closer to them. He briefly debated the proper protocol in removing them. Did one ask or merely plough ahead while in this type of spontaneous clinch?

His past might be filled with many opportunistic couplings, but rarely had they been unplanned; rather, they had been the culmination of sometimes months' worth of subtle strategy. This encounter was unique on all levels. Potter seemed to really want him – at the moment. The younger man had displayed an unprecedented tolerance of his less than admirable personality quirks and had demonstrated something like true concern for his welfare. Potter wasn't getting anything out of this other than the questionable honour of shagging him. For that reason alone, Severus wanted to move carefully, to do nothing to displease Potter.

He knew disillusionment would come eventually, but there was no reason to hasten the process.

Which left Severus in the murky position of not knowing how to proceed. Potter's breathing was even more ragged than his own. Potter was apparently incredibly sensitive, for he'd become aroused hard and fast.

As Severus sucked on that hard Adam's apple, Potter groaned and threw back his head to give him better access to the rest of his throat.

Taking that as silent permission, Severus lifted his mouth from that tasty flesh long enough to softly mutter a spell before diving back in for more. He mightn't be the greatest wizard of their age, but he was more than capable of performing some impromptu wandless magic. The buttons of Potter's blue shirt and the fastenings of his robes promptly undid themselves.

Severus brushed the fabric aside with a stroking hand, staring in open curiosity at the skin revealed. It wasn't as though he'd ever had the opportunity to observe Harry Potter unclothed before. He was struck by the dissimilarities between Harry and his father, whom he had seen at least partially disrobed on occasion during their school days. James' chest had been fairly hirsute. Harry's musculature was broader, thicker, and better developed than his father's, but he was amazingly smooth. A few black hairs decorated the centre of his chest, but that was it. Severus was both relieved and pleased with the differences. That face stirred enough memories. He didn't need . . . .

Forcing his mind away from places he refused to visit, Severus let his lips follow the trail his eyes had blazed down Potter's chest. Potter's nipple proved amazingly responsive when he first licked, then sucked it. Potter's fingers were nearly digging through the robes on Severus' back as he explored the pert pink nub.

Severus could barely credit the sounds Harry was making. The moans and gasping breaths were as arousing as the younger man's tasty flesh.

Potter's needy vocalizations were an unanticipated boon. In the past, Severus had had to work to force sound from his reluctant paramours, but Harry gave him these signs of his pleasure free as a gift. Of course, there was no telling what this gift might cost him tomorrow, but at the moment Severus could only be grateful for it. It made him feel as though his touch were actively desired, instead of merely tolerated, and that was a heady feeling.

Breathing in Potter's clean scent, he kissed his way over to the other nipple and performed the same service on it. The moans were repeated, this time even louder and more frantic.

Severus dropped to his knees on the muddy ground to facilitate moving lower. A part of him considered how they must look, Potter here with his robes and shirt open, the dying sunlight playing over his exposed chest, turning it gold. Severus, himself, kneeling before him, worshipping that burnished flesh.

Severus could feel the rainfall in the wet ground soaking through his trousers, making his knees even more uncomfortable.

He wondered what Potter was thinking, how he was feeling about all this beneath his body's visceral reaction to the sex on offer. Severus also had some concerns as to what Potter would think about him when they were done.

An old poof of a wizard on his knees before a beautiful younger man was too clichéd for words. The potential for humiliation afterwards, and even now, was so terrifying that Severus knew if he paused to actually ponder the consequences, he'd freeze.

He must have faltered to some extent at the very idea, for Potter's right hand, which had been displaced from clutching the back of his robes, moved into his line of sight.

Severus stayed perfectly still as it moved towards his face. In some of the encounters of his younger days, the gaping lack of subtlety to this seduction he'd initiated might have inspired his companion to raise his face to laugh at his crudity or even spit on him. Slytherins and Death Eaters both liked to flaunt their power, and there was no greater opportunity to wound than in a sexual encounter.

With so many of Severus' past lovers, it was all in how the game was played. Cruelty was usually a given. Style, technique, and power were all that counted in those circles. Genetics had not graced him with the raw materials to excel here. Severus had always known that there was never any chance of his winning games of the flesh. He had to content himself with getting as much of what he wanted without sacrificing his pride entirely. Had he been willing to go that extra level, and give up his self-respect as well, he would have been granted more of what he needed, for nothing tickled a certain kind of Slytherin's ego so much as a willing slave, but there were limits to even his desperation. Still, for the open acceptance with which Harry seemed to be gifting him, Severus might have given even his pride for this.

But it appeared he'd waited too long. Potter must surely be about to change his mind.

The hand passed his cheek to cup his chin and slowly lift his face upwards. There was just enough light left to see Potter's face. Those eyes, bottomless now that their colour had been lost to the evening shadows, seemed to read straight through him.

Potter's expression was . . . strange. There was lust there, and breathy desire, but at the moment, the overwhelming emotion appeared to be tenderness.

Had anyone ever looked at him with that kind of feeling?

The thunderstruck quality to Potter's attitude, as his fingers settled in Severus' unwashed hair to guide his face carefully forward until his cheek was pressed flat against Potter's stomach and Severus could hear the intimate gurgle of the man's intestines working, stunned him. He was shaking with more than need as Potter just held his face there.

Somehow, Severus drew strength from the contact. He mightn't know how to deal with it, but he could learn. By all that was sacred, he could learn.

His sigh was torn from someplace deep inside him. Most of his fears of immediate disaster were released with that shaky breath.

When he felt more himself, Severus kissed the tight-muscled stomach beneath his cheek and turned back to his earlier pursuit. His nose kept squashing inelegantly into Potter's stomach, but the other man didn't seem to mind his lack of grace.

The skin covering Potter's defined abdominal muscles was warm as he sucked his way down it. He paused to explore the secrets of the concave navel to some very pleasing vocal accompaniment. As he finished there, his chin banged into the next and most formidable barrier – the waistband of Potter's trousers.

There hadn't been any going back since he'd pressed his mouth to Potter's, but somehow, opening those trousers entailed a finality that was staggering. Once he did this, nothing would ever be the same between them again, not ever. The dynamics would change. He'd step firmly into that role of pathetic, aging man desperate to please a younger lover who couldn't possibly need or want him. Severus knew what he was buying into here.

Yet, as he saw Potter bite his full lower lip, and interpreted the other man's wince at his hesitation for the barely masked frustration it was, Severus knew he'd be being as cruel as some of his former housemates if he stopped now. He'd already accepted his doom when he'd initiated that kiss. He would have the courage to follow through now.

So, he reached out to unbutton the black trousers, and then carefully lowered the zipper over the impressive, growing bulge. Potter was wearing crisp white Muggle briefs under his trousers. Severus took hold of the waistband of both trousers and briefs to slowly lower them down Potter's sturdy thighs, past his knees.

Looking back up, the sight of that bare groin stopped him cold. His breath hitched painfully in his chest.

It had been so long since he'd been close to another man, and even then, never had he been graced with a companion of Potter's beauty. Harry was large there, red with need, and uncut. The hair at the base of that throbbing cock was a neat black thatch, the complete antithesis of the shaggy disorder that covered Potter's head.

Even from nearly a foot away, Severus could smell the clean, salty aroma of the other man's arousal. He breathed it deep into his lungs and made it part of him, something to remember and dwell on when Potter came to his senses later.

This beauty being his to touch for the moment, Severus reached out to gather the moist shaft into his hand. He paused to simply contemplate the contrast of that blood filled cock with his yellow-stained fingers wrapped around it. He tried not to acknowledge the wrongness of his own despoiled flesh corrupting that purity, but it was hard to shake the knowledge that he shouldn't be doing this. This . . . Potter . . . wasn't intended for such as he.

He could hear Potter's hoarse, rapid breathing above him, could feel Potter watching him with near palpable need. All hesitation left him, his self-preservation instincts washed away by that old seducer. Power.

In another time, another place, Severus would have glanced up, met the other man's gaze and made Potter beg for it. But . . . he wasn't going to play those kinds of games with Potter. Potter was accepting this from him openly with good will. There had been no compulsion involved, at least no more than in any chance sexual encounter. No blackmail of the emotional or traditional variety. No payment of debt. Potter could have said no at any time, but hadn't.

It wasn't in his nature to be kind or merciful, and yet . . . Severus would not disgrace this man; he would not belittle him. For all the superficial resemblance he bore his sire, this wasn't James.

Severus ran his thumb along the sleek, loose foreskin, making Potter gasp and jerk unsteadily. He could see the blood-red tip of Potter's glistening glans peeking out of its paler protective fold of skin. With all the care he'd use when tending a delicate potion, Severus carefully peeled back the foreskin, lowering his head to lick the beaded moisture off that cock tip as it emerged from its concealment like a serpent sloughing off its skin.

Potter cried out at that. His hands shot forward to brace themselves on Severus' shoulders at whatever sensations played through him.

Potter was a rare elixir, restorative and bracing as his flavour rushed through his mouth. Severus used his tongue to trace a delicate pattern across the head of his companion's cock, eliciting an open whimper that a Slytherin would have died before voicing. Potter gave that sound to him as if it were nothing, as though it were his due.

It made Severus feel like a king, instead of the supplicant he could so easily have been in this situation.

Severus' heart was pounding at an insane pace. His erection was a sharp, constant pain that was accentuated by every stroke he gave to Potter's flesh, every suck. It had been so long that he just wanted to fling himself onto Harry Potter and rut like some wild beast in heat. Only . . . he knew his sexual partners always wanted limited contact with him. Over the years, he'd trained himself to ignore his own needs and concentrate on his partner. And it wasn't as if fellating Harry Potter were an ordeal. He'd never tasted anyone this enticing.

Since Potter clearly enjoyed being sucked, Severus kept at it, making sure he pleasured that sensitive spot on the underside of the cock, until he heard a catch enter Potter's already laboured breathing that told him that something more was required.

Severus didn't know if he were still skilled at this. Potter had been in his nappies the last time he'd done this with any regularity. Although he was fairly certain that Potter wouldn't disparage him if his technique were somewhat lacking, or even if he failed miserably, he was Slytherin enough to want to impress, even if his partner were a Gryffindor who'd been willing to succumb to a seduction that was so crudely executed that a fellow Slytherin would have laughed in his face.

Severus knew how rusty he was, even if Potter seemed oblivious to it. He never thought he'd be grateful for that particular trait in this man.

The instant he took Potter's cock into his mouth and gave a tentative suck, the other man groaned and wobbled.

Severus guided Potter's hips back until his robe-draped bum was resting against the black wetness of the deadfall that Potter had been leaning against earlier. The support took some of the pressure off Potter's wobbly knees. When Severus was convinced that the younger man wouldn't topple over and emasculate himself in the process, he recommenced sucking.

The bulky cock felt enormous. As its musky taste flooded his senses, it was all Severus could do to recall what they were supposed to be doing. He just wanted to kneel here and sample that warm taste for the remainder of the night, or perhaps even his life. It was that good.

The cynic inside him pointed out that after twenty years, even an obnoxious Gryffindor like Potter would seem like nirvana to him, but he'd always been cursed with a clear memory and he knew the difference. He remembered how he'd always enjoyed this particular act – which was a good thing, considering how often in his weak-willed youth he'd found himself on his knees like this before a more powerful wizard – but as pleasing as fellatio had always been, Severus couldn't recall ever wanting to simply suck on another man's penis all night as though it were one of Honeydukes' all day lollipops.

This particular lollipop was attempting to choke him at the moment, however.

After a few tries, Severus remembered the knack of getting his throat to open right and of timing his breathing around the suffocating mass' movements. Potter abandoned his lean on the deadfall to take up a stronger stance from which he was better able to thrust.

As Severus started to deep throat Potter, Potter's hands jumped up to his dirty hair. He expected his actions to be painfully directed thereafter, but instead of tugging the hair, Potter merely clenched the lank locks between his fingers and hung on as they fell into a rhythm.

Severus' face was veiled in the open folds of Potter's robe as Potter thrust forward, then cool air would touch him and there would be a bit more evening light as Potter pulled out of his mouth, only to plunge him into darkness again on his return.

The taste, the smell, the primal sexual energy pulsing off Potter were nearly too much for him. Every time Potter thrust into him, his nose was pushed deep into that crisp, tickly pubic hair. He'd catch a frantic breath on his partner's withdrawal, then open wide to welcome him back again.

Something wild called to him in Potter, an emotion so free, and easy, and so irresistibly pure that Severus found himself pushing to see more of this bright passion. Remarkably, that blinding fire called forth something from within himself. Severus had no such brightness to offer in return, but from the twisted shadows of his soul, a long forgotten spark stirred and reached for Potter's light. And all the while, he pushed Potter to barrel faster and faster into his mouth.

Fellatio was an art form and there were levels to it. A man could take only the tip in his mouth, or let some of the cock slide back into his throat on the in and out glide, or take it all and deep throat, or else move beyond that and allow his partner to fuck his mouth.

Severus had rarely done the latter. With most of his kind, it was too dangerous. But tonight, he found himself encouraging Potter to let go, to free that burning light that he could feel pulsing right beneath the surface.

As Potter's hips thrust forward past his swollen lips to bury his cock deep in his throat, Severus slipped his hands under the robe and around Potter's hips to lay his palms on the luscious curves of Potter's backside. The skin was soft as the moss on the deadfall behind them.

Potter froze at the initial squeeze Severus gave to his bum. A glance at Potter's face showed Severus that this was not a caress Potter enjoyed, but amazingly, there was no protest. Rather than ruin the moment, Severus gave the tense buttocks beneath his hands a light pat, and then rested his hands on Potter's flanks to guide his thrusts into his mouth.

This fierce passion was like stirring a volatile or poisonous brew. Severus knew that every time he forcibly pulled Potter faster into his mouth, that he ran the risk of Potter losing control and choking or injuring him, and that danger wasn't even close to what might befall him if his companion lost control on a magical level, but . . . though Harry moved wild and free, Severus sensed that there was always a certain restraint in how far he allowed himself to let loose. Though that flame he sensed lurking in Potter burned high and bright, igniting Severus' every nerve, it was a controlled hearth flame rather than killing brushfire. Instead of destroying him, it warmed him, seeping through skin and bone, searching out what was hiding in his shadows and offering it light.

All too soon, the blaze peaked. With a final, shattering thrust, Potter rammed deep into his throat and then stilled.

Liquid heat squirted the back of his very sore throat, stinging it. Severus might have recalled how to breathe around a shaft, but he'd apparently forgotten how to swallow around it.

Potter's semen backed up into his mouth. He raised his head up a little to attempt to swallow and was relieved that he was free to do so. Those hands in his hair made no attempt to bind him in place.

Severus sampled the bitter mucousy substance. It was like a mouthful of solidifying seawater, briny, with a bite to it, the essence of, if not life itself, at least of Harry Potter. That was potent enough.

Taking it all in, Severus adjusted to the harsh flavour while his own heart pounded out a wild staccato beat of raw need and his body shook. His erection was trying to force its way out of the front of his trousers. The material felt like an iron vice against his throbbing penis. The pain was fully as intense as any Unforgivable he'd endured.

Potter's cock convulsed two more times, spurting yet more of the thick seed into his mouth and then stilled.

His breaths rasping with embarrassing loudness in the sudden quiet, Severus tried to force a similar stillness onto his trembling form as he awaited Potter's reaction.

The penis between his sore lips deflated. With a sigh, Harry stepped back and Severus immediately freed him from the clasp of his bruised mouth.

Abruptly conscious of the fact that he was on his knees in front of a man he'd all but jumped, with an erection the size of one of Hagrid's pressing against his trouser zipper, Severus knelt there and tried not to either think or breathe too loudly. He was too proud to close his eyes, and too mortified to raise them.

So he stared at the saliva slick penis in front of him, which was less than half the size it had been when he had first made its acquaintance fifteen minutes ago. It didn't help his equilibrium when he realized that it was his spit coating that cock and that, from the feel of them, his lips had to be swollen to three times their normal size. Severus couldn't imagine what his companion was thinking about him or what Potter would say now that the blood heat had been sated. As for any explanations that might be demanded of him, he had no idea how to explain the madness that had come upon him.

Perhaps Potter needn't say anything at all. This situation was humiliating enough.

He heard Potter take a couple of deep breaths. Tensing, Severus waited.

He was fairly certain there would be no physical attack for what he'd done, though Severus couldn't be certain about either a magical or verbal response. Maybe Potter had already cursed him and that was why he was frozen here on his knees unable to swallow.

His already tensed body turned to proverbial stone as Potter stepped away to pick up his cloak from the nearby boulder.

Leaving. It was inevitable, and Severus knew he'd gotten off easy, but he would have preferred almost any other reaction. Even an attack would tell him how he was to proceed from here, but this utterly silent abandonment was completely unnerving. Would Potter curse him, turn him to salt, or transfigure him into a statue to immortalize his monumental stupidity? Any of the three were merited for his temerity.

To his bewilderment, rather than picking up his trousers from where they were pooled around his ankles and apparating away, Potter stopped moving pretty much where he'd been standing a few short moments ago when they'd been . . . occupied. The younger man stood there with his pants still tangled at his feet in the wet ferns and his robe and shirt hanging open. Severus could feel Potter staring down at him. And still, he couldn't look up to meet those eyes.

The breath caught in his chest as Potter's hand came into his line of sight.

Harry's hand wasn't clenched in a fist, nor were his muscles tensed. There was no hint of violence implied. The calloused fingers touched Severus' cheek as gently as they had before, and then tilted his head up.

Meeting that gaze was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, but Severus forced himself to go through with it. After the transgression he'd just committed, Potter deserved the opportunity for some payback.

Potter's expression was unreadable, but not openly angry. If anything, he looked confused.

Their gazes locked and they seemed to study each other for a time. The deepening shadows of the forest made it too difficult to see any emotion. Potter's eyes looked as black as his own.

The moment stretched, and then Potter dropped to his knees in front of him. Before Severus could judge what was happening, strong arms surrounded him and brought him in for a kiss, a kiss that delved deep and sucked what little breath he had right out of his lungs. Potter was holding his cloak in his right hand and one of its clasps dug into his back in the embrace, but Severus didn't care. His relief was too intense, his astonishment too complete, that he didn't know if he'd be able to react to anything at this point. Of all the responses he'd anticipated to what they'd just done, this was not among them. The best he'd hoped for was silent contempt.

Of course, that could still follow. Severus was dealing with an impulsive Gryffindor. Often thought did not catch up with people of Potter's house until long after an event transpired.

While his pessimistic mind continued supplying disaster scenarios, each more horrifying than the previous, Potter continued to kiss him. Every self-preservation instinct he possessed was screaming that this could not end well. Eventually, Potter's seductive taste and the gentleness of the contact pulled his mind from his fretting, in spite of his better sense.

When they parted for air, Severus thought he'd erected enough barriers to dare Potter's gaze.

Potter gave him a shy smile that clearly conveyed the fact that the younger man hadn't a clue as to how to treat him at the moment.

Hopeless Gryffindor. A Slytherin would have known how to scorn him for his stupidity and impudence. While Severus was contemplating this fact, Potter moved his right hand from behind Severus' back and shook out the cloak, spreading it out on the fairly level, wet ground beside them.

When Severus shot an enquiring glance Potter's way, Potter reached out and gripped his shoulders. With another of those bashful smiles, he announced, "Your turn now," and pushed Severus over onto the cloak.


Though his topple from his knees to the black woollen cloak was inelegant, Severus wasn't injured in the fall.

Severus could feel the wetness from the ground seeping through the cloak, his robe, waistcoat, and shirt, but as Potter followed him down into another kiss, that awareness faded quickly.

It was strange. Sometimes, it seemed as though he'd spent his entire life being physically cold and uncomfortable. Of course, when you lived in a damp dungeon for more than thirty-five years, such discomfort was only inevitable, but Severus had never gotten used to it. No matter how many layers he wore, he never seemed warm enough. But as Potter's heat covered his entire front, for the first time in memory he felt comfortable. More than comfortable, the feeling of Potter's hard muscled length settling carefully on top of him was an utter delight. His shocked hands lowered to rest without thought on the broad, robe-covered back above him as he reeled from the alien physical sensations swamping him.

Potter was reciprocating? Severus hadn't expected this. It had been enough to be allowed to do what he'd done for Potter, to simply touch someone and feel the life pulse under warm skin.

The lips kissing him seemed to be trying to tell him with their care that everything would be all right, but Severus' heart was pounding faster by the second as his body tensed while he tried to understand Potter's motivation. He could bear contempt, even hatred. He couldn't take pity.

Severus knew what he was. No one touched him voluntarily, not for the sake of his enjoyment, and certainly not with this melting tenderness.

Potter released his mouth to leave a trail of kisses up his jaw, before nosing through the hair at his temple and licking behind his ear.

Severus shivered at the exquisite sensations, barely catching the gasp that tried to escape his lips. Even as he trembled in reaction, he was intensely aware of the state of his unwashed hair. Cleansing spells worked only on skin. His scalp was always clean, but the hair growing from it had to wait until he remembered to bathe . . . and he couldn't even recall the last time he'd remembered. Was it last week or the week before?

Ashamed, Severus wished . . . well, there were many things he wished, all of them unobtainable.

However, his pride was obtainable. As Potter started to nuzzle his neck, Severus said, "Potter, you needn't trouble yourself. What we did before was sufficient."

There. That had almost come out in a normal tone.

Potter lifted his head to look down on him in the shadows.

Severus wondered what the other man could see.

"Don't you like this?" The soft enquiry was laced with confusion. "It feels like you do."

"That isn't the point."

"Then what is the point?" Potter asked, exasperation flavouring the words.

"You don't have to -"

"I like what we're doing," Potter insisted.

Potter liked touching him? Dismissing that for the nonsense it was, Severus snapped, "Don't lie to me."

"What?" Potter still had feigned innocence down pat. Snape almost believed the confused sounding question.

"We both know that's blatantly impossible," Severus answered, wishing that he wasn't enjoying the feel of that well-muscled body resting carefully on top of him quite so much. It was hard to maintain the proper degree of emotional distance when one was basking in a cuddle.

"Why is it impossible?" Potter asked; his exasperation no longer underplayed.

"Are you going to make me say it?" Severus demanded. Seeing how that brow wrinkled in genuine confusion, he realized that he was going to have to spell it out for the cretin. "You are the Boy Who Lived, the saviour of the Wizarding World. I'm the Greasy Git who ummm -"

The rest was cut off by Potter's palm, descending over his swollen lips.

"Don't." To his consternation, Potter's gaze seemed to search his face. Severus could almost feel Potter thinking. The pressure of the palm lessened and Potter's forefinger began to absently stroke the skin beside his nose, making him shiver. "Let me do this for you . . . please?"

The palm lifted from his mouth.

Wetting his abused lips, Severus considered the request, and belatedly recognized that Potter's gaze was following the movement of his tongue tip, watching it as though he were hypnotized by its progress. It might have been twenty years since he'd been in this kind of situation, but his instincts told him that Potter was legitimately aroused. Back then, Severus would have used that interest as a weapon. Now he was simply bewildered by it, confused, and more than a little afraid, because he knew Potter wasn't playing a power game with him. Yet, he also knew that no one ever slept with him for the experience itself. There was always an ulterior motive, but for the life of him, he couldn't imagine what it could be in this situation.

His instincts urged him to run, to get clear of this dangerous trap. Only, it felt too good to deny.

Had he ever lain in the forest on a sultry summer night with a handsome young man in his arms desiring to make love to him? There had never been so much as a whiff of romance to a single one of his sexual encounters. Severus knew that Potter couldn't really want to be here, doing these things with him, but the same blasted hope that had convinced him that it might be possible to make up for the mistakes of his youth was urging him to surrender to this tempting tenderness, to sample something pure and wholesome, if only once in his miserable life.

Potter was offering here. What was the sense in continuing to deny something he very much wanted?

But he had to be sure this wasn't about pity. Mastering his suspicions and insecurities, Severus tried to ignore the intimacy of their entwined bodies as he snapped out a single word, "Why?"

Potter held his stare as he gazed down at him. His voice a little thick, he answered, "Because I want to."

If he'd whiffed even a hint of pity at this moment, Severus would have turned Potter to ash. But there was only a lusty eagerness on Potter's open face; as though he truly believed that this was as much for himself as for Severus.

It was . . . shocking. Men had been aroused by the uses they'd put him to in the past, but this was the first time anyone had ever wanted to touch him simply to touch him. Even if Potter wanted to bugger him and nail him to the ground, he'd probably allow it, if only for the novelty of truly being desired.

Allow it? Who was he trying to fool? If he thought there was a chance of succeeding, he'd pay Potter to do it.

Needing to convince himself of the reality of the situation, Severus reached up with his right hand to softly stroke Potter's high cheekbone. The smooth, unlined skin felt good enough to be a dream, but his mind never provided him with such pleasant night visions, so he knew it must be real.

But Potter didn't wince or tense. They were close enough that he would have caught either response. In no way did Potter behave as though his touch were abhorrent to him.

Potter blinked and quietly asked, "Is that a yes?"

Severus' answering nod came without conscious thought. Then Potter leaned in to kiss him again, and all hope of coherency fled.

Potter spent a long time worshipping his mouth, as though kissing him were some rare pleasure to be savoured. Only when it seemed they would both recognize each other by taste, did Potter release Severus' swollen lips to move southward.

Severus had always been sensitive around his neck and ears. What Potter did there in the next ten minutes with his tongue, nibbling teeth, and breath utterly destroyed him. Severus was trembling and gasping at the sensations that wracked his body. It was all he could do to hold back a whimper.

Severus had no conscious awareness of Potter either manually or magically opening the many buttons of his black jacket and white shirt. All he knew was that Potter slid off him to the side for better mobility and access. Then that talented mouth was suddenly attached to his left nipple. The resulting sensations wreaked havoc on his controls, sending tendrils of pleasure tingling straight down to his groin.

Severus didn't want to appear weak or needy. He wanted to maintain some semblance of dignity, yet he couldn't hold back his cry as his body shook under Potter's circling tongue. He was ashamed of the small, plaintive sound that emerged from his throat, but Potter just skimmed a calming hand down the outside of his ribs as if it were perfectly all right, as though that sign of his need didn't diminish him in the other man's eyes.

That flat palm kept moving as Potter lapped at his nipple. Severus' entire frame jolted off the ground as if hit with Cruciatus when the roving hand brushed over the front of his trousers in a light caress. Almost two decades had passed since any hand other than his own had had contact with that flesh.

Every nerve in Severus' body lurched with excitement at the almost accidental touch. This time he couldn't hold back the whimper.

His body overreacted to the stimulation. Severus could feel a familiar tightening spreading through him, that proverbial breath that every cell seemed to draw before exploding in climax.

Horrified, Severus realized that he was a mere touch away from disgracing himself by creaming the inside of his trousers like a randy third year.

"Please . . . . " Severus hoarsely groaned, digging his fingers deep into Potter's unruly, soft black hair. "I . . . ."

He . . . what? What could he possibly say to avoid humiliation?

Potter lifted his head to meet his eyes. Through a red daze of throbbing need, Severus watched puzzlement give way to something like surprised understanding.

Severus thought that he'd die of mortification as Potter's gaze moved to the bulge in the front of his trousers.

Remarkably, there wasn't a trace of either smugness or mockery in his attitude as Potter gently asked, "Too close?" when he returned his gaze to Severus' face.

No lauding of his victory, no arrogance at all, merely that simple question.

Feeling his cheeks flame, Severus gave a tight, affirmative nod. At this point, he didn't even know if he'd be able to hold out while his trousers were unfastened. Any contact at all would send him flying into oblivion. He drew in another laboured breath, so stressed with the need to come that he wasn't certain that even the prospect of embarrassing himself would be a bad thing. This sensation had stopped being pleasure some time right before Potter had achieved orgasm. Though Potter's caresses were a kind boon, they were sheer torture right now.

Belatedly, Severus recognized that he should have retreated immediately after his companion's climax and dealt with this problem himself as he'd done any number of times in his past.

Dying of embarrassment, he watched Potter's eyes shift towards his groin again. Potter's lips never moved, nor did he retrieve his wand. Yet, Severus saw and felt the button at the front of his trousers open, and then the zipper carefully slid itself down over the bulge of pulsing flesh that was attempting to poke its way through it.

Severus didn't know if his gasp were caused by the physical sense of relief that crashed through his constricted flesh or the casual display of a magic and will so powerful that they required only a thought to manifest. All he knew was that when his trousers and underpants slid off his erection, he was free and his flesh sang with a relief so intense it was close to climax itself. His entire body seemed to breathe a sigh.

Severus quivered as Potter's square, capable hand reached for his erection, doing everything in his power not to come at that first touch. To his eternal gratitude, Potter didn't play the moment out or make a fuss over the issue. He simply wrapped those calloused fingers around his shaft in a matter-of-fact manner.

Severus hissed in a breath between his teeth as he watched that shaggy head lower over his groin. He wouldn't have asked for that. Potter's hand would have been more than enough.

Liquid heat surrounded the head of his penis. The sensation was wet, hot, and wonderful. Potter's tongue sliding under his cock was without a doubt the most intense, utterly visceral contact he'd ever experienced.

His mind reeled under the sensations of simply being within Potter's mouth. When the other man gave the first, tentative suck on his shaft, it destroyed Severus. All that pent up arousal peaked in a fiery blaze. With a wrenching groan, he came, straight into Potter's mouth, like a clumsy third year jumping the gun the first time another student felt him up. His lack of control was mortifying, but he couldn't hold it back.

Clearly, the younger man was more in practice than he was. Potter didn't seem to have any difficulty breathing around him as he exploded.

Instead of spitting him out as most of his other paramours had done years ago, Potter's mouth lowered over him and he sucked stronger, swallowing him down. That only made him come harder and longer. Severus felt as though he pumped a river of semen into that willing mouth. Potter took it all without protest, keeping up that amazing sucking until Severus was limp and empty. Only then did Potter raise his head.

His heart still pounding a wild beat in his ears, Severus dragged in a ragged breath and waited for the pleasure-blasted portions of his mind to reassemble. Experience warned him that he should be on his guard now, that at the very least there ought to be some awkwardness between them, but as Potter sat back on the cloak with Potter's bare knee touching Severus' right elbow, Severus couldn't take his attention from the absolute joy he'd experienced long enough to worry about such things.

He hadn't known ecstasy like that existed. Potter had lavished so many touches on him, had been so gentle. What they'd done here tonight threw Severus' entire world off –kilter.

For so many years, he'd considered this an impossibility, so far outside the realms of chance that he never even allowed himself to fantasize about being touched by anyone anymore. Severus knew what his students and co-workers thought of him. Those that knew him despised him for what he was; those that didn't know him hated him for what he'd been. More damning than either was his own appraisal of himself, his certain knowledge of his inadequacies in this area. He'd never been either attractive or charming. He'd learned to do without. He'd even convinced himself that he didn't even need this type of intimate contact. After decades of isolation, he'd believed his body all but dead on a sexual level.

To find that he was so totally mistaken after all these years was earthshaking. His flesh wasn't dead. To the contrary, not even as a young man had he quivered with such vitality and delight.

When Potter's left hand reached down to stroke his hair in an almost absent caress, Severus allowed it. The sensation of his hair feathering down around his neck and temples was as exquisite as ever.

They didn't speak for a very long time. Severus just lay there on the cloak with Potter petting his unwashed hair. He stared up into that handsome face, while Potter gazed down at him, thinking Merlin knew what. Neither of them tried to break the silence. It was almost as though they both instinctively understood that what they were sharing at the moment wouldn't stand the test of words.

Only when the first chilly drops splattered on his naked stomach, did Severus move to sit up.

"It's starting to rain again," Potter followed his habit of stating the obvious yet again.

Severus' normal response to that announcement would have been a scathing comment on that annoying habit of Potter's. He could sense the other man tensing, drawing back emotionally as Potter no doubt braced himself for just such an attack.

Abruptly conscious of the fact that however he responded now would set the tone for all future interaction, Severus choked down the impulse to belittle and reluctantly stated, "Yes. We should probably return to the castle."

Severus could almost feel Potter's surprise as he gave a subdued, "Yes, you're right."

They stumbled awkwardly to their feet. Not looking at each other, they set their clothing to rights.

Of course, Severus' clothes took longer to rearrange than Potter's. It took only moments for his companion to redo his shirt buttons and trousers.

The buttons of Severus' jacket took a long time to fasten, especially since his fingers seemed to have acquired something of a shake. His nervousness was no doubt a result of the eyes he could feel watching him.

Severus kept waiting for the inevitable demand for an explanation or a warning that this would never happen again, but Potter remained nerve-rackingly silent.

When Severus was done with the last button, the rain was falling in earnest and Potter handed him his cloak without a word.

With a nod of acknowledgement, Severus turned towards the stream and the trail back to Hogwarts. He'd never been so physically aware of his body and his surroundings in his life. He could feel each raindrop splatter on his face. The scent rising from the rich earth and the plants around him was a heady perfume. And, most disturbing of all, he could nearly feel the body heat pouring off Potter as he walked beside him. Severus was certain that if he just turned his nose in the other man's direction, that he'd be able to scent him on the air like a hunting hound tracking its prey.

Severus realized that he'd never be able to stand close to Potter again without his scent reminding him of this night. Somehow, he didn't think that was a good development.

Still, the lack of post-coital antipathy was novel. Of course, all of that might set in later when Potter's dim, Gryffindor brain caught up with what his body had been up to, but at the moment, Severus was grateful for the illusion, fleeting though it might be. He had no delusion that it would last, but he was grateful that it was here now, in what could have been the most painful moments.

Severus thought that he'd be able to handle the consequences of his action when he'd had a few hours to regroup his defences. But right now when he was weak and vulnerable, it was good to pretend.

The mud and stones were slippery underfoot. Frogs were croaking on the nearby stream bank. Their odd symphony played against the now steady patter of rain. Severus stumbled through the dark in what he hoped was the right direction, avoiding the branches and thorns that ripped at his exposed face as best he could. He continued on like that until the blue light of Potter's wand tip lit the forest in front of them.

"It's a little dark," Potter said with a shrug as Severus looked his way.

It had never even occurred to him to make light. Not liking what that said about his mental state, Severus quickly moved to remedy the situation.

Pulling his own wand out, Severus whispered "Lumos" and was immediately able to traverse the woods easier. Instinctively, he tensed, awaiting some comment on his demonstrated lack of common sense, but none came. Potter simply walked beside him through the increasingly soggy foliage as though nothing untoward had occurred.

When they reached the fringe of the eco-wards, the rain changed to snow. From one step to the next, they went from muddy soil to a dusting of snow underfoot. The brutal wind ripped at them, seeming even more vicious after their summer interlude. They both pulled up their cloak hoods and slogged miserably out of the snowy forest.

The open, hilly ground between the woods' edge and the castle was even worse. The snow was blowing horizontally there, blinding them as it battered their faces in stinging pelts as they made their way up the steep, slippery hill between Hagrid's hut and the castle proper. Battling the elements required so much energy that neither of them spoke all the way back to the school.

What seemed like forever later, they staggered through the side door into the drafty chill of the castle's main stairway and shook off the snow. As the warmer temperatures assaulted their windblown skin, Severus realized that neither of them had had the presence of mind to perform a simple warming charm that any fourth year could have managed.

It was strange, but as he looked into Potter's red-cheeked face, Severus could almost feel the other man coming to the same realization.

Potter gave him a totally engaging, self-deprecating smile and said, "I guess we had other things on our minds."

Having his supposition confirmed in no way eased his nervous tension. Severus gave a tight nod. Needing to escape before this situation descended into the inevitable acrimony, he softly said, "It's very late."

"Yes, well, I guess we should say goodnight, then," somehow Potter made it sound like a question.

Refusing to respond to the hurt confusion that was suffusing Potter's all too open face, Severus repossessed his dignity. Giving a curt "Good night," he turned with a theatrical billow of his cloak and stalked quickly over to the dungeon stairs.

He could feel Potter's gaze digging into his back as he made his escape.


He'd had sex with Severus Snape. Not just sex, but spectacular sex, with the person he would have voted to be the most unappealing sexual partner in this land or any other, after Lord Voldemort. That was, if he'd been asked prior to last night. Now . . . now Harry's mind and heart were in an uproar, at war with each other over what he'd done.

He just couldn't get past the fact that he'd done it with Severus Snape – and liked it, a lot.

Dressed in old blue jeans and a heavy black jumper against the castle's chill, Harry sat quill in hand at his desk in his sitting room, purportedly marking papers. More often than not, he found himself staring into the hearth fire as the evening gave way to night outside his windows.

It had been a good Sunday, Ron's first full day off since Carl Westfield had been attacked. Harry had enjoyed spending time with him and playing catch up, even if he hadn't been able to share the latest bizarre development in a lifetime of bizarre developments with his closest friend. Although he really needed someone to talk to about this, he knew Ron wouldn't understand. Hermione probably wouldn't either, although she'd be less judgemental about what he'd done than Ron. Hell, he didn't understand it himself.

He'd had sex with Severus Snape.

That was what every thought he'd had since he'd stepped into his rooms last night returned to. If he could only figure out how it had happened or why it had happened, he might have been okay with it. But he hadn't a clue as to how he'd found himself kissing Severus in the forest. One minute they'd been standing side by side with everything normal, and the next, Severus' arms had been around him and their mouths cemented together.

Even now, there was a part of Harry that gave an instinctive, gut-wrenching yuck of revulsion at the thought of shagging the misanthropic Potions master of his youth. The man was . . . .

Not at all what he'd thought, that was obvious. Unfortunately, it was the only thing that was – obvious.

Harry ran his free hand through his messy hair, and tried to view this rationally. But every time he allowed himself to think about what they'd done, he would come back to the image of Snape going down on him. His body would remember how good that felt, and he'd go instantly hard again. Like now.

Harry sighed and put down the quill. This was getting him nowhere.

There was nothing for it. He was going to have to talk to Severus, before he went mad.

Talking to Snape was still so new a concept that it took some getting used to. These last six weeks Harry had been pleased by their budding friendship. The man he'd found behind Snape's cold and intimidating front was witty, intelligent, and surprisingly fun. But for all the time they'd spent together, he'd never imagined it going . . . where they'd gone last night.

It might have helped if he knew how Severus was feeling about all this. Severus had been understandably remote last night after . . . well, after they'd pulled their clothes together. But Harry couldn't blame him. He hadn't known what to say either, and, for all his fancy vocabulary, Severus had never been all that good at communicating, not about the things that really mattered.

The only thing Harry knew for sure was that Severus didn't seem to be angry with him. To the contrary, throughout most of the events of last night, the other man had behaved as if he were expecting the situation to blow up in his face at any moment. Figuratively speaking, that was. It was pretty clear Severus hadn't minded the other kind of blowing.

Damn, he had to stop thinking like that.

So, if Severus weren't angry with him, then how was he feeling? Harry thought back to the few times he'd seen the man today, three times at meals. He'd feared that Severus would retreat to his dungeons as he'd done after the Prophet article in early October, but Severus had surprised him by showing up in the Great Hall, business as usual.

Severus had given a guarded reply to his morning greeting when Harry had entered with Ron and Hermione. He'd wanted to sit down beside the man, but had ended up following his old friends to their usual seats down the table, rather than making an issue of moving to sit closer to his . . . well, to whatever it was Severus was to him now. The explanations to Ron and Hermione would have been awkward, to say the least. He knew that Severus would hate that kind of scene, so he'd just carried on as though everything were normal.

Normal, right. As if it was normal for him to get a hard-on watching Severus Snape eat his toast.

At least Severus hadn't acted as though last night were a giant mistake or regret. Business as usual had to be better than hiding out in the dungeons. Or, so, Harry hoped.

Breakfast had been a trial, as had lunch and dinner, being so close to the man, and yet separated by years of social convention. Harry simply didn't know how to handle casual sex with a co-worker. Well, not just any colleague. It wasn't like he'd taken a stroll with Angelique Sinistra on the Astronomy Tower. He'd had sex with Severus Snape, for God's sake. That had to be the strangest thing to happen in Hogwarts since the Chamber of Secrets had been reopened. Only, Severus was acting like nothing untoward had occurred, as though this were just another sleepy November Sunday.

It was a sad state of affairs when Severus was more emotionally grounded than he was, Harry wryly acknowledged. Snape was infamous for flying off the handle. Yet, Severus had been cool and controlled all day. Could what they did have mattered that little to him, Harry wondered. For all he knew, maybe Severus shagged Flitwick, Gavin, and others on a regular basis and he was just one in a long line of conquests.

The insane thought stopped him cold, and then Harry laughed out loud. He really was losing it if he thought that Severus Snape was conducting himself like a randy sixth year. He knew the man. Severus wasn't . . . forward. For all that Harry was learning to like him, he knew Severus could barely hold a civil conversation. Everything about Severus' attitude last night told him that what they'd done was as out of character for Severus as it had been for him.

Harry wondered where that left him. He thought back on Severus' behaviour towards him in the Great Hall today, or lack thereof. Severus had given him a polite nod of acknowledgement at each meal, but had otherwise seemed his usual distant self, minus the sneers.

The lack of aggression had to be a positive sign, Harry decided. Severus hadn't even made a snipe when Minerva had welcomed Ron back to the table. Instead, he had remained as quietly isolated as he had since Professor Dumbledore's death. Only, Harry had felt Severus watching him when Severus had thought him occupied. And, if he told the truth himself, he'd been aware of every bite and sip Severus took, even though Harry had been deep in conversation with Hermione and Ron the entire time.

Harry wondered if Severus were feeling the same way. It had to be just as strange for him to have had sex with someone he wasn't completely sure he even liked, and Severus had the whole added complication of having to deal with how much he looked like his dad. Thinking about it, Harry decided Severus was probably even more upset by what had happened than he was.

They really needed to talk, but before he went down and forced the issue, Harry knew he had to decide what he wanted to do about this new development. If he showed up at Severus' door confused and emotional, they would only end up quarrelling. The one thing he'd learned over the last six weeks of détente was that he had to be totally centred when dealing with Severus or else they fell back into old patterns.

It really all came down to one question – did they want to continue what they'd stumbled into last night? Did he want Severus Snape for a lover – if the other man would even have him. There were no givens in this situation, beyond the fact that it was an explosive issue.

Harry knew any sane person would run at the very idea of taking Snape on as a lover. He'd seen cornered rats with more social skills than Severus displayed, and as for physical appeal . . . .

Harry tried to take the easy path and remind himself how hideous and ugly Severus was, only . . . only the man really wasn't that bad looking. He'd come to see that over the last six weeks. When Snape dropped that pinched, sneering expression, his face was almost striking. If he ever did something with his hair and dumped the mortician's clothes, he'd be . . . .

The word 'devastating' echoed through his mind.

Harry sighed, recognizing how foolish he was being. Severus Snape – devastating? Gods, but he was in bad shape.

Harry gave himself a mental shake and tried to see things realistically. Perhaps Severus wasn't the utter horror he'd thought him in youth, but that didn't mean the man had turned into a sex symbol overnight. Severus was . . . what he was.

He desperately tried to figure out exactly what that was. Snape had been a cipher to him for his entire life. The view of black-garbed comic book villain that Snape had occupied for so many years no longer felt right. Harry knew the man too well to think of him as evil. Severus would always be difficult, but his was a petty kind of meanness, as opposed to outright villainy.

When Harry thought about Severus now, his dramatic dark style felt almost like camouflage, especially when he remembered that black was considered a protective colour. That's why so many objects exposed to dark magic were black, not because the colour itself was evil, but because the colour protected the wizard from the effects of the power he was using. Was it possible that Severus' dark clothes, dour demeanour, suspicious and cynical outlook were all some kind of protective shielding, deliberate efforts to keep others at a distance?

Severus' antisocial behaviour could be viewed as an attempt to keep himself from being hurt, Harry realized. Nothing he'd learned about Severus' life indicated that the man had ever been loved or even particularly liked. Harry recalled the abusive childhood he'd glimpsed during his fifth year Occlumency lessons. Then there was that pensieve memory of Severus being bullied at school. After Hogwarts, Severus had joined the Death Eaters and become a virtual pariah in decent Wizarding society for that youthful mistake. Even though Severus had spent the better portion of his adult life trying to make up for that error, he was still viewed with barely veiled suspicion and dislike wherever he went.

Upon reflection, Harry realized that nearly all Severus' interactions with other humans that he'd seen appeared to be immensely painful. Was it any wonder that the man did everything he could to avoid contact?

He didn't really know anything about Severus. Anything and everything was possible, Harry supposed, but the bottom line was, did he want to deal with it? This wasn't some one night stand he'd picked up in a pub. He'd known Severus Snape for most of his life. If things didn't go well, he wasn't going to be able to just walk away. The fact that he was taking this kind of risk in his proverbial backyard was reason enough for abandoning the idea.

There was also the physical attraction issue. Whatever the cause, there was no getting around the fact that Severus was not a sexually attractive man. He had potential, true enough, but he did nothing to realize it. He'd worn the same out-dated style of clothes for the last thirty years. For all Harry knew, it could have even been the same set of clothes, magically cleaned and repaired. Though Severus' body never smelled bad, it was obvious that he used cleansing charms rather than bathing, because his hair was always a wreck. The clothes, the dirty hair, the yellowed teeth and fingers . . . Severus' entire image was painfully unpleasant, the stuff of schoolboy jokes.

But did any of that really matter, Harry wondered. How important were looks? He'd had pretty. While it was true that he'd enjoyed every one of the handsome men he'd had sex with, had any one of them ever blasted him into the stratosphere like Severus had last night? He only had to remember the sight of that dark, oily hair feathering out around his cock as the kneeling Snape deep throated him to go rock hard. When was the last time anyone had moved him like that?

He was back to square one, Harry realized. Bottom line – did he want this?

Weighing the pros and cons, the cons definitely outweighed the pros. Harry knew that not a single one of his friends would understand if he pursued this relationship. All anyone was ever going to see was the Greasy Git from their school days. He also knew Severus well enough to understand that the man would never do a single thing to dispel those misconceptions, if misconceptions they even were. He had no illusions where Severus was concerned. Harry knew the man could be a bastard. This could be a disaster on all levels.

Then there were his own issues to overcome. Did he want to date someone who used sarcasm as a weapon, who took less interest in his appearance than a first year? Tall, dark, and brooding might look romantic on paper in a Muggle novel, but when those traits were coupled with a vicious tongue and temper, they were hard to live with.

Harry knew that it was highly unlikely that Severus would ever change in any way. Nor was it particularly fair of him to enter into any kind of relationship with the hidden agenda to transform the other person into something he wanted, he shamefully realized. If he approached Severus, he had to do so with the understanding that he'd be getting what he saw. If he couldn't take the sneering, greasy haired bastard as was, it would never work.

What would never work? What could he possibly have with Severus Snape, his rational mind demanded.

Harry tried to laugh at the question that should have put everything back into perspective, that should have stopped this insanity dead in its tracks, but the memory of that enticing, completely impulsive kiss and the teeth-rattling sex that had followed it reminded him that he had no idea at all as to what he could have with Severus, because he didn't know the real Severus Snape. All he knew was the grim façade Severus presented to the world. The Snape he thought he knew would never have gotten down on his knees and given him head like that.

Harry thought back on the last six weeks and all the things he'd learned about Severus: the unsuspected sense of humour, the quickly hidden bursts of compassion, the wide-ranging intellect. There was just so much he'd never seen hiding behind that gloomy front. He never would have imagined his former teacher capable of the kind of spontaneous passion they'd shared last night. Harry couldn't help but wonder what more Severus might be hiding behind that forbidding exterior. But he really wanted to know.

Well, it was settled then.

His brain seemed to falter as he realized he was seriously considering entering a sexual relationship with Severus Snape.

Since his brain was rarely of any use in his love life, Harry decided to leave it behind in his quarters. The men his common sense had told him would be the best kind of lovers had all dumped him because of his nightmares, his frightening power levels, or the pressures of dealing with his celebratory status. At least Severus was infamous in his own right and accustomed to bad press. Perhaps someone his rational side urged him to avoid like the plague would turn out better than the others had.

That didn't seem the soundest of logic, but Harry was used to fighting battles with impossible odds and very little understanding of what was truly going on. Decision made, he safely secured the papers he was grading in his desk drawer, ran a hand through his untidy hair in a useless effort to smooth it down, and rose to his feet. The bottom of his stomach seemed to drop out from under him as he realized that he was seriously intending to go down to the dungeons to proposition Severus Snape. And they used to accuse him of having a death wish in school.

Well, there was no time like the present. The sooner he sorted this out, the better.

It was sheer Gryffindor courage that carried Harry down to the dungeons. As he walked along those dim corridors, the Slytherins in the portraits seemed to eye him suspiciously.

The Potions lab and Severus' office proved empty. It was after nine o'clock on a Sunday night during the school year. It was only after he'd checked both that Harry remembered that Severus usually spent Sunday night grading homework for Monday's classes.

His stomach muscles clenching in a tight knot, Harry approached the heavy wood door at the end of the corridor that he knew to be the entrance to Severus' private chambers.

His knock was answered by an unwelcoming bark of, "It had better be urgent. Who the devil is it?"

The door didn't open.

Smiling at the rudeness, Harry called out as cheerfully as he could, "It's Harry. Harry Potter."

The utter silence that followed his name told him Severus hadn't been expecting that. After an exceedingly uncomfortable and long pause, the door swung open and Severus quietly ordered, "Come in."

Harry took a quick look at his host as he entered. Severus was clothed in a dark green dressing gown, over what looked to be a white shirt and black trousers. He was wearing fleece slippers, which seemed completely incongruous. Even so, Harry was intensely aware of the other man on a physical level, especially Severus' height and glittering dark gaze.

Severus' hair looked freshly washed as it fell against the shoulders of his robe. Harry couldn't help but wonder if Severus had washed it for him, because of what they'd done together last night.

Wanting to distract himself from the sensual shiver that trickled down his spine as he thought of running his fingers through that gleaming length, Harry concentrated on the out of character slippers.

Before he could remark upon the footwear, his attention was grabbed by the room. Quietly stated elegance was the description that came most readily to mind. The sitting room was walled with bookshelves on three sides. The fourth wall was taken up by a hearth, which had a huge fire crackling in it and a long, comfortable green velvet couch in front of it. A portrait of Albus Dumbledore in his bright lilac robes with the silver stars and a matching pointed hat stood over the mantel. The old wizard winked at Harry as he entered.

It was the only portrait or picture visible. That the notoriously suspicious Snape would have feelings strong enough for Dumbledore to risk the inevitable invasion of his privacy by hanging his old friend's portrait told him a lot about the man, as did the luxury of the place.

There were mahogany end tables and armchairs scattered strategically around the room, and a deep plush brown rug on the floor that all but swallowed his feet. Harry didn't know what he'd expected Snape's private chambers to look like, but it wasn't this tasteful comfort.

"You were expecting skeletons chained to the wall and stone whipping posts perhaps?" Severus dryly enquired.

Laughing as much from nervousness as at how easily he'd been read, Harry admitted, "Something of the sort. This is really nice."

"I'm glad you approve," Severus' tone made it plain that he'd made a fool of himself already, but since he'd decided to leave his brain behind upstairs, Harry didn't let it bother him.

Silence fell awkwardly between them. Severus neither invited him to sit down nor offered him a drink, while Harry stood there and tried to find a way to broach the topic that had brought him to Snape's door.

"You wanted something, Potter?" Severus finally prompted.

It was only six weeks of close contact that allowed him to sense the nervousness concealed behind the bluster. Harry had to hand it to Severus. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought Severus didn't give a damn about what they'd done last night. The man could be a right bastard when he chose to be.

Harry sincerely wished Severus had chosen another time to demonstrate that natural talent.

Taking a deep breath, Harry ploughed ahead. "I think we should talk about last night."

Severus turned away and crossed to a side table by a door that probably led to the bedroom. The table held several gleaming bottles of liquor and tumblers. Severus took two of the crystal glasses, and poured golden whisky into them.

"I suppose you've come here for an explanation," Severus said. Since he was looking down at what his hands were doing and Harry could only see the tip of Severus' right ear sticking out through his hair, his shoulder, and his side, he couldn't really judge what the other man might be feeling, if anything. Severus' tone told him nothing.

"I think what we did was pretty self-explanatory, don't you?" Harry softly countered, trying to judge Severus' mood.

Severus' back straightened. He stood there still as stone for a long moment, before turning back to him. Harry saw those long fingers clench into a fist around the shiny glasses as Severus tightly asked, "You came for an apology, then? I admit you're owed one. I . . . honestly don't know what came over me."

"Apology? What are you talking about?" Harry asked, abruptly realizing that Severus might be even more nervous than he. "Why would you think you owed me an apology?"

"It was obvious from your reaction that I misread the situation, that you never planned on . . . what happened," Severus said.

Planned on what happened? Harry felt as shocked as he had when he'd sat next to Neville in Transfigurations class when one of his housemate's efforts would inevitably go awry and he'd find himself staring at some bizarre, never-before-seen conglomeration of porcupine and pincushion.

Severus had thought he'd wanted him? Harry tried to think of anything he might have said or done that could have been misread, and then gave it up as a useless task. It didn't matter what had catalysed last night's encounter. This wasn't about apportioning blame. All that mattered was that they'd liked it.

So instead of pursuing that issue, Harry shrugged and said, "We mightn't have planned it, but we both enjoyed it. Why would you need to apologize? I didn't act as though I were unhappy with what we did, did I?"

Harry thought he'd been fairly enthusiastic in his responses, but he knew sometimes situations could be misinterpreted.

Severus was staring at him as though he'd transformed into one of Neville's mishaps. Seeming wary, Severus gave a slow shake of his head and a subdued, "No, you didn't."

"What's the harm, then?" Harry asked.

It seemed to be the wrong thing to say. Severus' already chalky skin lost all remaining colour.

An internal debate seemed to be raging, were the suppressed emotion in those dark eyes any indication. After another prolonged pause, Severus asked in a low, almost dangerous tone, "If not for an apology or revenge, then why are you here? What are you playing at, Potter? What do you want from me?"

Revenge? What was that about?

Deciding to forge ahead, Harry answered, "I, er, was hoping you might be interested in . . . more of the same."

As far as propositions went, it was fairly pathetic; he knew that. Still, the way Severus' face pinched up, Harry would have thought the words actually hurt him.


Harry wished Severus would offer him one of the drinks he held clutched in his hands, for his mouth had run completely dry. "We were good together. I thought you might, that we might . . . try again?"

From his expression, Severus looked as though no one had ever come on to him before, like he had no idea of how to respond, and that all language skills had deserted him. Harry actually heard the other man swallow; the sound was so loud.

For a moment, his own insecurities got the better of him, and Harry wondered if Severus found him so undesirable that the thought of a second go round completely disgusted him. It wouldn't be the first time a one night stand had been sufficient to remove all interest. But then he took a good look at Severus' eyes. Whatever was going on, he realized it wasn't about him.

"Why – why would you want that?" Severus asked. Harry could sense how hard the other man was struggling to keep his voice controlled.

"What do you mean 'why'? We had a good time, isn't that reason enough?" Harry tried to be reasonable, but he really wasn't getting what the problem was, especially since Severus seemed to believe that Severus had owed him the apology instead of the other way around. "I'm really not understanding what the problem is here."

"I won't be played a fool," Severus stiffly answered, his glittering black gaze seeming to dare Harry to take issue with the statement.

Since Harry had no clue what the hell Severus was talking about, he responded with a less than brilliant, "What's that supposed to mean?"

Harry wouldn't have thought that a person could look both disgusted and suspicious at the same time, but the expression on Severus' face pulled it off perfectly.

"It means that you are a young and attractive wizard who could find a 'good time' such as we had last night with any other young and attractive wizard. Why would you bother with someone old enough to be your father? I'm hardly anyone's idea of . . . an ideal sexual partner. If you were me, wouldn't you be suspicious? There has to be a reason for your interest other than the one you've stated."

Harry was glad he hadn't been offered any liquor. It would have come straight up at Severus' words. He cringed inside at what it must have taken for this proud man to ask that question. He thought back on last night, how Severus had seemed to think they were done when he'd finished giving him that amazing blowjob, and how surprised Severus had been by his offer of reciprocation. He couldn't imagine what the older man must have been through to cause this kind of mistrust. Did Severus really view himself as being that . . . undesirable?

Harry swallowed around the lump that was trying to choke him and tried to think of an appropriate response while Severus stood there watching him as though he expected to be hit by an Unforgivable.

"I guess I didn't think about it like that," Harry said at last. He knew he had to tread carefully here, but he had no idea how to proceed. "But . . . I'm not playing you. I swear it. I . . . really liked what we did and . . . just hoped there might be more." Seeing that those words weren't enough, Harry tried another track. "Why can't you believe that?"

"Because it makes no sense. I'm not blind. I know what I look like. Why would a handsome young man who could be with anyone he wanted choose to be with me?"

"How about that blowjob you gave me that melted my brain? Doesn't that count?" Harry asked.

"You could get that elsewhere, and better," Severus dismissed.

Harry caught that doubtful gaze and held it. "No, I couldn't. Last night was . . . unique." Seeing that he had Severus' attention, he asked, "Do you think I don't have to wonder why people are sleeping with me, too?" Reading the continued disbelief, he snapped, "I've been famous since before I could talk. People want a piece of me just because of that."

"How terrible for you."

Wanting to wipe that sneer off that sour puss, Harry lost his temper entirely. "Do you think it's easy having people want you just because they've read about you in the papers? Every time I start to get really close to someone, they jump ship as soon as they get a glimpse of the real me." He was not going to mention the nightmares, not this soon in the game. Severus would find out about them soon enough, providing they got any further than this ridiculous conversation.

"That still doesn't explain what you're doing with me," Severus said. His slightly less accusative tone seemed to suggest that he might actually be considering what Harry had said. "I'm neither richer than you nor more powerful. I have nothing to offer you that you can't get elsewhere."

Harry's blood pressure soared at that 'neither richer nor more powerful than you' line. Severus made the insulting accusation as though those motivations were perfectly acceptable. Harry's mouth had opened to blast out that he didn't sleep with people for those reasons, when an unexpected insight made him snap it shut on the angry diatribe.

He didn't sleep with people for those reasons, but Harry knew other people sometimes did. Perhaps a man who didn't consider himself graced with physical beauty might consider money and power the only reasons why a man twenty years his junior would have sexual relations with him. It was entirely possible that Severus had been this route before, that he had been used that way.

Forcefully calming his anger, Harry quietly offered, "What about your disdain? I can't get that anywhere else, can I?"

"My what?" Severus didn't quite gape at him, but he might just as well have done for the shock in his voice.

Harry sighed. "Everyone wants a piece of the Boy Who Lived, but not Harry Potter. You're . . . different. You can't stand the Boy Who Lived bilk. You barely tolerate me. So . . . what we did last night had to be . . . real."

"What do you mean by real?" Severus snapped.

Realizing that his words might have made him sound like an infatuated sixth year looking for her soul mate, Harry ran a hand through his mess of hair, took a deep breath and said in a calmer tone, "I meant that we were both after the same thing – good sex. It wasn't about some stranger grabbing a bit of celebrity. And it was bloody wonderful, wasn't it? Who wouldn't want more? Can't we just enjoy it and not worry about why?"

He was getting through; he could feel it. Encouraged by the lack of immediate rejection, Harry took another deep breath and tried to relax. Being centred was the only way to go when dealing with Severus.

"You . . . think what we did last night was 'bloody wonderful'?" Severus asked, visibly thrown.

"I just said so, didn't I? Wonderful, and fantastic, and . . . hot as hell."

Gathering his courage, he stepped up to Severus and removed the whisky glasses from his hands. There wasn't even a hint of protest. A thought sent the glasses floating over to the nearest end table where they settled beside a stack of leather-bound books and a lit candelabrum.

Feeling those eyes digging into his face, Harry continued in a softer tone, moving close enough to touch without actually doing so. "I know you're older than me. I mightn't be as smart as you, but I'm bright enough to reap the benefits of your greater experience."

It was like trying to calm a frightened serpent with Parseltongue, Harry thought, realizing that he was all but seducing Severus with words. It was a weird thought, but it turned him on something fierce.

He just wished he were a bit more skilled with language. Action was his forte. Severus would have been far better suited to this, with his deep cultured voice and extensive vocabulary.

Severus had apparently calmed enough to see the humour in the situation, for he gave a snort and said, "Greater experience? I've barely been out of the dungeons in two decades."

Recognizing how hard that admission must have been, Harry held Severus' eyes and answered, "You could have fooled me. In fact, you did."

As little as two weeks ago, Severus would have come back with some scathing comment on his lack of intellect, but tonight he simply stared at him. Finally, Harry saw the light of belief enter Severus' face. "You truly wish to engage in . . . these activities with me?"

This was the first answer Harry didn't have to think about since he'd entered the room. "It's all I've been able to think about all day. What do you say?"

That shock was back in Severus' eyes. Harry knew he'd never know or understand half of what had made Severus Snape into the type of man he was, but, surely, somewhere along the line, someone had to have been kind to him, been genuinely infatuated with him? No one could have made it through fifty years without a single person falling for them, could they?

Harry's brain told him no, but his heart was instructing him to move slowly in case his brain were wrong as he took that final step closer, moving so far into Severus' personal space that he could feel Severus' body heat beckoning to him.

Severus' long fingered hands took hold of Harry's shoulders to gently guide him even closer. The action was cautious, giving Harry every opportunity to pull back.

The man was so damn tall that Harry had to tilt his head back for the ensuing kiss as Severus stooped down to meet him, but their lips fit as if designed for each other. He clasped his fingers in a loose hold at the back of Severus' neck, keeping him in place as he leaned into him.

Severus' taste flooded his mouth. Harry remembered it from last night. Not sour and nasty as he would have thought if he'd speculated about such things at all. Severus' mouth had a remarkably clean and fresh taste to it, like perfectly ripe grapes.

As that flavour rocked his system, he was once again hit with the strangeness of what he was doing. He was kissing Severus Snape. Even in a life as unusual as his, this was a fairly weird development.

Severus approached the kiss in an oddly gentle manner, his face soft with something that looked like tentative wonder. Last night, Severus had just covered his mouth and kissed with all his might, taking him by storm. It was different tonight, shyer. The hands that settled on his back were light. They didn't insist on his participation, but rather asked for it.

Shy wasn't a quality Harry associated with Severus Snape. If pressed, he would have said his former teacher was reserved, not shy. But, then, he never would have imagined Severus having the sensitivity to be the kind of indulgent lover he'd shown himself to be last night. He couldn't remember the last time a partner had been so intent on pleasing him.

He wanted to return that favour tonight. He wanted to get to know more about the man Severus kept hidden behind his tight control. He wanted to take that man to the heights of pleasure and show Severus how desirable a lover he was, so that he would never again think that the only reason someone would sleep with him was power or money.

Unlocking his fingers, Harry buried them in the long black hair he'd been staring at since he entered the room. The freshly washed strands slid between his fingers like raw silk, lush and totally touchable. The herbal scent of the shampoo Severus had used was heavy in the close air.

This was the first time Harry had been given the opportunity to sample Severus' actual scent. Last night the man had smelt of potions, as he had all the years he'd known him. The smell had been specific last night – Cold Ease, which had a strong aroma of eucalyptus. Sometimes the smell was recognizable like that and not off-putting, but other times Severus could smell quite unpleasant, depending upon the odours trapped in his hair and clothes.

Harry breathed in the warm, living fragrance – soap, shampoo, all things clean and fresh, with an underlying trace of that arousing musk he'd encountered last night when he'd buried his face in Severus' crotch. It was a smell he could get used to. Just like he could get used to this kiss. Hell, forget about getting used to it. He could get addicted to this, might already be, for all he knew.

The instant his tongue poked out to explore, Severus sucked it in. As their lips kneaded at each other, Harry pressed his tongue against the soft velvet of Severus', loving the taste and the dark heat of the other man's mouth. He remembered that mouth going down on him, and went hard at the imagery.

Harry only pulled back when his senses began to swim from lack of oxygen.

It was then that that awkward moment arrived, the one that occurred whenever two men who were still strangers to each other made love. Harry looked up at Severus, wondering how he wanted to play this. Last night, he'd allowed Severus to call the shots after their first kiss, as much from shock as from anything else, but tonight he wanted to assert himself a little more. He didn't know how Severus would feel about that. The one thing that all the years he'd known this man had taught him was that Snape had control issues.

Harry considered broaching the topic with words, but they seemed to work better without them. Since his companion was not a silent sufferer, he reckoned he'd hear right away if he did anything of which Severus didn't approve.

Running his hands over the rough green wool of Severus' dressing gown, Harry skimmed them down the slender chest to where the dressing gown was belted closed. Feeling those dark eyes watching his every move, Harry slowly undid the belt and then eased the garment off Severus' shoulders. Severus didn't even blink in protest as it dropped to the floor at their feet.

Harry made short work of the buttons of Severus' shirt and then slid it off him to join the robe on the floor. He smiled at the revelation of a crisp white undershirt. The man's clothing was as layered as his personality, he realized as he vanished the undershirt with a thought.

Severus started at that. "Where . . . ?"

Harry sobered as he realized how impatient he was being. To his intense relief, Severus hadn't bolted at the instantaneous magic. He was lucky Severus was such a strong wizard in his own right. Raw power didn't seem to frighten him. Many times a little slip like the one he'd just made had been enough to totally ruin the mood and send his would-be lover running for the door.

Feeling very self-conscious, Harry answered Severus' question, "My bathroom hamper, probably. That's where everything usually ends up. I'll return it tomorrow."

Severus nodded and ran his knuckles over Harry's cheek in an oddly endearing manner.

Harry shivered in response. His face felt hot as Severus' rough skin passed over his cheek, almost as if the blood below the surface were warming to Severus' touch.

This was the man he and his peers had considered repulsive their entire lives? Harry couldn't recall the last time he'd had so tender a touch.

His hungry gaze moved down to the flesh he'd just revealed. Severus was so much taller than him that his chest was slightly below Harry's eye level. Under other circumstances he might have been intimidated by their height difference, but he was enjoying this too much to worry about trivialities.

Looking at his companion's chest, Harry felt the same surprise that he had last night. For some reason, he'd expected Severus to be smooth, maybe because of how pale the flesh he was accustomed to seeing was. But the slender chest revealed by the undershirt's disappearance had a healthy dusting of dark hair, thickest in the centre, tapering artfully out over Severus' nipples and trailing down his middle in a faint, inverted arrow that disappeared below the waistband of his trousers.

As his gaze followed that tantalizing trail down, Harry saw the front of Severus' trousers expand.

"Mmmm, nice," Harry approved, referring as much to what was happening below the trousers as to the naked chest. He leant forward to rub his cheek against the tempting skin on display. His glasses got in the way, of course, so he pulled them off and levitated them over to the nearest end table. As soon as they were safely stored, he returned to his earlier pursuit.

Gods, but he loved how Severus' chest felt against his face. The black hairs were soft as kitten fur beneath his cheek. He felt the right nipple go hard as he passed over the nub, so he turned his face into it and sucked.

Severus' hands clutched his shoulders tight. He wobbled as if his knees had just gone weak.

Damn, but the man was responsive. Harry could tell how hard Severus was struggling to keep his dignity, but his body seemed to be working against him. As Harry increased his sucking, Severus released a breathy gasp.

From their encounter last night, he knew that Severus tried to stay silent during sex. He didn't know what that was about. Where he came from, noise was a sign of enjoyment, but Severus acted as though he expected the slightest revelation of his pleasure or any other indication of his humanity to be used against him. For all he knew, it might have been in the past. The closer he got to Severus, the more he realized that the man was carrying a crippling amount of emotional pain. His friend might be a born survivor, but Severus hadn't emerged from his ordeals unscathed.

A few months ago, Harry wouldn't have cared about Severus' misery. He would have reckoned it was the nasty bastard's due for being such an absolute horror to everyone, but now . . . now he wanted to make things better for him, the same way he'd want to ease Ron or Hermione's burden if they had a problem. He was realist enough to know that Severus' pride would never allow Harry to openly help him, but maybe he could make things a little better by simply letting Severus know that he wasn't so alone, that there was someone who did care about him.

Harry could hear the sneer Severus would give at that idea echoing through his mind. But since his companion would have had exactly the same reaction two days ago to what they were doing now, he chose to ignore his common sense and keep trying. The last six weeks had brought them places they'd never imagined. Merlin knew where they'd end up if they kept on going like this.

They ended up on their knees with their fronts pressed tight together as they practiced that tongue tango at which they were getting so good. One second, he'd been sucking Severus' nipple and the next both their knees seemed to simultaneously liquidize and they slid to the rug, ending up locked in this amazing kiss.

Severus' hands scrambled at Harry's waist, trying to remove his black jumper.

Harry belatedly realized how scratchy the wool must be against Severus' bare chest. Without breaking the kiss or coming up for air, he charmed his jumper and the tee shirt beneath it to slither off his shoulders. They landed on the floor to their left, next to Severus' green robe.

It was a testament to how caught up Severus was in what they were doing that he didn't comment on the wordless clothing removal spell.

After a lovely interlude, Severus withdrew from the kiss to re-familiarize himself with Harry's chest.

Harry shivered as those long fingers stroked over his ribs. Apparently, his body was just as excited by Severus' as Severus' was by his. That gentle touch shook right through him.

Recognizing how close they were to meltdown, Harry took quick stock of their surroundings. They were safely out of the hearth's range, but that rug was going to be hell on their skin when they couldn't stay vertical any longer.

He'd had enough rug burns to last him a lifetime. Not particularly desiring any more if he could avoid them, Harry silently summoned the green velvet seat cushions and silver throw pillows off the nearby sofa.

His hope that Severus would be too involved again to notice proved futile. The man never missed a thing. Severus' mouth left Harry's chest. His dark eyes followed the cushions and pillows' descent.

Harry held his breath, waiting. He couldn't read the expression on that flushed, angular face. But he'd done enough spell-less magic tonight to freak out even the staunchest of wizards.

"Impressive," Severus said after a pause that left Harry's stomach tied in knots. "Do you need words or wand at all?"

The palm that stroked down his chest felt reassuring. Put on the spot, Harry stared into those bottomless black eyes, wishing he could read them. He considered a lie, then an evasion, but ended up giving Severus the truth. "No." When that hand kept petting him and those eyes didn't retreat in fear, he asked, "Doesn't it bother you?"

"Would it bother you if it didn't?" Severus questioned in turn, with a meaningful arch of his left eyebrow that felt like a challenge.

At first, Harry didn't get it, but then he saw how fast Severus was breathing and understanding hit. "You mean that you . . . ?"

His own breathing sped up at the suggestion.

"A man doesn't dabble in the Dark Arts or sell his soul to a dark lord if he fears power, Potter," Severus said, and then continued in a subdued, gruff tone, "What else can you do?"

Harry froze, not quite believing what he was hearing. Severus seemed excited by what he'd done. Without exception, every man he'd been with had sooner or later run in fear at these casual revelations of his capabilities, and Severus was asking for more?

A tremor shuddered through his insides at this unexpected turn. Swallowing around his dry mouth, Harry enquired as evenly as he could, "Are you asking for a demonstration?"

All Harry could hear in the silence was the pounding of his own heart.

"If you're willing to give one," Severus replied with equal care, holding his gaze, letting him read his arousal.

"All right, then," Harry agreed. He thought for a moment, concentrated, and manifested his will.

The six wall sconces all simultaneously gutted, leaving only the hearth flame lighting the now dim room. With the next breath, dozens of floating candles popped into existence, filling the sitting room with a soft, flickering glow.

He never uttered a word or took his hands off Severus.

Severus eyed the candles.

Harry could sense that the other man was impressed, but Severus gave a haughty sniff, and said, "Showy. Have you nothing more personal or imaginative in your bag of tricks?"

What the . . . ? By Merlin's staff, Severus really wasn't afraid!

"Precisely what are you asking for?" Harry whispered, beginning to shake. But not in fear. He was so accustomed to having to hide these abilities that being asked to demonstrate them felt almost . . . erotic. Well, the situation was erotic, of course, but the fact that someone would ask him to expose his abilities instead of hide them was liberating in a way he'd never dreamed. It was like that time in sixth year when Justin had said 'I'll show you mine, if you show me yours' and turned his entire world upside down.

"Use your imagination, Potter. Show me a good time. Let me feel your power," Severus all but ordered.

What little brain Harry had left seemed to melt. Severus wanted a 'personal and imaginative' exhibition of his freaky powers in a sexual encounter? Severus wanted to feel his power?

Harry had dreamed about finding someone who wouldn't be frightened of his talents. In some of his wilder fantasies, he'd imagined a partner who would allow him this kind of freedom, only . . . that was fantasy. You didn't get that in the real world, and even if you did . . . this was only their second time together. He could hardly call either of their experiences a typical date. He barely knew Severus socially, let alone as a lover. He had no idea what the man would want or what would repulse him.

Looking up into those glimmering black eyes, Harry saw only pure, Slytherin dare. Severus had next to no fear. Calming in the face of that superior, arrogant challenge, he took a step back from his own panic.

If things weren't to his liking, Severus would say so. And even if he didn't, Harry couldn't really picture Severus running to the Headmistress to complain that he'd bitten off more than he could chew in a sexual encounter. Whatever happened, he could trust Severus to keep it between them.

Rising to the challenge, Harry considered his options. Beyond his orientation, he only knew two things about Severus' sexual preferences at this point – that he really liked to be touched, and that extreme magical power appeared to turn him on. Fortunately, he could work with both those facts.

"All right," Harry agreed at last, coming up with a plan. "Are you ready?"

Harry was almost relieved by the nervous light that flickered through Severus' candlelit gaze as the other man nodded and gave a soft, "Yes."

For some reason, it made him feel better that Severus wasn't as confident as he was letting on, maybe because it put them both on the same level.

But everything Severus had just said told Harry that he didn't want them to be on the same level. Severus wanted to feel his power. The blood was roaring in his ears at the very thought, his breathing coming in shallow pants.

Letting go of Severus' arms, he rose to his feet to put some distance between them. After a brief pause, Harry carefully levitated Severus off the rug. He manoeuvred Severus until the other man was lying flat on his back in the air, floating level with Harry's waist. Severus' shoulder length hair fell in a dark silky stream behind his head.

The move might have been somewhat extreme to start with, but he'd always been one to push the limits, else he would never have been here with this man. This was the only way Harry had been able to think of to judge how serious Severus was and how far he was willing to go.

Reading the surprise in Severus' eyes, Harry quickly checked, "Are you all right with this?"

Harry watched Severus take stock of his physical situation, saw him come to the conclusion that he was pretty much pinned in the air and unable to move unless Harry willed it.

Tensing, Harry waited for the inevitable demand to be freed that any sensible person would make at this point.

The struggle was there. Harry saw it revealed by the tight control that came over Severus' features as he established his lack of free movement. They both seemed to realize at the same moment that Severus' wand was doubtlessly on the floor in his robe pocket. For all intents and purposes, Severus was completely at Harry's mercy.

Severus swallowed loudly, and then said with a forced aplomb that impressed Harry no end, "I told you to demonstrate your powers. Proceed."

By the gods, Severus wasn't balking. How could he want to continue?

Harry knew he'd be panicking himself were their positions reversed. He wondered how Severus could trust him this much, but then the part of him that had conquered Voldemort recognized that trust probably had nothing to do with this. This was about sex, and need, and dark desires. The kinds of things you didn't talk about in polite society or in casual encounters.

Abruptly, Harry understood why Severus had spent two decades hiding in his dungeons.

The Wizarding World was a strange place. Though they paid lip service to the remnants of their ancient pureblood hierarchy, the truth was that a person's place in the magical world had always been determined by the degree of power he wielded. Harry knew how the people of the magical world thought. Their maxim was that a wizard never allowed himself to be controlled or dominated by another, if he could help it. It was one thing to be honourably bested, but quite another to willingly submit to a greater force.

Harry thought that that philosophy filtering into the bedroom might be why the Wizarding World had such a strong prejudice against homosexuality. Being submissive was more than a stigma. A man offering himself up for another's pleasure was viewed with disgust, as if that made the wizard less than a man. And here Severus was offering himself both sexually and magically. That took more guts than Harry could ever remember encountering. He didn't want to think about how strong this need must be to make Severus disregard his usual caution and take this kind of a chance.

The nervousness Harry could see filtering into Severus ' gaze as the moment stretched told him that Severus was viscerally aware of how vulnerable he'd made himself. Severus' expression indicated that he still expected everything to fall apart, that he still anticipated scorn and disaster.

His throat tightening up, Harry stroked his palm over Severus' nearest erect right nipple and whispered, "What . . . what would you like?"

Sexual heat vied with self-preservation in those obsidian bright eyes. Finally, Severus rasped out, "Anything . . . anything you want to give me."

Dear God, Severus was offering him carte blanche. The words were like a squeeze to his cock. Harry's breath hitched as he shivered under a burst of raw desire. Anything he wanted – had any lover ever said those words to him, let alone one dangling completely at his mercy?

Harry looked Severus over, trying to come up with something creative. He'd no doubt that Severus had had his share of typical domination. He didn't want to be another user. He wanted to give this man something that was worthy of his courage, something as extraordinary as the freedom Severus was offering him.

Surprised, Harry saw the bulge in the front of Severus' black trousers jerk and expand as his gaze roamed over him. The reaction convinced him that Severus really wanted to feel his power. It made him want to introduce Severus to the parts of himself that he'd never dared show anyone.

His own heartbeat kicking into overdrive, Harry studied the captive, half naked man before him. Half naked wasn't going to do it for either of them. Another thought sent both their trousers and underwear rushing away through whatever invisible conduits vanishing employed.

They both dragged in a ragged breath as their erections were released from constraint.

Struck by the sight before him, Harry admired the throbbing, wine red shaft. Who would have guessed that Severus Snape would be hiding something that glorious under all those black clothes? Severus' cock rose out of its bed of dark curls in shameless need, coming to rest in a tempting stiff line against his flat belly.

Their respective positions presented a myriad of options. Harry considered them all. Recalling Severus' request for something imaginative, and the other man's hungry response to every caress he'd offered last night, an idea occurred to him.

Stepping forward to stand beside Snape's narrow hips, Harry watched the other man visually brace himself for what would follow. In that instant, he knew exactly the kind of experiences Severus must have had when he'd bared himself to another's power in the past. But feeling someone's magic didn't have to automatically equate to either pain or submission. What he had in mind was light years away from the BDSM games that he could see this most Slytherin of Slytherins anticipating.

Severus wanted to feel his power, and so he would, in the most literal of terms.

Focusing his energy, Harry manifested it into an invisible, but extremely potent probe. It felt like he'd transfigured an invisible limb composed purely of his magical power. His face scrunching with the effort, he directed his creation towards Severus' ear. Using that energy probe as he would his tongue, he tickled the spot where Severus had seemed most sensitive last night.

This was the tricky part. As his power stroked over that soft skin, Harry made sure it penetrated the pores to stimulate the nerves right below the skin with a zap of magical energy while regulating the jolt so it didn't hurt or overwhelm delicate neurons.

Severus had managed to keep silent when his tongue had done that last night, but tonight he cried out in shock as he was simultaneously aroused physically and magically.

Unsure that he could maintain control while touching Severus with his hands, Harry clenched his fists and focussed his concentration on his creation. It was a difficult task, keeping the power contained. He had to make sure it was strong enough to arouse, but safe enough to cause no harm to Severus' system.

Getting the hang of it, Harry let his probe play over that long, elegant neck, loving the helpless gasps Severus seemed incapable of controlling.

Just to see what reaction he'd get, Harry changed the power level to a tingling barrage and slowly ran his probe from the base of Severus' neck, straight down his spine to the top of the dark slit between his shapely buttocks.

Severus' cock jerked in reaction, growing even larger. His eyelids swept shut as his face creased in a rictus of raw need and he released another sharp cry.

"Is that good or bad?" Harry checked, made uneasy by the torn expression and beads of sweat on Severus' face. He thought what he was doing should feel good, but he'd never done this before and the worry that he might be hurting Severus haunted his enjoyment.

It almost seemed as though Severus didn't understand him at first, but then he swallowed and gave a hoarse whisper of, "More?"

Harry grinned. He could do more. By the stars, could he!

Gathering his focus, Harry let that tingly probe work its way back up Severus' spine, while he created another probe. This one fixed immediately on Severus' left nipple and mimicked the process of sucking on a magical level, interspersing the suction with little bursts of power that would explode in the neurons of Severus' flat breasts and make their way in subsequent explosions to Severus' groin. That innovation was a smashing success were Severus' vocal accompaniment anything to go by.

As Harry watched that leanly muscled form writhe in the magical web he'd created, his own shaft hardened with hunger. Severus looked so good spread out in the air like that, his long body on offer, his face soft with open wonder and need. He loved that he'd been able to blast the cynicism away, that he'd been able to cut through the barrier of silence.

Harry allowed his probes to delight Severus' body for a long time, setting off sensual explosions all over him, while avoiding that one pulsing pleasure centre that he had other plans for.

Before long his own hunger became too much to ignore, and Harry reached out to touch the moisture beaded, straining shaft that he longed to taste.

Severus' moan sounded relieved as his erection was finally given the attention for which it had been silently crying.

Harry spent a few minutes pumping that meaty length and rolling the lush balls beneath it, while his two power probes continued to titillate elsewhere.

When Harry could take it no longer himself, he lowered his head and hungrily sucked in that glistening cock. It fit his mouth just as well as he remembered, and tasted even better – all salt and Severus. As he began to greedily suck in the musky, steamy flesh, Severus gave a needy, whimpering sound that went right through him.

Stars, but he wanted to make Severus feel good. Harry couldn't recall the last time he'd wanted to ensure someone else's enjoyment this much. Shocked, he realized that he hadn't even touched his own cock yet.

Needing to do more for this man who seemed to have known so little of pleasure, Harry pushed himself further magically and created a third probe. While he diligently serviced Severus' cock, he set two of his magical extensions to simultaneously suck Severus' nipples.

Harry could imagine what that must feel like, having his penis and both nipples sucked at the same time. It had to feel like three lovers working at his pleasure. Severus seemed utterly overwhelmed. His face had lost all traces of its normal sour expression.

A dazed, blasted away look about him, Severus floated on the waves of ecstasy, giving voice to his pleasure with deep groans and needy cries.

Harry's hand stroked down the hairy softness of Severus' inner thigh. The gesture was an unconscious one. He wouldn't even have noticed that he'd done it, except that Severus' leanly corded legs spread wide apart and he moaned a frantic, "Yesssss . . . pleazzzzze . . . ."

Stunned at what Severus was helplessly offering him, Harry's heart beat triple time, pounding in his ears, as his cock made itself known with it own agreeing pulse of Yessss . . . pleazzzze . . . .

His conscience kicked into life reminding him that Severus wasn't responsible for his actions at the moment. With all the magical energy he was feeding directly into Severus' nervous system, he might just as well have drugged the man. There could be no thought of 'no' when a person's body was working against them like this.

"Please?" Severus raggedly repeated. "It's . . . been . . . so . . . long . . . so damn long . . . ."

Raising his head, Harry looked at Severus' face. Guilt lanced into him when he saw how strained those stark features looked.

Harry knew that Severus probably meant the offer at the moment, but he also suspected that this wasn't something his mistrustful friend would have freely offered so soon in their relationship if in his right mind.

Harry wrestled his conscience for a few moments longer, while those bright eyes silently begged him for what both their bodies wanted. When the compromise finally occurred to him, it was nearly an epiphany. Harry decided that he'd give Severus what he wanted, only, not in the exact form that the other man expected.

Lowering his head to resume his sucking ministrations, Harry reactivated those nipple probes. He directed the probe that had been ranging freely over Severus' back to once again slide down the spine. That galvanized Severus' entire body into action. Severus bucked up higher in the air as if hit with an electric current, his cry reinforcing that impression.

When that spinal foray reached the top of Severus' bum, instead of turning back upwards and exploring the remainder of his back as it had previously done, the probe slipped down into the dark crease between the slightly rounded cheeks.

Happily deep-throating that mighty cock, Harry slid his hands down under Severus' bottom, gripped the small, but shapely globes and gave them a squeeze.

Severus' keening cry announced his approval.

Harry took a firmer hold of Severus' butt, and carefully parted the cheeks.

Severus' hips gave a frantic jerk, as if he were attempting to position himself so that Harry's shaft could slide into him, but Harry continued sucking his cock and ignored the offer.

Trying to concentrate on his new task while maintaining the others, Harry carefully directed the back probe to enter that tiny pucker hidden in shadow, wishing all the while that it were his actual fingers broaching that sheltered territory. There was no stretching, no sense of violation as his power entered the sphincter. He made sure the probe simply slipped up the existing space.

Severus gasped when the energy entered him.

A quick search located his target, the round nub of gland that he hoped to make his friend someday. Harry released one of those energy jolts that had so rocked Severus elsewhere, and held on for dear life.

There was no describing or deciphering the emotion in the cry that earned him. Severus' entire body seemed to supernovae. Harry paid tribute to the other man's prostate with jolt after jolt of delight, making sure he kept sucking and maintaining the nipple probes that Severus had seemed so fond of. Not three, but four lovers now pleasured Severus, Harry thought, a heartbeat before Severus gave a wild thrust and shot stream after stream of thick, hot semen down his throat.

Harry kept up all the stimulation until he felt Severus go soft in his mouth. Only then did he discontinue the three probes and lift his head.

Never had Harry seen so young an expression on Severus Snape's face. There were no shadows in his eyes, only the memory of joy. His cheeks were filled with a healthy flush of passion. His mouth was soft, with no trace of the cruelty that often hardened it.

As their eyes met, Severus spread his legs wide again and said in a hoarse sounding voice, "Finish it."

Harry gulped, his entire body jolting at the offer. He wanted to – gods, how he wanted to – but nothing had changed. Severus was still under the influence of a magical power as formidable as the Imperius spell.

More than a little shocked by how utterly he'd lost control and allowed himself to manipulate Severus this way, guilt overwhelmed him. He'd been careful and gentle, but he'd still used Severus as if he were a plaything.

So, instead of moving in between those long legs and taking the helpless, floating man, Harry levitated Severus over the pile of couch cushions and pillows in front of the fireplace and carefully lowered him down, breaking his hold on Severus' limbs and returning his autonomy.

As soon as Severus was safely settled, Harry laid down beside him, not touching. He'd already forced enough on Severus tonight.

Harry didn't know what to say as their gazes met. Part of him felt he should apologize for what he'd done. Never had he made another human his virtual marionette as he'd done with Severus. Even though Severus had asked for a demonstration of his capabilities, what he'd done was extreme. But, taking in that glowing gaze, he recognized that Severus had wholly enjoyed it. An apology could ruin what they'd shared. Doubtless, Severus would realize that he'd taken things too far as soon as the afterglow faded. Torn, he waited for Severus to judge him, as every wizard he'd ever been intimate with eventually did.

Severus seemed to study him for a long time. Finally, Severus reached out to lay his arm across his midsection in an oddly intimate way. While his long fingertips played distractingly down his ribs, Severus said, "Whatever you want from me, it's yours, if it's in my power to give it to you."

For the second time in two days, the world seemed to fall out from under him. Shocked, all Harry could do was stare at Severus' softened face. Severus' words were like a stroke to his already over-excited cock.

Finally finding his voice, Harry stammered an inelegant, "You're not . . . angry with me?"

"Angry? For giving me more pleasure in a single hour than I've experienced in my entire life?"

Harry knew that if Severus hadn't been undergoing the granddaddy of all afterglows he never would have confessed such a thing.

Harry shivered as those fingertips trailed down to his turgid erection, which was long past uncomfortable and well on the way to agony.

"Didn't you want -" Severus began, then seemed to stop himself to rephrase. "Your eyes spoke of your need, yet you didn't take . . . ?"

Before Severus could raise the question of his desirability again, Harry quickly explained, "It's too soon. We don't know each other well enough for that yet. Besides, once I started feeding you my power, you were hardly in the position to make an informed decision. I might just as well have had you under Imperius, for all the chance you had to say no."

Severus simply stared at him for a second, and then burst out laughing. "Gods, with integrity like that, how do Gryffindors ever reproduce?"

Harry laughed himself. "Damned if I know."

Severus' expression seemed almost fond as he watched him.

"Do you intend to do something about that or lay there and suffer?" Severus finally asked, his index finger wickedly flicking Harry's swollen cock, making him gasp and shudder.

"What did you have in mind?" Harry asked as calmly as he could manage with a dick that was ready to bore its way through the dungeon's stone floor if he didn't get some relief soon.

"I've already made my suggestion. I'll leave it to your Gryffindor sensibilities to determine what type of contact is acceptable after fifteen years of knowing each other," Severus said, with the smug satisfaction of a man who'd already come. "I'm willing to assist in any manner you deem . . . appropriate to our level of . . . unfamiliarity."

"You're making me sound ridiculous," Harry muttered, his body begging for even a hand-job.

"Only because you are ridiculous," Severus replied. His eyes seemed to soften and he relented, "However, somehow you make even that trait appallingly appealing."

His brain was so on fire with need that he couldn't be sure, but it sounded as though Severus Snape had actually complimented him.

"Oh, for Salazar's sake," Severus finally said and leaned over to kiss him.

Harry clung to those lips as though they were a lifeline. He kissed with all his heart, ready to come from just that contact.

He felt Severus' hands slip around his waist. Severus rolled over onto his back, gave a tug, and settled Harry carefully on top of him, opening his thighs so that Harry's hips slid intimately between them.

Severus wasn't nearly as bony a cushion as his slender build had led Harry to expect. To the contrary, that long, hot body felt like sheer nirvana as he fit himself to the taller man. Severus' hands stroked down his back, settling on his buttocks.

Harry groaned as the careful squeeze Severus gave shot a veritable rainbow of sensual fireworks through his strained system. His hips thrust his erection helplessly against Severus' thigh. While their tongues met in an intimate dance, Severus' hands guided his humping hips into a delightful rhythm that matched that of their tongues.

Harry could feel himself melting into the man below him on an emotional level, and then it happened on a physical level as well. The sharp pleasure crashing through him reached its ultimate peak and reality shattered around him in a blinding burst of ecstasy as he bathed both their tight-pressed stomachs with his sticky gift.

Gasping for breath, he clung to Severus, feeling utterly naked and destroyed. He didn't want to lose this. He didn't want to go back to being a freak. He didn't want to see the haze of sexual contentment in Severus' eyes turn to fear as it had in all the lovers before him.

It was in these moments immediately following afterglow that his paramours usually got to thinking about the unusual magic Harry couldn't help but use when excited. Then they'd leave or ask him to go. As he lay there gasping for breath in Severus' embrace, he couldn't help but fear what would happen now that the passion was spent.

But the clock on the other side of the room continued to tick away the minutes, and nothing untoward occurred. Instead of forcing him to his feet and kicking him out, Severus continued to gently kiss him. One of Severus' hands left his buttocks to stroke his back, and then the other reached up to pull some kind of blanket down from the couch beside them to cover them both.

When Severus snuggled back down beside him, Harry's heart nearly burst.

The feelings coursing through him mightn't have been the same kind of magic he'd used on Severus before, but it was a powerful magic all the same. A warmth spread through him that had nothing to do with afterglow. Severus had been so incredibly accommodating. Instead of turning away from him in fear, he'd offered him anything he wanted. It had been so long since anyone who'd really known him had touched him. The strangers all bolted at the first sign of his unusual talents, but Severus . . . his power turned Severus on. How rare was that?

Harry knew the answer to that question. He was twenty-six and had never found anyone willing to share what Severus had offered him tonight. No one had ever given him that kind of acceptance before. It meant the world to him, to not be viewed as a freak, to not be feared. He wasn't child enough to believe that would last, but it was enough that Severus had given him tonight. He wanted to say something to acknowledge the amazing gift, but what could he say?

While his mind searched for the right words, Harry lay there basking in Severus' wonderful warmth. It was so comfortable here, so . . . perfect. That seductive warmth crept through him. The magic he'd used had totally drained him. He felt like he'd just fought a duel. Before Harry could so much as mumble a word of thanks, exhaustion claimed him and he was out like a light.


An icy draft on his bare back woke Severus.

Tensing, because he didn't know where he was or why he wasn't sleeping in his own bed, Severus lifted his head from its warm pillow and stared around his dark surroundings. Shocked, he felt what he'd thought to be his pillow rise and fall in the steady, unmistakable rhythm of breathing. Who . . . ?

Severus pulled back from the other person's body and felt around soft cushions and something that felt like a rug, but his wand was nowhere in reach.

Sitting up, he stared frantically about his surroundings. The only light was the golden glow of the dying embers in the hearth, which was about two feet from his left shoulder. Clearly, he was on the floor, then.

Memory hit just as Severus was preparing to jump to his feet.

Harry Potter. The man lightly snoring beside him was Harry Potter and they had once again . . . .

Severus swallowed hard as he recalled exactly what they'd done last night. He wished he could be shocked by his own behaviour, but his fascination with power had driven him into far worse circumstances in his youth. He tried to console himself with the knowledge that falling thrall to Harry Potter wouldn't brand his flesh or blacken his soul, but it didn't help. He'd thrown away his self-respect in exchange for sex, just as he'd done when young. There would be no avoiding Potter's disgust once the man awoke. In a few minutes he was going to have to deal with something none of his other experiences had prepared him for – an awkward morning after. Unless he avoided the scene entirely and fled now, he was going to have to face Potter, with no possibility of denying what he'd done last night.

The idea of flight was tempting, but where would he run? Even if he skipped all meals, he'd see Potter at this afternoon's staff meeting. Severus really didn't want any witnesses to what the other wizard might say to him.

He cursed himself ten times a fool. What had he been thinking? How could he have . . . debased himself in front of Potter that way? Was he such a whore that he'd spread his legs for any mighty wizard?


Shaking from more than the cold, Severus ran a hand through his hair and tried to think. His teeth were starting to chatter and his skin prick up in gooseflesh, so warmth was the first order of business. If he were on the floor in front of the hearth, there should be a woodpile somewhere to his right.

Walking on his knees, Severus shimmied over to the side of the hearth and felt along the wall. Sure enough, his blindly reaching fingers brushed against dry, hard bark. He grasped hold of a couple of well-sized pieces, and placed the wood on top of the orange embers. They sparked to life immediately, and within three minutes, he had a fire cheerfully blazing again. Its heat rolled over his shivering flesh as warm as Potter's hands.

Necessity dealt with, Severus returned to their makeshift bed. His heart twisted in his chest at the sight of a naked Harry Potter sprawled across the nest they'd made of his couch cushions and pillows. Although his anxiety didn't recede in the slightest, he couldn't help but admire the view.

Shaggy, black, rumpled hair that never looked neat surrounded a face that was both strong and innocent. James Potter had been handsome in his own arrogant way, but for all that Harry resembled his father, Harry's appeal was far more wholesome and compelling than James' had ever been. Severus had never thought that he'd consider kindness an attractive feature, but Harry's face was kind and gentle . . . and he liked that about him. He liked the strong cleft chin that James hadn't had, and the zigzagging lightning bolt scar on his brow.

Potter was sleeping the sleep of the thoroughly fucked on top of a pile of green couch cushions and black and silver patterned throw pillows. The blanket Severus had pulled from the couch to cover them had no doubt slipped off Potter when Severus had moved away from him.

The younger man was truly quite beautiful, especially in repose like this, when sleep washed all the cares from his face. Severus stared at the milky skin over Potter's left collarbone for a moment, before reaching out to retrieve the afghan to cover him up again.

Mistake. The instant the wool touched his skin, Potter's eyes flew open.

Severus steeled himself for the alarm in those green eyes to turn into scorn or something far worse once Potter saw him and recalled what they'd done last night, but as Potter focused on him, all worry seemed to drain from his features. Potter blinked at him, and Severus could almost feel the memories rolling through Potter's barely awake mind.

To his confusion, a sleepy smile spilled over Potter's features and he murmured a husky, "Good morning."

Severus was still taking in the civility of the greeting when Potter took hold of his arms and pulled him down into a kiss. Potter seemed to give no thought to morning breath; he just kissed him for all he was worth.

As for himself, Severus didn't care. He'd tasted far worse than a sleepy young man's mouth in his day.

Severus tried to remain in control, to hold back from the kiss, because he knew Potter's feelings would change as soon as he'd had time to digest everything that had happened last night, but it was no good. Despite his best efforts, he responded to that dry mouth, lingering in the kiss until he finally had to come up for air.

Potter's hands settled on his back, silently beseeching Severus to remain where he was, half lying on top of him.

This was not going at all as he'd anticipated. Severus stared down into Potter's angular, fire-lit features, smelling the sex on both of them.

"You were fantastic last night," Potter said in that same sleep-thickened voice. "Thank you."

Severus could feel his cheeks warming. Potter wasn't reviling him for his shameful show of weakness? He was thanking him?

"Are you all right?" Potter asked.

Severus considered the idiotic question. He'd given himself to this man like a pig on a platter last night. Potter could have done anything with him, and he would have been defenceless to prevent it. No, that was untrue.

Severus knew that he wouldn't even have tried to stop it. From the moment Potter had touched him and he'd felt that incredible well of power throbbing under the younger wizard's skin, he'd been lost. He didn't understand what made him need to feel a greater wizard's magic suborn his own, but he was self-honest enough not to deny it. However, self-honesty in no way prepared him to deal with the consequences of his weakness.

"Severus, are you all right?" Potter repeated, reaching up to stroke his cheek, appearing genuinely concerned.

Severus managed a nod. It mightn't be much, but his brain was as frozen as his flesh at the moment.

"Gods, you're freezing," Potter fussed as if he'd read his thought, shifting them around until he'd gotten the blanket over them both. "Is that better?"

The gentleness was so alien to his experience that it nearly frightened him. Not trusting his voice, Severus gave another nod.

Potter was apparently much more capable of speech in the morning than he was, for he started to ask, "What time . . . ." then glanced at the grandfather clock in the far right corner of the room. Potter no doubt performed some type of silent sight-enhancing spell because his glasses were still on the table, yet he was able to read the clock well enough to answer his own question with, "It's only half past six. We have time. Relax."

At the light urging of the hand on the nape of his neck, Severus lowered his head to the cushion beside Potter's and tried not to tense as his companion threw a friendly arm and leg across him. The men he'd known in his past were not the type given to cuddling, and even if they had been, they wouldn't have wasted it on the likes of him.

Severus was bewildered by Potter's attitude. Potter had spent his entire adult life in the Wizarding World. Surely, even a dense Gryffindor must understand how . . . inappropriate his behaviour had been last night?

"Are you always this quiet in the morning or is something wrong?" Potter asked after five minutes of stroking him failed to relax his tense muscles. "If I've overstayed my welcome, you can just say."

"Whhatt?" Severus rasped out, the sound more like a raven's croak than a question.

"Last night was . . . pretty intense," Potter seemed to choose his words carefully. "I, er, probably shouldn't have done what I did."

"You shouldn't have done what you did?" Shock forced the words from his mouth before Severus could think better of it. "It was I who suggested it. I who . . . revealed such a . . . humiliating weakness."

"Whoa, there," Potter said, propping himself up to stare down at him. "What are you talking about?"

His cheeks flaming hot as the fire in the hearth, Severus stared at Potter's neat little nose and detailed his transgressions, "I displayed a deplorable lack of control last night. I abandoned all dignity and put myself totally at your mercy. Most men would view what I did as a . . . perversion and have punished me for my weakness -"

"First off, what you offered me was incredible, not a perversion, and certainly not a weakness," Potter interrupted, his eyes bright with emotion. "It takes courage in this cocked up world to ask for anything we need. You didn't mince words with me or try to hide what you wanted. You laid it all on the line, right up front, risking it all, and being honest. There's nothing weak or cowardly about that. Anyone who would reward your courage with punishment," Potter spat out the word like he wanted to murder someone, "isn't worthy of you."

Worthy of him? Potter wasn't mocking him. He meant what he'd said. Severus could see it in the glowing Gryffindor sincerity.

Severus squeezed his eyes shut. That brightness was too much to look upon. Potter's words hit him like a blow, or maybe like the abrupt, unexpected removal of a crippling burden.

By the gods, could it be true? Potter had judged him, as he'd known Harry must, only . . .he hadn't been found wanting.

Potter's arms came around him and pulled him close.

There wasn't even a thought of refusing the gesture. Trembling, because he knew he wasn't worthy of this, he snuggled closer, offering up a silent prayer to whatever power had brought him this blessing that it not be snatched away from him too soon, that he be given some time, however short, to enjoy this before Potter realized his mistake and moved on.

Potter held him tight for a very long time, stroking his back while he rested his lips on the crown of his head.

Severus was glad he'd taken the time to wash his hair yesterday. Potter's hands and nose had been in it most of the night.

Had Potter been another Slytherin, Severus would have worried about appearing weak by accepting this unnecessary contact, but he could tell by the way Harry nestled against him that the younger man was enjoying it as much as he.

Severus was intensely aware of his own body as he lay there in the shelter of Potter's arms, but not on a sexual level. An utterly alien sense of contentment was humming through his languid limbs and there was something else, a warm emotion that he failed to recognize.

It took Severus a while to determine what it was that he was experiencing, for even as a very young child, he'd known nothing like this. He'd spent his life amongst predators. He didn't even recognize what it felt like to be safe in another wizard's company, and the concept that the person he was with would protect him was so unique in his experience that it took him a long time to recognize it. But that's what it was; there was no denying it. Lying here in Harry Potter's arms, he felt protected.

Finally, the younger man broke the silence. "I better floo back to my quarters to get ready for class. I've still got fifty papers to grade. Can I see you again tonight? Maybe we could play some chess?"

Potter sounded so hopeful, as though it would crush him if Severus refused.

Refusal was the furthest thing from his mind, but his self-preservation instincts counselled him that it wasn't a wise idea to continue this on a regular basis. He'd never experienced emotions like this in his life. When Potter eventually walked away, like everyone else had, it would kill him.

Severus opened his mouth to give a gentle refusal, but the expression in those myopic green eyes gazing at him with such open hope and longing changed the cold logic of his intended refusal into a completely unexpected, "If you'd like."

Severus tried to curse his own weakness, but the relieved joy spreading across Potter's face made him very glad his heart had overruled his common sense. There'd be time enough for hurting each other down the line, after Potter moved on. For now, perhaps he could simply enjoy Harry.

"Brilliant!" Potter beamed, and then gave him an impulsive hug. "I wish it were the weekend so we could just lie here all morning."

Did people do that, Severus wondered, lie around naked all morning? His ignorance of interpersonal relationships was truly appalling.

"Well, we'll just have to wait till Saturday," Potter said.

"Yes, Saturday," Severus echoed, hoping he didn't sound as mystified as he felt upon hearing someone who'd already shagged him suggest that he would still be around and interested in nearly a week.

Potter's hands framed his face and guided him into a deep kiss that somehow felt like a promise.

"God," Potter said in a breathy voice when their lips finally parted, "I can't believe how incredible you are. I'm going to be useless all day thinking about tonight."

Severus searched those spectacle-less, slightly unfocused eyes for lies, but found only hunger and warmth. No false flattery, no hidden agenda, just . . .good old-fashioned lust. He tried not to let the sentiment affect him. Potter was more than twenty years his junior. Hormones ruled young men's lives to such an extent that there was probably nothing personal in the statement; Potter would have felt the same way about anyone he'd shagged. But that in itself was a pleasant change. To be viewed in the same light as this handsome young man's other paramours and not as a terrible, disgusting mistake was an honour.

"Till tonight, then," Severus added, uncomfortable under that bright gaze.

With visible reluctance, Potter extracted himself from their embrace and rose to his feet.

Severus tried to keep his eyes on the younger man's face, but couldn't help but survey the trim line of that lithe, muscular body, or note the pleasing jiggle Potter's standing had caused in his genitals. Potter ran a hand through the ragged, black bird's nest he called hair, silently summoned his spectacles from the nearby side table, and then stared around the fire-lit floor. "I've no idea where my clothes are. Shrink them down and bring them tonight, will you?"

"You're going to floo naked?" Severus asked.

"Shocking, isn't it?" Potter grinned. "Let's just hope I don't mispronounce my own chambers. First time I flooed, I ended up in a pawnshop in Knockturn Alley by accident."

"I trust that they asked a sufficient amount for you. I expect if you show up like this, the shopkeeper will be able to charge a couple of thousand galleons more."

Potter gaped at him. "Was that a compliment?"

"Don't be insulting," Severus snarked, but there was no true bite to it.

His chuckle seeming to fill the room, Potter stood there staring down at him. Finally, he shook his head and said, "You're a surprising man, Severus Snape." Then Harry took a handful of glittering floo powder from the jar on the mantel, carefully enunciated, "Harry Potter's chambers, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizarding," stepped into the blazing green flames, and flooed away, stark naked.

Potter's laughter seemed to linger in the air after he was gone.

Severus stared around the wreck of his sitting room, wondering why it should abruptly feel so cavernously empty.

He knew he should get up and put the room to rights, then prepare for the day, but he was too overwhelmed to move. The events of the last two days were simply too incomprehensible for him to take in stride.

This madness should have ended in an embarrassing scene on Saturday evening when he'd misinterpreted Potter's reasons for associating with him. But Potter hadn't refused his inept seduction; to the contrary the younger wizard had come back for more. When he'd lost control last night and shamefully offered himself to Potter, the Gryffindor hadn't done what every other wizard had in the past. Potter hadn't used him, debased him, and then walked away in disgust. For the first time in his life, he hadn't been made to pay for his pleasure with either humiliation or pain. When Potter could have used him like a whore and done anything he wanted with him, Harry had cocooned him in his magic and fed him delight until he could barely see straight.

What was even more amazing was this morning's development. He'd never encountered respect and affection after sex before. Potter wasn't behaving as though he were lowering himself to be with him, or as if he pitied him. Harry almost acted as though he were the one being given the gift. It was utterly mystifying.

As incomprehensible as it might be, Severus was resolved to do nothing to jeopardize their connection. Although everything inside warned him that this liaison had the potential to destroy him as none other had, it felt too good to end it prematurely. He'd ride it to the end, short as that ride might be, and deal with the consequences when they hit. Severus consoled himself that those consequences couldn't be nearly as terrible as those he'd endured after taking the Dark Mark on his arm. Whatever happened with Harry Potter, it couldn't ever be that disastrous.

This unlikely affair would end soon. Severus knew that. Potter was young, charming, and good-looking. Sooner, rather than later, a wizard his own age would catch Potter's interest, and he'd come to his senses. It hurt Severus just thinking about that inevitable rejection, but he wasn't fool enough to imagine it wouldn't happen.

Right now he was probably an unusual diversion. Potter no doubt viewed him as an exciting challenge. No Slytherin could fail to comprehend the thrill of conquering the unobtainable. But as time went by, that thrill would fade. Potter would see him as he truly was, and they would become a cliché – an older wizard desperately attempting to rekindle the dead interest of his young lover. Severus knew that he had to prepare himself for that eventuality. When that time came, he knew what he must do. He was going to have to let Potter go with dignity and grace, and try to be grateful for the time he'd been given.

It was a grim future, but when had his prospects ever been otherwise? The mistake he'd made at seventeen had doomed him to a life of ostracism. Severus knew that he was lucky to have Potter at all. He knew that. Still, even after only two nights, the shadow of Potter's inevitable desertion was a heavy pall on his heart. How much worse would it be after even a few more encounters like last night?

But did it really matter? Was he going to deny himself the chance to feel alive if only for a few more days? Severus had no illusions. Tonight or tomorrow night at the latest, Potter would bugger him and then there would be no conceivable reason for the younger man to linger. His last mystery would be known, and Potter would leave.

As much as that acknowledgement stung, in some ways it was a relief. All pretences would come to an end. This confusing social interaction would stop, and he could return to his quiet solitude to lick his wounds in privacy.

Comforted by his plan of action, Severus finally rose from their impromptu bed of cushions and searched out his wand to put the sitting room to rights.

He'd thought Harry had vanished his own clothes to his laundry hamper, but they were here under the cushions. Severus froze at the sight of Potter's holly wand sticking out of the back pocket of the jeans Harry had worn last night, which were rolled in a ball under the last cushion.

Potter's casual abandonment of every wizard's only source of defence seemed to accentuate his level of power in a way that even killing Voldemort hadn't. What wizard would leave his wand lying behind? Even Albus and Lord Voldemort had always kept their wands handy, for all that they were able to work magic without them. Was Harry's power so extreme that he didn't even need to think about his wand for defence?

Severus simply needed to remember some of the things Potter had done to him last night, all without the benefit of a wand, to find his answer. The entire time they'd been together, Harry had been working multiple spells. At the height of their encounter, Severus had counted five simultaneous spells: the candles, the levitation spell, and the three probes. Five spells . . . and the man had still had the energy to have sex.

Potter really was quite astonishing. The saviour of the Wizarding World really didn't seem to have any limits on his abilities. He simply thought of something, and it instantaneously manifested. No wizard he'd known, even Lord Voldemort at his most powerful, had been capable of the spellcraft Potter had worked last night. Severus knew if he had any sense he'd be terrified, but when had he ever shown caution when faced with the lure of this level of magic?

Shaking his head, he picked up Potter's wand. Useless as it might be to Harry, it was better that he carry it, if only to lull those around him into a false sense of security.

He'd give the wand back this morning in the Great Hall.

Severus knew the burst of excitement that shot through him at the idea of seeing Harry again so soon was utterly foolish, but until the inevitable occurred, he planned to wring every last drop of pleasure out of the short time he'd have with him.


"Now, the next item on our agenda is the Christmas holiday," Minerva McGonagall announced.

Harry returned his attention to the meeting. These staff get-togethers were fairly routine, and he had very little input to offer most days. They covered the same subjects, again and again, month after month. It was rare that he needed to address a problem with a student before the entire staff. The few times in the past that he'd been required to, Snape and he had ended up in shouting matches, for more often than not, the student involved was a Slytherin, but these days . . . things were different. When he had an issue with a Slytherin, he brought it up to Severus as part of their daily conversation, the way Severus would relate the latest cauldron explosion. And somehow, though he hadn't realized it until this moment, the situation with the student would usually improve dramatically after he'd vented to Severus.

Severus was proving to be simply amazing. He'd never had a lover last this long before, let alone had one who was so utterly in tune with him sexually. Realizing how inappropriate that line of thought was in this venue, Harry shook himself out of his reverie and returned his drifting attention to the subject at hand.

The Christmas holiday was something he always took special interest in. Hogwarts was the first place he'd ever enjoyed a real Christmas and he wanted to ensure that the students who remained here at school during the holiday had as good an experience as he'd had. It was only the first week of December, so they still had time to plan, but he'd found that Minerva was right in addressing these subjects far in advance.

"Professor Flitwick has once again graciously offered to handle the decorations with Hagrid," Minerva said.

"Insufferable fairies and carolling suits of armour again," Severus groused beside him.

Several sharp glances shot Snape's way, but on the whole, Severus' complaint was ignored the way a squeaky chair might be overlooked.

A metallic and glass tinkling sounded as Professor Trelawney shifted position at the far end of the table and the dozens of gimcrack beads and chains she wore around her neck collided. She hadn't changed much in the nine years that had passed since Harry had finished school. She still wore the same gauzy layered clothes and still reeked of incense. "My crystal ball showed that we're going to have a Yule Ball again this year. It will be a tremendous success."

"May I remind you all that the last time we held that ridiculous event, no less than twenty-six students were fined with detention for intoxication, and seven for being caught . . . shall we say, in flagrante delicto?" Severus sneered.

"All by you," Professor Willis, the grey haired, Ancient Runes teacher, sourly responded.

Harry, on the other hand, was speculating on the odd number of students caught snogging that year. Seven students. He wanted to ask if it had been two couples and a triple?

"Forgive me if I'm the only one of their caretakers who would like to see the dunderheads survive long enough to pass their NEWTS without succumbing to alcohol poisoning or prematurely reproducing and adding to their obnoxious numbers," Snape shot back.

"I for one like the Yule Ball," Trelawney huffed.

"Madam, you like patchouli incense. No more need be said about either your taste or judgement," Severus countered.

At the confused expression behind Professor Trelawney's huge bottle-lensed glasses, Harry turned his face away so that no one would see him smile. Hanging out with Severus was really contaminating him. He was beginning to truly relish the man's rudeness.

"How many students are remaining this year, Minerva?" Neville Longbottom asked from the far end of the table. Though Severus still terrified him, Neville had become better at hiding it over the years. The slightly pudgy Neville was always an island of calm at these meetings. Harry appreciated the talent Neville had developed for derailing the arguments that Snape's insults would engender by changing the topic. Having benefited from that skill a time or two in the last four years, he could hardly resent Neville's interruption today, even though he was enjoying seeing his lover have a go at his batty old Divinations teacher.

"Sixteen will remain with us this Christmas," Minerva answered.

"That's a lot of kids," Harry said.

"Yes, that was my thought," Minerva said.

"Why so many?" Neville asked.

"Well, we have those four Muggleborns whose families washed their hands of them when they received their Hogwarts' letter. The parents of five of the others will be travelling out of the country over the holidays."

"And the others?" Hermione questioned.

"Three of my Slytherins have asked to remain. I didn't enquire as to their reasons," Severus informed.

"And there are two Hufflepuffs, a Ravenclaw and a Gryffindor staying," Minerva said. "We will have our hands full."

"Maybe we should consider doing more to keep them amused this year, considering how many are staying?" Hermione suggested.

"What did you have in mind?" Minerva asked her.

"Well, I hadn't really given it much thought, but . . . ." obviously, no ideas immediately sprang to Hermione's mind.

Taking a deep breath, Harry voiced the idea that had gone over like the proverbial Muggle lead balloon the last time he'd suggested it at the staff meeting, mostly due to Severus' scathing disapproval of incorporating any more Muggle festivities in a Wizarding school, "We could do what the Muggles call a Secret Santa and have a real Christmas party with carols."

"Maybe someone could even dress up like Santa and give out presents," Hermione quickly said, getting the words out before Snape could interrupt, her eyes turning towards Hagrid. "Or perhaps the Ghost of Christmas Past."

Harry held his breath, not even daring to look his lover's way as he waited for Severus to shoot the idea down. In fact, everyone at the staff meeting appeared to be bracing themselves for a typical Snape explosion. The silence stretched uncomfortably.

Finally, Harry peeked over at Severus. The strong-featured face was impassive, utterly unreadable. Their gazes touched and held.

Severus said nothing.

Harry could feel the confusion mounting at the table, the way people might react if dawn came and the sun failed to appear on the horizon at its predicted sunrise.

Minerva broke the quiet.

"Are there any objections to the idea? Severus?" McGonagall asked, as if she thought he might have missed the entire conversation.

Severus shook his head. "I'm sure the students will find the insipid idea most entertaining."

Severus' response appeared to unnerve Minerva as much as it did Harry and everyone else at the table.

"You don't have any objections to a Muggle party with carolling and a Santa?" the headmistress enquired.

"I have many objections. However, your intent was to entertain the simpletons, was it not? Although the suggestion is insidious, it is far preferable to a repeat of the Yule Ball fiasco," Severus stiffly responded.

"Are you feeling all right, Severus?" Madam Pomfrey dared voice the question that everyone else was afraid to ask.

As Severus responded in his characteristic, scathing manner, Harry exchanged a glance with Hermione. Around the table, their co-workers were doing pretty much the same thing. No one could believe that Severus Snape was agreeing to this idea without even a token argument.

Seeming almost nervous, as though she expected this obvious Snape impostor to explode beside her at any moment, Minerva continued, "Well, that's settled then. Have we any volunteers to organize the gift exchange?"

"I'll do it," Hermione quickly offered.

"What about the Father Christmas impersonator?" Minerva asked.

For some reason, everyone was still staring at Severus, as if they expected this bizarre lookalike to offer to take on the role. As Harry had hoped, it was Hagrid's deep, gruff voice that volunteered, "I'll do it, Headmistress. If someone'd be willing to make me costume?"

"We can help with that, Hagrid," Hermione assured.

"I'm a decent dressmaker," Madam Pomfrey surprised them all by saying. "I can assist, if you'd like?"

"Thanks," Hermione said. "We could really use the help. I'm awful with a needle and Harry's even worse."

"I wouldn't have thought dressmaking your cup of tea, Potter," Severus drawled from beside him.

Being Ron's best friend, he'd actually tried it to help repair Ron's hand-me-down robes when magic had been used too often on them, but Harry couldn't say that in front of the entire staff.

He felt his face go red. "Yes, well -"

Harry was spared having to answer when Professor Trelawney's annoying, petulant voice once again filled the room. "Has the idea of the Yule Ball been totally vetoed, Minerva?"

"Ill take it under consideration," Minerva answered.

"My vision showed that we all had a wonderful time," Trelawney said.

"Yes, I'm sure." Minerva's curt tone revealed her feelings on that. "Now, if there are no other issues to be addressed, we'll adjourn. Thank you all for your attendance and cooperation."

The room quickly cleared out, leaving only Hermione, Harry, and Severus sitting at the empty staff table.

"I'll see you later, Harry," Hermione said, bustling out the door, as if eager to get away from Severus before some terrible transformation came over him.

Knowing how she felt, Harry turned to his lover when they were alone at the table littered with abandoned quills, papers, and teacups, and asked, "What just happened here?"

"What do you mean?" Severus absently returned as he gathered together the papers he'd been marking before the meeting started.

"I mean you just agreed to a Secret Santa and carolling. Who are you and what have you done to the real Severus Snape?" Harry half-joked.

"As I pointed out, this suggestion will offer less opportunity for mischief than another Yule Ball," Severus said.

"But if we don't do it at all, there will be no opportunity for misbehaviour," Harry said.

"That goes without saying," Severus agreed.

Something about the entire thing was making Harry very uneasy. There was only one reason he could think of for Severus to agree so readily to this kind of idea – their altered relationship. It took no effort at all to remember how disgustingly despotic Severus had been while he was his teacher, flagrantly awarding points to his own house and letting that bastard Malfoy get away with murder, while penalizing Gryffindors for existing. Carl Westfield's more recent problems with Severus' grading habits told him that his lover hadn't changed all that much since he'd taught him.

Harry decided to call Severus on it. "Last year you would have vetoed both ideas and argued me into the ground."

"Yes, I would have," Severus agreed with aggravating equanimity, as though he were thoroughly enjoying his discomfiture.

"So, what's different about this year? I know you don't want to have a Secret Santa and carols."

"Of course, I don't. The entire idea of initiating such Muggle festivities is an insult to the traditions of the Wizarding World," Severus smoothly replied.

"So why didn't you say that?" Harry demanded. "You would have fought me to the death on this last year."

Finally, something like uneasiness entered Severus' attitude. His dark eyes swept to the open door. Severus pulled out his wand, muttered a spell that closed the door, and added a silencing charm on the room before answering, "Things have changed now. Last year, I took great pleasure in aggravating you and thwarting you and your little Gryffindor plans. This year . . . it is not in my own best interest to needlessly aggravate you."

"Because we're sleeping together?" Harry asked, not sure how he felt about the idea. This unfair favouritism was one of Severus' least attractive traits.

"Yes," Severus replied without pause. "This bothers you?"

Harry tried to find the right way to phrase this. "It's not right that you should . . . agree with me just to agree with me, not if you don't feel that way."

"I see," Severus softly said. After a moment's thought, he questioned, "But don't your friends always back you up when you make similar suggestions? At staff meetings I've seen Professors Weasley and Longbottom support you when they have no true interest in your suggestions. How is what I did today different?"

It was like Severus really had no clue about friendship.

"It's different because Hermione and Neville don't want to do something totally different when they back me up. They're not going against their own principles to support me. What you did today – you agreed to something you really don't want to do, simply to humour me."

"Yes," Severus agreed, as though there were nothing wrong with him doing so. After a moment, he said, "In Slytherin house, the only way you can tell friend from foe is if they support you. Principles rarely enter into the matter."

Harry thought about that, what it must have been like for Severus to grow up in an environment where unfair favouritism and mindless support were signs of devotion. Severus had been taught that despotism was how you showed your attachment to someone, and now, Severus was showing him that he cared the only way Severus knew how.

Loyalty was important. Right or wrong, his friends had always stuck by him. Harry remembered all the times when Hermione and Ron had stood beside him when the rest of the school turned their backs on him. Was what Severus was talking about really so different than their unwavering loyalty?

Harry wanted to say that it wasn't, but he knew deep down it was. Hermione and Ron might have always stood by him, but they'd always let him know when they thought he was making a mistake. Having Severus' blithely agree to things that went against his grain simply to humour him was wrong, dead wrong. Only, how could he say that without offending the man? In his own clumsy way, Severus was making a very public statement about his feelings for him, even if only Severus and he were aware of it. Everyone else at the staff meeting today had doubtless been convinced that Severus had finally gone mental.

"I can see where that would influence your behaviour," Harry said at last. "Only, I already know you're my friend. You don't have to . . . compromise your beliefs to prove it to me. I understand that we have completely different viewpoints on absolutely every subject under the sun. I don't expect or want you to agree with me on everything. So, if we get into the occasional argument, that doesn't mean we're not friends, just that we disagree on something. As long as we don't end up screaming and at each other's throats like we used to do, we should be fine. If you want to tell Minerva to dump the Christmas party -"

Severus simply stared at him with an unreadable expression for an uncomfortably long moment before he said, "All of those seasonal frivolities are equally offensive to me. While I . . . appreciate the sentiments you've expressed, you must understand; this is my way. I am Slytherin and Slytherins don't publicly reproach those they . . . call friend. I will not stand against you while we are . . . ."

Seeing how much difficulty Severus was having, Harry softly finished, "Lovers. We're lovers. You can say it."

"If you can't accept that . . . ." Severus faltered.

Harry couldn't really blame him. He was, after all, berating Severus for supporting him. It had to be terribly confusing to his emotionally isolated friend. Reaching out, he laid his hand on Severus' sleeve. "I'm sorry. I was just trying to let you know that . . . everything won't fall apart if we have a disagreement."

"That is what we've just done, is it not?" Severus asked with a hint of humour.

Relieved, Harry nodded. "Yes, I guess it is." He stared into those bottomless eyes, wanting nothing more than to cover Severus' mouth with his own and kiss the tension from his tight-held features. But he wasn't fool enough to chance something like that in the staff room. Even if the door was locked and a silencing spell on the room. "Dinner's going to start in about ten minutes."

"So it is," Severus agreed, his cultured, sensuous tone doing what it always did to his controls.

"Er . . . are you terribly hungry?"

Severus gave a ready nod, and then added in a smoky, sultry voice, "But not for food."

"We could, er, floo to your rooms," Harry suggested, thinking that if they didn't, they'd end up on the staff room floor in about thirty more seconds.

"That sounds far more appetizing," Severus said, rising with his papers in hand.

Unable to believe how quickly everything seemed all right between them again, Harry turned and followed his lover to the door.


"Noooo!" Harry awoke with a scream hurting his throat, images of blood and torture clinging to his mind and flesh. Panting, with sweat dripping down every inch of his body, he took a deep breath and tried to get hold of himself.

He sat up and stared around the dark room. His bed, his room. He was safe. It was only a dream, like the thousands before it.

The mantel clock told him it was barely six in the morning.

Damn, he'd forgotten to take his Dreamless Sleep potion when he'd returned from Severus' last night. He'd been so worn out from the loving that he'd barely been able to stumble from the floo to his bed. That man was going to be the death of him, he acknowledged. But what a way to go!

Today's Friday, he reminded himself, and tomorrow, it would be three weeks since Severus had kissed him in the Forbidden Forest. As he concentrated on Severus, the night terrors receded and his breathing slowly calmed.

Harry couldn't help but marvel over the fact that Severus was still around. He'd never had a relationship last this long. Either his nightmares would have ruined it by this point or the other wizard would have balked after he'd been careless and forgotten to pretend that he was like everyone else. This was the first nightmare he'd had in weeks; so they really hadn't been an issue yet, and, as for the fear factor, Severus didn't seem the least bit intimidated by his greater power. He'd even been so foolish as to leave his wand in the dungeons the first night he'd visited Severus' rooms. When he'd realized his error, he'd been worried that Severus would bail, but Severus had simply handed his wand back to him with a surreptitious sleight of hand while passing his chair in the Great Hall the following morning and never mentioned the incident. That took both style and guts.

Rather than being afraid of him, the freakish potency of his magic turned Severus on. Harry had never had a lover like him in his life. Whenever he thought about the things Severus allowed him to do to him, his mind reeled and his cock twitched. Every night for the last three weeks, Severus had placed himself entirely in his power and allowed him to have his wicked way with him magically. The freedom, the sheer exhilaration of not having to hold back all the time, had made this the most exciting sexual odyssey of his life. What they did together weren't typical power games; although feeling Severus surrender his autonomy to him was a heady rush like none he'd known. What happened between them was almost a blending. Severus was open to him both sexually and magically. He poured everything he was into Severus, and Severus took it all. Nothing was too extreme or too much for Severus, and Harry worshipped him for that courage.

But that was his secret. Severus Snape wasn't a sentimental man. For all that they'd had sex every night for three weeks now, Harry wasn't sure if his new lover would welcome emotional entanglement. It was strange. Severus never refused him when he snuggled up to him after sex, but Severus never initiated similar contact. He was beginning to think that Severus didn't need it. He was trying not to be too demanding, but he was getting to the point where he wanted to simply crawl into the other man's skin and take up residence there.

Severus would probably laugh his head off at the insipid sentimentality. But that was all right. Harry was good at keeping secrets. Severus need never know how big a fool he was.

Overcoming the last of the residual shakes from his nightmare, he climbed out of bed to meet the day. Stumbling to his pitch black, frigid bathroom, Harry lit the wall sconces with a thought.

There was a piece of parchment stuck to the mirror above the sink. He smiled as he read Hermione's neat penmanship.

Ron actually had some life in him when the poor dear got in this morning. We probably won't be down to breakfast. He says he'll have Friday off, so keep that night open.
The Other H.

Gods, how he missed seeing Ron. The search for Burke was taking up Ron's entire life. All Aurors were pulling double shifts nearly every day. If they were lucky, Ron managed a fast breakfast with them, but most days the poor guy crawled out of bed and flooed back to work before either Hermione or he had even risen.

Harry was glad that Hermione was getting some time alone with her husband. Ron hadn't had a full day off for weeks. She kept busy with all her clubs and other interests, but he knew how deeply she missed Ron.

In some ways, Ron's absence had made it easier for his relationship with Severus to develop. With Ron gone so much, there had been no need for awkward explanations. At first, Harry had put off telling Ron and Hermione for fear that things would fall apart with Severus in the normally pathetic time span it took for his romantic relationships to self-destruct. When that hadn't happened, he'd delayed because he didn't want anything to poison his joy. He instinctively knew that Ron wouldn't approve of what he was doing with Severus. It wasn't exactly the kind of thing he could just drop at the breakfast table in the fifteen minutes or so he got to see him. Ron was already overworked and under-slept and he wouldn't have dealt well with this development under the best of circumstances.

Why he was delaying with Hermione was a complete mystery. It wasn't for lack of opportunity. They spent their shared free third period together every Tuesday and Thursday and ate all meals together every day. She always asked about Severus, and Harry always reported the innocuous portion of their evening's entertainment. But for all that he'd been tempted, he hadn't revealed the changed nature of their relationship.

Even now, the thought of telling anyone filled him with an almost superstitious dread. All his life, he'd been completely open with Hermione and Ron about his affairs, and without a single exception, every time he told them he was involved with someone, the relationship ended within a week. Logically, he knew that there was no true connection between his being open with his best friends and the end of his affairs, but this was the first time he'd ever kept what he was doing to himself, and it was also the first time a relationship had lasted this long.

Harry knew he had to tell them; he just wanted to enjoy Severus for a little longer. Well, this Friday would be as good a time as any. At least Ron would be in a good mood.

That decided, Harry hurried through his morning shower and made his way down to the Great Hall. He was starving. Good sex always did that to him.

The Hall was nearly deserted when he arrived. Little wonder, that, since it was barely six fifteen.

A grin pulled at his face as he noticed the tall, dark figure taking a seat at what was normally the empty end of the teachers' table. There wasn't another soul at the table yet, and less than fifteen students in the entire hall.

Harry normally sat with Ron and Hermione over by Neville and Hagrid, but since Ron and Hermione were sleeping in, there was no reason he couldn't inflict his company on Severus for a while.

Morning definitely wasn't his lover's best time of the day, Harry thought, as he took in the grumpy profile. Severus was concentrating so hard on pouring his tea that he didn't even see him approaching.

"Good morning," Harry said, slipping into the empty seat next to Severus.

Severus' gaze jumped past his shoulder, as if to guarantee that Harry was alone, before meeting his eyes and giving him a not-quite-surly, "'Morning."

"You don't do mornings well, do you?" Harry asked in a cheerful tone.

That earned him a baleful glare. "Not on four and a half hours sleep, I don't. How the devil can you be so disgustingly chipper first thing?"

Harry dropped his voice so that only Severus could hear his reply, even though the teachers' table was still completely empty except for the two of them. "I've got this amazing lover who makes my life worth living. You should meet him; he's really hot. Especially when he glowers into his teacup first thing in the morning."

"Pervert," Snape snapped, though Harry could tell that he'd pleased the man.

"He likes that about me," Harry continued in that same soft, playful undertone.

Severus took a quick look around them, as if to ensure their continued privacy, before asking in a similarly low tone, "And what do you like about him?"

He'd never thought Severus would have the nerve to ask such a question, even in play. He could tell it hadn't been easy, because those dark eyes flashed with uncertainty before they returned to their study of the unprepossessing teacup.

Taking a deep breath, Harry gave Severus the truth, "Everything. He's got the most wonderful hands, with elegant long fingers that look like they should be playing a grand piano. They play my body like an instrument, though, with a deft, virtuoso's touch. And he's got a fantastic mouth, perfectly shaped, deep and warm. I can't look at it without wanting to taste it."

Severus shifted in his chair and softly interrupted, "Surely, this paragon must have some flaws?"

"If he does, I haven't found them yet," Harry answered. "Oh, he's a bit grumpy in the morning, but he even does that sexy."

Harry grinned as he saw the corners of Severus' mouth twitch.

"Your judgement is obviously addled," Severus said.

"Only by his prowess," Harry quipped.

That won him the gambit.

Severus gave a breathy snort, his thin lips curving into a tiny, but actual smile. He seemed to realize what he was doing and immediately blanked his expression. "Potter, please! It's too early in the morning for this."

"You just don't want the students to see you smile and think you're human, right? Have to keep up that cool -"

"Good morning," Hermione's uncertain sounding voice said from directly behind them.

They both jumped and swung around in their seats to see a confused looking Hermione and Ron standing a few feet away. Ron, in his red Auror robes, was paused with one foot pointed in the direction of their usual seats at the other end of the table. He looked like he'd been frozen in his tracks by the sight of Harry sitting next to Snape.

Hermione appeared much less confused, though that could simply be the effect of her dignified black teacher's robes and the neat bun she'd put her damp hair in this morning.

Harry noted that both his friends' hair was drying around their faces, as if they'd just stepped out of the bath.

"I thought you were sleeping in," Harry said with a grin, before giving a belated, "Good morning, yourself."

Hermione smiled, gestured at the two empty seats on Harry's other side, and asked, "Are these seats taken?" She directed her question to Severus, who usually isolated himself behind at least four empty chairs when he could.

Severus' voice was dry as desiccated batwings as he replied, "Unfortunately, I don't own the chairs."

Ron's face clouded in anger.

Before anyone could say anything else, Harry grinned and said, "That's Slytherin for 'we'd be honoured to have the pleasure of your company.'"

His friends still stood there frozen, as if awaiting Snape's permission to join them.

After a few seconds of that uncomfortable stand off, Severus gave an irritated, "Oh, do sit down. I won't deduct any house points."

Hermione chuckled and pulled out the nearest chair, Ron following her a moment later.

The ensuing silence was even more awkward.

Very aware of his oldest friends' stares, Harry got himself some scrambled eggs and bacon. He shivered as Severus' hand brushed his while reaching for the toast. Needing to ease the tension, he looked over at Ron. His friend appeared utterly exhausted. There were dark circles under Ron's eyes and his normally affable features were strained. "How is the search going?"

Ron groaned. "It's not. We're still going through Burke's holdings. Estate by bloody estate. It's a horror."

"I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?" Harry asked, hating to see Ron so overwhelmed.

A trace of his characteristic humour glinted in his blue eyes as Ron said, "You could pass me the cream."

Suddenly, everything was all right between them again and they were laughing. When Harry glanced to his side, even Severus appeared amused, although his facial expression didn't change.

Ron seemed stretched so thin that he piled food down his mouth with very little of his characteristic animation or chatter.

Harry was really beginning to worry, but then Ron looked over at him and said in a low, confiding tone, "Whatever you're doing, keep it up."

"What?" Harry asked.

"You look good, Harry. Like maybe – damn," Ron straightened as an alarm chime sounded from the air behind him. Ron was so tired these days that he'd set magical alarms to alert him when he needed to leave. "Duty calls." The lanky redhead grabbed a couple of muffins from a tray beside him and rose to his feet. After bending to give Hermione a fast kiss, Ron turned back to Harry and said in a rush, "I know I haven't been around a lot lately, but you've been making like the Invisible Man as well. Whatever you're up to, keep Friday night free. I'm off and we're going to the Three Broomsticks." Lowering his voice, Ron continued with, "Bring whoever it is that's put that healthy flush back in your cheeks. I want to meet him. See you all."

Ron gave his shoulder a brief squeeze, nodded in Snape's direction, then turned and ran like a late second year for the nearest floo.

"He hasn't changed at all since school, has he?" Severus asked in a superior sounding tone as they watched Ron's red-robed figure thunder through the hall, drawing every eye as the bright red blur passed.

"He's gotten taller," Harry said, causing both Hermione and himself to giggle.

"And his skills in certain areas have improved remarkably since then," Hermione added with an air of contentment that left no one in any doubt as to what she was referring.

Harry could almost feel Severus debating his next words, but then his lover gave a silky, "I imagine they aren't the type of skills one could discuss at the breakfast table."

Stifling a laugh, Harry looked back over at Hermione to see her reaction to Severus' atypically personal comment. Her eyes widened in shock, but she covered quickly, responding with a prim, "Certainly not," that was worthy of Professor McGonagall at her severest.

This time Harry made no effort to hold in his laughter. Hermione joined him. They both looked over to Severus, whose eyes were alight, as though he were laughing inside. The sight of Severus calmly eating his porridge as though he hadn't just said something completely outrageous cracked them up even more.

Finally, they calmed and returned their attention to their own breakfasts.

"Well, I have to go check on a book Madam Pince was supposed to order for me," Hermione said once her food had disappeared. "I'll see you later, Harry. It was a pleasure chatting with you, Professor."

Severus gave a grave nod and a courteous, "Likewise."

Hermione left the table with as much speed, but far more grace than her husband had.

Once she was gone, Harry looked back over at Severus and offered a quiet, "Thanks."

"For?" Severus questioned.

Harry shrugged. "Not eviscerating anyone at the breakfast table?"

"The morning is still young."

"Yes, but we're both finished. Shall we go?" Harry asked. As they were approaching the door to the corridor, he took a quick look around him. They were alone, but that wouldn't last. "Have you got a minute? I'd like to talk to you." His searching gaze fixed on one of the numerous unused classrooms that could be found on almost any floor at Hogwarts. "In here."

Severus followed him into the dusty, dim room that was crowded with school desks and less identifiable pieces of furniture.

"Is this melodrama really necessary?" Severus protested. "We're going to look like truant sixth years if we're caught exiting this room."

Harry chuckled. "Don't worry. I have it on good authority that Professor Snape's busy at the moment. We're safe."

"Really, Potter," Severus said, but he could tell by his exaggerated exasperation that Severus was enjoying their banter. "So, what did you want to talk about?"

"You heard Ron. Will you come with me on Friday?"

Confused, he watched Severus tense up.

Severus was silent for a time, and then he said in a careful tone, "You needn't go to all this trouble."

"Trouble?" Harry repeated, knowing he probably sounded blank and stupid, but he hardly ever understood Severus' perspective on relationships. This happened every time he tried to really talk to Severus. His lover's defensive walls would pop back up again, and he would find that they were talking at cross-purposes.

"You've been most conscientious about . . . socializing with me, but you needn't work so hard at it. You have other friends and interests that you've been neglecting while I've monopolized your time. It's time you returned to them."

Harry's stomach clenched in a tight knot of dread at what he thought Severus' cautious words were saying. His mouth ran dry. The breath caught in his chest as his heart beat like a wild thing in blind terror. Was Severus dumping him?

"Are you saying you want to end it?" Harry asked, wishing he could manage something like a normal tone. Even his own ears could hear his fear.

Relieved, he saw shock wash across Severus' strong features before they were consciously returned to their normal blankness. "No. I was actually attempting to keep that from happening."

"That's not how it sounded," Harry shot back, still stiff and tense because he couldn't read what Severus really wanted. "Just say what's on your mind – please?"

"You needn't . . . interact so much with me. We can still . . . enjoy our extracurricular activities without you neglecting your friends."

The icy freeze transformed into incandescent fury as Severus' meaning penetrated. Extracurricular activities! Was that how Snape thought about their time together?

Holding himself firmly in check because he wasn't twelve anymore and couldn't afford to indulge his anger, Harry stiffly asked, "So you just want to meet for sex then? Have nothing else to do with me?"

Whether it was his tone or his words themselves, Severus seemed to realize how furious he was. Harry braced himself as those dark eyes scoured his face, prepared for anything except the regret that flashed across Severus' suddenly tense features as the man snapped, "That isn't what I meant."

"It's what you said." Harry stared down at the unswept floor with its years' of accumulated dust. He could hear shouts and laughter coming from the corridor as students passed the door on their way from the Great Hall, and then only Severus and his raspy sounding breaths in the intermittent silence.

"I phrased my thoughts badly," Severus said at last. "Forgive me, Potter. I meant no insult."

The apology was a first from Severus. In any other circumstances, Harry would have instantly forgiven him anything for the gesture, because he knew how difficult it was for this proud man to admit he was wrong about anything, but Severus' suggestion had cut him to the quick. His heart was still bleeding. He took a deep breath and forced himself to meet Severus' eyes before demanding, "Then what did you mean? Because it sure as hell sounded like you didn't want anything to do with me outside of the bedroom."

Harry knew he was glaring, but he couldn't help it.

He saw Severus' Adam's apple bob up and down, and heard the resulting noisy swallow. "I was attempting to give you the freedom to interact with your friends." Severus paused, and added, "I know you miss Weasley."

"And I was attempting to arrange to spend some time with him. That's why I asked you in here – to talk about going out on Friday."

"Do you think they want me tagging along on your night out? They want to spend time with you."

Abruptly, Harry understood what was going on, why Severus had made that awful suggestion. It wasn't about Severus having lost interest in him at all. What it was about floored him. He'd hoped they were past these issues. Thank the stars he hadn't entirely lost his temper. He stepped closer and reached out to touch Severus' arm. "Ron asked me to bring the man who's made me happy these last few weeks. That man is you."

Severus' gaze flicked away for a moment before he seemed to regain his equilibrium enough to respond. "Do you seriously believe Ronald Weasley wants to hear that?"

"Whether he wants to hear it or not, it's the truth."

"Not all truths need to be advertised," Severus answered softly, with obvious reluctance.

"I won't lie to them or keep secrets from them," Harry insisted.

"And yet you haven't revealed with whom you've been spending your nights for the last three weeks." It wasn't precisely an accusation, but it was as close as made no difference.

"It's not exactly the kind of thing I could bring up at the teachers' table. That's the only place I've seen Ron for the last three weeks," Harry protested.

"Don't try evasion with a Slytherin. You didn't tell them because -"

Harry didn't need his Occlumency and Legilimency skills to hear the rest of that line, the unspoken because you're ashamed of me that he could almost hear ringing in this often-betrayed man's mind. Unwilling to force Severus to voice his insecurities, he decided to bare a few of his own instead. "I didn't tell them because I never thought you'd stick around this long. You're the first lover who has."

Severus' narrow-eyed, suspicious glare scoured Harry's features. Harry braced himself for a tirade, but after a moment, all the waspish anger faded from Severus' face. Severus stared a bit longer and then said in a tentative voice, "That can't be true."

"Can't it?" Harry challenged.

The utter incomprehension in Severus' eyes was one of the greatest gifts he'd ever received. Before he seemed to think better of it, Severus asked, "Why would anyone leave you?" Severus followed it up immediately with a quick, "That wasn't an appropriate question for me to ask. You needn't answer."

"No, it's all right. I want you to know." Harry drew a deep breath and continued, "You've seen how careless I can be with my powers when I get . . .aroused. I forget to use my wand, and it frightens people. And if it's not that, then my nightmares usually scare them off." Severus hadn't witnessed one of his night terrors yet, but Harry felt better giving the man fair warning.

"Your nightmares?" Severus questioned, reaching out to lay a hand on his shoulder.

The tightness clenching his stomach relaxed at Severus' touch. Severus hardly ever initiated physical contact. When he did, it meant something.

"The dreams are very violent, and I wake up on the defensive, ready for a fight and . . . ." his explanation faltered. Taking a deep breath, Harry finished with, "The bottom line is that I haven't had a single lover who's been able to stick it out for more than a week or so – until you. It's been three weeks now and you're still here. That's something of a miracle to me, and I'd like to share it with my oldest friends . . . unless you don't want anyone to know about us?"

Harry hadn't thought about that. Severus mightn't want anyone informed of his personal business.

"I've never been anyone's miracle before," Severus said, his voice thick with emotion.

The hand resting on Harry's shoulder gripped it tightly.

"Well, you're mine," Harry said, stepping closer. He slipped his hands under Severus' open robe and wrapped his arms around his slender waist. It felt very natural now to rest his head against the taller man's chest, to feel Severus' heart beat against his cheek as his lover's chest rose and fell.

Severus leaned into the embrace and returned the hug. His loose, open robes enclosed Harry in a warm cocoon as they fell around him when Severus returned the hug. His lover was so much taller than him that only Harry's head was sticking out of the draping black tent of fabric.

"Potter . . . Harry, I am sorry. I didn't consider -"

Severus never called him by his first name. Harry tightened his hold and whispered, "Ssssh. It's all right."

They stayed that way for a long time, until Severus finally gave a reluctant, "Class will start in fifteen minutes."

Harry pulled back with a sigh. The room felt ridiculously cold once he'd stepped clear of his lover's robes. He looked up and met Severus' gaze to ask, "So, will you come with me on Friday?"

"If you truly wish it. However, it will cause . . . complications," Severus warned. "Your friends won't welcome this development."

"Maybe not, but they'll get used to it," Harry assured, hardly able to believe that Severus was agreeing.

"Very well, then."

"Thanks, that's great!" Harry couldn't help but grin. "We still on for tonight?"

"After detentions."

"Yes, of course. Do you want to come up to my rooms for a change? I found a Muggle word game the other day that I think you'll enjoy. Have you ever played SCRABBLE?"

Severus had that startled-but-trying-to-hide-it air that came over him whenever Harry suggested anything new for them to do together. "No, I've never even heard of it."

"Don't worry. With your vocabulary, you'll be a natural. You'll trounce me," Harry predicted.

"Isn't it enough that I slaughter you on the chessboard?" Severus asked, obviously unable to control the arrogant superiority that seemed the earmark of all Slytherins.

Harry chuckled. "I must be a masochist."

"You'll be a late masochist at this rate. We both will," Severus said.

"Damn. Well, come on up after detention. My quarters are the last in the hall on the top floor of Gryffindor Tower, next to the Head of House's."

"Will I need the password to your security wards?" Severus asked.

Harry shook his head. "No, you shouldn't, but I'll give it to you anyway, just in case." He'd been waiting for this opportunity all week. Keeping his face and tone perfectly straight, he said, "The password is: Severus Snape, Slytherin Sex God."

To his credit, Severus' jaw didn't quite drop.

"It is not!" Severus exclaimed.

Grinning now, because Severus' expression made the silly joke totally worthwhile, Harry assured him, "It is. I swear. Go up and check it at lunch when I'm not there if you don't believe me."

"Why would you . . . ?"

"Well, we're supposed to use something nobody would think of. It isn't like anyone would guess that about you. Only I know the truth."

Severus didn't seem to know how to respond at first. Harry could see his lover wrestling with his suspicions and the demons of his past that made him so uncertain of his desirability. He waited for the inevitable challenge, or an accusation of mockery, but instead of protesting his claim, Severus' cheeks turned bright red and he asked in a soft, bewildered voice, "You really are quite mad, aren't you?"

Harry grinned and laughed. "Did you just realize that?"

Then, because he could, Harry reached up to hook Severus' head and draw him down into a tea-flavoured kiss. It was good, always so good when their mouths met. He could have lost himself in the kiss and ended up in a clinch on the dusty floor, but Severus had the presence of mind to pull back before things could get entirely out of hand.

Severus' eyes were hot and hungry as they met his own. "We're both late."

"Yes." Harry nodded. "See you later."

Side by side, they left the empty classroom. Harry's infamous luck held; no one seemed to notice their exit.

As he climbed the endless stairs to his DADA classroom, Harry prayed his body would relax before he had to teach. He might have been joking when he'd chosen his new password, but it was proving quite apt. He only hoped they'd both survive. At the rate they were going, they'd end up dried out husks before Christmas.


The Arithmancy Club had once again run more than an hour late. Hermione was overjoyed with the bright students she had this term, but it made for a long day. Well, it wasn't like she had anything to run home to, she thought as she climbed the stairs to Gryffindor Tower. Ron was still working those horrible shifts. It seemed like forever since he'd been there to hold her when she got home from an evening meeting.

Harry'd been gone nearly as much, though she at least got to see him during their free third period and at meals. Luckily, she wasn't the type who needed constant attention or she'd be miserable. But no matter how much she enjoyed her clubs and other interests, coming home to completely dark quarters always made her feel lonely.

She froze as she stepped into the sitting room. The room was still dark, with neither the hearth nor wall torches lit, but there was a rectangular square of light spilling across the room from the adjoining door to Harry's quarters, which they always kept open. Hermione smiled when she heard laughter ringing through from Harry's. Ron must have returned early and caught Harry in the hall or else the lights would have been on in here.

"Lumos," she said. Dropping her heavy book bag on the chair by the door, she shouldered out of her teachers' robes and hung them on the hook by the door. Feeling ridiculously happy, she hurried over to the open door to Harry's rooms, and stopped dead in the doorway.

Harry was there, but the person with him wasn't Ron. It was Professor Snape, but not a Professor Snape she readily recognized. The Snape she knew was shrouded from chin to toe in black. He didn't have rolled up sleeves or bare arms. His shirt wasn't open at the collar. He sat stiffly on wooden chairs, rather than sprawled on couches. And, most tellingly, the Professor Snape she knew never smiled. Or if he did, it was an expression of cruelty and malice, not the playful, relaxed smile she was looking at now.

It was so shocking to see Professor Snape sitting there in shirtsleeves on Harry's couch that she could only stand there and gape.

Harry was on a cushion on the floor in front of the coffee table. He was wearing jeans, a grey sweatshirt, and a happy, relaxed grin that she hadn't seen in what felt like forever.

They seemed to be playing SCRABBLE.

As she watched, Harry put several tiles down on the board. Snape said something in a low voice she couldn't hear from across the huge room. Harry looked down at the board, back up at Snape, then threw back his head and howled with laughter.

Spellbound, she watched Snape pick up a pad and use one of the little pencils that came with the game to mark something on the paper, probably Harry's score. It was the first time she'd seen Snape write with anything other than a quill. After marking the score, Snape turned to his own tile board, chose a handful of letters and put them down.

She'd known they were friends, of course. Harry mentioned Snape a dozen times a day, and this morning at breakfast when Harry had joked with Snape, she'd had some idea as to what Harry saw in the man, but she'd never pictured them quite like this. At first she couldn't understand what it was about the pleasant scene that troubled her, other than the surreal sight of Severus Snape behaving like a normal human being and playing, but then she twigged onto the cause of her uneasiness.

The whole scene was just so . . . domestic.

Casual intimacy was totally out of character for Snape, but there he was with his shirt unbuttoned, lying in an almost sensual sprawl on Harry's couch. While Harry . . . he mightn't be as severe as Snape; but in his own way, he was just as guarded. Harry might laugh with friends or new acquaintances, but he was never the way he was when alone with Ron and her. The giggling Harry sitting on cushions on the floor, the one who was absently levitating a butterbeer from a sideboard across the room without using wand or word, she noted, was their Harry, the Harry only she and Ron saw.

What was perhaps more stunning than Harry's allowing his magical controls to slip like that in front of Snape was the fact that Snape failed to react to it. Snape glanced up as the bottle landed in Harry's hand, but made no comment as his attention returned to the board.

After a moment, Snape reached for his own glass beside him. As he did so, his face turned in her direction.

She knew she hadn't moved, but Snape's gaze focused unerringly upon her. She felt almost guilty as she saw his smile drop and that familiar glacial freeze tighten his expression.

Snape didn't move a muscle, either; she'd swear to that. Nor did he speak. It almost seemed like Harry felt the change in his companion, for he looked up from his tiles, glanced at Snape, then turned to look over his shoulder to where she was standing.

"Hermione!" Harry grinned and called out. "Come on in."

"I, er, didn't mean to interrupt," she said self-consciously as she approached them, unnerved by the change her presence had had upon Professor Snape.

"You're not interrupting," Harry assured. "Actually, you arrived just in time. I need your opinion on something."

"Professor Weasley's opinion will count the same as consulting a dictionary," Snape quickly said in the chilling tone that would quell any classroom. "If you're wrong, you'll forfeit the points."

"Word of warning," Harry said to her as she joined them, "Don't ever teach a Slytherin to play anything. They play for keeps. Sit down and make yourself comfortable."

Feeling nearly as nervous as she had when sorted into her house in first year, she took a seat in the armchair beside Harry's floor cushion. At least she wasn't talking to herself, she thought as she perched on the edge of the blue chair and asked, "What did you want to know?"

Snape snorted. "How to spell correctly, for starters."

"Hey!" Harry scolded, and then reminded him, "If I spelt better, you wouldn't be winning. Anyway, Hermione, would you please tell him that the word 'NEPENTHE' is not a Muggle word and isn't in the Muggle dictionary."

Hermione glanced down at the board, where Snape had obviously managed to make the word NEPENTHE from the existing word PEN, which she suspected to be one of Harry's words. Looking the board over, she saw a slew of similar incidents: the word BIRD with DEVOID intersecting it. Her eyes practically bugged out when she followed the word HOUSE to where QUININE met it. Poor Harry.

Biting her lower lip, her sense of loyalty warring with her honour, she met Snape's gaze. He gave an expectant rise of his eyebrows. Clearly, he was enjoying her discomfiture.

"Ummm, Harry?" she began.

"Yes?" Harry looked up at her with puppy dog eyes worthy of Ron at his most pathetic.

"I'm afraid that the word NEPENTHE is a Muggle word," she said.

"But it's a potion we did in sixth year! I know because I helped chop horehound for it last week," Harry protested.

Feeling terrible, she explained, "That's true, but it was also a drug the ancient Greeks used to speak of. I don't know if it actually existed or not, but it was supposed to make people forget their sorrows and troubles. Edgar Allen Poe mentions it in his poem The Raven."

"Damn," Harry said.

"Triple word score. That will be 72 points forfeited," Snape snidely announced.

"I don't have 72 points left, as you well know," Harry said.

"Then it appears I win. Again," Snape responded.

Harry gave Snape a pleading look. "You're not going to enforce it, are you? I mean -"

"All's fair in love and war, Potter," Snape crowed in a tone that made her want to smack him.

"Yeah," Harry replied in a soft voice that had the oddest inflection, "but we're not at war."

Hermione waited for Snape to shoot Harry down with some comment about their houses always being at war, or, at the very least, by pointing out that neither designation was applicable to their situation, but when she looked at their former teacher, he seemed to have been thrown off balance by Harry's words. The implication of Snape's restraint from making either comment was slow to hit, but when it did, her heart almost stopped.

After a moment, Snape said in a less aggressive tone, "Perhaps Professor Weasley would be willing to join in for a game or two? We could play Gryffindor against Slytherin."

"I'm not four, you know," Harry said, sounding all of three. She had to avert her gaze to keep from giggling at him. In fact, she was having a hard time keeping from breaking into hysterics over what she suspected. "I can play by myself. But Hermione's welcome to join us. Will you?"

She swallowed hard. "All right."

"Excuse me a moment," Snape said, getting to his feet. "You might offer Professor Weasley a drink."

Snape made the suggestion exactly as she would if too busy to see to their needs when Ron and she had unexpected visitors. Of course, she wasn't a guest here and would have gotten a drink herself if she'd wanted one, but Snape wouldn't know that.

They both watched Snape walk to the loo next to Harry's bedroom.

Once he was gone, Harry immediately cleared the board and put all the tiles back in their little bag for the next game.

Harry was handing her one of the wooden tile holders when she finally found her voice. Unable to mask her shock, she whispered, "Harry, have I gone mad or are you and Professor Snape . . . more than friends?"

"You might've gone mad, but you're not mistaken," Harry softly answered, appearing uneasy about how she'd respond.

Since she didn't know how to react, she just sat there. Harry and Professor Snape were . . . lovers?

"Are you shocked?" Harry asked.

"Yes," she couldn't stop the truth from spilling out.

"Is it just surprise or are you . . . upset or -"

She'd never seen him so worried, not over anything that had to do with their relationship. Recognizing how important Snape must be to him, she reached out and squeezed his hand before Harry could say anything else. "I'm just startled. That's all. I never thought . . . ."

"Me, neither," Harry said. "Nor Severus, for that matter. I think it's a shock to us all."

"You seem . . . ." Glowing with love didn't seem appropriate, so she settled on, ". . .quite happy."

Harry glanced towards his bathroom door, as if to make sure they were still alone, and then said, "I am. I never would have thought that we'd get on the way we do, but we're good together, Hermione. I know it's very strange, but -"

But he was in love. She could see it shining in his eyes and hear it in his voice. In love . . . with Professor Snape.

Harry was so damn good, so lovable, and yet, no one he dated ever seemed to be able to see past his unusual powers. For years, she'd hoped he'd find someone who would be strong enough to love him as he was. Now he had. It wasn't someone she'd ever imagined Harry being attracted to, but if Professor Snape made Harry's eyes shine like that and put that smile on his face, there was no way she could begrudge him that happiness, no matter who caused it.

She could feel how worried Harry was that she'd disapprove. It was touching, really, how important her opinion was to him, but, then, she felt the same about Harry. If Harry had disapproved of her relationship with Ron, it would have made their lives hell all those years ago, and probably have broken Ron and her up. But, even though the change in his two best friends' feelings for each other had left him a little isolated, Harry had always supported them. She could hardly fail to do the same for him now. Stars knew; he was going to need it.

"There's nothing strange about it," she insisted, dropping to her knees beside him to give him a hug. "I'm so happy for you."

"You are?" Harry sounded stunned, as anyone who'd brought Severus Snape home for his family's approval might be upon receiving instant support.

She knew that Harry's happiness wasn't going to be the most important thing to everyone they knew. All most of their friends were going to see was that Harry had taken up with the nastiest person they knew. He was going to get a lot of flack over this. She need only think of Ron to imagine how hard it was going to be for him. Ron wasn't even happy that Harry was chumming around with Snape. How was he going to react once he found out that they were lovers?

Not well, that much she was sure of. She couldn't change her husband, but she could at least give Harry one person on his side. He was going to need it.

"Like anyone who loves you and who's seen you suffering these last nine years could begrudge you happiness wherever you find it!" she huffed. "You're my best friend. Of course, I'm happy for you, dummy."

"Ron won't be," Harry said, voicing the concern she'd had herself a moment ago.

"Not at first. You know how he is. He'll come around, though. I'll talk to him in the morning about it, if you like?"

"You don't think I should tell him myself?" Harry asked.

"You know how he flies off the handle at the best of times. He's had so little sleep lately that he's got no control at all. Let me tell him. It will make it easier all around."

"If you're certain."

She gave him another quick squeeze and started to pull back. Both she and Harry jumped as an "Ahhum," sound of throat-clearing rang out behind them.

Snape stood a few feet away. His stiff figure appeared uncertain as he looked down at them.

"Are you ready for another game, Severus?" Harry asked, sitting back as though nothing untoward had occurred.

With a nod, Snape took his seat on the couch.

Harry handed her a wooden tile holder and silently levitated a cushion for her to sit on from where a number were piled on the far side of the long, grey couch.

Once again, Snape made no remark upon the instantaneous magic.

She moved her cushion to the end of the coffee table, so that neither man would have a clear view of her tiles, and then they began to play.

At first, Professor Snape was as stiff and foreboding as he was at staff meetings, but Harry kept up a constant stream of chatter as they played that seemed to relax him.

". . . and then Wilson turned to pick up what was left of his DADA textbook, only it transformed into a swarm of ladybugs that flew right at his face. He was so unnerved by the duel that he yelped like it was a grindylow and ducked under the table, forever ruining his image as class bully."

Hermione laughed at Harry's silly anecdote. She peeked over at Snape. He no longer looked like he was on trial for his life. He wasn't nearly as at ease as she'd seen him when she'd first popped her head into the room, but he was a good deal less tense. Though he was obviously trying to appear his normal self, he didn't seem to be able to take his eyes off Harry for any length of time.

She froze as he caught her watching him watch Harry. Snape's normal modus operandi at a moment like that would have been a scathing, sarcastic comment to put the other person in their place. However, tonight his dark eyes lowered to the board and a faint blush touched his cheeks. When he looked back up at her he didn't attack. Snape simply sat there, an expectant air surrounding him, as though he were the one anticipating reproach. Startled, she realized that he was just as nervous as Harry. Perhaps more so, for he had no reason to trust her.

Not knowing how to apologize for her rudeness without making a huge issue out of it, she held his gaze and gave him a shy smile.

"It's your turn, Severus," Harry said, looking from one of them to the other in confusion.

Snape laid down the tiles S-Y-C-O-P-H in front of Harry's last word, ANT. It was all she could do not to burst out in laughter at the horrified look on Harry's face.

Professor Snape's play gave her an opening which made the useless tiles in her hand suddenly seem like a winning hand. Biting her lip, because she knew how Harry would react, she quietly laid her tiles down to spell ZEPHYR around Snape's Y.

Harry's crestfallen expression made her laugh aloud. As she looked up at Snape, she caught his thin mouth twitching at the ends.

"I'm doomed," Harry groaned and laid down ATS after her R.

"Editorial comment, Potter?" Snape enquired.

Harry gave him a mock glare and rose to his feet. "Be back in a minute. No cheating, you two."

Snape snorted at the suggestion.

Once Harry had left for the loo, an awkward silence fell between them.

His eyes fixed on her, Snape softly said, "He told you."

"Yes," she answered, giving him a nervous smile. She had no clue what to say to the man. She'd known him for nearly sixteen years and, yet, she didn't know a thing about what he was really like. All she knew was the grim face Snape presented the world and the dark past that even now caused strangers to whisper as he passed them on the street.

Snape appeared to be similarly tongue-tied, but he seemed to force himself past it to demand in a harsh, defensive whisper, "Is that all you've got to say on the subject?"

Wanting to put him at ease, for his own sake as much as for Harry's, she offered. "Harry's been alone a long time, Professor. It's good to see him so happy. Thank you for that."

"You're thanking me?" Snape was staring at her as though he suspected some type of prank.

"Well, yes," she answered.

"You can't really expect me to believe that you -"

"All I want is to see Harry happy. He's laughing and joking . . . you did that for him. That's all that matters to me."

"It can't be as easy as that. Don't you want to . . . quiz me on my intentions?" Snape snapped. Obviously, he'd been prepared to face a major inquisition. "Or make certain he's not under Imperius?"

"I expect your 'intentions' are the same as those of anyone involved in a relationship," she began.

"You think we have a relationship? How do you know I'm not simply using him?" Snape challenged.

He really was determined to present himself in the worst possible light, she realized. Beginning to understand precisely what Harry saw in Severus Snape, she softly answered, "Because I know Harry. He wouldn't permit himself to be used that way. More importantly, I know you. You're not the kind of man who would use an Unforgivable for personal gain. And even if all of that wasn't true, I can see how deeply Harry cares for you."

That seemed to derail him totally. "You can?"

Was it possible he couldn't, she wondered. Holding his gaze, she answered in as gentle a tone as she could manage, "Yes, I can."

Snape stared at her, searching her features. Finally, he said, "I didn't believe any of his friends would . . . welcome this news."

"It probably won't be happy news for a lot of people, but it is for me. I'm glad for you both." She broke off as Harry entered the sitting room.

"Telling all my deep dark secrets, are you?" Harry joked as he folded himself onto his cushion and picked up his tiles.

"Every last one of them," she said.

"Quite appalling, really," Professor Snape surprised her by joining in.

"Talking about appalling, did you make your play yet, Severus?" Harry asked.

"No, I thought I'd wait for you to return. You'll appreciate this one," Snape answered and then laid down the tiles H-Y-R-O-I-D under the T in Harry's RATS.

"I'm doomed, totally doomed," Harry lamented.

"You may just be to SCRABBLE what Neville Longbottom was to Potions, Potter," Snape said.

She tried not to laugh, because the comment wasn't kind to either Harry or Neville, but there was some truth in it. She laid down her own U-B-R-I-S under Snape's H and then watched poor Harry put down O-B under her B.

"At least nothing's exploded yet," Harry said, and then made one of his Bs go up in a puff of smoke like an Exploding Snap card.


"Harry, SNIFT isn't a word," Professor Weasley gently pointed out after Potter laid down his tiles.

"I'm desperate here. Work with me, Hermione," Harry pleaded with an endearing mock pathos that set the pair of Gryffindors to chuckling.

Until quite recently, the amount of laughing Potter and his friends had always done when together had irritated Severus immensely. He'd considered them immature and undignified. At least, that was what he'd always told himself. It was a far more acceptable reason than the envy he was beginning to suspect it had truly been. There was nothing like the sound of laughter to accentuate how alone a person truly was, especially someone who had suffered the mockery of others. Even laughter could be used as a weapon by those with the requisite skill. However, these two didn't appear to indulge in such cruel jests. Their interplay was harmless. Hermione and Harry's jokes were made at their own expense more often than each other's.

Severus was intrigued by the subtleties of their relationship. Time and again, Granger would scold or praise Harry with an underlying affection and love that practically shone off her face, and that Potter accepted as his due. For all that they were the same age, Hermione appeared to have an almost maternal approach to Harry, or a nurturing that Severus assumed was maternal. His own mother had never possessed such instincts. Perhaps it was a quality shared by women in general. He'd never had any female friends when young. Once grown, his female acquaintances would never have dared be so familiar as to comment on his behaviour. Or if they had, it would not have been with the fondness Hermione displayed towards Potter.

Severus had never thought that he'd enjoy such a simple pursuit as this SCRABBLE game, but the time they'd spent playing the Muggle game had been totally engrossing. It wasn't simply the challenge of creating words with the random letters he pulled from the little bag of tiles. Tonight the impossible had happened. He appeared to have been accepted into the Gryffindor ghetto. Both Potter and Hermione Weasley were making an effort to include him in every one of their jokes. Each of them might be aiming their teasing banter at their lifelong friend, but both of them were going out of their way to catch Severus' eye and include him in the exchange.

Even more astonishingly, his own feeble, awkward offerings were openly accepted. Severus couldn't recall the last time he'd had to try so hard not to laugh at such antics, or the last time his own attempts at humour had met with such success with anyone but Harry.

It was strange, but he felt closer to both Potter and Hermione Weasley for having spent this time with them. Severus couldn't help but be impressed with Potter's good grace in the face of such overwhelming defeat, time and again, and Hermione's staunch loyalty as she cheered Potter on even as she slaughtered him on the board.

If nothing else, this childish game had shown him that Harry was Gryffindor to his very soul. With his degree of power, Potter could easily have altered his tiles into any combination of letters he wanted before laying them down and won every game, without either of his companions ever having been the wiser. But Harry continued to place such words as DOG and BAR on the board, losing every gambit. Severus didn't fool himself into believing that Potter wasn't bright enough to accomplish a little substitution. Potter possessed both the vocabulary and skill to cheat to win. He simply had too much honour to do so.

"What you are is in a negative balance. I believe you've lost again, Potter," Severus said, trying to keep the glee out of his voice. There was just something utterly satisfying about trouncing Potter that he couldn't rise above.

"Maybe, but I think Hermione's won this one," Potter said.

Severus did a quick calculation of their scores, and then gave a grudging nod. "So it seems. Well played, Professor."

She smiled and flushed like a schoolgirl. "Thank you. This was fun, but I think I'm going to have to call it a night. It's getting late."

"Thanks for playing," Potter said to her. "At least he didn't win every game with you here."

"Five out of six," Severus reminded them.

"Like I said, never teach a Slytherin how to play anything," Potter said.

"Because they'll beat you at your own game every time," Severus answered.

Hermione rocked on her cushion with laughter. "You two are really something. I'm so glad we played tonight."

"Beating Potter is always an enjoyable way to spend an evening," Severus drolly replied.

"Beating Harry! Really, Professor, that's too much information," she answered in an equally dry manner. Her brown eyes twinkled almost as merrily as Albus' used to as they held his own.

For a moment, Severus didn't understand what she was getting at. Or why Potter was giggling most unbecomingly beside her. But then his unintentional double entendre penetrated and Severus realized what she was implying. He tried not to show his shock, but he could feel his cheeks warming. "I would have thought such comments below you."

"You don't know me well, then, do you?" She giggled.

"Clearly," Severus agreed.

"I hope we'll remedy that. Will you and Harry come to the Three Broomsticks with Ron and me on Friday?" she asked with what appeared genuine enthusiasm.

Severus was still stunned by her positive reaction to the news that Potter and he were sexually involved. He'd expected disgust and hostility from all of Potter's cronies, not warm acceptance and awkward attempts to include him in their social circle. That this most Gryffindor of Gryffindors would extend him this kindness moved him terribly.

Severus looked to Potter to confirm that Harry did, in fact, desire his presence there. Seeing the same hopeful expression on his lover's face as on Hermione Weasley's, he gave a slow nod. "If you like, and if you're certain my presence will not cause . . . any problems."

With typical Gryffindor optimism, she seemed to choose to ignore the fact that her husband would prefer to immerse himself in a vat of acid rather than spend an evening in his former teacher's presence, and said, "Wonderful! Well, I'm off to bed. Good night."

She bent down and gave Potter a quick hug before leaving. They both watched her retreat through the open adjoining door to her chambers.

Once they were alone, Potter said, "That went very well, don't you think?"

"Amazingly so," Severus agreed. "Although, I wouldn't be so foolish as to anticipate a similar reception from her husband."

Harry's face clouded with concern. "No, I suppose you're right. He'll come around, though."

Severus looked away for a moment and tried to phrase what he had to say in a manner that wouldn't lead to another argument. "I know we touched upon this subject this morning, but -"

"Don't start that again, please?" Potter begged, looking up from where he was putting away the pieces of the game they'd just finished. "I know my friends make you . . . uncomfortable. I'm sorry for that, but that will fade as you all get used to each other."

"Your Gryffindor sense of honour is laudable in this situation, but –"

Severus broke off as Potter banged the game tiles down on the table and rose to his feet. Once again, there was anger in those green eyes, but as Potter glared at him, it slowly faded. The handsome man with the dishevelled black hair who'd been sharing his bed these last few weeks stared at Severus a minute longer and then came to sit beside him on the couch. "It's not about honour. It's nothing as cold or impersonal as that. You're not some stranger I picked up in a bar. We've been together every night for the last three weeks, and it's been fantastic. That makes me . . . care about you. I can't and won't act as though you're some kind of dirty secret, especially not with my friends. Please don't ask me to."

Severus had never been anything but a dirty secret, something regretted in the morning light. And that had been twenty years ago, when he was younger and presumably more attractive. He was so out of practice, so unused to dealing with people on a personal level that he hardly knew how to respond to a lover who respected him.

Severus tried to answer Harry's words, but his throat had tightened up painfully. That this heroic young man could feel this way about him was astounding. He'd enjoyed the sex enough to be willing to settle for whatever Potter deigned to give him, his pride be damned. But Harry wasn't asking that of him.

What Potter was offering him was unprecedented. Not just sex, but friendship and sex. Emotionally overwhelmed, Severus simply didn't know how to respond. He needed to, because he didn't want Potter to misunderstand his silence, but he couldn't get his voice to work.

To his astonishment, instead of the anger or disappointment he'd expected, Potter's gaze gentled as it rested upon him. Then Harry slipped his arms around him and drew him into a long kiss that had as much to do with comfort as it did passion.

Maybe this caring Potter spoke of incorporated some level of understanding, for the gentleness of the kiss was exactly what Severus' inexplicably fragile composure needed at the moment. Even if Severus himself hadn't known it.

Harry finally lifted his mouth away, but didn't pull back. Rather, his fingers rose to stroke over Severus' features, to tenderly brush back his unwashed hair as though the lank strands were some precious treasure. "We're good together, aren't we? So good."

Warm, moist breath brushed Severus' face, scented with the butterbeer Potter had consumed earlier. The whispered words made him shudder. He hadn't lost control of his motor skills yet, just speech, so he forced a nod. He was rewarded with another sweet kiss for his response.

Severus took strength from this one, allowing it to calm him. He tried to tell himself that it would be all right. Enjoying something didn't necessarily mean he'd suffer for it, despite what all of his previous experience might insist to the contrary. Hermione had said that Potter cared for him. For all the grief he'd given her as a student for being a know-it-all, in all the years they'd been acquainted, he'd never known her to be wrong, about anything. If her opinion wasn't enough, Harry had come right out and said it to him tonight. Whatever was happening between them, it was unlike anything he had ever known before, and, although that was frightening in itself, it also meant that the old patterns needn't apply. It didn't necessarily follow that allowing himself to . . . trust Potter or become attached to him would result in his utter destruction. This was Harry Potter, the saviour of the Wizarding World, not Lucius Malfoy. Even if outsiders did know what was between them, it didn't mean he'd be made a laughing stock when Potter eventually tired of him.

When he felt more himself, Severus pulled back from the kiss.

The warm, sexual glow in Potter's eyes seemed to reach out and embrace him. That this handsome man hungered for his unsightly body still astounded him.

Harry's open desire reminded him of an issue he'd been putting off for as long as they'd been . . . sharing flesh. There was something he'd been meaning to address for the last three weeks, but hadn't quite worked up the nerve yet. Though they'd been together every night for the last twenty-one days, and Potter had had his fingers and his . . . power up inside him, Harry hadn't actually penetrated him with his penis yet. Severus had begged for it quite shamelessly in bed every night, but so far it had never happened. He was beginning to fear it never would.

Although Severus really wanted to know why, he hadn't had the self-confidence to tackle the sensitive topic yet. The epithet Greasy Git and the like that had haunted him his entire life still made it hard for him to accept that someone this attractive could really want him; plus, there was that whole crippling concept that a 'real wizard' didn't ask to be taken. With anyone else, Severus would have thought it was the latter concern, but the first morning after Potter had come to his dungeon rooms to suggest that they continue this liaison, Harry had insisted that he'd liked that he'd had the courage to ask for what he wanted. Severus had been asking to be taken for weeks now, and his request had been ignored. He didn't know why, and the opportunity to discuss the situation hadn't really presented itself yet.

But this finally felt like the right moment to test the waters, as it were. Locking his gaze with those heated green eyes, Severus asked in his driest tone, "Tell me, Potter, would you like to fuck your nasty Potions teacher?"

It was pure Slytherin bluff. Severus was so worried that he'd see disgust that he was nearly shaking inside. From everything they'd done, he suspected that Potter wanted to take him and was holding himself back for some incomprehensible reason, but he couldn't be sure. He was clueless when it came to other people's emotions.

He couldn't even deal with his own. Severus knew that he either turned his emotions off and pretended they didn't exist, or indulged them to inappropriate degrees at inappropriate times. But for once, he seemed to have interpreted the situation correctly and acted in an appropriate manner. Or, at the very least, he'd finally made the offer in a manner Potter couldn't ignore.

Now he'd know what the problem was. Potter was many things, but a good actor wasn't one of them. Harry lied far less frequently than he had during his school years, but he was still as obvious about it as he'd been back then. If Potter truly didn't want this, Severus would know, and quite probably be able to interpret the reason at this point.

To his unending relief, Potter's handsome face didn't twist with disgust at the crude suggestion. Harry's breath puffed out on his cheek in a faint gasp.

A sensuous smile spreading over his full lips, Potter said, "I thought you'd never ask."

Instant agreement wasn't what he was anticipating.

"Never ask?" Severus felt his brow wrinkle. "I've been begging for it every night for the last three weeks."

"But that doesn't count," Harry said.

"What?" Severus tried not to snap, but his nerves were strung too taut. Not count? A naked man begging to be taken at the height of passion didn't count?

"I was flooding your system with my power all those times. It was no different than if I'd had you under Imperius. If I'd asked it of you, you'd have let me cut your heart out," Potter said.

As with so much with Harry, this wasn't something he'd even considered. The young man had held back from making love with him because Harry was afraid he was misusing his greater powers?

Only a Gryffindor, Severus gave a mental sigh. He was besieged by the contradictory impulses to both kill and kiss this lovable idiot for the same reason. Of all the lunacy he'd ever heard. Imperius, indeed. When Severus thought he could answer without betraying how insane he thought his lover, he gently protested, "I've been under Imperius numerous times, Potter. I assure you, the conditions bear no resemblance."

Potter gave a blank, "They don't?"

"Imperius turns you to rock and makes you hate your own body," Severus whispered, lowering his gaze.

"And me?" Harry nervously asked.

Severus met Harry's eyes again and hesitantly whispered, "You melt my very bones."

"I do?"

Severus gave a breathy snort at the sincere shock. It was his nature to hide, but . . . he wanted Harry to know how much he moved him. His tone low and serious, he assured, "You do. And, just for the record, you have an open invitation. You don't need to ask or be asked. Any time, any place."

There, that should be clear enough even for a Gryffindor hero with a hyperactive conscience.

Severus heard the gulp Potter gave. Surely, the man must have had some inkling of how susceptible he was to his charms?

"How about my bed in about two minutes?" Potter asked in a hoarse, emotional whisper.

Severus nodded and allowed Potter to guide him to his feet, and thence into the bedroom. It was very different from his own sleeping chamber.

The large, bevelled window with its window seat overlooking the lake immediately drew his eyes to the right. Moonlight was seeping in through the open drapes, washing the room with an eldritch silver light.

Severus expected the colour scheme to be Gryffindor scarlet and gold, but the drapes on the windows and the canopied bed were a rich, dark blue. Near the window stood a gray easy chair and an end table with an open book on it. The duvet on the bed was a matching dark blue with white piping, and the pillowcases a stark white. Several dressers and a wardrobe took up the other two walls, while the fourth hosted an enormous hearth.

The pictures on the mantel were mostly of Potter and his two childhood friends at a variety of ages. One on the right end was a family shot of a horde of redheads that could only be the Weasley Clan. Black and Lupin watched him from across the room in yet another photo – Black with a disgusted sneer on his face as he took in their embrace, and Lupin with a mildly surprised smile. There was another of Albus and Minerva that must have been taken before Potter's fourth year, because neither of them had ever looked that carefree after the Triwizard Tournament and the start of the last war.

To Severus' complete mystification, there was also one of himself. It was obviously the most recent addition, for its frame jockeyed for space in front of two shots of Potter and the Weasleys. In the photo, Severus saw himself standing in a woodland scene that was unnervingly familiar. It was the spot where he'd first kissed Potter. Only, he didn't think this picture had been taken after that event. If it had been, Potter would have been in the photo, and they would have been . . . occupied. This photograph showed only Severus himself. He was leaning against the deadfall, staring off into the woods with a pensive expression on his face. When the photo image of himself looked over at the pair of them standing with their arms around each other, that puzzled frown only intensified.

Noticing the direction of his gaze, Harry looked nervous. "Do you mind?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. That Potter would have taken this shot of him in secret, and put it up here with these photos of the people who were the very foundation of his life was strangely touching. Nearly every day that passed, some action of Harry's told him that Harry didn't view him as something to be easily discarded.

"I keep hoping he'll look happy some day," Harry softly said.

The moonlight was glinting off Potter's ridiculous round spectacles. His full lower lip looked soft and glistening. This beautiful man hoped that he'd be 'happy'.

Severus swallowed hard and warned in a low, gruff tone, "He never has been. It's an entirely foreign concept to him."

Somehow, it was easier to talk about himself in the third person, as though they were discussing the problems of one of their students.

Harry pressed his body into Severus' side and questioned in a small, hurt sounding voice, "Never?"

Recognizing his potential blunder, Severus quickly back-pedalled, "Well, lately, he's had a taste of it."

"But it's not enough to take that worried frown off his face?" Potter asked.

Severus' mouth ran dry. Potter wasn't going to just let him wriggle out of this one. But those sheltering arms stayed around his waist and the promise of that hard, warm body didn't pull back from him. Drawing courage from that, he found the strength to admit, "Perhaps he doesn't know what he's doing up there with those bright, happy people. Perhaps he . . . doesn't understand why he's in this room at all."

Potter seemed to freeze in the embrace for a heartbeat, and then his arms tightened almost painfully around him. "Fair enough. Will he allow himself to be shown?"

Severus nodded his consent, and Potter reached up to bury his fingers deep in his hair, guiding his head down into another kiss. Harry's mouth was so soft against his own, pliant and welcoming, for all that it had been Potter who initiated the kiss.

Delving into the sweet depths, lingering, Severus drew strength from Potter's openness. Harry never held anything back from him. Harry gave his all in every single kiss, every touch.

Those blunt, calloused fingers were stroking through his lank hair as if it were as luxurious to the touch as raw silk. Severus had forgotten to wash it for the fourth day in a row and couldn't understand how Potter could want to touch the oily mess at all. But Harry seemed as fascinated with it now as when it was freshly washed.

The fingers of Potter's right hand trailed over his ear, down his neck, following the collar of his white shirt down to the buttons. In moments they were undone, and Potter was sliding it from his shoulders.

Taking hold of the bottom of Potter's grey sweatshirt, Severus pulled back from the kiss and lifted the shirt up over Harry's head.

Once he'd tossed the shirt to the floor, their gazes locked. They continued to undress.

When they were naked and shivering in the early December moonlight, Potter silently levitated the clothes at their feet over to the armchair on the far side of the room. Those shadowed eyes glanced at the fireplace, and a roaring blaze flared to life in the logs that the house elves had left piled there. Then Potter's gaze turned to the bed and the duvet rolled back, revealing the inviting expanse of stark white sheet.

Severus stared at Potter's face, taking in the strange picture he made at the moment. The light was poor in the room, so he couldn't see the colour in Harry's eyes or the emotion there.

Harry had a long, handsome face with a cleft chin. The right side of his face was currently bathed in soft, silver moonlight that stopped at the cleft. The left side was highlighted by flickering orange firelight one second, and then thrown into shadow the next.

It was an odd effect. Severus tried not to place too much significance on a trick of the light, but it almost seemed to him as though he were seeing Potter's soul at that moment: the steady, almost angelic silver being the bedrock of Harry's kind, honourable, and generous nature; while the flickering fire and shadow were the other side of him, the power that could so easily wreak destruction with a single thought.

Severus reached out to embrace both, framing angel and demon between his yellow-fingered hands.

As ever, his discoloured, bony hands looked like an obscenity on this handsome young flesh, never more so than now when they framed this unearthly portrait that was the enigma of Harry Potter.

"What is it?" Potter whispered, sliding his arms around Severus' bare hips, his flat palms stroking everywhere they could reach, spreading warmth in their wake.

To speak of it would only make Harry uncomfortable. Severus had heard enough to know that Potter considered himself a freak because of his extraordinary abilities. So he settled on a lesser truth. Compliments did not come easily to him, but he felt he could dare one under the circumstances. "You're . . . very beautiful in this light."

Harry smiled and pressed their fronts together, with electrifying results. Potter wasn't tall enough for their genitals to nestle together, but any contact with that warm body was usually enough to send him flying.

"So are you," Potter said once the pleasure shocks from that initial contact had faded from both their bodies enough that they could lean on each other without losing cognitive ability. "All silver and shadow . . . sexy as all hell."

Severus thought that he'd hidden his uneasiness at the blatant untruth, but Harry's next words told him that he'd failed.

"You never let me say anything nice about how you look," Potter complained, standing on his tiptoes to bury his mouth against Severus' neck, his arms cementing them so tightly together that Severus could hardly breathe.

He shivered as Potter started to give him wet, sucking kisses below his ear. Severus gave a soft, self-deprecating chuckle. He was unwilling to berate his lover for his kindness, but he was equally unwilling to allow the preposterous statement to go unchallenged. "That's because I know how I look."

"You don't know how you look to me. That guy in the photo over there, he doesn't know how all the anger and pain washes off his face when he looks into my eyes. He doesn't know about that expression of wonder that gentles the hard lines, that softens his mouth and eyes and makes them utterly kissable. He doesn't have a clue about himself. Only I know what that Severus Snape looks like, and he's absolutely gorgeous," Harry insisted, lifting his head to meet Severus' gaze.

"You've always had poor eyesight," Severus reminded, reaching up to remove the spectacles. "Wingardium leviosa."

Severus was capable of a little wandless magic and managed to float the glasses to the nearest nightstand. It took great effort, however, and left him terribly wobbly.

Harry's body seemed to pool around him, holding him up. "Show off."

The ensuing kiss finished what the wandless magic had started, leaving Severus virtually boneless.

Potter backed them over to the bed and eased him down. The white sheet was cool, almost cold under Severus' bare bottom. He lifted his legs onto the bed and laid down flat on his back, scooting over to make room for Potter.

Harry climbed in and lay on his side facing him, his left hand settling on the centre of Severus' chest. His fingertips gently stroked, absently following the trail of body hair downwards.

Severus hissed out a breath as Harry's hand made contact with the part of him that was straining for attention. It was strange, but for all the foreplay they engaged in, Potter never really teased him mercilessly or made him wait too long for any touch. It was almost as if his lover understood that he'd already waited his entire life for a gentle hand.

Harry didn't disappoint him tonight. He collected Severus' cock into his palm and gave it a welcoming squeeze that sent skyrockets of delight flaring through Severus' entire system. Gasping, he laid back and waited to see what Potter would do next, his own hands hungrily charting every inch of Harry's shoulders and chest that he could reach.

Then, Harry bent down over Severus' groin. It still stunned him to see that familiar figure, with its messy, ragged hair, curling around him to give him pleasure. Moonlight made the moisture on Harry's full lower lip glisten as his mouth opened to absorb the blood-red tip of Severus' cock.

The warm, wet suction that followed was absolute perfection. Harry's fingers found his balls, rolling them and milking every bit of pleasure they could out of him as Harry's head bobbed up and down at its task.

Usually around that point, Harry would enhance things by introducing his magic into the mix. Over these last few weeks, Harry had perfected those spectral touches. Most times, the probes were simply Harry's raw energy, but other times Harry made them feel human. Sometimes when Severus had his eyes closed he couldn't tell whether it were Harry's flesh or his magic caressing him. The suction at his nipples, cock, or behind his knees always felt like a real mouth now, the dozens of hands gently caressing him were indistinguishable from Harry's own. When they made love, he felt as if he were being serviced by five or six lovers whose sole purpose for existence was to make him feel good.

Perhaps because of what they were about to share, Harry didn't involve his magic. They both knew that he never lasted long once Harry loosed his power upon him. Tonight, he made love to Severus with his mouth, hands, and body, kissing, stroking, licking, and sucking him all over until he was malleable as putty.

Only when there wasn't a hint of resistance left in his body, when so much delight had tingled through him that the flesh was ready to melt right off his bones, only then did Harry slip his hand between the cheeks of his buttocks.

Severus couldn't hold back his whimper at that first, tentative touch to his anus. Harry had had his fingers up inside him before, so it wasn't a completely new experience to them, but this was the first time he'd done so with the intent of taking him. Knowing what was to come gave every touch an indefinable edge.

Although no lubricant had been summoned to the bed, the finger that played over his clenched opening was slick with some kind of gel. Severus felt Harry spread it across the tight bud of muscle. Then Harry's middle finger began to gently tap at the tight guarded aperture, every contact sending a dizzying rush of delight through Severus' entire body.

Finally, that tender visitor pressed down with even pressure and slipped inside him. Severus' eyes shot open at the incredible feeling of even that small part of Harry moving into him. He focused on his lover's bent face, barely able to credit the gentleness in his features as Harry prepared him for entry.

That finger was no stranger to his pleasures. It knew the exact route to take. Within seconds, it was nudging against that deep hidden spot that had been Severus' undoing since Lucius Malfoy's cock had acquainted him with it in first year. Even Harry's slightest finger knew more of giving pleasure than Lucius' whole body, for it rocked his entire world with a few gentle strokes.

Severus couldn't hold back the pleading sounds as his universe was reduced to that tiny gland and its devastating effects on his body.

The finger withdrew after a time, only to return with a companion, one equally skilled at delight. Those fingers played a concerto of passion in that tight passageway, circling, and twisting, and targeting his prostate until his skin was drenched with sweat and he was quivering all over, barely able to catch a breath in his need. It seemed they would dally there forever, insinuating pleasures that he longed for with all his soul, but which they were unable to deliver. Finally, the fingers pulled back.

Harry's hands settled firmly on Severus' hips. A pillow floated down from the top of the bed, settling beside his right hip. Incapable of any kind of thought or protest, Severus allowed Harry to guide him over onto his stomach.

Settling on top of him, Harry was a warm muscular blanket. Severus shook at the shivery kiss Harry gave his neck as Harry's knee slid between his own to spread his legs wide. He had never been as viscerally aware of anything as he was of Harry's rock-hard shaft nudging into the cleft of his arse, brushing, but not violating the slick entranceway hidden there. For a moment, Harry let him feel his full weight, then Harry pulled back to kneel between his legs.

The guiding hands settled on his hips again, and Severus was silently urged up to his knees. He trembled at how well Harry knew him, how utterly his needs were understood.

Severus lowered his head to the mattress and clenched his fists into the sheet beneath him as his buttocks were parted and cold castle air touched that most intimate of places. In contrast, Harry's gaze was a branding heat on the same area. He couldn't see it, but he could feel it.

They stayed frozen in that position for what felt like forever, with his unattractive body laid out bare and vulnerable for the taking, his whole being quivering in anticipation.

Then, at last, Harry moved. With a breathy grunt, the snub edge of his well-greased cock nudged at the lubricant-slick entrance.

Severus tried to concentrate on opening up, on being as relaxed as possible, but it had been nearly two decades and there was simply too much emotion running through him for his brain to let go. It hurt as Harry pushed into him. The head of his cock felt as huge as a quaffle.

Fresh sweat broke out all over him, his muscles locking in instinctive protest as long buried memories surfaced and fought for supremacy. The demons of his past reminded Severus how each and every time he'd opened himself this far, been this vulnerable to anyone, he'd been consistently used and betrayed. He knew what he was, what he deserved. Gentleness wasn't intended for the likes of him. He was –

"Severus! Harry called in something like desperation, hands stroking up and down Severus' sides and flanks in soothing rhythm. "Come on, love. You've got to relax or this isn't going to work."

Love? No one had ever used an endearment like that with him.

Severus gritted his teeth, then forced out a reply, "It's all right. I . . . like it hard. Go on."

But Harry didn't take him at his word. His right hand scrambled around Severus to stroke over his chest, teasing first one nipple, then its mate back to taut pleasure. The resulting rush of sensations shot straight to Severus' groin, making him hard again and relaxing him, despite the lessons of the past. Harry bent down to kiss his shoulders and neck, adding to the sensual web.

"You feel so good, Severus," Harry breathed into his ear, "So warm and perfectly tight. Feel how good it is with us. Breathe with me, love, in and out, feel me in you, feel how right we are together . . . Mmmm, that's right. That's it. Let go and just feel."

Harry had called him 'love' again.

His senses reeling, Severus gave in to the command and concentrated on the living heat down his back and up his arse. Hard muscle, soft skin, raw power burning and vibrating beneath it all, just out of reach . . . .

Harry's hand collected Severus' cock and began to steadily pump. Not even a dead man could have resisted that delicious manipulation.

Severus melted like butter under the spike of ecstasy, and Harry slipped into him as though the freeze-up had never happened.

Harry's cock was no less talented than his fingers. He found that sensitive spot on his first foray. The initial, tentative bump into his prostate shocked Severus' entire system, reducing all he was to that mind-shattering delight. It roared through him like the Furies, showing him that everything he'd thought of as pleasure was only an insignificant prelude to this perfect sensation.

Then, Harry's cock withdrew, and plunged back in to nail that spot even harder.

Severus cried out as stars and meteors reeled behind his tight-shut eyes.

"You ready for a little more?" Harry whispered into his ear, licking around the shell to add to Severus' utter devastation, as if being melted from the inside out wasn't pleasure enough.

"Wh-at?" Severus rasped, beyond thinking.

"Do you want me to, um, use magic, too? I've thought of something special," Harry promised in a hoarse, strained tone.

Magic, too, on top of all this?

"I -" Severus desperately tried to think. He wanted the magic, only . . . his past was too real tonight. Everything was too intense, both the current pleasure and the bad memories. He couldn't . . . . Finding his voice, Severus tried to articulate his concerns. "Yes, only . . . ."

"Only?" Harry purred encouragement, licking his ear some more.

"Don't . . . make it feel like another person with you. I only want you inside me tonight. Please?"

Harry seemed to freeze behind him, his questions an almost a palpable presence. But no inquisition followed.

Instead, Harry's hands moved in soft, wide circles over his chest, offering comfort. "Only me. I promise."

Then those soft kisses were being showered over Severus' sensitive neck and shoulders. Harry's cock nudged his prostate again, and everything was all right with his world.

Severus gasped as they rocked together, finding the strength to let go and trust. Potter plunged deeper and deeper into him with each successive stroke, opening him wider and wider. Harry kept moving in until his balls were pressed tight to Severus' bottom.

When Severus felt like Harry could get no deeper into him or that he could feel no more pleasure than what he was experiencing now, Harry loosed his power on him.

It wasn't a slender probe like the ones Harry usually created, nor was it hands or mouths. This was . . . like an invisible tidal wave of magical energy. As Harry's cock plunged up into him from behind, the power swelled over Severus from the front in a warm, quicksilver wave of delight that swept through his every cell from his head down, igniting him with glowing ecstasy. It was like every separate cell inside him experienced its own orgasm simultaneously, or as if a couple of thousand volts of raw electricity hit his system; there was barely any surviving it. Describing that level of intense delight was beyond him.

Severus felt transformed into pure energy. It was the sensation he'd always hungered for when he reached out for a greater wizard's power. His poor cock never had a chance. The instant that scrumptious energy wave splashed through him, he climaxed immediately with a throat-tearing cry.

Harry was still pumping in and out of him. In the mindless aftermath, Severus felt Harry withdraw. As he re-entered him, another of those waves of raw sex splashed through him.

Severus went from limp to rock hard in a heartbeat. His balls grew heavy and then tightened up with unnatural speed. His sated cells re-ignited, blazing bright as the initial flare. That electrifying delight sparked through him. Harry banged his prostate, the wave crashed, his balls convulsed, and he bathed Harry's hand and his own stomach with another shower of semen.

Whimpering, Severus dragged in a breath, barely daring to believe what had just transpired. His mind was still reeling, trying to understand, when Harry pulled out of him again.

His breath whooshed out as that incredible wave splashed into him yet again. Severus' penis swelled for an amazing third time in bare minutes, exploding in that same flare of sartori as Harry claimed his body yet again. Even at the height of adolescent randiness, he had managed nothing like this.

As Harry pulled out of him and Severus felt that energy swell reclaim him, he realized it was going to happen again. This was every man's fantasy, being able to achieve orgasm at the same level of intensity, again and again and again.

Harry took him to heaven so many times as he rode him that Severus lost count. A part of him worried for the state of his heart, for he was no longer a young man and this type of strain could easily kill, but he realized that every time that Harry's wave of magic crashed through him, it revitalized his body to its initial state, making it literally like the first time each time. And even if it hadn't, if he had to choose how to die, it would be like this, overwhelmed with delight.

Harry had staying power, Severus had to give the man that. It was impossible to tell how long Harry pumped into him, Harry's magic driving him to orgasm time after time, but it felt like hours or perhaps even days. He tried to push back, to make it better for Harry, but the serial orgasms were so distracting and devastating that it was all he could do to remember to draw breath.

Then, Harry gave a wild, hard thrust that nearly knocked Severus from his knees.

Locked in the flames of another orgasm, Severus only noticed the change in his partner. He felt Harry stiffen behind him, and then Harry came with a resounding shout of, "SEVERUS!" that must have shaken the photos on the mantel.

Severus abruptly remembered the adjoining door to the Weasleys' chambers that Harry had said was always left open. For all their sakes, he prayed there was a silencing spell on the room.

Severus couldn't feel the actual spurts inside him, but he could tell by Harry's breathing and tension that it was a tremendously powerful orgasm.

No new wave of arousal hit him. It was over.

His own knees gave out and Severus fell face down on the bed, with Harry still buried to the hilt inside him, a dead weight down his back.

He could feel Harry struggling for breath against his left shoulder.

As the haze of orgasm cleared and his destroyed mind slowly reassembled, awe such as he'd never known overwhelmed him. Severus couldn't even imagine what type of drain those energy waves had demanded of Harry. The level of control of both Harry's power and Severus' own body that had been necessary to achieve those successive climaxes was mind-boggling. Harry must have been constantly monitoring every system in his body to have kept him from suffering a stroke or going into heart failure under the strain.

Just as Severus was wondering if Harry were even conscious, a ragged intake of breath seemed to indicate he was.

Severus shivered as Harry's tongue licked the cooling sweat from his back, then Harry gave a husky, sleepy whisper of, "God, I love you."

Severus' world stopped.

Harry stirred himself enough to withdraw his deflated penis from Severus' now painfully sore rectum. and rolled off him onto the mattress, his right arm still flung across Severus' back..

Barely daring to breathe, Severus slowly turned to face Harry, staying under the protective band of that heavy arm. He wondered if the words had been a joke. But Harry didn't make those kinds of cruel jests, and even if he were prone to them, he certainly wouldn't have been making them when fighting for air.

It was as he expected. Harry was dead asleep beside him. Severus stared at that long, attractive face, with the lightning bolt scar on the forehead.

Apparently, tonight was destined to be a night of many firsts: the first time he'd visited Harry's chambers, played an enjoyable, honest game with nothing but Gryffindors, climaxed a couple of dozen times in the space of an hour, and had a lover profess his love to him. Of all the events, that last was perhaps the most extraordinary, even more so than the enhanced sex.

The words were meaningless. Severus knew that. They were merely an expression of gratitude for the mind-blowing sex they'd shared. He was neither young enough nor fool enough to place any significance on them. No man could be held accountable for what he said at the height of passion. Harry was an affectionate young man. In the heat of the moment, he'd merely been babbling.

Yet, the only other words Harry had spoken during intercourse had been his name.

Still, it meant nothing. Just . . . pillow talk. Utterly meaningless.

Insignificant as the profession may have been, it still made Severus feel warm inside. He'd be grateful for this gift for the rest of his life, even if Harry hadn't meant what he'd said.

Beginning to shiver as the sweat dried on him, Severus reached across Potter's unconscious body for the duvet and pulled it over them both. He looked around the room, and then summoned his wand to him with a quick, low-muttered charm. After only the briefest of hesitations, he placed his wand under their shared pillow, curled around Harry's sleeping form, closed his eyes, and gave in to his own exhaustion. He'd sleep for an hour or two, and then floo back to the dungeons well before daylight. His internal clock always woke him before dawn. He was confident that he wouldn't sleep well in a strange bed.


It was amazing how the world could change from one second to the next, go from one pole to its complete opposite. But Harry's life had always been like that. He'd gone from living in a cupboard to living in a castle in the blink of an eye. A tournament could change from a difficult test of his wizarding skills to a life and death battle with a Dark Lord before he even knew what was happening. He could be standing in the woods with the most dislikeable person he'd met in his life, attempting to make conversation one moment and then find himself locked in a kiss with the very same man the next.

So, when Harry tumbled into unconsciousness after the best sex of his life, it only stood to reason that he'd wake with something like terror. For once, it wasn't one of his bloody dreams that woke him.

Harry was deeply asleep. On some level, he knew that the warm, comfortable surface rising and falling beneath his cheek in steady rhythm was Severus. His lover's scent and the smell of sex were carried on every breath he took. He could have stayed like that forever, dreaming safe in a sleepy tangle with Severus.

But an unexpected sound behind him penetrated his sleep – the creak of his bedroom door opening. Then the comfortable living cushion beneath him rolled clear in a burst of motion, sending his head crashing to the mattress.

Ron's cheerful voice penetrated his waking consciousness, "Harry, you awake? I thought – oh sweet Merlin -"

Harry shot up in the bed and opened his eyes to see Severus sitting up stark naked pointing his wand at the bedroom door. His gaze followed Severus' wand to see Ron standing in the doorway, wearing his maroon and white striped nightshirt and gaping like a banked fish at the sight of them in bed together.

This was not how he'd wanted this to go.

Trying to pull his head together, Harry stared at the two bright spots of colour that were blooming in Ron's otherwise pasty face and started to say, "Ron . . . ."

But his old friend turned and strode away without a word. Harry heard the front door to Ron and Hermione's chambers slam shut with a bang immediately afterwards.

"Damn it," Harry muttered, rubbing a hand over his sleepy face. He turned to meet the dark stare of the man sharing his bed.

Severus lowered his wand. It was clear Ron had woken him from a sound sleep as well, which was understandable after what they'd done last night. This wasn't how he'd wanted this morning to go with Severus, either.

Severus gave a loud swallow, and then said, "I . . . apologize. This is my fault."

"What?" Harry stammered. Severus apologizing was amazing in itself. His apologizing for something for which he wasn't responsible was unprecedented.

"I should have left hours ago. It's my presence -"

Harry leaned over and cut the words off with a kiss.

"It's not your fault," Harry assured Severus when he pulled back a moment later. "And you're exactly where you should be. You never kick me out of your bed in the middle of the night. I just wish . . . ." His words cut off as another figure appeared in his bedroom door. Hermione was in her blue bathrobe with her wet hair up in a towel and a worried frown on her face.

Severus quickly pulled the duvet over his lower body.

"Sorry, Harry, Professor," she said, turning bright red at the sight of them. "Ron came in here, didn't he?"

Harry nodded.

"Damn. I was going to tell him about you when I got out of the loo," she said. "I'm sorry. How bad was it?"

"I don't know. He didn't say anything. He just . . . left," Harry said.

"One of us should go after him," she fretted.

All three of them exchanged a nervous glance.

Finally, Severus broke the tension. "Well, don't look at me. I don't even like the man. I'm not going after him. I will, however, accompany you, if you'd like." The words started out peevish, but ended in a much softer tone as Severus turned to look at him.

"You would?" Harry asked, unable to believe the offer.

Severus gave a stiff nod. "It's my presence that caused the . . . disturbance."

Severus Snape might still be the most difficult man on the planet, but at that moment, Harry had never been prouder of him. He knew Severus no more wanted to have a heart to heart with Ron than he would a Muggle root canal, and yet his lover was offering to take on the unpleasant task – for his sake, he realized. It was humbling, and wonderful. It made his stomach drop out with a warm, squishy feeling that he'd never experienced before.

Harry looked over at Hermione, and saw her smile.

Doing the same, he turned back to Severus. "Thank you, I know you mean that, but it's probably best if I go after him alone."

Harry ran a hand through his disorderly hair, only then realizing that he was still stark naked and Hermione was standing right there.

She seemed to come to the same realization herself. He couldn't tell without his glasses on, of course, but it felt like she was staring at his right ear. "Er, I'll go finish dressing. That is, if you're sure you don't want me to go after Ron?"

"No. I'll do it," Harry said and watched her blurry figure hurry out, closing the door behind her.

Harry sighed.

"Do they always just . . . barge into your bedroom like that?" Severus asked in a scandalized tone.

Harry chuckled, imagining what this must be like to his privacy-loving lover. "We've always lived in each other's pockets, and, well, it's not as though there's ever been any reason for them not to walk into my room. I've never had anyone but you here."

"You haven't?" Severus seemed stunned.

Sensing that he'd pleased Severus, Harry gave a slow, negative shake of his head. "No, not ever. Hermione always knocks if the door's closed. Ron and I have shared rooms since we were eleven, so he doesn't pay any attention to such niceties."

"Pity, it would have spared us all a rude awakening." Severus' gaze dropped to the duvet covering his lap. "I really should have left hours ago."

"Don't be ridiculous. I love having you here. Next time we'll just have to remember to lock the door. Well, I better go track him down," Harry started to drag himself out of the bed, and then stopped to lean in for another kiss. Pulling back a breathless few minutes later, he whispered, "By the way, thank you for last night. It . . . you were incredible." He was rewarded with a faint blush in those sallow cheeks. Encouraged, he asked, "Can I see you again tonight?"

Although Severus hadn't said 'no' yet, he always asked and never assumed anything as a given between them. He knew how intense last night had been, how much power he'd loosed on the other man. Many wizards would have been scared off by it.

But not his Severus.

Severus boldly held his gaze and gave a slow nod. "If you wish."

"I wish – very much," Harry answered.

"Only . . . perhaps we should retreat to the dungeons tonight?" Severus suggested.

There was a slightly hysterical edge to Harry's ensuing laughter. "You've got a deal. I've really got to go now."

A quick cleansing charm, another wordless spell, and Harry was dressed in blue jeans, grey jumper, his trainers, and winter cloak. He summoned his glasses from wherever they'd spent the night and put them on his nose. A quick smile for the naked man watching him from his bed, and he was hurrying out his bedroom door.

He wasn't certain where he should even look at first. Outside seemed the best bet, for Ron was unlikely to go anywhere a student might see him when that upset.

When Harry stepped out of Hogwarts' main doors, the pre-dawn day was grey and bitter cold. The wind roared down out of the north, making him pull his hood up. The dead grass underfoot was brittle and crisp with frost.

Harry paused in front of the castle, surveying his options. Towards the Forbidden Forest? Towards Hogsmeade? The Lake? Or maybe Ron had rejected all three and simply headed in to work early. He hoped not, because they really needed to talk.

Knowing Ron's fear of spiders, he decided it was unlikely Ron would have approached the Forbidden Forest, where Aragog's children still held sway. It was barely six in the morning, so it was unlikely the Three Broomsticks or any of the other Hogsmeade shops would be open this early. Which left the lake or work.

Harry turned his steps into the wind and headed down the stairs to the water. If it were he who'd come to the lake for solace, he would have been over on the far side, near the menhir where he and Remus used to stop for chats when Lupin had taught here in his third year. But Ron preferred the rocky beach.

Sure enough, the tall figure stood there, a long black line against grey water and sky. Ron had obviously transfigured his nightshirt into winter robes, for he was draped in billowing black folds that made him look like Severus with them flapping around him. His head was bare. The wind was ripping at his shaggy red hair and turning his cheeks nearly as bright a colour.

Harry watched the rigid silhouette for a moment, unsure what approach he should take. Finally he just walked down the slope to the beach and stopped a few feet from Ron on the ice glazed white, grey, and brown stones on the shore.

There was a thick crust of ice forming on the water near the shore. The emotional cold shoulder Ron was giving him was making Harry feel about the same as the water.

"It would really help if you learned to knock," Harry said by way of greeting.

Ron didn't even look at him. His jaw was locked like he was about to face Voldemort alone, his brow crinkled in a frown. With falling spirits, Harry noticed that Ron's hands were balled in fists at his side, as if to keep from striking someone.

Harry sighed and stared out at the white-capped, wind-tortured water for a while. It was barely distinguishable from the sky in the predawn twilight. When the silence became too much, he voiced his deepest worry. "Are you going to stop talking to me again? Cut me off cold like you did when we were fourteen?"

"You're fucking Snape," the way Ron said it made the concept sound morally repugnant. It was the same tone Ron would have used if he'd accused someone of molesting a first year.

"Severus is my lover, Ron," Harry softly corrected, needing Ron to understand something he didn't fully understand himself. All he knew was that Severus wasn't simply someone he fucked.

"He's no more capable of being a lover than a mountain troll is," Ron snapped, swinging around to glare at him. "The man's a complete horror. You know that better than anyone, for Merlin's sake. You were his principal victim for seven years."

"That was almost nine years ago," Harry protested.

"He hasn't changed. He never changes, except to get nastier."

"Maybe I've changed, then," Harry said.

"How could you take up with something like him? How can you even touch him? He's disgusting!"

"Ron -"

"He's old enough to be your father. His teeth, hands, and even his fucking face are yellow! He's an ugly -"

Before Ron could go any further, Harry interrupted in a voice like steel, "Ron, I know what the man looks like. I'm sleeping with him. Stop it, please."

Ron snapped his mouth shut and stood there glaring out over the water with his jaw twitching.

Harry took a deep breath of the cold, lake-scented air, trying to cleanse his own anger at Ron's thoughtless insults. Finally, he said, "I don't care that he's not . . . that he doesn't look like a movie star. I don't, either."

"You're a good looking bloke, Harry. You could get anyone you wanted."

"Yeah, for a night," Harry snapped. "Do you know how many times I've gone to bed with a drop-dead, gorgeous wizard, only to wake up with someone I'd never seen before when their glamour wore off?"

"At least they gave a damn about how they looked," Ron shot back.

"I happen to like the way Severus looks. He's . . . striking," Harry tried to choose an adjective that would describe the Snape Ron knew, not the one who melted in his arms every night.

"He's filthy. He never bathes."

Harry sighed. "He's never dirty. He uses a cleansing charm several times a day."

"His hair is dripping with oil," Ron said, seeming intent on cataloguing Severus' every fault.

"He forgets to wash it. It's not a big deal, Ron."

"It's disgusting," Ron countered.

"It's just part of him, the way your red hair is part of you. The things you're saying, it's all about looks. Can't you see that you're doing the same thing to Severus that that stuck up Ravenclaw chit did to you when you asked her out in sixth year and she said she could never date you because you had red hair and freckles?" Harry gently reminded him.

Ron's already wind-burned face went even redder. "It's not just his looks. He's the nastiest bastard ever born. You know that, Harry!"

"He's . . . different with me," Harry said.

Ron ignored his protest. "Why . . . him?"

"Why Hermione for you? Can anybody explain why they're drawn to the person they . . . ." the words stopped as he recognized where they were going. Abruptly, he remembered telling Severus he loved him last night.

"Oh, my god," Ron said. "You're . . . you're in love with the filthy bastard!"

Ron made it sound like an obscenity or a betrayal.

Tired of defending something he never should have had to, Harry's temper snapped and he rounded on Ron. "Guilty as charged. Yes, I love him. All right. Is that what you wanted to hear? Aren't I allowed a little happiness, too? Or do I have to be alone my whole life?"

"No, of course, you shouldn't be alone. But why him, Harry?" Ron practically whined.

Harry tried to explain in terms Ron might understand, "We're good together. He's actually quite funny when you get to know him, and . . . .he's not afraid of me. Severus doesn't make me feel like a freak every time I forget to use my wand to work a little magic. I don't have to explain what the war did to me, because he was right there beside me the whole time, and he's got just as many scars from it as I do. He might be a miserable prick to the rest of the world, but he's kind and gentle to me when it counts. And he's making more of an effort to be civil to the people that matter to me than you are; so don't talk to me about nasty."

Ron's eyes went wide as saucers. "You really are in love. . . with Severus Snape."

Feeling nothing but tired now that he'd lost the initial burst of anger, Harry gave a silent nod and asked, "Are you going to punish me for it?"

"What?" Ron blinked, whether from the wind or the surprise, Harry didn't know.

"Am I going to lose my best friend because he doesn't approve of the man I'm . . . sleeping with?" His heart dropped out of his chest as Ron looked away.

"I'm sorry," Ron said softly.

"Right. I'll see you around." Harry's wooden words were worthy of Severus as he turned back to the castle.

A goose-pimpled, cold-reddened hand locked on his shoulder. "Harry, wait! I didn't mean it that way. I was apologizing for . . . being such a prat."

Harry looked up into tired blue eyes.

Ron gave him a weak smile as he said, "I'm not going to pretend that I understand . . . but . . . I'm on your side. Okay? If Snape . . . really makes you happy, I'll try to . . .accept it, accept him."

The relief almost made Harry dizzy. One minute he was staring up at Ron with his teeth chattering from the cold, the next he was pressed tight to that warm, muscular chest, with Ron's familiar comforting scent all around him. They stood there hugging on the shore for what felt like forever. Finally, Ron gave him a squeeze and said, "I'm going to have to go in and get dressed for work."

"Right," Harry said, stepping back.

But Ron's arm came over his shoulder and he stepped close to Harry as they turned towards the castle. "So, are you going to tell me how this thing with Snape started or are you going to let me imagine that he slipped you a love potion or worse?"

"Would you believe that it all began with a plague of locusts?" Harry asked with a grin.

"Somehow that seems strangely appropriate for a love story involving Snape," Ron joked. He gave Harry's shoulder another squeeze and said, "Go on. I'm listening."

Allowing himself to believe that things might actually work out, Harry relaxed against Ron and gave his friend the highly abridged version of his unintentional courtship of Severus Snape as they walked back to the castle.

To his shock, another tall, black-draped figure was waiting for him on Hogwarts entrance stairs.

Ron's arm tensed around him, but didn't withdraw as they approached Snape.

"It went all right, then, I take it?" Severus asked him, his dark gaze taking in Ron's arm across his shoulders.

Harry could almost feel Ron gawking up at Severus. Snape still looked exactly like the nasty Potions master of their childhood. Nothing of what Severus was feeling was revealed in the hard lines of his face, and his eyes looked cold as black ice.

"It went fine," Harry grinned up at Severus as they climbed the steps to where his lover was waiting.

Ron's arm slid off his shoulder. For a tense moment, Ron and Severus stood there squared off, as if preparing to duel. Then Ron stiffly said, "I should have knocked this morning. I'm sorry for the intrusion."

Severus seemed to consider the words, as though searching for hidden meaning or mockery. Apparently finding none, he inclined his head and said, "There was no harm done."

Ron nodded.

The silence stretched awkwardly as the two taller men stared at each other, and then Ron blurted out, "This is weird."

"Believe me, Mr. Weasley, you don't know the half of it," Severus said in such a dry tone that both Ron and Harry were laughing before his lover finished speaking.

When the laughter stopped, Ron looked at Severus and said, "Looks like we're going to be seeing a lot of each other. We're going to the Three Broomsticks on Friday. Will you and Harry join us?"

Severus gave a grave nod and replied, "Yes."

"Don't kill us with enthusiasm there, Professor," Ron joked.

Harry held his breath, but Severus simply gave Ron a deadpan expression and answered, "I'll do my utmost to restrain myself."

Ron gave a chuckle and squeezed Harry's arm. "I've really got to run. I'll see you later. Bye, Professor."

With a nod at Severus, Ron opened the huge door and rushed inside, leaving Harry alone on the stairs with his lover.

In the weak light of the winter dawn, Harry could see that Severus' nose was turning red from the cold and dripping a little. Severus must have been waiting out here a while, possibly the entire time he was gone, he realized, touched by this often dour man's concern.

"Thank you for waiting," Harry said, stepping closer. He wanted to kiss Severus, but wasn't fool enough to do so on the front steps of Hogwarts in broad daylight.

"It was the least I could do. Is everything all right between Mr. Weasley and you?"

"It's fine. Thanks," Harry allowed himself a brief touch to Severus' sleeve.

"He seemed . . . remarkably composed," Severus commented.

Harry could hear the question underneath it. "Sometimes Ron surprises even me. Thank God."

Severus nodded, and then opened the door to the castle. Side by side, they went to meet the day.


There were days Severus Snape seriously considered giving up Potions and retreating to the Muggle world to raise daffodils or something equally inoffensive. Perhaps something safe like training tigers or lions. Even herding Norwegian Ridgebacks had to be less dangerous than attempting to teach wizard children Potions.

Severus took every possible safeguard imaginable. The ingredients were always up front in class to prevent the dunderheads from poisoning themselves by taking the wrong bottle from the shelf. He chose all the ingredients himself and oversaw their preparation. He watched the suicidal sociopaths like a hawk to ensure that they added the right amount of everything, and that mistakes didn't happen. And even with his hardly inconsiderable micromanaging, disasters like today still occurred.

Stephen Kerrigan wasn't quite the utter waste of space Neville Longbottom had been when it came to Potions. The boy could occasionally prepare a decent brew. However, no third year could possibly have anticipated what would occur when a Muggle cough drop was sneezed into a wart removal potion, thereby introducing eucalyptus into the brew. But, then, for all his shortcomings and all that he might have secretly desired to, Neville Longbottom had never poisoned his teacher, accidentally or otherwise, Severus reflected as he choked up the acidic, putrid remains of his lunch. As this was his third visit to the lavatory in two hours, he was slightly amazed he had anything left to bring up.

At least he'd prevented the class from inhaling the fumes. His order of "Get out, all of you, NOW!" roared as the grey smoke filled the Potions lab was instantly obeyed. The dunderheads had fled, as if for their lives, and he'd managed to contain the biohazard with a minimum of exposure. He'd immediately taken the potion necessary to transform the inhaled poison into a toxin that could be expelled by his digestive system, hence the retching.

Tomorrow morning he would add Muggle cough drops to the list of contraband items in the Potions lab. But that was tomorrow. Tonight, Severus knew that he was in for a long, unpleasant time of it.

With the thought of the word 'tonight', he remembered that he'd have to cancel with Potter. Even with the cramps and retching, he was loath to do so. They'd been together every single night of the three and a half weeks that had passed since he'd kissed Harry in the woods. Severus looked forward to the time he spent with Harry the way he'd used to anticipate his Potions class when in school.

As much as it pained him to do so, there was no way he could inflict his company upon Harry while in this state. Some superstitious part of him feared that the instant he cancelled their plans, he would lose Potter forever. Severus knew that all it would take would be a chance encounter in the local pub with a good-looking young wizard perceptive enough to understand that Potter was no danger to him, and Harry would be gone for good. But it was a Wednesday evening. It was highly improbable that Potter would go into town alone for amusement or company when he had to teach in the morning. And even if it weren't, Severus really had no choice in the matter. What was he going to do – invite Potter to come down and watch him vomit all night?

When he finally stopped heaving into the porcelain toilet, he flushed, and sat back on his heels to watch the disgusting mess circle around before being sucked into the pipes. He wiped his lips with a piece of toilet paper, staggered to the nearby sink to rinse his mouth out with water, and then made his wobbly way through the bedroom and out into his sitting room.

The white stationary with the Slytherin coat of arms was exactly where it should be in his top desk drawer. Severus removed a sheet and envelope, sat down at his desk, and picked up his quill, only to stare at the blank sheet in consternation. He didn't even know how to address a note to Potter. Dear Harry seemed trite. To Harry Potter awkward. Finally, he just wrote:

Due to a minor incident in today's fourth period Potions class, I find myself indisposed. I regret that I will be unable to make our assignation tonight.
Severus Snape

He stared at the note a moment, added the line Perhaps we could postpone until tomorrow?, crossed it out, and then re-added it, as it was the most important portion of the missive.

As far as love letters went, it was utterly pathetic, but he wasn't a man given to gross sentimentality. Potter knew that about him.

Wishing that he had more finesse in these matters, Severus folded the note, sealed it in its envelope, and summoned a house elf.

"You is wanting Dobby, Master Snape?" the strange little creature wearing a tea towel with the Hogwarts seal on it and a pair of mismatched socks, one pink and one orange, asked in its high pitched voice as it materialized.

Snape stared at the elf. Ever since Potter and he had become involved, this creature always showed up to clean his rooms or bring him food.

Apparently, house elves liked to appoint themselves charges at the school: a rotund elf named Jibbly had been taking care of Minerva for more than thirty years, a stunted one named Grillie looked after Flitwick, the list went on, with nearly every professor or house having the same elf care for them. Except him. For the thirty years he'd been here, every time Severus summoned an elf, a different one appeared, almost as though they took turns having to wait on him. Or perhaps they drew lots and he got the loser. However, for the past month, this one had appeared consistently, and it seemed to have some type of personal relationship with Potter, were their interplay anything to go by.

That last fact that restrained him from sneering What would anyone want with Dobby? to the creature's question. The objects of Potter's affections were often quite startling, himself included. Severus didn't understand half of Potter's associations, but he was reluctant to alienate Harry with unnecessary rudeness. So instead of snapping, he simply said, "Dobby, please deliver this to Professor Potter at the teachers' table in the Great Hall. He should be there presently."

"Dobby is pleased to be bringing Harry Potter his letter," the elf replied, taking the note. "Sir is not looking so well, if master doesn't mind Dobby saying. Is Master Snape all right?"

"Master does mind and it's none of your concern," Severus couldn't stop himself from snapping.

"Oh, but it is Dobby's concern. Dobby is looking after Master Snape for Harry Potter. Dobby is promising to take good care of Professor Snape for Harry Potter."


"Please, sir, take some broth to make you feel better?" the elf asked. A second later a steaming bowl of light golden broth, a spoon, and napkin appeared on the desk beside Severus. "Dobby is bringing your letter now to Harry Potter," the aggravating creature said and vanished.

The house elf was looking after him for Harry Potter? What the devil did that mean?

Severus' nose twitched at the scent of the fragrant broth. It was chicken, his favourite. He stared down at the bowl. He was tempted to fling it at the place where the elf had stood, but his better sense prevailed.

The elf had a point. Lunch had been hours ago and he couldn't keep bringing up bile. Taking a deep breath, he brought a spoonful of the broth to his lips. The salty mouthful went down easily, as did the next three. He was lifting his fifth spoonful when his stomach rebelled. Clamping his hand across his mouth, he raced for the loo.

"Severus?" there was a frantic edge to the voice in his sitting room.

Although he'd keyed his floo to allow Potter unmonitored access to his chambers weeks ago, this was the first time Harry had come without an invitation. Wishing that Harry had chosen a better time, Severus finished throwing up what was left of the broth and managed a feeble, "I'll be right out," that he hoped would be heard over the sound of the flushing toilet.

Severus rose from his inelegant crouch and performed the now familiar routine of rinsing his mouth. The face that stared back at him from the mirror looked nearly as green as his dressing gown. He felt weak and shaky, barely able to stand. The last thing he wanted was for Potter to see him like this. But he pulled himself together as best he could and went out to meet his unexpected visitor.

"There you are!" Potter said. He looked so young and healthy in his jeans and red jumper that the contrast with his own potion-debilitated system made Severus feel doubly unwell. "My God! What's happened?"

Potter hurried to his side, took his arm, and all but carried him to the couch. Since Severus wasn't entirely certain he could make the distance without disgracing himself by toppling over, he allowed the assistance. Potter was an enticing warmth down his right side, the familiar presence a siren call to his shivering flesh.

"What happened?" Harry repeated once he'd gotten him seated.

"Didn't you receive my note?" Severus asked, staring down at his sheepskin slippers.

Taking a seat on the cushion next to him, Harry snorted. "Was the mention of a 'minor incident' in the Potions lab that left you 'indisposed' supposed to explain anything? My blood ran cold when I read those words. All I could think about were those spectacular explosions of Neville's. Are you all right? What exactly is wrong and how did it happen?"

"Nothing dire, I assure you. Young Kerrigan sneezed a Muggle lozenge with eucalyptus in it into a cauldron of wart remover. The eucalyptus interacted with the vervain, with predictable results." Severus sighed at Potter's blank expression. "It set off a toxic fume. I evacuated the class and vanished the contaminated potion, but not before my own clumsiness exposed me to a small dose of it."

"You mean you had to breathe," Potter translated in a strangely soft tone.

Potter's right hand reached over to smooth the sweat slick hair back from Severus' brow. Severus knew that there was no sense allowing anything to start between them tonight, but that gentle touch felt too good to refuse.

"Do you need to see Poppy?" Harry questioned.

"No, I took the necessary potion to move the poison from my lungs to my digestive system to be expelled. It will however be several hours before the vomiting stops," Severus answered. At the word 'vomit' his stomach began to churn threateningly again, as if on cue.

"Isn't there anything you can take for it?" Potter asked.

Severus sighed and somehow held onto both his temper and the contents of his stomach. "The idea is to get the poison out of me. I induced the vomiting."

Potter gave a blank, "Oh."

A minor revolution taking place inside, Severus gave a somewhat brusque, "I appreciate your dropping by to enquire after my health. As you can see, I am indisposed, but in no immediate danger. Shall we postpone our plans until tomorrow evening?" At Harry's nod, he said. "I'll see you then, then."

"You want me to go?" Potter looked and sounded hurt.

Severus was too ill to deal with this. His stomach felt like a Neville Longbottom special, just waiting for the right moment to explode. "I'm hardly fit company. What are you going to do – sit there and watch me puke -"

His sarcasm was interrupted by a humiliatingly familiar feeling. Severus' hand shot up to cover his mouth, his eyes widening in horror as he recognized he'd waited too long. He was never going to make it back to the loo. He couldn't even open his mouth to whisper a spell to summon the nearby rubbish container, for fear of what would spew immediately out of it.

Severus tried to hold it in. It wouldn't stay down. Of course, it wouldn't stay down. He'd taken Expel-It-All to ensure that the poison was cleansed from his system. But he'd never imagined that he'd do so all over his best dressing gown with his lover sitting there watching him disgrace himself.

Horrified, Severus felt the noxious stuff roar up his oesophagus. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep his lips locked just as tight, but they opened. He leaned forward and . . . expelled the latest outpouring.

To his utter shock, he didn't feel the horrible, stinking, wet heat soak through his dressing gown and nightshirt, nor did it hit his slippers. Instead, there was a strange sound of falling liquid bouncing off something solid. He opened his eyes to see the vomit hit the bottom of a white plastic bucket that Potter had obviously manifested in front of the line of fire.

Harry shifted on the couch. A moment later, Potter's blunt fingered hands reached from behind his head to pull Severus' dangling hair back and hold it out of harm's way while he continued retching.

"It's okay. You're going to be all right," Potter said from beside him as Severus continued to try to expel his stomach's lining.

Finally, the spasm ceased. Severus gasped in a breath that was heavy with the smell of sickness. He'd rarely felt so humiliated in his life.

The pungent liquid that had collected in the pail vanished, taking the horrible odour with it.

Harry released his hair. It swung forward to veil his face.

Instead of clearing out like anyone with sense would have done, Potter shifted closer. His left hand settled on Severus' back and began to rub in gentle circles.

Severus stared down into the empty pail, having no idea what to say at a moment like this.

It was Harry who eventually broke the silence. "You should probably drink something so you don't dehydrate and then lie down."

A glass of clear water appeared on the coffee table in front of them. Harry reached out with his right hand to collect it, his left remaining a warm presence in the centre of Severus' back. As Potter moved the offered glass into his line of vision, interrupting his morose study of the now empty pail, Severus braced himself and turned to glare at him.

Severus couldn't see anything like disgust or pity on his lover's face. Their absence confounded him. Harry simply seemed worried.

"What?" Potter asked softly.

"I would prefer not to have you see me like this," Severus said at last.

His stiff words caused a puzzled frown on Harry's face. "Well, I'd prefer you to be well, too, but right now, this is what we've got until the toxin clears out of your system. So let's try to get you as comfortable as possible."

Severus was certain that puzzled frown must have migrated to his own features. "Potter, this is embarrassing enough without an audience."

"Embarrassing?" Potter echoed, as though he'd never heard the word.

"Unless it escaped your notice, I was just sick," Severus snarled.

"Well, yes, you were," Potter agreed with infuriating equanimity. "What's your point?"

"That isn't something I want anyone . . . watching," Severus said at last. This wasn't something he should have to explain.

"But . . . I'm not just anyone. I'm . . .we . . . you're my lover."

Gods, that hurt tone was back in Harry's voice again.

"All the more reason why I don't want you seeing me like this. It's hardly . . . attractive," Severus lamely finished. He didn't consider himself desirable under the best of circumstances. He didn't want Potter seeing him at his worst.

"Is that what you think of me?"

"Damn it, Potter. This isn't about you. I'm ill. I'm not up to company."

"I didn't think I was company," Harry nearly spat the word out.

The silence was more than oppressive. Severus half expected Potter to flounce out in a temper, but that was more his own style than Harry's.

After what felt like a millennium of that nerve-wracking quiet, Severus was finally forced to comment, "I don't even know why you'd want to stay."

"To make sure you're all right." Harry's hand touched his arm. "Suppose it was me that was taken ill. Wouldn't you want to come up and see how I was doing, even if it were only a minor inconvenience?"

That Potter could have the degree of faith in him to even ask that type of question was startling. Severus wasn't accustomed to being accused of thoughtfulness and concern. Part of him wanted to deny the suggestion, because he was already too deeply involved with Potter for his own good. Only . . . to deny it would be a lie. As much as Severus wanted to insist that he didn't care like that, insist that he'd give the other man his privacy if their positions were reversed, he knew that Potter was right. He'd want to see for himself that Harry was comfortable and had everything he needed. Hadn't he waited out on those freezing stairs for nearly thirty minutes the other morning simply to assure himself that Potter hadn't been too upset by his confrontation with Weasley after the simpleton had blundered in upon them? How could he possibly deny his attachment at this point?

Dropping his gaze, Severus gave a grudging nod.

"Why is it different when it comes to you, then?" Harry softly asked.

The answer to that was obvious to everyone but Potter, apparently. Harry was the only one who'd ever seen him worthy of this type of regard.

"Lovers have rights, Severus. This is one of them," Harry gently informed him.

"You have the right to watch me be sick?" Severus challenged the preposterous proposition.

"Yes. It's one of my inalienable rights as your lover. So I suggest you drink your water, hold onto your pail, and we'll move into the bedroom where you can be sick in comfort."

Too tired to continue arguing, Severus gave a confused nod, and then sipped the water when Harry held the glass up to his lips. When he'd drunk half its contents, Harry helped him to his feet and then guided him into the bedroom.

Severus lost most of what he'd drunk as soon as he sat down on the bed, but the pail caught the outpouring, and Harry conveniently vanished the mess as soon as he was through.

"That's good," Potter encouraged when he was done.

Utterly self-conscious, Severus sank back against the pillows, clinging to the empty bucket as though it were a lifeline. He watched as Harry transfigured his clothes into a pair of light blue Muggle pyjamas and then approached the other side of the bed.

It was strange to see Harry wearing any type of pyjamas. He'd only ever seen the handsome young man naked in bed.

Harry gave him a warm smile as he slid under the far side of the duvet. Some quick manoeuvring, and Harry was right beside him.

"Do you feel well enough to lie down and rest for a while?" Potter asked as he lay down flat on his back.

Severus considered the state of his stomach, how probable it was that he'd need to use the pail in the next few minutes. Deciding he wouldn't ruin the bedclothes, he lay down as well.

Harry's arm settled across his chest and gave a soft nudge, silently inviting him to move closer . . . to cuddle. Even when he was a toddler, Severus couldn't remember anyone ever holding him while he was ill like this. That warm chest was tempting as hell.

Severus felt totally at a loss. Slytherins didn't nurture like this, or at least those he'd known hadn't. Strength and independence had been honed into him since he could walk, along with the cruelty and the pettiness. Weakness of any type was scorned. Accepting this kind of comfort went against everything Severus knew, only . . . Harry wanted it. For some inexplicable reason, Potter wanted to stay here and share this with him. Harry clearly didn't consider him weak or disgusting. The contact was his lover's idea.

So, what harm was there in accepting it? Potter had already seen him be sick. It hadn't seemed to faze him in the least. As long as he grabbed hold of the pail in time, it should be all right. After the briefest of debates, Severus put the bucket down by Harry's far shoulder and tentatively pillowed his head on his lover's pyjama-covered chest. Even as he laid his cheek against the warm blue cotton, he expected disaster to strike.

But nothing happened. Potter didn't mock him for his weakness; his world didn't come crashing down around him, nor did his stomach come rushing up.

Harry released a deep, contented sigh as Severus nestled his head there. Then his hand settled in the centre of Severus' back and began to rub.

Being held simply for the sake of being held was an utterly alien concept to him. For his entire life he had been so isolated, so utterly untouchable. Until Harry, he'd never had a lover who cuddled or hugged. Even with Harry, all their previous body contact had preceded or followed sex. But this . . . this didn't really have anything to do with intercourse. Harry wasn't here to get laid. He was just here to hold him.

Feeling entirely too fragile inside, Severus closed his eyes and tried to hold on to the moment. He didn't understand it any more than he understood Harry Potter, but he cherished it just as much as he did Harry. Feeling oddly content for a man whose stomach lining was attempting to expel itself, he took a deep breath of the Harry-scented air and allowed himself to bask in Potter's demonstration of his inalienable rights as his lover.


"Severus, so good to see you!" Rosmerta's cheerful greeting sounded the instant he stepped from the floo into the smoky din that was the Three Broomsticks on a busy Friday night. "No Harry toni – oh, there he is. Hi, Harry. Your usual table?"

Severus couldn't recall the last time he'd had a 'usual table' anywhere.

After dusting himself off, Potter patted Severus' arm as he joined him. With a grin at Rosmerta, his lover answered the barkeep's question, "We're here to meet Ron and Hermione. Are they here yet?"

"Are you really? Good for you, Severus!" Rosmerta chuckled, giving him a look that made Severus' cheeks warm as though he were still a gawky teen. "This way, then."

The music, smoke, and laughter were already playing on his nerves. Dismayed, Severus trailed Harry and the lovely Rosmerta to a corner table in the main room. He couldn't help but notice how a hush seemed to follow his entrance into the room.

"Harry, Severus!" Hermione Weasley jumped to her feet in an eager welcome that belied the fact that she'd seen the pair of them just an hour ago at dinner. She gave Harry an enthusiastic hug, all but enveloping him in the light blue robe she was wearing. Fortunately, she restrained herself when she turned to greet him in turn; all she did was take his arm to guide him into a chair near the wall.

Although the physical contact was completely unnecessary, Severus refrained from snarling, forcibly reminding himself that she was trying to demonstrate her support for his relationship with Potter. It wouldn't do to start this charming encounter with a shout. He was fairly certain it would end on one, but there was no reason to rush the inevitable.

He'd told Potter that he'd try, so try he would.

Were he a gambling man, Severus would give this farce ten minutes before Weasley and he came to actual blows.

Potter sat down in the chair beside Severus' and moved in close, which helped alleviate his irritation somewhat.

Ronald Weasley at least refrained from making a spectacle of himself, confining his acknowledgement of their arrival to a grin and a rather strangely inflected, "So, you made it then?"

Weasley's long frame was folded into the end chair, his legs stretched out under the table. The brown robe he was wearing complemented his colouring far better than the scarlet Auror robes he wore to work.

"As you see," Severus replied.

"I'll bring you your usuals?" Rosmerta asked Harry and him once they were seated.

Severus gave a nod, while Ronald Weasley questioned, "You've got usuals?"

"We don't live under a rock, Ron," Harry laughed, and then amended, "Well, some of us don't. Others of us do, in fact, live under a number of rocks, but even Severus makes it out of the dungeon every now and then."

The warmth in Potter's voice was unmistakable. Hermione laughed at the joke. Severus could feel Ronald Weasley watching them as though they were on exhibit in a museum.

Severus had no idea what to say to either of them. He was only here for Harry's sake. He suspected that the Weasleys had as little desire to be trapped at this table with him as he did them. This was going to be a complete disaster.

Beside him, Harry relaxed in his seat. His arm settled across the back of Severus' chair, leaning against Severus' shoulders in what seemed a very casual, unintentional contact. The sleeve of Potter's grey robe pooled over Severus' left shoulder like a cape. Although he could feel the stares of strangers joining Weasley's, the touch was . . . calming. Harry wanted him here, even if no one else did.

"So here we all are," Ronald Weasley inanely commented.

"You said that, Ron," his wife chided with a grin.

"Did I?" Ron asked, sipping his beer.

"Yes," Hermione answered, plunging the table into awkward silence.

Hating that he was the cause of this nervous tension, Severus looked over at Weasley and asked, "How is your search for Burke progressing, Auror Weasley?"

That last was perhaps a bit much, but he was determined to make a legitimate effort to offer no insult to Potter's closest friends. He didn't understand why Potter wished to involve him so deeply in his personal life, but the nervousness that Harry hadn't been able to conceal the few times he'd seen his lover today made it plain that it was very important to Harry that this ridiculous outing go well.

"My friends call me Ron," Weasley said.

"Do they?" Severus' natural instincts got the better of him before he checked the sarcasm and asked, "Was that an invitation to do so?"

Weasley's friendly face puckered in a frown. "You've known me since I was eleven. Of course you can call me Ron."

Weasley sounded so much like his mother at that moment that it was eerie. Severus could almost hear Molly's voice using that same exasperated tone with him at Order meetings. He had enough sense to refrain from commenting upon that fact, however. Instead, he responded with a soft, "Thank you. You may call me Severus, if you wish."

"Great," Ron said.

"The case?" Severus prodded.

Weasley shrugged. "Burke's got to be out there somewhere. We'll find him."

Severus thought Weasley's crew had about as much chance of finding Burke as his predecessors had with locating Voldemort, which was to say, none at all. Once again, he restrained his baser instincts to a curt, "No doubt."

Weasley gave him a sharp glance, but let the comment pass. Then he asked, clearly digging for conversational topics, "How are the detentions going? I hear you've got quite the crowd down there this term."

"Ron," Harry's steely tone intervened.

"Well, what the hell else am I supposed to ask him about?" Weasley complained to Potter.

"Ron, really!" Hermione scolded, shooting a mortified look in Severus' direction at her husband's blunder.

The ends of Severus' lips twitched. In a strange way, this was almost amusing. "No, it's all right. The detentions are going well . . . ." He couldn't bring himself to use the familiar 'Ron', so he just let the entire issue pass. "I've three students scheduled for daily detentions for the remainder of the year. As Potter recently pointed out, I'll be up to my ears in chopped slugs for some time to come."

"The remainder of the year! Poor sods. Even we didn't rate detention for a full year," Ron said.

Severus met Weasley's horrified gaze and pointed out, "Only because I failed to catch you."

"Tough luck, that," Harry laughed beside him, not even trying to deny the accusation.

Hermione joined Harry's laughter and after a moment, so did Weasley.

"It's different now that we're teachers, Ron," Hermione said.

Before she could finish whatever she was about to say, Severus lamented, "Yes, now that Minerva's seen fit to employ the pair of you, I can no longer deduct house points when I catch you in the corridors after curfew."

"He did try to deduct points the other night when I kept him waiting," Harry mock-complained to his two chuckling friends.

Severus debated the wisdom of what he was about to say, and then decided to say it anyway. The Weasleys were both adults. They'd simply have to deal with it. "As I recall, you ended up earning house points in the end for your efforts in that particular instance."

Potter, who'd been sipping his beer, sputtered it out all over the table and turned bright red. Ron didn't seem to get his meaning at first – no great surprise, that – but Hermione took one look at Harry and doubled over, shaking with laughter. After another moment, Ron's eyes widened and his cheeks turned as crimson as his Auror robes.

Think what he might of the man's intelligence, Weasley was no coward. Though still blushing furiously, Ron met his gaze and challenged in what no doubt passed for an innocent tone in Gryffindor Tower, "I didn't think you gave out house points to anyone but Slytherins."

"While it's true I do have a tendency to favour my own house, I have been known to reward the members of other houses for, shall we say, extraordinary . . . performance. Believe me, Potter earned every point that night."

The shocked silence at the table was complete, and for a heartbeat, Severus worried he might have gone too far, but then Harry muttered a stunned sounding, "And to think I was worried about us offending your sensibilities," and all three were laughing again.

The laughter eventually calmed and Hermione changed the subject to the upcoming Yule festivities at Hogwarts. As Harry leaned in to the table so that he could hear what she had to say on the progress of Hagrid's costume, Severus could feel Ronald Weasley's thoughtful gaze upon him.

Meeting those openly curious blue eyes, Severus raised an enquiring brow and waited. He needn't have been at the lakeside discussion Harry had had with this man at dawn earlier in the week to know that Weasley didn't approve of their relationship. He'd expected open hostility from this quarter. The wary tolerance he'd received so far tonight was startling, to say the least.

Weasley regarded him for a moment longer and then leaned forward to say in a low tone that wouldn't carry even so far as to where Hermione and Harry were chatting next to them, "We really don't know you at all, do we?"

"That's hardly surprising. It isn't as if we ever had anything in common."

Ron gave a meaningful look to Severus' left, where Potter sat. "We do now, though."

"So it would appear," Severus agreed, trying not to blush. It was strange. He could boldly insinuate the sexual link he'd forged with Potter without a second thought, but now that Weasley was challenging him on emotional ground, he was unsure of himself.

"Hey, I'm going to get us all another round and see if I can hunt down some crisps. Do you want anything other than a drink?" Harry asked with a soft touch to Severus' sleeve.

"No, that will be fine. Thank you," Severus answered. He tried to keep his face schooled, for he could feel not only Ron and Hermione's gazes upon him, but other patrons' as well.

"Wait up, Harry," Hermione called getting up fast. "I'll let you blaze a trail through the crowd. The ladies' is over that way. Be back in a second."

Potter paused, staring down at Severus. "Will you be all right?"

"All right?" Severus echoed, not understanding.

"He means all right alone with me," Ron explained. "We'll be fine, Harry."

With a pointed look Weasley's way, Harry headed out into the busy pub, Hermione trailing behind him.

"He's pretty special, huh?" Weasley said once the others of their party were out of earshot.

Severus considered his responses, and then asked with thinly veiled amusement, "Is this where you tell me if I hurt him, you'll kill me? Or perhaps quiz me on my intentions?"

Weasley chuckled and gave a slow shake of his head. "No."

"No?" Severus tried to hide his surprise.

"I figure Harry's got to mean something to you if you're willing to make nice with us for his sake," Weasley shocked him by saying.

Deciding to lay his cards on the table, Severus held Weasley's gaze and admitted, "I was somewhat surprised by your forbearance as well."

"He means something to me, too," Weasley countered. "Do you think we can do this?"


"Play nice – for his sake?" Weasley questioned. "It seems to mean a lot to him that we try."

"We've managed so far," Severus pointed out.

"Yes, but you've barely said a word. That won't last. I can see that all this polite good behaviour is choking you," Weasley said with surprising acuity.

"What are you suggesting?" Severus asked, intrigued.

"I've been watching you with Harry at breakfast this last week. You use insults the way the rest of us use small talk. I'll make a deal with you. If you . . . don't go for Hermione or my jugulars, I'll try to keep my temper and make like Harry wants."

"Why should you? I would think you would do everything in your power to . . . discourage this," Severus said.

"Yeah, I considered it," Weasley admitted with refreshing honesty.

"And?" Severus prodded, not understanding.

Weasley gave a shrug of his wide, athletic shoulders. "I'm not going to be the one to shoot down Harry's dream. He asked me to back him up on this; I'll back him up on it for as long as it lasts."

"Which you don't anticipate being a period of sufficient duration to tax your patience," Severus completed.

Weasley had the grace to appear uncomfortable. "It's not for me to say, is it?"

Weasley's honesty was surprisingly appealing. Severus gave a negative shake of his head in agreement. "No, it's not." Almost of its own accord, his gaze sought Potter out where he stood trying to make his way through the crowd at the bar. His heart constricted when he saw the young, incredibly handsome man with whom Harry was conversing quite intensely. "You are correct in one thing, at any rate – your tolerance won't be tested for very long."

"What?" Weasley's affable face creased with confusion.

"I'm a realist, Mr. Weasley," Severus said, his hand closing around his drink until his knuckles turned white.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Take a look behind you," Severus gestured with his chin to where the handsome blond stranger now had his hand on Harry's shoulder. "I know that my . . . association with Potter has already long out-lasted all reasonable expectation."

Weasley's gaze jumped from the two men at the bar back to Severus' face. Undisguised shock touched Ronald Weasley's features, and then something oddly gentle. "That gormless wonder's name is Michael. He threw Harry over a couple of months ago because he was scared of Harry's power. Just watch them. Harry won't give that bastard the time of day."

Severus was as shocked that Weasley's vocabulary included the word 'gormless' as he was by the encouraging content of the man's words. As Weasley predicted, Harry shook off the handsome man's hand and moved further down the bar to put in their drinks order without looking back.

"A word of advice, Professor?" Weasley asked in an uncertain tone.

Severus stared over at Weasley, not responding to the question. The day he needed to ask a Weasley for advice was the day he'd give himself a lobotomy with his own wand. Still, there was no harm in listening to whatever Potter's oldest friend had to say.

Weasley appeared to take his attention as a silent endorsement to continue, for he quietly offered, "We Gryffindors don't go in much for realism. We tend to view things with our hearts. Forget about that reasonable expectation rubbish. Harry doesn't care about it. All he's interested in is your winning personality."

The sardonic flair Weasley gave those last two words brought an unwilling smile to Severus' lips. "Sarcasm, Weasley?"

"It's you we're talking about here," Weasley shot back with a grin.

"Touché. Outwitted by a Weasley," he said.

Weasley laughed. "If I was as stupid as you always thought I was, would Harry have kept me around all these years?"

Guarding his expression, for all that he wanted to laugh, Severus softly challenged, "What leads you to believe that my opinion of his intelligence has altered in any way?"

For a moment Weasley virtually wavered with uncertainty, and then he threw back his head and howled with laughter.

"Er, is everything all right here?" a familiar voice asked from behind him.

Severus turned to see Potter standing behind him, with a heavily laden tray in his hands and a puzzled expression on his face. Severus couldn't blame him for the last. It was far more reasonable that Potter would have found Weasley and him at each other's throats than laughing together.

Severus took the tray from Harry and placed it on the table.

Weasley choked out, "We were just discussing the relative virtues of reality."

"Realism, Weasley, not reality. There's a bit of a difference," Severus corrected.

"Only to self-indulgent Slytherins," Weasley said.

"Or to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the English language, which definitely leaves you out," Severus quickly retorted.

Apparently, Weasley was as good as his word, for instead of reacting with anger, he only laughed at the insult.

"Did I miss something?" Harry asked as he handed out their drinks.

"Seven years of lessons, but I wouldn't worry too much about it. I'm the only one at this table that will notice," Severus said.

Potter chuckled and countered, "Hermione would notice."

"Notice what?" her voice chimed in behind them on cue.

"I'm not sure," Harry said as she sat down next to Ron. "But I think we've all been insulted. In fact, I'm sure of it. Here, have some crisps."

As easy as that, Potter let the issue go. It was so strange to be part of a group where everyone wasn't jockeying to one-up their neighbour, where an insult was laughed off, instead of topped.

"You found some peanuts," Hermione cried out as though Potter had fought off a Mongol horde for the salted nuts, which, considering the mob surrounding the bar, mightn't be that much of an exaggeration.

Severus watched as his three younger companions stuffed themselves with junk food as though they hadn't eaten in weeks.

A few minutes into the feeding frenzy, Weasley looked over at Potter and said, "I saw Michael talking to you at the bar."

Severus was ridiculously grateful to Weasley for bringing up the topic he hadn't known how to broach. He knew it wasn't any of his business if Potter chose to see other men. He tried to keep his attention on his drink, to not give in to insecurity, but he couldn't help but glance Harry's way to see his reaction to Weasley's inquiry.

It was annoyance, rather than regret or pain that crossed those handsome features. "Yeah, I forgot he comes here on Fridays."

"Are you okay?" Weasley softly questioned.

Harry's arm rose to casually rest across the back of Severus' chair again, just brushing his shoulders. Then Harry turned from Weasley, met Severus' eyes and gave him a quick smile, before looking back at his old friend and saying, "Never better."

Oddly enough, the same could be said for Severus himself at the moment. An alien sensation that he slowly recognized as contentment seemed to seep through him as he lost himself in the somewhat inane conversation of this bizarre permutation of 'meet the parents'.


The warm liquid dripping into his eyes had to be his own blood, Harry decided as a red cloud obscured his vision. Not that there was that much to obscure. The stone floor of his dimly lit cell was filthy and offered little in the way of distraction. Except for the puddles of red, which he'd prefer not to think about.

He lay face down on the dungeon floor, trying hard not to move or think.

Every breath shot a piercing pain through his side. That last kick had broken some ribs, or worse.

But that discomfort was negligible, mostly because the searing agony in his back was claiming his total concentration. The Death Eater who'd wielded that whip had been a true artist. He didn't think he had a square inch of skin left back there.

He froze at the sound he'd been dreading – the squeal of his cell door opening.

They were back.

Harry tried to sit up, but the Death Eaters were upon him before he could move. A pair of the dark-robed figures secured his arms and lifted him up. A third stopped in front of him. All he could see was that featureless white mask. The man's eyes were nothing but black slits.

The Death Eater in front of him reached to grab his balls, giving them a tight, agonizing squeeze before his hands moved around behind Harry to grip his buttocks. Hard fingers dug with bruising force into both his cheeks and lifted.

The Death Eaters pinning his arms loosened their grip a moment to adjust their hold on him to keep him in the air as the other man forcibly parted Harry's legs and fumbled his robes open.

In that instant of inattention, Harry jerked his hands free, and used the only weapon left to him.

With a horrified cry of "No!" Harry loosed the power inside of him, watching as the blue lightning bolts of mage fire crackled forth from his fingertips towards the man about to rape him . . . .

As with the hundreds of terrifying scenarios that had played out before this one, as soon as Harry loosed his power, he woke up.

He wasn't being held up in the air, being spread wide for a Death Eater to rape him. He was standing on a bed, his ankles tangled in a familiar green duvet. His mage fire wasn't incinerating his attacker. It was crackling into a mahogany wardrobe with the Slytherin House coat of arms carved into its lustrous wood.

The front of the wardrobe exploded with a resounding crack. Charred, smoking wood was all that was left of the serpent seal.

Harry stared in horror at the damage.

Shaking all over, he used a trembling hand to brush the sweat-drenched hair from his eyes. Gasping for breath, he stared around the wreck of the bed. Severus' bed. Severus, who had been sound asleep in his arms the last he remembered, was now nowhere in sight.

Had Severus gotten in the way of his mage fire and been incinerated in his first burst? Had he finally gone that irreversible step and killed someone while in the grips of these insane dreams?

"S-Severus?" Harry rasped out with a voice hoarse from screaming.

The silence that followed his shaky call blew an icy shiver down his back. Gooseflesh pricked up his skin as he stood there shuddering under the rawest terror he'd ever experienced.

There was nothing in the room but the rising, acrid smoke from the wardrobe and his own harsh breathing.

Then, quite abruptly, the bed dipped and a speck on the duvet that was no bigger than a fly began to swell in size, gaining mass and weight until it transformed into Severus Snape. Save for the wand he held clutched in his right hand, Severus was naked.

His lover's long face looked pinched and as pale as the white sheets on the bed. His eyes were wide and glittering with an odd light.

It took a moment for Harry to place the emotion. He so rarely saw fear in Severus.

"Thank god," Harry whispered and dropped to his knees on the bed. "You shrank yourself."

"That was mage fire," Severus said in a tone that was strange for him, but with which Harry was far too intimate.

Severus didn't seem to be able to take his eyes off his charred wardrobe.

The last bit of hope Harry had harboured died at that fateful inflection. Well, he'd had six incredible weeks before the damn dreams ruined everything. That was a record.

Only, Harry didn't care about records. All he cared about was Severus, and now Severus was as scared of him as every other lover.

How could he have been so stupid as to forget to take the Dreamless Sleep potion again? What had he been thinking – or not thinking? This wasn't a relationship he wanted to jeopardize for any reason, and now he'd lost it like it was just another one night stand. Because of those fucking dreams.

The unfairness of it all avalanched over his already fraught emotions. He couldn't lose Severus, not now . . . but when had he ever had any choice in the matter?

Harry drew a shaky breath and forced himself to hold it together. He was not going to break down in front of Severus, not make him feel any worse than he was probably already feeling. None of this was Severus' fault. Who wouldn't be scared of him, after seeing what he could do?

"Yes," Harry whispered, "it was. I'm . . . sorry, Severus, really sorry."

"You used mage fire," Severus said in that same blank, stunned voice.

"I didn't mean to, I just . . . I'm sorry. I was dreaming and . . . I'm really sorry," there was no explaining or excusing it. "I know the drill. I'll just go." Harry couldn't look at that face and say those words without blubbering, so he said them to the duvet. Then he climbed to his feet, trembling like he'd been tossed in the frozen lake outside.

"Drill? What the devil are you talking about? Where do you think you're going? It's one a.m.!" Severus didn't quite shout.

Severus' angry demands stopped him in his tracks. Harry was still wobbly from the nightmare and the wellspring of misery bubbling inside him at the idea of losing Severus was making it impossible for him to think straight. "I'll go back to my rooms . . . unless you want me to leave the school?"

He hadn't thought of that, that he might have frightened Severus so badly that they wouldn't be able to work together in the future. His heart seemed to trip to a stop, his blood turning to ice in his veins at the prospect of losing both Severus and Hogwarts. In his pain, he could only stare at Severus as the older man looked back at him in open confusion.

Severus made to run a hand through his mussed, long black hair, and nearly poked himself in the eye with his wand. With an impatient hiss, he placed the wand on his nightstand and then sank down on the bed.

Harry watched the slender, yellow-stained fingers comb through the long locks that he'd had the right to touch a half hour ago, but would probably never be able to caress again. Then Severus released a slow breath, stood up, and approached him.

"Potter . . . Harry . . . you're not making any sense."

The words were gentle, not angry and accusative. Harry didn't know what to make of them. He could only watch as that elegant, bony hand reached for his shoulder.

"Damn it, man, stop looking at me as though I'm going to strike you," Severus demanded as he laid his flat palm on Harry's biceps, then slowly curled his fingers around it.

Harry barely restrained the words 'Aren't you?' Instead, he stared down at Severus' hand where it rested on his arm, trying to work out what was happening. Nobody touched him after one of these incidents. They usually fell all over themselves to prevent any contact at all.

"You're shaking," Severus said in a much softer voice and slipped his other arm around Harry's waist.

Harry gaped speechlessly up at Severus and then buried his face in the soft chest hair in front of him. As Severus began to rub his back in slow circles, he sucked in a breath that smelt of his lover's sweet skin and whispered, "You're not . . . going to make me leave?"

Those arms tightened around him so hard Harry could barely breathe.

"No, of course not."

Harry knew Severus well enough now to recognize emotion in his voice, no matter how hard the other man might try to conceal it, but he couldn't place whatever it was that was flavouring his words.

"I used mage fire . . . and I destroyed your wardrobe. Everyone else makes me leave when things like that happen." Even to his own ears, he sounded like a child.

"This has happened before, then?" Severus asked.

Harry nodded against Severus' chest.

"The dream or the mage fire?" Severus questioned.

"Both. I'm sorry. I really should have told you about the nightmares," Harry fretted.

Severus sighed. "You did tell me about them. Weeks ago, when we were talking in the deserted classroom. Don't you remember? You said you have nightmares that sometimes leave you violent."

"I – did?"

"Yes, you did," Severus softly confirmed.

"I don't remember," Harry admitted, beginning to tremble all over again.

"It's of no importance. Come back to bed. It's freezing," Severus said, his body shifting their locked forms back towards the four-poster.

"But . . . I blasted up your wardrobe," Harry reminded him, as though Severus could possibly be unaware of the blackened husk that had once been a beautiful piece of furniture.

"It can be replaced. Right now we need to get you warm. I believe you might be going into shock," Severus said, moving him more insistently towards the bed.

Harry stopped protesting and allowed himself to be guided down onto the mattress. The heavy warmth of the duvet settled over him as Severus covered him up. He couldn't take his eyes off Severus.

Still unable to believe that Severus wanted him here, Harry watched Severus pause by the side of the bed to collect his wand from the night table. He flicked it at a candle on the nightstand to light the wick, and then pointed at the wall sconces. They immediately flickered out.

Meeting his gaze, Severus offered in an uncertain voice, "I thought you might sleep better with a small light in the room."

"Thank you," Harry whispered, his throat going tight at this dour man's consideration.

Severus nodded and slipped his wand back under his pillow. Then he climbed in beside Harry and gathered him close without any hint of hesitation.

Harry rested his cheek on that beloved, furry chest, sighing as Severus' arms slipped around him.

For the first time ever, he hadn't lost everything after one of those nightmares. The relief he felt was so intense, he was sure he was going to burst out sobbing any second. It was only the thought of how Severus would respond to such a display that allowed him any control at all.

"I can't believe you're letting me stay," Harry said in an embarrassingly unsteady voice, kissing the bony chest beneath his cheek.

Severus was quiet for a moment, and then he answered in an equally affected tone, "Funny, I can't believe anyone would let you go."

"Thank you," Harry grated out, his eyes stinging.

"You already said that. Go back to sleep, Potter," Severus said. "We'll sort everything out in the morning."

Harry tensed, wondering if Armageddon had simply been postponed.

"It will be all right," Severus assured in a gruff tone and began rubbing his back again.

Releasing an unsteady sigh, Harry closed his eyes. He let his lover's scent and warmth surround and comfort him. After a few minutes, he felt Severus press a soft kiss to the crown of his head. Severus' lips stayed there in his unruly hair as the chest rising and falling beneath his cheek slowed into a deeper rhythm.

Severus had gone back to sleep. That, more than any words, assured Harry that he really didn't consider him a dangerous monster.

Severus had said everything would be all right, that they'd sort things out in the morning. Harry didn't know what could be 'sorted out' in this situation, but as long as it didn't involve Severus dumping him, perhaps everything would be all right, after all. It was strange enough to hear Severus Snape offer that kind of reassurances that he might just believe them.

Lulled by his lover's steady breathing at this time when he'd normally be making his miserable way home alone, Harry gave in to his emotional exhaustion.


Sunday morning dawned the same as every other morning did in the dungeon, which was to say, not at all. There were no windows to proclaim even a brilliant August dawn, let alone the grey half-light of a Scottish December day in Severus' bedroom. Still, his internal clock told him it was morning.

Even after nearly six weeks, every time Severus rolled over and saw that bird's nest of wild black hair sharing his pillow, a thrill would go through him. It was no different this morning. Potter was still here.

Harry had turned towards him in his sleep. He lay there on the other side of the pillow with his mouth slightly open. Sleep had soothed the cares of his lover's difficult life away. He looked younger and far more innocent than a wizard who had defeated a dark lord before the age of twenty should.

As Severus' admiring gaze fell upon the lightning bolt scar peeking out through Harry's fringe, he remembered the events of last night. His sleepy lassitude evaporated. He looked to the other side of the room, where his blackened wardrobe with its blasted apart door confirmed his memories.

Harry had used mage fire in his sleep last night.

Severus' own memories of the event were jumbled and confused. He'd been deeply asleep himself, when he'd felt a chillingly familiar presence pass through his rooms, a presence that had been vanished from this plane nearly a decade ago. Harry had screamed beside him as though undergoing Cruciatus.

More asleep than awake, Severus had grabbed his wand from beneath his pillow and jumped up in the bed, scanning the room for intruders.

But there was no one there, save Harry. All his wards were still intact. Hogwarts' greater securities hadn't been breached. And, yet, that dark, malignant spectre remained and Harry was still screaming.

Slowly, Severus had realized that the shadow he was sensing was coming from Harry. It wasn't Voldemort, per se, but it was definitely Voldemort's energy signature behind the curse he was feeling. Then, Harry had jumped up in the bed beside him and stretched out his hands in his direction.

Hogwarts' anti-Apparation wards had prevented him from apparating to safety. The instant he'd seen the sparks of blue energy around his lover's fingertips, he'd done the only thing he could think of to get out of the way of whatever defensive magic Harry was about to work. He'd shrunk himself down to the size of an ant, mere seconds before the mage fire crackled forth.

He'd known Harry was a tremendously powerful wizard; in all probability Harry Potter was the most powerful wizard to be born in a thousand years, but . . . he'd never expected mage fire. There hadn't been a documented case of it in nearly three hundred years. The ability was the stuff of fantasies these days. And Harry was working it in his sleep.

Potter had told him how his powers had frightened off his other lovers. Until last night, he hadn't understood. Now he did.

But more than that, Severus was finally beginning to appreciate how significant their association was to Harry. He'd never seen Potter upset like that. Even as a boy, Potter had possessed a confidence and emotional fortitude that surpassed most of the adults around him. Be it his nasty Potions professor, the Minister of Magic, or the Dark Lord he was confronting, Potter stood firm and proud before them, defiant to the end. But last night Harry had seemed broken, totally crushed by the prospect of losing . . . him, of all things.

It was an odd feeling, knowing that he mattered that much to Potter, that losing him would make Harry vulnerable like that. He'd never been important to anyone before. Even his parents hadn't really wanted him around. He kept trying to guard his heart from the inevitable pain of rejection by telling himself that what he had with Potter was simply a convenient sexual arrangement that would disappear as soon as Harry found a more comely companion.

Only, everything Harry did refuted that cynical appraisal. Casual paramours didn't keep you company when you were vomiting your guts up. They didn't spend the night cuddling you when the dunderheads left you with a splitting headache that even the strongest potion couldn't cure. They didn't help you prepare noxious potions so that they could spend time with you when they could be relaxing elsewhere. Had it merely been a matter of convenient sexual gratification, Potter would never have involved him so deeply in his personal life. Were they to part now, extricating himself at the end of the affair would be more like an amputation than a break up. Severus mightn't have the social graces of a hermit crab, but even an insecure fool like himself could see that it wasn't simply about sex with Potter.

What it was about stunned him.

He was nearly fifty. He'd thought himself beyond such possibilities, believed that all the pages had been written in the book that was his life. But here he was, with Harry, writing new chapters every night, dealing as best he could with the unique situation.

Last night's instalment was the strangest by far. Mage fire and dark curses. To look at Harry sleeping there innocent as a child, no one would suspect him of either.

Normally, he'd let Potter sleep in on the weekends. This morning Severus felt an overwhelming need to reaffirm what was between them, to show himself that, despite the mage fire, this was still his Harry.

His Harry. It was dangerous, but he was beginning to think about Potter that way. Potter had said that lovers had certain rights. Maybe that was one of them. And if it weren't . . . Well, there was nothing for it. There'd be no stopping now. Whatever would happen, would happen. He'd just have to sort out the pieces where they landed when their relationship ran its course, whatever that course might be. There were no givens here. He didn't know where they stood, or where they were headed. All he knew was that he was in it for the duration, however long that lasted.

He reached out to touch the living warmth of the man, laying his palm on Harry's smooth chest. Even now, after all this time, it was still difficult for him to initiate contact. Potter was constantly encouraging him to reach out, but it wasn't his way to chance rejection. Even though he knew Harry welcomed his touch, he still had to force himself to make the first move. But this morning, he needed it.

Harry's soft, hairless skin was reassuringly familiar. Severus had stroked, licked, and nibbled every inch of this lithe body.

When they'd first started sleeping together, every chance bump in the night had woken them, as neither of them had been accustomed to sleeping with someone the night through. But Harry was used to him now and slept through the gentle caress Severus gave his chest.

Emboldened, Severus lowered his head and licked the nearest nipple. The pink bud tightened into a pert nub under his tongue. He played with it for a while, and then moved to give its companion similar treatment. When he had both erect and needy, he glanced up at Harry's face.

Still asleep.

His gaze swept downwards to where Harry's cock lay in its thick nest of dark curls. It, at least, was beginning to waken and harden to a pleasing size.

Recalling just where that cock had been a few hours ago, Severus whispered a cleansing charm. That done, he lowered his mouth to Harry's chest, and nibbled his way down the taut stomach in the almost biting kisses that Harry preferred there.

His fingers dipped down to stroke between Harry's athletic thighs. The man might be compact, but he was exquisitely formed, with long, developed muscles all over. Not bulky, but well shaped, just perfect.

The hairy thighs parted at his touch, and Harry released a sleepy sigh. Severus looked up, but Harry was still asleep, despite his hardening penis. So Severus stroked, brushing from the crease where leg met hip straight down to Harry's knee.

Inundated by his lover's clean scent, Severus guided that half-erect shaft into his mouth. The salty flavour was as familiar as Harry's scent and touch now. The almost narcotic effect it had on him, however, was always shocking. As he lapped the beads of moisture off that thick cock, the taste rocked through him like a potent aphrodisiac, turning him on hard and fast. And still Potter slept on.

Within moments, Harry was fully erect. Severus deep throated the impressive penis, shivering at its inherent power. Potter was so strong, so masculine. Just feeling that organ pulse and throb under his tongue as it grew in size sent a quiver of excitement through him, made him tremble for things that he should have had his full of by now. But this need was never quenched. Potter could ride him all night, and he'd still hunger for more the instant he saw that cock spring to life.

When Harry was as big as he'd get, Severus lifted his head and stared hopefully up at Potter's face. Behind his closed lids, Harry's eyes were moving, obviously deep in a dream.

Severus wanted more, but . . . was it really appropriate to progress to that act without Harry's conscious consent?

Severus stared down his morals. Being Slytherin, he let them go without too much regret. It wasn't as though he were contemplating turning the tables and taking Harry while he slept; that would be unconscionable. But this? Harry fucked him every night, so he doubted that there would be any true protest.

Still, it felt strange staring down at that sleeping face as he straddled Potter and guided that pulsing cock where he wanted it. He was still slick and loose from last night's love play. Harry's penis, glistening with his saliva, slid into him with only slight discomfort as he pushed himself down.

Even asleep, Harry was a good lover. His cock seemed to target his prostate as though under a homing spell as Harry filled him.

Severus groaned at the pleasure that exploded through him, then rocked himself to ensure a repeat. He didn't even have to touch himself. He was full to bursting just from touching Harry and feeling his cock enter him.

Harry awoke with a gasp, staring up at him in confused arousal. "Severus?"

"Good . . . morn . . . ing . . . ." Severus grunted, pushing down so that the head of Harry's cock connected with that perfect spot again.

Harry's hands rose to brace his hips, guiding his movements. After a moment, Harry's right hand left its station to curl around Severus' hungry cock, squeezing with just the right amount of pressure. It was so good, so right.

They fell into the rhythm that was becoming the heartbeat of Severus' life. Potter began to thrust up at him, and the world spun under the sensations that swirled through him. Even without loosing his magic on him, Harry could destroy him, and did.

Slamming down as hard as he could, Severus met each of Potter's upward strokes. They were so perfect together, so in tune.

They grunted and groaned their way to sweaty completion. It was faster than the times Harry employed his magic, but no less sweet for it.

Severus came with a resounding moan, spraying Harry's flat stomach and defined ribs with his seed. As the world blinked in and out around him, he felt Harry still inside him and convulse with climax.

Panting for breath, Severus collapsed forward onto Harry's shoulder. His nose squashed into the soft skin there.

Potter slipped out of him. Harry's hands slid up his back to clutch him tight as Harry whispered in his sleep husky voice. "God, what a way to say good morning."

"I firmly believe it should replace the usual banal greetings," Severus said.

Harry chuckled, rubbed his back, and said, "Yes, I can just see you using your new morning greeting on Flitwick, and Hagrid, and -"

"One more word, and I shall be sick all over you," Severus warned.

"You wake me up like that every morning, and you can do anything you want all over me," Potter answered.

"That's disgusting," Severus said, wrinkling his nose and turning to lick the drying semen off Potter's chest.

Harry carded his fingers through Severus' unwashed hair as Severus lapped away. Sighing, Harry arched under his ministrations, his head falling back on the pillow.

To his confusion, Severus felt the previously rubbery, relaxed body beneath him suddenly freeze up. "What is it?"

"I could have killed you last night."

Severus followed the troubled green gaze to the remains of his charred wardrobe.

"How can you touch me – still want to be with me after seeing that? Everyone else . . . treats me like a monster after one of those dreams," Harry said, his fingers balling painfully in Severus' hair.

Severus raised his head to meet Harry's gaze, wincing as he left a few strands in Harry's hands. Harry loosened his grip immediately.

"I would like to talk to you about those dreams," Severus said softly. Reading the worry in Harry's face, and feeling it tense the body cushioning him, he quickly said, "I'm not so faint-hearted as that. I, too, know what it is to be an object of fear and disgust."

Potter hissed in a sharp breath. "Aren't you . . . even the least bit afraid of me?"

Framing that worried face with his discoloured fingers, Severus drew Harry into a kiss. When they parted, he softly asked, "You think I should fear you because of last night?"

Potter nodded.

"What of all the other nights before it?"

"What?" Harry asked.

"You hold my life in your hands every night when your power sweeps through me. You could kill me with a thought or a single moment of inattention, and yet I permit it. More than that, I welcome it. Why do you think that is?" Severus questioned.

Potter flushed. "The sex is fantastic."

"The sex was fantastic with Lucius Malfoy as well, but I would never have permitted him the liberties I allow you. You ask if I fear you. I fear you as any man my age fears a lover more than twenty years his junior, but I don't worry for my life or safety with you, merely my . . . emotional integrity. I know you, Harry Potter, better than you know yourself. Even trapped in a nightmare, you wouldn't harm me."

He heard Harry gulp, and then those strong hands pulled him back down against Harry's chest to hold him tight.

"You had sex with Lucius Malfoy?" Harry asked at last.

Severus sighed. Of all the things he expected Harry to say, that was the last on the list. "I had sex with many men in my misspent youth."

"But Lucius Malfoy?" Harry sounded like he'd confessed to having intercourse with one of Hagrid's pets.

Severus tried to find a way to explain that Lucius hadn't always been the fiend Harry had known, but he knew nothing that would exonerate Malfoy in Potter's eyes. Certainly, the truth would only further damn Lucius. So, Severus settled on a vague, "I was young and inexperienced at the time. Lucius was quite dashing in school, and . . . any kindness went a long way with me back then."

He'd hoped that would end the subject, but Harry persisted with, "Was he your first?"

Harry sounded curious. Severus supposed it was only natural. They really knew next to nothing about each other's romantic history.

Severus nodded against Harry's chest. The question he dreaded was, of course, the next thing out of Harry's mouth. "Malfoy was a few years older than you. You must have been quite young if you were together in school. How old were you?"

As an adult looking back on the incident, Severus could see how the seduction had been coldly planned. Malfoy tutoring him in Transfigurations alone all afternoon in the fourth year dorm. Severus had been unnerved just being in the older boys' bedroom. Upper grade Slytherins rarely paid any attention to the first years, but Lucius had stepped in from the start and prevented the other Slytherins from continuing the taunting that that bastard Black had started on their very first day of school. Lucius was always . . . kind to his younger cousin, and Severus had never known such treatment.

Even now, Severus could remember Malfoy catching him staring that fateful afternoon, calling him on it, and asking him why, and himself blurting out the truth, that he'd never seen anyone so handsome. That moment when Lucius leaned over to kiss him was engraved forever in his memory, as was the jolt his barely awakened sexuality had given when Lucius' warm hand touched him through his trousers and squeezed. With gentle kisses and caresses, Lucius had peeled away his clothes, spread his legs and . . . .

No Gryffindor could understand that. Severus couldn't imagine telling Harry that he'd spent the next four years bending over for Lucius, and loving every minute of it. As an adult, Severus knew what had been done to him. Black had called him Malfoy's lapdog, with good reason. By simply being kind, Lucius had procured himself a willing catamite. Harry Potter would never understand that.

Calling on every bit of his acting abilities, Severus lightly responded, "I was far too young and foolish, as most of us are our first time. How old were you?"

Apparently, his evasion worked. Harry gave a self-deprecating chuckle, "Positively ancient. I was nearly seventeen. I expect you were younger than that."

"Somewhat." It was, after all, the truth.

"About what you said before about . . . fearing me, I, er, would like to tell you that you don't have to . . . worry about your emotional integrity with me. But I guess I'd just be wasting my breath, wouldn't I?" Harry asked in a soft tone.

Now it was Severus' turn to tense. "Doubtless."

Harry's hands tightened on his back almost painfully, and then he asked, "Would it matter if I said I loved you? Because I do, whether you want to hear it or not. I don't expect you to say anything back."

Severus' very breathing seemed to still. Harry loved him. He'd said it before at the height of passion, but never when they were simply talking like this.

Not coward enough to let that confession pass unremarked upon, Severus lifted his head and stared down into Harry's nervous features. Harry had gone out on an emotional limb for his sake. The least he could do was acknowledge the gesture. "It . . . matters."

"But?" Potter encouraged, seeming more himself for those two hesitant words Severus had offered.

His mouth running dry, Severus gave a painful swallow and tried to explain. "The few times I've heard those words, utter disaster has followed. Each and every time. I . . . wouldn't have this, were it not for those words."

Severus held his left forearm up, letting Harry see the Dark Mark, the memento of the last time he'd been foolish enough to believe that particular sentiment. Even now, he could hear Lucius' voice saying, I want those I love there beside me, Severus. And for the sake of those pathetic words, he'd bartered his young soul away.

To Severus' bewilderment, neither disgust nor disappointment entered Harry's expression as he confessed the height of his foolishness. If anything, Harry's gaze gentled.

Harry reached up, captured his arm, and guided his forearm to his mouth so that he could kiss that hideous defilement.

Severus shuddered, as he did every time Harry pressed his lips to the skull and serpent. The few times he'd had intercourse after Voldemort's first fall, his partners had gone out of their way to avoid even looking at the mark. It hadn't been an issue since Voldemort's final defeat, for he hadn't had sex afterwards until Harry. But Harry treated the Dark Mark like just another part of his body.

"We wouldn't be here together like this, if it weren't for that. The entire Wizarding World would have fallen without the information that mark helped you obtain. I know you see it as . . . ."

"A stain on my soul?" Severus supplied. Repossessing his arm, he sat up, needing to put some room between them.

Harry followed suit. Pulling his hairy legs up to his chest and loosely wrapping his arms around his knees, Potter turned to face him. "If you like, but it needed to happen, Severus. We all learn from our mistakes, and that one helped you save millions of innocent lives."

Severus gulped. This man devastated him so effortlessly. Harry had this . . . gift for taking even the darkest events of his life and filtering them through his unique perspective so that even the worst depravities seemed . . . noble or, at the very least, errors in judgement. Harry never excused any of his mistakes, but he accepted them as though they were simply events, no different than the life choices any other of his lovers might have made. His entire adult life, Severus had been reviled and damned for a decision he'd made at seventeen. Harry was the first person who'd ever truly behaved as if everything he'd done to make up for his mistake was enough.

Severus didn't understand it. There were times like this when Harry's unconditional support convinced him that the man he was sleeping with was, in fact, utterly deranged. But . . . delusional as Harry might be, his acceptance of the unforgivable parts of his past made him all but worship him, despite that the young man was clearly mental.

"Potter . . . Harry . . . ." Severus began, and then faltered, for he had no idea what he wanted to say.

"It's all right," Harry whispered. "I know you're not comfortable with . . . declarations. I don't need them. We're here together; that's declaration enough for me. Especially after last night."

Once again, Harry used his natural talent and made everything easier for him, giving Severus a natural segue into his question, "About last night, are your nightmares always . . . like that?"

His face darkening, Harry nodded. "Pretty much."

"Can you tell me what happens in them, or don't you remember?"

Harry snorted. "I remember every fucking one of them. It's always a variation on the same theme. I've been captured and tortured by Death Eaters. They come into the cell where I'm being held, put me under Cruciatus or torture me in some other way, and . . . and rape me."

Like Voldemort had raped Harry's mind during the final battle. It was just like that sadistic bastard to do something like this, to implant a curse that would keep torturing his enemy long after Voldemort was no longer around to enjoy it.

Severus wasn't sure if he should voice his next question. It seemed far too personal, but . . . Harry's declaration changed everything, even if Severus couldn't openly admit it. Harry said lovers had rights. It was only reasonable that the arrangement work both ways. So, he asked in as gentle and unthreatening a tone as he could manage, "Is that why you don't like to be taken, because of the dreams?"

Harry's aversion to being in the submissive role was more than simple dislike. The few times Severus had tried to penetrate Harry with even his fingers, Harry's body had turned to organic ice. Harry hadn't refused him or asked him to stop – Severus suspected that was due to his Gryffindor lover's sense of fair play – but Harry's obvious lack of enjoyment had made him wary of forcing the issue.

Harry gave a slow nod, his cheeks warming. "Yeah. That's lost me just as many relationships as the nightmares."

Reading Harry's complete discomfort, Severus softly offered, "Fortunately, that will never be an issue between us. I'm . . . more than satisfied with our current arrangement."

"It's not fair to you, though. You should be able to . . . ." Harry faltered and looked away.

"Why don't you let me worry about what is and isn't fair to me?" Severus suggested. "As you have noted many times in the past few months, I'm hardly a silent sufferer."

As he'd hoped, a smile twitched at Harry's full mouth and he turned back to him.

"Now about these nightmares . . . ."

Harry sighed. "Hermione says that I'm suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. It's something a lot of Muggle soldiers get after a war ends. Counselling and certain medications might -"

"They'll do nothing," Severus interrupted. "You're not suffering from any kind of Muggle mental problem. You're suffering the effects of a powerful dark curse."

"What?" Harry nearly yelped, looking at him as though he were insane.

"Last night I was asleep when you were dreaming. I was holding you. My shields were down and I . . . well, I sensed Voldemort's presence moving through the room," Severus confessed.

"Vold . . . but he's dead. As dead as if a Dementor had kissed him," Harry protested, an uneasy light in his eye, no doubt caused by the idea that he might be wrong.

"That's true," Severus confirmed.

"But then how . . . ?"

"That final battle was fought in our minds. It's my belief that while Voldemort was . . . ." not quite sure how to address the rape of his memories that Harry had endured that day, Severus softly continued, ". . . searching your thoughts for a weakness he could use against us, I think he implanted a curse deep in your subconscious to cause these dreams. I believe he buried it so deeply that the only time it's detectable is while you're undergoing an actual nightmare. If it weren't, then I would have sensed it long before now."

"I'm . . . not going crazy, then?" Harry whispered.

Severus reached out and laid his hand on Harry's shoulder. "No, you're not. Although, after enduring these horrors for nearly nine years, you'd have every right to be."

Harry gulped noisily. "I've never heard of a curse like this before."

"Like yourself, Voldemort was adept at instantaneous magic. He could create a spell or a curse with a thought," Severus reported.

"That's where I get it from, then. Who do you think the mage fire came from – Albus or Voldemort?" Harry asked.

"What?" Severus blinked at the non sequitur.

"I got the Parseltongue ability and the instant magic from Voldemort. Did Albus give me the mage fire?"

"What do you mean 'you got the Parseltongue ability and instant magic from Voldemort'?" Severus asked, beginning to reconsider his protest of Harry's sanity.

"When Voldemort tried to kill me as a baby and my mother's . . . sacrifice made him fail, I absorbed some of his powers," Harry explained, his voice and face so troubled and serious that Severus knew his lover couldn't possibly be joking about the preposterous suggestion.

"Magical power isn't like a lost quill. Someone can't simply pick it up and use it, nor can they stockpile it indefinitely. You're the DADA teacher. You should know that better than anyone. Where did you get such a ridiculous notion?" Severus snapped.

"Professor Dumbledore told me," Harry said, truculent as a child.

"Albus told you this nonsense? When? Why?" Severus questioned.

"In second year I . . . had questions after I opened the Chamber of Secrets. That's when Professor Dumbledore explained about the Parseltongue. The other stuff he told me in first year, after . . . what happened with Professor Quirrell. What do you mean 'nonsense'?"

Abruptly, Severus understood. This man had beaten the most malignant, powerful wizard of their age while still in diapers. From that horrible night in Godric's Hollow, Albus had been determined to protect Harry Potter from himself. Dumbledore had abandoned the child to those awful Muggles to keep the boy from learning what he was, and had done everything within his power to convince Harry that he was a normal wizard child, no different from any of the other Hogwarts students. But no other child in the history of all of Wizarding had ever defeated a Dark Lord while still a baby.

Severus had always questioned the wisdom of those deceptions, but now he wondered what he would have done in Albus' shoes when young Harry came to him for answers. What did one say to an eleven year old who had defeated the combined forces of a Dark Lord and a Dark Arts expert? Or to a twelve year old who spoke Parseltongue and had killed both a monster and a dangerous incarnation of the Dark Lord? Or a thirteen year old who'd raised a Patronus shield powerful enough to stave off dozens of Dementors? Or a fourteen year old who'd survived a duel with the fully restored Voldemort? The list went on and on with Potter.

Did one tell the truth, that the boy was a terrifyingly powerful force that they were hoping to mould into a weapon to be used against the ultimate evil? Or was it wiser to make up plausible explanations that kept the child in the dark, unaware of his own potential and the danger he presented to those around him? Apparently, Albus had chosen the latter course. For all Severus knew, Albus might actually have believed these fairy tales. There was, after all, no true explanation as to how two wizards of average power like Lily Evans and James Potter had produced a child this powerful.

"Severus, what did you mean?" Harry repeated, interrupting his thoughts.

What to say now? Severus wished he had Albus' wisdom when it came to handling human emotion. He didn't want to hurt Harry, but he couldn't foster these fantasies, not with a full grown man who needed to come to terms with his abilities.

Severus chose his words carefully, "You know that magical power isn't . . . transferable. If it were, why would we bother spending years teaching children magic, when we could simply share the ability? Several wizards can link minds and combine their powers to achieve a common goal, which is what we did in the final battle, but . . . you can't gift another wizard with your powers or abilities. Providing you had the power to achieve them, I could teach you how to levitate, or use Legilimency, or an Unforgivable, but I couldn't transfer that talent to you if your magic were too weak to accomplish it on your own."

"But . . . when I was a baby -" Harry began and stopped.

"You defeated a Dark Lord so powerful that no one dared stand against him. No one will ever know what happened that night," Severus softly answered.

"My mother -"

"Sacrificed her life to give you the strongest protective wards she could raise. But she wasn't a formidably powerful witch. The best she could have hoped for was to slow Voldemort down, not . . . turn his spell back upon himself or any of the other explanations that Albus offered up at the time. Blood magic has protected you your entire life, but . . . it didn't gift you with your abilities. They were your own, from birth."

"But I speak Parseltongue. I opened the Chamber of Secrets, just like Tom Riddle did fifty years before me. Only the heir of Slytherin could do that," Harry protested.

"What's your point?" Severus asked, starting to lose his patience.

Harry's voice was equally sharp. "I had to get that from Voldemort as a baby. How else could I have done it?"

Severus sighed. "There was a Muggle detective who used to say that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Harry nodded, "The Sherlock Holmes maxim. He wasn't a real person."

"That's hardly important. We've already determined that a transfer of abilities was impossible. What other possibilities remain?"

Potter was silent for a time. "You're saying that I really was . . . am Salazar Slytherin's heir?"

"Doesn't that seem more logical than the unnatural transfer of . . . magical power and genetic markers? Being Salazar Slytherin's heir doesn't make you evil, Harry; any more than being James Potter's son made you a bully."

Severus waited for Harry to spring to his father's defence, but he didn't. Potter seemed to digest the idea for a time, then he softly asked, "But I used Godric Gryffindor's sword to kill the basilisk. Only a true Gryffindor could do that."

Realizing that he was challenging Harry's view of who he was in the world, Severus softly answered, "And you are a true Gryffindor. For all we know, you could be Godric's heir as well. These men lived a thousand years ago. There's no telling who their heirs are these days. Purebloods can trace direct descent, but . . . ."

"Not all heirs are born to the marriage bed," Harry completed with a small smile.

"Precisely. Your mother was Muggleborn. There's no telling who her ancestors may have been," Severus said.

"So what you're saying is that all these powers and abilities are my own? That I didn't get them from what happened when I was a baby or from Albus sacrificing himself in the final battle so that we would win?"

"If the latter were true, then my powers would also have been augmented, and I assure you that is not the case," Severus said.

"And the mage fire? How come I can suddenly do that?"

"A wizard might finish growing physically by age twenty, but it can often take twice that time for his powers to fully mature. You're not even thirty. You have another decade of magical growth."

Severus heard Harry give a noisy swallow. "You mean I'm going to keep getting stronger."

Severus nodded.

"Doesn't that . . .frighten you? Aren't you worried about . . . what I'll become, what I might do? You know that if the Ministry of Magic knew about any of this, they'd be hunting me down along with Burke."

"Which is why I would suggest refraining from advertising your abilities. So far, you've been very discreet at hiding them," Severus assured him

"But aren't you afraid of what I might do?" Harry pressed.

Severus held that nervous gaze and answered, "No, not in the least."

"Why not? I -"

"We've already had this conversation once this morning, Potter. I'm not afraid because there's nothing you could do in the future that you're not capable of doing to a lesser degree at this very moment. If you were interested in taking over the world, you'd be ruling right now, probably as Minister for Magic. They love you so much that you wouldn't even have to force your rule. The idiots would elect you if you wanted them to. As for anything else . . . what more is there to fear, once a wizard has turned down being master of the universe?" Severus asked.

"You're not taking this seriously," Harry complained.

"Aren't I? Are you telling me that I'd be able to do a damn thing to stop you if you wanted to put me under Imperius and force me to do anything you wanted? Remember, I've felt your power every night. I know what you're capable of," Severus reminded him.

"Then why aren't you afraid?"

Apparently, hearing it once wasn't enough for Harry. "For the same reason I'm not afraid that Hagrid will go berserk at the dinner table and kill me, even though he could easily crush the life out of me with one hand. I know it because I know you and it's not in your nature. I know it because I . . . trust you. Answer me this, Potter, if you could do anything you wanted, without fear of consequence, what would you chose to do?"

Harry dropped his gaze. "You mean personally, as opposed to world peace or something on that level?"

It was at that moment that Severus realized just how oblivious Harry was to his own capabilities. "They're the same with you. If you wanted to, you could enforce your will on Wizard and Muggle world alike and force them to stop fighting."

Harry paled at that. "We know how that turns out. It's not an option."

"So what would you do?" Severus prodded, genuinely curious. "What do you want more than anything?"

Harry stared down at the hair on his kneecaps for a moment before softly stating, "You wouldn't believe me."

"Try me," Severus said, now intensely curious.

Harry met and held his stare. "You already gave me the thing I wanted most last night and this morning when you . . . when you didn't run away from me. If I have to name the one thing I want most, it's you. I want you."

Severus wasn't prepared for that. It hit him hard. The survivor in him insisted that he refute the ridiculous idea, but Harry's gaze would brook no argument. Finally, he rallied enough to say, "What you mean is that you want acceptance. These things you feel for me, you feel them because I've stayed when others have run, but . . . that isn't enough to justify . . . you could find what we have with someone younger and more attractive, someone like yourself. You're mistaking gratitude for -"

"Shut up!" Harry shouted. "You want to know what I want more than anything? I want you to stop doing that, stop putting yourself down. I like the way you look. I think you're sexy. I'm so far gone that I even love the way your hair smells when you've forgotten to wash it for a week. It's not gratitude, you stupid git! It's love and . . . and it hurts me when you keep saying things like that."

Severus' gaze dropped to his naked lap. "I regret . . . ."

Severus stopped. The thing he regretted most was that he knew that he was right, that in time Harry would come to see that he offered him nothing unusual, nothing he couldn't get elsewhere from someone with a pleasant personality and more attractive body. But he knew if he spoke those words, they would only incense Harry.

He tensed as Harry shimmied closer on the bed and took hold of both his shoulders. "Look, I'm sorry I yelled. I know this is hard for you, that you haven't had a lot of love in your life. I haven't either. But you're due, Severus. We both are. Can't you . . . try to have a little faith in me, in what I say I feel?"

How could he possibly answer that? Should he tell the truth, that if he were to lose Harry at this very moment, the last bit of life in him would shrivel up and die? That if he were self-deluded enough to accept that Harry loved him, to believe that it were true, that he wouldn't be able to survive when he finally drove Harry away? He had to keep Harry at a distance. He was fighting for his life here.

Only . . . Harry was, too. Harry's expression was so bleak, so hurt at the moment. He looked as though he knew he were waging a losing battle and that he would never get what he ached for most.

That was completely unacceptable. Harry deserved to have whatever he wanted in this life, whether it was world peace or the right to love the most cantankerous wizard ever born. All Harry wanted was for him to accept that he loved him. He wasn't even asking for him to return the sentiment.

So, instead of rejecting Potter's request, Severus gave a dry swallow and rasped out, "I can try. It . . . is not you whom I doubt."

That was apparently more of a concession than Harry was expecting. A soft whoosh of breath across Severus' cheek conveyed his shock. After a moment, Harry said, "I know that. I know that you've been hurt so often that it's impossible for you to believe that it won't happen again. When I was little, my aunt and uncle were . . . terribly cruel to me. They made me feel like I was worthless, like no one would ever love me. Then I came to school here and met the Weasleys. Every single time Molly Weasley would hug me or say something kind to me during those first few years, I always felt like if she really knew what I was like, she wouldn't be kind to me like that. I felt . . . like it was only a matter of time before I'd lose her love, lose Hermione and Ron as well . . . so . . . I do understand how you're feeling. But it wasn't true for me, and it's not true for you, either. We deserve a little happiness, Severus."

Harry's hands gave a gentle pull, and Severus allowed himself to be guided into an embrace.

Severus squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in the crook of Harry's neck, lest he disgrace himself.

For a long time, Harry simply held him, stroking his back, rocking them gently back and forth.

"I was so scared the nightmares would drive you away," Harry finally whispered.

"The nightmares." Severus pulled back far enough to see Harry's eyes. "You cannot take a Dreamless Sleep potion every night for the rest of your life. Nor can we have you blasting up the furniture or worse. We have to find a cure for them."

Harry's expression dropped. "You said Voldemort created the curse. There is no counter spell for spontaneous magic; that's one of the reasons why it's so strictly forbidden."

"Yes. I realize that. He planted this spell deep in your subconscious. There's little chance that even someone of your power would be able to simply eradicate it, not without leaving you a mental vegetable."

"Then what can I do?" Desperation roughened Harry's voice. "I . . . I don't want to keep risking your life this way."

Severus considered the idea he'd been contemplating, and then hesitantly suggested, "While it's true that the nightmares can't be vanquished. I believe it's possible that the curse could be . . . altered."


"Voldemort programmed your mind to replay these scenarios over and over again. I think if someone practiced in Legilimency went in and altered the dream scenario as it was happening, changed the nightmare of torture into one of pleasure, that it's possible your subconscious would store the changes, the way a Muggle computer will save changes in data when a file is overwritten."

Following his often-exasperating habit of focusing on the inessential, Harry asked, "How do you know about computers?"

"Professor Weasley showed me hers the other night while you and her husband were arguing over Quidditch teams," Severus said, wishing he were surprised that Harry hadn't noticed Hermione and him leaving the room.

"Did you like it?" Harry asked.

"Yes, it was quite fascinating, but that's hardly pertinent at the moment. We were talking about the possibility of someone using Legilimency to alter your nightmares," Severus reminded him with what little patience he could muster.

"That someone you're talking about would be you, right?" Harry questioned.

"If you'll permit it. It would necessitate my having access to your mind while you sleep. I can't guarantee that it will work, but we could try. I could put a medical monitoring charm on you while you slept so that when your heart rate became elevated when the nightmare started, it would wake me and I could enter your mind to alter the particulars of the nightmare to a more pleasant scenario. What do you think?" Severus asked nervously, very aware of the fact that he was asking the most powerful wizard the world had seen to grant him access to his unguarded, unconscious mind. An unscrupulous practitioner of these arts could conceivably program Harry to do anything they desired.

"I think it's brilliant, just like you," Harry said, giving him a fast kiss. "It's the only promise I've had in almost ten years. Of course, we'll try. If you . . . don't mind. It's asking a lot of you."

"It is your privacy that will be violated," Severus said stiffly, stunned by the ready acceptance.

"What is it?" Harry questioned, no doubt prompted by whatever was in Severus' eyes.

"You . . . trust me to do this?"

A soft glow suffused Harry's handsome features. "Like you said before, I know you. I know what is and isn't in your nature. I couldn't love you if I didn't trust you with everything I am."

Harry didn't fight fair. That was positively below the proverbial belt. Severus felt as if the very fundament had slipped out from under him at that matter of fact statement.

"It will be all right, Severus. You'll see. For the first time in forever, I have hope. You'll fix me, and we'll live happily ever after," the last was said in a joking tone, but Severus knew his romantic young lover meant the words.

All he could do was stare, stunned by the idea of anyone wanting a forever after, happy or otherwise, that included him. It was nearly too much for him to take in.

Then, Harry took his mouth in a passionate kiss that ended up with Severus flat on the bed, under Harry's reassuring bulk, with Harry doing everything in his power to convince him of that happy ever after. Somehow, when Harry was touching him like this, the concept didn't seem quite so impossible.


Severus awoke to the awareness that something wasn't right. He stared around his dimly lit bedroom, trying to determine what had awoken him. One of his students at his door with an emergency? That didn't feel right. Usually, they knocked more than once. His chambers were silent save for the sound of Harry and his breathing.

Harry . . . abruptly, he realized that it must have been the monitor charm that woke him. For, now that he was paying attention, he realized that Harry was breathing raggedly, making small, pleading noises.

It had been nearly a week since they'd had that conversation about his nightmares. Harry had given him open permission to enter his mind and do whatever he thought fit to try to alter the curse Voldemort had left buried deep in his subconscious. But now that the moment was upon him, Severus found himself reluctant to breech the privacy of his lover's mind.

Occlumency and Legilimency were incredible abilities, but they were a double-edged sword, as likely to injure the practitioner as the person whose mind was being probed. Mind to mind, there was no hiding truth.

Severus had been living a dream these last six and a half weeks. It was entirely possible that whatever he'd find in Harry's mind, would shatter his illusions. But, what was he going to do – allow Harry to suffer because he was afraid to find out what he truly felt about him?

Harry's face was clenched with strain. It was clear he was suffering. Severus had given his word that he'd help. His insecurities were hardly significant in light of what Harry was undergoing.

Calming his own mind as much as possible, he turned over to face Harry and reached out to lay his palms on Harry's sweat drenched temples. Touch wasn't necessary, but it helped him focus. Slowly, he reached out from inside, insinuating himself into Harry's consciousness by gradual degrees, so as not to startle him awake.

Severus needn't have worried about discovering any painful truths about Harry's feelings for him in the contact, for the moment he entered Harry's mind, it became perfectly clear that the man was too occupied to be thinking of anything other than survival.

The first thing that hit Severus was the pain. He gasped as the agony of Cruciatus ripped through him. The experience was as real as any of the times he had endured that Unforgivable under Voldemort's orders.

He dragged in a deep breath, and tried to detach from the pain, but it was all consuming. Harry seemed to be lying naked in a filthy cell, twitching and jerking on the stone floor as a masked Death Eater stood over him administering Cruciatus.

He no longer wondered why Harry woke up so confused and ready to kill. Most dreams were vague, with only parts of them clearly defined. The verisimilitude of this nightmare was chilling. Severus could smell the human waste in the air, taste the blood as Harry bit through his lower lip in the throes of the Unforgivable, and feel the icy cold stone at his back. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn it was really happening to him, that he'd somehow fallen into another dimension when he'd touched Harry's thoughts.

After what felt like an eternity, the Death Eater tired of torturing him and left.

Harry lay there on the floor, gasping for breath as he tried to regain control of his pain-locked flesh. He felt bruised and banged all over from the Cruciatus, and his back throbbed as though someone had taken a whip to it.

Distancing himself as much as he could from the raw physicality of the torture Harry had endured, Severus reached out into Harry's mind beyond the immediate scene. He could sense Voldemort's darkness all around him, which was no doubt adding to the unconscious Harry's terror.

The curse wasn't hard to follow. Now that Harry was locked in the nightmare, there was a trail of malevolence that led deep into his lover's subconscious like a slug's trail across a garden leaf. It was no trouble following it down, deep into Harry's mind.

What Severus found there was an appalling landmine of torture, rape, and depravity. There were dozens of scenarios, each a separate spell embedded in Harry's mind. He'd hoped to be able to enter Harry's mind and alter them all at once, but he was going to have to take them apart one by one as Harry endured them, and rewrite the endings, if he could.

One question was answered, though. Severus discovered why Harry had these dreams nearly every time he slept with someone. Voldemort had locked the nightmares to Harry's sexual drive. The dreams were triggered when Harry fell asleep after orgasm, which was no doubt why he had them so often in lovers' beds. The Dreamless Sleep potion Harry had been taking these last six weeks had stopped them from troubling him during their relationship so far, but he couldn't go on like that indefinitely.

Severus studied the spell of the current scenario, with an eye as to how to remove or destroy it. Curses were rather like onions. They had distinct layers of power and intent that wound together and melded to form the actual magic. As such, they could be taken apart, pieces of them transformed to alter the whole. This one was especially insidious. Voldemort's power and intent were there as distinct entities, but the Dark Lord had grafted the curse to the hidden subconscious wellspring of Harry's own power, tying it to his magic and sexuality.

The malignant shadow was huge, with thousands of tendrils rooted in all parts of Harry's mind. As Severus had feared, the curse was tied too deeply to Harry's subconscious to be safely untangled. His only course was to attempt altering pieces of it, mainly the events at the end of the nightmare sequence. Concentrating on the curse, Severus could see what would happen, how in several minutes, four Death Eaters would enter Harry's cell to rape him. He had to act now, or he would miss his chance to interrupt and alter the plot.

He'd never done this kind of work before; nor had anyone else, he suspected. For all Severus knew, Voldemort could have booby-trapped the nightmares. There would be no way of knowing until he tripped the trap, and then Harry would pay for his clumsiness. So, he studied the curse as long as he could afford to, trailing it as it tangled through Harry's unconscious mind like a deadly cancer.

To his intense relief, egotism proved Voldemort's undoing. Obviously, the Dark Lord had never anticipated that anyone would discover what he'd done. Most men wouldn't have lasted as long as Harry. They'd have been insane or dead by their own hand by now.

When Severus thought he'd grasped all the intricacies of the spell, he reached out to meld his own power with the curse. This was the tricky part. Go in too strong and he could shatter Harry's mind. If he were too weak, he would end up an impotent witness to the nightmare as it played out.

Harry moaned as Severus linked with that deeply embedded spell. The breath and the very blood in his veins seemed to freeze at the sound, but Harry didn't react to him further.

Releasing the breath he'd been holding, Severus used his power to reroute some of Voldemort's energy to binding the spell more firmly to Harry's mind, thereby allowing him to alter the weakened plot stream. If this were a success, the new dream would recur more frequently, for he was giving it far more power than the others had.

Severus eliminated three of the four Death Eaters from the scenario. They vanished like will-o-the-wisps at dawn, leaving nothing behind. He studied the last Death Eater, and then began to make his alterations. First, the mask and robes had to go. They'd be enough in themselves to terrify Harry.

The middle aged, overweight, dark haired man with the single eyebrow and sadistic leer that remained when the Death Eater garb was removed was hardly comforting. He needed to replace this unpleasant creature with someone who would translate to instant safety to Harry. He considered making the man into Ronald Weasley, but the dream was tied to Harry's sexuality and Ron was too much like his brother to fill that role. Unfortunately, Severus had no knowledge of anyone else Harry was close enough to that he could substitute. So, he invented a dream lover for Harry.

Severus made the Death Eater thinner and younger, softening his features, smoothing his skin. He was pleased with the effect, until he realized that he had subconsciously turned the man into Harry's twin.

That wouldn't do.

Severus tried to imagine the kind of man Harry should be with. Someone bright and beautiful like Harry himself, that was a given. Thinking that opposites attracted, he made the man taller than Harry, broadened his shoulders, and then changed his hair from the black messy tangle that was Harry's to loose honey blond curls. He gave Harry's dream lover a classically straight nose and strong jaw. He made the eyes a deep blue, the face handsome, and yet affable at the same time, a pleasing visage that anyone would instantly trust. For added confidence, he clothed the hero in Gryffindor robes.

When Severus was satisfied with his creation, he turned his attention back to the curse. Untangling the actual instructions that would program the events in the dream took a moment, but he finally found the section he needed. Since the spell was tied to Harry's sexual drive, Severus couldn't remove the sexual events entirely, but he could alter them, make them palatable to Potter. Where Voldemort's story line read 'Death Eaters enter cell and all four repeatedly rape young Potter,' with all the grim details laid out in vivid colour, Severus changed the instructions to 'Your true love has discovered your whereabouts and breaks in the door to rescue you. This is the man that you trust more than any other. You trust him with your life. The instant you see him, you will feel better and know that everything will be all right. Your lover will enter the cell, react to your tortured condition, then drop to his knees to heal you. Once you are recovered, you will kiss him and he will then proceed to make passionate love to you.'

Severus studied his scenario, testing it for flaws, but it held together. When he was convinced it was adequate, he began the delicate task of carefully grafting his new instructions over the old ones. The substitution had to be seamless or the results could be disastrous to Harry. He had to match the exact frequency of magical power Voldemort had employed, and insert his new scenes in precisely the right place to overlay the original plot.

Severus was blazing new ground here, inventing a cure for something that should have been unalterable. The stakes were Harry's sanity and mental integrity. Too aware of the damage he could do, he made the substitution. The sweat was dripping from every pore of his body as he focussed everything he was on doing this properly.

When the new ending was grafted onto the dream scenario, he released a deep breath and returned his concentration to the part of Harry that was active in the nightmare. Harry was still struggling with his pain on the dungeon floor. He felt Harry's despair as the thick, ancient door creaked open.

Every nerve in Severus' body was stretched to breaking, waiting to see if it would be the four Death Eaters of the original plot that burst in or the Gryffindor hero he'd created for Harry.

The door opened. When Severus saw the red and gold-robed blond enter alone, his relief was almost a sexual release. His Gryffindor hero stood poised in the door, wand out, ready to take on all comers in Harry Potter's defence.

Through a haze of blood, Harry stared up at the man, and then something began to happen.

Severus gasped in horror as the tall Gryffindor rescuer's form wavered. With a sinking heart, he realized that he mustn't have blended his alterations correctly. He'd used too little power in the binding spell; that had to be it.

Horrified, Severus watched as his creation's perfect nose lengthened until it seemed a couple of sizes too large for his face. The eyes and hair darkened to black, the hair lengthening. Simultaneously, the handsome face thinned down. The cheekbones protruded, becoming higher as the rest of the face became more angular. The skin became less pink until the face had a pronounced yellowish tinge to it. The Gryffindor robes faded to black, the shoulders beneath them becoming less broad and bonier.

Utterly astonished, Severus stared at the man in the doorway. It wasn't a Death Eater, or, at least, not a current one. His handsome hero had transformed into Severus himself – greasy hair, big nose, yellow-stained fingers and teeth, sallow face, and all.

The dream Snape faltered in the doorway. Although his expression revealed his dismay at Harry's state, the rescuer gave a snide, "Playing the hero again, Potter?" that Severus had absolutely not programmed into the scenario.

The bloodied Harry looked up from the floor, smiled, and asked, "What took you so long?"

Severus watched himself cross to the naked Potter and kneel beside him on the filthy floor. His wand swept over Harry's damaged body. Instant relief washed over him as Harry's pain diminished.

Then the dream Severus touched Harry's face and gruffly said, "I thought I'd lost you."

Harry buried his fingers in his hair and drew him down into a desperate kiss. One kiss, turned into two, and two into twenty as they lost themselves in each other. Severus watched Harry undo the dream Snape's robes. Jacket, shirt, trousers, and the rest followed as Harry efficiently stripped him down. His clothes landed in a heap on the filthy floor. Moments later the other Snape was on top of them, with Harry pressing down hard against him.

Severus had never really thought about what they looked like making love. It was startling to see himself as a stranger would. He could only stare at the image they presented: Harry so young and handsome, himself painfully unprepossessing. But somehow, when he was kissing Harry, he didn't seem as ill-formed as he did when he looked into his bathroom mirror. By some miraculous magic, they looked good together, like they belonged in each other's arms. Perhaps it was merely the contrast of youth and age, Harry's muscular build with his own leaner, taller form, but . . . for the first time in memory, Severus was not uncomfortable with his appearance.

Between the sensations Severus was receiving through Harry's neural network and his own response to watching the two men before him make love, he was hard as a rock. Feeling Harry's reactions as though they were his own, he moaned as Harry lifted his lover's long legs over his shoulders and entered the dream Snape. Harry bent forward until their mouths met.

It was bizarre to taste his own mouth, to be thrusting into his own tight body. This was one of the most peculiar sexual encounters of his life. Severus was currently making love to himself. The intense feelings Harry had for him, beyond mere sexual desire, awed him. Not just lust, not just convenience . . . it was nearly worship.

Of course, that could have a lot to do with the dream's circumstances. This Snape had, after all, just rescued him from a fate worse than death.

Severus tried not to place too much significance on what Harry was feeling for him, but even if it were all simply part of the dream, he'd never inspired this depth of emotion in anyone. As he watched Harry fuck his dream self, he basked in the affection, the almost palpable love Harry bore him, his heart soaking it up like the dried up sponge it was.

All too soon, Harry came deep inside his dream image, then the dream Snape climaxed all over both their chests. Outside the dream scenario, Severus was vaguely aware of his own body shuddering in helpless orgasm.

The dream pair were still locked together, kissing on the prison cell floor when the image started to fade as Harry's sleeping mind moved on to another dream.

Severus stayed in Harry's mind long enough to ensure that the new dream was not another night terror and then gently disengaged his consciousness from Harry's. Though what he would have done if another nightmare had followed, he had no idea. He was totally drained. He hadn't an ounce of energy, magical or otherwise, left, and his head was pounding so intensely that he thought it would shatter into a thousand pieces.

Completely back in his own body, Severus dragged in a deep breath of the sex-scented air, and nearly vomited up the contents of his stomach on the bed. He managed to hold it in, just.

Taking deep breaths, he slumped onto his back against the pillow and stared up at the vaulted ceiling.

He hadn't realized how long their consciousnesses had been connected. He'd never been so long in another's mind. Even brief mental connection required a tremendous expenditure of energy, which was one of the reasons why Occlumency and Legilimency were rarely practiced these days. The physical strain of prolonged contact was devastating. Recognizing how long he'd lingered in Harry's mind rewriting Voldemort's spell, he realized he was lucky he hadn't gone into cardiac arrest or suffered a stroke.

If a headache and upset stomach were all he had to pay for what he'd done, it was worth it. Harry hadn't suffered the full effects of the curse tonight, and if they were lucky, he'd be able to do the same with every other nightmare as it happened.

It was truly a pity that no one would know what he'd done here. Rewriting a curse wrought by spontaneous magic was unheard of. As with so many of the major accomplishments of his life, it would go unnoticed. But for once, Severus didn't mind. Harry would sleep better for his efforts, and that was all that was important to him.

He would have liked to have summoned a restorative potion or at the very least an analgesic for his aching head, but he was literally impotent at the moment. He doubted he had the energy to so much as stand up, let alone walk.

Closing his eyes, he took deep breaths and tried to relax, hoping the throbbing in his head would subside. Although the pain persisted, eventually his exhaustion got the better of him and he drifted over into sleep.



Severus turned his head at the sound of his name, which was a definite mistake. His skull felt like it would crack wide open.

Prying his sticky eyelids apart, he glared at the disgustingly cheerful man sharing his pillow. If he'd had any power left to him at all, he would have cursed Potter for the smile the sadist was giving him.

"W-what?" Severus croaked.

"Are you all right? It's nearly time for breakfast. You're usually up and dressed by now," Harry said, leaning forward to kiss him.

Severus winced as his head threatened to explode as the kiss cut off his airflow, but he made no protest.

When Potter pulled back, his gaze was worried. "You've got circles under your eyes. Didn't you sleep well?"

"Kindly lower your voice, and tell me what you remember about last night," Severus demanded in a low whisper.

Potter's face crinkled in a frown that would have been engaging most days, but which Severus was in too much pain to appreciate at the moment.

"We made love. Fantastic love. You let me levitate us," Harry said.

Severus tried not to sigh. "Anything else?"

"I, er, fell asleep right on top of you again immediately afterwards, didn't I?" Harry asked, looking stricken.

How the corners of his lips twitching could make his head pound worse was a mystery to him, but that's what happened. "I'm used to it now, Potter. It's hardly something to lose sleep over."

"Then what . . . I had a nightmare, didn't I? And you . . . fixed it!" Harry's grin nearly melted his aching brain. The smile faded as Harry seemed to concentrate. "I remember it all now. The nightmare started out the same as usual, but . . . but instead of Death Eaters coming to rape me, you came to heal me and rescue me . . . and . . . it was amazing. Bloody amazing. Thank you, Severus, thank you so much."

Harry's mouth latched onto his again and it was several minutes before Potter pulled back.

"I need to talk to you about that," Severus said, his self-consciousness accentuating his physical misery.

"About what?"

"I must . . . apologize. I didn't intend to insert myself into the dream. I wouldn't presume . . . to take such liberties." Severus averted his gaze from Harry's trusting green eyes, unsure how he could explain, let alone offer an excuse for what had happened, especially since he didn't understand how it had happened.

"What are you talking about? Why would you need to apologize? What liberties? Are you crazy? You cured those damn night terrors! Do you think I care how? Unless it's escaped your notice, I enjoy making love to you. It was great!" Harry insisted, with so much Gryffindor enthusiasm that Severus had to look back at him.

"But it wasn't supposed to happen that way. I expended a great deal of energy creating your rescuer -"

"You what? You mean you didn't want to rescue me yourself?" Harry asked, sounding hurt, of all things.

"Potter, my head is about to crack open. I swear on Salazar's grave that I will smite you if you continue along that infantile line."

Gods, now it was injured innocence assaulting him.

"I don't understand. Why would you invent someone to rescue me instead of doing it yourself?" Harry questioned in a slightly more adult tone.

"I was attempting to graft this scenario onto your subconscious. I knew that whatever I invented was going to be with you for the rest of your life. I wouldn't presume to insert myself into . . . so permanent a situation. If in the future you were to grow disenchanted with my charms, you would no doubt find it unpleasant for me to be so deeply embedded in your erotic dreams."

Harry sucked in a noisy breath, as if he'd taken a blow to the solar plexus. For a moment he simply stared at Severus with an unreadable expression in his eyes, and then he reached out to gently stroke the lank hair back from Severus' temple in a soothing rhythm that actually felt like it were reducing his headache. Finally, Potter asked, "So how'd you end up in it then?"

"I don't know. When my creation wavered and transformed, I feared I'd miscalculated the energy requirements and that a Death Eater would reappear. Instead, the handsome hero I invented transformed into myself. I have no explanation to offer," Severus softly confessed.

"You must have used a spell to replace Voldemort's. How did you word your changes?" Harry asked.

Severus thought back on what he'd actually instructed the curse to do. "I changed the scene, saying that the man you loved, the man you trusted more than any other, would enter the cell, heal you, and make passionate love to you."

At first, Severus didn't understand the satisfied, slightly shy smile that claimed Harry's face. "There you have it, then."

"What?" Severus asked, still not seeing.

"You know, for such a bright fellow, you can be pretty dense at times," Harry complained.

"Your point is?" Severus didn't quite snap.

"The subconscious doesn't lie. How could I trust some fantasy you made up more than you? The man I trust more than any other is the one who's been sharing my bed these last two months. That's you, Severus."

Once again the ground seemed to fall out from under him. Harry was right. The subconscious didn't lie, which meant . . . that Harry Potter truly loved him, or at least believed he did. With Harry the two were one and the same.

Severus gulped, trying to think of something to say beyond a blank, "Oh."

Harry spared him the necessity by asking, "How bad is that headache, really?"

"I'll survive," Severus said.

"What you did last night – it wasn't easy, was it?"

"It drained me like an intense duel," Severus admitted. "The curse is tied directly to your sexuality and subconscious. I had to . . . make extensive modifications."

"Rewriting a buried curse like that . . . that's not normally part of those arts. You invented a whole new school of Occlumency and Legilimency , didn't you? Harry asked.

"And then some," Severus sighed.

Quiet for a time, Harry's fingers stroked Severus' temples, and then Harry asked, "Is there anything I can get you or do for you?"

"If you'd summon the headache potion in the blue bottle from the cabinet over my bathroom sink and the Restorative Potion in the brown bottle in my Potions lab storage cabinet, I'd be eternally in your debt," Severus said as lightly as he could.

"You can't summon?" Harry's body froze, his expression passing from worry into fear. "It took that much out of you?"

Severus sighed and refrained from snapping. He'd never been any good at explaining himself, nor had he ever been able to manage civility when he was unwell. But . . . Potter mattered to him, so he made the extra effort. Speaking as though to a very dull child, which was about as polite as he could manage given the circumstances, he said, "Last night I was totally depleted. I couldn't even move. I probably could manage to summon the bottles myself this morning, but . . . it would make my headache worse. You did offer -"

"Of course," Harry said. A few seconds later, the two bottles floated through the open bedroom and bathroom doors respectively over to the bed.

Harry plucked them out of the air and handed them to him.

Severus uncapped the blue bottle first and drank down the bitter contents, then the brown.

Harry's worried gaze followed his every move. When he'd finished the last of the Restorative draught, Harry shifted on the bed until he was sitting behind him, with his back to the headboard and his athletic thighs surrounding Severus' hips. Harry's hands came around his chest and guided him back to rest against him.

The warmth was wonderful. Severus released a deep breath, and pillowed his aching head against Harry's left collarbone.

Pressing his lips to Severus' right temple, Harry gently stroked his chest in a soothing pattern.

Slowly, the agony in his skull abated as the potions took effect. Severus no longer felt as though a niffler were burrowing its way through his cerebellum. Now it was simply an extremely potent headache.

"Will you be able to teach today?" Harry questioned a while later.

"I will thoroughly enjoy teaching today, Potter," Severus said with a malicious glee he wouldn't have been able to manage as little as a few minutes ago.

Harry chuckled, making him shake up and down with the motion of the chest he was resting against. Severus' potion had done its job. The shaking didn't revive his headache.

"The poor sods. You won't tell them their extra huge homework assignments and detentions are my fault, will you?"

"The first words out of my mouth at every class today will be that they are receiving detention and an extra foot of homework because Professor Potter totally exhausted me in bed last night." His words caused more quaking.

"You know that I really do appreciate what you did for me last night, right?" Harry checked, his arms tightening around him. "Will you let me show you how much tonight?"

Every morning, Harry asked him that same kind of question without fail, making it sound like it were some great gift to be graced with his company. Moved by this man on so many levels, Severus gave a nod and a soft, "Yes." He laid his own hands on top of Harry's and squeezed them between his palms and stomach.

"Did you want to go to breakfast?" Harry asked.

Another nod, and Harry was helping him up out of the bed.

"We won't have time to bathe," Harry said.

Seconds later, Severus felt the familiar tingle of a cleansing charm play across his skin.

"Thank you," Severus said, relieved by Harry's thoughtfulness. He really hadn't been sure if he'd had the energy to do it himself and he couldn't teach class smelling from sex.

Severus saw Harry wordlessly approach his wardrobe and start removing robes, trousers, and a shirt for him to wear today. Harry was moving towards his dresser, where he stored his underwear and socks as Severus made his wobbly way to the loo.

When he was done in the bathroom, he found Harry fully dressed in a blue jumper and black trousers. His own full attire was laid out and waiting for him on the bed.

Harry gave him a smile and took his own turn in the bathroom.

Feeling like a failed Transfiguration assignment, Severus slowly donned the underwear and socks Harry had left for him. He'd barely gotten them on when Harry emerged from the bath. With a mischievous smile, Harry held the shirt out for him to slip his arms into, and then helped him with the rest of his clothes. He should have felt embarrassed or self-conscious at the assistance, but somehow, Harry made it feel like just another intimacy to share. Not quite as arousing as a kiss, but in its own way, equally moving.

He'd never imagined that he'd adjust to having someone share his living space like this after so many years of solitude, but he couldn't help but think how well Harry and he worked around each other. The only experience he'd had living with someone other than his parents had been his schooldays in the dorm. There had always been an uncomfortable amount of bumping into each other while preparing for class in the mornings, but Harry and he seemed to have the same kind of natural rhythm in everything that they did in bed. They flowed around each other, rather than collided.

It was also a unique feeling to have someone around who would do small things to help him without being asked, things like laying out his clothes when he was feeling under the weather. He'd never imagined that a single person could bring so much positive change into his life in such a relatively short period, but Harry had. He'd changed his entire world around. Before, he'd been existing. Now, he was living every moment of every day. While his nights . . . they were without equal. All because of Harry Potter.

Harry Potter . . . whose subconscious seemed to recognize him as his true love.

Wondering if the Head of Slytherin could be expelled from his house for a completely Gryffindor burst of optimistic hope, he followed Harry out the door.


Continue to Part II


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