Until Proven - Part II

 

"How's your head feeling?" Harry asked his lover a few days later as he entered Severus' private chambers a half hour after the daily detentions had ended. Severus had had to rewrite another dream last night.

Severus was sitting on his couch in front of a roaring fire, with a cup of tea and an empty headache draught bottle on the side table. It was rare that he ever visited Severus and didn't find him doing something: grading papers, reading, writing an article for the numerous potions journals to which he regularly contributed. To see him just sitting there before the fire, with his face so pale and drawn and those purplish rings under his eyes ate at Harry's conscience like acid.

Severus looked over at him, his thin mouth twitching upwards at the ends. "Like a quaffle when Marcus Flint was through with it. I'll be fine."

Harry crossed the sitting room and eased down onto the green couch beside Severus. He laid his right arm across the back of the couch, lightly banding his lover's shoulders.

It never ceased to thrill him when Severus would let him casually touch him like this. When he'd considered becoming involved with Severus after that first unbelievable night in the Forbidden Forest, he'd pretty much resigned himself to the fact that Snape wouldn't be a very demonstrative lover, if the man could be a lover at all. But the Severus he'd found hiding behind that standoffish exterior seemed nearly starved for touch. Severus rarely initiated casual physical contact, but he never rejected it or appeared uncomfortable with it. Tonight was no different. The moment he laid his arm across Severus' shoulders, Severus leaned his head back over it with a weary sigh, exposing the vulnerable pale line of his neck.

They stayed that way for a long while until Severus sat back up to have another sip of his milky tea.

"There was something I wanted to ask you," Severus said, turning to face him.

"Oh? What's that?" With Severus, Harry never knew from his expression whether the topic would be good or bad.

"Concerning this ridiculous holiday that will fall next week, I was wondering if -" Severus began with palpable awkwardness.

Knowing what Severus was trying to ask him, Harry softly informed, "I already have your Christmas present, but you needn't -"

"I simply wanted to confirm that we were engaging in that particular tradition," Severus stiffly answered.

Harry couldn't tell if Severus were annoyed, put upon, or relieved by his words. Taking a deep breath, he tentatively said, "There are several other traditions I'd like you to be a part of . . . if you'd like, that is?"

"What sort of traditions?" Severus questioned, sounding as though he feared he'd be asked to wear the Father Christmas outfit Poppy and Hermione were making for Hagrid.

"Well, Hermione, Ron, and I usually spend Christmas Day together. We'll be putting up a Christmas tree in their sitting room some time this week and we'll open presents around it Christmas morning. I know it's corny as hell, but . . . I'd like to be there for Christmas morning; I'd like us to be there for that – if you're willing?"

Severus' eyes shifted away from Harry's, his expression tightening from more than a headache.

Harry quickly reassured him, "You wouldn't need to do anything but be there. I just . . . I don't want to spend the day apart from you." When no rejection was immediately voiced, he added, "Both Hermione and Ron asked me to invite you. Will you come?"

Somehow, this felt like almost as important a turning point in their relationship as the night he'd gone down to the dungeons to ask Severus to continue what they'd started in the woods. Everything was so difficult with Severus in some ways. When the issue dealt with simply the two of them, they were usually fine and totally in sync, but the instant interacting with other people came up, they always hit these stumbling blocks.

Severus had been incredibly obliging so far. He'd suffered through that night out with Ron and Hermione without complaint, and several nights a week for the last two weeks, Hermione had joined them in the evenings to play SCRABBLE or simply grade papers with them. She'd also told him that she'd started stopping in to the Potions lab to see Severus during their shared free period. He had no idea what they talked about, but they seemed to be getting on fabulously.

But what he was asking tonight was a little different than those casual interactions. He was requesting that Severus join him in a tradition that he'd hitherto only shared with the two people he considered his immediate family. That Ron had caught him in his loo yesterday morning when he was showering after a night with Severus to let him know that he was welcome to bring Severus along Christmas morning had meant the world to him.

Harry also knew that Severus was solitary in nature, if not downright antisocial. He appreciated how much he was asking of the man. He was trying very hard not to let too much ride on Severus' response, but . . . he didn't really know if he was prepared for a refusal. Severus was filling so many empty places in his world that it was hard for him to remember to grant his lover the space that Severus sometimes needed. Every single day, Severus did something that made Harry love him more, and just as consistently, they would hit these trouble spots that had the potential for blowing everything they'd found to smithereens.

Harry loved a man who couldn't tell him he loved him back, a man who was so emotionally damaged that he couldn't conceive of someone liking him for who and what he was, rather than simply using him. Sometimes he felt like there was no chance for them to ever be happy together, but each and every time he'd hit that low spot, Severus would do something that would demonstrate how much he cared for him, how it was about more than just the sex for him, too. Even so, Harry knew that what he was asking here was a lot for this reserved loner.

When no answer seemed forthcoming, Harry nervously prodded, "Will you come?"

Severus met his gaze again, his tongue giving his lips a nervous swipe before hesitantly answering, "If you wish it."

Relief rushed through him. "Thanks. That's . . . that's brilliant."

"Let's withhold judgment on that, shall we?" Severus requested in an urbane tone, and then questioned, "You said traditions, plural. What else were you considering?"

"On Boxing Day I usually go with Ron and Hermione for dinner to the Burrow, Molly and Arthur Weasley's home. Everyone's there. It's wonderful." Realizing that Severus might be uneasy about his reception, Harry assured, "I owled Molly this week and asked if I could bring you. She said you were always welcome at her table."

"You told Molly Weasley that we were involved?" Severus didn't quite yelp.

Harry looked down, aware that his very private lover might be upset by people knowing, but there was nothing to be done about it. These people were his family, and there was no way he could hide something this important from them. "Actually, I believe Ron told her when he firecalled her two weeks ago."

"I see," Severus said in that unreadable tone that drove Harry mad.

Harry supposed it was better than shouting, but only just. Finally, his nerves forced him to ask, "So, what do you think?"

Harry braced himself for the 'you needn't involve me so deeply in your personal life' spiel that made him insane every time he heard it, but for once those weren't the first words out of Severus' mouth. Even though he saw Severus' Adam's apple bob, a sure sign of his nervousness, he still felt like he'd won a major victory when the self-deprecating denial he was expecting failed to materialize.

After a silent moment, Severus quietly asked, "How adversely will it affect . . . our situation if I decline?"

That Severus would ask that question at all meant a lot. Harry could see that he really didn't want to go to the Weasleys', but would accompany him if he really wanted him to. Harry let the hand resting over Severus' shoulders reach up to play with a hank of his lover's unwashed hair as he answered, "Not at all. I know you don't like crowds."

"In that case, I will decline, if you truly don't mind," Severus said.

Reading the uneasiness in his lover's pain-filled features, Harry assured him, "That's fine. Maybe next year you'll feel more comfortable with the idea."

Severus tensed beside him and whispered in a hoarse sounding voice, "Next year?"

Loving the blown away look that Severus was trying very hard to cover, Harry smiled and said, "Yes, next year."

Harry watched Severus avert his gaze. He knew his lover was attempting to regain his composure. After a moment, Severus turned back and asked with a clearly forced suspicion that was belied by the warmth in his dark eyes, "Was that all the traditions?"

"Well . . . Ron's off tomorrow night. They're going to decorate the tree then. I, er, I really like to do that with them."

"And you wish me to accompany you to this as well?" Severus checked.

"Well, you wouldn't have to actually do anything. I mean, you could just sit there and grade papers while we put the stuff up, but, yeah, I'd really like you to be there with me," Harry said, hoping he wasn't pushing too hard. It almost felt like they were negotiating a contract here, with each of them trying to ascertain how much the other was willing to give.

To his utter shock and delight, Severus gave a grudging nod, "As you wish."

"Thank you, Severus," he said, leaning over to kiss Severus' unusually stubbly cheek. He'd forgotten to perform a depilatory spell on Severus this morning when he'd cast the cleansing charm over them both. Of course, the poor bloke's head had been aching so badly from the intense magic he'd performed to rid him of those god-awful nightmares that Severus probably hadn't even noticed his whiskers. Harry hated how much helping him drained his lover. Severus' long face was practically grey with exhaustion.

As the man stifled yet another yawn, Harry asked, "Are you about ready for bed?"

"It's barely gone nine," Severus replied, although there was no argument in his tone.

"It's been a long day for us both. Come on. We'll be more comfortable horizontal."

That self-conscious expression that Severus sometimes wore before he said something very foolish shadowed his features. "I realize that . . . keeping me company on nights like this can't be very . . . entertaining to you."

It was like no one had ever truly given a damn about the man in his entire life. Early in their relationship, those types of comments had driven Harry crazy, for they seemed to question his character, but now he knew that Severus simply didn't get it. Severus was more than capable of giving the support that showed Harry he loved him, but Severus was simply incapable of understanding that he was worthy of similar devotion. So, he held his temper and mildly retorted, "And I'm sure draining your last bit of power mucking about in my rape nightmare is how you define an entertaining evening."

A faint blush coloured those too-pale cheeks, "That's –"

"No different," Harry insisted. "You wouldn't be in such pain if you hadn't helped me. And don't even suggest that I come back when you're feeling better. You're stuck with me. So, come to bed."

Harry stood up and gave Severus a hand up. Extinguishing the wall sconces with a thought, he slipped his arm around his lover's waist and led him to the bedroom. Normally, he would have undressed Severus by hand and taken great delight in each gradual unveiling, but tonight he simply transfigured Severus' clothes into his favourite grey striped nightshirt. A quick turn in the loo apiece, and they were ready for bed.

The dungeon bedroom was freezing, despite the hearth fire. As soon as they were through in the bathroom, they hurried to the bed. As they settled under the heavy green duvet, Harry took Severus in his arms.

It still amazed him how good simply holding Severus felt. As the taller man nestled down into his embrace in an almost guarded manner, he reached up to rub Severus' slender back.

Severus always seemed, if not uneasy, then perplexed by this kind of contact, especially on the rare nights when they didn't have sex. Harry could tell how uneasy Severus was by how long it took for him to trust his full weight to Harry as he settled down. Whenever they were simply embracing like this, Severus always held back, as though he were waiting to be told to shove off.

It hurt that after all this time Severus still wasn't confident in him. Harry really didn't know what more he could do to assure his lover. He wished he understood what he was dealing with here. Knowing what had formed all these insecurities would make them easier to manage. But the few times he'd broached the subject, Severus had been less than forthcoming. If he hadn't known better, he'd almost have said Severus was ashamed to tell him.

He wished that there was a way he could just crawl into Severus' mind and see what he was thinking . . . .

Harry froze at the thought. It wasn't just wishful thinking. He could crawl into Severus' mind, or as good as. If Severus would permit it, and if Harry himself had the courage to do it.

It wasn't something done lightly. Harry thought Severus' reluctance to trust was due to insecurity, but he could be wrong. For all that everything the man did belied the possibility, there was the chance Severus simply didn't love him, that this was all just a sexual odyssey for his reclusive lover.

Even if that weren't the case, Harry instinctively knew that Severus wouldn't welcome such intense contact. But it could really help them understand each other better.

Wondering how he could even broach the topic to Severus, Harry closed his eyes and let the wonderful warmth weighing him down relax him into slumber.

*~*~*

On Christmas night, drained from the holiday socializing, Severus was glad to retreat to his quarters and relax on his couch with Harry beside him.

"These are extremely beautiful . . . and unusual," Severus said, once again opening the velvet box to stare down at the cufflinks Harry had given him this morning. He'd thanked Harry, but somehow, the words didn't seem enough. He'd never had so thoughtful or princely a present.

The white gold cufflinks were made in the Slytherin coat of arms. Severus admired the diamond-eyed, shining serpent, in its bed of emeralds and rubies, with purple amethysts forming the bunting. He didn't need to be a Malfoy to know that the one-of-a-kind cufflinks were hand-crafted and must have cost Harry a fortune.

Harry shifted and laid an arm across his shoulders. "I'm glad you like them. I love my cloak."

Severus wished he'd been a bit more extravagant. The ultra-soft, dark green cashmere, sable-lined cloak with its shining silver buttons had seemed very elegant in the shop, but it paled when compared to the present Harry had given him. However, Severus didn't know what he could have found to equal these cufflinks. He'd never seen anything as exquisite as the workmanship on the jewellery.

Gift giving was nearly an alien practice to him in itself. Buying Christmas presents last week had been a strange and novel experience. Severus had been in school the last time social convention had demanded he worry about seasonal gift giving. Still, even though he couldn't say he'd enjoyed the shopping, he'd definitely enjoyed watching Harry's face fill with delight when he'd first seen the cloak.

"It was a good day, wasn't it?" Harry asked, leaning close and taking a sip of the vile eggnog he held in his left hand.

"Mmmm," Severus agreed. He had to admit, if only to himself, that the day had gone remarkably well. Christmas had never been his favourite holiday, but for the first time ever he hadn't felt separated from the festivities. It had helped that he'd spent every second of it at Harry Potter's side. The day had started with gift opening at the Weasleys' quarters, progressed to dinner and the Muggle Christmas celebration in the Great Hall, and then a return to the Weasleys' for more small talk, eggnog, and proper drinks. But now, sitting alone with Harry in the quiet of his own quarters, watching the fire dance in the hearth as night drew in around the castle while the celebrating, and, more importantly, the carolling, died down, this was Severus' favourite part so far.

"Hermione and Ron loved that wine you gave them," Harry said. "Did you really like the scarf they got you or were you just being kind?"

There was a reason he'd been sorted into Slytherin House. Knowing when diplomacy was called for, Severus deflected the question with, "When have you ever known me to be kind?"

Harry chuckled and snuggled closer to him. "You're kind to me all the time."

Severus was oddly comforted by Harry's words. It was good to know he was doing something right. He couldn't remember a single relationship or encounter where he hadn't been found lacking.

Of course, he'd never been so cautious about offering offence or worked so hard to please anyone as he had with Harry Potter. From their first kiss in the Forbidden Forest, he'd been all too conscious that Harry would be his for a limited time.

A shudder passed through him at the gentle, almost platonic kiss Harry placed on his cheek.

It amazed him that his body still shivered and thrilled whenever Harry kissed him even casually like this. They'd been together since the start of November, more than seven weeks. It seemed that he should have become accustomed to Harry by now, but Harry still made him tremble without even trying. In fact, the feelings seemed to be intensifying the longer they were together. It was all very strange.

Severus closed the tiny black velvet box in his hand and carefully placed it on the nearby end table before turning to meet Harry's lips. Somehow, the eggnog didn't taste as bad on Harry as it did when sipped from a mug. But he was forced to acknowledge that he was hardly an objective judge when it came to Harry Potter's mouth. He thought Harry tasted wonderful first thing in the morning. His tongue delved deeper, seeking out Harry's natural flavour as Harry's hands clutched at his back.

It took him a couple of minutes to realize that Harry was gently pushing him back.

"Are you all right?" Severus asked, hating the anxious part of him that clutched up tight at even this small variation from routine. Normally, Harry was all over him the moment they kissed.

Seeing the visible heat in Harry's green eyes, the tightness in his gut eased up some.

"I, er, wanted to talk to you about something while we're still . . . lucid," Harry said with a small smile.

Picking up on his lover's nervousness, Severus leaned back against the couch to give them some thinking room.

"That sounds ominous," Severus meant it as a joke, but even he could hear the tension in his tone.

Apparently, Harry heard it, too, for he looked almost guilty as he reached out to squeeze his hand. "No, not really. I just didn't want to bring this up when we were kissing. You never tell me no to anything then."

"I take it that this is something you feel I will deny you while in my right mind?" Severus asked, his confusion mounting. Most of the Slytherins he'd known would have purposefully aroused their partner to get their way. The fact that Harry knew he could manipulate him with sex and chose not to was incredibly endearing.

"I know you won't go for it," Harry said.

Severus couldn't decipher Harry's mood. Beneath his outer reserve, Harry seemed . . . sad.

He searched his mind for anything he might have said or done to cause Harry distress, but . . . the day had been incredibly pleasant. Harry had been laughing at his side throughout it. More than once, Harry had told him how big a difference his presence had made on his enjoyment of the holiday. He hadn't understood how someone sitting so quietly beside him and merely observing the activities could have had such a positive influence on Harry's happiness, but Harry had insisted that his simply being there was enough. Yet now, at a time when they were alone together and usually busily engrossed in each other, Harry was sad.

Recalling Potter's plans to attend the seasonal celebration at the Weasleys' home tomorrow, Severus wondered if that were the problem. Was Harry unhappy because his lover had chosen not to accompany him? It made sense.

Severus considered his objections against attending. The noise, the crowd of rambunctious Weasleys, the prying eyes and muffled laughter he'd have to endure from his former students now that they all knew of his sexual relationship with Potter made him abhor the very idea of exposing himself that way, but . . . if his attending would remove that shadow from Harry's eyes, it would be well worth the embarrassment.

Wanting to make this easier for Harry, he quietly offered, "If this is about tomorrow's celebration at the Weasleys', I will accompany you if you wish."

The surprise that flashed across Harry's face told him that he'd guessed wrong, but Harry's gaze softened as it met his eyes. "That wasn't what I wanted to talk to you about. I know you don't want to deal with the crowd there. I'd love to have you with me, if you really want to come, but you don't have to."

"Oh," Severus said, feeling foolish.

"But it means a lot to me that you're willing to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation just to make me happy. Thank you," Harry softly acknowledged.

It was ridiculous how quickly those few kind words from Harry removed his self-consciousness. Curious now, Severus questioned in a low and unthreatening voice, "What was it you wished to discuss, then?"

Harry gave a wry smile and answered, "Something that will make you far more uncomfortable than a houseful of Weasleys."

"A thought which strikes terror into my very heart," Severus responded in kind, even though Harry's words did alarm him. "So – what is it: Cornish pixies in your sock drawer? A troll in your lavatory? A vampire in your armoire? Grindylows in your commode?"

Harry chuckled and shook his head. "No. Those would be easy. This is . . . pretty big, and you're definitely not going to like it."

"Then why bring the subject up at all if you know beforehand that I will reject the suggestion?" Severus asked.

"Because I want you to think about it. Even though I know you won't agree to it offhand, I'd really like you to consider it, because I think we could both benefit from it enormously if we try it," Harry said, his face more serious than Severus could remember seeing it in a long time. "So what I'm asking is that you not reject the idea out of hand, that you promise to take some time to consider it."

"It is that important to you?" Severus asked, more than uneasy. Harry's build up was unnerving. He couldn't imagine what Harry could ask of him that he thought he'd refuse.

Harry nodded.

"You must have realized by now that I will do anything you ask of me in bed," Severus reminded. He didn't know how he could possibly make himself more open or vulnerable. During these last few weeks, Harry had done things to him that no wizard he'd slept with had possessed the power to do. But there were many things those other men had done to him, dark things, that Severus hadn't liked and that Harry had never shown any interest in. But if Harry wished to explore those options now, he would indulge him.

Harry reached over to run his fingers through Severus' hair, which was clean for once.

"I know. You've been . . . amazing. But this isn't about sex. At least, not only about sex," Harry answered.

"Then perhaps you should tell me what it is about?" Severus suggested. Seeing how Harry's Adam's apple gave a nervous bob did nothing to reassure him.

After a moment's pause, clearly to think, Harry said, "The one thing I really wanted to give you for Christmas isn't something I can buy for you." When Severus made no comment to his words, Harry swallowed loudly and continued, "I want to give you peace of mind. Whenever I tell you that I have something I need to talk to you about, you always look at me like I'm about to dump you. You're doing it right now."

Severus lowered his gaze, but Harry intercepted his chin and raised his head back up.

"I want you to know you can trust me," Harry said. "If I could give you anything, I'd give you faith in us."

Severus took a shaky breath and wondered how he should respond. He was wise enough to hold back the questioning 'Us?' that sprang immediately to his lips. He mightn't know what Harry was aiming at, but he knew that such a response would only hurt Harry.

After weighing a number of equally inappropriate replies, Severus hesitantly admitted, "I've never been part of an us before."

"Me, either," Harry said, still playing with his hair. Harry seemed to find that activity calming for some reason. No matter how many days had passed since he'd remembered to wash his hair, Harry always had his fingers in it. "So I guess it's only natural that we'd both be . . . unsure."

"You're unsure of me?" Severus asked, hating the burst of anxiety that flared through him, the horrible, familiar sense of having failed in the bewildering maze of a relationship. It was a million times worse in this case, for he'd obviously let Harry down.

"What?" Harry asked with a small, tender smile. "You're the only one allowed to be insecure? I've told you dozens of times that you're the first person who's ever stuck it out with me this long. I've no guarantee that you won't get tired of the nightmares and my freaky powers like everyone else has, or that the social obligations of being my lover won't drive you away."

"And I have no guarantee that you won't leave me for a younger man," Severus countered.

"I'm not looking," Harry said. "I'm happy with you. But you can't believe that, can you?"

"It's far more likely that you will meet someone than I would suddenly become disenchanted with you," Severus stated, trying to stay calm.

"Not from where I sit, it's not," Harry protested. "Severus, we both have fears and doubts."

"I don't understand what any of this has to do with your original topic," Severus said, trying to escape this painful conversation. He doubted Harry; Harry doubted him. What was the point of belabouring the issue?

"What if there were something we could do to completely reassure each other?" Harry asked in a soft and eager tone.

Severus reached out to smooth down Harry's messy black hair as he gently said, "I'm afraid that's wishful thinking. We've both repeatedly assured each other that our concerns are unwarranted. Only time will ease our troubled minds."

"Except you don't believe we're going to have that time."

"I'm willing to be proven wrong," Severus said.

"What if I could show you how I feel about you?" Harry questioned.

"I thought that was what you were doing before you brought this subject up," Severus said.

"Making love to you hasn't been enough to convince you so far. Telling you I love you hasn't been enough, either."

Severus was highly aware of the fact that he'd never offered Harry any vocal reassurance in return. Feeling cornered, he snapped, "Then what are you driving at? If it's that bloody hopeless why belabour the issue? Why not simply enjoy the time we have until it all falls apart?"

Harry tensed and turned to lean into him. Both of Harry's hands dug into his hair, framing his head, as Harry looked deep into his eyes and insisted, "Because I love you and I don't want it all to fall apart. I want you to know that you can count on me. The same way I want to be able to count on you. I want us to last, Severus."

Every time Harry said those three words, it totally derailed him. This time was no different. The matter-of-fact Because I love you defused every bit of irritation and resentment he harboured, leaving him emotionally adrift, unsure how to respond. Realizing that some reply was called for, he softly offered, "That is my wish as well."

Harry's smile made him glad he'd spoken.

Perhaps whatever Harry had in mind wasn't as unthinkable as he feared. Harry had never asked him for anything yet that was either unpleasant or abhorrent to his nature. Even their interactions with the Weasleys had been amazingly palatable.

"Good, that's good," Harry said, releasing his hold on Severus' head.

Taking comfort from Harry's tender expression, Severus tried to steer the conversation back to its original topic, "So, what is it you want to do that you fear I'll refuse?"

"I was thinking that if we joined minds while we were making love, then you'd know exactly how I feel about you. There wouldn't be any question. You'd know," Harry answered in a nervous rush.

Severus felt as if his blood were turned to lead in his veins. Or maybe it was ice, because it felt that cold. Harry was watching him expectantly, hope and worry vying for dominion over his features. He couldn't stand the hope.

Harry had asked him to take the time to consider this proposal, to refrain from rejecting it out of hand, but he couldn't even think about the prospect of casual telepathy without panicking. Before he even knew what he was doing, he was on his feet. For a moment, he didn't know where he was going, but then he headed for the hearth, drawn by the warmth. He walked straight up to it, getting so close that his robes were in danger of igniting in the dancing flames.

On some level, he'd always known it would come to this. It always did.

His body was never enough. Every time he'd gotten involved with a more powerful wizard, they always wanted his soul as well. Harry's motivations were nobler than those of the others, but the end result would be the same.

No matter what he did, Severus knew he was doomed. Should he agree, his secrets would be bared to the light. Harry would see what he was, how utterly unworthy he was of him, and leave. And, if he refused, Harry would leave just as surely for his lack of faith. No matter which way he played this scene, there was no chance of their relationship surviving it.

"Severus?" Harry was at his side almost instantly, reaching out to lay a tentative hand on his arm. "What is it? What's wrong?"

A thousand memories ripped through him, the most painful involving a face that resembled Harry's far too much for Severus' peace of mind. Another of Albus' idiotic ideas gone awry. The disaster of trying to teach Harry Potter the arts of Occlumency and Legilimency had been nothing when compared to what had happened with his father. As Severus stood there trembling before the fire, all he could feel was the memory of James' power surrounding him as James' mind plundered the secrets of his soul during their final lesson, when the suspicious Potter had raped his memories to guarantee his loyalty to Dumbledore. The bitterest part of it all was that Severus was never certain that Albus hadn't ordered James to do it. And now James' son was asking for access to his mind.

He tried so hard to keep Harry and James separate these days. James was his enemy, Harry his friend and lover. Lately, it wasn't even that much of a battle. But Harry's request to touch his thoughts undid all that hard work and put every instinct he owned in fight or flight mode.

Severus knew that Harry would never violate his memories the way his father had. Even if he hadn't had faith enough in his lover's character, Harry's actions had proven his integrity when he'd resisted the opportunity to satisfy his curiosity when their minds were joined in October. In his heart, he knew he had nothing to fear from Harry, except Harry's reaction to what he was underneath all his shields, but his body didn't seem able to forget what someone wearing that face had done to him once when he'd trusted and it clutched tight in panic.

"You're shaking," Harry noted softly.

Severus tensed at another touch, but it was only a blanket landing on his shoulders. Harry must have transfigured it or summoned it. Harry wrapped it around him and stepped closer to him. After a minute or so of non-response on his part, Harry's left arm gently circled his back, Harry's hand landing on his biceps. It was almost a one-armed hug, Severus realized.

They stood that way for a long time, until the trembling stopped.

"I'm sorry," Harry said softly. "I knew you wouldn't like the idea, but I didn't expect it to . . . be this upsetting, but I should have realized. Back in October, you were seriously considering facing the dementors rather than allowing me to touch your thoughts. Can you tell me what's wrong?"

He felt like a fool. Not knowing what to say, Severus took a shaky breath. He could feel Harry's worried gaze digging into the side of his face.

"Never mind. Come on. Let's sit down, all right?" Harry urged.

Because Harry had never betrayed him yet, he allowed himself to be led back to the couch.

Once there, Harry glanced at the nearest end table and a steaming teapot, mugs, and milk pitcher appeared beside Harry's empty eggnog mug.

It was nothing unusual. He saw Harry do magic like that a dozen or more times a day. But for some reason, this casual display of Harry's tremendous power made him realize how entirely helpless he would be if Harry chose to force the issue as his father had. He knew Harry wouldn't, but it was unnerving to know that there would be no preventing Harry from taking anything he wanted from his mind.

Attempting to get a hold of his runaway emotions, Severus watched as Harry prepared him a cup of tea.

Accepting the offered cup, Severus curled his hands around the oversized mug, trying to absorb its warmth. Despite the blanket and hearth's proximity, he was still cold inside.

Harry watched him sip his tea for a few moments before asking, "Are you all right?"

Realizing how ridiculously he was behaving, Severus did his best to pull himself together and mutter, "Forgive me. I'm . . . fine."

"You're not fine. You're still white as a sheet." In an extraordinarily gentle voice, Harry said, "This is more than just aversion, Severus. Give me a clue as to what I'm dealing with here. Please? I've hurt you again, and I don't even know how or why."

Wondering how much worse an idiot he could make himself, Severus quickly denied, "You didn't hurt me." After a moment, he added, "You're the only lover who never has."

He could almost have replaced the word 'lover' with 'friend' and remained equally honest.

The world seemed to freeze around Severus as he absorbed the enormity of what he'd confessed. He hadn't meant to tell Harry that, hadn't intended to reveal so much. Feeling unbearably exposed, he stared down into his milky tea. He couldn't help but wonder what Harry must think of him.

Harry's hand settled on his blanket-draped shoulder as Harry asked, "Tell me, please?"

Severus knew he was lucky. With Burke or Lysander or any of the other powerful wizards he'd been sexually involved with, his mind would be under attack right now. Thinking that conversation was more easily controlled than a telepathic inquisition, Severus tentatively asked, "What would you like to know?"

"You said that everyone else had hurt you. Are we talking physical or telepathic abuse?" Harry asked in such a wary tone that Severus couldn't find it in him to refuse to respond.

Abuse? Was that what they called it?

It took Severus a while to find an answer that he could stand to voice, one that wouldn't make Harry think him more of a coward than he must already deem him. Forcing himself to hold that gaze, he answered, "I have known both . . . occasionally at the same time."

Severus waited for the condemnation, the demand as to how a wizard as powerful as he was could allow such misuse to occur even once, much less repeatedly. But Harry didn't castigate him. Instead, Harry's face crinkled into a wince. Severus realized that his confession seemed to have hurt Harry, rather than angered or disappointed him.

Severus appreciated that Harry didn't drag him into a hug, but gave him the physical distance he needed at the moment.

It seemed to take Harry a couple of minutes to find his voice before he hesitantly enquired, "How bad?"

"The ill treatment?" At Harry's nod, Severus took a deep breath and offered, "Depending upon my partner's . . . proclivities, the physical could be as intense as Cruciatus, the telepathic as . . . intrusive and painful as what you experienced with Voldemort in the final battle."

"Your lovers did this to you?" Harry accentuated the word as though he simply couldn't wrap his mind around the concept.

Unable to withstand the emotions in Harry's too perceptive gaze, he lowered his own to his cup, and answered, "I'm not the sort of man who inspires tenderness in partners."

"That's bullshit!" Harry spat, drawing closer rather than pulling away. "You're the most considerate lover I've ever had."

"It's . . . different with you," Severus softly protested.

Harry didn't immediately discount his words, asking instead, "Different how?"

He supposed he should have anticipated that question. His mouth running dry, Severus tried to find a means to explain that would allow him to retain something of his pride. But there was nothing in the truth that would allow him any dignity, so he tried to deflect Harry by telling him about their encounters, rather than the humiliations of his youth. "You have treated me with respect, as an equal from your first touch."

"And the others didn't?" Harry questioned, seeming genuinely confused.

Severus couldn't conceive how anyone could look at him and still fail to understand, but Harry truly didn't get it. "Over the last two decades, I have refrained from sexual activity, but when I was younger and my hunger more intense, I would . . . attempt to find satisfaction as any young man might." Severus gulped hard and forced himself to continue. "Only, I wasn't like most young men. I have always been . . . . " Even though Harry knew it as well as he did, it was still difficult to say this to his lover, ". . . painfully unattractive. I had neither riches nor social graces to make up for my physical shortcomings. But I burned like every other young man my age and needed the same as they. I was also drawn by intense magical power, even then." He stopped speaking, glancing over at Harry and praying that Harry would piece the rest together, but his lover's face was a frustrating blank.

"I still don't understand how that relates to what those bastards did to you," Harry softly said. There was anger in his eyes, but it didn't seem to be aimed at him.

Severus could feel his face burning with shame and the tea churning in his stomach. His grip went white around the mug in his hands as he gave Harry the unadorned truth, "The men I was drawn to, they could easily have their pick of lovers. In order for them to consent to be with me, I had to offer them . . . the sort of things most men would never voluntarily engage in. Some preferred physical torment, but the most powerful enjoyed mental domination."

"Oh, my god," Harry whispered. His expression seemed to suggest that the obnoxious eggnog and their Christmas dinner were about to make a reappearance.

Harry's reaction being fully as shocked as he'd dreaded, Severus continued in a voice that sounded dead to even his own ears, "I'm not proud of what I permitted, but at the time I was . . . quite desperate, and there really was no other way."

Severus looked back down as warm liquid splashed onto his hands. Surprised, he saw that they were shaking so badly that the tea was sloshing out of the mug.

Harry's hand came into Severus' line of sight, took the cup from his clenched grip, and silently levitated it to the side table. "No wonder you don't want anybody mucking around in your head. I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"How could you?" Severus replied, stunned by his lover's acceptance of what he considered shameful failures on his own part. A man like Harry would never have allowed himself to be brutalized that way.

"You've never told anyone about any of this, have you?" Harry asked with unexpected gentleness.

His gaze jumped to Harry's handsome face. The anticipated disgust wasn't there. Harry looked angry, and faintly sick, but mostly concerned . . . for him.

A breath away from falling apart totally, Severus forced himself to give a characteristically disdainful snort as he answered, "Until a few weeks ago, there wasn't anyone who would have cared."

"I'm sorry," Harry said.

Confused by the apology, for all he could think was that Harry was apologizing for his need to break things off now that he knew the truth, Severus gathered his controls tightly about him as he asked, "For what?"

"That you suffered that way. That there wasn't anyone there to care. I wish . . . ." Harry's words faltered as he looked down to where his hand rested on Severus' shoulder, lying on the blue blanket that was wrapped around Severus.

"What do you wish?" Severus tensed. Common sense was telling him that Harry was wishing that he'd never heard any of the no doubt disappointing things Severus had just told his lover, but his heart heard the raw emotion in Harry's voice and insisted that his mind was wrong, that Harry wasn't disgusted with him.

"I wish that we were the same age, that I could've been there for you," Harry softly offered.

"You would have hated me the same as your father," Severus said.

"No," Harry insisted, his voice tense and angry. "I'm not like him. Even if we'd hated each other, I would never have done the things he did to you."

Severus gulped as he stared into Harry's troubled gaze. After a moment, he allowed, "No, you wouldn't have. But that doesn't mean you would have liked me."

"I suppose you're right." Harry sighed. "I just wish I could have protected you from all that."

Severus started, unable to hide his shock as he stared into Harry's upset face. Harry's desire to protect him was as unique in his experience as Harry's love for him.

After a moment, Harry's hand slipped down from his shoulder to clasp his hand as Harry said, "Severus . . . the way you talk about this, you make it sound as though . . . mistreatment were the best you could hope for from a lover back then. There wasn't anything wrong with you or lacking; it was the men you were associating with. If you'd had a different type of partner . . . ."

"I would never have had sex at all," Severus finished, appreciating what Harry was attempting to do, for all that it wasn't true.

"That's ridiculous," Harry denied. "Of course you would have had sex."

"What normal man would . . . choose to be with me without compulsion or ulterior motives?" Severus asked.

"I know I'm not anyone's idea of normal, but I'm not that much of a freak, am I?" Harry uncertainly questioned. "I chose to be with you. Anyone in their right mind would have done the same thing after the sex we had in the forest that first night. Severus, you have a lot to offer anybody."

His throat felt like a petrification spell had been used on it. Forcing his tight muscles to work, Severus replied as normally as he could manage, "You are the only one who has ever made that claim."

"I'm the only one you've ever let close enough to you to do so," Harry objected.

"It's a circular argument," Severus said, unwilling to continue this painful line of discussion.

"Perhaps," Harry agreed. After some thought, Harry questioned, "How did my suggesting that we join minds while making love bring all this up? Did you think I'd . . .rape your mind? Force you?"

What was he supposed to say to that? He'd been trying to be truthful with Harry wherever possible, but how was he to be honest about this? While it was true that he was probably oversensitive and reacted badly to even the suggestion of telepathic contact, it was more than that. There was no way to explain that it was Harry's uncanny resemblance to his father that had brought up all those bad memories, without broaching the rest of the sordid mess.

"Severus?" Harry prompted after a prolonged pause.

Knowing that he had to answer, he met Harry's eyes and offered as much of the truth as he dared. "I know that is not in your character. The reaction was . . . instinctive."

"They really hurt you, didn't they?" Harry tentatively asked.

"Most . . . found pleasure in administering pain. I was not an innocent victim. I knew what I was getting into beforehand," Severus answered. "Please don't twist the events into a Gryffindor tragedy. I was a willing participant."

"But you weren't looking to be hurt, were you?" Harry pressed with visible reluctance. "All you really wanted was what everyone wants – someone to hold them."

"That's hardly the point -"

"It's the only point that matters," Harry said.

Forcing himself to hold those green eyes, Severus asked, "So where does this leave us?"

"What do you mean?" Once again, Harry seemed confused.

"You wish to engage in telepathic contact. I do not. What happens now?" Severus questioned, very aware of the fact that he would not have been having this conversation in the past. If one of his former partners had wanted telepathic contact when he did not, he would have been grappling to maintain his mental integrity at this point.

"What do you mean, what happens now? You just told me you couldn't," Harry answered.

"And that's the end of it?" Severus checked.

"My god, do you think I'd . . . force you?" Harry all but stuttered in his shock.

Severus quickly clarified, "Contrary to all appearances, I do trust you. I know that isn't in your nature. But if you were to insist on the contact for our relationship to continue, I would -"

His words were cut off by a vehement, "I'm not them! You don't have to let me rape your mind to be my lover. God, Severus . . . ."

Reading Harry's distress and horror, Severus quickly apologized. "Forgive me. I -"

Harry interrupted him again. "No, I'm the one who's sorry. I should never have pushed so hard on this. I . . . didn't understand. I won't bring the subject up again." The last was voiced in the tone of a solemn vow.

Was it possible? Could he have gotten off that easily? Could his lover's emotional welfare really be more important to Harry than his own satisfaction? So far, they had been in agreement on everything they'd done. This was the first true instance where their desires were at opposite poles . . . and Harry had ceded to his wishes for no reason other than to spare him distress.

The consideration was so foreign to Severus' experience that he could hardly comprehend it. But he appreciated it, more than he'd ever appreciated any other kindness in his life. The warmth that rushed through him as he stared into Harry's worried eyes was overwhelming. His insides felt like they were melting, while emotionally . . . he'd never experienced so complex a web of positive feelings towards someone in his life. He supposed the gratitude was only to be expected, but the other emotions . . . he was literally in awe of his young lover.

Severus didn't understand the sudden anxiety that crossed Harry's face.

"Severus? I know I said I'd never bring the subject up again, but can I ask you one more question?" Harry asked.

He would have granted Harry any boon at that moment. "Yes, of course."

"Does helping me with my nightmares . . . disturb you? I don't understand how you can help me like you do if the idea of my touching your thoughts upsets you this much."

Severus lowered his gaze to where Harry's free hand was resting on the blanket covering his arm. The contrast of the sleeve of Harry's bright red jumper against the dark blue of the blanket was very pleasing. "You're not awake when I intervene in the nightmares. It's almost a one way exchange."

"You read my thoughts, but since I'm asleep, I can't read or remember yours," Harry said. Amazingly enough, he didn't sound angry at the basic unfairness of the set up.

"Precisely."

Severus held his breath, awaiting some kind of explosion, but Harry simply vented a deep sigh and said, "Thank Merlin. You've helped me so much. I'd hate to think that it was ripping you apart inside every time you touched my mind. It's bad enough that it drains your powers so much."

Stunned, Severus realized that that truly had been Harry's worry. He wasn't concerned about the inequity of the exchange, just that it hadn't upset or hurt him.

"What is it?" Harry asked, his question no doubt spurred by whatever was showing on Severus' face.

"I would think you'd be angry at the unfairness of the exchange, especially in light of your desire to touch my thoughts," Severus confessed, needing to understand Harry's motivation even if his question risked creating friction between them.

"You just told me that your mind was repeatedly raped. I remember how horrible that felt the one time Voldemort did it to me. I can't imagine what you must have gone through. How could I be angry at you when you're doing something you hate just to help me?" Harry's gaze was meltingly tender as it held his.

Was this what it meant to be in love, Severus wondered as Harry leaned in to kiss his brow. Did the other person's comfort and happiness take precedence over one's own? If that were the definition of love, then Harry's behaviour seemed to indicate that he really was in love with him. It took Severus a bit longer to recognize that his own offer to accompany Harry to the Weasleys' tomorrow fell into the same category of self-sacrifice, and indicated that the reverse was also true, that he loved Harry Potter.

Severus experienced a moment of sheer panic at the discovery. He could feel his heart pounding madly, while the rest of him seemed to freeze. The degree of vulnerability that this level of emotional attachment to Harry entailed was terrifying. He'd known that losing Harry would destroy him when it had only been sex between them. What would that inevitable parting do to him now that it was so much more?

"What is it?" Harry whispered into his ear. "You've just gone stiff as a board, and not in a good way."

Severus could barely think over the pounding of his heart. But he had to answer.

Harry raised his head and was now looking at Severus, awaiting a response.

"It's . . . nothing," Severus tried to dismiss Harry's question, hating the shadow that passed through Harry's gaze at his evasion. His heart thundered even louder.

Harry stared into his eyes for a moment longer. "Whatever it is, it will be all right. I promise."

Severus rallied enough to snort at the absurd assurance. "How can you promise when you don't know the particulars of what you're promising?"

"I know that look on your face, and I know you," Harry answered, running his fingertips under Severus' left eye, tracing the wrinkles at its corner. "I'll make it all right for you. Whatever it is, we'll fix it together."

Severus felt his lips twitch at the hopeless idealism. "Does it never occur to you that some things . . . some people are broken beyond repair?"

Harry's hand slipped down to his chin, his thumb stroking over his jaw as Harry answered, "Yes, but you're not one of them."

Once again, Harry managed to destroy him with a single line.

Those green eyes were lit with inner fire, an emotion that made them nearly incandescent. Severus had never had such an expression focused on him before. The faith, the utter certainty in Harry's reply totally undid him. Then Harry kissed him, deep and slow, with a bone-melting tenderness that only accentuated how lethal this attachment was.

There was no hope of denying the kiss, no chance of pulling back to find an emotionally secure distance. Severus succumbed to it just as he had to Malfoy's touch in first year, to Cascius Burke's alluring power at eighteen, to a host of other wizards whose power had blinded him. Only, this time there was one major difference to distinguish this relationship from all his other failed attempts. This wasn't about power for Harry. Harry didn't want to own, hurt, use, dominate, or debase him. It wasn't even simply about fucking anymore, or their détente, or their budding friendship. What it was about floored him.

Without Severus' even noticing it was happening, everything had changed, and not just for Harry.

He'd never felt this much for anyone in his life. But, perhaps even more importantly, no one had ever demonstrated such consideration or caring towards him. Not even the cynic in Severus could doubt Harry's sincerity. At absolutely every opportunity he had given his young lover to hurt or disappoint him, Harry had shown that his regard was more than lip service.

The care with which Harry was touching him now was enough to make him a true believer. Harry's fingers and lips dallied over his eyes, his cheeks, his brow, even his over-sized nose with such tender attention that it felt like worship.

Severus sighed as Harry's lips moved to nuzzle his neck. His clothes were gently peeled away, each section of bared skin stroked or kissed as it was exposed to the flickering firelight. It felt almost as though Harry were taking great pains to move slowly after Severus' no doubt disturbing admission, like he was trying to make up for a lifetime of misuse with his tenderness.

Three months ago Severus would have scoffed at the possibility of anything easing the scars and traumas of his past, but there was something almost healing about Harry's touch.

Severus couldn't sense any actual magic being transferred, but every one of Harry's caresses and kisses seemed to leave a tingling glow on his skin. As he sank into a state of sensual lassitude, it almost felt as though he were sheltered in an invisible web of caring . . . or maybe even love. He didn't know enough about that emotion to recognize it.

With a thought, Harry vanished his own clothes away like morning mist under the sun.

Harry was always affectionate and thorough in their foreplay, but tonight he was breathtakingly gentle. Having expected his confession of the abuse he'd permitted in his younger days to earn him Harry's contempt, the reverent kisses and caresses Harry lavished upon him left Severus a shuddering wreck.

His naked back was pressed into the soft velvet of the couch cushions as Harry lay curled between his legs, slowly working his way downwards with lips, tongue, and fingers.

How Harry could still want him after hearing what he'd allowed others to do totally mystified him. He'd thought that a wizard as heroic and utterly Gryffindor as Harry would consider him tainted goods when told of his humiliating past. But Harry touched him as though he were something precious and pure.

Harry didn't loose his power upon him tonight as was their usual habit. Instead, Harry kept everything on an equal level as he kissed his way down his chest, pausing to pamper his nipples with playful sucking.

Severus was so accustomed to being blasted away by Harry's greater power that he hardly ever noticed anything beyond the magnificence of the magic moving through and around him. But tonight he remained clear-headed enough to note the expression softening Harry's features as he made love to him. In his whole life, sex had never been about emotion, but the feelings he could see in Harry's face made his insides clutch in reaction.

He was struck by Harry's almost inherent protectiveness. Every one of Harry's touches seemed intended to reassure and please his lover, rather than stake him out as Harry's own territory or plaything.

Instead of feeling mortified and embarrassed by his earlier confession, Severus was grateful he'd spoken. Harry mightn't know the worst of his transgressions, but he now knew enough to have totally abandoned him had he been put off by the darker aspects of his past. That hadn't happened. Harry was here, worshipping his body, treating him like a cherished gift instead of damaged goods.

Severus shook as Harry's slick tongue followed the inverted arrow of body hair down the centre of his stomach. His head tossing from the delightful sensations, his hands moved restlessly through Harry's messy hair as Harry nosed through his pubic hair, moving lower.

Harry's mouth was an intense, wet heat as it surrounded his cock. The suction was sublime, fully as arousing as any of the incredible magic Harry had loosed upon him over the last few months. He groaned and gasped as Harry swallowed him whole. Firm hands cupped his buttocks, encouraging the rhythm of his thrusts.

When Severus felt seconds away from exploding, Harry pulled his mouth away.

His dismayed cry was still echoing through the sitting room when he felt Harry's solid heat cover every inch of him. Harry carefully nestled their rock-hard cocks together as he settled on top of him and took his open mouth in another kiss.

Severus could taste the bitter-sweet flavour of his own cock in Harry's mouth. It was incredibly arousing, but not nearly as much so as the exquisite rocking Harry began. As his handsome lover humped down against him, his entire body exploded in delight like a supernova. The position was devastatingly sensual, and yet gentle. Harry kept kissing him as though he couldn't get enough of him.

Familiarity was supposed to breed contempt, but Severus had never had anyone take so much care with him during intercourse.

Severus came first, breaking the kiss with a moan as he bathed both their bellies and groins with his sticky gift. A heartbeat later, Harry added his own warm outpouring to the mess between them, and then collapsed on him, Harry's nose buried in the crook of his neck.

Severus stroked Harry's sweat-slick back as their breathing slowly stabilized and reality realigned itself around them.

Harry was licking away the perspiration pooled in the hollow of his throat as he lay there, each of his warm, moist breaths making Severus shiver anew as it brushed his sensitive neck. The fingers of Harry's left hand were playing through Severus' chest hair, curling it around his index finger in a ringlet and then letting it spring back.

"You could have used your magic if you'd wanted," Severus said as he brushed Harry's sweat-soaked fringe off his face. He knew it was his lover's sense of chivalry that had doubtless caused Harry's restraint after hearing about his past.

"I know," Harry answered in a contented voice. "Sometimes I just want to feel you with my skin alone."

Severus tilted Harry's face up towards him and then twisted up to meet his lips. The kiss was warm and loving, lasting much longer than he anticipated.

Once they parted, Harry rested his cheek on Severus' chest, seemingly content to lie there tangled on the couch for the rest of the night.

"Severus?" Harry called a sleepy time later.

"Mmmm?"

"No one's ever going to hurt you like that again – ever," Harry whispered, clutching him tight as he confirmed Severus' guess as to what had motivated the gentle loving.

Although the sentiment made him feel good, it wasn't in Severus' nature to fool himself. "The future can never be accurately predicted, for all of Professor Trelawney's ranting." Never had he spoken truer words. Was there anything in his past that would have led him to suspect that he would ever be lying here naked, cradled in Harry Potter's arms? He knew this gift could disappear as arbitrarily as it had arrived. "No one can say what will befall another person in their future."

"Okay, let me rephrase that, then," Harry said. "I'm going to personally guarantee that you're never hurt that way again."

A personal guarantee from Harry Potter was as good as a legal contract. A strange warmth spreading through him, Severus kissed the wildly askew, soft hair on the crown of Harry's head and then said, "I appreciate the sentiment."

"But?" Harry probed.

"Never is a very long time." And Severus knew that he had already strained his luck by keeping Harry this long.

"Yes, it is," Harry agreed. "But I don't ever want to lose you. I love you, and I promise you that's not going to change."

Change was the nature of life, only . . . .

This wasn't a promise he'd ever heard before. Normally, Severus would balk at such an absurd assertion, but as he lay there safe and warm in Harry's arms, he could almost believe it. Or, he could believe that the amazing young man crushing him into the couch would do everything in his considerable power to make those words true. Buoyed by the warmth inside as much as that covering him, he sank into a deep and contented slumber.

*~*~*

Severus awoke to soft kisses. More asleep than awake, he returned them. He was temporarily confused by how cramped their bodies were, but then he remembered last night and realized that they'd spent the entire night on the couch.

Harry's hands ran up and down his body, inciting shivers in their wake as their mouths fed on each other.

Severus shifted beneath Harry, spreading his knees and lifting his legs over his lover's shoulders with practiced ease.

Harry appeared surprised by the move. "You want me to . . . ?"

Recognizing that Harry was still upset over last night's revelations, Severus answered in a sleep-thick voice, "I always want you that way."

The ensuing kiss was deep and gentle.

Harry must have silently summoned or transformed something into their usual lubricant, for the finger that slipped up inside Severus to prepare him was slick with gel. He sighed as Harry's finger pressed against that secret spot deep within him. So good, it was always so good with Harry.

Within moments, Severus was incoherent under the effect of those talented fingers. Harry continued that tender torture for a long time before finally withdrawing his fingers.

They both groaned as Harry positioned his lubricated cock and slid home. If those slender fingers had felt good against his prostate that thick shaft felt incredible. Severus squeezed its welcome length, making Harry cry out. Then Harry began to thrust and the world seemed to shift around them.

As always, the only thing that existed for Severus in these moments was Harry. His entire reality was reduced to that powerful cock thrusting in and out of him. His body one seething nerve of pleasure, he grunted, lifting up for every thrust, his hands grappling Harry's butt to pull him in as deep as he'd go.

They never lasted long in the morning. It felt like mere seconds, or perhaps an eternity, passed, and then Severus was toppling over into brilliant ecstasy. As he sprayed his chest and belly in his doubled over position, he felt Harry still inside him in climax. Harry's groan was so deep; he swore he could feel it reverberate through his own chest.

Then, it was over, and Harry was sliding out of him and carefully lowering his legs to the couch. A moment later, his sweaty, sated lover settled carefully back on top of him.

"Good morning," Severus greeted in a wry tone.

Harry chuckled. "Morning, afternoon, night . . . it doesn't matter when. It's always good with you."

Severus tried to take Harry's comment in stride, in the easy, carefree manner it was intended, but he was having difficulty believing that Harry could still feel this way about him after some of the things he'd told him last night. Truth was; he was having trouble believing that Harry was still here at all.

But there was no denying that warm weight in his arms.

"God," Harry sighed after a few minutes of contented cuddling, "I'm going to miss you today."

"We could hardly partake of such pleasures on Molly Weasley's couch," Severus pointed out.

Harry chuckled. "Maybe not, but I'll still miss you."

Severus stroked over Harry's sweat-slick back, breathing in his lover's warm, musky scent. He was startled by how disturbed he was by the idea of Harry leaving him, even if only for only the day. When Harry had first mentioned this outing, it had seemed like it would be a horrible ordeal to accompany him to the Weasleys' for their seasonal celebration, but now the idea of spending the day alone seemed far more unpleasant. It made no sense. He'd really wanted to work on that difficult tumour reduction potion while Harry wasn't there to distract him, but now . . . now he wanted nothing more than to be with Harry.

"I, ah, suppose that it's too late to change my mind?" Severus heard himself ask in an uncertain whisper.

"What?" Harry froze, raising his head from where it was pillowed on his bony shoulder so that their eyes could meet. "Are you serious?"

"I'm sure Ron has already informed his parents that I won't be attending."

"So? I'll firecall Molly and tell her you're coming. I mean, if you really want to come. If you're doing it only for my sake, you needn't, but I'd love to have you there." The excitement on Harry's face attested the truth of that. Even if Severus had been offering to attend solely for Harry's sake, he would have found it impossible to withdraw his suggestion now.

Severus swallowed hard. Despite the visible confirmation of Harry's feelings, it was still intensely difficult for him to suggest his inclusion in any social event, even one to which he'd been invited. "If you don't feel my presence would be intrusive or unwelcome, I would like to spend the day with you."

"That's great!" Harry grinned. "Really fantastic. And, just for the record, you're my lover. I don't go anyplace your presence would be intrusive or unwelcome. I'm going to go firecall Molly right now before you change your mind again."

As his young lover bounced up off the couch, seemingly intent on rushing immediately to the hearth to follow through on his words, Severus softly called, "Harry?"

"No, you can't have changed your mind again already!" Harry groaned.

"No, I haven't. However, knowing Molly Weasley, I just thought you might make a better impression if you had some clothes on. Perhaps I'm wrong about that and – umphh!" Severus grunted as Harry landed on top of him again.

"You're a bastard, you know that, don't you?" Harry whispered between giggles and kisses.

Severus gave what he knew to be his most urbane smile and answered, "I pride myself on it."

To his astonishment, he felt both their bodies grow interested again at the close contact. It was fully another hour before Harry was able to make his call.

*~*~*

Harry stared around the Burrow's noisy, crowded sitting room. The Weasleys' tree was as magnificent as ever, replete with its reluctant garden gnome angel on top. There was holly on the mantel, garlands bunting all four walls, fairy lights wherever he looked, and what seemed to be every red-headed witch and wizard in the Wizarding World crowded into the room. Severus and his own dark heads stood out like decaying, rather than sore, thumbs among all that red. The only other variation was Fleur's perfect blondness.

Harry grinned as the children, who'd been playing with their Christmas presents on the floor, noisily charged their grandmother when Molly entered the room with a tray full of pastries. There were already eight little redheads representing the next generation of Weasleys: Ginny and Dean's four boys, Fleur and Bill's daughter and son, and Maggie and Charlie's two boys. The truly scary part was that no one had finished adding to their families yet. Both Ginny and Maggie were round with their next baby well on the way.

Molly put the tray down on an already overflowing side table and wisely retreated from the feeding frenzy.

"Have you seen Georgie?" Molly worriedly enquired as she stopped beside the Harry's armchair. He was so full from dinner; he didn't think he'd ever move again.

Harry was impressed. He hadn't noticed that Georgina was missing from the horde of children that were now tussling over the best of the pastries. But then he supposed that Molly was probably always looking out for her only granddaughter. The quiet and shy five year old often seemed to get lost in the pack of rambunctious boys.

Harry did a quick scan of the room. He felt a strange warmth seep through him when he finally located Georgie's long red hair. She was still over in the corner, earnestly conversing with Severus. "She's still with Severus."

Harry gestured over to the furthest corner, beside the Christmas tree. He'd spent the better part of the day sitting on the arm of the big wingback chair where Severus was ensconced. It was only when Georgie had timidly approached the stranger in the Weasley ranks that Harry had felt comfortable leaving Severus for a few minutes to socialize with Charlie and Bill, whom he rarely got to see.

"Isn't that the strangest thing?" Molly whispered as she followed Harry's gaze to where her granddaughter was giggling in musical gales at whatever Severus had just said. The idea of any child giggling in Severus Snape's presence was unimaginable.

"Merlin knows what he's telling her." Harry laughed. "When I left them, he was making suggestions as to how she could subdue the boys. Imperius wasn't involved," Harry assured. Looking back up at Molly, he softly said, "I want to thank you for welcoming Severus as you have. You've all been great."

Harry knew that most pureblood families would never have tolerated, let alone welcomed, an openly homosexual couple. He knew how lucky he was to have these extraordinary people as his own.

Molly flushed redder than her hair. "There's nothing to thank me for, Harry. You're part of the family. Anyone you care about is welcome here, and Severus has always been welcome in his own right. But, I have to admit that when Ron told me you were seeing Severus Snape, I thought he was joking. His age aside, Severus isn't someone I would ever have pictured you with."

"I can't blame you. No one was more shocked than we were, believe me," Harry said with a soft laugh. "But . . . he suits me."

"Well, it's clear you suit him, too," Molly answered with a warm smile.

"You think?" Harry was more than a little surprised. He knew that he was terrible at hiding his feelings, so the effect Severus had had on him was doubtless visible to everyone who knew him, but when they were in public, Severus seemed unchanged to him. Even today Severus had been cool and remote in his dealings with the Weasleys. But Severus had been fastidiously polite, and that was all that mattered to him. Though Bill and Charlie were nowhere near the deceased twins' league when it came to troublemaking, Harry had anticipated some problems with them. But there'd been no insults or sniping.

"Look at him. I've known Severus almost thirty years now," Molly said. "This is the first time he hasn't seemed . . . angry at the world. The fact that he'd consent to come to a house full of Gryffindors is astounding. Albus couldn't even have managed this, Harry, and Severus adored the man."

"Gran! Fred's hogging all the cherry ones!" One of Molly's seven grandsons complained from a few feet away. Harry could never keep track of their names. For all that they ranged in age from three to seven, they were all so similarly featured that it was like trying to tell the twins apart.

"Excuse me a minute, dear," Molly said, moving to sort out the fracas at the dessert table.

"Hey, you," Ron's familiar voice called from behind him.

Harry turned at Ron and Bill's approach. Ron offered Harry one of the lagers he was holding.

"Thanks," Harry said, taking an eager gulp. Across the room, he watched as Hermione joined in Severus and Georgina's conversation.

"You gave us all a shock there, Harry," Bill said, following Harry's gaze to where Severus sat.

"Yeah, I guess I did. I have to say, I've been surprised by how . . . restrained everybody's been. I was sure there'd be some . . . ." Harry wasn't sure how to finish the line.

Bill quickly supplied, "Joking or pranks? Believe me, we thought about it."

"So what stopped you?" Harry asked, genuinely curious. He knew that no one here would ever have been intentionally cruel to Severus when he was here as his guest, but he'd honestly expected some friction.

"Mum threatened that the first one of us who so much as looked funny at Professor Snape would find themselves replacing the garden gnome on the tree," Bill said.

Harry chuckled. "She did not!"

"Did, too," Ron insisted. "And she meant it."

"She'd never -" Harry began, only to have Bill interrupt him.

"Don't be too sure of that," Bill said. "When the twins returned for summer break after their first year at school, they used to test out their experiments on Ron here. Mum threatened if they didn't stop, she'd freeze them and shrink them to be centrepieces on the table. Being Fred and George, they didn't let up and -"

"Oh, I remember that!" Ron laughed. "Fred and George were there on the table next to the salt shakers for three days. Ginny kept knocking them over into the mashed potatoes every time she reached for something."

Both brothers broke out into hysterical laughter at the memory, while Harry did his best to cover his horror. Even after all these years, the Wizarding World could still throw him sometimes.

"Hey, little miss," Bill called, reaching out to catch his daughter as Georgina raced past them. "What have you been up to?"

"Hi, Daddy." She grinned up at them out of a face very reminiscent of Arthur's. "Hi, Uncle Ron, and Uncle Harry."

"So what have you been doing?" Bill asked. "Gran was looking for you."

"I was talking to Professor Snape," Georgie said.

"What about?" Ron asked, clearly as fascinated as Harry. For all that he'd taught for decades, Severus Snape wasn't known for his tolerance of children.

"Lots of stuff. School mostly. When I get my Hogwarts letter, I'm gonna be sorted into Slytherin House. I decided," Georgina announced.

Ron spewed his beer all over himself.

Georgina's announcement seemed to have claimed the attention of every adult in the area. Arthur and Fleur were staring at her from the nearby couch, Molly gaping from over at the dessert table.

"Why would you say a thing like that?" Bill asked, visibly shaken.

"Well, all the boys are going to be sorted into Gryffindor. That always happens," Georgina said.

"The Weasleys have been sorted into Gryffindor exclusively for the last six generations," Ron said, his pride in that fact no doubt unmistakable to even the child before them.

"I know. But I don't want to go where the boys are. Professor Snape promised me there'd be no other Weasleys in Slytherin House, that I'd be the only one," Georgina enthused.

"Oh, he did, did he?" Ron asked, seeming a little angry.

Harry tried to be appalled like Ron and Bill were, but the humour of the situation was undeniable. He looked away, lest they see his amusement. His gaze fell upon Fleur, who no longer appeared shocked. To his surprise, she, too, seemed to be working hard to stifle a laugh. Clearly, the Beauxbaton graduate wasn't as set on having all her children in Gryffindor as the family she'd married into.

"Yes," Georgina answered, obviously missing Ron's tone. "Professor Snape says Slytherin is the best house in Hogwarts. I was reading that book Aunt Hermione gave me, Hogwarts: A History, and it said that most of the greatest wizards come out of Slytherin."

"Most of the dark wizards, you mean," Ron corrected, seeming to get really hot under the collar.

Georgina gave Ron a strangely haughty, put-upon look as she answered, "Well, yes, I suppose that's true as well. I just won't be a dark wizard. 'scuse me. I want a cherry tart."

With that, Georgina raced off, leaving her father and uncle staring after her like she'd transformed her head into a trout.

"Maybe she'll forget about it by the time she gets her Hogwarts' letter," Harry hopefully suggested.

Bill chuckled. "That one? You're kidding, right? She's still holding a grudge against us for taking away her pacifier."

"Sounds pretty Slytherin to me," Harry said, not even trying to hide his smile anymore.

"You think this is funny?" Ron demanded.

Nodding and laughing, Harry answered, "Yeah. I do. Think about it, Ron."

"I don't see anything the least bit humorous about this," Ron insisted.

Even Bill was chuckling now. "Well, if she was looking to get attention away from the boys, she's certainly succeeded. Look at poor Mum. She's beside herself."

Harry turned his gaze to where Molly was having a very serious heart to heart with Georgina over by the dessert table. Even from ten feet away, Harry could see how Georgie was all but glowing as she expanded upon her plan to be a Slytherin between bites of a gooey cherry pastry. He couldn't hear everything, but Georgie seemed to be quoting statistics concerning how much more Slytherins made in the work world than the other houses. Molly was saying that there were more important things than money, but it was a losing battle. The kid had stars in her eyes and Slytherin in her heart. With a start, Harry realized that Severus had picked out the Weasley that really was most suited for his house.

Harry looked up at Ron. "You're not really angry about this, are you?"

Ron glanced over to Severus, who was conversing with Hermione, then looked to where his mother was now extolling the virtues of Gryffindor to a singularly unimpressed Georgina. Despite her physical resemblance to her father's side of the family, Georgie had never looked so much like Fleur as at that moment. She had the same 'I'm above all the rest of you peons' expression on her face that Fleur had worn at Hogwarts for the entire Tri-Wizards Championship.

The raw material might have been there all along to work with, but Harry recognized that Severus had most probably created a monster here today.

With his usual ability to completely ignore reality, Ron gave an optimistic, "You're probably right. She'll have forgot all about it by the time she goes to Hogwarts. Guess this is what comes from having a Slytherin marry into the family."

The words weren't exactly complimentary, so it took Harry a moment to absorb the more important sentiment behind them. Before he could react and thank Ron for what he'd just said, a very pregnant Ginny came hurrying over to them.

"Did you hear what Georgina is saying?" Ginny asked, looking as scandalized as Ron had a moment ago.

Recognizing his cue, Harry hauled himself up out of his comfortable seat. "Excuse me a minute."

Harry brushed his hand across Hermione's shoulders where she sat on the ottoman in front of the winged back chair Severus was in, and then he perched on the wide arm beside Severus' left elbow. "That was very wicked."

"What was?" Hermione asked.

Harry could tell by the amused glitter in Severus' black eyes that his lover was fully conscious of the disturbance caused by his little chat with Georgina.

"Someone talked Georgina into wanting to be in Slytherin House when she goes to Hogwarts," Harry reported.

Hermione's brown eyes bulged as she gaped at Severus. "You didn't!"

Severus' brow arched. "I most certainly did. The young lady in question was quite precocious and showed every indication of being suited for my house."

For a moment, Hermione's face had the same numbed shock the Weasleys had displayed, but then the mischief Harry loved in her emerged and her face cracked into a wide grin. "Bet that went over well."

"Indeed." Severus seemed quite pleased with himself and his accomplishment. "It was quite amusing."

"You promised me you'd be good," Harry reminded him.

Severus met his gaze. "No. I promised you I'd be as polite and courteous as possible. The word good was not mentioned in our arrangement. It is, after all, such a subjective term."

Harry glanced over at Hermione and advised, "Never bargain with a Slytherin."

"I'm afraid Severus hasn't left us much choice in that," Hermione said with a giggle, gesturing over to the couch where Georgie was now attempting to convince her mother to transfigure her blue party dress into Slytherin house colours. "I have to admit, the expressions on their faces are priceless."

"You're enjoying this too much," Harry said to her.

"Tell me you're not," Hermione dared.

Harry looked at the confounded faces around him as the Weasleys' only granddaughter swirled in the centre of the room to show off her newly transfigured green and silver dress. "Well, I guess it's never going to be boring with you here, Severus."

Severus gave another urbane arch of his brow and went back to silently observing the proceedings, looking more to Harry now like a giant black spider sitting in its web, waiting for the precise moment to pounce. He shuddered to think what Severus would do when he actually relaxed in this company if this were the result of his initial, nervous visit.

*~*~*

The Christmas break seemed to fly by. Harry had been worried that Severus and he would get on each other's nerves, spending so much time together, but the days and nights just didn't seem to be long enough – for either of them. He wasn't sure precisely why, but somehow their discussion about telepathic contact on Christmas night appeared to have put Severus more at ease.

If Harry had needed any proof of the change in Severus' attitude, his current situation would have been more than sufficient. Normally, he initiated any physical contact, but tonight, he'd been sitting here on Severus' couch, his nose buried in the latest Qudditch Monthly, when Severus slid onto the cushion beside him and began nuzzling his neck without a word. A month ago, or even a week ago, that would never have happened.

Dropping the magazine, Harry sighed and leaned his head back on the couch, baring more of his throat. He wasn't disappointed. That talented tongue slid downwards, leaving him a shivering wreck. He giggled like a kid as Severus attempted to open his top shirt button with his lips and tongue.

"You're dexterous, but not that good," Harry said.

"Is that so?" Severus challenged.

Harry affected not to notice the slight magical nudge Severus gave the button to loosen it up enough so that his tongue could undo it. He'd learned that the Slytherin propensity for sneakiness could sometimes work in his favour, especially in bed.

"Mmmmm, okay. You're that good," Harry allowed. "Better than good even -"

His words cut off as the fire in the hearth six feet in front of them flared with green sparks. A moment later, Hermione's torso appeared amid the dancing flames. "Harry, Severus? I'm sorry to interrupt you, but . . . ."

The unnatural tremor in Hermione's voice put Harry instantly on guard. Severus, too, appeared to notice the discrepancy, for his face went from embarrassed to a not-quite-worried set in a heartbeat as they separated. Quickly straightening out his clothes, while Severus did the same beside him, Harry sat up and asked, "What's happened?"

"It's . . . it's Ron. His boss just firecalled." Harry's blood seemed to freeze in his veins as Hermione's eyes filled with tears. "Ron's in St. Mungo's. It's bad, Harry . . . really bad."

"Where are you?" Harry questioned, rising to his feet.

"Our place," Hermione answered. "I was just about to leave for the hospital. Could you –"

"We're on our way up. We'll floo to you, then we'll all floo over to St. Mungo's," Harry said, rising to his feet.

With a numb-looking nod, Hermione withdrew from the hearth to clear it for floo travel.

Only realizing that he might have made a major wrong assumption after he'd spoken, Harry turned a questioning eye to Severus.

His lover was buttoning up the last button on his jacket and raising a hand to pluck his summoned robes out of the air.

"We'd best hurry," Severus said.

Despite the fear gripping his chest, Harry was comforted by Severus' seemingly instinctive decision to accompany him.

A dash of floo powder, and they were stepping out of the hearth in the Weasleys' familiar sitting room. The brightly lit Christmas tree in the far corner was a sharp contrast to the shadows in Hermione's eyes.

Harry took Hermione into his arms as soon as he steadied himself, hugging her tight. "It's okay. He's going to be okay. You know how tough he is."

With an unconvinced nod, Hermione allowed herself to be guided to the floo.

Ten minutes later, Harry found himself doubting his own words. Ron was more than bad. He was barely alive. What was left of him looked more like pulp than flesh. He couldn't look at the bloodied, burnt husk without shuddering. There wasn't a bit of skin left on Ron's face. His cheekbones were gaping out of a glistening red expanse of bared tissue. He looked like something from one of those Muggle forensic telly shows, rather than a living human being.

The truly terrifying part was that they said Ron's entire body was like that. The mediwizards had him floating above the bed to keep pressure off his damaged flesh.

Hermione, Harry, Molly and Arthur Weasley huddled around the bed in St. Mungo's intensive care unit, obviously unable to believe what they were seeing.

Harry looked at the mummy floating above the hospital bed, hardly able to recognize Ron beneath the charred flesh and yards of white bandage. The mediwitch said that more than 90% of Ron's body had suffered these burns.

Thankfully, Ron was unconscious. Harry couldn't imagine the level of pain he'd be in otherwise.

Molly and Arthur appeared beyond tears as they stood at what would be their third son's deathbed. While Severus quietly consulted with Ron's mediwitch near the door, Harry stood with his arm around Hermione's shoulders. She was sobbing soundlessly. Her entire body was shaking like she'd been jinxed.

Harry could appreciate the feeling. He wasn't that steady himself. He still wasn't certain that he wasn't going to throw up. It didn't take a genius to see that Ron didn't have long left for this world.

In the bed across the room, Tom McGregor, the heavy-set, dark haired Auror who'd been so antagonistic towards Severus in October, floated in even worse shape, his mother and sister keeping vigil at his bedside.

"Do we know what happened?" Harry whispered, not wanting to disturb Hermione, but needing to know.

"Chief Lawrence said that Ron and his team actually found Burke when they returned to search one of his holdings a second time," Hermione reported. "Dan Martin and five other Aurors are dead. Only Ron and Tom survived the duel . . . and . . . and . . . ."

Harry tightened his arm around her. His own eyes were stinging. "Burke took out eight Aurors by himself?"

Severus had warned him of Burke's potential level of power back in October, but hearing about how dangerous someone was and seeing him all but kill your oldest friend were two different things.

Hermione gave another of those despairing nods. "What are we going to do, Harry? There's never been anything the three of us couldn't face or fix together, but this . . . ."

Harry gathered her close as she broke entirely. "He's not dead yet. We have to concentrate on that. Where there's life; there's hope."

"Do you really believe that?" Hermione asked in a broken voice.

Feeling Molly and Arthur's red-rimmed gazes settle on him as well, he firmly answered. "I do."

Though what chance there was for the burned husk lying there so still and gruesome, Harry had no idea. But with these people who were more than family turning to him for hope, it was the only answer he could give.

Ron . . . the emotions that swelled up inside him when he tried to equate the horror before him with his beloved more-than-brother all but choked him.

The volume of the conversation behind them rose alarmingly.

"This is all you've done for them?" Severus' voice demanded with a scorn and utter contempt Harry hadn't heard since his own schooldays,

"We've performed every healing spell known to medicine on them," the harassed looking blonde mediwitch insisted.

Severus had accosted the woman as soon as she entered the room, so Harry didn't even know her name.

"Not every spell," Severus corrected, his dark gaze scanning the medical chart he'd taken from the foot of Ron's bed. "I note that the Sanguinis Philos is absent from your chart."

The mediwitch seemed shocked. "Let me rephrase that. We have performed all legal healing spells."

Harry and Hermione drifted over towards the pair at the door.

"What's this Sanguinis Philos?" Hermione asked.

"It's blood magic. The Ministry is debating its legality even as we speak," the mediwitch said.

"I thought all blood magic was illegal by its nature," Hermione said.

"Sanguinis Philos has always been the exception," Severus explained. "Every time the Ministry has come close to outlawing it, something like this happens and they are forced to reconsider their decision."

"I won't sanction blood magic in my ward," the mediwitch insisted.

"Fortunately, for Auror Weasley's sake, the decision is not yours to make," Severus snapped, and then turned to Hermione. "I can have the potion brewed in an hour. I can't promise that it will cure or even save him, but it's the only possibility for survival. Left as he is, your husband will be dead in a day."

"If that long," Hermione, ever the realist in their group, answered.

"You're not seriously going along with this?" the mediwitch demanded.

Hermione stared at the woman. "He's my husband. I'll do anything I can to save him."

"I won't sanction it," the mediwitch insisted.

Hermione's temper seemed to break at that point. "Fine. Maybe you should do us all a favour and just leave so we can get to work here, then?"

With a huff and a flounce of her white robes, the mediwitch departed.

Once the mediwitch was gone, Hermione turned to Severus and asked, "What can I do to help you?"

"I'll need a lock of his hair," Severus said.

"All right. I'll get it now," Hermione said without hesitation, turning quickly towards the bed. Strangely enough, the only part of Ron not completely damaged by burns was the top of his head. A huge patch of his red curls stuck out of the raw flesh.

"What about the blood?" Harry asked.

"It must be the blood of someone who loves him," Severus replied.

"I can come back to your lab with you," Hermione offered, returning with a hank of red hair in her hand.

Severus looked from Hermione to Harry. "It need not be a romantic love. I was thinking that Harry's blood would be more efficacious. The potion will allow the person who donates his blood to physically link his power to the afflicted person and will him to heal. Harry is the most powerful wizard among us."

That seemed to cheer Hermione. "Yes, of course. That makes sense. Harry?"

"I'll go back with Severus and help him brew it," Harry promised. "We'll be back as soon as possible."

"Ah, excuse me, Professor Snape, is it?" The dark-haired young woman who'd been standing beside McGregor's bed approached their group.

"Yes?" Severus answered.

"I couldn't help but overhear what you just said. I'm Tom's sister, Alice McGregor. They – they say there's no hope for him. I was wondering . . . ?"

To Harry's delight, Severus didn't make the young woman beg.

"I'll need a sample of his hair and several drops of a donor's blood," Severus said.

"Alice? What are you doing?" McGregor's visibly overwrought, silver-haired mother demanded from the other side of the room. "You know who he is, what he is -"

"I'd make a deal with the Devil himself to save Tom, Mum," Alice replied. "And do try to be polite. Professor Snape has agreed to help us."

"Not quite the Devil, but I'll do what I can to assist your brother," Severus said.

"I'm sorry for my mother's rudeness." Alice McGregor's cheeks filled with colour. "She's not herself right now."

To Harry's shock, Severus was actually civil. "That's understandable, given the circumstances."

"That's very kind of you. Thank you so much for agreeing to help Tom, Professor Snape. I know that your interactions with him weren't exactly . . . pleasant. Whatever your assistance costs, sir, I'd be happy to -"

"There will be no charge. I will, however, require a sample of your blood. If you would put it in this vial?" Severus offered her an empty brown stoppered bottle and a small, sharp-looking knife.

Harry wondered if Severus carried the things on him or if he'd silently summoned them. Severus' right hand had been in his pocket a moment ago, so he could have had his hand on his wand for the silent summoning.

Alice took the items and returned to her brother's bedside to obtain the needed hair.

Less than three minutes later, Harry was flooing back to the castle.

Severus made a mad dash from the hearth in his sitting room to the Potions supply cupboard between his quarters and the lab. Up on a ladder to reach the uppermost shelves, Severus passed the ingredient jars down to Harry. Either all the jars had been recently restocked, or else the ingredients were rarely used.

Harry took mental note of them. All their names seemed unfamiliar.

Once in the lab, Severus handed him a tiny knife and bottle identical to those he'd given Alice McGregor.

"Three to five drops should be more than sufficient," Severus said.

Harry filled the bottle half way before handing the tiny vial back to Severus.

"We're ready to begin now," Severus said.

Harry was so familiar with the Potions lab now that he helped Severus set up the cauldrons on autopilot.

Two cauldrons, two potions. Severus handed him a sheet with the brewing instructions. Back in school, he'd resented Severus' overly detailed instructions, but he found himself appreciating the attention to detail now.

Keeping a careful eye on his progress, Severus set Harry to brewing McGregor's potion while Severus handled Ron's.

Harry carefully copied every move Severus made.

"It's a pity you fell for the DADA Instructor glamour, Potter," Severus commented after they'd added the blood to the brew. "You'd have made a half decent Potions master."

"Watch out. All that praise will go to my head," Harry tried to joke. It beat wishing the potion to brew faster with all his might. "Will this really work?"

Severus was silent a moment as he stirred the steaming, malodorous pot. Both brews had turned a blood-red with the addition of the blood. "Your level of power is . . . extraordinary and completely unprecedented. There is a chance, albeit a slim one, that Auror Weasley will survive."

"And McGregor?" Harry asked in a low voice.

Severus gave a slow, negative shake of his head. "I think not. But, if there is even a chance . . . ."

"We must take it," Harry completed Severus' dangling sentence.

Severus nodded and returned his full attention to stirring the cauldron.

A half hour later, both bubbling brews were decanted into two large glass bottles. Severus carefully labelled each and then spelled them with an impervious charm for safe transport.

"Oh, you're back. Thank God," Hermione said, rushing to meet them as they re-entered the hospital room.

"How is he?" Harry softly asked; though he hardly needed to. The grim figure floating above the bed appeared unaltered.

"The same, which I suppose is a blessing," Hermione said. Her face was as grey as the stone underfoot. "If he should wake . . . the pain will be . . . ."

"We've got the potion," Harry said, doing his best to stay positive, despite the living horror floating before him. "I'll do everything I can."

"I know that," Hermione whispered. "It's just . . . ."

"I'm scared, too," Harry softly admitted, "but . . . we've been scared before. We'll get through this. All of us. Severus says this will work, and you know he's never wrong about these things."

Hermione gave an empty looking nod.

Severus came up behind him and laid a soft hand on his shoulder.

Harry knew it was ridiculous, but he took heart from that simple contact.

He turned to see Severus and Alice McGregor standing close behind them.

"It's time," Severus said. Harry watched Severus withdraw the charmed potion bottles from his robes, which he then set to floating in the air before him while he extracted two smaller vials from another robe pocket. "We will fill these vials to the top and administer them to the patients. The blood donors, that would be you and Miss McGregor, will wait one minute and then take hold of the patient's hand. You must create a bridge between the patient and yourself, through which you will channel your wizard's energy, concentrating all the while on healing and repairing the patient's damaged systems. Do you think you can do that?" Severus asked.

The question seemed to be directed at the upset young woman beside him. Both he and Severus knew that Harry did something very similar to this every night in bed.

Both Alice McGregor and he gave a nod of agreement.

Severus moved to a table by the wall. Placing one of the Sanguinis Philos bottles on the table, he opened the one remaining in his right hand and then carefully filled one of the small vials with the red potion. Afterwards, he did the same with the remaining bottle.

Leaving the two large potion bottles on the table, Severus brought the smaller vials over to Alice and him.

It was strange, but the Sanguinis Philos bottle still felt hot as Harry took hold of it, even though the potion had long cooled.

Trying to keep his courage up, Harry slowly approached Ron's bed. He knew that nine-tenths of all magic was intent. The accuracy of magical results was usually tied to the level of a wizard's belief in his own abilities. He knew how strong his freaky powers were, but even though he believed in his own abilities, it was difficult to accept that anything or anyone could repair the hideous damage done to Ron's body.

As he stood there frozen beside Ron's bed, staring at the gruesome figure, he felt a tall presence step very close behind him. Darkness and warmth seemed to embrace him from behind, even though Severus confined his touch to a totally respectable hand on his arm.

"You can do this," Severus whispered close to his ear. The trail of moist breath made him shiver. "If anyone can save him; it is you. Here, give me the vial."

Severus reached around him and took the vial out of his frozen fingers.

It was all Harry could do to hold onto his lunch as his lover's hand moved to the horrid remains of Ron's face. One long, yellow-tinged index finger reached out to gently open the gash under the bare cartilage of Ron's nose that had once been Harry's best friend's mouth. The contents of his stomach surged upwards when he saw the reddish pulp coating Severus' finger after he'd poured the contents of the vial into Ron's open mouth and then used the same finger to move the jaw closed again. The gentleness with which Severus touched Ron was astounding. That his Slytherin lover would find the courage to act when his own nerve deserted him moved him deeply.

After transferring the empty vial to his left hand, Severus took hold of Harry's right hand. Harry was intensely aware of Hermione, Molly, and Arthur's gazes as Severus guided his hand towards the bloody looking claw of bones that was all that was left of Ron's hand.

His palm tentatively settled around the slick, gory bones.

"Your friend is still in there, waiting," Severus whispered in that near-hypnotic voice of his. "Only you can help him now. You can do this, Harry Potter. I know you can do this."

Harry turned and met Severus' gaze. He didn't know what he'd expected to see, but the intense, burning belief in those bottomless eyes cut through his own doubt. Giving a slow nod, he turned back to Ron, closed his eyes, and concentrated on forming the magical bridge between their joined hands.

Vaguely, he was aware of Severus withdrawing from his side and moving to the other sickbed.

Returning his full attention to Ron, Harry reached out for him magically, the same way he reached for Severus every night. Connecting with Ron felt . . . different, easier in some ways. It took him a moment to realize that the Sanguinis Philos was assisting the joining. If felt like his own blood was already there in Ron's veins, calling to him, making the connection feel almost natural.

For all that hooking up was simplified; the connection was radically different. Where Severus was usually a burning furnace of power when they touched magically, Ron was little more than a flickering candle. Harry could feel how close that feeble light was to extinguishing.

Instinct guiding him, Harry shored up that candle, feeding it his raw power until it was close to a raging inferno. Only then did he move his focus to a corporeal level.

The damage was terrifying in its scope. Neural pathways had been overloaded with magical power and burned out in the assault, while the skin and flesh had been physically ignited. Harry couldn't imagine the pain Ron must have endured when he'd taken this hit. All he knew was that he was going to fix it, and then he was going to fix the devil that had done this to Ron, fix him permanently.

Resolve pulsing through him, Harry focused his intent, imagining Ron's nerves healing, his flesh rebuilding. He poured everything he was into the connection, using the Sanguinis Philos and his own instantaneous magic to achieve his desired results.

Severus had said he could do this, and . . . he knew he could. The same way he knew he could effect whatever magic he worked on Severus in bed. This was what he was born to do, what all this unnatural power was for. Ron would be well again. His flesh would heal. His nerves would be repaired.

A gasp sounded from the other side of the bed, then he heard Hermione whisper, "Oh, my God. Look, Molly, look!" on a rising note of joy.

Buoyed by the hope in Hermione's voice, Harry opened up levels of his power that he'd never touched, accessing repositories that made the power he'd used to defeat Voldemort seem like a first year's abilities by comparison. He fed it all to Ron, picturing Ron's freckled, smiling face, imagining every familiar inch of his oldest friend covered with healthy skin.

Just as it did when he focused this energy on Severus, the power peak was as intense as a sexual climax. Harry felt a jarring jolt. Actual lightning seemed to crackle through the infirmary, for Molly and the old woman on the other side of the room both cried out in alarm, and, then . . . and then . . . .

Strong arms caught him as he fell forward, utterly drained by his effort.

"Harry!" Hermione's frightened voice penetrated the fog surrounding him, even as Harry recognized the long, strong body that supported him until a chair was summoned.

Gentle arms settled him down into what had once been a plain hospital chair, but had now been transfigured by one of his friends into a thickly cushioned armchair.

"Harry?" Severus' voice called him back from the edges of unconsciousness.

Feeling like he'd just fought Voldemort again, Harry forced his eyes open.

Severus' worried face hovered in view, with Hermione's right beside it. Finding that breathing was nearly too much of an effort, he forced himself to focus and then rasped out, "Ron?"

"Look, Harry, look," Hermione urged, stepping out of the way.

Almost afraid of what he'd find, Harry looked at the bed. He knew the level of power he'd funnelled into Ron's healing, so he expected some change. Only . . . he was utterly unprepared for the sight of Ron's familiar, completely unblemished face. Ron's hands, and seemingly the rest of him, also appeared perfectly normal.

"It's a miracle," Molly said, moving to the bed to take Ron's hand, while Arthur surreptitiously wiped at his eyes.

It was then that the true miracle occurred. Ron's eyes opened. He gazed blearily around him and then asked in the weakest voice Harry had ever heard him use, "What are the lot of you staring at?"

"Ron!" Hermione's pleased cry was drowned out by the slightly hysterical laughter that filled the room as Molly and Arthur's worry was vented.

Harry could only sit there and gape at Ron, because the change was simply unbelievable. When they'd been working on the potion, Severus had told him that it could be days or even weeks of power transfer before Ron even began to respond – if he responded at all.

Almost frightened by what he'd done, Harry sought out Severus' gaze.

Those night black eyes were regarding Ron with the same complete incredulity that Harry was experiencing. Then Severus looked straight at him.

The blood seemed to solidify in Harry's veins as he waited for the fear that any wizard would exhibit after such an unnatural display of power to overtake Severus' features. He was afraid of what he'd done himself, because it should have been impossible.

But instead of terror hardening his features, Severus' face seemed to soften. He stepped silently up to him to rest a hand on his left shoulder, while Hermione and Ron's parents sobbed and fussed over him a few feet away.

"You, ah, weren't expecting this, either; I take it?" Harry whispered.

Severus gave a slow shake of his head. "I believed you could cure him – in time, but I was certain it would be a slow, arduous process. This is . . . . "

"Yeah," Harry agreed.

"How do you feel?" Severus quietly questioned.

"Weak as a kitten," Harry reluctantly confessed.

Harry looked to the other side of the room, where Alice McGregor held her brother's hand. He could sense the power she was feeding to her brother, and also sensed that it was having no discernable result.

"Do you think I could . . . ?" Harry whispered to Severus.

Severus followed his gaze. "Normally, the Sanguinis Philos requires that the power donor be someone who loves the patient, but . . . in your case, you might be able to manage a healing without an emotional bond. But . . . not now. You must rest."

"Oh, Harry! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Hermione seemed beside herself with joy as she left Ron's bedside and leaned down to fling her arms around Harry.

Harry returned the hug as best he could, saying into her shoulder, "There's nothing to thank me for. You know that."

She nodded and pulled back to meet his eyes. "Yes, but . . . oh, God, Harry, he's going to be all right. I didn't think . . . . "

"I know," Harry said. "Neither did I. If it weren't for Severus, I wouldn't have thought to -"

Realizing that he owed Ron's healing to his lover, Harry turned to gaze up at Severus.

"Thank you, Severus," Hermione said and then leaned forward, standing on tiptoes, to place a quick kiss on Severus' right cheek. "You were part of us, for Harry's sake, but now . . . there's nothing you can ask of us that we won't do."

"It's never wise to make such a pledge to a Slytherin," Severus warned her.

Hermione laughed. "Maybe not, but it's true."

Severus took a quick step back as Hermione made a move to embrace him again.

"Please, madam, keep your emotional displays to yourself," Severus frostily requested.

Hermione and Harry both laughed.

"Harry?"

At Ron's weak call, they all turned immediately to the bed.

Harry pried himself from his chair, and with Severus' help stumbled to Ron's side.

"'lo, there, Ron." Harry was unable to keep his grin off his face as he stared down into those pale, but intact features. "How are you doing, mate?"

Tired blue eyes smiled up at him. "A little rough, but . . . Hermione and mum told me what you did for me." Ron's gaze moved to McGregor's lurid figure. "It's . . . hard to believe, but . . . thanks."

"There's nothing to thank me for. You'd've done the same for me in a heartbeat," Harry said.

"I'd've tried," Ron corrected, breaking into a wide yawn afterwards.

"You need to get some rest," Harry said, barely able to keep his own eyes open.

Ron nodded. "I just -"

"Yeah, me, too," Harry said, bending down to briefly press Ron's hand. To his embarrassment, he wobbled forward and would have measured his length on top of Ron had Severus not quickly braced him up.

"You need to rest. Now," Severus insisted.

Unable to argue the point, at least not while Severus was physically supporting him, Harry gave a weak nod. "Okay." Turning back to Ron, he said, "I'll be back later. Rest up."

Harry allowed Severus to lead him from the bed. Before he left the room, Hermione, Molly and Arthur all stepped forward to hug and thank him again. He was relieved that they all seemed thankful, rather than frightened by what he'd done.

Harry could barely stand as he was released from the final hug. To his unending shock, Severus slipped an arm around his waist and took most of his weight as he led him from the hospital ward to the public floo down the hall. While it was true that the hour was late and the corridor was deserted, it was still a public thoroughfare in a busy hospital. Anyone could have seen them. But Severus seemed unconcerned and Harry was too bone-weary to care.

Harry had never flooed while hanging on to someone before. He couldn't decide if it made the process more or less nerve-wracking. All he knew was that he'd never been so grateful to be anywhere as he was to step out of the floo into Severus' sitting room.

Severus led him wordlessly to the bedroom.

Harry didn't have the energy to undress. Hell, he didn't even have the energy for a simple fourth year transformation spell.

He often thought that magic was like a Muggle rechargeable battery, and his was totally worn out. When a wizard or witch's power was extended in the kind of extreme effort he'd performed today, it could take days or even weeks for the power to rise to its former level of potency. Harry knew that even though he'd saved Ron's life, it would probably be a month or more before Ron's magic was at its former level of potency. He knew that with his own freaky powers, he usually recovered faster than most wizards. He hoped that would be the case with this, because he'd really like to take a shot at healing McGregor in the morning.

While he was standing there, ruminating on the nature of magic, Severus withdrew his wand from his pocket, muttered a spell, and waved the wand in his direction.

Harry smiled as his clothes were transfigured into the Muggle pyjamas he'd worn that time Severus had been poisoned by the toxic fumes and too sick to make love.

"I take it this means no fun tonight?" Harry asked, not knowing what he'd do if Severus called his bluff.

Those dark eyes gave him an assessing glance. Then, Severus flicked his wand over himself with a few muttered words, and Severus' clothes were replaced with his favourite grey-striped nightshirt. "We can do whatever you are up to. I suspect that will be snoring."

Harry laughed and made his wobbly way to the huge, comfortable bed.

Despite his assertion, Severus collected Harry into his arms and drew him close as they settled beneath the green duvet.

Harry felt almost drugged as his muscles relaxed against Severus' warmth. He gave a sleepy smile as Severus' lips began to shower his face with gentle kisses. The last conscious recollection he had was of Severus licking the tip of his nose. On that odd thought, exhaustion claimed him.

*~*~*

Harry slept sixteen hours straight and woke up ravenous.

Forcing his sticky eyes apart, he slowly focused on the dark gaze watching him from across the white pillow.

"Good morning. I was beginning to think you'd sleep the day through as well," Severus remarked, not quite able to conceal his worry.

"Sorry. I feel good, though," Harry said, leaning in for a morning kiss. He didn't think he'd ever be more grateful for anything than he was for how normally Severus melted against him. He knew that a lot could have changed after his power demonstration yesterday. To his eternal delight, nothing felt any different.

Their mouths latched on to each other as each did his utmost to brand the other's tonsils his own. Restless hands soon had pyjama and nightshirt buttons undone. Bare flesh shivered under hot mouths and the dungeon's chill.

Severus rolled onto his back, guiding Harry on top. Their naked fronts pressed together through their open nightclothes. Lost in that incredible warmth beneath him, Harry moaned into the endless kiss as Severus' cock nestled familiarly against his own. Those strong hands stroked over his pyjama covered back. They so rarely did it without magic that this simple contact felt almost exotic.

Harry's hips found a rhythm, which Severus' quickly picked up. Locked in that wet, wonderful kiss, they rocked together, spiralling higher and higher with pleasure, until it ignited their bodies like a star going nova. Gasping as he shuddered in climax, he clung to the precious warmth below him.

Severus bucked up at him, and seconds later more warm, sticky fluid was added to the mess between their bellies.

"Gods, you're amazing," Harry murmured, snuggling closer.

"Only to you." Severus had that bewildered note in his voice again.

Harry raised his head far enough to meet Severus' eyes. "If the rest of the world knew how fantastic you are, I wouldn't stand a chance. Don't think I'm not aware of that."

Severus stared into his eyes for a very long moment before softly replying, "Even if the rest of the world were as deranged as you . . . it would still be only you."

It took Harry a while to figure out he'd just been complimented. When he unravelled Severus' words, his heart practically melted. "I could get disgustingly gushy here if you give me the chance."

"Then perhaps I should feed you instead and spare us both the embarrassment?" Severus suggested, but his eyes were warm and pleased. "Your house elf set up breakfast for us by the hearth."

Harry glanced over at the bedroom fireplace to see a small table for two there.

"He's not my house elf," Harry denied, fully aware that Hermione would skin him alive if he ever made such a claim on another sentient being.

"Dobby is looking after Master Snape for Harry Potter," Severus said in the strange, singsong melody of house elf speech.

"What?" Harry asked, chuckling at the ridiculous tone.

"That's what your elf said to me last month. Whether you claim him or not, the elf is yours," Severus said.

"What did Dobby bring us to eat?" Harry asked to change the subject.

"That was a pathetically transparent attempt to change the conversational topic," Severus noted, wriggling out from under him.

Rolling away so that Severus could move, Harry hauled himself up to a sitting position. A little food, well, a lot of food, and he might just survive. Chuckling at Severus' put upon expression, he agreed, "It was, wasn't it? But I really am starved."

Harry rose to investigate the charmed platters on the table that would keep their meal hot indefinitely. All his favourites were there.

Severus joined him and the next twenty minutes passed in companionable silence as they did their best to ingest everything Dobby had brought.

"You can't possibly consume a fourth helping of bacon," Severus said some time later.

Giving the man across the table from him a lazy smile, Harry said, "I'm considering it."

"I won't be held responsible when you explode," Severus declared.

His smile turning into a full grin, Harry countered with, "Maybe not, but you'll definitely be splattered with the spray."

"That is disgusting," Severus said with a huff.

"Maybe, but it's true." Watching Severus' Adam's apple bob as he drank his tea, Harry softly asked, "Do you really think I'll be able to heal McGregor?"

"I think that there is little you couldn't accomplish when you put your will to it," Severus replied. "Why are you giving me that maniacal grin, aside from the fact that you are completely mental?"

Loving this playful teasing, he met Severus' eyes and tried to keep his voice as light and unthreatening as possible as he answered, "Well, if you're right, that means I'll be able to convince you that I love you. Once I put that Burke bastard down, I'm going to spend 24/7 working on that goal."

Even with the care he took, Harry could see that his words threw Severus.

Severus seemed to mull over his statement for a time before addressing what was perhaps the easier issue. "You intend to go after Burke, then?"

Severus didn't sound surprised.

Harry held that dark gaze. "Is there anyone else that has a chance of taking him down?"

Severus gave a slow, negative shake of his head. "Still, it is not your responsibility to rid the world of every dark wizard who rises to power."

Harry considered Severus' words. He knew he'd be risking a lot in this encounter. Providing he were powerful enough to actually defeat Burke, there would be no hiding his abilities from the public anymore. "Maybe if Ron hadn't been with those Aurors yesterday, I might be able to stand back a little longer, but . . . the bastard's made this too personal. First Carl, then framing you, now Ron . . . I don't want to wait around to see where he'll strike next."

Once again, Severus confined his response to a nod. After a few moments, Severus said, "I would like to stand with you when you face him."

The part of Harry that loved Severus wanted to deny the request to keep him safe. But he knew Severus would no more stand for that than he would. Mastering his protective instincts as best he could, he answered, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

It seemed to Harry that their eyes were having the kind of conversation that neither of them ever managed well when attempted with words. He didn't know how he knew, but he was sure that Severus was aware of his hesitation to expose him to danger, and he was equally certain that Severus felt the same way.

Taking a deep breath, Harry said, "We'd better get moving if we're going to get to the hospital any time this morning."

"Yes, we should," Severus agreed, appearing equally disinclined to break the moment.

Eventually, they managed to pry themselves away from the table to get dressed.

Flooing was its usual stomach-churning event. Harry staggered out of the hearth in St. Mungo's main hall, shook off the inevitable ash, and then turned to steady Severus as he arrived.

Side by side, they made their way to Ron's room.

Harry wasn't sure how to approach Alice McGregor to suggest that he try to heal her brother. He barely knew the woman at all, and didn't particularly like Tom, but it seemed important that he do everything he could to undo Burke's damage. He had no idea how Alice would feel about his horning in on her efforts.

Harry froze in his tracks as he stepped into Ron and Tom's room.

Ron appeared to be sound asleep with Hermione drowsing in a chair beside his bed.

The other bed on the far side of the room was glaringly empty.

"Oh, hi, Harry, Severus," Hermione said, starting awake with a sleepy smile. She was still in yesterday's clothes. Harry knew she probably hadn't left Ron's side for more than a trip to the loo.

"Hi, yourself," Harry said. Glancing meaningfully to the empty bed, he asked, "Tom?"

Hermione gave a slow shake of her head. "It happened about two hours after you left. Poor Alice was devastated."

Harry bit his lip. He was too late, then. Not that he could have done anything to prevent Tom from passing last night. He'd been so drained from healing Ron that it had been all he could do to stay on his feet long enough for Severus to get him safely in bed. Nevertheless, he felt . . . cheated by Tom's death. He mightn't have liked the man personally, but McGregor had been working on the side of Light.

There'd been a time right after Voldemort's demise when he'd been naïve enough to believe that such designations would no longer be necessary. But Evil never truly died. It merely slept until it emerged in its latest incarnation.

Harry forced his mind away from the depressing thought, concentrating on what good had been accomplished. "How's Ron?"

Hermione's face lit up. "Stronger by the minute. It's amazing, Harry. He's just . . . weak. You would have thought he'd just been down with the flu, instead of . . . . Well, it's just amazing. They're talking about releasing him this afternoon."

"Really?" Harry asked, unable to believe it himself.

"Really," Hermione confirmed.

"They'd better," a familiar grumpy voice declared from the bed.

"Ron!" both he and Hermione chorused, turning to grin down at Ron.

"'lo, Harry, Professor," Ron said, sounding very much himself, if extremely tired.

"You're a sight for sore eyes, mate," Harry said with a chuckle.

"Don't I know it," Ron replied, his smile fading. "There was a moment there when I thought I'd never see any of you again. Thanks again for what you did yesterday, Harry. You, too, Professor. Hermione told me that you brewed the potion that saved me."

"You are most welcome," Severus replied, pausing in Harry's personal space as he stepped closer to the bed. "I must, however, insist that there be no unwarranted emotional displays when you are back on your feet again. Your thank you was quite sufficient, if unnecessary."

"Huh?" Ron questioned, seeming confused.

Harry laughed. "I think Severus is saying that he doesn't want you to give him a kiss to thank him when you're feeling better like Hermione did yesterday."

Ron's heartfelt, "Merlin, forbid," left even Severus' lips twitching with amusement.

They fell silent for a time before Ron softly asked, "You heard about poor Tom, then?"

"Yes," Harry said. "I'm sorry. I know you worked together."

Ron looked over towards the window, his face darkening. "I worked with them all. All seven of them gone, Harry, with a single spell."

"I'm just glad it wasn't eight," Hermione interjected, leaning over to give Ron's forehead a kiss.

Bless her, Harry thought, recognizing that she knew exactly how to handle Ron. After her kiss, his upset friend turned back to face them.

"I've never even heard of the spell he used," Ron said. "It wasn't mage fire, though. He used his wand."

"It was probably Corpus Accendio," Harry said, recalling a curse he'd read about in some of his extracurricular reading when he'd been teaching Dumbledore's Army. "It's rarely even mentioned anymore because its results are so . . . ."

"Yeah," Ron said, the agony he'd endured clear in his haunted eyes. "All of them are gone, Harry . . . with one spell . . . ."

"I know," Harry said, feeling his throat tightening up at the misery in Ron's face. "But we're going to get the bastard, Ron. He won't get away with this."

"How?" Ron questioned. "Eight of the Ministry's best Aurors couldn't stand against the fiend. How are we going to stop him?"

Harry glanced over at Severus' solemn face before answering Ron. "No more of your men are going to die, Ron. I promise you."

For a second, Ron seemed confused, but then his face tightened with understanding. "No. You can't. This isn't your job."

"Maybe not, but I think I'm the only one who can manage it," Harry offered softly.

"Harry -" Ron protested.

"Let's not worry about this now, all right?" Harry pleaded. "I brought you some of those muffins you like so much. I know what the food is like here."

Harry reached into his robe pocket, withdrawing a parcel of wrapped muffins that hadn't been there a second ago.

"Do you think you can buy me with muffins?" Ron questioned, still sounding ready for an argument.

Harry met those mutinous eyes as he opened his package. As the scent of blueberries and strawberries wafted through the room, Harry lightly answered, "Yes. I know I can. Now, dig in."

Ron looked at him, looked at the muffins, and made the choice Harry had hoped he would.

Hermione giggled as Ron truculently took possession of a blueberry muffin. Harry passed a strawberry muffin to Hermione, and then performed a little more instantaneous magic as he handed his latest creation to Severus.

"I don't eat either blueberry or strawberry -" Severus began.

Harry cut him off, "But you do eat nutbread."

"You didn't bring -" Severus looked down at what was being handed to him. "Well, since you didn't bring any muffins, either, I suppose I'll take a piece of the nutbread. I don't expect that you didn't bring butter and tea as well?"

Grinning, Harry reached into his robes again and produced a tray with a steaming teapot, four mugs, and a butter dish.

"You know, I saw a bloke on Muggle telly do that when I was at my mother's last summer," Hermione commented.

Laughter filled the room as Severus and he sat down to enjoy their tea.

*~*~*

"Two more days until the dunderheads return." Severus attempted to suppress his sigh as he finished yet another private breakfast with Harry at the table beside his hearth. He honestly didn't know where the time had gone. Christmas break was usually interminable, but this year it had passed with frightening speed.

Harry had spoilt him these last two weeks. His young lover hadn't even made a pretence of returning to his rooms. They'd spent the entire leave together, and now that it was drawing to a close, Severus knew that he'd miss having Harry around full time.

"Yeah," Harry said in a tone that seemed to capture Severus' encroaching melancholy as he sipped his morning tea.

Harry was sitting there across from him, wearing a light blue dressing gown that was barely belted closed. His chest and abdomen peeked provocatively out of the open folds. He looked like every erotic fantasy Severus had ever had, too good to be real.

Severus could feel those beautiful green eyes watching him, seeming to evaluate him. He braced himself, for things were never good when Harry had to think beforehand about what he was about to say.

The tentative "Severus?" that followed blew a chill down his spine.

Severus couldn't help but wonder if this were it, the moment he'd been dreading since the first time he'd kissed Harry in the forest. These last few weeks had been wonderful in his estimation. Harry had seemed to enjoy them, too, but he knew that everyone tired of his company eventually. Dreading that he was right, that his time was up, he gave a hesitant, "Yes?" in response.

"I've been thinking," Harry began and seemed to falter.

His nervousness making him want to snap, Severus forced himself to joke instead, "Granted, it's a novel pastime for those of your house, but nothing to be alarmed about. I'm sure the aberration won't last long."

"Very funny. Anyway, like I said, I was thinking . . . ." Harry persisted and halted at the same point.

"And?" Severus impatiently prompted.

Severus heard Harry gulp and then continue in a nervous tone, "I really, really enjoyed spending all this time down here with you over the Christmas break."

"And?" Severus braced himself. The words weren't ominous in themselves, but he knew that an 'and the close contact has opened my eyes to how completely incompatible we are,' could very well be following it. Unlike Slytherins, Gryffindors always believed in letting the other person down easy. He just wished Harry would hurry up and get to his point.

"I, er, don't want it to end," Harry seemed to force the words out.

It being the holiday, Severus translated.

Years of spying allowed him to hide his relief. The warmth he felt for Harry Potter that was more than affection suffused him as he gently pointed out, "All holidays must end, Harry."

"Must they?" Harry questioned, apparently at a loss for words after that. Harry's eyes seemed to be begging him to understand something he couldn't vocalize, but Severus honestly didn't have a clue as to what Harry was leading up to.

"What is it you're trying to say?" Severus encouraged in as non-threatening a tone as he could manage. Harry clearly wasn't planning on ending it; that was all that mattered.

"I want to live with you," Harry blurted out. His expression made it quite obvious that he expected disaster to follow his candour. This issue being something Severus had never even considered as a possibility, he could only stare as Harry stumbled on with, "I was going to ask you to move up into the tower with me, but I know that as head of Slytherin, you have to be available to the students twenty-four hours a day. And, I also realize that Hermione and Ron's breezing into the bedroom in the morning would drive you insane, so . . . I thought, if you were agreeable, then I might move some of my stuff down here later today? We could try it out . . . see how it works. You don't have to give me an answer right now," Harry rushed to assure. "Think about it, if you need to."

"You want to move into the dungeon . . . to live with me?" Severus repeated, as if to get his facts straight. He still couldn't quite believe what he'd thought he'd just heard.

"Yes," Harry answered, holding his gaze, for all that Harry clearly anticipated a refusal.

Severus carefully set down his tea mug before he spilt it in his shock. Harry wanted to live with him?

"I know it's a really big move," Harry said in that quick, nervous tone. "And that you probably haven't given the idea any thought at all -"

"The concept isn't something I ever even imagined possible," Severus quietly confessed when Harry faltered again. Every doubt he'd ever had was screaming for him to retract those words or add something scathing to them, but . . . Harry had left himself terribly exposed with that request. Although it had thrown Severus completely, he was unwilling to play the coward's part when Harry was so generously offering something he hadn't even dreamed was within his reach. He just couldn't believe that Harry was serious; even though he knew that Harry would never joke about something like this.

Severus drew a deep shaky breath and asked, "You seriously want to . . . live with me?"

Harry nodded. That cleft chin always made him appear strong, but Severus could clearly see how worried he was as he replied, "Yes. I know you're not comfortable with me saying it, but . . . I love you and I don't want to live apart from you unless I absolutely have to. I realize that we're all but living together now, I just . . . wanted to make it official."

The panic that flared through Severus was completely instinctive, but somehow he managed to beat it down enough to croak out, "Make it official?"

"Well, as official as we can. I realize that there's no legal means to -" Harry paled and stopped talking. His expression made it plain that he feared he'd said too much.

Great Merlin! Make it official . . . legal means. . . . Harry was making this sound like a marriage proposal!

Stunned, Severus recognized that that was how Harry was looking at it. He knew how romantic his lover was. Harry would have to be the most hopeless of romantics to see the things in him that he did. Harry wasn't suggesting that they shack up to make fucking more convenient. As his lover had said, they already spent most of their off duty time in each other's company. Even if they'd tried, they probably couldn't shag any more than they were doing now. What Harry was asking for here was something different; something that Severus had never believed could be his.

Wishing he had some frame of reference, Severus drew in another of those shaky breaths and searched his brain for the right words to say. The situation was completely beyond his ken, but the dawning defeat in Harry's expression made it imperative that he respond, and respond correctly. Open declarations were still beyond him. He had neither tact nor grace. He knew he barely managed civil, and that with work. He was constitutionally unsuited for this type of love scene, but . . . he did love, even if he was too afraid to admit it out loud.

Stumbling over the words with something like blind terror, Severus finally rasped out, "You're right. Perhaps it would be . . . a good idea for you to move some of your things down here this afternoon."

Severus knew how inadequate his response had been when compared to the gift Harry had just bestowed upon him, but Harry didn't seem to mind. His face lit up bright as the morning star.

"R-really?" Harry stammered.

Were the situation not so serious, their awkwardness might have been humorous, but Severus couldn't even attempt a smile as he answered, "It's long past time. Don't you think?"

There. He hadn't said it, but Harry was good at inference.

Harry sagged back against his chair, a grin seeming to claim his entire face as he nodded his agreement.

Their gazes met and held. Harry's grin dropped away. In that moment of utter openness, Severus could see every one of his fears reflected in Harry's eyes.

"It is a big move," Harry acknowledged at last.

Sensing that something of the commonplace was needed to offset this daring decision, Severus attempted to reply as matter-of-factly as he could, "But one we're more than ready for. So, what are your plans for the day, aside from lugging your quidditch cups and owl down here?"

Harry's eyes warmed with appreciation. "Well, I'm going to sit with Ron for a few hours. Then I thought that after dinner, you and I might check out another one of the estates on Ron's list of Burke's holdings. Will that work for you?"

Severus nodded. In the two days since Ron had returned from his hospital stay, Harry and he had investigated four of the three score Burke holdings. The man had more land to his name than a Malfoy.

"Great. What are you going to do while I'm getting on Ron's nerves?" Harry asked.

"I have to restock some potion ingredients. I thought I'd stop in at Slug & Jiggers later this morning," Severus replied.

"Bring me something from Mr. Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour?" Harry begged, batting his eyelashes outrageously.

"You want me to go into an Ice Cream Parlour?" Severus didn't even attempt to disguise his horror.

"Well, how else are you going to get me some of his ice cream, and, no, you may not summon it," Harry ruled out before Severus could even voice the suggestion.

Feeling ridiculously happy, Severus held Harry's laughing gaze and complained, "This is some kind of Gryffindor 'prove you love me' test, isn't it?"

Harry couldn't quite hide his surprise.

Severus couldn't blame him. He couldn't believe that he'd actually voiced those words himself, even while joking.

To Severus' great relief, Harry didn't make a big deal of his slip, answering instead with a semi-serious, "Maybe."

Severus contemplated Harry's reply for a moment, weighed his dignity against the possibility of being seen in such an embarrassing establishment, decided that he'd rather eat Hagrid's latest pet than set foot in the place, and finally asked, "Were I to find myself in that establishment, and, mind, I say were, what flavour do you fancy?"

The expression on Harry's face made Severus realize that he might just as well give the man those three bloody words that he'd been avoiding like the plague.

Affecting a nonchalant attitude that was totally belied by the ludicrously inappropriate level of excitement in his eyes, Harry answered, "Chocolate, with lots of chocolate sauce, and cherries, tons of cherries."

"Anything else?" Severus inquired, attempting to keep his lips from twitching. Harry sounded all of four at the moment.

"No nuts," Harry said.

"No nuts?" Severus echoed, bemused by this entire exchange.

"No, unless you're gonna eat them," Harry said.

"I'll keep that in mind." Feeling as though he were about to drown in those sea green eyes, Severus looked away. Fixing on practicalities, he said, "I'll transfigure a new dresser in the bedroom for your things. Everything else should fit in the available space. Move whatever you need to."

It felt rather surreal to be discussing the details of Harry actually moving into the dungeon.

Harry gave him a soft look and a quiet, "Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet. We both might be regretting this by daybreak," Severus warned.

But Harry simply smiled at him, his attractive face shining with the impossible Gryffindor confidence that had won its way through every one of Severus' guards. "No chance."

Extremely unnerved, Severus quickly said, "Yes, well, I'm going to prepare for my trip now."

"Want some company?" Harry winked at him as Severus stood to flee to the loo.

"You can't be serious. It's been less than an hour since we -"

"Come on," Harry persuaded, shifting his slouch in his chair a little so that his open robe revealed a bit more than just his snowy white abdomen. "You know you want to."

"You have an appointment with Ron and I have to -" Severus persevered.

"I'll just tell him that I lost track of time while we were doing it in the shower," Harry said.

"You'll do no such thing," Severus said, having no difficulty imagining Harry doing just that. "I am taking a shower, alone, and you are going to summon your house elf to remove that mess."

"You know, you can be quite the dictator at times," Harry said with a laugh.

"Thank you," Severus said.

"That wasn't a compliment," Harry protested.

"It is in this end of the castle," Severus reminded, unable to hide his smile this time.

Harry made a face and then said, "Well, we'll just have to have incredibly hot missed-you sex when you get back."

"Missed-you sex?" Severus repeated, bewildered. "I'm only going to Diagon Alley. I'll be gone no more than an hour."

Harry's reply was strangely serious, "Hell, I'm so gone that I'll be wanting to have hot missed-you sex by the time you get out of the shower."

Reading the truth of it in those laughing eyes, Severus said, "You are utterly and completely deranged. You do know that?"

Harry simply laughed harder. "Good thing I found such a conscientious keeper, then, isn't it?"

Shaking his head, Severus made his escape to the bathroom.

Harry's reminder of, "Don't forget my prove-you-love-me ice cream!" was ringing behind him as he finally closed the door.

*~*~*
Two hours later, following some undeniably satisfying and hot missed-you-while-you-were-in-the-shower sex, Severus found himself standing in Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour watching as the old man put together a disgustingly huge chocolate sundae. His potions ingredients purchases were shrunken and stored safely in his pocket.

"It's not for me," Severus disavowed all interest in the ice cream for the third time, wanting it clear that he was not here on his own devices. Fortunately, the shop was empty, so there was no one here to witness this ignominy.

Fortescue, who now appeared nearly two hundred, looked over at him and mildly enquired, "Who's it for, then? Your little one?"

"As if," Severus huffed. "Although his maturity is probably comparable to that of a four-year-old, it's actually for a full grown man. Harry Potter, to be precise," Severus said, thinking that Harry could bear the embarrassment.

Fortescue froze. "This is for Harry? Why didn't you say?"

"I just did," Severus snapped, barely keeping back the 'you doddering old fool' that his tone implied.

"So you did," the old man good naturedly agreed.

Severus gaped in horror as the normal sized container into which Fortescue was shovelling ice cream tripled in size. The thing now looked more like a large cauldron filled with ice cream than a dessert.

"He'll be wanting cherries, I take it?" Fortescue asked.

Severus gave an appalled nod and stood speechless as the man dumped what had to be a pound of the candied fruit onto the growing mountain.

"No nuts, right?" Fortescue checked.

Severus was tempted, but as this was a prove-you-love-the-mental-Gryffindor statement of intent, he shook his head 'no'. "No nuts. Believe me, the man is deranged enough."

The old man could barely lift his creation when he turned to bring it to Severus at the counter.

"What about you, lad? What can I get you?" Fortescue asked.

"The bill will do," Severus answered. He opened his change purse, thinking that the thing would now cost every galleon he had on him.

"Oh, no. There's no charge for Harry Potter."

"Don't be absurd, man. How do you know it's really for Potter?" Severus demanded.

"A nice lad like yourself wouldn't lie to an old man," Fortescue answered with a bright grin.

"Clearly, you were a Gryffindor," Severus tried not to sneer. He really did. But such utter stupidity was unpardonable in his world.

"Funny you should mention that," Fortescue laughed, pushing the mountainous monstrosity towards him.

"Really, I must insist that you allow me to pay for -" Severus tried again.

"No. Harry's a friend. Just give him my regards," Fortescue said.

Severus gave a nod and a frustrated sigh. Who was he to protest if the man wanted to bankrupt himself?

"I suppose even with an impervious spell on it, this thing wouldn't be safe to shrink and carry?" Severus asked, eyeing the ice cream cauldron suspiciously.

"I'm afraid not. It won't melt until you get it to Harry, but I can't promise its integrity if it's bouncing about in your pocket," Fortescue said.

"Prove you love me, indeed," Severus muttered under his breath, tempted to abandon the thing here.

"What was that, lad?"

Severus gave the old fool a glare that would have had first years wetting themselves and answered, "Nothing. Good day to you."

"And to you," Fortescue said with an insipid smile.

Resting the ice cream on the counter, Severus removed his wand from his pocket. Old habits died hard. Even though he was no doubt perfectly safe on the Wizarding World's most trafficked street at this time of day, he hated to be unable to defend himself if the need arose. Shifting his wand, he reached out and lifted the ice cream. It weighed a ton, and was freezing to boot.

Shaking his head at his own foolishness, Severus adjusted his hold on the awkward, oversized container. Unless he wanted to brace it against his robes and risk staining them, holding it required two hands, just as he'd anticipated. Normally, he would have levitated this kind of burden, but since he had to apparate back to Hogwarts' gates, he would need to be in physical contact with whatever he was transporting. Most stores had anti-apparation wards on them to prevent after-hour theft, so he was going to have to move this frozen horror outside to transport home.

The charmed door opened as he stepped out of the shop onto the busy Diagon Alley. Severus paused in front of the store, preparing to apparate to just outside Hogwarts' gates.

Severus had no sooner stopped when a voice sounded behind him, "Petrificus Totalus!"

Cursing himself ten times a fool, Severus felt his body stiffen. Even in the crowded Diagon Alley, it was never wise to let down one's guards, but he'd become complacent over the years, and, beyond that, his mind had simply been on other things, namely Harry's reaction when he returned to the castle with this monstrosity.

Harry's treat and his wand fell from his paralysed hands as he toppled face forward.

His wand! Severus did all he could to catch his wand, but his hands wouldn't budge. Then that failed, he tried to use the wordless, wandless magic Harry excelled at to summon his wand to him as he fell forward, but it was useless. His ebony wand had just begun to wiggle under his efforts when a rough hand caught his shoulder. Severus never hit the pavement in his fall. That clawlike hand dug painfully into his shoulder and the next thing Severus knew, he was apparated away.

Still frozen by the petrification spell, Severus watched his new surroundings take form around him. The shadowy, crumbling, grey stone walls that were dripping water and dark with mould could only be the dungeon of an ancient keep. The dank, foul-smelling place was utterly freezing, but Severus suspected that would be the least of his worries.

The hand that was all that was holding him up left his shoulder, and Severus found himself falling face forward onto a filthy stone floor. Fortunately, his head had been turned to the side when he'd been hit by the spell, so he didn't break his nose in the fall. However, his right cheek and the side of his head hit the stone so hard that he saw stars.

Severus regarded his environment from his new perspective. All he could see now was the floor and the far wall, which had a human skeleton chained to it. Charming.

Bracing himself mentally for what was to come, he waited for his captor to enter his sight.

As retreating footsteps sounded behind him and he was abandoned helpless in this loathsome place, Severus tried to tell himself that the chill shivering through his blood was due to the cold alone.

*~*~*

Harry moved his bishop to take a white pawn that seemed innocently exposed. "I know I'm going to regret that. I'm just not sure how."

Ron chuckled and moved his knight.

Harry groaned as he realized that he'd just boxed in his queen. He could save either the queen or his bishop, but he was going to lose one of them.

"You're just not devious enough, Harry," Ron remarked.

"Like you are?" Harry questioned.

The curtains on the window were pulled way back. They were sitting at a small table by the bevelled windows in the Weasleys' sitting room, bathed in winter sunlight.

"Well, I must be. I keep winning, don't I?" Ron said with his usual cheek.

Harry was glad to see Ron's spirits returning. He knew that his squad's deaths were weighing heavily on Ron's mind.

"I wouldn't be too sure of that. Severus claims you're an idiot savant when it comes to chess," Harry reported, biting his cheek to keep from grinning.

He was disappointed, however. Ron merely pulled a face and said, "That's only because I beat him that one time he played me."

"Be careful, mate," Harry warned. "Pride goeth before a fall."

"Does it, now?" Ron asked in a teasing, mild tone and took Harry's queen with a rook Harry hadn't even noticed laying in wait. The pawn Harry had taken two moves back, had, of course cleared the path for Ron to take his queen.

"Ugh!" Harry groaned.

From the other side of the room, Hermione lifted her nose from the book she was reading long enough to say, "The actual quote is Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."

Ron and he stared at each other in horror.

"You know this – off the top of your head you know this?" Ron questioned.

"Well, of course," Hermione answered in a 'Doesn't everyone?' tone.

"Is 'an haughty' even proper English?" Ron demanded.

Hermione's sigh sounded clear across the room. "It's from the Bible, Ron. Most of -"

A knock on the sitting room door interrupted whatever Hermione was going to say.

They all exchanged a look. Most of the students were still on holiday, and the majority of the ones that had remained were out playing in the fresh fallen snow.

"Maybe it's Severus with my ice cream," Harry said.

"Snape is bringing you ice cream?" Ron appeared stunned.

Harry gave him a grin and said, "If you leave my knight alone for four more moves, I'll share," as Hermione called out, "Come in."

The opening door revealed Minerva McGonagall. Harry tensed immediately at the grim expression on her face.

"Ah, Harry, I'd hoped I'd find you here," Minerva said.

"Is everything all right, Minerva?" Hermione asked, rising to her feet, though it was clear to everyone that something was far from all right. Minerva had the same expression on her face that she'd worn the day Carl Westfield had been assaulted.

"No, I'm afraid not," Minerva said. "Ron, your boss just firecalled me to inform me that Severus was . . . abducted from Diagon Alley less than an hour ago."

The black knight in Harry's hand fell to the board. He was too shocked to speak.

"What?" Hermione and Ron chorused together.

"Apparently, Severus was assaulted from behind by a Petrificus Totalus spell when leaving Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour," Minerva reported, sending a chill right through Harry's soul. "I must admit to some confusion as to why Severus would have been there. He never takes sweets, but there's no mistake. His wand was found on the pavement in front of the store."

"Oh, my God," Hermione whispered.

It was Ron who asked the question whose answer Harry was dreading. "Do they know who did it?"

If possible, Minerva's already pinched and worried face became even more lined. "Mr. Fortescue witnessed the entire exchange through his window. Chief Lawrence's men showed him the images of possible suspects and . . . well, Fortescue picked out an old picture of Burke. He said the man who kidnapped Severus looked much younger, though."

"Damn," Ron said.

The chill that had gripped Harry's soul wasn't thawing enough to allow him to react. He just sat there bathed in the winter sun's incongruous warmth, staring at the woman whose news had turned his blood to ice.

Burke had Severus. His mind could go no further than that thought.

"I, er, thought you should know," Minerva said, her gaze sympathetic as it met Harry's.

Shaking himself out of his fugue, Harry forced himself to say, "Thank you, Minerva."

"Chief Lawrence gave me Severus' wand," Minerva said. "Would you like to keep it for him?"

The last was a kindness. Everyone in the room knew that the chances of any of them seeing Severus Snape alive again were astronomical. Harry wouldn't give odds on his lover being alive even now.

Something breaking inside, Harry forced himself to his feet and moved across the room to accept the wand that Minerva was offering him. Although he was too upset to acknowledge it, he knew she was paying him an honour here. Normally, a wizard's wand was only turned over to his spouse or parents.

The ebony wand felt strangely cold in his palm as he closed his fist around it with a murmured word of thanks.

"The Ministry has sent out twelve teams of Aurors to find Severus, more than eighty men," Minerva said. "Chief Lawrence assured me that they are doing everything they can to locate him."

"Yeah, well, they were doing everything they could to locate Burke before that," Harry couldn't keep the words in.

"Harry!" Ron chided.

"Sorry, Ron. But . . . you more than anyone know how useless their efforts will be. Even if they find the bastard – sorry, Minerva." Stopping himself before he said too much, Harry slipped Severus' wand into his robe pocket.

"You're all welcome to wait in my office. Chief Lawrence promised me he'd call as soon as they learned anything," Minerva said.

"Thanks, Minerva, we'll be all right here," Harry said, refusing her offer as gently as he was able.

"As you wish," Minerva said, her eyes nearly haunted. "I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything. And, Harry, I'm truly sorry."

Harry nodded and reached out to squeeze her hand. Her eyes were bright with tears as she withdrew from the room.

The silence after she left was thick enough to cut with a knife.

"I, er, I'll see you two later," Harry said, knowing what he had to do.

"You're not going alone, Harry," Hermione insisted, quickly moving to take his arm as though she feared he would apparate away without her.

"Hermione -" Harry began.

"Not alone!" Hermione answered. Her attention moved quickly to Ron, who was now struggling up out of his chair. The blanket on top of his brown house robes fell to his feet as she demanded, "What do you think you're doing?"

"You don't think I'm just going to sit here waiting for the two of you to get back, do you?" Ron argued.

"You can barely stand on your own, Ron," Hermione relentlessly pointed out. Ron's energy levels were still dangerously depleted.

"Maybe, but I can use my wand. That's all that counts," Ron said.

Harry thought that last claim was sheer bravado. He hadn't seen Ron so much as summon a teacup since he'd been released from hospital.

Both of his friends turned to stare at Harry, as if expecting him to sort the argument out. Harry didn't want either of them in the line of fire, but he knew how useless it would be trying to dissuade them.

"All right. We'll all go," Harry said. "I think we should start at the top of Ron's list and work our way down."

"There are going to be eighty Aurors traipsing over those same places," Ron pointed out.

"Don't worry. They won't see us," Harry promised.

"We're bringing your invisibility cloak?" Ron asked. "I don't think we'll all fit under it anymore, Harry."

"No, no cloak, but . . . we won't be seen," Harry assured.

Ron asked, "How?"

Harry sighed. He knew Hermione understood the scope of his powers, but Ron could sometimes be frustratingly obtuse, even though he saw demonstrations of his freakish abilities every day. "Don't worry about how. Just know that we won't be seen or heard."

Surprise filling his blue eyes, Ron nodded. "All right, then."

"We should floo to the Three Broomsticks and then apparate from there," Hermione suggested.

"We don't have time for that," Harry said. "Give me your hands."

"What?" Ron asked, even as he was offering his hand. Hermione held hers out without question.

Harry took hold of their hands, closed his eyes, and did the near impossible, whisking them through Hogwarts' previously impenetrable security wards quick as a lightning strike.

Hermione gasped as they materialized on a snow-covered lawn outside a rambling mansion. Even from where they stood, looking through the curtainless windows, red-robed Aurors could be seen searching the place. The grounds were practically crawling with them.

"They'll never know we're here," Harry assured, casting a potent invisibility charm of his own creation over them all. "Just stay close to me, all right?"

Both his friends nodded and fell silently into step beside him as Harry approached the mansion's towering mahogany doors.

*~*~*

Two days and sixty holdings later, they were no closer to locating Severus and Burke.

Harry didn't know what was eating at him worse – the worry or the guilt. Although he knew on a mental level that Severus' abduction wasn't his fault, he couldn't help but feel that he should have been there to prevent it from happening. He'd promised Severus that no one would ever hurt him again, and less than a week later, Burke had snatched Severus right off the street. Logic wasn't any help here. In his heart, he still felt it was his fault.

"How is he?" Harry asked as Hermione emerged from the Weasleys' bedroom.

Ron had finally collapsed at the last keep they'd investigated, but he'd held out until they'd searched them all.

Hermione ran a hand through her rumpled, bushy hair. "He's asleep, thank God."

She came to sit in the other armchair beside where Harry sat staring into the dancing flames in the hearth. They'd searched every damn one of the estates on Ron's list and come up with nothing. He honestly didn't know what to do next.

"I think we should try dowsing," Hermione suggested.

"What?" Harry looked over at her, surprised in spite of his terror and exhaustion. Hermione was always the rational one in their group. Dowsing was more Trelawney's bailiwick than true magic.

"It worked before during the war with Voldemort, Harry. We found Tonks that way, remember?" Her face fell as she, too, recalled that they'd found Tonks dead. But the dowsing had worked.

"All right," Harry agreed. At this point, he was almost willing to consult the old dingbat up in the Divinations tower for advice.

They both moved to the table near the window. Hermione cleared the chessboard from it with a flick of her wand, levitating it over to the book-crowded coffee table. A moment later, a map of Great Britain floated over.

"You think he's still in England?" Harry asked, not sure of that himself now.

"Well, I know Burke is an extremely powerful wizard, but taking a passenger when apparating creates a tremendous power drain. I'm thinking that Burke would have used a portkey if he were taking Severus really far," Hermione explained.

Harry didn't suggest that Burke could have simply apparated Severus out of Diagon Alley to a less crowded location where the portkey was waiting. Trying to keep at least the semblance of hope, he said, "That makes sense. You should have been an Auror, you know. You'd've been brilliant."

Hermione gave him a tired smile. "And be competing with Ron? No, we all chose the best paths. Here, I have some string, and there's a pebble in the tray on the mantle there."

Harry retrieved the little round white stone and handed it to Hermione, who had a spool of black thread in her hand. He watched her tie a foot or so of string around the pebble. Muttering a locating spell, she held her hand straight out in front of her, dangling the hanging pebble over the centre of the map. The pebble began to swirl in quick circles in a moment.

When they'd done this while trying to locate Tonks in seventh year, the pebble had tugged and moved itself of its own accord over the location where Tonks had been held. This time, the pebble stayed depressingly centred.

After several minutes, Hermione vented a tired sigh. "I'm exhausted. Maybe you should try it."

Harry took the end of the string from her. He muttered his own locating spell, putting enough power into it to find a needle lost in a haystack on another continent, but once again, the pebble didn't budge.

"Burke's probably in an unplottable location," Hermione said at last. "That would make sense."

Harry gave a grim nod. He'd expected nothing else.

Two days. That sadistic bastard of a rapist had had Severus for two days. Every time Harry sat still without a task before him, gruesome images of what could be happening to his lover would crowd his mind, like now.

"All right," Hermione, ever the optimistic Gryffindor, said, "we've searched Burke's holdings. We've searched Voldemort's old haunts. We've tried dowsing. What haven't we done?"

"Consulted Trelawney?" Harry suggested in a dead tone.

"You're not serious, are you?" Hermione asked.

"Almost. I . . . I don't know what I'm gonna do if -"

"We're going to get him back, Harry."

"You know how vicious that bastard is. Do you really think Severus is still alive?" Harry asked, his despair welling up inside him. He'd been trying to keep it down, because he was afraid of what would happen if he gave into it and allowed the madness to overwhelm his controls. Only, the more time that passed, the harder it was to believe. Even hope was fading in him now.

"I think if Burke wanted Severus dead, he'd have cast Avada Kedavra on him right there in Diagon Alley. The fact that he took Severus alive is . . . encouraging," Hermione said, the last word a little flat, no doubt due to her knowledge of why the bastard would have taken Severus alive.

"How long do you think he can last?" Harry heard himself ask. He hated the weakness that forced him to voice his fears. He wasn't a child. He knew, knew, knew what was no doubt happening to Severus while they were sitting here in this comfortable room, but he needed the solace. He needed to hear someone else say that Severus could still be alive.

"He's tough, Harry," Hermione said. Her tone told him that she understood exactly what he was asking for, and she knew him well enough to know precisely what she needed to say to get him back on the job again. "And he's counting on us to find him. So we have to find him. That's all there is to it."

She made it sound like there was absolutely no possibility that they'd fail.

"I'm out of ideas," Harry said. That sleep preventative potion of Severus' that they'd been taking for the last two days wasn't helping his mental clarity any, either.

"There must be something we're missing," Hermione said. She leaned over to pour them both a mug of tea from the magical teapot that was steaming on the end table between their chairs.

Harry gave a negative shake of his head as she offered a mug to him after preparing it to his tastes.

"You've had nothing all day. You have to keep up your strength," Hermione insisted.

Finding it easier to humour her than fight with her, Harry took the mug. In spite of his insistence of not wanting any, he found himself absently sipping at the cup while they gazed into the flames.

"This whole thing feels like one of those goddamned nightmares of mine," Harry said.

"Wait a minute!" Hermione cried out, jolting up in her seat so abruptly that she spilt tea all over her blue robes. "What did you just say?"

Thinking that he wasn't the only one suffering from sleep deprivation, Harry repeated, "Just that this feels like my nightmares."

"That's it, Harry! My God, that's it!" Hermione exclaimed, bouncing up out of her chair.

"What's it?" Harry echoed, utterly confused.

"I think we can find Severus. I read a number of books on Occlumency and Legilimency several years ago. One of them was very old, more than four hundred years. It was the journal a wizard kept while learning the arts. He didn't say much on how to work either Occlumency or Legilimency – they never do – but he did detail some of the unexpected side effects that he experienced."

"What kind of side effects?" Harry asked, unable to imagine anything that Hermione could have read as being helpful in their present situation.

"He said that a link formed between his mind and that of the wizard he practiced with. The book said that they could read each other's thoughts without trying and sense where each other were, even over great distances," Hermione enthusiastically explained.

Harry sighed. "I'm unconscious when Severus helps me with the dreams. There's no link."

"You don't know that," Hermione insisted. "Your minds were joined. It doesn't matter if you were awake during the union. It still happened. The link could even be subconscious."

Harry considered her suggestion. "How . . . how could I find out if we've got that kind of link? I mean, I've never been able to read Severus' thoughts, no matter how close we got. But . . . he is very reluctant to join our minds when I'm conscious." Sensing her curiosity, he softly explained, "He had some bad experiences with this kind of thing when young."

That much he could say without violating any confidences.

"Then he'd probably be very shielded against casual contact. But from what I read in this book, I don't think the link is something he could choose to deny. The wizard said it just happened, even though both men fought it," Hermione said. "Severus mightn't be consciously aware of its existence, either."

Feeling something like hope spark within him for the first time since Severus was grabbed, Harry asked, "All right, let's say the link exists. How do I use it?"

"How do you make contact when you first touch someone's mind?" Hermione countered.

Feeling slightly self-conscious, Harry tried to explain the process he barely understood, "I relax and reach out with my mind from the inside. It's hard to explain."

"Okay," Hermione said. "Lean back and close your eyes."

Harry did as instructed, willing to try anything at this point, including reading tea leaves. As if in response to that desperate thought, he felt her take the tea mug from his hand.

"Now, reach out for Severus, the way you would if he were here in the room. Don't think about how far away he is. Just think about . . . touching his mind," Hermione added, in a tone that seemed to indicate that she was making this up as she went along.

He wished their positions were reversed, that he was the one missing and that Severus was looking for him using these mental skills, for Harry knew his own abilities were miniscule when compared to Severus'. Only, according to Hermione, the link was there and he need only follow it.

Harry relaxed as best he could, emptied his mind, and reached. There was nothing. He could feel Hermione, Ron in the other room, the newly returned students sleeping in the Gryffindor dorm above them, and . . . something else . . . something amorphous that was barely there . . . a fragile trail of magic leading from Harry himself to . . . .

Harry mentally followed the nearly nonexistent, fragile thread, reaching out to touch . . . .

PAIN . . . AGONY . . . ABSOLUTE DESPAIR . . . .

Harry gasped, feeling as though he'd just tumbled into a vat of acid. Every cell throbbed with such intense pain that it almost felt like each and every atom were undergoing Cruciatus. He had never experienced anything like it, even in his worst nightmare.

Severus? he cried out mentally.

There was no reaction. No thought. Simply animal response to the physical stimulation of pain . . . as though Severus had endured so much torture that there was nothing of himself or his amazing mind left.

Latching on to the suffering man at the other end of the magical trail, Harry didn't withdraw to tell Hermione what he was doing. There wasn't time. He might already be way too late to save Severus' mind. Without hesitation, he once again overruled Hogwarts' security wards to apparate out. He heard Hermione call out his name as he vanished, and then felt equally strong security wards at the other end, plus unplottable spells, and several dozen powerful confounding spells.

But Harry wasn't about to be misled by a confounding spell. He wasn't focused on finding Burke, which was the intent that all the confounding spells thwarted. He was fixed on Severus, and when he pushed at those monster wards, they gave way exactly as Hogwarts' had.

Harry stumbled on the slippery stone floor as he manifested inside a dungeon cell that could have been drawn whole cloth from his worst nightmare. There was a single torch flickering on the far wall, casting a wavering light over the gruesome chamber. The place reeked of human waste and decay. There was a skeleton dangling from chains on the wall in front of him, and when he turned to his right . . . .

The rack was ancient, something that the Inquisition might have employed. Despite its age, it was still effective. Harry's entire being screamed 'No!' as he interpreted what his eyes were showing him. The figure lying so still and naked face down on the device was Severus, but no version of Severus he recognized. There didn't appear to be a single inch of skin that hadn't been pierced or burned.

The bit of tea in his stomach lurched upwards as Harry gaped at Severus' right arm. It ended in a bloody stump above his manacled wrist. The wound had been cauterised. He could see the blackened skin where the stump had been burned. It was Severus' wand hand that had been amputated, he realized, sick inside.

He searched the floor, hoping to see the hand lying there, for magical healing could reconnect a severed limb even if decomposition had set in, but all Harry could see on the floor was excrement, dried blood, and dirt.

Forcing himself to move, he staggered to Severus' side.

If possible, the damage was worse up close. Severus' face, which was turned towards him, was unrecognisable. His eyes couldn't be seen; the discoloured tissue around them was so swollen. His long nose was broken in several places. There were so many cuts and bruises on Severus' face that there was barely any white to his skin.

That was true, everywhere, Harry realized, taking stock. His lover's back and buttocks looked like a whip had been taken to them. Long, bloody rills criss-crossed Severus from neck to knee.

Staring down that no longer familiar body, Harry realized from the unnatural angle of his arms and legs that Severus' shoulder and hip joints had been pulled out of their sockets by the rack. His legs were splayed in an exaggeratedly wide V. Hot, murderous fury swelled in him when he saw the blood leaking from between Severus' buttocks, clear indications that he'd been brutally raped on top of everything else.

The only good news was that Severus' back was shallowly rising and falling. He lived, just barely. The damage wasn't as bad as what had been done to Ron's body, but it was far crueller, for he would take longer to die this way.

Afraid to touch for fear of inflicting more hurt, Harry lightly rested his hand on Severus' blood-soaked, sticky hair, whispering, "Severus?"

There was no reaction, so Harry forced the word out again, a little louder this time.

Severus' face contorted as the swollen, purple mass that was his left eye laboriously parted. Harry supposed that sanity was too much to be hoped for, but something like recognition sparked in that hardly visible eye.

Severus' bruised lips opened and a harsh, guttural grunt emerged, followed immediately by a quick stream of blood.

Panicked, Harry leaned down, terrified that Severus was haemorrhaging. Not sure what to do, he gazed into that open mouth, turning quickly to the side to throw up. With the mess of blood, urine, and excrement on the floor, his vomit was barely noticeable.

Standing back up, Harry pulled in a deep breath of the stinking air as he accepted what his eyes had just shown him. Severus' right hand wasn't the only thing missing. His tongue had been ripped out as well.

Closing his eyes, he cast the strongest summoning spell he'd ever attempted to call the grisly body parts to him, but nothing appeared.

"A fitting punishment for a betrayer, don't you think?" A not-unpleasant voice enquired almost mildly from behind him.

Harry whirled, his wand slipping into his hand, even as an amused "Expelliarmus," sent it flying across the room.

His host had entered through the door on the far side of the rack. Severus' bloodied form lay between them, exposed and vulnerable.

"You must be the great Harry Potter," the man Harry recognized from Carl Westfield's rape memory greeted with what might have been a winning smile in other circumstances. Burke was a physically handsome man, with broad shoulders, dark hair, and grey eyes. He looked about forty now. Merlin alone knew how many deaths it had taken to reverse his age that far. Burke was dressed in a dark suit that seemed more suitable for a dinner party than a torture session. "I'm surprised that someone powerful enough to locate us and slip through my wards would be disarmed so easily, but you are a rash Gryffindor, after all." The smiling fiend gestured with his chin towards Severus. "He knew you'd come. He called out your name through it all."

"Burke," Harry snarled, letting the hate and anger amplify inside him, feeding it. He needed the focus it would give him now, more than anything. Although he hadn't duelled since Voldemort, he knew that he was powerful enough to take down any number of wizards. His magic was uncanny, its power eclipsing even the most seasoned of Aurors. But he could feel how strong Burke was. He didn't think that even Voldemort had projected this kind of power. The sheer malevolence of Burke's magic was terrifying. This man made Voldemort feel wholesome.

Harry thought it might take everything he had to best him.

He would have felt more confident with his wand in hand, but he didn't need it now. All he needed was enough focus to target the demon in front of him. Severus was between them. He wasn't going to risk his lover getting caught in the middle of this. He knew what he was capable of, and, looking down at what was left of Severus, he also knew what Burke was capable of.

"He's quite fond of you, you know. If I thought either of you were going to survive this night, I'd tell you to beware. He was quite fond of me as well once, but that didn't stop the snivelling mudblood from selling me out to Voldemort. But, this is amusing. You'll appreciate this. He wasn't afraid of dying. He wasn't even afraid of the torture at first. When I reacquainted myself with that tasty mind of his, I found that the only thing he truly feared was your learning the truth about him."

Harry's gaze dropped to Severus' face, which was still turned towards him. He'd hoped that Severus might have lapsed back into unconsciousness, but that massively swollen eye was still parted. Severus seemed to be following Burke's every word.

Trying to block out the sadistic bastard that had done this to Severus, Harry concentrated on his hate, building it, focusing it, but it was hard not to listen to what Burke was saying.

Like most megalomaniacs, Burke obviously loved the sound of his own voice. For, even though Harry hadn't responded to a single one of his conversational overtures, Burke continued with, "He'd rather die than have you know that he was Malfoy's whore. Did you know that from his first week in Hogwarts, he was on his knees in front of Lucius every day for his first four years at school, and when Lucius left, he gave his arse to any upperclass Slytherin who wanted it? When I joined the Death Eaters, the most powerful among us used to pass him around like a pack of Muggle smokes. I saw from his more recent memories that he still loves to be buggered, and believe me when I say that I gave him a good fuck or two, for old time's sake. What I don't understand is why someone like you would taint yourself -"

Still concentrating on the nuclear level explosion building inside him, Harry tried not to listen. His gaze was fixed on Severus as he used his injured lover's horrible condition to fuel his hate.

Severus had seemed to be staring unblinkingly at him when Burke began to talk, as though he, too, were attempting to block out the man. But when Burke began speaking about Severus' time at school and all that bullshit about being Malfoy's whore, Severus winced, and the one eye visible to Harry squeezed shut.

Up until that moment, he hadn't even considered that Burke's accusations could be true, but suddenly, Severus' aversion to telepathic contact between them made perfect sense.

Harry didn't know how he felt about the things Burke had told him. The only thing he knew was that he had to get Severus away from this monster.

That this degenerate would torture Severus like this, and then so joyfully strip away his last bit of dignity was the last straw. Harry was finally where he needed to be both magically and emotionally to deal with this sadist.

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Harry shouted before Burke could spill any more filth about Severus' past.

"That isn't the wisest approach to take, boy. I have you at a marked disadvantage here," Burke laughed.

Totally focused now, Harry tapped those hidden reservoirs of power that he'd only touched that one time to save Ron. When he'd fought Voldemort, he hadn't had power like this at his disposal. It had taken Professor Dumbledore's death to raise the power levels to this potency. But that was ten years ago. Tonight, he was like a Muggle atomic weapon, all fire and explosive vengeance. He fed that payload of raw magical energy to his existing hate, felt it reach critical mass inside him.

While Burke laughed at whatever expression was on his face, confident that he had the upper hand now that Harry was without his wand, Harry tightened his intent and turned himself into the magical equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

Even an egotist like Burke couldn't ignore the rise in power for long. Harry watched the malevolent smile fade from Burke's face as the other wizard became aware of the growing energy levels in the room. The enclosed, foul-smelling torture chamber had the same kind of feel that the air would get before a summer lightning storm.

Harry raised his hands. He saw Burke's malicious grey eyes widen as the first blue sparks danced between his fingers, and then . . . Harry let the pent up fury inside him loose.

The contained blue lightning streaked right over Severus, leaving him completely unharmed, but the instant the mage fire touched Burke's chest, Burke's wand dropped out of his hand and the man ignited. It wasn't even a duel. Burke never uttered a word or lifted his wand. The bastard wasn't even able to raise his shields, let alone mount any kind of counterattack, before the blue lightning consumed him and he started screaming.

Harry watched with something between shock and awe as his mage fire lit Burke's flesh in eerie blue flames that were chillingly reminiscent of Avada Kedavra's green light. The torture chamber reflected that weird blue glow, looking even more sinister by that unnatural illumination.

As the mage fire consumed Burke whole, and his shrieks and the stench of his burning flesh filled the room, Harry looked inside himself for a reaction. There was a part of him that believed that there should be regret or sympathy at the death of another human being, but with Severus' brutalized body lying between them, he couldn't feel anything but satisfaction as he watched the other wizard die. This was the fiend who had hurt Severus and Ron, killed Ron's team, and raped poor Carl. Burke deserved this and more.

The bastard would never rape again, never kill, never maim. That was all Harry could think when Burke crumpled to the ground as the burning blue fire ate his flesh away.

Burke's ending was nearly anticlimactic; it was so fast. When the last blue flicker faded, all that was left was a scorched skeleton and the stink of burnt flesh, not that the last was all that noticeable in the reeking chamber.

Staggering a little at the power he'd just extended, Harry summoned his own wand from where it had flown to the corner, calling Burke's to him as well. He'd need proof for the Ministry that Burke was dead.

Even those simple actions were hard. His mind felt dazed, his body weak and drained. But he couldn't afford to fall apart now. He had to hold it together for Severus.

He put his wand in the robe pocket next to Severus', and Burke's in the opposite pocket. He didn't want anything of Burke's anywhere near anything that had to do with Severus.

Turning back to where Severus lay on the rack, Harry did his best to control his horror and panic. He wanted, needed to free Severus from those chains, draw him into his arms, and carry him back to Hogwarts, but even if Severus' height hadn't made the possibility of carrying him improbable, his physical condition made it impossible. Severus was simply too injured for touch.

With a thought, Harry popped open the manacles binding Severus to the torture device and gently levitated Severus up. Recognizing how cold the dungeon was, and how real the threat of shock, Harry manifested a blanket and used his magic to wrap it around his naked lover.

He took hold of a corner of the blue blanket to establish direct physical contact with Severus and then prepared to apparate them out of this hellhole.

He had no need to be subtle while apparating home. Burke was dead. There was no one else here to prevent him from rescuing Severus. He simply blew Burke's wards wide open.

Hogwarts was another matter. With barely enough strength to hold both Severus and himself in transit, Harry persuaded Hogwarts' wards to let him back inside the castle. He aimed them at the infirmary.

Due to the late hour, he didn't even try to circumvent the alarms. Everyone would be asleep and he was going to need help as soon as they materialized. He knew he'd never have the strength to actually go look for someone. He let the alarms go off, and prayed that someone would get there to help Severus before he collapsed.

When he and Severus materialized in the centre of the infirmary's main ward, claxons were sounding at a loud enough volume to wake the entire school. He winced as their deafening keen sliced through his pounding head.

The infirmary door flew open. Filch came barrelling in, a broad axe from one of the school's numerous suits of armour clutched in his arms.

"Get Madam Pomfrey. Professor Snape needs help. Please . . . . " Harry begged, sinking to his knees, using all his remaining power to keep Severus in the air where there would be no pressure on his injuries.

His long grey hair wild around his frightened, homely face, Filch nodded and turned to race in the opposite direction with just as much haste.

Less than three minutes later, the infirmary door burst open again. Dressed in a long white nightgown and pale blue dressing gown, Madam Pomfrey ran to them. Minerva was fast on her heels, also in her nightclothes, in her case a green nightgown and grey dressing gown. Hermione, still fully dressed, and Ron in nothing but his nightshirt joined the crowd in what seemed like seconds. Harry could hear more teachers crowding around outside the infirmary doors, but Filch appeared to have had the sense to have stopped them there.

"Oh, my God," Harry wasn't sure which one of the women spoke.

All he knew was that someone else's magic reached out to support Severus midair – Poppy, he recognized the gentle feel of her energy. He could feel Minerva's power all around him as she focused on Hogwarts' wards, and a moment later the horrible wailing of the claxons stopped.

Harry sagged as his burden was removed from him.

"Harry?" Hermione was at his side in a heartbeat, kneeling down to embrace him. "You did it. My god, you did it!"

They all turned as a gasp and exclamation sounded beside them. Madam Pomfrey had peeled away Severus' concealing blanket.

Hermione gave a choked back, "His poor hand -"

"His injuries are extremely severe, Harry," Poppy said, running her wand over Severus' form. Harry couldn't help but notice the blood that was dripping from Severus onto the infirmary's pristine stone floor now that his blanket had been removed. "He needs -"

"No. Not St. Mungo's," Harry denied before Poppy could finish voicing her suggestion. "He won't last a day there. Please . . . care for him until I . . . can heal him. Keep him alive. That's all I ask."

And then he was falling face forward towards the floor. He had the vague impression of a blue blur that was Ron in his nightshirt moving to intercept him, and then blackness.

*~*~*

Harry wasn't sure how long he was out. When he opened his eyes, he was in an unfamiliar room. The bed he was in had no canopy, so it wasn't Severus' or his own room.

The first thing he saw was Ron's familiar profile. His old friend was sound asleep in a chair beside his bed. Ron was fully dressed now in his familiar brown robes.

"Hey," Harry gently called.

Ron started awake. "Oh, you're awake. How are you?"

"Where am I seems more the question," Harry said.

As he looked past Ron, he was able to answer his own question. Severus was in a similar bed across from his, with a sleeping Hermione sitting in a chair beside him.

The fact that Severus wasn't floating midair and was dressed in an infirmary nightshirt reassured him that at least some of his lover's wounds had been healed. Even from here, he could see that the skin on Severus' face was no longer covered with cuts. The area around his eyes was still discoloured a bit, but most of the swelling appeared to have gone down, and his nose was its usual long, straight ski slope, instead of the smashed mess it had been last night.

Harry had to hand it to her; Madam Pomfrey was damn good at what she did.

"You're in a private room in the infirmary," Ron answered.

Now that he was looking around, Harry could see a familiar painting on the wall of a girl flying a kite. He and Severus were in the same room Carl had occupied last October. From the quality of the sunlight slanting through the nearby windows, he thought it must be late afternoon.

"What time is it?" Harry asked, sitting up.

"Just gone three," Ron answered.

"Oh, you're awake!" Hermione said from the chair near Severus, waking up herself. "How do you feel?"

Harry pulled himself from the bed and crossed to Severus. "That doesn't matter. How is he?"

"As you can see, Poppy healed most of the open wounds and abrasions," Hermione said. "She was able to repair his broken nose and reset his shoulder and hip joints, plus she did a ton of internal organ healings. He's out of danger now."

Harry breathed a deep, relieved sigh. It was a small thing, but he was glad to see that they'd cleaned Severus up. Even his hair seemed to have been washed.

"He looks much better," Harry said. He was standing on Severus' left side, so the stump where his right hand should be wasn't noticeable.

"Harry . . . ." Hermione hesitantly started.

"Hmmm?" Harry had reached out to lay his hand in Severus' hair. He still wasn't able to believe that they'd gotten him back alive.

"Severus' right hand and his tongue . . . they're – they're gone," Hermione said. "This morning I borrowed your Invisibility cloak and went to that Muggle castle Burke was hiding in to search for them. They're nowhere to be found."

"I couldn't find them either, even with a powerful summoning charm," Harry said. "I think the bastard vanished them."

"That's not good," Hermione said.

"I know," Harry said. "I'll go back later and try again, but I think they're gone for good."

"There were Aurors all over the place," Hermione warned.

"I thought there would be. Once I blew Burke's wards, there wouldn't be anything to stop them from finding his remains." Harry had known once he'd destroyed Burke's security wards that the Ministry would be on the place right away. He'd also been fairly certain no one would find the missing . . . items. He supposed that he shouldn't be surprised that Hermione had gone to look for Severus' missing body parts. She'd always had the courage of a lion. "Thank you for looking, though."

Normally, lost limbs and body parts would have been a tragedy to the afflicted wizard. Broken bones could be healed or re-grown. Damaged organs repaired. But when a limb was amputated or a tongue or eye removed, and the body part remained lost, there was nothing that could be done magically. That was why old Mad Eye Moody had had to use a prosthetic on his missing leg and that weird, mechanical eye. As far as Harry knew, the Wizarding World had yet to invent a substitute for a missing tongue. If he couldn't use his powers to help Severus, his lover was in for a long, hard time of it.

Even if he could use his powers, Harry knew this wasn't going to be as easy as what he'd done for Ron. Ron's body had been intact. He'd just needed to give Ron sufficient power to repair the hideous damage done to him. If he were able to do this, and he knew this was a definite if, he was going to have to re-grow the hand and tongue from scratch. Like re-growing bones, that was going to be an extremely painful process.

Staring down at Severus' unconscious face, Harry said, "I'm going to try to use my powers to heal them."

"To re-grow missing body parts?" Ron asked in the tone a Muggle would use to question someone who'd just announced his intention to fly without mechanical assistance.

"I thought you'd say that," Hermione said from beside Harry, sounding pleased. "If anyone can do it, you can."

"I hope so. Can I ask you to sit with him for a while? I want to go down to the dungeon and brew up a batch of that Sanguinis Philos potion. It made the connection easier." Looking down at Severus' unconscious face, Harry said, "I know he probably won't wake for some time, but if he does, I don't want him to be alone."

"Of course, I'll stay with him," Hermione answered.

"You're going to brew a potion?" Ron asked in that same incredulous tone.

"I've actually become quite good at it," Harry said, not quite bragging. "Come down and watch if you like."

Recalling what he needed, Harry manifested a pair of scissors out of the air with a thought and then snipped off a small hank of Severus' hair. After all his lover had suffered, Harry felt guilty about taking even that small liberty, but it was the only way to help Severus. Once he had the hair, Ron and he left for the Potions lab.

They were on the moving staircase that was slowly shifting them from the east side of the stairwell to the west when Harry remembered Burke's wand. As he was still wearing yesterday's clothes and robe, when he looked in his pocket, the yew wand was still there. For that matter, Severus and his own were in his other pocket. It was a miracle he hadn't broken any of them when he collapsed last night.

"Um, you'd better give this to your boss," Harry said, handing Burke's wand over to Ron. "It's Burke's."

"Oh, that's where it got to. Thanks, Harry. Chief Lawrence thought it had burned up with Burke," Ron said, taking the wand.

The image of those blue flames consuming Burke's living flesh flashed through Harry's mind. Realizing that the Ministry must have questions concerning Burke's grisly demise, he asked, "Does Lawrence want to talk to me?"

"He wanted to last night," Ron said. "I explained that Severus was mortally injured and that you can't be spared at the moment. I answered most of his questions. Told him that you'd told me what happened before you passed out last night. Mostly, he wanted to know what spell you used to kill Burke."

"It wasn't a spell." Harry felt his stomach tighten as he told Ron in a voice so low that even the portraits wouldn't overhear him, "I used mage fire."

"Yeah, I reckoned that was what you did," Ron said, seeming both unsurprised and unperturbed by the knowledge that his best friend had killed a man using a power that hadn't been seen in over three hundred years.

"What did Lawrence say when you told him?" Harry asked, wondering if there would be anywhere in the world he could hide once his true nature became common knowledge.

"When I told him what?" Ron asked as they stepped off the staircase.

Barely able to hold back a snap, Harry took a deep breath and whispered, "That I used mage fire to kill Burke."

Ron stared at him as if he'd taken leave of his senses, which was a very real possibility after the stress of the last three days.

"I didn't tell him that. Do you think I want to get you killed?" Ron asked.

"You didn't tell him?" Harry repeated.

Ron appeared almost offended. "Of course not. I'm not stupid. I know how paranoid the Ministry is about the rise of Dark Lords. They find out you can do something like that, and you'd never have another moment's peace."

"What did you tell him, then?" Harry asked, utterly confused.

"I told him that you were in a duel fighting for your life and that you weren't sure what happened. I suggested that your shields must have deflected that Corpus Accendio spell Burke used on me and my team last week and that it must have bounced back and took out Burke before he could block it," Ron said.

"You -" Harry didn't know what to say. That wasn't what had happened, but it was a perfectly logical explanation for the state of Burke's corpse. Normally, Ron was a pathetic liar. He was shocked that Ron had come up with the idea. It was a very Slytherin explanation. "Lawrence believed you?"

Looking a little self-conscious, Ron said, "I know I'm not that good at lying, but I can when I have to. I, er, reminded him how powerful your shields have always been, how you deflected Avada Kedavra when you were just a baby. If the Chief questions you, you just tell him that you're not sure what Burke threw at you in the duel, but you just bounced it back at him. I don't know if he'll even bother with you at this point. They're all just relieved the bastard's dead."

Harry paused at the top of the last stairs to the dungeon. He felt totally adrift, grateful on the one hand for what Ron had done, but worried. Lying to the Ministry and the Aurors could put him in Azkaban. "I . . . if the truth comes out, you could lose your job over this."

"Better I lose my job than I lose you," Ron said. "You know the kind of circus this will turn into if the media gets wind of what you can do."

"I know, it's just . . . I don't want you to get into trouble because of me," Harry said, warmed by Ron's words despite his overwhelming guilt. With everything that had happened in the last three days, he knew he couldn't handle getting Ron fired right now.

"Look, if the Ministry goes after you for how you put down that monster, I don't want the damn job."

Harry knew Ron meant the words, but that didn't make him feel any better about what could happen to Ron. "Ron -"

"Harry, that fucker killed my entire team. I don't care what you did to put him out of action, and, frankly, it's none of the Ministry's damn business. You did the job we couldn't do. No one's going to persecute you for how you did it, not while I'm around. Whatever happens, the decision was mine and it was the right one to make," Ron insisted.

"I just hate the idea of your having to lie for me," Harry said, reaching out to squeeze Ron's arm.

"If they weren't such paranoid cowards, there wouldn't have been a need for lies. We both know what, well, who we're dealing with here, so there's no sense agonizing over it. Whatever happens, will happen. There's no point in worrying about it until it does," Ron said.

"You know you're the best best friend ever, right?" Harry asked, aware how lucky he was to have this special man in his life.

"Funny, I was just thinking the same thing myself," Ron said with a grin as they stepped off the stairs and turned down the Slytherin corridor. "Come on. Show me this Potions expertise you've acquired from Severus."

At Ron's mention of the Potions lab, Harry froze in his tracks.

"What?" Ron asked, pulling his wand from the pocket of his brown house robes and staring around the corridor as though they'd just been ambushed.

"Sorry. I just realized it's a school day. I'm supposed to be teaching right now," Harry said, running a hand through his messy hair, at a loss as to what to do. As much as teaching meant to him, there was no way he could leave Severus right now.

"It's okay. Minerva cancelled all classes at breakfast in the Great Hall this morning. She gave the kids the day off so that Hermione and I could wait for you to wake up. And, you don't have to worry about teaching tomorrow or anytime before Severus is up and around," Ron added.

"Huh?" Harry asked, murmuring the ward to Severus' private Potions lab once they'd stopped before its door. "How's that?"

"Minerva is arranging coverage for both Severus and your classes," Ron said.

"Coverage? Who's she got to cover our classes?" Harry wondered.

"Well, since I'm officially off duty from the Aurors for the next two months to recuperate from Burke's attack, I'm going to take the DADA classes. Hermione's got a free third period, so she's going to take that Potions class, Neville's taking first period Potions, Gavin took fifth period, Flitwick's covering second, and Minerva is going to cover the other three classes. So you don't have to worry about anything other than helping Severus get better," Ron said, patting his shoulder.

"God, Ron, that's putting a lot of work on you. You're supposed to be resting," Harry reminded.

Ron shrugged. "So long as I don't have to expend any power on spells, I can rest just as easy in the DADA classroom as in our quarters. Honestly, Harry, I'm grateful for the distraction. It takes my mind off . . . you know."

Harry nodded. He knew Ron was still having nightmares about the attack that had taken the lives of the rest of his squad. "Thanks. Like I said, the best best friend ever."

Ron blushed, his blue eyes moving to take in Severus' lab as they entered the room. There was a strange keening sound emerging from the work area that wasn't normally there.

"What's that noise?" Ron asked, staring around the dark lab as though one of Aragog's children might pop down from the ceiling to catch him in a web.

With only the fires under the cauldrons lighting the place, the lab had a frightening dungeon aspect to it that Harry had become inured to during the months he'd been with Severus. But he knew how menacing this place would appear to Ron.

Harry looked over at the keening cauldron. "It's an experiment Severus is working on. Don't worry about the noise."

"It's weird, is all. Gives me the shivers," Ron confessed.

"Me, too, but it's perfectly harmless," Harry assured, lighting the wall torches with a thought. The light made the wailing less eerie.

'This is his private lab?" Ron asked, eyeing the six counters, three of which had cauldrons actively brewing on them at the moment.

"Yeah," Harry said, going over to the shelf on the far wall where Severus had left the ingredients they'd used to make the batch of Sanguinis Philos that had saved Ron's life last week.

"It's pretty impressive," Ron said.

Harry was so used to the place now that he barely saw it anymore. "It is, isn't it?" he murmured as he collected the ingredients he'd need.

"Merlin's beard, that noise is awful. What's it doing?" Ron asked, gesturing towards the keening cauldron that was filled with a churning orange gelatinous mass. It was the orange goo that was emitting the crying sound that was eerily similar to that of a newborn.

"That one is pure experimentation," Harry said, unable to stop the smile that spilled over his face when he remembered Severus telling him about it. "It will either increase fertility or transform into an artificial child when it's done."

"What? What do you mean 'an artificial child?" Ron sounded understandably horrified.

Harry chuckled. "Severus wasn't expecting the sound effects. I think it freaked him out a bit. He was probably joking about the artificial child."

"Probably?"

"Well, you know Severus. Can you ever tell when he's being completely serious when he uses that tone of voice?" Harry asked. His guts clenched as he realized that if he wasn't successful in this healing venture that he would never hear that tone of voice again.

Unsurprisingly, considering how long he'd known him, Ron caught his reaction. "Are you all right?"

Harry shrugged. "I've been trying to stay positive, but every time I think about what that bastard did to Severus, I just . . . ."

"Yeah, I know. But if anyone can heal him, it's you," Ron said. "Look what you did for me."

"I can't undo the torture he suffered," Harry said, trying hard not to dwell on the physical and sexual abuse Severus had endured in those two days Burke had had him.

"We'll get him through it," Ron said, patting his back.

"We'll?" Harry questioned.

"Yeah, we'll. I wouldn't be here if he hadn't given you the idea that you could heal me," Ron said. "Come on; let's brew up some illegal blood magic."

"Will you help me get this cauldron going?" Harry asked, turning to hide his stinging eyes.

A little over an hour later, the potion was brewed and the cauldrons Harry had used were cleaned and put away.

As Harry turned to leave, Ron asked, "Are you going to leave those cauldrons burning like that? Won't they explode?"

"No. They're safe. That's Severus' long-term project table. Sometimes he leaves things burning for weeks over there."

They left the potion lab with its strangely keening experiment behind and returned to Severus' infirmary room, the Sanguinis Philos a warm presence in Harry's left pocket.

Now attired in her normal white robes and wimple, Madam Pomfrey was just finishing checking Severus' vital signs when Ron and he arrived. Hermione had pulled back from her bedside chair to give the mediwitch room to work.

Poppy eyed the blood red liquid in the large, wine-bottle sized container and asked, "Sanguinis Philos?"

"Yes," Harry answered, hoping he wasn't about to hear a diatribe on blood magic.

After a moment, Poppy said, "You're the strongest wizard I've seen, Harry. If anyone can help him, it's you."

"Thanks, Poppy," Harry answered, warmed by her words.

Poppy gave his arm a squeeze as she was leaving the room. She still seemed subdued. Clearly, she was still upset by the extent and nature of Severus' injuries.

Harry couldn't blame her. He couldn't let himself think about what had been done to Severus without going a little crazy, and right now, he couldn't afford that luxury.

Stopping beside the bed, Harry extracted a small vial that he'd put in his pocket while in the lab. He carefully filled it with the Sanguinis Philos potion. He put the larger bottle on the bedside table and then reached down with his empty left hand to lift Severus up from the pillow. Holding the tiny, vial between his ring and pinkie fingers and palm, he reached out with his index finger and gently nudged Severus' mouth open.

After yesterday, he'd thought he was prepared for the sight, but when he saw the raw flesh where Severus' tongue should have been he nearly lost it. Steeling himself, he opened the vial and tilted it to Severus' open mouth. Once the potion was in, he dropped the vial and quickly moved to massage Severus' throat to make sure the liquid was swallowed.

Thankfully, Severus didn't choke.

Harry sat back to wait a moment for the potion to make its way into Severus' system. When sufficient time had passed, he reached out to collect Severus' nearby left hand. The bridge for his magic formed with surprising ease. Well, perhaps not so surprising, considering that he linked his power to Severus' system nearly every night.

He reached out magically, letting his energy flow through the familiar neural paths. The damage that was still there was . . . daunting. He could feel Poppy's spells and potions working on repairing the hurt places. Because he could, Harry fed his power into Poppy's spells, enhancing them. Then he moved along, to the maimed areas no mediwitch could repair.

Although he had no experience with these things, he thought the tongue might be the easier job. So, he tackled that first, feeding energy to the gaping wound that was all that was left of Severus' tongue. Within moments, he sensed a layer of new flesh blanketing that hideous wound. Right now, all he wanted to do was close the opening, which, fortunately, happened quickly.

The hand was another matter entirely. Beyond the complexity of all the bones, vascular channels, muscles, and neural paths of the hand, he was going to have to get rid of the dead tissue at the end of the cauterised stump before he could grow new flesh.

Harry concentrated on blasting away that burnt tissue. Working fast, he tapped into those frightening power reservoirs he had and encouraged the cells to reproduce healthy tissue to seal the area where Severus' hand had been amputated. The burned flesh was reluctant to grow new tissue, but he pitted his will against the recalcitrant cells and soon the resistance crumbled.

He did what he could to seal both sites. As he finished up on the hand, he could feel his power waning under the intense drain. He made a frantic search of the stump and tongue sites. He couldn't find any holes or dangerous openings in veins. Only then, did he allow his exhaustion to claim him.

Harry was hardly aware of breaking the connection with Severus.

His knees gave out from under him, and he swayed forward. From a muffled distance, he could hear Hermione calling his name.

*~*~*

Harry repeated that process every day for the next week. The only change he made was to make sure he was sitting down when he linked with Severus. That way, when he blacked out from exhaustion afterwards, it was far less dramatic.

Mercifully, Poppy's potions kept Severus unconscious during the entire week. Severus' other injuries were entirely healed by that point. It was only the missing hand and tongue that declared the savage torture he'd so recently suffered.

Harry was sitting beside Severus' bed, finishing up the lunch tray that Dobby had brought him, when Severus opened his eyes a week later. Harry didn't even notice the change at first. His entire universe was focused on the healings he gave Severus every afternoon. Due to the resulting exhaustion, he spent his evenings and nights unconscious on the bed on the far side of the room. His mornings passed in a numb parade of checking the new growth and helping Poppy with the daily routine of seeing to an unconscious patient's physical needs.

It had gotten so that Harry could tube feed Severus as competently as Poppy. Fortunately, the rest of Severus' care could be handled magically, so they didn't have to worry about actually changing diapers or disposing of catheter bags.

Ravenously hungry from yesterday's healing, Harry scooped up the last of his mashed potatoes, wondering if he could possibly convince Dobby to bring him a third helping. He was placing his fork on the tray on the bedside table when a stray glance Severus' way fixed his gaze on those beloved black eyes.

Harry dropped the fork and took hold of Severus' nearby left hand. "Severus."

Understandably enough, Severus' face filled with confusion.

Harry was glad to see it. Confusion meant Severus was thinking, or attempting to think. There had been a very real possibility that his lover would wake up insane after all he'd suffered.

Severus opened his mouth to reply. A harsh, incomprehensible grating sound filled the air instead of his beautiful, rich voice.

Harry could tell the exact moment Severus' memories kicked in by the change in expression on his face. One moment, Severus was charmingly befogged; the next, bleak despair filled his eyes.

"You're all right," Harry insisted, squeezing the hand he held. "You're safe at Hogwarts. Most of your injuries have already healed, and I'm working on repairing your hand and tongue. You're going to be whole again, Severus. I promise."

Harry couldn't interpret the emotion in Severus gaze.

Severus' mouth opened again. He lifted his right arm up towards his face. It froze halfway there and Severus simply stared down at the stump with its layer of new growth. Harry had the clear impression that Severus had forgotten his hand was missing. After a second, Severus' left hand slipped out of Harry's grasp and rose to his mouth, his index finger dipping in to feel around. He seemed to be exploring the scope of his injuries.

Harry was intimately aware of what he'd find, from the inside out, as well as visually. He'd spent the last week patiently coaxing the quarter inch of flesh there into existence. The same could be said for Severus' right hand, which now had a tiny quarter inch bud of new flesh flowering at the end. It mightn't be much to show for the amount of power he'd fed into Severus' system, but since the growth was impossible at all, Harry wasn't complaining. He was convinced that the hand and tongue would grow back in time. That was all that was important.

Severus' finger slowly left his mouth. Harry saw him draw a deep, shuddery sounding breath before he squeezed his eyes closed and turned on his side to face the wall.

He couldn't imagine what Severus was going through. What would anyone be feeling after having been raped, tortured, and mutilated? Severus Snape was one of the strongest men he knew, but that kind of nightmare was enough to break any man.

The worst part was that Harry didn't know how to comfort him. What could he say or do that would take away what that bastard Burke had done to him? At a complete loss, Harry laid his hand on Severus' shoulder.

Severus gave what Harry suspected was an instinctive flinch at the contact. He'd been hurt so badly; it was hardly surprising.

Harry's automatic response was to pull his hand back, but he stopped himself at the last moment and left his hand on that bony, blanket-covered shoulder. Giving the shoulder a light squeeze, he softly said, "It's just me. Do you . . . do you want me to remove my hand? Is it making you uncomfortable?"

Harry wasn't even aware that he was holding his breath until it whooshed out in a relieved gush when the dark head on the nearby pillow gave a negative shake.

Abandoning his chair, he perched on the bed beside Severus' hips. "Are you in pain?"

Poppy had Severus on some major painkilling potions, but there had been no way to tell if they were strong enough while Severus remained unconscious.

Another negative looking shake of Severus' head followed his question.

Harry knew his lover had to be in some pain. Those potions couldn't keep the kind of discomfort rebuilding Severus' tongue and hand engendered completely at bay, but clearly it was of a manageable level. Harry was doing his best to buffer the discomfort magically, but his principal focus had to be the healings, so he wasn't certain what level of pain Severus might be facing.

But Severus said he wasn't in extreme pain and he didn't mind his touch. Harry tried again, "Can you look at me so I can see your eyes?"

Severus seemed to be hugging the truncated stump that was all that was left of his right hand to his chest as he lay there on his side facing the wall.

There was no telling what Severus was feeling. Just thinking about how he'd be if their positions were reversed filled Harry with a cold dread.

Perplexed, he watched Severus give yet another negative shake of his head to his request to look at him.

He hadn't anticipated that refusal. All he really wanted to do was take Severus into his arms and hold him until the hurting passed. Wondering if Severus had a similar need, he softly said, "I know you're hurting. I was so damn scared that I'd lost you; I still can't believe you're really here. Can I . . . can I hold you? You can say no," Realizing that Severus couldn't, in fact, say 'no', he quickly rephrased, "I mean, you can refuse if you'd rather not. I'd like to just lie down beside you and put my arms around you for a little while. Is that all right?"

Braced for another negative head shake, it took Harry almost a minute to realize that he'd received a visibly hesitant nod of agreement.

Harry quickly toed off his trainers. Moving as if Severus were delicate as fine porcelain, he eased onto the bed. Realizing that he wasn't going to be able to hold Severus while sitting outside the blankets wrapped around his lover, he shifted in the bed until he could slip beneath them.

He settled down on the bed behind Severus. Spooning himself to Severus' back, he carefully eased his left arm under him and snuggled in close.

After the last week and a half of non-stop worry and fear, feeling the living, breathing warmth that was Severus in his arms felt like sheer nirvana to Harry. He inhaled deeply, taking in as much of Severus' familiar scent as he could as he lay there hugging him.

He tensed as Severus moved in his arms. At first he worried that Severus might by trying to move away from him, but then he realized how totally wrong his fear was. His throat tightened in a choking knot as he felt Severus' left hand and the stump of his right hand clutch Harry's own hands tight to Severus' chest.

With Severus' tongue gone, he couldn't even determine if his pain were emotional or physical. He suspected it was probably both. He knew from personal experience that those pain reduction potions were only so effective.

As for the emotional damage, what man could have endured what Severus had gone through and emerge unscathed? Harry knew they were damn lucky Severus was still sane. He was awed by his lover's fortitude. He didn't know if he could have survived what Severus had been through with his mind intact. But the admiration he felt didn't tell him how to help the man.

Harry hadn't a clue as to what he should say, if anything. Somehow, it had been easier finding Severus and dealing with Burke than handling the damage the bastard had caused. He wished that he'd been able to help Severus the same way he had Ron, that his lover would have woken up whole and healed instead of . . . broken. Or better still, he wished that he could have prevented the whole thing from happening. That was what he really wanted.

No matter how hard he tried to shake the feeling, Harry couldn't help but believe that this was all his fault. He'd given his word that he'd keep Severus safe. Fat lot of good his promise had done. He wondered if Severus held him as responsible as he held himself.

Nothing in Severus' attitude suggested that Severus was harbouring any resentment towards him. He could ask, of course. Harry was tempted to do just that, but . . . the only point in bringing up the topic would be to ease his guilty conscience. That wasn't exactly fair to Severus. Right now, the only important issue was Severus' recovery. Everything else had to take a backseat.

So Harry just held on, hoping that the closeness would somehow help.

It sure went a long way in easing his own anxieties.

*~*~*

Burke had been right, Severus acknowledged. He was a weak, snivelling coward.

He knew that after what had happened, after what Harry had heard, that their . . . romantic connection was a thing of the past. Yet, he was allowing himself to go along with the pretence that nothing had changed, allowing himself to give in to his weakness and accept the comfort Harry was offering.

It was all terribly confusing. When he'd awoken, he'd expected Harry to be gone, or at the very least, for Harry's attitude towards him to have changed irreparably. Only, Harry wasn't acting as if Burke's disclosure of the unfortunate choices he'd made in his youth had changed anything. But, then, Harry was such an utter Gryffindor that it was entirely possible he'd continue to offer an incapacitated lover the comfort and support he'd been lavishing on him these last few weeks until he was healed. Never kick a man while he was down was the credo of most true Gryffindors, and Severus had to admit that he'd never felt as down as he was at the present moment.

Burke had crippled him more than physically. He couldn't speak to utter a spell. His wand hand was gone. And, for all that he was a powerful wizard in his own right, he'd never been capable of the instantaneous magic that Harry and Voldemort accomplished so easily. He'd tried holding his wand in his left hand to cast spells, but magic flowed in very much the same way that rivers did. It was difficult to impossible to induce the energy to reverse its course once direction had been decided. The power wanted to flow through his right hand to his wand, and no matter how hard Severus concentrated, he couldn't reroute the energy to his left hand. He hadn't been able to manage so much as a simple levitation or summoning spell. He couldn't perform a cleansing charm or the simplest transfigurations that he'd been capable of since first year. For all intents and purposes, his magic had been ripped from him. He wasn't any better off than a Squib at the present moment.

The most frustrating ordeal of all was his missing tongue. Not being able to speak was a trial like none he'd suffered in his often miserable life. He couldn't tell Poppy to decrease the dosage of the pain killer she was administering. He'd rather suffer the pain than a dulled mind. He couldn't respond to conversation with anything but a nod or headshake. He couldn't tell people to go away and leave him the hell alone. He'd tried writing his thoughts with his left hand, but the resulting scribble was incomprehensible even to himself. Hermione Weasley had brought that portable computer device to help, but it took him so long to pick out the letters that he rarely employed it. The end result was that he couldn't communicate on anything but the most primitive of levels. The mental isolation was driving him slowly insane, not that that was a very far trip these days.

In the silence of his own mind, all he could do was relive those horrible two days Burke had held him captive. He'd faced torture in his past – there wasn't a single follower of Lord Voldemort who hadn't felt his master's displeasure – and yet, the worst that Voldemort had done to him had been nothing compared to what Burke had inflicted upon him. That Muggle rack was unlike anything he'd ever encountered, excruciating beyond words. As for the more inventive of Burke's entertainments . . . Severus could barely bear to remember the rest of it.

Of course, the ache in the stump at the end of his right arm and the empty place where his tongue had been were constant reminders. And those hadn't even been the worst of it. The rapes had been . . . he couldn't even find an adjective that would describe those brutal, dry violations. He knew on a mental level that those sexual assaults had been just another form of torture, no different than the whip that had violated his flesh, but . . . the whip hadn't left him feeling dirty. He could have returned to Potter's bed after all the rest.

Hell, he might even have been able to carry on after the sexual molestation, but what Burke had done in his mind was with him constantly. That bastard had laid bare everything he felt for Harry, held his pathetic hopes up to the light and made him see how utterly impossible they were. He'd known from the start that Harry was too good for the likes of him, but he'd thought that perhaps just this once . . . well, Burke had made sure that those hopes would die as all his hopes always had.

Burke had told Harry what he'd done with Malfoy in school.

He couldn't bear the thought of Harry knowing about that sordid business. His entire life before Harry, sex had been in the same category as what Malfoy had done to him. He'd been there to be used for others' pleasures. That he'd learned to enjoy being used that way was fortunate for his sake, but it didn't change what he'd been. His whole life, he'd known that he wasn't . . . worthy of the type of caring relationships most wizards enjoyed. He'd been ugly and dislikeable from birth. He was such a disappointment that his parents hadn't even been able to love him. Harry was the only lover who had ever treated him with respect and kindness, who had ever . . . cared.

And now Harry knew the truth.

Severus realized that things would change between them now – how could they not? Harry was carrying on as though he hadn't heard Burke's words or as if they hadn't mattered to him, but how could it not matter to Harry that the man he was sleeping with had been little more than a whore? Gryffindors embodied the spirit of honour, and what he had been was so far from honourable that he knew Harry had to hold him in contempt now.

Doubtless, Harry was waiting until he was healed and back on his feet to break it off with him.

And healed, he would be. Every day the flesh in his mouth and at the end of his right arm grew exponentially as this mighty wizard forced the laws of magic and nature to conform to his will. If it had been anyone other than Harry, the unnatural healings would have been terrifying, because if Harry could change those previously immutable laws of nature, then what couldn't he change?

Even with it being Harry exerting these unheard of levels of power, there was still something frightening about how easily Harry was accomplishing what should have been downright impossible tasks. Of course, Severus had witnessed Harry do things that had forever shattered the illusion that Harry Potter was simply a carefree, innocent young wizard like other young men his age.

Severus knew on a visceral level what most people forgot, that this man had bested a dark wizard while in diapers and killed another at age eleven. Harry Potter was no more simple, innocent, or normal than he himself had ever been. Harry just hid his aberrations better.

Severus had the vivid, chilling memory of the blue mage fire flaring from Harry's fingers in that god-awful dungeon. It had passed harmlessly over Severus where he himself lay chained to the rack, but hit Burke like the wrath of the gods. Perhaps even more disturbing than that dramatic, thaumaturgical tour-de-force was the expression on Harry's normally gentle face as he'd watched Burke burn to death. There had been absolutely no hint of remorse, which had surprised Severus on some level. He knew the sadistic bastard had had it coming in spades, but that Harry could consciously inflict that kind of damage without regret was more than a little unnerving.

He knew if he had a whit of sense, he'd be scared to death of Harry, but he knew him too well to fear him, at least magically. Emotionally, he'd never felt as frightened of anyone as he was of this handsome man who sat by his bed all day, every day.

That last was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, Severus acknowledged. Harry did leave him briefly to change and shower every morning, and check in with Ron Weasley, who was standing in for Harry as the DADA teacher while on his extended leave from the Aurors. But most of the day, Harry was at his side.

Severus knew he should be similarly concerned about who was teaching his classes, but at the moment, he couldn't spare the energy. He was hurting, physically weak, confused, and increasingly depressed as he acknowledged the course he was going to have to take once he was better. In a way, he was grateful that he wasn't capable of speech, for it had postponed the inevitable, but Severus knew that the only way he was going to be able to save face at all in this situation was to break it off with Harry, before Harry could dump him.

"Ah, you're awake," the subject of Severus' thoughts said as he entered his infirmary room. Harry was looking particularly attractive today in his light blue jumper. It was a sharp contrast against his black teacher's robes and black trousers. "Hermione sent down another stack of books for you to read. She and Ron will be in to see you later."

Harry rested the impressive pile on the nightstand where a similar pile was standing. Severus hadn't touched any of the books himself, but Harry and the Weasleys seemed to enjoy reading to him.

He didn't understand the Weasleys' continued presence in his sickroom. Snatches of conversation that he'd overheard when they'd thought him asleep had told him that they'd been here the night Harry rescued him from Burke. They had to know what Burke had done to him. For that matter, it was entirely possible that Harry might have told them what Burke had disclosed about his past. He knew Harry had no secrets from his oldest friends, and, yet, every day, both Hermione and Ronald Weasley stopped in to sit with him. Sometimes they took turns with Harry reading to him, but most times they just shared school gossip.

It made no sense at all to Severus. They should be gone, and urging Harry to separate himself from him as quickly as possible, and, yet, the Weasleys returned here every day, smiling and filling the room with an insufferable cheer that Severus would have cursed them for were he able to access his magic.

Or perhaps not. It shamed him to admit it, but in his current condition, he was horribly susceptible to their kindness. He didn't understand their reason for continuing to associate with him. It was more than simply for Harry's sake, because they often came to visit when Harry was unconscious after healings and fussed over him as much as Potter did. Whatever the Weasleys' motivation, he was grateful for their presence, for it fostered a sense of normality that he was clinging to quite desperately at the moment.

"Dobby snuck some of that blancmange that you like so much out from the kitchens," Harry said, withdrawing a charmed bowl of the golden sweet and a spoon from one of the voluminous pockets of his robes and coming to sit beside his hips on the bed. Severus couldn't help but wonder if the house elf had really done so or if Harry had simply manifested the pudding to please him. "Would you like some?"

Severus looked away, as he always did, whenever food was on offer. He was trying hard not to be melodramatic, for he wasn't the first wizard in the history of the world to endure either torture or rape, but he really couldn't help but wish that he hadn't been alive when Harry had found Burke's hiding place. It would be easier for all concerned if he'd simply died there.

He heard Harry's stifled sigh. He managed not to flinch this time when Harry's free hand cupped his cheek and guided his face back.

"Have some, please? For me?" Harry pleaded.

As he did every time Harry voiced that particular request, Severus succumbed. He knew it was weak. He knew he should be denying all this fussing and walling himself off, but he nonetheless opened his mouth when Harry held a spoonful of the blancmange to his lips.

They both knew he could have eaten it himself with his left hand, but Harry seemed to like doing these small things for him.

"I don't know what you're thinking," Harry said in a gentle tone as he continued to patiently feed him the pudding. "But I can tell that it isn't good."

His thoughts were so far from 'good' that Severus couldn't hold back the snort that huffed out his nose.

"Understatement of the century, huh?" Harry asked.

The abject concern and understanding in those gentle green eyes was devastating. Severus didn't know how to deny or respond to it. All he knew was that he didn't deserve it.

"Please, don't let that son of a bitch win. You're the strongest person I know. You will get through this. Just . . . don't give up, please?" Harry whispered, looking as if he weren't sure he should speak at all.

It was almost as if Harry were reading his mind. Severus would almost have suspected him of it, but after the recent violations, he was unnaturally conscious of his mental integrity. He would have known if Harry were peeking into his thoughts. For all his power, Potter wasn't that skilled in the mental disciplines. Harry's mind touch was too blunt and open for subtlety.

No, the explanation was even more frightening than that. Harry simply knew him well enough to suspect the course his thoughts were taking. But then, again, his attempts at refusing food had hardly been subtle, either.

The hand not holding the pudding spoon reached out to stroke Severus' none too clean hair back from his forehead.

"Have you any idea how grateful I am to have you back?" Harry asked.

The energy Potter was expending for his healing and his refusal to leave his side had given Severus a pretty good idea of how shaken Harry had been by his abduction. When Harry looked into his eyes like this and touched him so tenderly, he could almost believe that the things Burke had told Harry made no difference to him.

"I know this whole thing has been an unending nightmare for you. And I know it's taking a terribly long time, but I'm working as fast as I can to heal you. Please, Severus, hold on a little longer?"

Severus squeezed his eyes shut as Harry leaned forward to place a soft kiss on the centre of his forehead. The idea of losing this was almost more than he could stand; only . . . he'd already lost it when Burke had spilled his filthy secrets. Even if Harry were somehow capable of overlooking what he'd done, Severus couldn't bear the idea of Harry knowing.

It was all just too much for him to deal with.

When Harry's arms circled him, he didn't have the strength to pull away. He needed this, maybe more than he needed the healings, maybe even more than he needed air. Shaking at the thought of what he was going to have to do, Severus let himself be weak for a little while longer.

*~*~*

"Ooooo!"

Harry rolled out of the bed at the terrified exclamation from the other side of the candlelit room. Still half-asleep and groggy from the latest healing, he stared around Severus' infirmary room.

The harsh sound that had woken him had come from Severus, who was currently thrashing around under the bedclothes as though trying to fight his way clear of restraints. That that was precisely what his lover believed himself to be doing while locked in the latest nightmare was in no way reassuring. Severus was giving him a run for his money when it came to night terrors lately.

Harry crossed to Severus' bed and perched on the side beside his lover's hips. Sweat and tears were streaming down Severus' face as he fought the tangled bedclothes. A low, hopeless moan filled the room.

Wishing he could end this suffering the way Severus had ended most of his night terrors, Harry laid a careful hand on Severus' shoulder. "Severus?"

As happened every night, the instant he touched Severus, the other man bolted awake. Wide-eyed with fear, Severus stared around the room as he flinched away from Harry's hand.

"It's just me," Harry said in a soft voice. "You're safe. It was a nightmare."

Severus blinked and croaked, "Ha-hee?"

That was the closest Severus could get to his name these days. His tongue was nowhere near regenerated enough to allow proper pronunciation.

The instant Severus heard the sounds he'd produced, his eyes squeezed shut and he clamped his mouth closed as if to hold in all other sound.

He hated how Severus wouldn't try to communicate to whatever level he could. He understood about pride, but there came a time when a person had to deal with situations the way they were. He was healing Severus as quickly as he could, but it wasn't fast enough for either of them.

"It's okay. You're okay," Harry soothed. "May I touch you?"

Severus hadn't refused him yet, but he was always careful to ask, especially when Severus was still shaking from one of those damn nightmares. Once he'd received the expected nod, he reached out to brush Severus' sweaty hair back from where it was plastered to his face. He stroked Severus' hair until some of the tension seemed to leave his lean face and then softly asked, "Can I hold you?"

He didn't always get a 'yes' to that question. Severus wasn't able to tell him, of course, but Harry suspected on the nights he received a denial that Severus was too caught up in the memories of rape. Knowing what that degenerate Burke had done to Severus, he was amazed that his lover allowed him near at all. But it almost seemed as though Severus weren't able to refuse him.

Harry released a slow, relieved breath as Severus gave another nod and shifted over in the bed to make room for him. Lifting the bedclothes, he climbed in beside Severus. He lay flat on his back.

After a momentary hesitation, Severus slid closer and settled into his arms, resting his head on his chest and carefully laying his bandage wrapped stump with its new growth on Harry's arm.

Closing his eyes, Harry breathed in Severus' comforting scent and let his hand stroke over the sweat-damp nightshirt covering that slender back. Recognizing just how soaked Severus' nightshirt was, he performed a quick drying spell on it.

Severus gave an appreciative, "Mmmm," as the no doubt clammy garment became comfortably dry again.

Harry couldn't repress a shiver at that soft sound. Gods, how he missed holding Severus every night. He was grateful that Severus trusted him enough to allow him to comfort him this way, but Harry still missed the passion that had made them combust whenever they were horizontal together. Everything was so horribly tense now. It was hard to believe that things would ever get back to normal.

Still, a few weeks ago, he hadn't believed he'd ever have Severus back alive at all. He knew how lucky he was. Telling himself that it was just going to take some time, he recommenced rubbing Severus' back. When he heard Severus' breathing change into the deep, steady rhythm of sleep over an hour later, he pressed a kiss onto the crown of Severus' head and closed his own eyes, even though he knew he wouldn't sleep again now.

He hated watching Severus suffer this way.

More than anything, he wished he could erase what had happened. If he could just have been in Diagon Alley with Severus that day, Burke never would have gotten hold of him and none of this would have happened. But it had happened, and it wasn't like he could change time . . . .

Harry's thoughts froze on the words 'change time'. While it was true that the only time turner he knew about had been destroyed, he'd experienced what going back in time felt like. He was intimately familiar with magic that pushed at reality until reality gave, allowing a wizard to affect his will upon previously unalterable conditions.

Could changing the past really be all that more difficult than healing Severus?

He had no idea how to make a time turner, but there was a part of him that knew he could recreate that magic if he tried. It wouldn't be easy, but . . . it would spare Severus this agony and that was all that mattered.

Resolved to give it a try, he rested his lips against the crown of Severus' head and tried to sleep.

*~*~*

Deciding to alter time was quite different from actually doing it; Harry was forced to admit three days later as he sat at his desk in his room contemplating his last two attempts. The power requirements were . . . exorbitant, and he still had to heal Severus afterwards.

The most frustrating part was he had no way of knowing if he'd succeeded. For the last two days, he'd pushed at the fabric of time with his considerable power. Something had seemed to give, but . . . he was sitting at his desk, in a room with no Muggle timepiece, so he had no way of determining if he'd gone back in time a minute, an hour, a day, or not at all. Since he didn't end up sitting in his own lap, he suspected that nothing had happened both times, even though he'd felt as if something had.

Today, he was going to be smarter about it. Taking a piece of blank parchment out of his top drawer, he tore it in two and left it sitting on the blotter before him. This way, if the paper were gone after his latest attempt, he'd at least know that something had happened.

Even as he started to draw on his powers, he knew how completely illegal what he was doing was. Time manipulation was strictly forbidden, for good reason. No sane person meddled with time. But . . . Harry knew he was far from sane.

Mental or not, the illegal experimentation was taking its toll on his nerves. For the last two days, he'd felt like someone was watching him when he was doing his time experimentation. If he let his concentration drift, he swore he could feel an intensely powerful wizard in the room with him. But thorough searching had turned up not so much as a house ghost. He was totally alone in his chambers. And, yet, he still had that palpable sense of being watched while power danced along his skin like heat lightning across the horizon.

Deciding it was merely a guilty conscience, he set to work.

Taking a deep breath, he concentrated on going back to a time before he tore the paper, focusing all his energy on pushing time until it gave. He threw so much power at it this morning that he wasn't sure he'd have sufficient energy left for Severus' afternoon healing.

Just as had happened the last two mornings, Harry felt that same strange sense of disassociation that he'd experienced the one time Hermione and he had used the time turner in third year.

Opening his eyes, he stared around the room. The weak light of the grey January day outside his window looked very much the same as the light had when he'd started, only . . . .

Only, when he looked at his desk, the parchment he'd just shredded was nowhere in sight – which meant he'd either gone back to a time before he'd shredded it or had moved forward to after the house elves had cleaned the mess up.

Truly excited, Harry bounced to his feet. He'd done it! But done what? He had no idea . . . when he was.

There had to be some way of telling how far he'd gone back. Remembering that Ron had a subscription to the Daily Prophet, he rushed to the open door that connected the Weasleys' and his sitting rooms.

As usual, there was a clutter of old newspapers on the coffee table, interspersed with quidditch magazines and Hermione's neat piles of books.

Harry grabbed up the paper on top of the pile. The date was two days ago.

That didn't necessarily mean anything, he tried to tell himself, quelling the burst of triumph that shot through him. It was entirely possible that Ron had left the other two papers in the loo or brought them down to the DADA classroom with him. All he'd proved with this experiment so far was that he could change time.

But that in itself was a major miracle.

Bursting with excitement, Harry knew he had to share this discovery with someone. He had to tell Severus about this.

His mind already plotting how he'd intercept Burke out in front of the ice cream parlour, he hurried down the stairs from Gryffindor Tower to the infirmary.

He paused inside the infirmary door. The place wasn't empty. The main ward had a couple of third years who'd collided in the latest Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw quidditch match peacefully sleeping on beds near the door. He was pretty sure that the pair had been released a couple of days ago, which was encouraging as far as being consistent with the timeline.

Harry quietly crossed through the ward, eased open the door to Severus' private room, and froze in the doorway at the sight before him. Severus was sound asleep in his bed, but he wasn't alone. They'd obviously just finished a healing because Harry himself was lying unconscious in the bed beside Severus. The blue shirt he was wearing seemed to confirm that it was, in fact, two days ago, for that was the shirt he'd worn on Monday when he'd first started messing with time.

It abruptly occurred to him that he'd forgotten something very important. Going back in time from the future didn't erase the Harry that was already living in the past. Recalling how adamant Hermione had been in third year about not meeting themselves, he quickly stepped out of the room as Severus' eyelids flickered as if they might open. He couldn't be sure that Severus didn't see him as he withdrew.

Damn, how could he have forgotten that he'd be here in the infirmary with Severus? What was he thinking?

Panicking at the thought of someone seeing the duplicate him, Harry hurried back up to Gryffindor Tower. Fortunately, class was already in session and he passed no one in the halls going back.

Once he reached his quarters, he locked the door behind him and pretty much collapsed into the nearest easy chair. That was close. He couldn't imagine how upsetting it would have been for Severus to open his eyes and find two Harry Potters in the room. Considering what Burke had done to poor Carl Westfield, Harry wouldn't have been surprised if Severus had thought it was his abductor playing more mind games on him.

Appalled by the consequences his rash action could have had on Severus, he sat there berating himself for an utter idiot.

Deciding that this had been a really bad idea, perhaps the worst idea he'd ever had in a life of hare brained plots, he hauled himself up and moved to his desk with the thought of undoing what he'd done and returning to when he'd started the experiment, only . . . as he sat down at his desk, he didn't know if he could pinpoint his return to the correct day and time. He'd had no control at all over where he'd ended up going backwards. What was to say he'd have any more success travelling forward?

Granted, all he'd been thinking about when he'd used his magic to turn back time was returning to a point prior to when he tore the parchment. Theoretically, if he concentrated on arriving two days hence, he should return to the correct day. But after this morning's close call with Severus in the infirmary, he was afraid to try going forward. What if he miscalculated and ended up appearing in the room when Hermione or Ron were in here with him? How would he ever explain that? Hermione would murder him.

Or what if he overshot the date entirely, and rematerialized a hundred years in the future?

This was a nightmare.

Harry racked his brain, attempting to find a foolproof way to end up where he wanted to be. He came up blank. Magic was accomplished as much through belief as the exertion of power. He knew that these doubts he was experiencing on his ability to safely return to his own time would sabotage his attempt as readily as a lack of power, which left him with only one alternative.

There was only one way to guarantee that he didn't mess things up any more than he'd already done, he was finally forced to acknowledge. The safest way of getting back to his own time intact was to stay out of sight and wait the two days out. Theoretically, as soon as he vanished to test his time changing theory, he should be able to step back into his own reality without creating a time when two Harry Potters coexisted. Fortunately, this morning's efforts had only brought him back two days. It was a long time to hide, but he was very conscious of the fact that he could have ended up two years back or two thousand.

Waiting had its own risks, of course, for there was a greater chance of someone stumbling upon him during those two days than if he'd only been here for a brief visit, but . . . he really couldn't see any other alternative.

Venting a resigned sigh, he stared around his empty quarters, realizing that it was going to be a very long two days.

*~*~*

"Harry?"

Harry started like a thief at the soft sound of his name, so startled that the brush he'd forgotten he was holding fell out of his hand to bang onto his dresser. He'd spent so much time hiding in his quarters earlier in the week that he'd forgotten that he had a legitimate right to be seen in them now.

"Hi," he said to Hermione as she entered his bedroom. He had no idea how long he'd been staring off into space. He'd come up here to change and shower some time ago. Since he'd ditched his time experimentation efforts, he felt oddly helpless again.

"I just left Severus. I marked where I left off in the book," Hermione said, her brown eyes studying him.

"Thanks . . . for everything," Harry said. She and Ron had been down to see Severus every day at lunch and then again after dinner since they'd recovered him from Burke.

"There's nothing to thank me for," Hermione denied and then softly asked, "What's wrong?"

"He's just so . . . depressed," Harry said at last, not knowing how to describe Severus' condition. Depression seemed inadequate, somehow. "I mean, I know it's understandable with everything he's been through. It's just . . . ."

"It hurts. I know," Hermione said. "Ron's still not himself. I guess none of us are." After a moment of glum silence, she perked up and offered, "We just have to keep trying. It won't be much longer. Severus' hand is back."

"I wouldn't call that pathetic thing a hand, Hermione," Harry argued, shuddering at the thought of the strange looking appendage that was now at the end of Severus' right arm. It looked like a foetal hand had somehow been grafted onto Severus' arm. The same was true of his developing tongue. The tissue was shaped right. It just wasn't of proper size yet.

"It will be in a few more days," Hermione insisted. "I still can't believe you did it."

"It's taken forever," Harry couldn't help but complain. He hoped it didn't sound as much of a whine to Hermione as it did to him.

"It's only been three weeks," Hermione corrected. "Hardly forever. And it shouldn't have healed at all. You know how amazing what you've done is."

"It doesn't feel very amazing," Harry admitted, unable to hold back his frustration with how slow the healing was progressing.

"That's because you're overtired and depressed yourself," she said.

His chin snapped up. "What do you mean 'depressed'?"

"For God's sake, Harry, you love the man. What was done to Severus hurt you as much as it hurt him. You need to be more patient with yourself."

He thought she might be right. He'd felt like hell since Severus was abducted. He had only to think of the crazy scheme he'd tried earlier in the week to know how desperate he was. Desperate and depressed pretty much summed him up these days, he realized.

"You should have been a Muggle shrink. You know that, don't you? You're wasted in this school," Harry complimented her.

Hermione giggled. "Was there ever any place that needed a psychiatrist on staff more than Hogwarts? I mean, Filch alone is enough to keep an analyst busy full time 24/7."

Harry felt a grin spread across his face. "You've got me there. Did you know he railed off the main hall Tuesday after mopping it so no one would track dirt across his clean floor? Minerva was not amused."

Harry didn't expound upon the particulars, that it had been the footprints his invisible self had left on his way back from raiding the dinner table in the Great Hall that had driven poor Filch over the edge.

Even without his explanation, they broke into much needed laughter. He didn't know what he'd do without Hermione and Ron. Whenever things got really bad, they always kept him sane.

"Severus will be all right," Hermione said once their laughter calmed.

"I know you're right. It's just . . . ."

"You're worried," Hermione said, stepping forward to hug him. "How could you not be? We're all worried about him."

"It's more than just worry. I think I might be going a little mad myself," Harry found himself confessing.

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked.

Knowing that he should tell someone the insane things he'd been doing, he softly said, "I've been considering ways to make this better. I think I figured out how to do it."

"You know you've figured out how to do it. Severus' hand and tongue will be healed any day now," Hermione said.

"No, that's not what I'm talking about," Harry said. "I want to make it so this never happens to him."

"What?" she asked.

"I, er, I'm going to go back and kill the bastard in Diagon Alley before he gets to Severus," Harry said, adding a reluctant. "As soon as I can figure out how to control when I show up."

"You mean go back in time?" Hermione questioned. The fact that she didn't immediately scorn his ability to do so told him that, unlike Ron, she had a clear scope of his abilities.

"Yeah. If I can take out Burke before he gets to Severus -"

"Harry, stop, please. You know how dangerous time travel is, let alone changing events," Hermione said.

"We've done it before," Harry reminded her, not mentioning his own misadventure earlier in the week.

"Yes, we did. But we were children then and didn't really understand the dangers of what we were doing."

"But it worked," Harry said.

"Yes, it did."

"So why do you think it won't work now. I know we don't have a time turner anymore, but . . . I don't need one. I've been pushing at . . . well, I don't know what to call it. I guess the fabric of time, and . . . I can get through."

"You've been trying this?" Hermione voice held a rising note of horror.

Harry gave a reluctant nod. "I went back two days in time earlier in the week. I couldn't figure out how to get back to exactly when I started, so . . . I waited it out. I was hoping you might have some ideas on how to control when I appear. If I can just figure out how to control when I arrive . . . I think I can go back to the exact moment I need to and . . . ."

"And kill Burke on the street?" Hermione questioned.

Harry gave a grim nod. "I don't like the idea of striking first, but I know what he'll do to Severus if I don't fix it -"

"Harry, it's already happened. You can't fix it, not without changing everything," Hermione insisted in a warning tone.

"And what would be so wrong about that? What would it hurt if Severus just came home from the store with my ice cream that day and I moved down into the dungeon and our lives went on the way they were supposed to?" Harry challenged.

"Nearly three weeks of events have gone by since Severus was abducted. If you change what happened to Severus, you'll be changing all of that as well."

"Once again, what would be so bad about that?" he knew he sounded like a truculent child, but he couldn't help it. What had happened to Severus was wrong, and he had the ability to fix it. All he needed was better control. He knew he wasn't smart enough to figure this out on his own, but Hermione could do it. Her intelligence was equally as frightening as his freaky powers.

"Maybe nothing, but we don't know that. Once you change what happened, we can't be sure of anything anymore. We know you were able to best Burke after seeing what he'd done to Severus, but we don't know how you'll fare if you attack him cold, as it were," Hermione said.

"What do you mean?" he asked, surprised that she seemed to actually be considering the idea. He'd been certain he'd have to argue her into the ground to get her help.

"I know you, Harry. You couldn't just kill someone, not without a hell of a motivation. What if you needed the horror of seeing what was done to Severus in order to kill Burke? Without that anger, you mightn't be able to take him down so easily."

Harry remembered how he'd had to foster his hate to reach the stage where he could use his mage fire to destroy Burke, but . . . even now, he had that level of hate broiling in him. "I'm angry enough. Take my word for it."

She studied him for a long moment before giving a soft, "Okay. You're angry enough, and maybe you're determined and strong enough to do it, but . . . ."

"But what?" Harry demanded, at his wits' end. If she believed he was powerful enough to do it, then what was the problem?

"You're not going to be isolated in some distant keep. If you attack Burke before he gets to Severus, you're going to be duelling with a wizard of Voldemort's power on the most populated street in the Wizarding World. What if you don't take him by surprise? What if he's ready for you? Severus was abducted in front of an ice cream parlour. There could be children there."

"Mr. Fortescue said it was a very slow morning. That was why he saw what happened to Severus; he wasn't busy," Harry said.

"It wasn't busy on the day Severus was abducted. The minute you step back into time, you alter it. You can't say that events will happen exactly the same way, because your presence has already changed those events. If you attack Burke on the street, you might take him out as easily as you did in his keep, or it might get messy. You might have to duel with him. You know he wouldn't be above throwing an Unforgivable at a passer-by to distract you. Innocent strangers could be hurt or killed. Are you willing to risk that?"

He felt his last real hope of truly fixing things shatter. He knew time travel was crazy; after spending two days hiding in his own armoire, he knew it. But even knowing it was insane, he was willing to give it a try. He was willing to risk his own life to spare Severus the torture that he'd endured, but he wasn't quite insane enough to risk hurting innocent bystanders.

Apparently, his despair must have shown in his face, for Hermione reached out to squeeze his arm. "Harry, I understand how desperately you want to spare Severus what happened to him. We all would, if we could, but . . . changing time isn't the way."

"I . . . I just want him back," he mumbled. "I know you're right, it's just . . . this is so damn wrong, so wrong." His eyes started to sting. He'd known it was a crazy plan, but it was the only one he'd been able to come up with to save Severus.

Her arms came around him as his voice broke. He buried his face in her shoulder and held onto her for all he was worth.

"Sssh," Hermione murmured, holding on to him.

Overwhelmed, he muttered into her shoulder, "He's had such a hard life. People have . . . mistreated Severus since he was a baby. On Christmas day, I promised him that I'd never let anyone hurt him again. I've done a piss poor job of protecting him."

"If it weren't for you, he'd be dead. No one else could have saved him from Burke, and no one else could have healed him." She rubbed his back for a long time. Much later, when he felt ready to pull back, she added, "Severus is going to be fine. We'll get him through this, Harry, no matter what it takes."

"But no time travel, right?" he checked, in case she'd changed her mind.

"No," she said with a sad smile, "no more time travel. It's just going to take longer this way."

"Yeah. I know you're right. I just want to see him happy again," Harry said.

"You will," Hermione assured in the tone of a promise.

"I don't know what I'd do without you," Harry admitted. "I know you don't want to hear it, but thank you. You keep me from going crazy; you know that, don't you?"

Hermione gave him another quick hug and stepped back to look into his eyes.

"There isn't anyone in this castle who hasn't been crazy for years. Come on. It's almost time for you to do the impossible again," Hermione said with a mischievous grin.

Nothing had really changed, but somehow, he felt better for having talked to her. Finding a smile for her from somewhere, he fell in step beside her as they left his quarters.

*~*~*

It was difficult to define what it felt like to be the organic conduit through which Harry Potter's concentrated power flowed. Severus was accustomed to feeling Harry's power move through him in bed, but that was nothing like these daily healings. Every day, Harry loosed upon him an energy potent enough to blast Hogwarts and possibly Hogsmeade as well to smithereens. Severus had never felt anything like this raw power. The scope was staggering.

He knew the healings should be agonizing. He'd had enough bones regrown over the years to know how excruciating regrowth was. Only, Harry was somehow controlling the pain.

Severus couldn't say that the experience was comfortable or pleasant, but it wasn't the torturous ordeal it should have been.

While Harry's power surged through him, gradually building in potency, Severus lay flat on his back and stared up at the man sitting beside him. With his eyes closed in concentration, Harry looked absurdly young and innocent. There was nothing in that comely visage to suggest that the young wizard was violating every law of nature and forcing reality to conform to his will through unprecedented expenditures of power. Every day when Harry did this, Severus was intensely conscious of the fact that he was witnessing an event never experienced before in the five thousand years of recorded Wizardry.

That it was being done solely for his sake was humbling.

He was awed by Harry's mastery of his power and his own body systems. On a mental plane, he knew that this level of energy should be frying every neuron he had. Yet, Harry was somehow monitoring the flow, controlling either it or Severus' system so that it did no harm to him. Their sex play had demonstrated how talented Harry was at controlling his power, but this type of manipulation was awe inspiring.

It was the same process every day. Harry would start out transferring a small amount of his power to him. The level of energy would gradually increase until an immeasurable amount of energy was flowing into him, building towards a blinding climax. The intense level of transfer would keep up for some time, gradually forcing Severus' flesh to regrow, and, then, in the end, Harry would seem to access hidden reservoirs of power and blast the new growth with a lightning strike of healing energy that made the flesh expand exponentially.

They were at that point now.

Severus took a deep breath as he felt Harry gathering that power, then the tremendous flash hit him in almost the same way that Harry's mage fire had taken Burke. Severus could literally feel his right hand and tongue expand.

The power flared to incomprehensible proportions. There was that moment of intense transformation that bordered on pain as every cell in his tongue and hand responded to Harry's command . . . and then the energy blast cut off like the last spurt of an orgasm.

The breath whooshed out of Harry, and the younger man collapsed face down right on top of him.

Severus was used to this dramatic finale by now. Taking hold of Harry's shoulders, he carefully rolled the unconscious man onto the other side of the bed, covering him with the duvet. It was only as he noticed his right hand resting on the warm white bedding that he recognized the transformation that had taken place. This morning, his hand had been about the size of a five year old's. Now, it was only a half inch shorter than his left hand.

Flexing his fingers, he stared at his new hand in amazement. Another day, and he'd have his hand back. Well, a newer version of his hand, for the skin of this one wasn't discoloured from years of exposure to caustic potions.

Realizing that his hand wasn't the only thing that had experienced this radical change, Severus moved his tongue around. He could finally reach the roof of his mouth and the back of his teeth. Up until this morning, his tongue had still been too small for proper pronunciation. He'd hated the way he'd sounded, so he'd refrained from speaking.

Almost afraid, Severus tried again. The H and A sounds had always been easy, but the Rs had defeated him, and he'd found the Ss impossible. But today, he thought he might manage it, so he gave a soft, "Har-ree."

He didn't even try to keep the resulting smile off his face.

The "Severus" he tried next still didn't sound quite right, but at least it was understandable.

He blanked the smile off his face as the door to his infirmary room opened and Poppy entered.

There was a time when he would have been mortified to have his colleague walk in and find Harry in his bed, even if it were perfectly innocent and Harry was unconscious as he was now. But he'd been too distracted to pay too much attention to proper etiquette lately. Even so, he realized how . . . accepting Poppy, Hagrid, and Minerva had been whenever they'd discovered Harry and him in what could be deemed a compromising position by the prudish. He didn't know if any of his co-workers beside the Weasleys knew the exact nature of Harry and his relationship, but no one had acted scandalized by the sight of an unconscious Harry cuddled close to him.

A soft expression came over Poppy's face as her gaze settled on Harry's unconscious form beside him. "Out again, is he?"

Normally, he would nod his response to her inane inquiries. Taking a deep breath, Severus braced himself and carefully answered, "Yessz."

The S sound still wasn't proper, but it was close.

Poppy appeared as thunderstruck as if the wall torch had just answered her. "Sweet Merlin! You're talking again!"

"A fact I'm szure many will szoon regret," Severus answered in his new, slow, careful speech. He suspected he was grinning back at Poppy, but at the moment, he thought any excesses were excusable.

"I'm so happy, Severus! This is just incredible. How is your hand?" she eagerly questioned.

Severus turned to dig his wand out from under the pillow. He'd been practicing a bit these last few days. His energy reserves were still frighteningly low, but at least his magic was accessible again.

Aiming his wand at a nearby water glass, he muttered a soft spell and levitated it over to him.

"Marvellous," Poppy applauded.

"What's marvellous?" Ronald Weasley asked as he and his wife entered Severus' room.

Severus realized that it must be lunch time. Hermione was holding something that looked suspiciously like nutbread, and Ron had a tray that Severus knew would contain three lunch plates. They came every day to eat with him and keep him company while Harry was unconscious.

"Thisz," Severus said, levitating the treat from Hermione's hand with a flick of his wand.

"Oh, god, you're healed!" Hermione all but squealed in delight, hurrying to the bed. "You sounded perfectly yourself."

She looked as if she were about to burst from excitement, as did her husband.

Severus was more than a little surprised by how happy they seemed.

"My Szes are sztill off," Severus pointed out.

"Not by much," Ron said.

"This is wonderful," Hermione said. "Can we see your hand?"

"It's sztill a little szmall, but . . . . " Severus held out his newly transformed right hand.

"Another day, and it will probably be perfect," Hermione said. "Even now, it's just amazing."

"I still can't believe he did it," Ron said, his warm gaze moving to where Harry slept unconscious at his side.

"It isz . . . quite miraculousz," Severus said, still overwhelmed by the ability to voice his thoughts. Realizing that this was a perfect opportunity to address an issue that had been troubling him for the last few weeks in his silent prison, he softly asked, "Wasz it . . . common knowledge that my hand and tongue were . . . amputated? I only aszk becausze exzplaining their reappearancz without introduczing Harry'sz involvement will be difficult."

Hermione's face gentled with understanding as she answered, "Ron reported to the Ministry that you were tortured and at death's door when Harry rescued you, but he didn't tell them the nature of your injuries. The only people who know about the amputations outside of the people in this room are Minerva and Hagrid." As if realizing his concerns on that score, she quickly added, "Hagrid understands that Harry's very life could be at stake here. None of us wanted to let Hagrid visit, but he was so worried about you that Harry insisted we let him in."

Severus nodded. Potter's trust would be the death of him one day. Still, over the years Hagrid had managed to keep many an Order secret. The only time Hagrid's discretion was unreliable was when he was dealing with people he trusted implicitly, and most of those people were here in this room. So . . . Harry should be safe.

Severus nodded and relaxed back against the pillow.

"Well, I'll leave him in your capable hands for a while, shall I?" Poppy said with another grin. "It's good to have you back as your old self again, Severus."

Remarkably, she seemed to mean the words.

"Thank you," Severus softly acknowledged.

Once she'd left, Hermione began to hand out their lunch plates.

Severus accepted the plate she handed him. As usual, it contained only his favourites. Wanting to satisfy his curiosity, he asked, "He gave you a liszt, didn't he?"

Hermione smiled and nodded. "A quite detailed one."

"Instructions for the Care and Feeding of the Severus," Ron quipped. "There were more bloody footnotes and addendums on the thing than in the Goblin-Wizarding Treaty of 923."

Both he and Hermione all but gaped at Weasley.

Finally, Hermione asked, "How . . . ?"

"I suppose it'd be asking too much for you to believe that I actually remembered it?" Ron questioned with a smile. "Thought so. If you must know, I was helping one of Harry's students with his history homework during free period."

"That explainsz it, then," Severus said. He'd wondered if his speech were clear enough to convey the sarcastic flair he'd hoped to add to the response. Weasley's grimace seemed to indicate that he'd been successful.

"You know, this is going to sound completely mental, but I think I honestly missed your insults," Weasley said and then took a bite of his sandwich.

Since Severus wasn't even sure why these two people were still here, he had no clue how to respond. Evading the issue entirely, he took a forkful of the cheese and sliced apples they'd brought. He'd found if he voluntarily ate at least a few bites of whatever they offered, that they paid less attention to how much he actually consumed.

A strangely comfortable silence fell between them as the Weasleys ate their lunches. When they were done, Severus showed off by sending the empty tray and plates back to the kitchens.

"You barely touched your lunch," Hermione said.

"I waszn't very hungry," Severus tried to evade the issue.

But she wasn't having any of his evasions. She held his eyes with that level, open gaze she'd had since childhood and softly said, "You know Harry's worried sick over how little you're eating."

Severus tried to hold her eyes, but he found his own gaze dropping as he softly answered, "I'm not doing it to purposzefully diszpleasz him."

"I know," she gently answered. "The only time you eat at all is when he urges you to."

"I'm juszt . . . not very hungry lately." That at least was the truth.

To his shock, there was no condemnation in her attitude. "That's understandable. It must have been maddening not being able to talk for so long."

"Quite," Severus carefully agreed, unsure where she was going with the conversation. Since he didn't understand what she was doing here at all, he hardly knew what approach to take. After all that Hermione and her husband had done for him these last weeks, there was no way that he could offer them the rudeness that normally kept people at bay. All he knew was that he suddenly felt nervous, almost frightened.

"I know that you're healing and feeling stronger every day, but . . . how are you doing under all that?" She seemed genuinely worried.

Feeling both Ron and her gazes upon him, Severus gulped. He considered and discarded a dozen evasions before swallowing hard and giving her the truth, "I . . . feel . . . raw."

Severus tensed as her hand moved towards him, but she only gripped his newly healed right hand to give it an encouraging squeeze. He wasn't accustomed to receiving such solace from anyone other than Harry.

"Of course you do. How could you not?" Hermione softly said. "Just know that . . . you're not alone. Harry, Ron, Poppy, Minerva, Hagrid, me . . . we'll all do anything we can to help you through this."

She meant the words. Severus didn't think that anyone other than Harry had ever looked at him with such a tender expression. He had no clue how to respond to her kindness. All he knew was that he wasn't worthy of it.

Clearly, Harry had kept his filthy secrets and hadn't told her a thing about what Burke had revealed. It was the only thing that made any sense.

Swallowing hard, Severus searched inside himself for a suitable response. Before he could answer, a soft moan to his right turned all three of their gazes Potter's way.

Every day, Harry's recuperation time grew shorter. When he'd started these draining healings four weeks ago, Harry would be out cold for twelve to sixteen hours afterwards, but now . . . it was taking barely two to three hours for him to regain consciousness. That, in itself, was nearly as astonishing as the miraculous healings.

As those bleary green eyes focused upon his face, Severus carefully enunciated, "Hello, Har-ree."

His pronunciation still wasn't quite right, but the grin that washed across Potter's handsome face told Severus that it was close as made no never mind.

"Oh, god. You're better," Harry muttered, before reaching for him.

Severus allowed himself to be gathered close. Over Harry's broad shoulder, he could see both Hermione and Ron grinning at them.

"Well, I guess we'll leave you two alone for a while," Ron said, rising to his feet.

"See you later," Hermione called as her husband all but dragged her from the room.

"Hey, guys. That's not necessary," Harry reassured them. "We're not . . . ." But the Weasleys were already gone.

Harry's grin seemed permanently fixed on his face when he eventually withdrew from the hug. "God, I never thought I'd hear that beautiful voice of yours again. You sound perfect. How's the hand?"

Severus held out his nearly perfect right hand.

Harry took hold of it, carefully comparing it to Severus' left. "One more healing and they'll be identical. Except for colour. Do you want me to try to make the skin tones match?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. "That'sz hardly neczeszary. I'm szure the potionsz will accompliszh that in no time."

Harry nodded, still seeming overjoyed. Then he asked the same kind of inconvenient question Hermione had just voiced, "I know that having your hand and tongue back must feel incredible, but how are you doing?"

Severus shrugged. Somehow it had been easier to give Hermione the truth than it was to admit it to Harry, so he settled on, "Well enough." After an awkward pause, he added, "Thanksz to you. There isz no way I will ever be able to properly thank or repay you for what you’ve done for me."

"I sort of hoped we were beyond that kind of thing," Harry said, reaching out to brush Severus' hair back from his face.

Severus was accustomed enough to Harry now not to flinch, but the touch made him uncomfortable. On some level, he recognized that things would change between them now that he was healed. It had been safe when he'd been incapacitated. Now that he was himself again, certain realities could no longer be denied.

Severus knew what he had to do, but looking into Harry's nearly glowing eyes, he hadn't a clue how to begin the painful process of separation. So, when Harry said, "I'm starving. Join me for lunch?" Severus took the coward's path and nodded his agreement.

Telling himself that his hand wasn't totally healed yet and that he needed at least one more healing, Severus sat back and allowed himself to bask in the warmth of Harry's love for another day.

*~*~*

"I never thought Poppy would release you," Harry said as they stepped from Severus' infirmary room side by side three days later. He felt as if they'd both just been released from prison.

"It is amazing how persuasive a patient with the ability to speak can be," Severus said. "I think she grew tired of my complaints."

"Complaints? You? Never," Harry tried to joke.

There was still something in Severus' eyes that made him nervous. It had been there for weeks now. If he had to define it, he'd probably call it caution.

After everything Severus had been through, Harry supposed it made sense that he'd be nervous around a lover, and, yet, Severus had seemed to find his touch reassuring when he was in infirmary. Whatever the cause, the emotion had appeared to grow stronger as Severus recovered. Now, it was like a wall between them.

Harry didn't know how to breach it or even if he should try. He was all too aware that Severus hadn't really dealt with what Burke had done to him. Like Harry himself, Severus seemed to be clinging to the illusion that everything was normal.

Only, it wasn't normal. When things were normal, he didn't find himself standing in the corridor with Severus' bag in his hand, unsure if he should accompany his lover down to the dungeons.

Thinking that they needed to get some things out in the open, Harry took a quick look around the corridor to ensure that they were alone. It was the middle of the morning. The students and other teachers were all in class. Where they were standing was well out of earshot of any of the portraits. They were about as private as they could get without being behind locked doors.

Taking a deep breath, Harry said, "The day you . . . were abducted, we talked about me moving my things down to the dungeons."

Harry held his breath, hoping that Severus would take up the conversational gauntlet, as it were.

But Severus simply stared at him from behind that wall of caution and responded with a flat sounding, "So we did."

Hardly encouraged, Harry tried again. "It didn't feel right taking my stuff down there when you were in hospital. I reckoned that I'd wait to see how you felt about it when you were up and around."

"That was . . . most thoughtful." Although the words were kind, there was no spark in Severus' eyes. He looked like a condemned prisoner before a firing squad waiting for the order to fire.

"So, er, how do you feel about it? Do you want me down there or do you need some time alone?" Harry asked.

If anything, Severus seemed to become even more walled in. Yet, there was an unbearable looking sorrow in those dark eyes as he softly answered, "It has been some time since I have had any . . . time to myself. Perhaps you are right. It wouldn't be appropriate for you to be down there with me now."

"I didn't say anything about it being inappropriate," Harry quickly said, not sure of the undercurrent to Severus' words.

"My mistake," Severus softly said, that watchfulness back in his gaze.

Harry didn't know how, but he had the definite feeling that he'd just messed up big time here. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No," Severus answered too quickly, adding a strangely soft, "I never knew comfort such as you gave me these last few weeks. Thank you for that . . . and for the healings."

Not liking the finality in Severus' attitude, Harry quickly corrected him, "You don't have to thank me for anything. I did it because I love you. I just want you to feel better so that we can be together again."

Severus had always had a flair for insinuating things with his tone of voice. The totally unconvinced "Of course," Severus gave set his teeth on edge.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry asked, not wanting to push on Severus' first day out of hospital, but unwilling to let that kind of insinuation pass unchallenged.

Severus seemed to realize what he'd said, for his face filled with regret. "It means that I am obviously not myself yet. Forgive me."

"There's nothing to forgive," Harry quickly reassured him, reaching out to touch Severus' arm. Although Severus didn't flinch or move, he could almost feel him shrink away from him emotionally. Thinking that his touch was bothering Severus, he slowly removed his hand. He could feel those dark eyes following his hand as it withdrew. After an awkward silence, Harry haltingly admitted, "I don't know how to comfort you right now."

"I don't know that you can," Severus said at last. "What happened . . . it shattered the person you knew."

That was the first time Severus had openly admitted to the effect his abduction had had on him emotionally. Harry couldn't help but feel that it was some kind of breakthrough. Holding those uncertain black eyes, he softly assured, "Not beyond mending. You just need some time."

"Yes, time," Severus repeated in the most lost tone Harry had ever heard him use.

Needing to make some kind of connection, Harry asked, "Can I come down and just keep you company for a while?"

Severus wanted him there. He could see it in his eyes. But Severus gave a slow, negative shake of his head and softly denied, "I . . . think I need to be alone for a while."

Not wanting to push, for all that this felt wrong to him, Harry said, "Yes, of course. Let me just walk you down and get you settled in -"

"That won't be necessary," Severus refused. "I'll be fine."

"Severus . . . ."

"Yes?"

"I want to be there for you," Harry explained, the words sounding inadequate to his own ears.

"There are some things that one must do on one's own. Right now I need time to . . . determine what's been left of me. I can't do that with someone watching me every minute. As much as I truly . . . appreciate your concern, I need . . . space. Can you understand that?"

Need space. There was no way Severus could know how the Muggle cliché would affect someone raised in Muggle society. Harry felt like his whole world was crashing around him as he gave a numb nod of agreement. "Yes, of course I understand. I don't mean to . . . pressure you. I just want you to know that I'm here for you when you need me."

A flash of something Harry couldn't help but define as guilt crossed Severus' guarded features. The last thing he'd wanted was to make Severus feel any worse than he already did, but he had no clue how to reach him right now.

"Thank you," Severus said at last. "I wish . . . ."

"Yes?" Harry encouraged when Severus' words seemed to fail him.

"It's not relevant, not now. I . . . I should be going."

Harry stared down as Severus extended his right hand, immediately accepting the offered handshake, weird as it was. The expression in Severus' eyes told him that he'd once again misjudged everything.

"My bag?" Severus softly reminded, gesturing with his chin at the carryall Harry had slung over his shoulder.

Feeling an utter moron, Harry quickly handed over the bag. "I'll see you at dinner, then?"

"Yes, dinner," Severus agreed. Harry had the feeling he would have agreed to anything at that point to escape the horrible awkwardness that had suddenly grown between them.

The gaping hole that had once been his heart seemed to grow bigger with every step that tall, dark figure took away from him. Harry watched Severus' robes billow around him as he descended the stairs to the dungeons.

He was sure he was being foolish, that Severus simply needed time to heal, but there was a part of him that couldn't help but feel that they were over.

*~*~*

Three weeks later, Harry's fear was beginning to feel like truth.

Harry couldn't say that Severus was actively avoiding him. His perhaps-former lover showed up at all meals and even sat with the Weasleys and him; yet, there was absolutely no private interaction between them. Severus wouldn't so much as go for a walk on the grounds with him. Of course, the fact that it had been pouring down freezing rain and sleet the last three weeks might have had something to do with that, but he was fully convinced that Severus would have refused even if the weather had been clear and balmy outside.

Severus had all but begged him for time and space. Harry was doing his best to honour that request. Only, the distance was killing him by slow degrees. He'd been depressed when Severus had been trapped in his silence in the infirmary, but at least Severus had allowed him to touch and hold him then. He'd never thought that he'd look back on those dark days of pain and healing with nostalgia, but right now he'd trade almost anything to have the right to hold Severus, if only platonically.

"You're staring, Harry," Hermione whispered, her elbow prodding him back to the present.

Dinner. The Great Hall.

She was right. He'd been staring straight across her and Ron at Severus for God knew how long. Behind them, the rain was still sluicing down the bevelled windows as though someone were holding a hose against them. The ceiling above showed a clear midnight blue sky with a breathtaking hint of orange and magenta to the west where the sun had obviously recently set, but even Hogwarts' best efforts couldn't raise his spirits tonight.

Over. They were over, and he didn't even know why.

Severus still cared for him. Those weeks in the infirmary had shown him that, but for some reason, Severus was pushing him away without actually giving him the boot. Harry had never thought he'd long for an open rejection, but right now he just didn't know where he stood.

"Good night," Severus said, giving the three of them a nod as he wiped his mouth with a white linen napkin and rose from the table.

"Harry?" Hermione called as he did his best to hold it together as Severus left the table.

Tearing his eyes away from the now familiar sight of Severus' retreating back, Harry whispered, "I've lost him, Hermione."

He knew he shouldn't be talking about this, not here, but he felt moments away from some kind of breakdown.

Her hand gripped his elbow and gave it an encouraging squeeze. "Maybe he just needs some time."

Her voice was so low that he barely heard it.

Looking into her eyes, he could see nothing but compassion and understanding.

"That's what I thought at first," Harry answered in the same low tone. "Only, it's been almost a month and he's further away than ever."

"Maybe it's time you talked to him, then," Hermione suggested.

"Yes, perhaps you're right," Harry said, climbing to his feet.

"I didn't mean right this moment," she protested.

"There's no time like the present," Harry said and hurried away from the teachers' table to the doors through which Severus had just exited. He could see Severus' robes billowing at the top of the dungeon stairs as he began to descend.

"Severus!" Harry called out, rushing over.

For a moment, he feared Severus would ignore him, but Severus paused at the top of the stairs to wait for him. Harry was highly conscious of the stream of Slytherin students passing them on their way back down to their common room.

Severus waited until Harry was close enough that he didn't have to shout to be heard. "Yes?"

Taking in the crowded hall, Harry asked, "May I speak to you for a moment?"

"Of course," Severus replied, as if it meant nothing at all to him.

His mouth running dry, Harry forced himself to suggest, "Privately? There's a bit of a crowd here."

Severus gave a slow nod. He did not invite him down to his rooms, Harry noticed. Instead, Severus' chin gestured to a nearby unused classroom. "Will this do?"

"Sure," Harry agreed, following him inside.

Ironically enough, Harry recognized it as the same classroom that he and Severus had had that chat in the morning he'd told Severus how much he meant to him.

The room was even dustier now than it had been then. Harry lit the wall torches with a thought, but they did little to dispel the damp darkness of the abandoned room. The rain was still gushing down outside the windows like the special effect in a movie. He couldn't have imagined a more depressing setting to argue his case, but, somehow, the deserted classroom seemed to perfectly mirror his present emotions.

When Severus simply stood there waiting for him to speak, Harry nervously cleared his throat and began, "I can't have helped but notice that you haven't wanted to be alone with me lately."

"We are alone now," Severus pointed out, but his eyes and attitude were so guarded that they might as well have been back in that crowded corridor.

Trying to take heart from Severus' non-contentious words, Harry took a deep breath. He knew how vicious Severus could be were he so inclined. The lack of aggression meant something; he simply couldn't figure out what. Severus felt a million miles away from him emotionally at the moment.

Deciding to start on a new foot, Harry said, "I, um, was wondering if you'd like to go out for drinks at Rosmerta's tonight?"

That seemed an unthreatening suggestion. They'd be in public, but still able to talk. Harry didn't even care what they talked about at this point, so long as there was some kind of communication between them.

True regret seemed to touch Severus' features as he replied, "I don't think that would be wise at this point."

"Please . . . just drinks? I won't . . . I just want to spend some time with you. I miss you." Harry felt his cheeks warm. He'd never begged anyone for anything like this in his life, but Severus was too important to lose over his pride.

"I'm sorry. Truly, I am. I'm . . . just not ready yet," Severus gave the same kind of refusal he'd been offering for the last three weeks.

Taking a deep breath, Harry persevered with, "What about Friday, then? Hermione and Ron are going to the Three Broomsticks for an evening out. We could join them. We wouldn't be alone. It would be just like it is at dinner."

Severus also seemed to need a deep breath. "I'm not up to socializing to any degree right now."

Harry knew that was malarkey. He knew for a fact that Hermione stopped in to see Severus on the days they had a shared free period.

"I suppose next month would be out of the question as well?" Harry decided to force Severus to voice the truth that was right there in his eyes.

"I . . . ." Severus' words trailed off and he answered Harry's question with a blunt, "Yes."

"Your answer is going to be the same the month after that and the following one, too, isn't it? In fact, a year or ten years from now, your answer is going to be identical, isn't it?" Harry softly asked, unable to believe how much this hurt.

Severus held his eyes and gave a slow nod. "I'm afraid so. I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Harry stammered. "You're sorry? You won't even tell me what I did wrong, and you say you're sorry?"

"You didn't do anything wrong."

Confoundingly enough, there was once again truth in Severus' eyes. Truth and true regret. The whole thing made no sense.

"If I didn't do anything wrong, then why are you doing this?" Harry demanded, praying that he could hold himself together long enough to get some answers. He already felt an utter fool. He didn't want Severus to think him any weaker or needier than he'd already painted himself, but he couldn't just let this go. Not without knowing why. "You know I love you. I'll settle for any level of contact you agree to. I . . . I won't push you for sex. You know that. If I haven't done anything wrong, then why won't you even try? I know you love me as much as I love you. Or are you going to tell me I'm wrong about that, too, that I've been wrong about everything?"

That wasn't something he'd considered, that he could have been wrong about Severus from the start.

Harry could almost see Severus considering giving a positive answer to that last question. But apparently, even Severus in all his screwed up retreat wasn't ready to give lie to everything they'd been to each other.

After an agonizing hesitation, Severus said in an oddly gentle tone, "No. You weren't wrong."

At his wits end, Harry ran a hand through his dishevelled hair and all but begged, "Then why are you doing this? Tell me, please? I – I have to understand."

Severus seemed to debate the wisdom of answering before finally giving in. "I have always been cursed by a vivid memory. There were things that were done in Burke's stronghold; things that were said, that I will never be able to forget."

Harry didn't really know what Severus was talking about. But Severus' inflection told him that that one line things that were said was the key. Abruptly, Harry remembered that trash Burke had been talking right before he'd incinerated the fiend. "Has this got to do with that stuff Burke said about you?"

The pain in Severus' eyes was more than agony. It gave Harry his answer long before his slow nod.

"You're leaving me because of something that bastard said?" Harry couldn't quite believe it.

"There were no lies spoken in the dungeon that night," Severus stiffly informed. He looked prepared to be spat on.

Remembering some of the accusations Burke had made, Harry tried to absorb it, tried to understand how anything that degenerate had said could influence Severus this much, but then he remembered Burke's mental skills and knew that he wasn't dealing with reason here. It wasn't simply words. Severus had never said, but Burke had made it plain that he'd raped Severus' mind as well as his body when he'd held him prisoner. God knew what kind of insane ideas the bastard had planted.

"There's nothing anyone could say about you that could change my feelings for you," Harry softly insisted. "I love you. I don't care what he said."

He'd truly surprised Severus. He could see that, but he could also see that it wasn't enough.

"I care," Severus said, his voice dull and broken. "He . . . ruined everything."

"How?" Harry demanded. "What's changed? I love you the same as I did before all this happened, maybe even more after all we've been through together. How can you let that bastard win like this? How can you let him destroy us? What he said doesn't matter, Severus. I swear it doesn't."

"It matters to me. I . . . I can't live with you, knowing that you know," Severus said, and Harry could hear the truth in that as well. "I'm sorry. That is my final answer on this."

This time, Harry had no argument to make to that retreating back. Severus knew he loved him, and it wasn't enough to convince him to stay. What else could he say or do?

He watched Severus until the door closed behind him, standing tall and strong. The moment that ancient oak door slammed shut and he was alone, Harry gave into the despair that had been gnawing at him since he'd found Severus in that hideous torture chamber. Sinking to his knees on the dust-caked floor, he cried as he hadn't cried since Sirius' death.

*~*~*

"Hello, Severus," Hermione Weasley said as she entered the lab where he taught potions.

Severus hadn't expected to see her. She'd been visiting him during their shared free period since that first night she'd played SCRABBLE with Harry and him, but he'd thought his breaking it off with Harry would change that. He knew Harry would have told his friends by now.

"Hello," he guardedly answered. "I didn't think you'd come today. He told you?"

The serious expression on her face and the worry in her eyes told him she knew what he'd done to Harry.

"Yes," she said with a nod, taking her usual seat at the student bench directly before his desk. "He's . . . well, I've never seen Harry like that. He was inconsolable."

Strangely enough, there was no accusation to her words.

Even so, they hit him like the Cruciatus curse. Wishing that she'd just come out and berate him with whatever she'd come here to say to him, he found his eyes dropping to the homework he was grading as he replied, "That wasn't my intent."

His gaze was drawn back to her face, for all that he'd rather not watch the friendship she'd offered him degenerate into hate.

"Severus, why are you doing this? You love Harry as much as he loves you. I know that you've been through an awful lot, but leaving Harry like this makes no sense," she said the words in a rush, as if she wanted to get them all out before she were turned into a frog or suffered some such dire consequence.

Her expression seemed to suggest she expected as much from him, and once, she would have been right. He would have blasted her to perdition for her temerity as little as six months ago. But now . . . he simply didn't have it in him to savage her as he once would have. He knew how wrong what he'd done to Harry was. Harry hadn't deserved that kind of cruelty. Harry's friends had every right to be furious with him. Only, she wasn't acting angry. Severus didn't understand that, for he'd seen how fiercely protective Hermione was of Harry.

What confused him even more than her lack of anger was the fact that she didn't know why he'd left Harry. He'd been certain that Harry would have disclosed the unpleasant truths Burke had revealed to the Weasleys last night after he'd ended it so coldly. That Harry had kept his secret was incomprehensible. Yet, Hermione wouldn't be sitting here regarding him with such concern if Harry had told her. She couldn't know, but what man could have resisted the temptation to strike back after being treated so unfairly?

"What did he tell you?" Severus questioned, his heart thundering in his chest as he waited her response.

Her gaze was level and utterly open as she said, "Not much. Just that you told him that you couldn't be with him ever again because of what Burke had done to you."

Stars, Harry really hadn't revealed his secrets. Nor had he lied to his oldest friends. Harry had simply refrained from revealing the total truth. The consideration was unprecedented in Severus' experience. He honestly wouldn't have blamed Harry if he'd announced the truth at the next staff meeting. Revenge, he understood. This restraint was beyond his ken.

Realizing that it would seem odd if he didn't say something soon, Severus pulled himself together enough to demand, "You don't deem that sufficient reason?"

If anything, the pain and worry in her bewilderingly warm gaze seemed to deepen as she said, "I know you've been through hell. It's only understandable that you'd be . . . upset after all that happened. But you know Harry. He'd never push you for . . . anything you weren't ready to offer."

Her cheeks turned bright red as she stumbled over that last part. It was clear that she was as uncomfortable as he was. But she was a Gryffindor on a quest and not even modesty would stop her from following through.

Severus had the grim vision of her stopping in here every morning with those compassionate eyes and gentle tone trying to talk sense into him. He would have felt better if she'd condemned him. He knew he wouldn't be able to bear this every day; he also knew what it would take to ensure she never returned.

He weighed his options carefully. If he told her the truth, their association would be forever over. That pained him nearly as much as losing Harry had. But, as much as he'd come to value her company, this considerate coercion would be unendurable on a daily basis. Taking a deep breath, he took the first step on a path from which there was no going back when he softly said, "I wish he'd told you the truth."

"The truth?" Hermione questioned in a startled tone.

"I fear Harry was attempting to spare my feelings in this matter," Severus said.

"I don't understand," she said, leaning across the students' bench so that their gazes were closer.

How could she understand? It wasn't as if he'd actually explained anything.

Holding her confused eyes, Severus braced himself and said, "Burke disclosed embarrassing truths about my past to Harry, truths that I cannot live with Harry knowing."

He watched her confusion turn to total bewilderment. "You're leaving Harry because of something that monster said?"

"Burke told no lies to Harry that day," he protested.

"What? Severus, there's nothing that . . . fiend could say that would in any way alter Harry's feelings for you. He loves you," she insisted.

"Between any two people, there must be respect, dignity. Burke's revelation stripped me of all pretence of either," Severus attempted to explain, trying to be truthful without actually touching upon topics they both would prefer remained unvoiced.

"That isn't possible," Hermione said. "Harry knows you. I know you. Nothing Burke could say could diminish our regard for you."

She was so damn certain, so . . . loyal. Always in the past, he'd sneered at these stereotypical Gryffindor traits, but today he found himself almost in awe of them.

"I beg to differ," he softly denied. "I appreciate your confidence, but I assure you, it is entirely misplaced.”

"No, it isn't. Harry, Ron, and I, we all know that you were a Death Eater when you were young. We know what that means. Details wouldn't matter. That isn’t who you are now."

For over a minute, Severus could only stare at her, shocked beyond speech. It was clear she truly believed what she was saying.

All his life, he'd hungered for this kind of acceptance. Harry's love had been a gift beyond his comprehension, but that he could gain this level of support from someone he wasn't sleeping with was truly astounding. That he was completely unworthy of her regard went without saying, but knowing she felt that way about him . . . it was humbling.

"I'm afraid that the truths Burke detailed made my Death Eater days pale by comparison," Severus said, knowing where this was leading and wishing there were some way to avoid the whole sorry mess.

He'd shocked her; he could see that. He could almost read the possibilities reeling through her vivid imagination. To her credit, she didn't instantly attempt to deny his assertion. He could almost see the thoughts she was considering.

Finally, she rallied with, "That isn't possible. Anything that made Death Eater actions seem mild would have landed you in Azkaban."

"Providing the authorities were aware who had committed those acts," Severus pointed out the flaw in her logic.

She paled a bit, but stuck to her guns. "Are you saying you committed atrocities the Ministry doesn't know about? I don't believe that."

"Why not?" he questioned. He'd seen that he'd thrown her earlier, yet she had her glowing Gryffindor certainty back again.

"Because Harry wouldn't have been okay with something like that. Whatever Burke told him, it can't have been something that injured innocents. So, it isn't atrocities or Death Eater crimes. And, if that's the case, then there isn't anything Burke could say that would matter," Hermione insisted again.

Her logic was flawless. They both knew Harry would never have been able to excuse the types of actions he'd insinuated.

Taking a deep breath, Severus quietly pointed out, "There are other acts that can brand a person as socially unacceptable as the Dark Mark does."

Her expression made it plain that she didn't believe him. "Severus, we all know you. We care about you. Harry loves you. What could that murdering child molester possibly have said that you think would change that? You're not making sense."

"There are certain actions that all men would find unacceptable in a . . . potential mate's past," Severus said.

"Well, Harry obviously didn't find whatever it was unacceptable," Hermione said.

Feeling as though he were banging his head against a stone wall, he ran a hand through his none too clean hair.

"Nothing Burke said could alter the way any of us feel about you," she insisted.

There was nothing for it. The only thing that was going to get him out of this corner she'd backed him into was the truth. "I assure you, there are things I could tell you that would straighten your hair and make you turn your back on me forever."

"You were instrumental in saving my husband's life. You're Harry's lover and part of our family now. There isn't anything you could tell me about your past that will change that," she denied with typical Gryffindor fervour.

That Hermione meant every word she said was clear.

Part of our family. Both she and her husband had certainly treated him as such during his convalescence.

Severus didn't quite gulp. The sentiment moved him more than it should have. All his life, he'd been able to mock this kind of unwavering devotion, but that was when he was an object of Gryffindor scorn. Not even Albus had ever demonstrated this level of faith in his character.

But she didn't know his true character. All she knew was the unpleasant adult who'd lived like a monk in his dungeons before Harry. She knew nothing of the indiscretions of his youth. She wouldn't be here if she did.

Taking a deep breath, he revealed the truth that he knew would sever their connection forever, "From my first week in Hogwarts, I was Lucius Malfoy's catamite. I wish there were a more genteel term for it, but there isn't. When I was in my second year, three of Lucius' friends joined our little study group and I serviced them as well." Her eyes were huge as saucers as he continued, "After Lucius and his group left school, several of the upper class Slytherins, shall we say, took an interest in me. I was foolish enough to believe that they were my friends. I learned the truth the day I heard two of my 'friends' discussing me privately. It was only then that I realized that I might as well have charged for my services, for all the respect they bore me."

Severus held his breath in the silence that followed. A part of him could not believe that he had revealed these things to Hermione Weasley of his own volition. He forced himself to hold her gaze.

He'd anticipated contempt and disgust. What he didn't expect was for her eyes to cloud up and pain to fill her expression. "Oh, Severus."

Her whisper sounded on the verge of tears.

"Please, spare me your pity -"

"Pity?" Hermione shocked him by reaching across the student's bench to lay her hand on his where it rested on his desk. She was touching him? "You're my friend. How could I fail to be upset by something which hurt you like that?"

Once again, he could read only truth in her open features. She was upset on his behalf?

Panicked, because this wasn't a reaction he was prepared to deal with, he asked the only question that made sense, "Did you fail to understand what I said?"

Perhaps she was unfamiliar with the term he'd used. He didn't want to be any blunter, but he didn't want her misinterpreting him.

"You just told me you were taken advantage of in your first year at school. You can't think that I'd . . . ." She seemed to read exactly what he'd been thinking in his face. "For God's sake, Severus. You didn't really expect me to . . . ."

"Turn your back on me forever?" he voiced his deepest fear in what he hoped was a sardonic tone. He knew how proper and honourable she was. There was nothing of either in what he'd done.

He knew her well enough to believe that she wouldn't circulate what he'd told her beyond her husband and Harry, but he'd fully expected her to want nothing further to do with him.

"You think that I'd . . . that Harry would stop caring about you because of something that happened years before we were born?" Hermione asked.

"No one would blame you for disassociating yourself from someone with such . . . an unsavoury background," Severus said with as much calm as he could muster. This wasn't going at all as he'd planned. She was supposed to be on her feet and out the door, not sitting there holding his hand, watching him like he were breaking her heart the way he had Harry's last night.

"Unsavoury? You were eleven years old. Consider what you're saying. Think about how you'd react if it were one of our first year students who'd been taken advantage of by an older student this way. Would it be the first year who earned your censure?" she asked.

He stared at her as if she'd cast a petrification spell on him, unable to move, barely able to breathe as her question ripped through him.

"Well, who would you hold responsible?" she prodded. "The first year or the older student?"

"I . . . I was a willing participant," Severus protested, unwilling to allow her to paint this into some Gryffindor tragedy.

"You were eleven years old. Children do some very desperate things to fit into their peer groups," Hermione said.

"You would never have done anything so . . . unseemly," Severus said.

"Don't be so sure about that. I had Ron and Harry from my first few weeks in school. It doesn't sound like you were that lucky when it came to friends. I know what it's like not to fit in. Before Hogwarts, I spent the entire six years I was in school friendless," she said.

"Loneliness is hardly a fitting excuse for prostituting oneself," Severus argued.

"You didn't prostitute yourself," Hermione insisted. "You were a child who was preyed upon by older classmates. None of this is . . . anything that could come between us. It certainly isn't anything that would drive Harry away."

"It's something I can't stand him knowing," Severus said, feeling almost nauseous from his conflicting emotions. He would be grateful to Hermione until the day he died for the kindness she was extending to him on this subject. Yet, for all her assurances, everything in him still cringed under the memories of the horrific mistakes he'd made.

"It doesn't change the man you are," Hermione said. "Harry loves you."

Feeling trapped, Severus said, "You don't understand. You've always been good and brave and kind. You've always done the right thing and made the right choices. I . . . haven't."

"I don't understand what that has to do with this," Hermione said, appearing genuinely confused. "Harry knows you. He loves you."

"From the start, it has been difficult for me to ignore how . . . inappropriate it is for Harry to be with me this way," Severus admitted.

"Inappropriate?" she echoed as if she didn't understand the definition of the word.

"I'm old enough to be his father. He ignores the age difference. My days with Voldemort have scarred me a social leper. He acts as if the rest of the world holding me in contempt means nothing to him."

"How is that a problem?" Hermione questioned.

Severus found his gaze dropping to where her hand still rested on top of his newly grown hand. "Harry is already overlooking more than any man should be asked to deal with. To expect him to forgive this as well . . . ."

"Don't you get it? He loves you! There's nothing to forgive." Hermione said. "You make him happy. That's all that Harry cares about."

Severus took a deep breath before saying, "He is meant for something better than spoilt goods."

"My God! You're doing this for Harry's sake?"

She couldn't be as appalled as she sounded. Surely, even if she could forgive him his indiscretions, she had to realize how unsuitable he was for Harry?

"I should never have allowed things to go this far," Severus said. "It's better for all involved if it ends now."

Hermione was silent for a long moment.

Severus forced himself to bear her examination.

Finally, she asked in a soft, tentative tone, "Severus, did you ever think that perhaps it's you who needs to forgive yourself?"

"There's no forgiving certain acts, only living with them."

For a second, she seemed prepared to argue his statement, then she took a different line of reasoning, "This isn't the time to make this kind of decision. You just went through a terrible trauma. You're upset. You're confused," she said.

"Are you questioning my sanity?" he demanded.

"No. You've every right to be crazy after what that bastard did to you, but somehow you managed to stay sane. But . . . that doesn't mean you're thinking straight. Harry mentioned that Burke used his mental skills to torment you. Can you be sure that these things you're saying are how you really feel and not ideas Burke implanted in your mind? Remember what he did to poor Carl. He was more than capable of brainwashing someone."

Severus shivered. He could hear Burke calling him a snivelling coward as he raped his mind. He could feel him examining every memory of his time with Harry and showing him how unworthy he was of Harry's regard. He'd known it all along, of course, but Burke had made certain facts clear.

"Burke didn't tell me anything I hadn't known all along," Severus said at last. He felt so brittle that the compassion in her warm, brown eyes nearly shattered him.

"But before Burke, Harry was important enough for you to try to make things work," Hermione said. "Don't you see? That monster manipulated you."

"Before Burke's revelation, I was able to bask in Potter's ignorance of certain facts. Now that he knows . . . there is no pretence, no hiding who and what I am."

"Doesn't that make it easier, though?" she asked. "There's no need to hide. Harry knows, and it doesn't matter to him."

"It matters to me," Severus said.

They both started as the bell, signalling the change of period, rang.

"Damn," Hermione cursed. "I've got to get up to my classroom. Severus, what you said will go no further. Thank you for trusting me."

"I didn't do it out of trust," he protested.

She glanced at the door to ensure that they were still alone before quickly saying, "I know, and I know how much you're hurting and how much you love Harry. You can work through this."

"There's nothing to work through."

"Yes, there is. That monster Burke does not get to destroy your life. You're a good man. You deserve to be happy, so does Harry. I know you're not going to be interested in this now, but . . . I have a friend who helps people heal mentally and emotionally after the kind of trauma you suffered. He helped Carl handle what Burke did to him."

"You're talking about a Muggle psychiatrist," Severus said, remembering Harry mentioning that Mr. Westfield had been consulting a Muggle doctor.

"John's a Squib. Do you remember Lydia Penbroke?" she asked.

"Slytherin, five years your senior," Severus automatically answered, wondering how she would know Miss Penbroke. He knew for a fact that Potter and his cronies hadn't associated with anyone in his house during their school days, certainly not a Slytherin five years older than them.

"John's her brother."

"How do you know Miss Penbroke and her family?" he asked.

"It's Mrs. Forrester now," Hermione startled him yet again by correcting him. "She married right after school."

"That still doesn't explain your acquaintanceship," he reminded. It took a good ten minutes for a class to make it down to his Potions dungeon from Hagrid's Care of Magical Creatures class out in the field. They should have perhaps nine minutes of privacy before his next class started to filter in. Hermione, would, of course, be late for her next class up in the Arithmancy tower, but this conversation had been her idea.

"Lydia has a son, Marcus, her only child. He was a very sick little boy. His only joy was quidditch. He, um, worshipped Harry when he was on the Cannons. There was a point when Marcus was in St. Mungo's, dying. One of Lydia's cousins had a child in my Arithmancy class who told her that Harry sometimes came to visit me at Hogwarts. Lydia came to me to ask if I'd get Harry to send her boy an autographed picture. She thought it would help raise his spirits."

"Potter did it, of course," Severus said, still not understanding how any of this would lead to Hermione knowing Lydia Penbroke's family well enough to have met a Squib brother.

"Not exactly. Harry brought his entire team down to meet Marcus. He'd asked me to come introduce him to Lydia, and, well, her brother John was visiting Marcus the day Harry and his teammates came. John and I got to talking about the need the Wizarding World has for people in his field, and, well . . . we've been fast friends ever since."

"I see," he said. Curious, he asked. "The boy lived?"

"Marcus should receive his Hogwarts letter this year," Hermione said with a smile. The story had a happy ending, of course. Gryffindors would accept nothing less.

Severus had to credit her, for her next words proved that Hermione knew what to say to best persuade him. He wouldn't go, of course, but it was clear she knew him well enough to know what approach to take. Harry had never been this devious. "Lydia's entire family have been in Slytherin house for centuries. John knows all about the Wizarding World. No one need ever know you consulted him. He's helped a lot of wizards through difficult periods. "

"Is that what you call this . . . a 'difficult period'?" Severus questioned.

Hermione's face was shining with the serene certainty that Severus had seen depicted in the pictures his Muggle grandmother had of Muggle saints as she replied, "Yes. You will get through this, without losing Harry."

He was saved a reply by the noisy arrival of the first of his third year Potions class.

She quickly withdrew her hand from his before any of the students entered the class far enough to see that they were touching. Standing up from the student's bench, she said, "I'm late."

For all that it had seemed he might never smile again after last night, he couldn't help but give her a small one at her expression. "Yes, you are."

"You really need to work on being less gleeful about the misfortunes of others," Hermione commented, but she was grinning.

"Such small joys get me through the day," he answered, unable to believe that she would actually joke with him the morning after he'd dumped her best friend.

"Right," she said. "Before I go, here's John's card. Please don't incinerate it until I've left the room. He's on the floo network. If you should decide to go and want some company, I'd be more than happy to go with you." As she placed a small white card of thick parchment on his desk, she lowered her voice so that the children grouped in the back of the classroom curiously watching them wouldn't hear her next words, "Harry need never know."

"I'll take it under consideration," he said.

"I'll see you at lunch," Hermione said and then finally left.

As his students began to file into the classroom, he stared at the little white card on his desk. He was tempted to do precisely as she'd thought he would and ignite the damn thing with a thought. Those do-gooder Gryffindors thought they could fix everything.

Only . . . after what he'd told her this morning, he'd expected her to be gone, not offering to accompany him to doctor appointments. That she would not only remain, but be so supportive, was more than he could comprehend. Although he didn't understand her reasons, he was ridiculously grateful not to have lost the only platonic friend he'd made since Albus' death.

He reached out to pick the card up and place it in his robe pocket. He could always toss it into the hearth when he got home.

*~*~*

Nights were the worst, Harry decided. During the day, it was hard to sit at the teachers' table with Severus, pretending that the mere sight of the man wasn't ripping his heart to shreds, but he could do it. His classes kept him occupied during most of the rest of the day, and Hermione and Ron were turning handstands to try to cheer him up. In daylight, he was pretty much able to deal.

However, once Ron and Hermione retired for the night, Harry felt like he was being haunted by a man who wasn't even dead. Sleep was a thing of the past. Even with Severus' Dreamless Sleep potion, he only got a couple of hours in before the cold on the other side of the bed where Severus was supposed to be sleeping would wake him. He was beginning to feel like a bloody house ghost; he was spending so much time walking the school halls after dark.

Well, tonight he'd actually gone outside. The sleet had finally let up. It might be nearly the end of February, but the gales were still blowing down out of the mountains fierce as if spring would never come. He wasn't going to complain. The wind had cleared the clouds. The sky overhead was black as velvet, glittering with millions of stars.

Harry took his Firebolt up into the night sky and sought one of the few pleasures left to him. He'd been neglecting his flying while with Severus, he realized. He waited for his optimistic side to point out that at least now he'd be able to practice regularly again, but even the eternal optimist in him was hurting too badly to even try to suggest that there was anything the least bit good about Severus breaking it off with him.

The weird part was he couldn't even blame Severus. Hermione had told him about the talk, well talks, she'd had with Severus. It only confirmed what he'd known all along, that Severus was hurting so badly from what Burke had done to him that he couldn't cope with intimacy on any level. Though he wished he could have been the one in whom Severus had confided, he was glad Severus had Hermione to talk to. It was hard, though, so hard to be cut off cold like this. He'd never felt so lost in his life.

Working out his frustrations in the only way that had ever truly helped, he swooped through the sky fast as a Muggle fighter jet. The winds were so strong that he normally wouldn't have gone up for fun in weather like this, but fighting the air currents gave him something to think about other than his broken heart.

He found himself falling into the practice routine he'd used to fly when playing for the Cannons. Crisscrossing the quidditch field, he covered every inch of territory from the ground to half a mile up. The winds were merciless that high, intent on ripping his robes right off him, but he kept flying.

His favourite moves, the ones that had won him more games than he could count, were the ones where he'd used his courage against the other team. Muggles called it playing chicken. He'd learned in first year that if he veered straight at a spectator tower or some other immobile object while chasing the snitch, his opponent would bail out long before absolutely necessary. Of course, knowing when 'absolutely necessary' arrived took a bit of skill, but he had those last minute turns down to an art form. He knew the exact moment he had to shift his broom to prevent a lethal accident. The high winds made those moves a bit chancier, but the concentration it was taking to keep from splattering on the stands and announcer's tower was finally clearing his troubled mind.

Three weeks. It had been three full weeks since Severus dumped him. No. He wasn't supposed to be thinking about that.

Narrowly avoiding becoming part of the spire on the announcer's tower, he aimed his broom towards the ground, realizing it was a lost cause. Not even flying was going to get his mind off Severus.

He swooped down as if he were hot on a snitch's tail, speeding straight towards the slushy earth so fast that stopping would take every bit of his concentration.

He was just about to put the breaks on, quidditchly speaking, when a magic as strong and fierce as the winds ripping at him plucked him out of his dive and held him frozen in place a safe four feet above the snowy field. He was strong enough to break that magical hold, but he was curious to see who had been powerful enough to halt his plunge. Even Professor Dumbledore had experienced difficulty in stopping him from falling when those dementors had knocked him from his broom in third year.

"Are you attempting to kill yourself?" Severus' familiar deep voice demanded from somewhere in the shadows beside the Hufflepuff stand. "I had thought you above such melodrama."

A stranger probably wouldn't have noticed a thing off in Severus' voice, but Harry could hear how genuinely frightened Severus was.

"I wasn't going to kill myself," he protested, finally picking Severus' tall silhouette out of the inky darkness beside the stands.

"That wasn't what it looked like from here," Severus said. "What the Devil were you thinking? Taking a broom up on a night like this!"

Harry supposed he should be grateful Severus was angry with him. If his former lover truly hadn't cared, Severus wouldn't have been upset if he chose to splatter himself on the side of the wall.

"I was just practicing," Harry insisted.

"Potter, it's not worth this. I know you're still . . . upset, but you'll -"

"Don't you dare tell me I'll get over it!" Harry cut him off. "What the hell do you care if I smear myself against the wall? You've made it plain you want nothing to do with me."

"I don't want you dead," Severus answered.

Hearing the genuine fear in Severus' voice, Harry took a deep breath and tried to calm down. He knew how this must look to Severus.

If he'd come out here and seen Severus using himself as a living bullet for target practice with the walls, he might have been similarly freaked out. Severus had never seen him fly professionally, or even watched him practice, for that matter. His lover had no way of knowing how routine his moves had been.

"Look, I wasn't trying to kill myself. I promise. I used to fly like this all the time with the Cannons. I was just about to break the dive when you grabbed hold of me. Speaking of which, would you let me down now?"

That mighty force holding him motionless as a fly in amber cut off like a Muggle light switch had been thrown. Harry righted his broom automatically and coasted over to where Severus was standing and hovered before him so that they were at eye level.

The starlight wasn't as bright as moonlight, but it was good enough to see by. Looking into that lean, strong-boned face, he thought Severus appeared as haunted as he felt. It was two in the morning. Obviously, Severus wasn't sleeping any better than he was these days.

All he wanted to do was take that long, slender figure into his arms and hug Severus until everything was all right. Knowing how utterly juvenile and useless the impulse was, he took a deep breath of the icy night air and said, "I'm sorry I alarmed you."

"It isn't just this," Severus said. "You've . . . ."

"Yes?" Harry prompted, ready to let Severus vent in whatever way he needed to. He realized that with everything Severus was dealing with, it wasn't fair of him to make the man think he was trying to commit suicide with a broom.

"You haven't been yourself lately. You're not eating properly. You're not sleeping. The Weasleys are beside themselves with worry."

It was clear Hermione and Ron weren't the only ones beside themselves, Harry realized. He wanted to say whatever was necessary to make Severus feel better, but the part of him that was still reeling from Severus' rejection couldn't play nice. "I had my world knocked out from under me three weeks ago. I'm sorry if I can't carry on like nothing happened." Part of him wanted to yell 'This is all your fault!', but he managed to restrain the childish impulse.

"It's not worth this. Nothing is worth this," Severus said.

"I already told you I wasn't trying to kill myself. Look, I'm sorry you had to see me practice. I'll fly over the woods next time. Only . . . don't expect me to act like everything's normal. I'm doing my best to be adult about this, but I'm not Superman. I love you, and it hurts that you don't want anything to do with me anymore. It hurts so much, Severus." Realizing that he was on the verge of disgracing himself entirely, he swallowed hard and looked off towards the Forbidden Forest's dark fringe in the distance.

"I didn't do this to hurt you," Severus said in a voice that sounded lost and vulnerable.

"I know. I know you were hurt so bad that it messed everything up for us." Harry took another gulp of the icy air. "None of this is your fault, so . . . don't feel bad about it, okay?"

Something seemed to snap in Severus, for he all but shouted, "Must you always be so bloody noble? Can't you rail at me like you should? You should be hating me, not . . . . You need to move on, Potter. Pull yourself out of this funk and find some handsome young man. I'm not worth all this."

Landing his broom, Harry grabbed hold of Severus' arms. The man was trembling like a Jelly-leg jinx had been cast on his entire body.

"Ssssh," Harry tried to sooth. "It's all right."

"It's not all right!" Severus protested. "You're young and beautiful. You should be out sowing your wild oats, not trying to kill yourself over the likes of me."

Harry was so distracted by how warm Severus felt against his wind-chilled hands that it took him a minute to interpret what Severus was saying. Young and beautiful? Hermione had told him that she thought Severus was leaving him for his own good, but he hadn't believed her. Now, he was beginning to wonder if maybe she wasn't right about that, too.

Recognizing how close Severus was to some kind of breakdown, he stepped closer and wrapped his arms around his perhaps-former lover. Severus was so thin he could feel his bones through his heavy winter robes. And Severus had the nerve to talk about him not eating properly!

Harry was worried that his move might precipitate an explosion, but Severus responded the same as he had to every one of his tentative openings while in infirmary. Instead of pulling back and demanding that Harry unhand him, Severus melted against him. Those long arms closed around him and squeezed as if holding on for dear life.

It was sheer heaven. Harry gulped in breath after breath of the Severus-scented air.

"You're okay. I'm okay. We're both okay," Harry murmured into Severus' neck as the taller man wrapped himself around him.

For what felt like an eternity, they clung to each other. Harry couldn't really tell who was comforting whom, all he knew was that they'd both obviously been hungering for this for weeks.

It broke his heart when Severus stiffened in his arms and pulled away as if he'd suddenly realized what he was doing.

"Forgive me. That was . . . unpardonable," Severus said in a shaky voice.

"That was wonderful," Harry corrected.

The starlight had turned the whites of Severus' eyes to silver and cast a strange bluish tint over the rest of his features.

Harry could feel those glittering eyes regarding him as though he were completely mental.

"Can I ask you something?" Harry asked, his heart pounding as he was struck with the kind of sudden inspiration that had pulled his friends and him out of the proverbial fire many a time in their harrowing younger days.

"Yes," Severus said, adding a guarded, "I can't promise I'll answer."

"Did you lie to me that night we broke up three weeks ago?"

"Lie about what?" Severus responded.

"When you said that the reason we couldn't be together anymore was because of the things Burke told me when I rescued you," Harry said, holding his breath because he wasn't sure how Severus would react to his mentioning Burke's revelation, not to mention questioning his probity. "Was that the truth?"

Severus gave a stiff, "It was."

"So, if Burke had never said those things, you would still let me share your life?" Harry asked.

"What ifs are rarely satisfying," Severus said.

"Just answer the question. If Burke hadn't said anything, would we still be together?" Harry pressed.

"I . . . ." Severus paused, and then whispered, "Yes."

"I want to be with you, Severus, and I'm not talking about just sex here. I want to have the right to hold you like we just did, and to talk you through the shakes when the nightmares wake you up. And I think you want that, too."

"Unfortunately, what I want is immaterial. What he told you that night changed things between us forever -"

Before Severus could go any further, Harry interrupted with a calm, "So take it away."

Severus was staring at him again as if he'd gone daft. "What?"

"You're the strongest wizard alive when it comes to the mental arts. You're saying that the only thing standing between us and happiness are the things that bastard said to me – things that don't make any difference to me. So go into my mind and take the memories away. I know you have the skill to do it. I'll never know the difference. Just go in and erase everything you don't want me to remember, and then we can be together again," Harry pleaded.

"You can't be serious," Severus said after a long pause.

"I'm entirely serious. The only other person who knows what Burke said to me is Hermione, and you told her yourself. If you ask her not to speak of it, I'll never find out. Please fix this so that we can be together again?" Harry didn't quite beg.

"You are seriously suggesting that I . . . ?"

"I want you back. I don't care what it takes; I'll do it. I don’t know why it took me so long to come up with this idea. It's brilliant," Harry said, feeling so happy as the heavy weight lifted off his heart that he feared he might break into hysterical laugher at any moment.

"It's insane."

"Maybe, but it works for me," Harry said. "What about you? Can you deal with it?"

Severus gave a slow nod.

"Okay, go ahead," Harry said, stepping back into Severus' personal space.

"What? You want me to do this here . . . now?" Severus said in a near-stammer.

"Why not?" Harry said. "Go on, fix me."

"Let me understand. You wish me to erase anything from your memory that . . . ."

"Makes you uncomfortable," Harry said.

"Anything that makes me uncomfortable?" Severus checked.

Harry didn't know what it was in Severus' tone that sent the shiver down his spine, but the hair on the nape of his neck was standing up straight as he affirmed, "Anything. I love you and I want us to be together."

The pause that followed seemed to last a century.

"As you wish," Severus finally conceded.

Harry stepped even closer. His heart was pounding; he was so excited that things were finally going to go right for them.

Severus reached out his newly regrown right hand, resting his chilly fingertips against the equally cool skin on Harry's temple.

Those fingers stroked into his hair for a moment. Harry didn't understand the intense sadness he caught in Severus' expression in a fleeting instance of openness.

"What's wrong?" Harry asked.

"I have never said it to you before, Harry Potter, but I love you as I have loved no other person or thing in my life," Severus said in a strangely choked whisper.

Finally! Harry's heart gave a jubilant shout. "I love you, too."

He watched Severus lower his head. As those cold, thin lips touched his, he hungrily returned the kiss.

When he felt Severus' mind brush questioningly against his own, he opened himself fully and joyfully to his lover's mind-touch.

*~*~*

Harry never even saw it coming, Severus thought, shaken by his own temerity. He still couldn't believe what he'd just done.

Wondering if perhaps they were all wrong and he really was insane, he stared down at the handsome man lying unconscious at his feet. He knew he had to be completely mental to have done what he'd just done. No sane person would violate another's mind and trust as he'd just done to Harry.

Harry had offered him everything he'd ever wanted, had trusted him enough to allow him to manipulate his very memories. He could have had it all; instead, he'd left himself with nothing.

But . . . he hadn't lied to Harry. He loved him more than he loved anything. It wasn't right that Harry be so . . . desperate for company that he'd be willing to let someone adjust his memories.

Severus knew that he was broken beyond repair. Even if Harry weren't aware of his awful past, there was no way he'd ever be able to be what he'd once been to him, and Harry deserved to have everything that was good and wonderful in this world.

And now he would.

Severus schooled his face as a groan sounded from near his feet. Holding his breath, he watched as Harry rolled over onto his back and blinked up at him in confusion.

"Severus?"

"Are you all right?" Severus asked in as normal a tone as he could manage. He'd seen what Harry's mage fire could do to human flesh. He didn't want to end up on the wrong end of that elemental force, which could well happen if he'd made a single mistake, besides, of course, the original mistake of betraying Harry. Even now, mere moments after he'd acted, he knew how wrong he'd been.

"Er, yeah, I think so." Harry's confused gaze moved from him to the nearby spectator bleachers. "Did I really hit the wall?"

Taking a deep breath as he took the next step down this path of deception, Severus said, "So it would seem. Are you injured?"

Harry shook his head. "No. But I should be dead. You stopped me from hitting the stand full force, didn't you?"

There was little difference between impacting with the wall or the frozen ground, Severus told himself as he gave yet another nod.

"Thanks," Harry said, giving his arm a friendly pat and gifting him with a grin the likes of which Severus hadn't seen since before his abduction.

Maybe the decision hadn't been so wrong, after all.

Already feeling better about his choice, Severus solemnly answered, "No thanks are necessary."

"It's weird. I've never hit a wall before," Harry said, picking up his broom.

"Well, the winds are high tonight," Severus said.

"Yes, they are. Good thing for me you were up and about. I don't even know what made me think flying at this hour in these winds was such a bright idea. I usually only fly at night when I'm upset about something," Harry said.

Severus tensed, waiting to see if his handiwork would hold. He was so exhausted from the effort it had taken to rework Harry's memories that he could barely stay vertical.

"Whoa, there," Harry said, grabbing onto him as he swayed. "Are you all right?"

"Merely tired," Severus lied around the pounding in his head.

"Right. That's why you're turning green. Do you need Poppy?" Harry asked, adjusting the broom in his right hand so it wasn't digging into Severus' forearm.

"No. I merely need some sleep," Severus denied.

"All right. Let's get in out of this wind," Harry said, keeping hold of his arm as he guided him back towards the castle.

Rather than make a fuss, Severus allowed Harry to accompany him straight to his door, which would have been out of the question this morning. It was strange to see Harry's eyes look at him with simply the fondness of a friend. For so many months now, this man had seemed able to read his very soul with a glance, but there was nothing other than surface concern in Harry's gaze now. It didn't seem to hurt Harry to look at him anymore, which was what Severus had intended.

"Thank you, Potter," Severus acknowledged when they reached the door to his quarters. He hadn't expected it to hurt so much to see Harry so changed towards him, but, as with most of the impulsive decisions he'd made in his life, he hadn't thought this one through.

"No problem," Harry dismissed. Giving him a sudden grin, Harry said, "Hey, do you want to go to the Three Broomsticks for drinks Friday night? Ron and Hermione are going. I know things have been hard for you lately, but it might help to get out."

This was where his deception was going to get difficult. He hadn't been able to completely erase Harry's memory of their relationship. Too many people knew that Harry had rescued him from Burke, and their immediate friends knew Harry had healed him. Harry had to retain knowledge of these events for daily interaction. There was no way he could return Potter to a state prior to their détente without leaving Harry questioning why he would have worked so hard to heal someone he disliked intensely. So, Severus had been forced to return Harry to the state their relationship had been at in mid-October before they'd become lovers. Détente, drinks out several nights a week. It was more contact than Severus was ready for, but it had been his only choice.

Well, not his only choice. He could have simply done what Harry had asked him to do and removed the conversation with Burke, instead of walling off the memory of their entire affair, but that would have tied Harry to him indefinitely. It was time for Harry to be moving on.

"Severus?"

"Er, what?" he snapped to attention.

"Did you want to go for drinks at the Three Broomsticks Friday night?" Harry asked again, worry beginning to enter his attitude.

"Yes, that would be fine."

"Great. I'll see you at breakfast, then. Make sure you take some of that headache draught before you go to bed. You look rough," Harry said.

"I will. Good night, Harry," Severus absently said as he took his leave.

Harry had turned to go, but he froze suddenly to look back at him.

"What?" Severus asked, for Harry's shock was plain.

Had his work toppled so soon, Severus fretted, realizing that couldn't be the cause of Harry's reaction. Harry simply appeared surprised. No, once Harry realized what he'd done to him, Harry would be after his blood, not merely looking confused.

"You just called me Harry. You never call me by my first name," Harry said,

Cursing himself an idiot, Severus tried to cover with, "Forgive me . . . ."

"Nothing to forgive. I like it. See you tomorrow, Severus."

Venting a relieved breath, Severus watched the light-footed young man who had once shared his bed and life hurry up the dungeon stairs, as carefree as a first year. Seeing the bounce that was back in Harry's step, Severus tried to tell himself that he'd made the right decision.

*~*~*

"You seem very happy this morning," Hermione Weasley commented as a whistling Harry sat down beside her at the teachers' table at breakfast.

For the first time since Severus had broken it off with Harry, there weren't dark circles under his eyes. She couldn't recall the last time she'd seen him so rested and animated. He'd been exhausted during Severus' prolonged healing, which had been pretty bad in itself; but since Severus had called things off, Harry had been like the walking dead. The only time he displayed any life at all was when he was in front of a class. The moment the students were out the door, he'd wilt like May daffodils.

"Yeah, I feel great," Harry said.

"What's got you so cheerful, then?" Ron asked Harry from her other side as he buttered a slice of toast.

Severus wasn't at the table yet, she worriedly realized. Normally, he was the first one down to breakfast. Well, him or Harry. They were running neck and neck for the finish line when it came to the most-tormented award.

"Severus said he'd go to the Three Broomsticks with me tomorrow," Harry said as he reached for the bacon. He gave a startled "Ummph!" as she flung her arms around him and hugged him.

"That's great, Harry! I'm so happy for you," Hermione enthused.

Ron reached across her to pat Harry on the back. "I'm glad for you, mate, for you both, truth be told."

Harry was giving them both the strangest look as she released him.

"It's just drinks at the Three Broomsticks," Harry said.

"Yes, well. It's a start, isn't it?" she said.

"A start?" Harry echoed, seeming oddly confused.

"I know Severus isn't ready for much, but at least he's willing to try. It's a breakthrough, isn't it?" Already her day was looking much brighter. She could hardly wait till she got Severus alone during their free period.

The confusion seemed to clear from Harry's face. "Yeah. I guess I just wasn't thinking about it that way. It's got to be a good sign that he's willing to socialize again."

"That's right," she agreed.

"Put a sock in it, the both of you," Ron warned from Hermione's far side. "Himself's just entered the Great Hall."

"Good morning," Severus greeted as he took the empty chair on Ron's far side.

"You must be feeling better," Harry said to Severus. "You've actually joined us."

Severus didn't look as though he were feeling better. To the contrary, he paled at Harry's words as if he'd made some kind of major social gaffe.

For her part, Hermione couldn't understand Harry's comment. Severus had been sitting with them since Ron had blundered in on Harry and him months ago.

Severus' next words cleared her confusion.

"Yes, my headache is much improved," Severus said.

Realizing that that must be what Harry had been referring to, she turned to Severus. "You have a headache?"

Now that she looked at him closely, she realized he looked very much as he would on those mornings after he'd rewritten one of Harry's night terrors.

"Had," Severus corrected, although she suspected from the tension around his purple-bagged eyes that he was lying to her. "I'm afraid lack of sleep is taking its toll. I might have to beg off on our outing tomorrow night, Potter."

To her absolute bewilderment, Harry gave what appeared to be an understanding nod. "No problem. We can go some day next week if you're up to it."

If Severus were up to it? Harry had been pining for weeks for Severus to spend a little time with him. How could he be so blasé about Severus cancelling on him like this?

Ron and she exchanged a mutually confused look as a seemingly unperturbed Harry attacked his breakfast with the gusto of a man who hadn't eaten in weeks, which was almost literally the truth. It was obvious from Ron's face that he'd expected Harry to be devastated by Severus' cancellation the same as she had.

A glance Severus' way showed him watching them all as though he'd been thrown into a den of man-eating lions.

Her stomach tensed into a tight knot. She didn't know what the hell was going on, but she was sure she wasn't going to like it. Her happiness a thing of the past, she poked at her now-cold porridge and tried to be surreptitious about watching Harry and Severus, which wasn't exactly easy as they were on opposite sides of her. Wondering how she was going to approach Severus on this subject, she took a deep breath and practiced patience.

*~*~*

The Three Broomsticks was at its usual level of Friday night, ear-splitting din.

Harry leaned his chair into the corner, trying to relax. There'd been something wrong with Ron and Hermione for the past two days. He couldn't put his finger on it, but they'd been acting weird as hell. Severus, as well, for that matter. But Severus, at least, had an excuse for his strange behaviour. After all he'd suffered, Harry didn't know how Severus had come through it as normal as he was. Well, normal for Severus, anyway.

"Too bad Severus couldn't make it tonight," Ron commented.

"Yeah," Harry said. "I think a night out would have done wonders for him."

"You must be terribly disappointed," Hermione said to him with that weird, sympathetic look she'd been giving him for the past few days, like he was made of fine china and about to shatter.

"He'll come around. You know how strong Severus is," Harry said.

"Yes, of course, he will," she agreed. "I just thought you might be upset about him cancelling on you like that."

There it was again, that peculiar undercurrent that he couldn't put his finger on. "Er, well, yes, of course it's disappointing, but I think we have to think of what's best for Severus."

"It's best that he be with you, Harry," Hermione said. "You've got to know that."

Okay, things had just slipped from weird straight into bizarre. Hermione was almost acting as if he and Severus were . . . married, or seriously involved. He opened his mouth to ask what the hell was going on, when a woman's voice from another table called, "Hermione?"

Hermione glanced over to where her name had been called, her face lighting up immediately.

"Lydia! Excuse me a minute, Harry." Hermione said, jumping to her feet, and making her graceful way through the crowded pub to the other side of the room where the gorgeous, blonde Slytherin woman whose child they'd visited in hospital years ago sat.

The two men at Lydia's table rose to their feet and headed towards where Ron and he were sitting.

"Hi, Terry, John," Ron greeted the pair when they reached them.

"Grab a chair," Harry invited, once the hand shaking was over.

Lydia's husband, Terry Forrester, was a tall, dark-haired man with piercing blue eyes. Her brother, John Penbroke, was a medium height, heavy set man with warm brown eyes and a friendly face. They were both good friends to Ron and him. Terry was a barrister and worked with Ron on a fairly regular basis, so they often talked shop when together.

"It's good to see you," John remarked. "It's been forever."

"Yeah, we've had a rough time of it these past few months," Ron said.

"I heard about what happened to your team," Terry said. "I can't imagine what you went through."

"We tried to see you at St. Mungo's, but they said you were at death's door and only immediate family would be allowed in," John said. "I'm glad to see they were mistaken."

Ron's gaze moved to Harry.

Reading the question in those familiar blue eyes, Harry gave a cautious nod. He didn't want to advertise what he'd done for Ron, but these two knew that his powers were far more extensive than he normally let on. He hated deceiving friends.

"They weren't mistaken. I'd've snuffed it, if it weren't for Harry here. He used the Sanguinis Philos to save me."

Harry admired how Ron's words suggested that it had been the potion, rather than his freakish powers, that was responsible for the cure.

"That's an amazing potion," John commented. "It saved our father once."

"I wouldn't underestimate Harry's part in it," Terry said. "I'm still firmly convinced that we owe Marcus' recovery to Harry."

Harry's gaze snapped to Terry's serious face as Ron asked, "What do you mean?"

"Marcus was dying. The mediwiz had warned us to prepare ourselves the morning that Harry and his team stopped in to see him. We thought it was his last day with us. We were so grateful that Harry and his friends were granting him his greatest wish. Marcus was so weak when they arrived that he could barely talk."

Even now, Harry could see that tiny form lying in the hospital bed, his skin whiter than the sheets he lay against.

"I remember," John said. "The snidelus had almost consumed him by that point."

"Marcus had snidelus?" Ron's face revealed his shock. "I knew he was sick, but snidelus?"

Snidelus was incurable. Basically, it was a condition in which a wizard or witch's system was incapable of handling their growing power. As their magic grew, it overloaded their nervous systems, eventually killing them. It was a long, agonizing process. Most afflicted wizard children didn't survive past their seventh birthday.

John nodded. "There was no question. It was snidelus. Marcus is the only child in history to have survived it."

"You cured snidelus?" Ron asked Harry in a low tone. He needn't have worried. The pub was so loud around them, it was clear no one was paying them any attention whatsoever.

"I . . . I honestly don't know," Harry said. "When we were talking, Marcus had a seizure. The mediwizs cleared the room. Marcus cried for me to stay, so they let me. He was in so much pain. I took hold of his hand and . . . ."

Thinking back on it now, he realized that he had worked some magic on the child. At the time, he hadn't known what he was doing. All he knew was that when he took Marcus' hand, Marcus' power had felt wrong, blocked somehow so that it turned in on itself, instead of flowing out. By instinct, he'd reached out with his magic and cleared the blocks. At the time, he'd thought he was just transferring his energy to help the dying child hold on a little longer, but now, with the experience he had healing Ron and Severus behind him, he knew he'd done much more than transfer a bit of his power.

"And from that moment on, Marcus started improving," Terry said. "It wasn't an instantaneous recovery. It was weeks before he could walk again, but . . . ."

"He shouldn't have walked at all," John, the Squib doctor, explained.

Realizing that he had to downplay his role in this, Harry said, "I'm really not sure you can credit me with having anything to do with it. I admit that I wished with all my heart that he would be well again, but wishing doesn't cure something like snildelus."

"Harry's right," Ron seconded. "He's strong, but he's no miracle worker. Maybe meeting his favourite quidditch team helped Marcus recover. I know the first time Harry introduced me to the Cannons, I felt like I'd been reborn."

Everyone at the table was aware of Ron's mania for the Cannons and laughed at Ron's heartfelt comment.

Uncomfortable with the conversation, Harry gave Ron's shoulder a pat. "I'm going to check out the action at the bar. Do you want anything?"

Ron gave him another of those strange looks that he'd been giving him the last two days. "You're checking out the action at the bar?"

Ron had never had any problem with his meeting other men on their trips to the Three Broomsticks before. "Er, yeah. Is that a problem?"

He'd known Ronald Weasley for more than fifteen years now. He could tell by his best friend's expression that Ron was sitting on a huge reaction when he answered a little stiffly, "No, I guess life goes on, right?"

Harry opened his mouth to question Ron, but he realized this noisy bar wasn't the right place. And he certainly wasn't going to go into whatever was wrong with John and Terry sitting right there at the table with them. First thing tomorrow morning, he was going to go sit on Ron's bedside and get him and Hermione to tell him what the devil was going on. But until then, he needed to put some space between him and the peculiar looks.

"Right. I'll see you later."

"Sure, Harry," Ron answered, his disapproval almost palpable.

Beginning to think he'd fallen into an alternate universe when he ploughed into that wall the other night, he made his way through the mob to the bar.

It was the usual crowd. He could see Michael talking to a good-looking man at the far end of the overcrowded bar. Catching his eye, Michael gave him a guarded nod before returning his full attention to his new companion, a tall, athletic-looking redhead that Harry thought he might have slept with during his quidditch days.

Harry tried not to dwell on what might have been as he eased through the crowd to place his order. It was impossible not to jostle someone in the press of people, and he found his elbow bumping into a slender man with dark hair that was even messier than his own. Strangely enough, there was a good foot or so of space on the stranger's other side, an absolute anomaly on a night this crowded.

The man he'd bumped into had a handsome, quirky face and ears that were so strongly pointed that Harry seriously thought there might be some elf in his bloodline. The stranger looked out of place, for he was dressed in Muggle jeans and a black leather jacket. More importantly, there was no evidence that the guy was carrying a wand. It wasn't like those tight black jeans left any doubt about that. Harry supposed that the jacket could have a pocket built into it to hold the man's wand, but he didn't see any evidence of that in the close-fitting leather.

"Sorry," Harry said.

Intriguing hazel eyes sparked with amusement as a sleepy American drawl answered, "No problem. Pleased to meet you."

The minute he heard the American accent, he understood why everyone was giving the stranger a wide berth. American Wizarding society was very different from their own. For one thing, since the Salem purges, the births of American wizards weren't kept on record anywhere, as they were here in Great Britain. In the States, wizards weren't even required to send their children to Wizarding schools the way British wizards were. Perhaps because of that, the Americans had a reputation for being reckless and unpredictable. British wizards tended to avoid their American counterparts as a rule, for fear of exposure to the Muggle world. But since Harry hadn't seen any headlines about the exposure of the American Wizarding world on the scandal sheets any of the times he'd been in a London newspaper shop, he supposed they couldn't be that careless.

"You're new here, aren't you?" Harry asked, feeling the stranger's magic ripple around him. When a wizard or witch reached a certain level of power, he or she became physically aware of the potential of others. Harry could feel wizards of Voldemort or Burke's power across a room. He had to be closer to feel Hermione or Severus. This guy was at about Ron's level of power, but there was something strange about his magic. Usually, he sensed another wizard's power in a steady pulse. This man's was intermittent, which made no sense. It felt like it was there one second, strong as could be, but gone the next.

"That obvious, huh?" the man asked with a self-conscious smile to Harry's question about being new.

Harry waited for the inevitable recognition to cross the man's face now that he was close enough to be seen, but the stranger's features remained wonderfully unenlightened, even though Harry knew his lightning bolt scar was showing.

"A bit," Harry said with a smile.

"Can I buy you a beer?" the stranger asked with a boyish charm that was nearly irresistible.

"Sure," Harry said. Offering his hand, he introduced himself. "Harry Potter."

There was still no reaction in the man's face. It was like his name meant nothing to the American.

The guy's handshake was firm. "John. John Shep . . . Shepford."

The last was a lie, Harry automatically noticed, but not all wizards cared for casual paramours to know their true identities. If this were even about that. The guy could just be being friendly.

"Good to meet you, John. Where are you from?" Harry asked, hoping his meagre knowledge of American geography was up to the reply. He knew Washington D.C. and New York were on the Atlantic coast and Los Angeles on the Pacific, but beyond that, everything was a blur.

A hint of irony entered Shepford's attitude as he answered, "From a galaxy far, far away."

Not many people in the Three Broomsticks would have recognized the Muggle reference. Harry did, but even understanding the reference, it was a strange thing to say.

Harry considered himself a fairly good judge of character, and he would have sworn that, despite Shepford's joking attitude, the man wasn't lying to him. It made no sense, but, then, so little had made sense in his life the last few days. Playing along, he asked, "So, did you bring your spaceship or did you apparate in?"

Shepford's expression dropped at his last reference; he seemed nearly confused by the last part of his question. After a moment, he answered, "I took the train, actually."

"Are you here on business or pleasure?" Harry asked, taking a seat on the stool beside Shepford's.

"Vacation, actually," John answered. "I guess you call it 'holiday' here."

From down the bar, the bartender, Mark, called out, "Your usual, Harry?"

"Thanks, Mark," Harry yelled back as Mark levitated a foaming mug over to him. When he turned back to Shepford, he couldn't help but notice the expression on the man's face as he stared at the mug Harry now held in his hands. Lowering his voice, he leaned in towards Shepford and asked, "How did you get in here?"

This was a problem he hadn't encountered before. Muggles weren't supposed to be able to see Hogsmeade. They could get here with a wizard's help, like their Squib friend John Penbroke, but it was clear that this Shepford character had just wandered in on his own. If Shepford had really taken the train, that meant he'd walked through the wall at King's Cross Station to get here. What Muggle could do that?

"What do you mean?" Shepford asked in a casual, relaxed tone. Too casual.

Harry could tell by the man's suddenly intense expression that he was primed for battle. There was still no wand in evidence. Keeping things as calm as possible, he said, "Muggles aren't supposed to be able to penetrate this far into our world."

Shepford's tension was no longer underplayed. He clearly hated having to ask, but he quietly questioned, "Muggles?"

"Non-magical people," Harry explained, the man's ignorance confirming his fears.

"I'm, ah, not exactly a Muggle," Shepford said, his gaze moving with that deceptive casualness to the door. He seemed to realize he'd never make it and turned his full attention back to Harry.

All that boyish charm was gone now and Harry found himself staring into the eyes of a man who would do whatever was necessary to survive. He wondered if Shepford were armed with a Muggle weapon.

"That's a little like not being exactly pregnant," Harry remarked. "Once again, how did you get in here?"

"I've been here before," Shepford said.

"You've never seen anyone levitate a beer, but you've been here before?" Harry didn't even try to conceal his disbelief.

"Well, not in this pub, but in the castle. My dad was stationed in England for a while when I was young. I got a letter inviting me to attend that school in the castle up there near the lake," Shepford claimed.

Once again, Harry didn't sense any lies, but he'd also seen how completely unfamiliar the man was with something as simple as levitation. "You were a student at Hogwarts?"

They looked to be about the same age. If Shepford had attended Hogwarts, Harry would have known the man, no matter what house he was sorted into.

Shepford gave a negative shake of his head. His hair really was even worse than his own, Harry realized. "My mom was something called a Squib, so she knew about all this wizard stuff, though she never spoke of it till we got that letter. My parents thought it might be good for me to have some stability instead of moving around from military base to military base every other year. My mom and me came to check out the school. She didn't like their morals much, so she wouldn't let me go. But I never forgot the day we were there. There was this moving staircase in the school. It was too cool for words."

"What do you mean 'she didn't like their morals'?" Harry questioned, trying not to be offended. But Hogwarts was the only real home he'd ever known.

As if realizing his faux pas, Shepford softly explained, "We sat in on this class where some old lady taught the kids to make live kittens vanish. They never brought them back. It freaked us both out."

"Children have to be taught the dangers of their powers," Harry tried to explain, although, being Muggle-reared himself, once he'd gotten old enough to understand what was happening, he'd had a similar reaction to that particular lesson.

"Maybe," John agreed. "But I don't think Squibs are treated very well by you wizard guys. When she saw what they did to the kittens, my mom said nothing had changed and she wasn't going to have me grow up to be just like them. We got transferred to Germany a few weeks later and the whole wizard thing was never brought up again."

Once again, Harry was reading truth. "So, you're a wizard, but you never went to school?"

The very idea was a little terrifying. Harry remembered some of the spontaneous magic he'd worked at the Dursleys' when young. It was only years of schooling that had taught him, and every other wizard and witch, to think before acting. He could only imagine the trouble Shepford must have gotten into when growing up in the Muggle world with these untrained abilities.

"Not the kind of school where they make things disappear and lift things with their minds," Shepford said with that engaging smile.

"Not with their minds, with their magic," Harry corrected him.

"Whatever."

"So what are you doing here now?" Harry asked, still trying to evaluate how much of a threat this guy was to their world, this guy who claimed to be a completely untrained wizard who lived in a galaxy far, far away.

John shrugged. "I, ah, come back here every now and then when things aren't going too good. It sort of reminds me that there are still some wonders that Man hasn't taken all the mystery and magic out of. I've never been to this town before. Usually, I just hang out in that Victorian street on the other side of that wall in the London bar."

Harry relaxed a little at that. If Shepford had been to Diagon Alley and hadn't revealed its existence, chances were he wasn't a danger. There were thousands of Squibs who knew about the Wizarding World. Shepford wasn't exactly a Squib, but he probably wasn't much more of a threat than they were.

"So, are you going to blow the whistle on me?" Shepford asked, trying out that boyish grin again.

"Not at the moment."

"Thanks," Shepford said, relaxing into a sprawl on the bar stool, which was no easy feat.

Admiring the man's grace, Harry settled back into his own stool. He could feel Shepford evaluating him. "So, what do you do for a living, Harry?" In a lower tone, he asked, "Do wizards even work?"

Harry grinned, beginning to really like this man. "Most do, unless they're wealthy. I teach Defense Against the Dark Arts up at Hogwarts."

"That's the castle school?" Shepford checked.

"Yes. The one without the morals," Harry added.

"Ouch," John said. That ready smile appeared again. "Sorry about that."

"No problem," Harry said.

"Is there much call for defending against dark arts?" Shepford asked in a joking tone.

It was strange to sit here with someone who knew so little about the Wizarding World. Voldemort had been a threat and a part of his life for so long that it was difficult for Harry to remember that most of the people living on this planet had never heard of the man. Deciding to give Shepford a taste of his own evading, he answered, "You'd be surprised." After a moment, he asked, "What about you? What do you do?"

After a moment's consideration, Shepford said, "I'm a pilot."

That, too, felt like the truth.

"You like to fly?" Harry asked, seeing by the spark in Shepford's changeable hazel eyes that they had that in common.

"I live for it. I think anyone who doesn't want to fly is crazy," Shepford said.

"Me, too," Harry agreed with a grin.

"What do you fly?" Shepford questioned, taking a sip of his beer.

"A Firebolt." Harry could see from his companion's expression that Shepford was confused again. "It's a broom. I take it you fly planes?"

"Helicopters mostly, with the occasional experimental model. You really fly on a broom?" Shepford didn't seem able to keep himself from asking.

"It's the closest thing there is to having wings," Harry answered.

"They didn't say anything about flying brooms that day we visited," Shepford complained in a delightfully lugubrious manner.

Harry couldn't help but laugh.

The next hour or so seemed to speed by for Harry as he joked and laughed with this odd stranger. Throughout it all, he couldn't really be certain if Shepford were flirting with him and chatting him up or if he were just being friendly. He'd heard that Americans could seem very forward in that regard, and mistakes could be made, for touches didn't always mean the same thing in another culture. So, he was doing his best to play it cool. The last thing he needed was a scene in his local pub.

It was Shepford who eventually brought the subject out into the open. His voice dropped and a strange nervousness entered his attitude as he softly asked, "So, tell me, Harry. Do wizards ever, um, date other wizards?"

"Some do," Harry replied with equal caution.

"You one of the ones who do?" Shepford asked.

"Yeah. What about you?" Harry replied, wondering if his own smile were anywhere near as sexy as the one Shepford was wearing.

"'I've never dated a wizard before. I'm thinking it could be fun," Shepford said. "One thing you should know, though. I, um, won't be hanging around for long. I'm here on vacation, a couple of days, and then I have to get back to my . . . home."

"That works for me."

"So, do you want to find someplace private?" John asked.

Pleased by how smoothly this was going, Harry said, "I can't really bring anyone back to the school. Do you have a room?"

"At the inn across the street," Shepford said. "They let me change my money there when I arrived. These coins you guys use are . . . sorta neat."

"Good. I'm going to go let my friends know that I'm leaving. I'll meet you outside, okay?" Harry said.

"See you in a few," Shepford agreed, heading towards the door.

For a second as Harry watched that tall, dark clad stranger walk away, an image of an even taller dark haired man dressed in billowing robes flashed into his mind and he was struck with a sudden sense of wrongness. Shaking the uneasiness off, he wended his way through the crowd back to Hermione and Ron's table.

"Oh, there you are," Hermione said with a smile. Both she and Lydia's were at the table with Ron and Lydia's family. "I was beginning to worry. Where have you been all this time?"

"At the bar," Harry said, relieved to see her smile back. Once he'd said hello to Lydia, he continued with, "I just wanted to let you know I met someone and I won't be going back to Hogwarts with you."

"You met someone?" Ron repeated, looking totally shocked.

Uneasy again because Ron had never looked at him like he was committing a crime when he'd picked someone up in the past, Harry asked, "What's wrong?"

"What about Severus?" Ron demanded in a nearly truculent tone.

Hermione's eyes were equally as shocked as Ron's when Harry looked at her.

"What's Severus got to do with this?" Harry asked, losing patience with the bizarre treatment he'd been receiving the last few days. The Forresters and John were watching the exchange with obvious confusion.

"Apparently nothing," Ron answered, his disapproval no longer underplayed.

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

"Ron," Hermione said, touching Ron's arm, "something's not right here. Let it go."

Ron gave a reluctant nod.

In no way reassured by Ron's glare or the strange way Hermione was watching him, he asked, "What's going on?"

"I don't know, Harry, but I'm going to find out. Go on. Have fun. We'll see you in the morning," Hermione said.

That was more the reaction he was accustomed to receiving. But although she smiled at him, Harry could read the worry right through it.

"Is everything okay with you?" Harry asked, worried himself now.

Hermione nodded. "We're fine, Harry."

"Good night, then. It was great seeing you all," Harry said to Lydia, Terry, and John. He tried to control the feeling of wrongness that was eating at him as he went to meet John Shepford outside.

*~*~*

The Whistling Witch Inn had been around as long as the Three Broomsticks. Although it did have a public room for dining, it wasn't the popular meeting place that Rosmerta's establishment was. The Whistling Witch catered to Hogsmeade's out of town visitors and the townsfolk who might have need to rent a room on a Friday or Saturday night. Harry fell into the latter category.

The rooms weren't fancy, but they were clean and comfortable.

Harry had always liked the place, because no matter how frequently he stayed here, his visits had never ended up in the Prophet the next morning, which wasn't the case in many of the inns he'd frequented while with the Cannons. Jamie, the desk clerk, was refreshingly unbiased when it came to two men sharing a room of a Friday night. Harry could come in here with a different fellow every week, and Jamie would give him the same cheery smile and welcome.

"Hi, Harry," the dark-curled Jamie greeted as Harry and John Shepford entered.

"Hi, Jamie," Harry said, returning the older man's grin.

"Long time no see," Jamie commented.

"It hasn't been that long," Harry protested.

"We haven't seen you since early October," Jamie said. "I remember because I was hanging the Halloween decorations the last time you were in."

Harry remembered that quite clearly. It was one of the last times he'd been in here with Michael before things had gotten serious and he'd started going home to Michael's place.

How could he have not been here in four months? What the hell had he been doing with all his Friday and Saturday nights? Granted, most of January had been devoted to healing Severus and he'd simply not had the energy or been conscious long enough to date. But what the devil had he been doing from October to New Year? Or for the last month, for that matter? He'd been taking things slow since Michael dumped him, but there was slow, and then there was moribund. Harry searched his memory, trying to account for his time. But he couldn't remember a single Friday or Saturday night, not even last week.

"Everything all right with you?" Jamie checked.

Moved by the clerk's concern, Harry gave a nod. "Yes, thanks for asking. How about you?"

"I'm fine. You boys have a good night," Jamie said.

"Thanks," Harry said, moving with John towards the stairs.

"You sure everything's all right?" John asked as they climbed the stairs.

"Why do you ask?" Harry asked.

"Well, you just looked really confused back there. Is something wrong?"

Most of the one-night-stands Harry dated wouldn't have bothered to ask that question when they were on their way to bed. Hell, most of them wouldn't have enquired if Harry had seemed upset when they were actively engaged in bed. There was a certain degree of selfishness to most of these casual encounters that made it hard for him to enjoy them. John was shaping up to be a pleasant change of pace.

"I'm not sure," Harry said.

"Huh?" John questioned, then said, "This is us," as he stopped in front of the door nearest the stairs.

The room they entered was familiar to Harry. Huge bed, blond wood headboard and footboard, walnut nightstands and dresser, everything spotlessly clean and polished to within an inch of its life. The fire in the small hearth was dancing merrily and filling the room with a cosy orange glow.

"You were saying?" John prompted as he closed the door behind them.

"You don't really want to talk about this now, do you?" Harry asked, aware that most guys usually just wanted to get down to business when they were alone in a bedroom.

"Sure, why not? Unless it's too personal," John said.

Harry shook his head no. "It, er, just occurred to me when Jamie asked where I'd been lately, that I had no memory at all of what I've been doing on the weekends the last few months."

"Do you drink?" John asked, a perfectly reasonable question under the circumstances.

Harry gave another negative shake of his head. "Not to excess. I don't do drugs, either. It's just weird."

"Yeah, it sounds sorta scary," John said. "Did you have anything traumatic happen to you lately? I've seen some guys loose their memories after battle or capture."

"Battle? Are you in the military?" Harry asked.

John appeared chagrined with himself as he gave a slow nod. "Air Force. The brass isn't very understanding about the guy on guy thing, if you take my meaning."

Reading John's concern, Harry said. "The guy on guy thing isn't exactly smiled upon here, either. I teach in a highly conservative school. We're both going to have to keep each other's secrets."

John gave him that sexy smile again. "I think I'm gonna enjoy keeping your secrets. But getting back to the amnesia . . . ."

"Amnesia?" It felt weird to actually call it that.

"Well, that's usually what they call missing memories, isn't it?" John asked.

"Yeah, I guess so. It's just hard to think of myself as . . . having amnesia. Especially since I can't remember anything traumatic happening."

John gave a serious sounding, "That's because you have amnesia," that made Harry laugh.

When he calmed, John said, "It isn't really a laughing matter."

"No, I guess not," Harry agreed. "It just feels a little unreal, like something from a Muggle soap opera. You know?"

"I've never had amnesia," John said, "But I've had some weird stuff go down, way weird. So, yeah, I do sorta understand." After a silent moment, John asked, "Do you want to take a rain check on tonight?"

Harry's gaze strayed to the neatly made bed, and then back to the handsome man who was watching him with open concern. The worry made up his mind. He didn't have a clue as to why he couldn't remember what he'd done with his spare time in the last few months, and that bothered the hell out of him, but he couldn't remember the last time a casual paramour had been this considerate with him, either. He wasn't going to blow the chance to get to know a man like John better. Whatever the problem with his memory, it would be there in the morning.

"I know it sounds weird, but, no. I'd like to stay if you're still interested," Harry said.

"Why wouldn't I be?" John asked with that same boyish charm that had hooked Harry in the bar.

Harry smiled and said, "Amnesia really isn't most guys' idea of a hot date."

"Their loss," John said as he stepped closer.

John was taller than him by at least three inches, but as Harry looked up at him as the man stepped into his personal space, he was once again struck by a sense of something not being right. It made no sense, but his body seemed to think that John should be even taller than he was.

"I, ah, should warn you," John said. "I'm a little rusty. It's been a while."

"Apparently, for me, too," Harry said with a smile.

John's chuckle made him glad he'd made the joke, for John seemed far more relaxed as he asked, "Do you like to kiss?"

"Yeah, love it," Harry answered. The meeting of their lips blasted any lingering sense of wrongness from his mind. John's mouth was sweet and responsive. He opened to him at the first swipe of his tongue.

The hunger in John's kiss and the eager way his hands roved over Harry's back told him just how long it had been for John. The guy was considerate, but beneath the surface cool, he sensed an almost ravenous need.

That was more than fine with him. Harry couldn't remember the last time there had been this much fun and laughter in a first time encounter.

Their clothes hit the floor piece by piece. John proved to have a wonderfully masculine chest with thick hair. Like Harry himself, his new companion seemed to really enjoy having his nipples sucked and played with.

In no time at all, they were flat on the bed, locked in what seemed to be an endless kiss. After a long period of eager foreplay, John lifted his head from the kiss to ask, "How do you want to do this?"

This was where problems usually arose. Wanting to avoid the whole 'who's on top' discussion, Harry questioned, "69 work for you?"

John's instant grin told him he'd made the right choice.

Shifting around in the bed, Harry targeted that long, rosy circumcised cock. Most wizards weren't cut, so it was a sexy change of pace. Harry couldn't hold back a gasp as John tentatively familiarized himself with his own foreskin.

"This is so cool," John said, his tongue moving to trace where Harry's glans was poking out of the foreskin.

Cool wasn't the adjective Harry would have chosen to describe the sensations thundering through him at the moment, but he appreciated the compliment. Lowering his head to absorb that impressive, streamlined shaft, he did his best to blast all higher thought processes from John's mind.

They came almost simultaneously. Like himself, John seemed to enjoy swallowing. Harry understood the need, but it was always a bit disappointing when a lover spat him out.

Their heads pillowed on each other's thighs, they lay there trying to catch their breath for a long time afterwards.

John broke the silence with a contented, "That was pretty amazing."

Liking how open John was, Harry smiled and said, "Sure was. You up for another round?"

John's chuckle filled the room. "Thanks for the compliment, but I'll need a few minutes."

Harry shifted around, and did his best to take John's breath away with a kiss.

He spent a long time exploring John's slender body. John had a strange set of scars on his neck. They didn't look like knife or bullet wounds. In fact, they looked more like a hickey or a vampire bite, only the marks were too far apart to have been made by human teeth or any animal he knew.

John tensed as Harry's fingers played over the scars.

Sensing how reluctant John was to talk about them, Harry simply kissed them and moved on. He discovered a definite bullet wound on John's upper left arm, and a number of other less identifiable marks elsewhere. John had obviously seen some heavy fighting in his day.

It was odd to see someone his own age with so many scars. Most wizards healed their wounds magically, leaving no trace of them behind. It was only dark curses that left marks, like the lightning bolt on his forehead.

Realizing how much pain these hurts must have caused John and how long it must have taken them to heal without magic, Harry took his time, kissing and licking each one of them.

Harry's tongue tip was tracing what looked like a knife wound on John's thigh when John laid a hand in his messy hair and said, "That feels incredible."

"Not as incredible as you taste," Harry replied, looking up to meet those hazel eyes.

He heard John gulp and then those wiry arms were pulling him up into another kiss that was a hell of a lot more tender than anything Harry had experienced in a one night stand.

Harry settled on top of John's warm, slender body. Their genitals nestled snugly together as they kissed, adding a whole level of delight to the joining of their mouths.

Harry gave an experimental hump to see what would happen. John moaned into the kiss, then his hands settled on his arse to encourage more humping.

This wasn't at all like what he was used to. John didn't treat him like a stranger he'd picked up in a bar. Harry couldn't remember ever doing it face to face like this with a casual pickup. Most of the men he'd been with didn't even like to kiss. This was . . . really nice.

They only broke the kiss when the passion flared to unmanageable levels. Harry felt like he was melting as they came in a sticky mess between their pressed bellies.

John cuddled him through the aftermath, stroking his back and sharing lazy kisses.

As that wonderful lassitude started to fade, Harry waited for John to stop stroking him, dreading the freeze up that usually came when the passion was spent. But John just kept rubbing his back like he was in no hurry for him to leave.

Finally, Harry's confusion forced him to ask, "Do you want me to clear out?"

John gave an actual start. "Huh?"

"I'm going to fall asleep if I don't start moving soon," Harry said.

Considering that they'd just had their mouths on each other's cocks a few minutes ago, John seemed strangely bashful as he said, "I, ah, suck at the one night stand thing. Do whatever you feel comfortable doing, Harry."

"Do you want me to spend the night?" Harry questioned.

"Only if you want to," John said, a caution in his attitude that hadn't been there before.

Realizing that he'd messed up, Harry said, "I'm sorry. I just didn't want to overstay my welcome."

John ran a hand through the dark hair that was standing up vertical over his forehead in an unruly mess that eclipsed even Harry's hair. John seemed to study him for a long moment before finally saying in a totally tentative tone, "The whole 'go your separate ways like you never touched' routine never worked for me. That's why I hardly ever do this anymore. The sex is usually wonderful, but things get pretty weird afterwards. I hate that part."

"Me, too," Harry said.

"So why don't we skip it?" John suggested.

"What?" Harry wasn't sure what John was saying.

"My plane doesn't leave Heathrow until Sunday afternoon. I know it's not really cool to admit it, but I had a great time tonight and I'd like to spend some more time with you. What do you think?"

Holding that nervous gaze, Harry swallowed around a tight throat and said, "That I'm going to be wishing you didn't live in a galaxy far, far away by Sunday."

John nodded. "Yeah, that could be a problem. I wasn't expecting to meet someone like you."

"Me, either." Knowing that he was playing with fire here, Harry threw caution to the wind and answered, "Let's worry about that when Sunday gets here, okay? Till then, let's just enjoy the time together."

"Sounds like a plan," John said, settling back down against the pillows.

Shivering as the sweat of sex dried on his skin, Harry silently levitated the duvet over them. It was only as he saw John's wide eyes that he remembered that his companion had lived his life entirely in the Muggle world and wasn't accustomed to even simple levitation. It was a nice change. Most of his other lovers would have been giving him the same look because he'd performed the magic without wand or word.

"That's a pretty neat trick," John admired. "Is it hard to learn?"

"No. Most first years can do it." Harry could see how interested John was. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to know you might be able to work magic, but not have had the training to do so. "I could show you how, if you'd like."

"Really? You'd be willing to do that?"

"Yeah. You'll need a wand, though," Harry said.

"Oh." John looked crestfallen.

"We could get one in Diagon Alley tomorrow, if you're really interested," Harry offered. "I could even teach you to fly."

"On a broom?"

"It's the only way to do it," Harry said with a smile, knowing he'd caught the pilot's heart.

"Can I get a broom when we get the wand?"

"I've got a spare you can use," Harry said.

"Wow. That would be totally cool," John said.

"This time of the year, it will be totally freezing," Harry warned.

John chuckled and cuddled around him. "I'll warm you up afterwards."

Harry giggled as John's lips latched playfully onto his neck.

Thinking that he already liked this man way too much, Harry reached out to draw John even closer.

*~*~*

Magic had a way of happening when you least expected it. Waking up next to John and making playful love felt almost like he was under some kind of spell to Harry. That the spell didn't break when they got up, dressed, had breakfast, and flooed to Diagon Alley to buy John's wand was fairly unique in his experience. He was so used to other wizards getting scared off by his freaky powers by morning light. The fact that all magic was new to John made him oblivious to the things about Harry that usually frightened other wizards.

But beyond his unfamiliarity with magic, John was really something special. For the first time ever, Harry didn't have to deal with all the baggage of being the Boy Who Lived. To John, he was just Harry, and that was a wonderful feeling.

Still, for all that they had great chemistry in and out of the sack, something was off. On the surface, John Shepford appeared to be an easy-going, open person, but after a few hours of chatting as they walked through the Diagon Alley shops, Harry realized that the real John Shepford was buried so deep that there was little chance of his finding him in the few days John said he'd be here. But he intended to enjoy those days to the fullest.

Harry looked over to where John was riding his old Firebolt beside him as they soared over the Forbidden Forest. The winds had died down some. The clouds had rolled back in, threatening rain, but so far, it had held off, even though it was cold enough to freeze a fire dragon's balls.

Teaching John to fly had been one of those impulsive acts that usually ended in disaster, but so far, everything had been wonderful. John was a natural at flying. His magic was powerful, if mostly untapped.

"This is great!" John shouted out to him.

Harry watched with a smile and a close eye as John did a loop de loop. His new lover sat his broom like a seasoned quidditch player.

"Is that the school you teach in over there?" John shouted, pointing towards the castle.

Harry knew John knew Hogwarts by sight, if not name. Hearing the real question John was asking, he called back, "Yeah. You want to see it?"

Seeing John's dark head with its shock of messy hair nod and catching the flash of a grin, Harry turned his broom towards the castle.

It wasn't a quidditch day, so the stands were empty. Since no one was practicing in the sky above the field, he led John over that way. So far, John hadn't had any trouble controlling his flight, but he didn't want his new friend to crash into any of the castle spires.

Once he was sure John was okay handling the winds that whipped up out of the castle's courtyards like updrafts out of a canyon, Harry took him on the grand tour. Seeing Hogwarts from a broom on a frigid February morning wasn't quite as impressive as seeing it as a first year coming in on a boat at night when the castle was lit up like something out of a Muggle movie, but it still held a beauty that touched his heart.

After circling the school a few times, Harry headed them over towards the lake. It was still early, so there weren't many people stirring. He didn't fancy having to introduce a casual lover to any of his students. The precocious little monsters already gossiped about him far more than he was comfortable with.

Harry grinned as he caught sight of a tall figure in dark billowing robes standing on the windy lakeshore. He swooped down, with John close on his brush.

"Severus!" Harry greeted as he landed beside his co-worker on the slushy lake bank. John touched down as gracefully behind him as if he'd been flying for years.

Severus' robes were billowing like a pirate ship's black sails in the wind. There were still dark circles beneath his eyes. He looked like he hadn't slept in weeks.

Something quivered in Harry's stomach as he looked up at Severus' familiar, strong-boned face. He looked like a figure in a Muggle romance novel as he stood alone in the wind against the grey and brown winter-locked shore.

"Hello," Severus said, his gaze moving questioningly to Harry's companion.

"Oh, I forgot my manners. Severus, this is John Shepford. John, Severus Snape," Harry introduced. "Severus teaches Potions at Hogwarts. John is a pilot from a galaxy far, far away."

"Is he really?" Severus replied. Although his tone was mild, Harry caught something incongruous that looked almost like pain in Severus' gaze.

"So he says," Harry answered. So far, Severus was the only person in his immediate circle of the people he considered his family who hadn't been treating him strangely the last few days. He hoped that wasn't about to change.

"Pleased to meet you," John said, offering his hand.

After what felt like a tense pause, Severus accepted John's hand.

Once the formalities were dispensed with, Severus stepped back from them.

The silence that descended felt damned awkward.

Finally, Severus broke it with a strained sounding, "Have you known each other long?"

"We just met in the pub last night," John said. "Harry's teaching me to fly."

"What?" Severus had the reaction any wizard would to that information.

"John never went to Wizarding school," Harry explained.

"How extraordinary," Severus said.

Looking over to John, Harry grinned and warned him, "You mightn't want to go announcing that to too many wizards. Telling someone I'm teaching you to fly is rather on the same scale of telling people that I'm coaching you at potty training."

John and he both broke into laughter.

When they calmed, Harry smiled up at Severus. "Well, I saw you down here and just wanted to check in and see how everything was going. Are you feeling all right?"

Severus nodded.

"Should we try for the Three Broomsticks on Monday night?" Harry asked, thinking that Severus was looking terribly rough.

"If you wish," Severus agreed.

"Great," Harry said. "Are you sure everything's all right?"

"Perfectly," Severus said in a tone that made it plain he wanted the subject closed. "What about you? Are you . . . enjoying the weekend?" Severus' gaze strayed John's way. When he looked back at Harry, the pain was no longer underplayed in his gaze. It was right there in the open for anyone to see.

"Yes, it's been great so far." Harry couldn't keep his gaze from straying John's way. He'd discovered quite early last night that John looked utterly adorable when he blushed. At the moment, he was a charming shade of pink straight up to the tips of his pointy ears.

"I'm pleased for you," Severus said.

For some reason, Harry got the feeling that it had been hard for Severus to say that. Once again, there was a serious, inexplicable undercurrent to his interaction with a good friend.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Harry checked again.

"I'm fine. I'm returning to the lab now. Enjoy your day," Severus said.

"Well, ah, I guess we'll be pushing off then," Harry said. "I'll see you at the teachers' table tomorrow."

"Good to meet you, Severus," John said as they lifted off from the ground.

Harry didn't understand the feeling that twisted through him as he watched Severus' figure grow smaller and smaller as he and John ascended. It felt strangely like loss.

*~*~*

This was what he'd wanted, Severus told himself as he watched Harry and his companion soar higher and higher into the clouds like a pair of mating eagles. He'd known the minute Harry was free of him, he'd meet someone more suitable. Harry's young man was bright and handsome, filled with laughter, just like Harry himself. That was the sort of man he should be with, not tainted goods.

But it was hard to see Harry happy with someone else. Everything in him had screamed Mine! when he saw Harry with that good looking American. But for once in his miserable life, he wasn't going to be selfish. He was going to think of what Harry needed.

Harry and his new lover were no larger than flies to his naked eye as Severus watched them disappear into the grey-clouded, western horizon over the Forbidden Forest.

Suppressing a sigh, Severus finally turned back towards the castle.

It was for the best. Harry would be happy, while he . . . well, he would have to settle for knowing that Harry was happy. That would have to be enough.

Severus had hardly been back in his quarters for ten minutes when there was a knock on the door to the main corridor. That was the door Harry usually used.

Setting down the tea he'd just prepared, he moved to answer the door. He didn't get many visitors. Well, none at all since he'd broken it off with Harry.

Surprised, he stared down into Hermione Weasley's brown eyes. She'd visited him and Harry down here once or twice during happier days, but always by invitation. It was barely 10:30 a.m., hardly a proper hour for a social call.

"Hi, Severus," she nervously greeted him.

"Good morning," Severus returned.

"May I speak to you? It's rather important," Hermione asked, straightening her light blue robes with a nervous-looking tug.

"Of course. Come in," he stepped aside to allow her to enter. "Would you care for some tea?"

"Please," she said, sounding ridiculously relieved.

She took a seat on the couch while he moved to the side table where the teapot sat. After transfiguring a quill into another tea mug, he poured her a cup, added the dab of the milk he knew she preferred, and then returned to where she sat.

"Thank you," she said, accepting the mug. After a sip, she asked the question that usually started most of their interactions, "How are you feeling today?"

Watching Harry fly out of his life with his new lover had hurt worse than anything Burke had done to him. Finding the strength from somewhere, he lied, "Well enough." Recalling the manners he'd been working on since he'd started being included in Harry's circle, he asked, "And yourself?"

"Confused, actually, very confused," Hermione said.

He didn't like the way she was watching him. Knowing the question that an innocent man would voice, Severus asked, "About?"

"Have you noticed anything strange about Harry's behaviour these last few days?" she asked.

"As you know, our relationship has altered. I haven't been spending that much time with him," Severus said.

"Yes, I know," she said.

"What is it you find strange about Potter's behaviour?" Severus asked.

Hermione shifted on the couch and took another sip of her tea. "Well, ever since Thursday morning, Harry has been acting as if your break up never happened."

"Perhaps he's gotten over it," Severus suggested.

"He went from being devastated to carefree overnight," Hermione said.

"It has been several weeks," Severus pointed out. "Does it not make sense that he would be . . . improving after so long?"

"You're not understanding me. Harry is behaving as if the break up never happened. In fact, he is acting as if he was never deeply involved with you at all."

"Perhaps that is how he wishes to handle it, as if it never happened," Severus said. "Isn't that how most people get over romantic disappointments?"

"He met someone while we were at the Three Broomsticks last night," Hermione said. "He genuinely didn't understand why Ron asked 'What about Severus?' when Harry told us he wasn't coming home last night."

He was startled that Ron would have said something like that to Harry. Ronald Weasley had been extremely generous with his time visiting him while he was in the infirmary, but Severus had assumed that that had been Hermione's doing.

"That is strange," Severus agreed, using every bit of his acting talent.

"I was just wondering if you might have some idea what was going on?" Hermione asked.

"Shouldn't you be asking Potter that question?" Severus said.

"I don't want to do anything that might upset him, not if he's really feeling better. But, it's like he doesn't remember at all, Severus," she said. "It's a little frightening."

"There are means of removing and blocking painful memories," Severus said. "Perhaps he chose to employ one of those."

"He would have told me," she insisted. "Besides, Harry would never do something like that. You were the best thing that ever happened to him. He was hoping you'd change your mind in time. Harry would never just . . . obliterate you from his memories."

Not willingly, Severus acknowledged, recalling how hard Harry's mind had fought him that night in the quidditch pitch. Touched by what she'd said about his being the best thing to happen to Harry, he experienced a sudden surge of guilt for being so deceptive with her. This was getting more and more complicated by the moment.

How had he ever believed that altering Harry's memories was a good idea? When he'd given into that insane impulse, he'd somehow convinced himself that once Harry was happily involved with someone new, he wouldn't be too upset if he found out what Severus had done to him. But he'd forgotten how tangled Harry's life was with those of his best friends. Abruptly, he recognized that when the truth came out, Harry wasn't the only one who would be after his blood.

"Is it not preferable that he be happy, whatever the cause?" Severus questioned at last.

"I suppose," she agreed. "It's just so strange."

"Yes."

"Well, I just hoped that maybe you'd have some insight on what was going on."

"Nothing that would be helpful at this point, I'm afraid," Severus said. The only thing that would help now was a time turner, and Severus knew for a fact that the only one in Hogwarts had been destroyed after Sirius Black's escape more than a decade ago.

"Did you hear what Collins got up to in Transfiguration class Friday afternoon?" Hermione asked. She seemed to be making a visible effort to change the subject and shake off her worry.

He gave a negative shake of his head and settled back to listen to her tale. He still found it strange to engage in 'small talk' with others. For so many years, he'd been so isolated that it was hard to respond to these topics that had no relevance to his life. One thing he knew, however. He would miss Hermione's visits when she removed herself from his life.

*~*~*

The door of the dungeon prison slammed shut.

Barely able to move for the pain in his back, Harry lay face down on the filthy, mouldering straw in a growing pool of his own blood. They were going to kill him this time. There was no way he could survive another encounter with either that whip or the Cruciatus. The next time that door opened, his life would be all but over.

All too soon, the door squealed open.

Holding himself together by a very thin thread, Harry looked back over his bleeding shoulder.

Shocked, he stared up into Severus' worried, stark-featured face.

"I hope you're not planning on making a habit of this, Potter," his rescuer said in a cultured drawl that belied the fear in his dark eyes.

Then Severus was crossing the room and kneeling beside him. After turning him onto his side, Severus pulled out his ebony wand, muttered a spell, and within seconds, Harry felt the whiplashes on his shoulders and back close up as his other scrapes and bruises healed.

Rolling over onto his healed back, Harry looked up into that harsh face and whispered, "Thanks."

Severus reached out to brush away a stray bit of straw that was dangling from Harry's hair into his eyes. His long, warm hand cupped Harry's cheek, and then that dark head lowered to take his mouth in a breath-taking kiss.

One kiss, turned into two, and two into twenty as they lost themselves in each other. Harry reached out to undo Severus' robes. Jacket, shirt, trousers, and the rest followed as he efficiently stripped his lover down. Moments later, Severus was laying on top of them, with Harry pressing down hard against him.

Severus felt incredible under him. That hard warmth felt like home to him.

The way Severus was looking up at him awed him. It went way beyond mere sexual desire. This wasn't just lust, not just convenience . . . it was nearly worship.

Severus moved under him. Their bodies slid together as if they'd done this a thousand times.

Harry eased into Severus' tight, slick channel. Every nerve in his body spiked at how exquisite that slow glide felt. The rhythm was waiting for him. His hips moved by instinct, finding that hidden spot deep inside Severus that was wired to his lover's pleasure centre.

The shocked cry Severus emitted told him he'd hit home. Making sure he made contact with that point every time he entered him, Harry began to thrust in earnest. Spiralling higher and higher, they rocked together, each thrust bringing them that much closer to heaven.

All too soon, Harry came deep inside his lover, then Severus groaned with pleasure as his body froze. Harry was vaguely aware of Severus' seed bathing his belly and chest as he shuddered in helpless orgasm.

Severus and he were still locked together, kissing on the prison cell floor when the image started to fade . . . .

Harry awoke with a start, staring wildly around the room, trying to figure out where the hell he was and what was going on. There was no canopy overhead, neither green nor blue. Why he expected to see a green canopy was confusing, because he'd never had anything but blue velvet curtains after school, but for some reason, he was expecting the bedding to be green.

Harry relaxed as he recognized John Shepford's room at the Whistling Witch Inn.

"You okay?" a sleepy voice enquired from beside him. John was a light sleeper and had apparently been woken up by his sudden movement.

"I . . . yeah, I'm fine," Harry said. "Sorry to wake you."

"No problem. Bad dream?" John asked.

"Weird one," Harry said.

"You sure you're all right?" John checked.

Harry nodded. "Yeah. Go back to sleep."

"Okay. Let me know if you wanna . . . you know," John said, snuggling back into his pillow.

Harry smiled because the man was already asleep again. He watched that dark head turn on the stark white pillowcase. He remembered carding his fingers through long, dark hair in his dream, but it hadn't been John's hair. It had been Severus'.

What a weird dream! It had started out looking like it would be one of his usual night terrors, but then it had taken an abrupt turn in the opposite direction. He'd had erotic dreams about people he worked with once in a while in the past, but nothing like that, and certainly not about Severus. Every aspect of it had felt so real, from that first passionate kiss to that long, slow loving. Who would have thought Severus Snape could kiss like that, he thought with a smile.

Realizing that it wasn't exactly proper for him to be having erotic fantasies about a friend who'd recently been brutally raped, his smile faltered. Well, it wasn't like he'd crafted the dream to order. His subconscious had just spewed it out like it had every other dream in his life. But, even though he'd had no control over it, he found he couldn't stop thinking about the scene his subconscious had just offered up.

Dreams were supposed to mean something. Did this dream mean he secretly desired Severus? The idea was simply too absurd to contemplate. Severus and him? And yet . . . .

Unable to stop himself, Harry went over the details. The only dreams that had ever been that realistic had been his night terrors, but they never ended well. Thinking about it, he realized that tonight's dream had followed the exact pattern his night terrors had, until the point where Severus had shown up and made love to him. That was where the entire feel of the dream had changed.

What had Severus been doing in the middle of one of his nightmares?

Well, it was just a dream. Avoiding the wet spot on the sheet beside his left hip, Harry settled back under the covers. He closed his eyes, his mind still puzzling over Severus' disturbingly erotic presence in what should have been a horrible nightmare.

On the verge of sleep, he swore he heard Severus' voice saying, 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.

His eyes snapped open again. Severus' voice had sounded like the man was in the bed with him. Now he was having aural hallucinations to accompany his bizarre erotic dreams?

Taking a deep breath, Harry tried to forget the whole thing, but once again, his mind was having none of it. As soon as he closed his eyes, another conversation seemed to play through his head, only this time his own voice was part of it.

You must have used a spell to replace Voldemort's. How did you word your changes? Harry heard himself ask.

Severus' voice answered, 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.

There you have it, then, Harry heard himself say in an oddly contented tone.

What? Severus replied.

You know, for such a bright fellow, you can be pretty dense at times, Harry heard himself complain.

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 is the one who's been sharing my bed these last two months. That's you, Severus.

Sharing his bed? For two months? Few of his relationships lasted longer than a weekend. Even his connection with John was doomed to end tomorrow when his lover flew back to the States.

Okay, this was getting weird. The conversation playing through his head didn't feel like something he was making up. It felt like a memory. But . . . The man I trust more than any is the one who's been sharing my bed these last two months. That's you, Severus.

How could that be a memory? How could . . . .

Harry pushed at that conversation, trying to force more detail. Instead of a conversation, an image flashed through his mind. It looked like the Forbidden Forest. It was summer or maybe spring, for everything was green and blooming, and there were thousands of big black bugs blundering around the place. Severus stood in the centre of that image, set against a background of forest below an orange and magenta sunset. As he watched Severus' oddly sensual and intense face, Severus leaned in closer and closer . . . until those slender lips brushed his own.

What the hell? Was he cracking up? Did he have some kind of perverse hard-on for Severus hidden in his subconscious?

That didn't feel right. The conversation and the unnerving image he'd just seen; they once again felt more like memory than fantasy. But how could that be? How could he be remembering having sex with someone he was merely friends with?

Concentrating all his will on that image of the forest, Harry tried to push for more . . . only, he banged up against the mental equivalent of a stone wall. He followed the conversation he'd remembered back to the same obstruction. He could almost feel the hotbed of memories and feelings seething on the other side of that wall. As he poked at the barrier, it became clear that someone had cut off a considerable portion of his memories.

It at least explained why he had no memory of what he'd done on the weekends for the last few months. Someone had messed with his mind.

Who? How? Scared now, because that kind of manipulation was rarely benevolent, Harry took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Merlin alone knew what was hiding behind that wall.

Gathering his power, he pushed at the obstruction. It took a surprising level of energy to topple it, which told him that whoever had created the mental block, had been considerably powerful.

Harry gasped as the roadblock in his mind crumbled and a million conflicting thoughts and emotions tumbled into his being. For a horrible moment, he teetered on the edge of insanity, as two dual sets of realities tried to cohabitate in the same part of his mind. But then those blocked off memories slid into their proper place like a foot into a custom-made boot, and he knew exactly what had happened.

SEVERUS.

The name shrieked through his being. His love and an equally sharp sense of betrayal roared through him. He remembered everything, from their first kiss in the Forbidden Forest in early November to the night he'd begged Severus to remove the memory that made it impossible for them to be together.

Severus hadn't simply removed that memory. He'd walled off their entire affair. The skill it had taken to accomplish that feat was amazing, for Severus had had to pick and choose what he isolated. The fact that he would actually do it was even more unbelievable.

He'd trusted Severus with everything he was, and Severus had . . . . How could he? Who could do that to someone who loved them?

The hottest fury he'd ever experienced blazed through him as Harry slid from the bed.

"Harry?" John's sleepy voice called while Harry was donning his clothes. "What's going on?"

Harry looked over at the sleepy man in the bed he'd just vacated and froze. He couldn't just storm out on John without an explanation. None of this was John's fault.

"I'm sorry. I have to get back to Hogwarts," Harry said.

"What's happened?"

About to say 'nothing', Harry took a deep breath. John deserved the truth. The man had been a good friend to him, no matter how short their acquaintance. But, how to explain any of this to a Muggle-reared wizard who knew nothing of simple magic, let alone such arcane arts as Legilimency and Occlumency?

Trying to keep it simple, Harry said, "That dream I had . . . it shook me up. I need to get back to the school to -"

"Make sure someone's all right?" John suggested, his eyes filled with compassion instead of the irritation Harry would have fully understood.

"Something like that," Harry agreed. "I'm really sorry about all this."

"No problem. I've had a few nightmares like that myself," John said, sitting up to watch him dress. When Harry was fully clothed, John asked in a quiet voice, "Will I see you again?"

Harry sighed. This was far more complicated than he liked his life to be. But none of it was John's fault. The man had been good to him. He couldn't just breeze out on him like so many of his own lovers had done to him. "Yes. I'll be back in the morning to take you to the airport like we planned. Once again, I'm -"

"Sorry. I get it. Go on. I'll see you tomorrow," John said, lying back in the bed.

"Thanks," Harry said, softly slipping from the room.

He made his way down the creaky old stairs to the inn's common room as quietly as possible. The Whistling Witch was on the floo network. He was so angry that he would have apparated straight to Severus' chambers, only he was reluctant to make a habit of forcing Hogwarts' wards, unless it was a life or death crisis.

Despite the unholy hour, there was still a small fire flickering in the hearth. Harry took down the jar of floo powder that sat on the mantle, clearly enunciated, "Severus Snape's chambers, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizarding, Scotland," and stepped into the resulting flare of green fire.

It was after two on a Sunday morning. Severus normally would have been in bed for hours by now, but since his abduction, he'd been sleeping as irregularly as Harry used to before Severus fixed his dreams.

Harry wasn't even surprised to find the man in his sitting room when he stepped out of Severus' hearth.

Severus was fully dressed, including his robes. He was sitting in the wingback chair nearest the hearth, just staring into the flames. He blinked as Harry materialized.

"You son of a bitch!" Harry shouted as he took in those unsurprised features. It was clear from Severus' expression that he knew exactly why he was here. "How could you?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Severus employed the sarcasm that was as much a part of his character as his dark, stringy hair.

"Don't!" Harry warned. "Don't you dare joke about this! I trusted you with everything I was and you . . . you . . . ."

"Betrayed that trust," Severus said in such a calm tone that Harry thought he might actually blast the man with a curse. "I did warn you from the start that it was unwise to trust a Slytherin."

"Don't you dare try to bring house politics into this. This has to do with you and me. You bastard! How could you do this to me?" Harry demanded, staring at that chalky white face, trying to understand why Severus would have done this. He was so furious, he could barely think. The only person he could ever remember being angrier at in his life was Burke when he'd seen what the fiend had done to Severus.

"You did tell me to remove anything that disturbed me," Severus reminded. He was no longer using his sarcastic tone. Instead, he was watching him closely, as if waiting for a major explosion.

The reminder of how much he'd trusted this sick bastard drove him right over the edge.

Harry was moving before he even realized what he was doing. His hand bunching in the front of Severus' robes and jacket, he hauled Severus out of his chair. Vaguely, he was aware of several of the buttons on Severus' jacket popping off and falling to the floor as he shoved Severus up against the wall beside the hearth.

Due to their disparity in heights, trying to intimidate Severus this way wasn't as effective as it would have been with someone shorter than him, for Harry had to look up to meet Severus' eyes.

The move hadn't exactly been planned out. Now that Harry was here pressing his front against Severus to hold him pinned to the wall, he hadn't a clue as to what he was going to do. His fury was unmanageable. He wanted to strike out, to hurt as he'd been hurt. But he didn't dare vent this wildfire blazing through him.

They stared at each other in the sudden silence, the only sound that of their laboured breathing, and the shifting of air currents as Harry's anger-fuelled magic seethed around them, searching for a target.

Harry's nerves were stretched to the breaking. He didn't know what he wanted from Severus now. It felt like Severus had killed everything that had ever been between them. He couldn't have felt more betrayed if Ron had sold him to Voldemort for money when they were in school.

Severus' features were pinched and strained.

Harry was intensely aware of the fact that Severus made no attempt to throw him off either physically or magically.

"Go on," Severus urged. "Finish it."

Finish it?

The request snapped some sense into him. What the hell was he doing?

Harry couldn't believe that he'd lost control so badly, gone this far. What's more, it was clear that Severus really thought he was going to . . . hurt him. Not that it was an unreasonable assumption, he realized. Pushing Severus up against the wall like this hadn't been the most reassuring of actions, but there had been no denying the rage rushing through him. This had been a damn sight safer than using a magical outlet. Right now, he honestly didn't trust himself.

How many times had they ended up against a wall just like this, Harry thought, struck by the travesty this was of those happier times. Abruptly disgusted with them both, he unclenched his hands from Severus' now wrinkled and ripped jacket and stepped away.

Severus staggered when the support Harry was inadvertently giving him was removed, and then righted himself to ramrod stiffness.

"Don't you have anything to say for yourself?" Harry demanded, trying to figure out what was going through Severus' mind that he'd do something like this.

"What can be said?" Severus answered.

"Why did you do this? Why would you just . . . take away everything we had?" Harry tried to keep his voice level. Shouting wasn't going to help anything. Right now he needed answers to defuse this fury thundering through him.

"It was better for all involved," Severus said after a long pause. "It gave me the space I needed . . . and you were happy, weren't you?"

"Happy? I was fucking brainwashed," Harry didn't quite shout.

"But it proved my point. The minute you were a free agent, you were able to make a healthy connection with another -"

"A healthy connection?" Is that what Severus called one night stands? Well, John might have turned out to be more than that if he'd hung around, but he didn't seem the type for settling down. And even if he had, it hadn't been Severus' right to make that kind of decision for him. "You took away my memories! It wasn't healthy. It was oblivious. And who the hell are you to make that kind of decision for me, anyway? I had a right to mourn what I'd lost, but you . . . you stole it all from me."

"Yes, I did," Severus said. "And for the first time since January, you were happy."

There was absolutely no remorse or guilt in Severus' expression or tone.

"Happy? You fucked with my brain! If you think that's happy . . . you're crazy." Harry stared into those dark, intense eyes.

"That's entirely possible," Severus replied in that same controlled tone.

He might have handled this better if Severus seemed upset or distraught, but he appeared stone, cold sober at the moment. Not knowing what more he could say, he ran a hand through the wreck of his hair and warned, "You need to stay away from me for a while. Far away."

"As you wish," Severus replied, as if it meant absolutely nothing to him that they were over for good.

And for all Harry knew, that just might be the case. Maybe Severus was relieved to get him out of his hair.

Feeling whatever hope he'd retained that they could work through this shatter, Harry gave a stiff nod, turned on his heel, and left. He had no idea where he was going at 2:52 on a Sunday morning. All he knew was that he had to get away, far away.

*~*~*

The power vibrating through the room cut off like a doused candle as the front door slammed behind Harry.

Severus was more than a little surprised that he was still breathing. He'd never seen Harry that furious before. Well, not at him since they'd become lovers. Harry had been equally incensed at Burke.

Not that Harry didn't have reason for his anger. Severus knew how unconscionable what he'd done was. Harry's restraint was incomprehensible. He had fully expected to meet the same fate Burke had. There had certainly been enough power in the room to incinerate him, but Harry had held back.

Not sure if he were disappointed or relieved, Severus moved from the wall back to his chair on suddenly shaky legs.

There was a part of him that still couldn't believe what he'd done to Harry. He still had no true understanding of why he'd done it. All he knew was that erasing Harry's memory had seemed a good idea at the time. The way accepting the Dark Mark had seemed a good idea. His life was nothing but a series of such disastrous choices.

And now he'd alienated Harry forever.

The tightness in his throat made him wonder if maybe Harry had placed some kind of delayed strangulation curse on him, but, no, the stinging in his eyes was only too familiar. He'd successfully fought off this reaction since Harry had rescued him from Burke's dungeon in January. No matter what, he'd held it together and maintained his controls.

But he didn't seem to have the strength for it tonight. Harry was gone forever, and he was left here alone in this room where they had made love on every single piece of furniture at one time or another. No matter where he looked, there was a memory of a happy Harry loving and caressing him.

In typical Slytherin fashion, he'd repaid that love with betrayal. He couldn't help but wonder what it was about the members of his house that made such an outcome inevitable. He hated the stereotypes the other houses held of Slytherin, but there was no denying that he'd lived down to every one of them this time around.

Harry . . . .

Rather than subsiding, the trembling in his legs seemed to be spreading throughout his entire body. There would be no undoing this, no apologizing. How could anyone possibly make amends for violating someone's trust as he'd done? Even if he somehow managed to pull himself together in the future and attain something like sanity again, Harry would hate him forever after this.

They were well and truly over.

He knew this was better for Harry. He'd already found a far more suitable lover. It would only be a matter of time before their entire affair faded from Harry's mind. Harry would be happy.

Severus tried to be noble and take comfort from that fact, but at the moment, he was shaking too badly to take comfort in anything. The only comfort he'd ever had in this world had just walked out the door.

The enormity of his transgression felt insurmountable.

The first sob escaped him as a strangely loud, hiccupping sound that echoed through the room like a pistol blast. The second followed close on its heels. By the time the third emerged, he was no longer conscious of the sounds he was making. All he knew was the miserable mess he'd made of his life.

His arms wrapped tight around his chest, Severus lowered his head and let the tears he'd resisted for two bitter months claim him.

*~*~*

It was nearly seven a.m. when Harry slipped back into John Shepford's room at the Whistling Witch. The sun was just starting to rise on another dreary grey day.

John was up, fully dressed, and closing the zipper on his travel bag when Harry entered.

"Hi," John said with a smile. His hair was still damp from the shower. He looked sexy as hell.

"Hi," Harry replied, hoping that his smile didn't look as forced as it felt.

"I'm glad you made it back," John said, moving closer.

Harry supposed that it was too much to hope that John would fail to notice the instinctive freeze his body gave. He might be mad as hell at Severus, but there was still a part of him that felt he'd been unfaithful, for all that Severus was ultimately responsible for his fall from grace.

Unfortunately, John was clearly highly sensitized to emotion. He halted right outside his personal space. A confused look coming over him, John asked, "Did I do or say something wrong?"

"No," Harry quickly assured. Running a hand through his wrecked hair, he said, "My life just got real complicated all of a sudden."

Harry knew that 99% of the men he'd had affairs with would have made some sympathetic noise and glossed over what he'd said had he given them a line like that on the morning they were leaving town. But John reached out to lay a non-threatening hand on his arm and asked, "What's going on? You seemed fine all weekend."

"For someone who'd been brainwashed," Harry couldn't help but mutter.

"Huh?" John asked, understandably confused.

"It's a long story," Harry said, wanting to spare John the melodrama. He already felt guilty as hell for slipping out on the guy as he had last night.

"I don't have to be at the airport for five hours. I've got time," John offered.

"You don't need to spend it listening to my sob story."

"Harry, you've been a friend to me. Where I come from, we look after our friends. Come on. Sit down on the end of the bed here." John guided him over to take a seat beside his carryall and then asked, "What's going on? You look like you were sucker punched."

It took him a moment to translate the Muggle reference, and then an even longer moment to try to figure out how to explain what had happened to him. Finally, he said, "I was, in a way. It's . . . a little hard to explain what happened. We talked a lot about magic this weekend. But there are things wizards can do that I didn't go into, mostly because they weren't the sort of things you were likely to run into in the Muggle world."

"That makes sense," John said in a very calm tone, taking a seat a foot or so away from him on the bed and turning to look at him. "Did you run into one of those things?"

"Sort of. Well, actually, I ran into it before I met you."

"What sort of thing are we talking about here?" John asked. "One of those Unmentionables?"

"Unforgivables," Harry automatically corrected, "and, no, it wasn't one of them, thank God. Though, it might as well be. It's the same type of transgression."

"So someone cursed you?" John asked. In between the sex, Harry had given his American lover a crash course on magic. John was a fast study, and they'd both enjoyed it. However, there was only so much a person could learn about magic in two days. He could see John trying to work within his limited parameters of understanding.

"No, it's not a curse, exactly. More like a manipulation," Harry explained.

Which, of course led John to his next question of, "What type of manipulation?"

"Some very powerful wizards are able to combine their magic and will to perform a type of telepathy. A wizard I've been sexually involved with in an exclusive relationship since October used that kind of telepathic skill to make me forget about our relationship," Harry said. "I only remembered because the dream I had last night triggered the memories."

"He what?" John looked horrified. "Your lover did this to you?"

Harry suspected that he'd sounded pretty much the same when Severus had told him about his past on Christmas night. Taking a deep breath, he pulled himself together enough to answer, "Yeah. He's . . . been through a lot lately and he's not really thinking straight right now. A few months ago, we came up against one of those dark wizards I was telling you about. My friend was captured and tortured. By the time we got him back, he was barely alive. He hasn't been himself since. In his own fucked up way, I think he thought he was doing it for my own good."

Harry was surprised to see all the anger fade from John's features.

"You know that I'm, ah, in the military," John said softly after a long pause. "I've been there myself a time or two. Everyone likes to believe they won't break. When you come up against something that shows you different, it's . . . hard to face. It can take months or even years before you start feeling yourself again. I'm not excusing what he did, but I know that right after I got back, I was crazy for months, even if no one could tell but me."

"You were tortured?"

John nodded. "A couple of times. I'm, ah, not really allowed to discuss the details. But, if your friend felt like I did afterwards, he's going to be unstable for a long while."

"I know he's not thinking clearly. It's just . . . ." Harry couldn't even begin to capture the scope of the betrayal he felt with words.

"It hurts, I know," John said. "Do you love him?"

Right now he was so angry at what Severus had done, he wasn't even certain of that answer. Another deep breath helped clear his head some, helped him see the big picture of what he stood to lose here. "I . . . yeah, I do. I'm furious over what he did, but . . . I still love him."

"Then maybe you should talk to him," John suggested.

"Yeah," Harry said. "But not until I calm down. Right now all I want to do is blast him into the stratosphere."

"That's understandable."

Struck by the concern in that handsome face, Harry said, "Not many guys would be this supportive about this kind of thing. Thanks, John."

That adorable blush took John's cheeks again as he reminded, "I suck at one night stands, remember?"

"A fact I'm very grateful for," Harry said. Quiet descended between them and they simply stared at each other. After a time, he broke it with, "I know this development changes everything, but I really am sorry to see you go. You're a good man."

"So are you," John said. "I really appreciate everything you taught me this weekend. I think I've finally got an idea of what I can do."

"It was fun."

"Yeah, it was." John looked away for a minute, gulped and looked back at him. "I, ah, probably should be heading down to the train station."

"If you wanted to have breakfast first, we could floo to London afterwards. Or I could apparate us straight to the airport. No one would see us arrive," Harry assured.

"Apparation is that teleportation you were talking about?"

Seeing John's interest, Harry found a smile and said, "Yeah."

"I think I'd like that," John said, standing. He moved to the corner to retrieve Harry's spare Firebolt. "Um, here's your broom back. You were right. There was nothing like it. Thanks for teaching me."

Knowing how hard it must be for John to part with the broom, how he'd feel if he'd just learned to fly and had to give the broom up immediately afterward, Harry said, "Why don't you keep it? I've got another. This one's just sitting in a corner these days."

"God, I'm tempted, but . . . it won't fit in my luggage. I don't know if I could explain what I'm doing with a broom when I get back to base." John looked really torn.

"We'll shrink it." Harry said, doing so. John's eyes bugged out as they did whenever Harry worked even the simplest spells in his presence. "You could even carry it in your pocket now if you wanted." Realizing that John mightn't know how to expand it again, he took the small notebook out of his robes that he'd been carrying most of yesterday. "I made you up a book of simple spells. The phonetic pronunciation is beside the Latin."

"That's what you were doing when I was in the shower last night?" John asked.

"Yeah. I reckoned you might need some cheat notes when you get back."

"Thanks, Harry. That's really . . . ."

"Cool?" Harry suggested when words seemed to fail John.

The use of his favourite adjective made John smile, as Harry had hoped it would. "Yeah, exactly."

"You up to that breakfast?" Harry asked. He knew he had a lot to think about, a lot of emotion to process after what Severus had done to him, but at the moment, it felt good to not worry about the mess his life was in.

"Yeah, that sounds wonderful."

Side by side, they headed for the door.

*~*~*

Three hours later, Harry stood with John outside Heathrow's security check. Hundreds of Muggles passed them, hurrying about their business. He always forgot how frenetic the Muggle world could be. All the motion made him a little nervous. John, too, seemed unused to it.

"I hate goodbyes," John said.

"Me, too," Harry agreed.

"I don't usually make friends this fast," John said. "I know it didn't start out that way, but that's what it feels like now."

"Yeah," Harry replied. He knew John had to leave, and he knew it was better for everyone if John just disappeared from his world, but . . . he genuinely liked the man. There was a part of him that really didn't want to see him go.

"Sometimes I hate the way the world is," John said, his voice dropping he continued, "I, um, can't even kiss you goodbye."

"My world's not much better."

John seemed to debate something for a moment.

Harry was worried that his friend would say something awkward in these last moments that would ruin the memory of the weekend, but when John spoke, he didn't say anything embarrassing. Instead, he said, "You probably figured out that Shepford isn't my real name."

"Yeah," Harry said.

John dug into the pocket of his black leather jacket and extracted a piece of paper. It was the same pocket he was carrying his new wand in. Harry could see the bulge the wand made in the leather.

"I, um, know that everything changed with you when you got your memories back, but . . . I like you, Harry. I'd like to keep in touch with you. Write me and let me know how things work out with your friend – either way. This isn't a come-on. I'd just like to know."

Touched, Harry stared down at the paper John placed in his hand. It had John's real name and the military base he could be reached at written on it.

"Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, is in a galaxy far, far away?" Harry joked.

"You'd be surprised," John said with one of his trademark grins. "Or maybe not."

Harry reached into the pocket of the Muggle jacket he'd transfigured before apparating them to Heathrow and withdrew a paper that hadn't been there a moment ago. "Muggle mail doesn't deliver where I live, but you can reach me care of The Leaky Cauldron. The owner's a friend of mine."

Their hands touched as John took the paper from him.

Reading the same things he was feeling in John's eyes, Harry took a deep breath and said in a soft voice, "Some very powerful wizards can work deflection spells that make them all but invisible." He radiated his power around them, including even the airport security cameras in the circle he cast. "Can you feel that?"

John gave a slow nod.

"We just became invisible to everyone around us." Harry said. "Not even the most powerful wizard can change the world we live in, but we can sometimes escape its eye for a few minutes. We can go for that goodbye kiss if you want."

Harry recognized the level of trust he was asking for here. John might be able to sense the power vibrating around them, but his Muggle-reared friend had no way of knowing what type of spell he'd actually cast.

"You still want to kiss me now that you don't have amnesia anymore?" John asked.

"Friends kiss," Harry said, reaching out to lay his hand on John's arm.

John leaned in and pressed his mouth to Harry's.

When they withdrew a long, breathless time later, John said, "Not like that, they don't."

"Maybe not," Harry agreed. "We'll work on it next time."

"Will there be a next time?" John questioned, his uncertainty palpable.

"Maybe not for the after hours activities, but I'd really like to work on the friendship part."

"Me, too." John's hazel gaze strayed to a nearby departure board which showed the time at the bottom. "I've really got to get through security now. Thanks for everything, Harry."

"Take care of yourself, John."

"I'll write to you and let you know I got home safe. It might be a few weeks. Cheyenne isn't where I'm posted. It's where the mail gets routed through. Um, if you write back, you probably shouldn't mention the magic. I'm in a top secret facility and all the mail is screened."

"So no mention of the after hours activities, either, then?" Harry checked.

"God, what with the magic, I didn't even think of that. But, yeah, we probably shouldn't mention that, either. I've really got to go now."

"Yeah," Harry said, wishing John didn't, for all that his presence would complicate things immensely.

"That invisibility screen still up?" John checked.

At Harry's nod, John gave him another kiss. This one was fast and almost platonic.

"That more like friends?" John asked when they parted.

Harry nodded. "Yeah."

"I hope things work out for you," John offered.

"Me, too. Safe trip."

With one last touch to his cheek, John seemed to tear himself away.

Harry watched the glaring Muggle lights glint off John's leather jacket and his dark, messy hair until his lover was lost in the crowd.

His invisibility shield, as John had called the deflection spell, still up around him, Harry apparated to Hogwarts' gates.

*~*~*

Reality hit him hard when he was back in the castle. John had been a welcome distraction this morning, but now that his new friend had left, Harry had no choice but to deal with his feelings.

Needing some time alone, he retreated to his room, entering through the door on the corridor instead of through Ron and Hermione's place as was his habit. Although he could hear them speaking softly in the sitting room beyond the open door that connected their quarters, they didn't hear him enter and he was able to make it to his bedroom undetected.

The February afternoon outside his windows was as grey and depressing as Harry's life felt at the moment. He didn't even bother lighting the wall sconces or the hearth. He just headed for his bed and stretched out on it. Lying flat on his back, he stared up at the blue velvet canopy overhead, trying to figure out how he felt.

The hours that had intervened since he'd gotten his memories back hadn't really dimmed his fury any. There was still a storm raging through him, a storm that screamed to be vented magically.

It scared him how much he wanted to just blast Severus with all this anger, to let Severus feel how much he'd hurt him. He hadn't felt anything like this since that time he'd eavesdropped on Minister Fudge, Professor McGonagall, and Rosmerta's private conversation about Sirius back in third year. He might have been angrier at Burke in January, but that hate hadn't involved this level of confusion. He simply didn't know what to do with the firestorm raging inside him.

He hadn't lied to John this morning when he'd said he still loved Severus, but, he didn't know if that love was going to be enough. The man he'd thought he loved would never have violated the integrity of his mind the way Severus had the other night. Perhaps if Severus had demonstrated any sign of remorse, he might have been less incensed about what had happened. He couldn't say. All he knew was that Severus' complete lack of regret made him twice as furious with the man.

He wasn't used to having this kind of anger towards someone he loved. Ron, Hermione, and he might have the occasional squabble from time to time, but never had either of his closest friends done the kind of thing Severus had done to him. Hell, his enemies hadn't done things like this to him. This type of betrayal was outside his ken. He still couldn't believe Severus had done it, had just erased their love the way he had.

How did you forgive someone for something like that?

The pain inside him told him that forgiveness mightn't be possible. Some things never went away, no matter how much a person might want to forget about them. What Severus had done might really have finished them more effectively than the amnesia he'd given him. At least when not knowing what they'd had, he'd been able to be around the man, but now . . . he didn't know if he could interact with Severus, not without this fury inside him wanting to target the man. He was just so damn hurt and angry.

Turning over, he buried his face in his pillow and gave in to his pain.

*~*~*

"Harry? Are you in there?" Hermione's worried voice penetrated the pitch black room hours later.

"Yeah," Harry tried to sound normal, but even he could hear how rough his voice sounded.

She was on the bedside in an instant, reaching out to touch his shoulder. "What's wrong? What's happened?"

He opened his mouth to answer and then snapped it immediately shut on the hysterical laughter that bubbled up inside him at the enormity of what he'd have to explain. When he thought he'd gotten a handle on the mania, he muttered, "Nothing."

"Harry, something's wrong. You've been crying," Hermione protested, reaching out to touch his sticky cheek.

Her palm felt very cool against his overheated skin. Taking a deep, shuddery breath, Harry said, "I can't talk about it. Not yet."

He could feel her watching him in the dark. He appreciated that she didn't light the wall sconces or fire to see him better.

She just brushed his sweaty, tear-soaked hair back from his face and said, "Okay. You don't have to talk about it." Her other hand settled on his back, exerting the softest of pressure.

He fell into her arms as if from a great height. He definitely felt as disconcerted as he had after the rare quidditch accident as he buried his face in the hair on her shoulder and just soaked in the familiar comfort of her presence as she stroked his back.

He pulled back a long time later and gave her a shaky smile. "Thanks, Hermione."

"There's nothing to thank me for, silly," she said.

Her hand reached for his face again. He held still as the cool washcloth she'd manifested with a murmured spell moved over his cheeks, removing all traces of his breakdown.

"Do you feel up to dinner?"

He wasn't sure he felt up to breathing, but since that wasn't likely to change any time in the near future and he had responsibilities to meet, he gave a slow nod.

"Wonderful. Come on, then. Let's get up. Here are your teacher's robes." Standing beside the bed, she held out the black robes he'd left on the nearby chair before they'd gone to the Three Broomsticks on Friday night, back when he'd been living in the cheerful oblivion of selective amnesia.

He slipped into them and stood still while she buttoned them for him.

"I'm not a child, you know," he said at last.

"I know. But sometimes we all need a little TLC, right? You can button my robes for me the next time I'm in a funk."

Rallying, Harry said, "Ron might have a word or two to say about that."

She chuckled and agreed, "Yes, he might at that."

The lights in the Weasleys' sitting room seemed unnaturally bright. They nearly blinded him as he stepped into the room.

Ron was sitting on the couch, reading the quidditch section of the Sunday Prophet. He looked up and gave a less than welcoming, "Oh, you're back, are you?"

Harry couldn't really blame him. As far as Ron knew, he'd turned his back on Severus for a weekend fling.

Hermione's chastising, "Ronald!" was ringing through the air when Ron's voice and expression changed and he asked in a worried tone, "What's wrong?"

Harry opened his mouth, not knowing how to explain.

Hermione was still acting as his protector, for she quickly explained, "Harry's not up to talking about it right now. We're just all going to go down and have dinner now. All right?"

There was a pleading note in her voice that touched Harry deeply.

"Ah, sure," Ron answered, visibly perplexed. He looked from Hermione to Harry, then back to Hermione as if trying to figure out what was happening from their expressions. After a moment, he said, "Sorry about the attitude, mate."

"It's okay," Harry said, wishing that his voice didn't sound so thick. He knew he sounded like he'd spent the last few hours crying. Pity, magic only went so far. He could cast a glamour that would hide all of London at this point, but there wasn't anything he could do to hide what he was feeling, not from these two.

"Well, let's go, then," Hermione said with forced cheer. Her hand was gripping his elbow as if she were prepared to keep him from apparating away.

As they left the Weasleys' quarters and started down the shifting stairs for the Great Hall, Ron's hand settled softly on Harry's shoulder.

Cocooned in their caring, Harry followed them down to the hall. It was only as they approached the teachers' table and Harry saw that familiar, black-clad figure sitting next to Hagrid in what Severus sometimes playfully referred to as the Gryffindor Ghetto that his steps faltered.

All that hurt and fury raged through him like a tornado as he met Severus' cautious black eyes.

The three seats they normally sat in were there on the other side of Severus. Even though Harry knew he could take the one furthest from him, it was just too close right now.

Already, the most sensitive among the teachers were beginning to look up as Harry's magic swirled through the room, making the wall sconces and candles floating midair flicker ominously.

Knowing that he'd explode if he had to sit close enough to hear or touch Severus, Harry turned to the other end of the table, to the isolated corner where Severus hadn't sat in months.

Hermione's steps didn't even falter. She turned with him as if that had been their destination all along, but Ron gave a totally confused, "What's happened? Why aren't we sitting with Severus?"

They were close enough that Harry knew Severus had overheard Ron's comment. He could feel those dark eyes on him as he turned to Ron and suggested, "Ask Severus," before taking the seat at the farthest end of the table, Hermione at his side.

Visibly confused, Ron settled into the seat on her other side.

There was so much tension in the air and so many unasked questions that Harry could barely breathe.

"Here, Harry, have some pumpkin juice," Hermione said, handing him a tall glass of their childhood drink. She looked as worried as Ron.

With good reason, Harry realized, only then noticing that his magic was still swirling through the room, wreaking havoc with the lighting and unnerving everyone powerful enough to sense the thaumaturgical disturbance. A lot of gazes were beginning to turn his way.

Harry sucked in a deep breath, and then another. After a moment, the candles and sconces stopped flickering and began their usual steady burn. He took a couple of sips of the sweet juice Hermione had handed him, and the menacing magic rocking through the Hall vanished like a will-o-the-wisp.

"There, that's better now," Hermione approved. Harry could hear the relief in her voice and knew how badly he'd shaken her as she suggested with that same forced cheer, "Have some mashed potatoes, Harry."

Doing his utmost to defuse, Harry let her fill his plate.

He could feel Hermione, Ron's, and another dark, equally familiar gaze watching him as he forced himself to tuck into his meal.

As he chewed the food he wasn't really interested in, Harry wondered if he'd ever get to the point where he wouldn't feel Severus' gaze on his skin the way he would another wizard's hand. Recognizing that he was going to have to work on getting to that place, he swallowed. The food sat like a lump in his stomach as he took another forkful.

His world had crumbled around him enough times in the past for him to know the routine. He just didn't know if he'd be able to fake normality this time.

*~*~*

"All right. You're going to tell me what's going on, and if the word 'nothing' passes your lips, you won't have to worry about waiting for Harry to lose control and blast you to perdition," Hermione Weasley said as she entered the empty Potions classroom Monday morning during their shared free period. "What did you do to him?"

Severus looked up from the papers he was grading. He wasn't surprised to see her. He'd been expecting such a call since dinner last night.

Breakfast this morning had been marginally better. At least Harry's power hadn't been swirling through the hall, waiting to strike like a ravenous panther. Still, Harry had looked like he hadn't slept in days. For that matter, so did the worried woman in front of him.

Trying to keep a handle on the situation, Severus gave an urbane, "Good morning to you as well."

"Don't!" Hermione warned. "I've been up with him all night. He won't tell me what's wrong, but I know it's got something to do with you. Have you any idea how close he was to losing control in the Great Hall last night?"

Once he would have toyed with her or done everything he could to avoid a scene. But since his own guilt had been eating at him like acid since Harry's visit in the early hours yesterday morning, he met her gaze and softly said, "He has more than sufficient cause."

His honesty seemed to deflate her anger. Taking a deep breath, Hermione approached his desk and asked in a pleading tone, "Severus, what did you do?"

"You know what I did. Or you suspect it. That's why you came to me Saturday morning," Severus said.

"I came to you on Saturday because Harry didn't seem to remember that he was involved with you . . . . " Hermione said.

"He didn't remember because I blocked off all memory of our involvement when he asked me to remove the things Burke had told him about my past from his mind," Severus said. He didn't mean to hold his breath afterwards, but he knew he was in as much danger of being cursed by this woman as he was with Harry. Merlin alone knew what her husband, the Auror, would do once he learned of his transgression, providing, of course, that he survived long enough to face Ronald Weasley.

"Oh my God. No wonder poor Harry is . . . ."

"Ready to kill, and justly so," Severus said.

"How could you do that to him? He loves you!"

"It was quite easy, actually," Severus said, knowingly baiting the she-bear before him which was intent on protecting its cub. "He left himself totally open."

"And you took advantage of that trust," Hermione said, her voice and gaze as cold as his bed was now that Harry had left it for good.

He knew he should apologize. He knew he was in the wrong here. If he threw himself upon her mercy and explained the insane state of mind that had driven him to do what he'd done to Harry, he knew she would, if not forgive him, at least counsel him on how to get through the disaster he'd made of things. But his pride wouldn't let him do it. Pride was, after all, the only thing he had left. His sanity was obviously long gone.

He'd done what he'd done, and there would be no undoing it. He'd follow this through, no matter where it ended.

"I am Slytherin, after all," Severus said in what he knew to be his most arrogant tone of voice.

Her eyes sparked with the same kind of incandescent rage Severus had seen several times before being blasted by instantaneous magic. She wasn't nearly as powerful as Harry, but she was a force to be reckoned with all the same. He could feel her power swirling through the room the way Harry's had in the Great Hall last night. For a minute, he saw his death in her eyes, and he welcomed it.

Then, that fury was firmly clamped down. She took a deep breath, and contempt replaced the anger hardening her features. "No. That would be too easy, wouldn't it? You're going to have to live with this, Severus."

He wasn't able to hold her gaze. He heard her rise to her feet. He jerked in his seat as a small white rectangle of parchment popped into being on the desk in front of him. Startled, he recognized it as the calling card of that Squib analyst she was friendly with.

"Do us all a favour and get yourself some help before you kill someone," and with those clipped words, she stormed out of the Potions lab.

Startled, Severus realized that he was shaking as badly as he had been after Harry had left his chambers for the final time Sunday morning. He hadn't thought that losing her would hurt this much.

Not knowing if he had the strength to pull himself together before his next class arrived, he stared down at the white card on his desk out of burning eyes.

*~*~*

Water dripped somewhere in the darkness, echoing through the stone chamber. Every breath brought with it the unbearable reek of an open sewer. The place was cold as a grave.

Harry shivered and thought some wall sconces into existence. Their warm, flickering light filled the dungeon. Normally, there would be some Death Eaters entering the scene about now, but tonight there were no Death Eaters. There was only the rack on the far side of the chamber, and the bloody horror that lay shackled to it.

The dripping sound was not water. It was blood, Severus' blood. Only, the skinless carcass on the torture table bore no resemblance to the man Harry remembered. The ghastly remains looked worse than Ron had after Burke had taken out his team. Unlike Ron, there was no sign of life in the near-skeletal remains. The bared ribcage was unmoving.

He'd come too late.

"Nooooo!"

His shout woke him.

Wild-eyed, Harry stared around the room. Sweat and tears were pouring down his face and he was shaking all over.

He took a deep breath as he recognized the blue velvet curtains draping the bed. His bed. His room.

It was just a dream. Severus was safe down in the dungeons below.

Harry ran a hand through his drenched hair. It wasn't fair that he could be so very angry at Severus, and still be tormented by those kinds of dreams.

Taking a deep breath, he threw off the bedclothes and climbed out of the big four poster bed. There would be no more sleep tonight. Not that he'd gotten more than an hour or two.

He thought his clothes on and grabbed his cloak. It was the green, sable lined one Severus had given him for Christmas. The mere sight of it made him ache, so he transfigured it into plain black wool and made tracks for the door.

"Harry?" a sleepy voice called from the open door to the Weasleys' quarters.

He turned to see Hermione standing there in the dark doorway in her long white nightgown.

"Hermione, what are you doing up at this hour?" he asked.

"Are you all right?"

She'd been up with him until he'd finally turned in. He knew she had to be utterly exhausted.

"Did you put a monitoring charm on me?" he asked. It was the only thing he could think of to explain why she'd be up at this ungodly hour. He'd had a silencing spell on his room for years, so he knew his shout couldn't have wakened her.

"Um . . . ."

"I'm not a baby," he said.

"I know. I'm just worried about you," she answered.

"I'm okay, really," he assured.

"It's two a.m. and you went to bed less than an hour ago. You're not okay. Come sit down by the fire. We'll -"

"You're going back to bed," Harry said, moving over to where she stood in the doorway. She was shivering in the castle cold and looked ready to drop from exhaustion. He took his cloak off and put it around her shoulders. "I really appreciate your looking after me the way you have this last month, but you need to rest now. You know if you don't go back to bed, Ron will be up in ten minutes. He's still recovering. You know he needs to sleep."

"You need to sleep," she protested. "Please, go back to bed?"

"I can't. I'll go crazy in there. Walking is the only thing that helps when I get like this."

"I'll go with you, then."

"You'll do no such thing. Back to bed. Go on, luv," he insisted, giving her cheek a fast peck, "Go to bed. I'll be all right."

"Harry . . . ."

"I know you want to help me, but there's nothing to be done right now. It's just going to take time. Please – don't make me feel guilty on top of everything else?"

"All right," she conceded at last. "Just . . . be careful. And wake me if you want to talk when you get back."

"I will," he said, even though he knew he'd do no such thing.

She and Ron had been amazing this last month. They'd practically moved into his room with him. Any time he wasn't in front of a class teaching, one or both of his best friends were there with him, doing everything in their power to distract him and lift his spirits.

That the last was a sheer impossibility was becoming increasingly obvious. It had been over a month since he'd had that big blow up with Severus, but it still felt like the whole thing had happened yesterday. He couldn't remember the last time that anything had hurt him this badly. Maybe the final battle with Voldemort, when they'd lost Professor Dumbledore, Remus, and the Weasley twins in one fell swoop, but he honestly thought this felt even worse than that.

Once Hermione had turned back into her quarters, he headed out into the dark halls. The corridors were even colder than his rooms, so he transfigured another cloak.

The figures in the paintings lining the halls were all asleep, some snoring noisily. He stepped lightly past them, not waking even the lightest portrait sleeper.

He never had any clear destination on nights like this. He just went wherever his feet led him. As he passed a wall of bevelled windows near the Ancient Runes classroom, the full March moon shone in on him like a spotlight. In the distance, he could see the trees of the Forbidden Forest shifting madly in the winds.

It looked cold as hell out there, but maybe that was what he needed to finally get to sleep. Quickening his steps, he turned the corner and ploughed right into a wall of living shadows. He had no idea what he'd hit, but he was moving so fast that he bounced off it like he'd run into a cliff and would have measured his length if strong hands hadn't come out of the darkness to steady him.

Harry stepped back into the moonlit corridor behind him, a polite, "So sorry," on his lips.

The words died as he stared up into Severus Snape's sharp-featured face.

He supposed it was inevitable that this would happen. Severus and he had been running into each other for years as they roamed Hogwarts' dark halls and grounds when everyone else was asleep. Still, the sudden sight of Severus there before him was shocking.

Harry couldn't help but note how rough Severus looked. More than exhausted, the man seemed haunted. There were dark circles under his eyes that made his own purple bags look like rank amateurs.

Severus seemed as thrown as he was by their collision, for he uttered a soft, "Forgive me," and turned as if to flee into the shadows behind him.

"Wait!" Harry impulsively called out.

Severus froze and turned back to face him. The caution in his expression seemed to indicate that he expected to be blasted to smithereens.

Harry realized that this was the first time they'd been alone together since their break up. So far, the only times they'd been in the same room were the obligatory staff meetings at which Hermione and he had sat as far away from Severus as possible. They hadn't spoken a single word in a month.

"Yes?" Severus asked in a guarded tone.

His heart in complete tumult, Harry stared up at this man he'd loved so deeply, this man who had betrayed him. The anger was still there, but it wasn't the magical time bomb it had been a month ago.

After that horrible nightmare, it was actually good to see Severus.

Not knowing what to say, Harry asked an inane, "How are you?"

His question visibly threw Severus, who still seemed braced for an attack. After a moment of stunned silence, Severus answered with a characteristically caustic, "It's two a.m. and I'm roaming the corridors like a house ghost. What does that tell you?"

"Nightmare?" Harry asked.

"I hardly see what concern of yours that would be."

The tone was enough to make Harry want to sock him. Severus never gave an inch. But that same stubbornness had kept the man alive in January, and right now it was just so good to have the horrors of his own nightmare dispelled that Harry couldn't take issue with the bastard. So, instead of reacting to the near-sneer, he said, "I had one. I got to Burke's keep too late and there was nothing left of you to rescue."

"Sounds more like wishful thinking, if you ask me," Severus responded in that same contentious tone. But his expression had changed and he was watching Harry with a different type of caution now.

"Charming as ever, I see," Harry said, shaking his head at the futility of it all. This was the man he'd thought he'd loved?

"It's high time you saw me for what I am," Severus said, his gaze was as dark and bottomless as the lake outside the nearby windows.

Harry caught those eyes and held them. There were a dozen scathing responses he could make to that comment. Severus appeared braced for them all. But he knew the truth was always the most effective weapon.

"I was the only person who ever saw you for what you were. That's what scares you so much."

The minute Harry said the words, he wished he could take them back. They seemed to strike Severus like a physical blow or a magical attack.

Severus rallied enough to reply with a stiff, "Don't flatter yourself, Potter," before turning on his heel to disappear down the dark corridor with a billow of his black robes.

Well, that went well, Harry thought, annoyed at his own lack of control. But he hadn't slept in a month, and that was Severus' fault. He didn't know what he wanted from Severus now. All he knew was that he didn't want things the way they were.

Disgusted with them both, he fled into the freezing night.

*~*~*

Severus looked up from the homework he was grading as the door to the Potions lab opened. At first, he thought it might be Hermione Weasley, for they both shared a free third period Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but she hadn't stopped in to see him for more than a month now. The little white card she'd left behind on her last visit was tucked into the corner of his desk blotter, its point staring almost accusatively up at him.

Severus tensed when he recognized his unexpected visitor. Harry.

Even from a distance that strong face was handsome. It was only as Harry drew closer that his red-rimmed eyes became obvious.

Severus kept waiting for Harry to get over what had happened between them and move on. The man had always been a survivor. This malingering made no sense, but Harry looked as if he hadn't slept since the night they'd argued last month.

Severus didn't even know how to greet him. The usual 'hello' or 'good morning' seemed completely inappropriate, especially after their encounter in the corridor this morning. He knew he was lucky they hadn't come to wands last night. He didn't know why he felt compelled to egg Harry on the way he had, for Harry was completely innocent in all of this. All that Harry had done wrong was to be foolish enough to care for him.

Part of him couldn't help but wonder if Harry had come here to finish it, to finish him.

When Harry stopped beside his desk, Severus looked up at that worn face, gave a nod of acknowledgement and a stiff, "Potter." Unable to stop himself, he asked, "Aren't you supposed to be teaching?"

"They finished their quiz early, so I gave them an early dismissal. I wanted to speak to you," Harry said.

"About?" Severus asked. The sight of Harry striding into his Potions classroom had turned his entire body to stone with tension. He didn't think his muscles could get any tighter, but they clenched all the more at that 'wanted to speak to you' line. If this were anyone else, he would have had his hand in his pocket on his wand. But he knew how useless any effort would be. There wasn't a wizard alive today who could stand against this man. Unless they took Harry from behind, and, even then, he would back Harry to come out the victor.

"I'm sorry about what I said to you last night," Harry shocked him by saying. "It was cruel and thoughtless."

Severus drew in a shaky breath. He felt like Harry had just blasted the ground out from beneath him. Not knowing how to respond, he stared up into those exhausted green eyes and finally said, "But hardly unprovoked."

"That doesn't matter," Harry said.

"Doesn't it? Potter, I did something to you for which any court would consider murder justifiable. You have every right to hate me."

"I don't hate you," Harry said. After a long silence, he added, "It would be easier all around if I did, but I don't. I'm still mad as hell at you for what you did to me, but I don't hate you."

Even without windows, the torch-lit room was too bright. There were no shadows to retreat into, and Severus really felt he needed those shadows right now.

"What are you saying?" Severus asked in a voice so soft and nervous that he barely recognized it as his own. Harry didn't hate him?

"Just that I'm sorry I lost my temper last night. It's no excuse, but I haven't been sleeping lately. I know you haven't either. I . . . don't like the way we are right now, Severus. I was hoping that we might agree to try to be less hostile. I'm willing to try if you are. I think it would make everyone's lives a lot easier."

Feeling ridiculously vulnerable, Severus rose to his feet. It was a puerile tactic, but towering over Harry usually made him feel he had the upper hand in their confrontations. Only, he still felt about two feet tall as he looked down into those ridiculously hopeful eyes.

This man had every right to curse him. If Harry had gone to Minerva and told her what he'd done, he could have had him sacked. If he'd gone to the authorities, Severus knew he'd be in Azkaban right now.

But Harry had done none of those things. Instead of seeking vengeance, he was standing here practically pleading with him to act like an adult.

Severus only wished it were that easy. He pushed his filthy hair back from his face and met Harry's gaze. He still had no idea what to say. After some serious deliberation, he offered the truth. "Surely, you can't think that my behaviour of late indicates that I have any control over my actions? I'm barely making it through the days."

"I, um, never heard you admit anything like that before," Harry said.

"There's little point in denying it," Severus said. He didn't know why Harry was here. The soft tone and concerned expression were so different from the furious, remote man Harry had been for the last month that he hardly knew how to deal with him. He knew that what he'd done to Harry was never going to go away, that a month or a decade wouldn't be long enough to get past that kind of betrayal. But here Harry was, talking to him. It made no sense.

After a quiet moment, Harry softly said, "And you're not sleeping."

Remarkably enough, Severus could hear nothing but concern in Harry's gentle voice. Gods, how he missed his compassion.

Severus gave a wordless shake of his head.

"Your Dreamless Sleep potion?" Harry asked.

There was a part of him that wanted to rail at Harry for making such a bloody obvious suggestion, but he managed to contain the vitriol. Making a concentrated effort, he explained, "I've been on it since January. It's dangerous to take it daily for longer than two months. Although, at this point, I can't conceive that addiction would make the situation any worse."

To his unending shock, Harry reached out to grip his arm.

That instinctive gesture of support nearly finished him. That Harry could comfort him at a time when he should be casting Unforgivables at him only accentuated how unworthy he was of this honourable man's regard.

"You're the strongest person I know, Severus," Harry repeated the encouraging words he'd given him a dozen times a day when he was in infirmary recovering. "You'll get through this."

"How?" Severus rasped. He didn't want to appear any weaker than he already felt, but he couldn't keep the word in.

"Any way you can," Harry answered.

He wanted so badly to just fling himself at that warm body and let this incredible man support him until the shaking stopped, but he knew he'd forfeited that right when he'd betrayed Harry's trust. So, instead of crumbling into Harry's arms, he took a firm step back from him. Taking a deep breath, he held himself together, met Harry's gaze, and nodded.

"Till then, you do whatever you have to," Harry said. "If you can't manage civil, then don't. You just make sure you make it through those days. Don't worry about anything else but that. All right?"

Nearly afraid of this amazing man, Severus gave another nod and an unsteady, "All right."

Harry's eyes were pulling him in like a magnet. Severus had always felt that he could drown in them, but right now, they had a siren's unshakable allure.

Knowing that giving in to that call would ruin whatever advances they'd made, Severus took a shaky breath and held onto his controls.

The visible start Harry gave seemed to tell him that he had finally twigged onto what was happening. Once again, his former lover surprised him by failing to react with justified anger.

Seeming nervous, Harry said, "Good. I'll, er, see you at dinner, then."

Nothing had changed, Severus told himself as he finally gave into his rubbery legs and sank down on his chair once the door had firmly closed behind Harry. But even though nothing had changed, for some reason, he felt a little better. Everything didn't seem so entirely bleak.

Harry still obviously cared about him to some small extent. That was more than he'd ever had, really. It was more than he could expect after what he'd done and certainly more than he deserved. And, maybe, just maybe, it might be enough.

Realizing that he was going to have to teach class in a few short minutes, he took several deep breaths and attempted to return his attention to the homework on his desk. It was hard, though. All he seemed able to concentrate on was the lingering warmth Harry's hand had left on his arm.

*~*~*

Okay, that was . . . weird, Harry thought as he took a deep breath and leaned against the wall outside the Potions classroom. For a moment there, he'd thought he was going to end up with Severus in his arms.

While he really wished all their problems would just go away, he wasn't child enough to believe that bringing sex into the mix would fix anything. He was barely past being furious at Severus. While Severus . . . Severus was hanging on by a very frayed thread. That much was clear.

It was all so bloody complicated. Even his feelings for Severus weren't clear-cut anymore. He was as angry with him as he was concerned for him. But, no matter how angry he was, he couldn't ignore that level of pain. He'd never seen Severus so dejected.

Surely, you can't think that my behaviour of late indicates that I have any control over my actions?

Those desperate words were ringing through his mind. For Severus to admit something like that, especially with the way things were between them right now, it had to be bad.

Standing there in the empty, drafty hall outside the Potions classroom, Harry realized that Severus really wasn't in control. The Severus Snape he'd known and loved would never have violated another person's mind the way he'd violated his last month. That act was just so out of character that it had made him question his very feelings for Severus. Only, the man who had done that to him wasn't his Severus. His Severus had died on that rack in Burke's dungeon.

Not died, Harry corrected himself. His Severus had been damaged, perhaps beyond all recognition, but he was still there somewhere, buried deep beneath all that pain. Clearly, there was too much of it for Severus to find his way out on his own. The man was drowning . . . and utterly alone.

It wasn't like Severus had any friends to help him at the moment. Even Hermione wasn't speaking to him right now.

Harry knew he shouldn't care. His broken heart kept insisting that he should let the bastard rot. Severus Snape was not his concern or his problem anymore. The man had attempted to erase their relationship. What could be a clearer statement of Severus' lack of regard than that? And how could he have any kind of feelings left for someone who would do that to him?

Only, in spite of everything, he still cared. He wished he could just walk away and turn his feelings for Severus off for good, but it wasn't that simple.

It was easy to blame Severus, to hate and rage and make himself out to be the injured party. It helped justify his anger that it was true that what Severus had done was dreadfully wrong, but it wasn't unexpected. He'd known Severus wasn't ready to be involved in a sexual relationship that night on the quidditch pitch, and he'd still pushed, because it was what he'd wanted.

Now, Severus was crumbling before his eyes, and nobody cared enough to intervene.

Well, he could do something about that. He mightn't be able to turn back time or take this terrible burden off Severus, but he could at least make sure the man had some human kindness in his life.

Taking a deep breath, he went to find Hermione.

*~*~*

"You want us to what?" Ron nearly bellowed after Harry made his suggestion that evening when he caught both his friends in their quarters before dinner. Ron was removing his red Auror's robes, about to don the brown ones he usually wore around the castle, while Hermione sat in a chair by the hearth, her lap full of test papers.

"Harry," Hermione said in a less contentious tone, "he attacked your mind."

Harry hadn't been able to get her alone all day. He'd been hoping to have her firmly in his corner before he approached Ron with the subject. Taking a deep breath, he continued with his argument, "I know what he did, and it was terribly wrong. But -"

"There's no 'buts' about this," Ron said. "If you hadn't made me promise to leave this to you, he'd be up on charges."

"He's not himself, Ron," Harry argued. "He's not responsible for -"

"All the more reason why you should steer clear of him. He's a menace right now," Ron's face was lost in the folds of the brown robe he was pulling over his head, but his anger emerged loud and clear.

"Only to himself," Harry protested.

"Excuse me, but weren't you the one who was running around here with missing memories last month?" Ron demanded. "Don't even try to tell me he's harmless."

"I need you to back me on this," Harry played his last card. He didn't know what he'd do if they wouldn't help him. He was going to need someone to run interference for his own anger.

"Give me one good reason why," Ron demanded.

"He's falling apart before my eyes, Ron," Harry said. "I can't just pretend it isn't happening, no matter how angry I am. We told him we were his family. Families don't let their members self-destruct."

"Families don't erase each other's memories," Ron countered. "Harry, he fucked with your mind. He could have made you do anything. Who would have been able to stop you if he'd really gone mental and programmed you to do something dangerous?"

Harry sighed. Ron wasn't saying anything he hadn't considered himself in the last month. He knew how utterly dangerous and immoral what Severus had done to him was. It was unforgivable, fully as much as the curses with the same name. Only, for Severus' sake, he was going to have to find a way to work around it, to get beyond his own anger and forgive. "All he wanted was some peace. Yes, he could have done anything, but all he did was remove the source of the pressure I was putting on him. I told him to remove anything that disturbed him. He took my offer literally. I'm not excusing what he did, but I understand it. I was pushing him really hard that night, and he snapped."

"What's to say he won't snap again?" Ron asked. "He looks like a walking corpse. He should be in hospital, not teaching school."

"And what good would St. Mungo's do him?" Harry argued. "If they can't cure it with a spell or a potion, they just lock the poor buggers away. Look at Neville's parents. They've been there for decades, and literally nothing's been done to help them."

"What is it you think we can do?" Ron questioned. "He's totally mental right now."

"I think we can offer the man some human kindness. Severus didn't ask for any of this to happen. You know what was done to him. Yes, he's a bit mental right now, but he's holding it together – just. I want to help him hang on to what little sanity he's got left."

"And you think our sitting next to him at the teachers' table is going to cure what ails him?" Ron asked.

"I think if we were speaking to him again, it would remove a lot of the pressure he's under. Meals have been unbearable this last month," Harry said. "Can I count on your help in this?"

Ron looked like he was asking him to eat manure.

Harry turned his gaze to Hermione, who'd been unusually silent throughout their discussion. "Hermione?"

Both he and Ron were looking at her, as if she should decide the issue. And, perhaps she should, Harry realized. She was the most practical and mature of them all.

After a long moment of holding his gaze, she turned to Ron. "Harry is the offended party here. I think we should do what he asks."

"All right, then," Ron grudgingly agreed. Turning to Harry, he said. "It's on your head, then."

"Thanks, both of you," Harry said, wilting with relief. Both Hermione and Ron's misgivings were written clearly on their faces. But they were backing him, and that was all that mattered.

"Yeah, yeah," Ron dismissed his show of gratitude with his usual embarrassment. "Let's go beard the lion. It's roast pork night and I'm starved."

On that note of normality, they headed for the door.

As they walked into the Great Hall five minutes later and Harry took in Severus' dark figure sitting at the far, empty end of the teachers' table, he realized that the harder task might still be ahead of him. Approaching the table, he gave Neville and Hagrid a wave where they were sitting at the end of the table where Severus used to isolate himself and continued down the seemingly endless table towards where Severus was currently sitting.

It was his imagination, of course, but Harry felt as if every eye in the room were on him as he made that journey. All but one, that was. Severus' gaze was fixed on his meal. As usual, Severus seemed to be pushing his food around the plate more than eating it. The Potions master was trying so hard to tune out the rest of the school that he didn't even seem aware of their approach.

That wasn't good. Severus didn't deal well with surprises at the best of times. When this went bad, as Harry knew it would, the scene was going to be spectacular.

Harry stopped beside Severus. Severus didn't even look up. Hermione and Ron were hanging several feet back, well out of cursing range.

When Severus failed to react to his presence, Harry nervously cleared his throat and asked, "Is this seat taken?"

Severus' chin snapped up as he turned to meet his gaze. Those red-rimmed, exhausted eyes moved past Harry to where Hermione and Ron were standing behind him.

Harry held his breath, waiting for the inevitable explosion. He knew this man so well; he could almost hear the suspicious thought processes taking place.

It was no longer his imagination. Everyone at the teachers' table was watching. Before Severus could ignite, Harry dropped his voice and pleaded, "Please, let's give it a try, all right?"

Harry still expected Armageddon. He knew Severus and fully anticipated having to argue his way past his considerable guards. Severus' controls were clearly stretched too thin to hide anything he was feeling. Harry could see the tumultuous emotions raging behind those sore-looking eyes.

To his complete astonishment, Severus gave a slow nod and then returned his attention to his plate.

Harry exchanged a confused look with Hermione and Ron before slipping into the empty seat beside Severus. Hermione took the seat next to his, Ron on her other side.

When no scene ensued, most of the other teachers returned their attention to their own business.

As Harry and his friends settled into the chairs they'd abandoned last month, an almost anti-climatic silence fell over them. Then Ron began filling his plate with food and the awkwardness passed.

Harry and Hermione followed Ron's example and in a few moments everyone other than Severus was busy enjoying their meal.

Harry did his best to ignore the fact that Severus wasn't eating. He wasn't about to push his luck and comment on that fact. He knew they were fortunate to have managed this much contact without an altercation.

After several minutes of concentrated eating appeased their immediate hunger, that awkward silence settled over them again. Normally, this was when everyone would update each other about the events of their day, but no one seemed inclined to talk now that they'd moved seats.

Recognizing that as it was his idea to recommence interaction with Severus, that it was also his responsibility to initiate conversation, Harry broke the tense quiet with, "Ron, how was your day?" Turning to include Severus, he softly explained, "Ron returned to work on Monday."

Severus' eyes clearly showed his surprise at the effort he made. Harry wasn't sure what type of reaction to expect. A 'Don't trouble yourself, Potter,' or a 'What has this to do with me anymore?' seemed the most likely responses, but after a pause, Severus gave an acknowledging nod and turned his gaze towards Ron.

"It was okay," Ron answered. "I've been putting the new team through training manoeuvres. It's going to be a while before they're in decent shape. Most of them are fresh out of school."

Whether she really needed to know or was simply asking to bring Severus up to date, Hermione questioned, "What are their names again?"

As Ron launched into a description of his new team members, Harry relaxed in his chair and finally started to breathe normally.

The remainder of the meal continued along that line. Severus didn't utter a single word the entire time, but he stayed at the table and seemed to be listening. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was a damn sight better than Harry had expected it to be.

Hermione shocked him when they were finishing up their pudding by turning to Severus to say, "Severus, Harry and I are going to grade papers in our place after dinner. You're more than welcome to join us."

She'd obviously shocked Severus, too. It seemed to take him a moment to find his voice to answer.

"Thank you," Severus seemed to take great care choosing his words. "I appreciate the offer, but I'm not fit company tonight."

"Well, if you change your mind, you know where we are. Harry, we'll see you upstairs," Hermione said as she and Ron rose from the table.

Ron gave a general, "See you," that seemed to encompass Severus as well before following Hermione out.

Left alone with Severus, Harry picked at the remains of his chocolate cake, not sure what to do now. Most of the other teachers were leaving and the dirty plates were popping out of view one by one.

Severus' plate was still full of food. By Harry's count, he'd taken three bites all night.

The silence stretched uncomfortably between them, the tension seeming to accentuate all that they'd lost in the last three months.

Finally, Severus looked up from his study of his plate and said, "You can't fix what's broken this time, Potter."

Strangely enough, Severus' tone wasn't sarcastic or contentious. If anything, he sounded lost.

"Let's just give it a chance, all right?" Harry pleaded.

"Give what a chance?" Severus demanded.

"Healing," Harry answered, his voice soft and low. "Nothing's going to change if we don't try."

The emotions that flashed through Severus' exhausted eyes were explosive.

Harry held his breath, waiting for Severus to erupt.

After a long moment, Severus said, "If you believe this can be fixed, you're crazier than I am."

Harry watched as Severus pushed back his chair and left the table.

The exchange hadn't been exactly encouraging, but it was a damn sight less hostile than last night's encounter. He figured that had to count for something.

*~*~*

The next week or so was filled with similar, tense meals at which Hermione and he exhausted themselves attempting to draw Severus out of his shell. Harry tried to take comfort from the fact that Severus showed up in the Great Hall and didn't move his seat, but for all the response he gave to them, they might as well have been invisible. If pressed, Severus would give a monosyllabic answer, but mostly, he just sat there behind his wall of misery. Watching him disintegrate was killing Harry by slow degrees.

Even when he was trying to relax with Hermione and Ron, Severus was never far from his thoughts. For the last month, it had been anger keeping Severus there. Now it was a worry so sharp it had more the feel of fear to it.

Tonight they'd skipped their usual Friday night trip to Hogsmeade. The sky was still pissing down sleet, even though it was well into March, and Hermione had a headache. So, they were camped out in the Weasleys' sitting room.

Ron and he had a chessboard between them, but they were talking quidditch more than playing, while Hermione lay on an easy chair near the fire with her feet up on an ottoman.

"Krum's lost it," Ron lamented, his disappointment palpable as he took a sip of the beer sitting beside the chess pieces he'd won.

"Oh, I don't know," Harry countered. "I think he's still got a few good years in him."

"You always say that when they're over the hill," Ron said.

"He's not even thirty. He's just having a bad year. Everyone does now and then," Harry said.

"You never did," Ron protested.

"I only played for four years, Ron. Viktor's been playing since we were thirteen. Think about how long a time that is," Harry said. "That's half our lives. Anyone playing that long is bound to have a bad season every now and then."

"I guess. It's just -" Ron's words stopped abruptly. "Excuse me a minute."

Harry grinned as Ron hurried to the loo. Rising to his feet, he stretched and said to Hermione, "He never changes. Always waits till the last minute to do everything."

"Not everything, Harry," Hermione said in a silky tone.

Chuckling, Harry crossed to the window, staring out at the sleety night. The winds were high and gusting. As he stood looking out the bevelled casement, a shower of sleet bounced off the glass as if aimed at him.

His gaze was drawn to the lake. It looked like a pool of churning ink under the winds. Everything out there was shades of black. The Forbidden Forest was a line of thick shadows around the lake. The tiny islands dotting the lake's surface were barely visible in this light. The nearest shore was a lighter band of black. Harry could just make out the standing stone at his favourite spot.

His gaze sharpened as he stared at the stone. Normally, it stood pretty much by itself on the shore with a couple of smaller boulders and small trees nearby. But, looking now, Harry could make out another slender, tall silhouette beside the menhir. What . . . ?

It took him a minute to determine that the other figure beside the standing stone was a person, a very tall, whip-thin person. His blood froze with recognition as he saw the man's robes flapping in the high winds like an agitated raven's wings. Severus.

The wind chill out there was brutal. There were warming and rain-deflection spells that would ward off the worst of the weather, but Harry knew that Severus was so out of it these days that he wouldn't have thought to employ them. Stars knew how long he'd been standing out there.

Thinking back, Harry thought that he remembered seeing Severus walking towards the main doors after dinner, which was over two hours ago. Surely, the man couldn't have been standing out there on the lake bank in that raging storm all this time?

"What is it?" Hermione asked, no doubt alarmed by whatever his face was revealing as he turned back into the room.

"Severus is out there," Harry said. "Standing on the lake bank."

"What?" She appeared as worried as he felt.

"I've got to -" he said, already heading for the door.

"Yes, of course. Go," Hermione urged.

Ron returned from the loo just as Harry reached the front door. His, "Hey, what's going on?" was ringing through the room as the door closed behind Harry.

Harry raced down the empty stairs, running as if a werewolf were on his trail. He opened the towering doors and shot out into the storm.

The freezing sleet pelted against his skin. Harry quickly raised a deflection charm and hurried towards the lake as fast as the slippery ground would allow. Everything was coated in a thin, deadly layer of ice. The trees shone like diamonds as he rushed past them.

Even at top speed, it took more than ten minutes to reach the lake bank. The trail was treacherous. What wasn't ice was slippery mud. It was all he could do to keep his footing as he made his way to the menhir. The winds were stronger here in the open over the water. They ripped at him like harpies, trying to topple him into the wildly churning water.

Finally, Harry reached the standing stone.

Severus was there between the menhir and the boulder Hedwig loved to sit on when they were out here. He was looking out over the lake and didn't even seem to notice his arrival. What with the way the winds were howling around them, that was hardly surprising. Even so, Harry had the feeling that Severus' reaction would have been the same if they'd been in the Great Hall.

Harry shivered as he took in Severus' state. His hair was a slick black mess against his head and cheeks. The ice that had cloaked the trees was glittering on Severus' hair and the shoulders of his cloak, he realized with horror. His friend's skin was bright red, his clothes soaked through and clinging to him.

Staring at the waterlogged robes, Harry couldn't help but notice how frightfully thin Severus had become. The man had barely eaten or slept in months. There wasn't much left of him. Taking in the drenched figure, he knew that if someone didn't intervene soon, Severus wouldn't be long for this world.

He wasn't sure how to proceed now that he was here. As much as he wanted to chastise Severus for doing something this reckless, instinct told him that wasn't the way to proceed. Severus had warned him last week that he had little control over his actions. This behaviour was hardly what anyone would call sane. Berating Severus wasn't going to do anything but alienate him at this point.

At a loss as to what to say, Harry stepped up to Severus and laid his hand on his arm. It was like touching one of those ice-lined trees.

Severus started as if he still hadn't seen him. The tormented eyes that turned his way were confused. Harry had the feeling that Severus mightn't have been aware of his physical state until the moment he touched him.

"It's time to go in now," Harry said, shouting to be heard over the winds.

Severus looked around, as if bewildered to find himself on the storm-battered shore. Then he gave a slow nod.

Not letting go of Severus' arm, Harry guided him back up the trail towards the castle. As soon as he was certain Severus wasn't going to bolt, he extended the deflection charm that was keeping the rain off him to cover Severus as well and performed a quick drying spell on his companion's hair and clothes.

Severus followed him almost docilely back to the school, slip-sliding along at his side without question or protest. It seemed to take forever to get back to Hogwarts, but they made it without any major spills.

Once inside the castle's huge doors, Harry debated on where to take Severus. He wanted to bring him up to the warmth and light of Gryffindor Tower, but he knew that Severus wasn't up to company at the present moment. Severus didn't like to be fussed over under the best of circumstances. Tonight, the inevitable reaction to his state might shatter him. He'd never seen Severus this . . . fragile. His ex-lover was clearly hanging on to sanity by a very thin thread.

If he hadn't lost his hold completely, Harry amended. Not even he was optimistic enough to argue that what Severus had been doing a few moments ago was sane.

Unwilling to inflict the inevitable scene upon Severus that bringing him to his rooms would entail, Harry headed them towards the dungeons. The fact that Severus didn't tell him to shove off was in no way reassuring. He knew if Severus were himself, he would have been insisting they part ways at the top of the stairs.

Harry paused outside Severus' quarters. It had been more than two months since he'd been sleeping down here. He knew that Severus would have changed the password to his wards long ago.

He looked expectantly up at Severus, waiting for him to supply the new password, but Severus was still staring off into space most alarmingly.

Taking a deep breath, Harry whispered January's password, certain that nothing would happen.

To his utter astonishment, the door swung obligingly open.

Severus hadn't changed the wards when they'd broken up?

Startled by that oversight, he hustled Severus into the room. He wasn't expecting the nostalgia that stabbed through him at the first sight of Severus quarters.

A thought lit the fire in the hearth and the wall sconces. Even with the addition of light and heat, the sitting room was still horribly damp and cold.

As soon as they were through the door, Harry removed Severus' winter cloak and hung both their outer garments on the pegs by the door.

Although he'd employed a drying charm on Severus' clothes down by the lake, Harry knew hypothermia was still a very real concern.

"I'm going to transfigure a cardy for you, so don't be startled," Harry warned. The black wool cardigan materialized between Severus' heavy brocade jacket and waistcoat. To play it safe, he also transfigured Severus' socks into fresh wool ones, although, since Severus was still wearing his boots, he couldn't see the results of his efforts.

Severus' complete lack of a reaction was alarming.

Harry levitated the familiar blue blanket off the back of the couch and wrapped it around Severus' shoulders before leading him to the couch. Sitting his unresponsive companion down at the end of the couch nearest the blazing hearth, he turned to summon tea. He prepared a mug to Severus' liking and then placed it between his companion's red-skinned, still-freezing hands.

"Drink it," Harry softly ordered.

Part of him was afraid that Severus was so out of it that he wouldn't respond. He knew everyone would be insisting on St. Mungo's were that to happen. There were already far too many comments that Severus wasn't fit to be teaching being dropped in the staffroom.

To his eternal relief, Severus did respond. He looked down at the cup, as if startled to find it in his hands, before taking a deep sip of it.

Harry used his magic to prepare himself a mug before taking a seat beside Severus. He had no idea what he should say. There wasn't anything that came to mind that wouldn't openly question Severus' sanity.

The uncomfortable silence stretched between them. Harry couldn't help but wonder if Severus were even aware of the tension or if he were off lost in his dark thoughts again.

He jumped when Severus' voice shattered the silence several minutes later.

"I suppose you want to know what I was doing out there," Severus said, his tone as brittle as his controls appeared to be.

Trying to keep things light, Harry replied as mildly as he could, "If you want to tell me."

"Sometimes, if I'm out in the cold long enough, I can sleep when I return to my quarters," Severus said. "I . . . didn't notice how bad the storm had become."

Harry refrained from questioning that last remark. He could tell how unnerved Severus was at having been that oblivious to his surroundings.

"Do you think I'm insane?" Severus asked into the quiet a few minutes later, his dark gaze fixed on the fire dancing in the hearth a few feet away.

Harry took a deep breath and answered, "I think you're exhausted. When's the last time you got any sleep?"

He could tell that he'd startled Severus, who was obviously braced for a condemnation of his shaky sanity.

After a moment, Severus answered, "Two days ago, I slept for three hours."

Harry hadn't gotten much more sleep himself, but he wasn't wrestling the kinds of monsters Severus was.

"You're not insane," Harry said, "but you will be if you don't get some rest."

"It isn't as if I haven't tried," Severus snapped, swinging around to face him. "The dreams come whenever I sleep. I can't take the Dreamless Sleep potion anymore. I can't . . . ."

Harry could hear the enormity of the problem in the way Severus' voice trailed off. He experienced a sympathetic burst of hopelessness in reaction to Severus' obvious despair. He knew what it was like when there was no rest to be had, no matter how long he walked or how hard he exerted himself. He'd lived in a similar state of desperation for years before Severus had cured his night terrors.

His tired mind stopped on that thought and stared at it. Severus had cured his nightmares.

Maybe he could help Severus the way Severus had helped him. He knew that Severus would balk at any mental contact, but there were other ways of controlling reactions besides telepathy.

"I know," Harry soothed. "You've done everything you can. Do you think you're ready to let someone help you?"

"You mean St. Mungo's." Severus said. Although he was obviously trying to hide it as best he could, Harry could hear the fear in his voice. "Minerva suggested that very option this afternoon. Apparently, I am unfit to be teaching at the present moment."

"She what?" Harry asked, protective anger blazing through him. Teaching was the only thing keeping Severus going. The last thing he needed right now was to be told he was unfit. With the prospect of losing his job and a stay for an undisclosed amount of time in St. Mungo's less than hospitable care, was it any surprise that Severus had been standing out there on the lakeshore? The only real miracle was that he hadn't jumped in.

"She . . . is concerned. I'm not improving and . . . . "

Recognizing that his anger wasn't going to help anything, Harry did his best to push it aside. "Ssssh. I wasn't suggesting St. Mungo's. No matter what happens, you're not going there. I promise. So stop worrying about that."

This was obviously the heart of Severus' current crisis, for he didn't seem to even hear his reassurances. Sounding completely desperate, Severus continued, "I have no home other than Hogwarts. If I am discharged and deemed incompetent -"

"No one's judging you incompetent," Harry insisted. "If worse comes to worst, and they want you to leave, we'll get a place together until you're well enough to teach again. St. Mungo's is not an option, so stop worrying about it. Please."

"Why should you concern yourself in any of this?" Severus asked, that frightened edge in his voice no longer underplayed. "After what I did to you, you should be rejoicing in my downfall."

"This isn't your downfall," Harry quickly countered. "You're just upset, with good reason."

"Why are you being so . . . kind to me? I don't understand this. Unless it's escaped your memory, I violated the integrity of your mind and erased your memories," Severus said. "I don't know what you're doing here. You should be cheering my mental collapse -"

"I could never be happy about anything bad happening to you," Harry insisted. "And you aren't going to collapse. You're going to rest and get better. I'm going to talk to Minerva in the morning and we're not going to worry about St. Mungo's, okay?"

"Why should you care? This isn't your problem anymore, Potter. After what I did to you . . . ." The words faded into a dispirited silence.

Seeing how utterly overwhelmed Severus was by the events that had separated them, Harry said, "You weren't yourself when you messed with my memories. I was pushing you too hard that night, and you defended yourself from the pressure the only way possible. I'm here because none of this is your fault. You didn't ask to be kidnapped and tortured. After what you went through, it's amazing that you're as functional as you are. Anyone else would have died in Burke's keep, but you were strong and you held on. Anyone else would have been insane after that kind of torture, but you managed to stay sane. Yes, you're having problems now, but who wouldn't after everything you went through? You got through the rest, you'll get through this."

"How?" Severus whispered, continuing in a shaky voice. "I can't sleep. I can't think straight. Minerva is right. I'm cracking up."

"No. You're just at the end of your limits. Who could go without sleep as long as you have? Of course, you can't think straight right now. You're overtired, depressed, and under too much pressure. Once you've had some rest and a few good meals, things won't look so bleak."

The sour expression Severus turned on him sneered louder than any words. After a minute, Severus said, "If I were in my right mind, I'd curse you for that idiotic statement."

Harry found a smile for that show of spirit. "Good thing for me that neither of us is in his right mind at the moment. I'm not just talking through my hat here. I have an idea that might help."

Severus' expression made it clear how hopeless he thought the situation. Still, he asked, "What idea?"

"We've . . . been through some rough times these last few months," Harry said. "Do you still trust me?"

Harry braced himself for a negative answer. He knew how suspicious Severus was at the best of times. Under this kind of strain, there was no telling what level his paranoia would take.

The silence that followed seemed to take centuries to creep by. Finally, Severus broke it with a soft, "Yes. I don't understand it, but . . . you had every right to kill me for what I did to you and you haven't taken your revenge."

"Can we just forget about what you did that night for the time being?" Harry pleaded.

"How can I forget? I -"

"You were at your wit's end, and I pushed you. We'll talk about that when you're feeling better. Right now, let's concentrate on getting you some rest."

Severus was obviously too tired to argue. After a long pause, he said, "You said you had an idea."

"Yes. That's where the trust comes in. You helped me through my nightmares. I thought I might help you through yours."

Harry didn't have to be holding Severus to feel how his entire body tensed at the suggestion.

"You want to go into my mind and -"

"No," Harry interrupted before the panic in Severus' eyes could take hold. "I know that after what you went through with Burke, that any mental contact would be detrimental. That's not what I'm suggesting."

Severus made a visible effort to calm himself. After a couple of shaky-sounding breaths, he asked, "What are you suggesting then?"

"I think I can . . . use my magic to keep you in a state of sleep where the nightmares don't occur," Harry said.

"Use your magic?" Severus repeated as if he hadn't heard correctly.

Harry nodded. "After all those healings and the, um, what we used to do together, I, er, I'm pretty familiar with your system. I think I can keep your brain at a level of peaceful sleep. If nothing else, I can wake you up when you start to get agitated before the nightmare takes complete hold. What do you think?"

Harry knew how much he was asking here, the amount of faith involved. What he was proposing had never been done before. He mightn't be manipulating Severus' thoughts, but he was asking to be allowed to manipulate the energy which powered those thoughts. If he made a mistake in energy calculations, Severus would never know about it, because his brain would be fried. He could see every one of those thoughts passing through Severus' eyes.

Severus stared at him for a long time before softly answering, "I think that it will be an incredible imposition upon you."

"Let me worry about that, okay?" Harry pleaded. "Will you let me try?"

To his complete mystification, Severus gave a quick nod. Upon reflection, Harry realized that his speedy acceptance of the suggestion was probably an indication of how utterly desperate he was.

"How do you want to do this?" Severus questioned, visibly ill at ease.

He knew that Severus really had to be at the end of his rope to be so open to someone helping him. Thinking that Severus probably couldn't deal with much more stress, he met those purple-bagged, red-rimmed eyes. Reaching out his power, he embraced Severus with his magic.

If asked, he could never explain the process. In his mind, he always pictured it as the magical equivalent of hooking a Muggle video device to a telly. His magic plugged into Severus' system the way it had every night when they made love. He started feeding Severus his power and softly said, "Sleep, Severus."

He'd never done anything like this before. He wasn't even sure if it would work at the low level of power he sent into Severus. To his complete shock, Severus' eyes closed immediately and he slumped sideways on the couch as if hit with the Killing Curse.

Harry caught him before he fell all the way. Panicked at the thought of the Killing Curse, he quickly checked Severus' throat for a pulse. To his utter relief, he could feel the steady throb below Severus' still chilly skin.

Releasing a deep breath, Harry shifted Severus around until he was stretched out on the couch with his head pillowed in his lap. A thought removed Severus' shoes, jacket, and winter robes. Harry considered transforming Severus' shirt and trousers into his favourite night shirt, but then decided that that might be too huge a liberty. He manifested a couple more blankets, and levitated them until they were snug around Severus.

Sitting back against the couch, he stared down at Severus' ravaged, stark-featured face. Everything he'd endured in Burke's keep seemed to be etched into those hard lines and angles. Unable to stop himself, he stroked his fingertips across the still-chilly, wind-burned skin. He let his fingers slip into the dark hair he'd loved to play with.

Severus' hair wasn't as soft as he remembered it. In fact, it was a sticky, malodorous mess. Harry couldn't remember when he'd ever seen Severus' hair in this state. Now that he was this close, he couldn't help but notice that it had been some time since Severus had employed the cleansing charms he used to use several times a day. Severus had never been particularly regular about bathing, but he'd always been fastidiously clean. Getting a whiff of him, Harry began to understand why Minerva might have felt compelled to talk to Severus today.

It wasn't anything soap and water couldn't fix, he told himself, settling the fingers of his right hand to rest in the filthy hair. He reached out with his left for his tea mug and took a deep sip, relaxing into the comfortable corner of the couch.

He couldn't credit how good it felt to be back in this room with Severus, even if the circumstances weren't exactly what he would have wished for.

His magic was still flowing through Severus. It was more than a monitoring charm, but not quite an active spell. He could feel how terribly the exhausted man lying against him needed this sleep. Severus' body felt as if it were aching for rest.

His own wasn't much different, Harry acknowledged, recognizing how weary he was himself. Letting his eyes drift closed, he listened to the reassuring rhythm of Severus' breath and the cheerful crackling of the nearby fire.

An hour or so later, he felt the change in Severus' system. Forcing his eyes open, he stared down at Severus' emotion-wrenched face. The magic flowing into Severus told him the tumult Severus' nervous system was in. His companion was obviously caught in the grips of one of those horrific nightmares.

Still not entirely sure what he was doing, Harry upped the power flow to Severus. Instinct guiding him, he used his magic to force Severus' agitated system back into the peaceful rhythms that had defined his sleep earlier. He did everything he could to create a web of safety and protection around Severus. Ever so slowly, Severus' perturbed system settled back into easy slumber. Most importantly, Severus didn't awaken.

Harry watched the lines of strain ease from those harsh features as his magic derailed Severus' nightmare. When he was certain Severus was deeply and peacefully asleep again, he shifted down on the couch until its well-padded corner was supporting his head and drifted off again himself.

*~*~*

Severus' eyes snapped open. All he could see was the textured grey of knitted wool. Confused, he stared into what seemed to be a grey jumper that his face appeared to be pressed into. Taking stock of himself, he realized that his cheek was pillowed on something warm and firm that could only be someone's lap. As his mind was besieged with the what, where, and who of it, the legs supporting his cheek shifted.

Harry Potter's unmistakable voice gave a sleepy, "Good morning."

Disjointed memories of Harry leading him back to the castle from that awful storm he'd been standing in slithered through his mind. Realizing that he had no right to be lying here with his head in Harry's lap, he forced himself up.

As his sleepy mind became cognizant of his physical state, Severus realized that this was the first time in months that he hadn't woken in stark terror. More than that, his eyes weren't gritty and sore this morning. Nor did his muscles feel as though he'd spent the night being stretched on Burke's rack. He still felt awfully tired, but it wasn't the abject exhaustion he was used to experiencing. Abruptly, he recalled Harry's offer to help him last night. Clearly, he owed the first decent night's sleep he'd had since January to Harry's magic.

Not knowing what to say, he watched Harry shift up from his slumped position in the corner of the couch and stretch. From the wince Harry gave, it seemed his neck was bothering him. Little wonder, that. He realized that Harry must have spent the entire night sitting there safeguarding him while he slept. He couldn't recall having a single nightmare.

"How are you feeling?" Harry asked, nothing but worry in his face.

Severus gave a dry swallow. He felt mortified and deeply ashamed. Harry should not be here doing these things for him. Finding his voice, he rasped out, "I . . . should not have imposed on you last night. This was . . . ." Words failed him under the enormity of this new transgression.

"You were out on your feet last night. It was me who did the imposing, so let's not worry about that right now," Harry dismissed in that easygoing way he had and repeated, "How are you feeling?"

Reading the genuine concern in those tired features, Severus answered, "Better. I . . . thank you."

"You look a lot better," Harry said. "But you probably could use another two or three days sleep. I know I could."

"You should not be exhausting yourself on my behalf," Severus said, uneasy under that steady, green gaze that he remembered so well.

"I didn't exhaust myself. Last night was actually the first night I got some real sleep since January," Harry said.

Reading the truth in that, Severus dropped his gaze to the stained trousers he was wearing. His shirt wasn't in much better state, he realized, taking in the unwashed linen. He could smell himself. He knew Harry had to be able to smell him, too. He reeked, and, yet, Harry was sitting there close beside him as though everything were perfectly normal.

"Severus?"

Snagged by the softness in that voice that could lure him into his grave, he made himself look back up and meet those concerned eyes. "Yes?"

"We've both been through the wringer since January. If something helps, maybe we shouldn't question it too much."

"I can't allow you to -" Severus began.

Harry cut him off with an adamant, "Yes, you can. You slept. I slept. It was a mutually beneficial exchange."

"You spent the night twisted like a pretzel," Severus said. Even now, Harry was moving his head as if trying to loosen the muscles in his neck. Time was when he would have reached over to knead those aches away, but those days were long gone.

"But I slept," Harry said with a small smile.

Though it had felt like heaven to sleep straight through last night, Severus' conscience wouldn't allow him to do so at Harry's expense. "You cannot spend every night sitting upright on a couch."

"Then we'll move into the bedroom tonight," Harry said. The tension that claimed him must have shown on his face, for Harry continued with, "Oh, for . . . we'll wear pyjamas, all right? If it's that big a deal, I'll transfigure a cot next to your bed. I just have to be close enough to you for my magic to flow. We'll work it out. Please, don't . . . stress over this? Last night helped us both. Let's try it, okay? Please?"

His pride was insisting that he reject the offer out of hand. Only, what Harry had done for him last night felt like it had snatched him back from the brink of insanity. Though hardly normal, his mind was functioning much clearer this morning than it had in months. His body wasn't a collection of aches and throbs. He felt . . . transformed. How could he possibly turn down the offer of another nightmare-free night?

"I know it is weak," Severus said, "but . . . ."

"It's not weak," Harry denied. "It's sensible. We both need the rest. Now, do you feel up to some breakfast?"

To his complete surprise, he was starving. Giving a nod, Severus watched Harry, still unable to understand why he was here involving himself in his problems.

"Good," Harry said with a genuine grin. "Why don't you go take a shower while I ask Dobby to get us something to eat?"

Although the suggestion was lightly voiced, Severus could see how hard Harry was struggling to maintain the semblance of normality. No one knew better than he how close he was to snapping and losing the slippery grip he had on sanity. He wanted to let Harry know how much he appreciated the effort he was making here, but couldn't think of a way to do so without turning the scene into some maudlin horror that would embarrass them both.

Finding the tattered remains of his humour, Severus held those hopeful eyes and said in his driest tone, "You could just say I stink."

Harry's eyes widened and then he chuckled. "Okay, you stink. Go shower."

Amazed, Severus felt his own lips twitch. It was incredible what a single night's uninterrupted sleep could do for a person's outlook on life. Holding those laughing eyes, he said, "You needn't be so blunt. Don't you Gryffindors have even a vestige of diplomacy?"

"The reek killed it," Harry countered, barely getting the words out around his laughter. "Go on. Get in there and bathe."

Severus couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Harry laugh like this. The sound was oddly healing.

For the first time in forever, there wasn't even a shadow of strain between them. Things weren't normal by any stretch of the imagination, but there wasn't any hostility or contention tainting the air, only the reek of his unwashed body.

As he rose from the couch and headed to the bedroom to retrieve fresh undergarments and clothes, Severus couldn't help but wonder just what kind of magic Harry had used on him last night. He knew Harry hadn't violated his mind, but he felt so entirely transformed that he couldn't help but suspect that Harry had performed some kind of manipulation beyond simply providing him some much needed sleep. Twenty-four hours ago, he'd been convinced his world was ending. Minerva had all but told him she was going to pack him off to St. Mungo's. The situation with Harry had seemed hopeless. It felt like everything was crashing down on him. But now . . . .

The situation with Harry didn't seem quite so hopeless. That was the one, true difference, Severus recognized. There was no chance that they would ever be lovers again or regain the closeness they'd lost when he'd betrayed Harry's trust, but Harry really seemed to have forgiven him enough to be his friend. That unexpected boon was enough to lessen even the threat of St. Mungo's.

He was getting his shirt from the drawer when he heard a house elf's high-pitched voice ask, "Harry Potter called Dobby?"

"Hi, Dobby," Harry said in the cheerful, friendly tone he always used with the strange little creature. "Could you please prepare Professor Snape and me some breakfast?"

"Is Harry Potter staying with Professor Snape again?" Dobby asked, his curious voice carrying through the open door.

Severus froze, his breathing even seeming to still as he awaited Harry's response. He knew Harry wouldn't berate the elf for its impudence in asking such a personal question, but he fully expected Harry to put the elf straight.

The pause before Harry answered seemed to last an eternity, then Harry's soft voice drifted in with an unperturbed sounding, "Yes. You will bring us some of that marmalade Professor Snape likes so much, won't you?"

His world mightn't be crashing in on him this morning, but Harry's words really made him feel as if someone had tugged the ground out from under him.

Severus caught hold of the dresser as he swayed and took deep breaths. His eyes were stinging and he felt like he might break down at any moment, but . . . for the first time in months, it wasn't misery causing that reaction.

Finally getting a hold of himself, he extracted a crisp white shirt from a drawer full of identical garments, eased the drawer closed, and slipped from the bedroom into the nearby bathroom unnoticed as Harry conversed with the house elf.

After the events of January, he'd thought he'd never feel good again, but at the moment, he felt . . . almost blessed. He had no idea what he'd done to deserve this boon, but it certainly beat yesterday's utter desolation hands down.

*~*~*

"Do you have a minute?" Harry asked, sticking his head in Minerva's office door after she'd responded to his knock.

The spring morning seemed to be reflecting the change in his life, Harry thought as he took in the bright sunlight streaming down behind Minerva's desk. Last night's storm had passed, and winter was finally beginning to loosen its hold on the world.

"Of course, Harry. Come in," Minerva said, putting aside whatever she'd been writing.

Harry entered the Headmistress' office, giving a smile and "Hi," to Professor Dumbledore's waving portrait as he took a seat before her desk.

"What can I do for you?" she asked.

Harry met her pale blue eyes and decided not to waste time with small talk. "Severus told me that you want to commit him to St. Mungo's."

She didn't seem surprised by the topic. Taking a deep breath, she said, "You can't pretend to tell me that you think he's improving. He's had six shouting matches with students this week. And I think you must have heard about the entire fourth year Gryffindor class getting a month's detention."

"Minerva, he's had shouting matches with students for years. We used to have them on a daily basis."

"Yes, but these incidents are different. He isn't stable. He's -"

"He's been through hell," Harry cut her off. "You know what Burke did to him. Teaching is the only thing holding him together right now."

"Harry, I have to think of the students' well-being. He isn't behaving rationally right now. He isn't even managing his hygiene. I've had three teachers in here complaining about the state he's in and dozens of students complaining about how abusive he's become. I can't continue to ignore this. I've been hoping since he returned to work that he would pull himself together, but that hasn't happened. A stay in St. Mungo's . . . ."

"Will only finish what Burke started," Harry said. "You know he wouldn't last a week there. I appreciate your concerns, but I'm asking you as a personal favour to please not do this to him."

"Do you think I want to? I've known the man thirty years. But I can't ignore what's happening to him," Minerva said.

"I know. I realize that Severus has been incredibly stressed lately, but he slept for the first time in months last night. I can't say that he's cured or perfect, but he's better than he was yesterday. I think the tide is finally turning for him. If you could give him another chance . . . ?"

She seemed to study him for a long moment. "You're saying he's better than yesterday?"

Harry held her gaze and nodded. "He slept the night through, ate both breakfast and lunch, and showered this morning."

"And you feel this is some kind of turning point?"

Harry couldn't blame her for the scepticism she couldn't quite hide. Severus had scared him last night. Doubtless, he'd had the same effect on Minerva earlier yesterday. Nevertheless, he held her gaze and said, "Yes. I'm willing to take responsibility for him. If you'd just give him a week -"

"What kind of healing can take place in a week?" Minerva asked. Harry's hopes plummeted, but her subsequent words shocked the hell out of him. "No. I'll give him another month. If he hasn't shown a marked improvement by then, I'm going to have to insist that he seek professional help for his own sake, as well as that of his students."

Stunned by her generosity, he stumbled for words, "Thank you, Minerva. I hardly know what to say."

"He's my friend, too, Harry. I pray you're right. It's painful seeing him this way," she said.

Harry nodded. "I know, but . . . he's the strongest person I know, Minerva. He'll get through this."

Her smile was bright as the spring sun shining through the window at her back. "I think you just may be right about that." Her blue eyes roved over his face before she commented, "You're looking markedly better yourself, if you don't mind my saying."

Harry grinned. "Thanks. I feel better. I'll, er, let you get back to your paperwork."

"I'll see you at dinner," she said as he rose to his feet.

Back in the corridor, he abruptly felt at loose ends. He knew he could go up to Gryffindor tower and hang out with Hermione and Ron for the rest of the afternoon, but everything in him was pulling him towards the dungeons.

The change last night's sleep had wrought on Severus was nothing short of miraculous. A part of him was afraid if he left Severus alone too long, he'd suffer a relapse. But more than that crazy fear was motivating his urge to see Severus. He really wanted to simply spend time with the man. Hoping he wasn't going to try Severus' nerves, he headed for the Slytherin end of the castle.

His knock was answered after a short pause. Harry could read Severus' surprise as he opened the door.

"Er, hi," Harry nervously greeted, trying not to let his eyes feast too long on the sight of the clean, rested man before him. There were still dark bags beneath Severus' eyes, but they didn't look nearly as sore as they had the past few months.

"Hello," Severus responded, seeming confused rather than annoyed at his interruption. "Did you leave something behind?"

Harry shook his head. "I, um, wanted to . . . I mean . . . . Could I come in, please?"

Yesterday, his request would have met with automatic refusal, but this afternoon, Severus opened the door wider and stepped wordlessly aside to allow him entry.

Stepping into Severus' familiar sitting room, he couldn't help but note the towering piles of parchments covering the breadth of the long coffee table between the couch and hearth. They hadn't been there when he'd left this morning. "What's all this?"

A chagrined expression crossed Severus' face. "Three weeks worth of ungraded homework. I . . . hadn't realized how much had accumulated. It's little wonder Minerva was so alarmed yesterday."

"Speaking of Minerva, I just had a chat with her," Harry said. Feeling the tension in the room increase tenfold, he quickly continued, "She's agreed to give us another month before revisiting the St. Mungo's issue."

"A month?" Severus appeared stunned.

"She doesn't want you gone, Severus. She wants you better. We all do."

Severus' gaze dropped. "I . . . must have made quite a spectacle of myself these last few weeks to have inspired so much concern."

Harry didn't know how to answer that. He wanted to refute the 'spectacle' suggestion, but he hadn't lied to Severus yet. "No one could be expected to bounce back as if nothing happened after what you went through in January. You survived something that would have killed anyone else. Just because you can't pretend that it didn't happen doesn't make you weak."

Those dark eyes rose to meet his gaze. "I . . . feel worse than weak. I feel . . . shattered."

Severus' uneasiness at having voiced that was palpable.

Harry could hardly believe Severus had managed to be that open about what he was experiencing. Recognizing the honour that had just been paid him, he moved closer. Laying his hand on Severus' tense arm, he said, "Of course, you feel that way. You were an inch from death. Who wouldn't feel broken after what you went through? But you got through what Burke did to you, and you're going to get through this."

There was no missing Severus' complete disbelief.

Stepping closer, Harry gave Severus' back a gentle nudge, inviting him into his arms.

Severus resisted for a moment. Harry could see the internal war raging behind those troubled eyes. Their gazes held, and then Severus seemed to collapse into his embrace, clinging to him as if for dear life.

Realizing that this simple hug could be that momentous an event in this haunted man's reality, Harry pressed closer and let his hand rub over the warm brocade jacket covering Severus' back. After a long time of simply hugging Severus, he whispered, "I know you must feel like everything is falling apart right now, but I promise you, that's not going to happen. We're going to get through this."

Severus lifted his face from where it was squashed in the hollow of Harry's neck far enough to look down at him and softly question, "We?"

"You're not alone. We'll do it together," Harry promised. He couldn't help but remember the last promise he'd made to Severus, that he wouldn't let anyone hurt Severus. He'd failed miserably at keeping that promise, but as this one was solely dependent upon his own actions, he felt more sanguine about keeping it.

Harry expected to see doubt or suspicion in Severus' face. He knew how hard it was for Severus to trust under the best of circumstances. But Severus seemed more bewildered than sceptical as he said, "I don't understand why you don't hate me for what I did to you that night on the quidditch pitch."

Harry felt his muscles tense as Severus brought up that explosive issue again. Sensing that Severus wasn't going to be able to relax until he had an explanation, he softly offered, "Love doesn't disappear just because people mess up."

"Love . . . ?" Severus appeared pole axed.

Harry had hoped to avoid this issue completely until Severus was on more stable emotional footing. He hadn't wanted to introduce anything into their fragile relationship that could worry or threaten Severus. It didn't take a genius to know that a man who'd been brutally raped mightn't be comfortable hearing that another man had feelings for him.

Only, Severus wasn't looking scared or threatened. Taking heart from that, Harry answered, "Yeah, I, er . . . still feel that way about you." Knowing that he probably shouldn't have said that while Severus was still so messed up, he quickly added in a rushed tone, "You don't have to worry. I know you're . . . not up to doing the things we used to do, and . . . I understand that you might never be. I just . . . care. I'd never force you or -"

"Harry," Severus interrupted his panicked rush.

Something in Severus' tone and expression stopped his babbling. Not sure what Severus was feeling, Harry responded with a nervous, "Yes?"

It seemed to take Severus a moment to phrase his thoughts. When he spoke, it was in that careful tone with which Severus used to voice his responses to Harry's own avowals when they'd been lovers. "While Burke might have destroyed my . . . belief in my own character, there was nothing he could do to shake my belief in yours. And he did try."

Reading truth in those totally unnerved eyes, something seemed to break inside Harry. Shaking all over, he mumbled, "God, Severus," and wrapped his arms back around him.

They were both shaking. The closeness seemed to help, though. This felt like what they'd been needing all along. After a time, the trembling stopped.

Harry didn't try to hold on when Severus retreated from the hug, for all that he didn't want to let him go.

They stared awkwardly at each other, neither one of them seeming to know what to say.

Finally, Severus broke the silence with, "I need to start grading all that homework."

Harry looked at the daunting mounds of work. "Can I help?"

He interrupted Severus' automatic, "You needn't -" with a cheery, "Come on. Two pairs of eyes will get through this twice as fast."

To Harry's intense relief, Severus gave a nervous nod. Side by side, they moved to the couch to begin the daunting task.

*~*~*

Harry Potter still loved him.

That was all Severus could think about as he followed the handsome young man at his side back to his couch.

The part of him that had never been able to believe himself worthy of any form of regard was struggling to refute what Harry had just said to him. Even if Burke hadn't mucked with his mind, he knew what he was. He knew that people only used him. But . . . Harry never had, not once, ever. While his nature demanded that he suspect the worst of anyone who involved themselves with him, he simply couldn't in Harry's case. Every bit of empirical evidence denied the possibility that Harry was helping him for any nefarious purpose. In every instance where Harry could have taken advantage of him, he hadn't.

If he needed any proof, he need only remember last night.

Severus knew he'd sunk to his lowest levels yesterday. He'd never felt as completely hopeless as he had standing on that freezing lakeshore, contemplating his grim future.

It had honestly seemed as if there had been nothing left to him. He knew if he were sent to St. Mungo's, that it would be the end of him. Minerva would have to find a replacement for him, and, once the new teacher was installed, what chance would he ever have of reclaiming his position? Were he any other Potions master, it might have been possible for him to secure a new position once - if - he recovered from his breakdown. However, former Death Eaters weren't exactly in high demand in any profession these days, and after October's public accusation of being a child molester, there was utterly no chance of him finding another teaching position.

His prospects had seemed as cold and uncaring as the sleet and wind ripping at him. There was no way he could fix these problems. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't eat. He was utterly ruined. There was nothing left for him but St. Mungo's and a slow, humiliating end. That was the only future he'd been able to see as he'd stood there in that savage weather. Then, at the darkest moment, when the icy water roiling in front of him had seemed his only true salvation, Harry Potter had appeared out of that brutal storm

With the state he was in, Harry could have done anything to him, but all the man had done was fish him out of that raging storm and use his magic to guarantee him the first decent night's rest he'd had in months. And today . . . Harry had spoken to Minerva and convinced her to give him another chance. In his whole life, no one had ever gone to bat for him like that, especially at a time when he himself was so uncertain of his ability to function. Severus knew he wouldn't have been able to promise Minerva that he'd be better in a month, but somehow, Harry had enough faith in him to do so.

And Harry had said he still loved him. Of everything that had happened since he'd rescued him last night, that was the most extraordinary event. He didn't understand how Harry could have forgiven what he'd done to him. Severus had felt that kind of betrayal and knew how deep it went. But, somehow, Harry had found his way through his disappointment to be here for him.

Severus knew he shouldn't accept this kindness. His pride was demanding that he send Harry away. Nothing had changed. Harry still knew what he'd done in school, what he'd been. Everything that had made him break it off with Potter in January was still true. Only . . . the sin he'd committed against Harry the night he'd manipulated Harry's mind weighed heavier on his soul than Harry knowing about his childhood indiscretions. What he'd done to Harry was insane and unforgivable. It was absolute proof that he was not in his right mind. That terrible wrong he'd committed had been eating at his conscience these last few weeks like acid, haunting him as much as Burke's tortures, weighing heavier than some of the things he'd done as a Death Eater before he'd come to his senses and joined Albus.

That Harry could care enough to help him after that kind of transgression was as astonishing as the fact that Harry had ever been interested in him at all. And, pride notwithstanding, Severus had never needed help more than he did right now. The sleep Harry's magic had given him last night was the greatest healing he'd ever experienced. He knew he wasn't cured or anywhere near normal, but his mind was clearer and his mood . . . well, for the first time in months he didn't feel like flinging himself off the Astronomy Tower or into the frozen lake. Harry had done that for him.

"Severus?"

Severus started as he realized that wasn't the first time Harry had called his name. "Yes?"

"Can you make me an answer key for each of these?" Harry pointed at the towering mounds of unmarked homework on the table in front of them. "That way we won't have to stop every half hour for you to make one up for me."

Severus nodded. Reaching for the nearest pile, he pulled out the most gifted student's homework, corrected the few points that needed fixing, and placed it on top of the pile for Harry to use.

The next half hour was spent doing the same for the rest. Just going through the papers, Severus was nearly cowed by the sheer volume. Seven classes a day, fifteen days of unmarked homework . . . there were literally hundreds of parchments that needed grading.

The trials of the last few months must have left him disgracefully transparent, for Harry softly promised, "We'll get through it."

"I'm sure this is how you enjoy spending your Saturday afternoons," Severus remarked, his guilt biting at him. He was the one who'd ignored his responsibilities this last month. Harry shouldn't be slugging through this mess he'd created.

Harry gave him a sheepish smile and answered in a self-conscious sounding tone, "Actually, I think I'd enjoy chopping toad hearts if it meant we could sit here together like this."

The scathing comment that sprang to his lips died there unvoiced as he read the truth in Harry's eyes. He might be insane, but even when completely unhinged, he knew how rare and undeserved this gift was. He would not make light of it.

Recalling how . . . abusive he'd been towards Harry since January, he realized how completely unfair this entire situation had been to Harry. All Harry had ever tried to do was love him and make things better for him, and he'd done nothing but punish the man. There wasn't anything he could do to make up for his past transgressions, but . . . insane though he might be, he could try to be less antagonistic in the future.

Harry obviously knew him well enough to have been braced for whatever he'd been about to say. When Severus made no caustic response to his admission of wanting to spend time with him, the tension left Harry's face, something very gentle taking its place.

"Here, you start with this pile," Harry said, passing him the nearest mound of homework. "I'll do this one."

Settling down to the task at hand, Severus began to work his way through the papers.

One problem that came from teaching the same subject for more than thirty years was the fact that he knew the topics so well that there were rarely any problems when it came to grading tests and homework. Normally, his familiarity with the subject was a plus, for it allowed him to get through his work faster than most of the other teachers did. But the more familiar a topic was, the harder it was to hold one's interest. Last night was the first true rest he'd had in weeks. His body and mind were still bone weary. Before Severus knew it, he found himself fighting to keep his eyes open as he marked the fifth years' work.

Despite his best effort, his heavy eyelids kept sinking shut as the words on the page blurred together. He forced them open several times, but finally his lids felt too heavy to lift. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to keep them closed for just a few moments . . . .

Severus started awake an unknown time later. The first thing he noticed was that his papers were no longer in his hands and that he was flat on his back on the couch. Turning on his side to get a better look at his surroundings, he saw Harry Potter sitting on the rug in front of the couch reading a Muggle thriller.

Seeming to sense the observation, Harry looked over and smiled. "Hello, there. How are you feeling?"

"How long have I been asleep?"

"About six hours," Harry answered.

Six hours? Recalling the chore that would have required him to be working on grading homework all day both Saturday and Sunday to complete the task by Monday, he bolted up on the couch. "The homework -"

"Is done," Harry assured.

"Done? You got through that pile alone in six hours?" Severus knew Harry wasn't that fast. For all that he might be the mightiest wizard the world had seen, academics were not Harry's strong suit.

"Well, not by myself. Hermione and Ron helped."

"What? They were here?" Severus couldn't believe that he'd been so out of it that he would have slept through the Weasleys crossing his wards.

"No, I firecalled them," Harry said.

Swinging his legs over the side of the couch, Severus struggled to get some perspective on the situation. His resolve to be less contentious was fading fast. Everything inside him wanted to explode at the idea of Harry advertising how negligent he'd been by requesting help. When he thought he could speak without screaming, he tightly said, "It wasn't . . . appropriate for you to inflict this upon the Weasleys. It's bad enough that you're helping me without everyone -"

"Severus," Harry cut into his rising diatribe. "It wasn't everyone. Just Hermione and Ron. They care about you, too. This was something they could do to make your life a little easier. I told them when I asked that they could say 'no' if they'd rather not. They really wanted to."

"Nevertheless, you shouldn't have -"

"Please, let it go? The papers are graded. You got some more sleep, and you have all of tomorrow to rest without this burden hanging over your head."

"It was my responsibility. I was the one who was derelict in my duties."

Harry's expression hardened. "You weren't derelict in anything. You're recovering from tortures that would have killed most people. For God's sake, stop being so hard on yourself. I know how proud you are, how difficult it is for you to let anyone do anything for you, but this really isn't a big deal."

"I might be insane, but I refuse to be an object of either pity or charity," Severus insisted.

"Oh, for . . . you're not insane. And it wasn't pity or charity, okay? Whether you like it or not, you're part of our family now. Families help each other. That's what they do."

Staring into those impassioned eyes, Severus felt completely out of his depth. He knew as little about families as he did of love. Finally, he said, "I gave up that right when I violated your trust."

"Who says?"

"None of you spoke to me for more than a month. That's a fairly clear indication that a situation has changed," Severus said.

"We were angry at you, with reason. But that was last month. That's in the past now."

Harry meant it. Severus could see from his exasperated expression how tired he was of the subject.

"Look, if either Hermione or Ron were badly hurt and needed help grading homework, you'd do it for them, wouldn't you?" Harry asked into the silence a short time later.

"Ron isn't a teacher."

"That's not the point. Just answer the question. If you could help either of them with a couple of hours' easy work, would you do it?"

Remembering all the times the Weasleys had visited him in infirmary, he gave a reluctant nod.

"Then why can't you accept that they feel the same way? We've been watching you suffer for months now, unable to do a thing to help you. This was something we could do, and it wasn't any great effort, so, please . . . don't be angry about it. Please?"

He'd never had any resistance to that beseeching expression. Taking a deep breath, Severus slowly nodded again. Realizing how . . . ungrateful his reaction had been, he softly offered. "I do . . . appreciate what you and your friends have done for me -"

"Our friends," Harry corrected. "And there's no need for appreciation. This isn't about debts and owing people. So, please try not to worry over it, okay?"

Severus didn't know how to accept this. Harry was acting as if what he and the Weasleys had done was of small importance, but he'd never had anyone do anything like this for him in his whole life, especially not people he'd disappointed so bitterly. How Harry and the Weasleys could still care about him was a complete mystery, but, faced with the solid evidence of their continued support, he could no longer doubt it.

Something in him needed to point out his unworthiness, but . . . Harry knew what he was, and was still here. Overwhelmed by it all, he just stared at the incredible man sitting at his feet.

"Are you hungry?" Harry asked when the silence started to stretch. "Dobby said he'd bring us dinner when you were ready. Should I call him?"

Realizing how ravenous he was, Severus gave a soft, "Yes."

Three hours later, Severus found himself yawning over the Potions journal he was reading, struggling to keep his eyes open.

"Are you about ready for bed?" Harry asked from the other armchair.

"Bed? I've only been up three hours."

"You've got a lot of missed sleep to catch up on," Harry said in his usual easygoing tone. "I'm knackered myself."

Remembering that Harry was the one who'd stayed awake and graded that intimidating mountain of work, Severus could well understand why the man would be tired.

"Nine p.m. could be considered late, if one were a toddler," Severus said, trying for something like normality.

"Well, let's toddle off to bed, then, shall we?" Harry responded with a smile.

It felt almost like old times as Harry and he rose from their chairs and moved towards the bedroom. Harry extinguished the wall sconces with a thought and lit the ones in the bedroom the same way when they stepped through the door. As he watched the fire in the hearth spark to life as well, Severus was surprised by how much he'd missed these little indications of Harry's tremendous power.

Harry seemed to stop dead in his tracks at the sight of the bed. "Er . . . ."

Severus recognized that he clearly wasn't operating at anywhere near full mental capacity yet, for he was genuinely confused by Harry's reaction. "What is it?"

"Do you want me to, um, transfigure a cot near the bed?" Harry asked with visible self-consciousness.

It was obvious that Harry was completely willing to humour him.

Severus debated the offer. The rest he'd achieved last night had done wonders for him, but he wasn't up to sex. Not that he was even sure Harry was suggesting they re-establish such intimacy. Harry had said he still loved him, but there had been nothing threatening in that statement. In fact, Harry had gone out of his way to assure him he wouldn't pressure him for things he wasn't able to give.

He knew that he'd hurt Harry deeply if he said 'yes' to the cot suggestion. He didn't want to do that. But, by the same token, he didn't want to give him any wrong ideas.

The whole situation suddenly felt frighteningly complex.

"Hey," Harry's soft voice called his attention from his incipient funk. "I'm okay with the cot idea, Severus."

He knew it would be less complicated if they were in separate beds. It would feel the same as it had when he was in infirmary. Only . . . he'd been out of hospital for nearly two months now.

Finding his nerve, Severus softly countered, "I'm not."

"You're not what?" Harry asked, visibly confused.

"Okay with the cot idea, as you put it. I'm not . . . I can't allow fear to rule me."

"True enough," Harry answered. "But there's no reason to cause yourself undue distress. This is a small thing. We don't have to stress over it. I'll just transfigure a -"

"No," Severus said. "Last night, you asked me if I trusted you. My answer hasn't changed since then."

"This isn't about trust," Harry said. "You were hurt and you have a right to take whatever measures are necessary to feel comfortable."

"Whether you sleep on a cot across the room or on the other side of the continent, the issue is still going to be there. Coddling these fears isn't going to help either of us."

"It's not coddling," Harry protested.

"No, it's . . . worse than that," Severus said. Searching the tumultuous mess that was his heart and mind at the moment, he tried to explain, "It's . . . giving him power over me for the rest of my life."

"I guess I don't have to ask which 'him' you're referring to." Harry's hesitation to even speak Burke's name for fear of what it would do to him was palpable. "But sleeping in separate beds until you feel better isn't giving him power over you. It's just giving yourself time to heal."

"I beg to differ," Severus said. He didn't know why he was pushing this. All he knew was that he was tired of living under this crushing weight. After what he'd endured, it mightn't make any sense, but having Harry near . . . helped. From the instant he'd opened his eyes in infirmary, he'd always felt better when Harry was present. It was his own insistence on pushing Harry away that had brought him to the straits he'd been in last night, he realized.

"Severus . . . ."

He interrupted whatever Harry was about to say with something he felt he had to voice, before he lost the nerve. "I . . . am not who I was. I don't know what's left of me, but there are some things I do know. Burke was a monster who . . . committed unspeakable acts upon my person. You are the man who killed that demon and healed the wounds he left on my body. There is no way I could mistake you for him. Now you are trying to heal the wounds on my soul. I don't know how you can still care, but somehow you do, and . . . that matters."

He'd never felt so vulnerable in his life as he did at this moment.

He could see how deeply his words had affected Harry. For a moment, it seemed Harry couldn't find his voice. Then he rasped out, "You don't have to -"

"Yes, I do. For the last three months, you have endured . . . extreme emotional distress because of what Burke did to me. That stops tonight. I might be insane. I might never get back what was taken from me, but . . . I don't have to hurt you."

A strange brightness flashed through Harry's eyes as he protested, "Sleeping on a cot for a while won't hurt me."

"Won't it? Is that where you would prefer to sleep?" Severus challenged. He'd never been in a relationship where he felt confident enough to make that kind of demand. In the past, his lovers had always tired of him first and moved on. The insecure portion of his nature that Burke had capitalized upon was whispering that Harry might prefer to bunk on a cot rather than be so close to him, but everything Harry had done for him over the last few weeks indicated that he still had deep feelings for him.

Harry's innate honesty wouldn't allow him to dissemble. After a long pause, in which Severus could nearly feel Harry's shock, he said, "That's not the point. This isn't about what I want. This is about what we need to do for you to feel better."

Love . . . this was love. Even an insane lunatic such as he could recognize that fact.

Holding that concerned gaze, Severus gulped around the lump choking his throat and said, "We have done things my way for the last three months. It has brought me to the brink of destruction. I . . . want to try it your way." Sensing Harry's resolve weakening, Severus reminded, "We can always transfigure a cot later if things don't go well."

"All right," Harry finally conceded. "If you're certain that's what you want."

"It is." Aware that he would probably be sitting in a high level security hospital cell in St. Mungo's right now were it not for this man's intervention, he added a soft, "Thank you."

That incomprehensible gentleness was back in Harry's eyes as he said, "Nothing to thank me for. Do you want the loo first?"

On that blessed note of normality, Severus nodded and fled to the bathroom.

He was nervous as a first year late on his first day of class when he stepped out of the lavatory in his nightshirt a short time later. The tension in his gut let up when he saw that Harry was wearing his blue pyjamas as he sat on his usual side of the bed reading his thriller.

Harry looked up from his book as he entered the room and smiled at him. "Hi. I'll take my turn now."

It was all so wonderfully ordinary and unthreatening that Severus couldn't muster up any alarm when Harry passed close to him on his way to the loo.

Climbing onto the bed, Severus lay down on his back under the duvet and waited for Harry to return.

Harry was back a few minutes later, easing into the bed beside him as if he expected the mattress to explode.

Harry's nervousness helped lessen his own anxieties somehow.

As Harry settled down in the bed beside him, it felt almost comforting. Harry's familiar scent and warmth were certainly reassuring. Severus couldn't believe how good it felt to simply feel Harry's heat. For the first time in months, his bed didn't feel like an arctic wasteland.

Not that it felt the way it used to by any stretch of the imagination, Severus could almost touch the worry emanating from the other side of the bed.

When nothing untoward occurred, Harry released a shaky breath after a few minutes and gave a nervous chuckle as he turned on his side to face him across the white expanse of his pillow. "I keep waiting for something to explode."

Too shaky to even pretend at superiority, Severus nodded. "Me, too."

"I think we're going to be all right. Are you okay with this?"

Thinking that he was comfortable for the first time since Harry and he had parted outside the infirmary when he was released, Severus gave another nod.

"Good. I'll turn out the wall sconces and leave the fire going, okay? Or we can leave them all on if you feel more comfortable that way." Harry offered.

Harry had used his wordless, wandless magic to douse the wall sconces every night that he'd slept here, but Severus appreciated that he gave him the opportunity to ask that the lights be left on.

"The hearth fire should suffice," Severus answered.

The wall sconces were doused immediately, leaving only the flickering flames by which they used to make love.

"Good night, then," Harry said.

Closing his eyes on the firelight and all the memories it inspired, Severus answered, "Good night."

He felt Harry's magic embrace him. It wasn't the same wild, passionate exchange that they'd had when making love, but its warmth and potency soothed him with their inherent protectiveness.

Daring to hope that things might actually be turning around for him, Severus allowed sleep to claim him as he floated safe in Harry Potter's magic.

*~*~*

The torchlight glistened on the blood coating the corpse shackled to the rack. The word 'corpse' was perhaps too generous a definition. The grisly remains before him looked more like pulp than flesh. His tongue had sampled every inch of that body, but now, the mere sight of it made the contents of his stomach lurch.

Too late, always too late. Severus . . . .

"Potter . . . Harry!"

The horrible vision in front of him shook as . . . well, as he shook. As the nightmare faded, Harry's eyes snapped open to stare around the dark room in complete confusion. Where? What?

There was still some light coming from the dying gold embers in the hearth. By its feeble illumination, he could just make out Severus' familiar, strong features. It was Severus who was shaking him, he belatedly realized.

His entire body sagged with relief as he reached out to grip his companion's nightshirt-covered arms. "Severus?"

Alive. Severus was alive.

The external shaking stopped.

It was hard to judge expression in the low light, but much of the tension seemed to leave Severus' face as he asked, "Are you all right?"

"God, I should be asking you that," Harry said. He was here to ensure that Severus got the sleep he needed to recover. "I'm supposed to be keeping you from having nightmares, not waking you with mine."

"It's of no matter. Are you all right?" Severus repeated.

As he took stock of himself, Harry realized that Severus had reason to be concerned. He was soaked to the skin with perspiration and shaking from the cold, even though he was under the heavy duvet. There was an embarrassing trail of hot tears running down his cheeks that he knew had to be visible even in the poor light.

"I'm okay. Sorry I woke you," Harry said, releasing Severus and settling back against the soaked sheets. Chagrined by how slimy they felt, he performed a silent drying spell on himself and the bedclothes.

He could feel Severus watching him out of the darkness. Turning, he met that ink-black gaze across the pillow.

Severus was lying on his side, facing him. They weren't touching, but were close to do so if necessary. The setup was oddly familiar and pulled at Harry's heartstrings.

"Was it one of Voldemort's nightmares?" Severus questioned.

Harry thought that of all the things he missed about being close to Severus, this was the one that topped the list. Most people would probably have picked the sex, for they'd had a fantastic sex life, but, hokey as it might be, he missed having someone there in the night when he woke in a panic. There was just something so calming about that deep voice that the mere sound of it soothed away his anxieties.

That Severus could reach out of himself to ask meant a lot to him. The week he'd spent bunking in with Severus had done wonders for the man, but his friend was still far from normal.

Taking a deep breath to try to calm his racing heart, Harry gave a negative shake of his head. "No. It was the new one again."

"The new one?"

Harry wasn't sure if he should even tell Severus. They were working so hard to get Severus past what had been done to him that he hated to refer to anything that brought up those dark memories. But Severus had asked, and that was something of a milestone in itself.

Holding Severus' gaze, he softly explained, "The one where I don't get to you in time."

He'd told Severus about the dream the night they'd met prowling the halls last month when they were still completely estranged, but there was no reason Severus should remember that.

"You dream about that regularly?" Severus surprised him by asking. His tone made it clear that he remembered that particular conversation.

Harry nodded. "Not as often as I used to have Voldemort's dreams, but they're fairly regular." Admitting that made him feel strangely exposed. Trying to lighten the mood, he joked, "I warned you I was mental."

Even in the dying firelight he could see the tension that claimed Severus' features. After a long pause, Severus said, "I . . . I'm sorry."

"Sorry? What have you to be sorry for?" Harry asked. "I'm the one who should be apologizing. It took me so damn long to find you -"

"You shouldn't have found me at all," Severus replied.

Harry hated it whenever Severus voiced the sentiment that he would have been better off dead. Trying to get a handle on the anger raised upon hearing Severus say that, he said, "I know what you went through was awful, but you're going to get better. I really wish you wouldn't say things like that."

"Like what?" Severus asked.

"Like I shouldn't have found you. That whole 'it would be better off for everyone if you'd died' line. It . . . really hurts me when you talk like that."

A couple of weeks ago, Severus would have voiced a 'tough luck' type of response, but tonight, he answered in a strained sounding tone, "I didn't mean it that way."

"What did you mean then? It's the same thing you've been saying for months." Harry glared across the pillow. There was nothing he hated more than being lied to. Severus didn't usually dissemble with him, but there wasn't a Slytherin born who didn't excel at the art of evasion.

"While I can understand where it might have sounded like that, I honestly didn't intend my comment in that vein. What I meant was that every Auror in Britain searched for Burke full time for nearly four months. You located him in two days. That was an extraordinary feat. His confounding and unplottable spells were the most intricate I've ever seen." Which was saying a lot, as Severus was a renowned expert in both. "I still don't understand how you did it."

Harry realized that this was the first time Severus had enquired about the details of his rescue. "I, um, didn't find Burke. I found you."

"I don't understand the distinction. I was a prisoner in his keep. I should have been as untraceable as he," Severus said. Although his voice was as carefully controlled as usual, Harry could read how tense Severus had become at this topic. Before, Severus had been lying on his side, relaxed. Now, although, his position hadn't changed, Severus appeared stiff as a corpse.

"You would have been – to anyone else," Harry explained.

"So it was the greater strength of your powers that allowed you to circumvent his spells?"

"Only his security wards. It was actually Hermione who came up with the idea that allowed me to locate you. It wasn't something I would have thought of on my own."

It abruptly occurred to him that Severus mightn't be comfortable hearing about the mental link that existed between them.

"You intrigue me," Severus said, watching him across the pillow. When Harry didn't say anything else, Severus asked, "Is there some reason you aren't telling me how you did it?"

"I, er, don't know if you're going to approve of my methods," Harry finally said.

Clearly, Severus was feeling much better, for instead of hounding him, he suggested in a nearly playful tone that Harry had never thought he'd hear again, "Are you about to tell me that you sacrificed a student to some dark power in exchange for my release? Granted, I haven't been myself of late, but I haven't noticed that any of the monsters have gone missing."

Harry chuckled at the outrageous suggestion. "No, I didn't make a human sacrifice. And you shouldn't sound so hopeful about it."

"Pity," Severus answered in that same long-missed tone. "So what did you do?"

"It, um, had to do with your helping me with Voldemort's nightmare curse. Hermione had read some ancient book about Legilimency and Occlumency which proposed that when wizards use those powers on each other over the long-term, that a . . . subconscious link is formed between their minds. It appears we have one."

"A mental link?" Severus' tone revealed that he was fully as unnerved as Harry had feared he would be.

"It's not conscious," Harry swiftly assured. "Even when I was actively searching for it, I could barely find it. It was like a fine thread of power leading from you to me. I just followed it to its source. I can't even feel it now. Can you?"

Severus closed his eyes. After a long moment of silence, he reopened them and gave a negative shake of his head.

"I know you're not comfortable with any form of mental contact," Harry said, barely able to believe how nervous he felt. It would be just his luck that this link would make Severus shut him out again. "How freaked out are you by it?"

"With this link, would I even know if you were monitoring my thoughts?" Severus asked.

"I . . . honestly don't know. I've never felt like I'm . . . reading what you're thinking. Like, right now, I haven't got a clue how you're feeling about any of this. Have you ever . . . felt like you were unintentionally reading my thoughts?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head.

"Then maybe it isn't something we have to worry about?" Harry hopefully suggested.

The mentally unstable man he'd been dealing with for the last few months would have blasted him for what he knew to be a pathetically transparent effort to minimize the importance of this disturbing development. But tonight Severus simply watched him in silence for a nerve-wrackingly long period before saying, "As I am the one who suggested and initiated the mental contact, the fault is mine."

"I don't think it's a question of fault," Harry protested.

"Are you telling me that you are . . . comfortable knowing that I might have open access to your mind after what I did to you?" Severus demanded with the first trace of asperity he'd shown since Harry's nightmare had awoken them.

"Why do you have to keep bringing that up?" Harry all but whined.

Severus seemed to take extreme care in choosing his words as he slowly replied, "Because it was an unforgivable transgression that will always be between us. No matter what, it will never go away."

Severus really felt that way. Harry could tell by his tone how deeply it still upset him.

What Severus had done that night had angered him, but a month's distance had helped him get some perspective on the event. When he considered what could have happened had Severus really had evil intent, what Severus had actually done didn't seem quite as terrible. Not that he could excuse it, but . . . he knew how hard he'd been pushing that night and how fragile Severus had been. The situation had been rife for disaster, and he was hardly innocent.

Tired of the whole sorry mess, Harry sighed and said, "Do you really want it to go away?"

"What I want is hardly significant."

"In this case, what you want is the only thing that matters. If you really want it to go away, say you're sorry."

"What? You can't be serious," Severus said.

"I'm totally serious. If you're sorry you did it, then say so. You never have. I know it's been weighing on your mind, but you've never actually come out and said you're sorry you did it," Harry pointed out.

Severus stared at him as if he were as crazy as he often felt. After a tense pause, he said, "No one could forgive that kind of betrayal. How could I possibly apologize for what I did?"

"Just say the words," Harry answered. "But only say them if you mean them."

Severus' expression seemed to indicate that he feared he was being mocked, but he nonetheless soldiered on and haltingly offered, "Harry Potter, I am deeply sorry for the grievous offence I committed against your mind and heart the night I manipulated your memories."

It was more than he'd thought Severus could ever give him. Hearing the sincerity in that troubled tone, and seeing how, even now, Severus looked as though he were anticipating laughter, Harry quickly responded in turn with, "And I'm sorry I pushed you so hard that night. I'll forgive you if you forgive me."

"It can't be that easy," Severus protested.

"Yes, it can. Do you forgive me?"

"There is nothing to forgive. You were the victim."

"I disagree. You were at your wits' end and I pushed you over the edge. You snapped and did something you would never have done if I weren't pressuring you so hard. So, do you forgive me?"

Severus gave a slow nod.

"Fine. I forgive you. Can we get past this now?" Harry begged.

"How can you just let this go? Who could forgive something like that?" Severus questioned. From his attitude, it was obvious that forgiveness was as far outside his experience as someone loving him was.

It wasn't any big surprise to Harry. Everything Severus had ever said indicated that no one had ever given a damn about him.

"We were both out of our heads that night," Harry said. "We both made mistakes. We can spend the next year or decade angsting over it if we want to, but I don't see how that's going to help either of us. We need to heal, Severus. We can't do that if we're living in the past and blaming each other for things neither of us could help doing."

"But -"

"That sadistic bastard doesn't get to win," Harry interrupted before Severus could take on any more guilt. "You're not losing everything because of him. He told me himself that he messed with your head. For all we know, he could have brainwashed you to do something like that."

"As much as I'd like to place the blame on Burke, the idea was all mine," Severus said. "I . . . wasn't thinking clearly that night."

"Neither was I. But we're both doing better now, aren't we?" Harry asked, working hard to change the topic and mood.

"I . . . never thought I could feel anything like hope again," Severus offered in an uncertain voice. "It felt like a dementor had sucked all the life out of me."

Thinking that this was a real breakthrough, Harry softly commented, "You, um, never talk about what you went through. It might help to talk about it."

The sudden tension in the bed was almost a palpable entity.

He could feel Severus watching him, searching his features.

After a long pause, Severus asked, "What is there to say? You . . . saw what was done to me."

"You must have been very frightened," Harry said in that same quiet tone. He didn't know if Severus would respond to the opening. For that matter, he didn't know if Severus could respond.

"Even for a former Death Eater, it was . . . an illuminating experience."

Harry couldn't imagine how much it took for Severus to voice those words in the normal tone he'd just used. The tension in those stark features told him how tightly Severus was controlling himself.

"Illuminating isn't the word I'd use," Harry said. "I think if it had been me there, I would have been out of my mind with terror. I know I felt that way just looking for you, imagining what you must be going through. But . . . I never imagined anything as horrible as what he actually did."

"Burke was . . . quite inventive," Severus said in a low tone. "Even Voldemort could have learned a thing or two from him."

Reading everything Severus wasn't saying in those haunted features; Harry reached out to lay his hand on Severus' tense forearm. "I know you probably don't feel that way, but you're the bravest man I've ever met."

Severus' face scrunched in a distasteful expression. "Bravery had nothing to do with it. I assure you. Do not delude yourself. I . . . begged most cravenly."

Harry didn't even have to work to read how much that upset Severus. Carefully choosing his words, he answered, "What man wouldn't beg when tortured like that? That doesn't make you a coward; it makes you human. What I meant by brave was that you had the resiliency to hang on. Poppy told me what a miracle it was that there was any life left in you at all. The blood loss alone was staggering, not to mention the shock. You shouldn't have survived it, but somehow you did. And you've had the courage to put your life back together."

"I would hardly call my life 'together'. You are sleeping here to keep me from cracking up. I . . . will never regain what Burke stole from me."

The absolute despair in those words chilled his soul. This wasn't the first time Severus had said something like that, Harry realized, remembering a few other discussions where Severus had voiced a similar sentiment. Swallowing hard, Harry asked in the gentlest tone he could manage with his throat tied in this painful knot, "What is it you think he stole from you?"

"Aside from my dignity and self-respect?" Severus questioned. After a pause, he continued with, "I might have been able to manage, even without those. But he destroyed something that . . . I couldn't stand to lose."

"Torture shakes everyone's dignity and self-respect. I've had a little experience with it myself, Severus," Harry offered, remembering the night Voldemort had killed Cedric and tortured him with Cruciatus. He knew that, though terrible, those events hardly compared to the level of what had been done to Severus, but he remembered feeling exactly the same way afterward. "But they come back in time."

"The other won't. That's . . . ruined."

"What 'other'?" Harry questioned.

Severus' face abruptly became guarded, as if he'd thought better of his candour. "It's . . . not important. I shouldn't have run on as I did."

"Severus, please talk to me. I'm trying to understand what you're going through. I can't do that if you won't tell me what's bothering you. What could be more important than your dignity and self-respect?"

He could almost see Severus' honesty vying with his need for self-protection. After an extended pause, Severus vented a weary-sounding sigh and said, "I suppose speaking about it doesn't make any difference at this point. Not to sound melodramatic, but the day Burke . . . abducted me, I was probably the happiest I've ever been. You'd given me a gift that morning that I'd never imagined within my reach and . . . for the first time in memory, I was . . . optimistic about my future."

A gift? It took Harry nearly a full minute to figure out what Severus was referring to.

"You're talking about our plan for me to move down to the dungeon?" Harry asked, that knot in his throat extending down to his stomach. That was more important to Severus than the loss of his self-worth?

Severus gave a tight nod.

Stunned, Harry tried to find the right response, but he was so shocked by Severus' words that he could barely think. He'd always felt like he needed Severus more than Severus needed him. He knew Severus loved him, but it had never occurred to him that he could matter this much. Although it was probably the worst time for this kind of disclosure, the discovery turned his world upside down. His emotions were so overwhelmed by what Severus had just admitted that he could barely hold onto a coherent thought, let alone speak. Finally, he managed, "How is any of that 'ruined'? I'm here in the dungeon with you now. I . . . I've told you I still love you. I wasn't lying."

"I recognize that you still have . . . feelings for me. But I'm not the man I was before January. I'll never be that man again. What we had -"

"Is still there waiting for you," Harry interrupted before Severus could say something to choke the very life out of him. "You were almost killed. But you're healing now. Every day you're growing stronger."

"The worst of the damage wasn't physical," Severus objected, a cornered expression crossing his shadowed face.

"I know," Harry said in a soothing tone. "I know you've been going through hell these last few months. I also understand that you were hurt so badly that we might never be able to do everything we used to do, but . . . what we had was about more than just sex. When you're better -"

"What if I'm never 'better'? What if I can't ever . . . ."

The fear Severus had voiced was a very real possibility. Harry knew that. Some damage a man never recovered from.

Reaching out, Harry laid his hand on Severus' tense forearm. "Then you never can, and I'll still be here."

Harry didn't make the offer lightly. He knew what he was taking on here. He'd never been any good at seeing more than one person at a time. If he were with Severus, then he was with Severus – exclusively.

It was a lot to give up, even for love.

He could almost feel Severus' utter astonishment.

After a long silence, Severus softly questioned, "You . . . you would stay? Even without . . . ?"

Harry felt something like triumph that his declaration wasn't questioned or discarded out of hand. Severus clearly believed he'd meant what he'd said. If nothing else, the last few weeks seemed to have given Severus some faith in him.

Taking heart from that minor victory, Harry nodded.

"Why?" Severus didn't seem able to keep the word in.

Harry took a chance and reached up to stroke the sleep-rumpled hair back from Severus' face. To his intense relief, Severus didn't flinch or push his hand aside. His expression was wary, but no more so than usual.

"Because just being here with you like this is better than the best sex with someone else," Harry softly admitted. "I love you, not just what we used to do together."

The Severus he'd known his whole life would have voiced some scathing comment on how pathetic his sex life must have been to date, were what he said true. Harry braced himself for the put-down.

But when Severus spoke, his voice was rife with anxiety, not disdain. "But if I can't ever -"

He'd been believed! It was so monumental a development that Harry could barely process it.

"Ssssh," Harry soothed, pulling himself together and trying to get things back on a normal footing. "Let's not worry about any of that now, okay? Let's just try to get back to sleep, all right?"

Severus gave a slow nod. The movement jostled Harry's hand, which was still resting in his companion's dark hair. Thinking that its presence might be making Severus uncomfortable, he reluctantly withdrew his fingers from the thick warmth.

Severus caught his hand in a tight grip before he could pull completely back.

Harry could feel how Severus' entire body was shaking. "What is it?"

"I . . . ."

It was too much for him. Harry could see it in Severus' bewildered expression. But once again, Severus' courage was showing through. He wasn't balking.

Trying to meet it with his own, Harry asked a question he hadn't had the nerve to voice since Severus had left him standing confused on the stairs outside the infirmary in January, "May I hold you?"

Harry knew it might be too soon for this. He'd been so careful the last week to keep everything absolutely platonic and non-threatening. But every instinct he owned was insisting that Severus needed something solid to prove that he'd meant what he'd said.

The uncertainty that Severus couldn't mask told him that Severus was as aware as he was that accepting the offer would irreparably alter their fragile status quo. After a pensive moment, in which Harry fully anticipated a polite refusal, Severus shifted closer in the bed.

Harry opened his arms and Severus settled carefully against him. The hesitation with which Severus moved told him that his friend wasn't sure he was making the correct decision.

It felt like heaven as Severus' warmth and scent surrounded him. How he'd missed the closeness. As his arms slipped around that slim form, his whole body seemed to rejoice at the contact.

As Severus rested his head in its familiar position on his shoulder, Harry found a lot more sharp bones than he remembered. A little shifting fixed that. Before he knew it, Severus was cuddled around him.

Harry settled his hand on Severus' nightshirt covered back and began to rub in gentle circles. He could feel the tension slowly seeping out of that tight-held body, but Severus was still awake. After a few minutes of quiet savouring, Harry whispered, "I've missed this so much."

Severus' response was muffled by the pyjama top his face was resting against as he answered, "My . . . foolishness has hurt us both."

"It wasn't foolish," Harry quickly protested, a fierce protectiveness blazing through him. "No one could bounce back like nothing happened after what you went through. You need to be more patient with yourself."

"And, yet, it is your patience that has been tried the most by . . . my behaviour," Severus said. His arms tightened around Harry as he softly whispered, "I . . . truly regret all the hurt I've caused you."

Unable to help himself, Harry lowered his lips to the crown of Severus' head and pressed a kiss into the warm hair there. Lifting his lips, he answered, "You don't ever have to regret anything with me, okay? We're here together. That's all that matters. Let's not worry about the past anymore, okay?"

"And yet it is the past that has all but ruined me," Severus noted. "It's . . . with me all the time."

Appreciating the honesty, Harry gave Severus what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. "Is it with you right now?"

He could almost feel Severus evaluating himself.

After a long pause, Severus finally replied, "Not as much. It makes no sense after what was done to me, but . . . when you are close to me like this, the darkness isn't as overwhelming."

He wondered if Severus had any idea how much those words meant to him. That knot in his throat had gotten so tight, he could barely breathe around it. It took a while, but when he felt he had enough air that he could trust his voice to work without breaking, he said, "Then we'll have to make sure we stay close like this as often as possible."

"It . . . is not a burden?" Even now, after everything he'd said to Severus, Severus was still uncertain.

Harry wished he could get his hands on the people who had done this to Severus. While Burke could be blamed for their current crisis, he knew that the bastard had played off Severus' existing insecurities.

"You could never be a burden to me," Harry swore. "This week is the first time I've felt . . . better since January. Just know that . . . if you're in my arms or by my side, I'm happy, okay?"

Trust had always been hard for Severus, especially when it came to anything that concerned his desirability or capacity to inspire true affection. Harry could sense how Severus was struggling to find an answer. He fully expected Severus to make some comment that would question either his sanity or veracity, but whatever he'd done over these last two weeks to convince Severus of his sincerity, it was apparently enough to carry them through this.

Rather than scoffing at his ridiculously emotional admission, Severus responded with a low and shaky sounding, "I will try."

"That's all anyone can ask. Do you think you can get back to sleep now? I'll try not to wake us again before morning."

Severus nodded into his shoulder.

Reaching out with his magic, Harry formed the familiar channels between them that his nightmare had interrupted. In a surprisingly short time, Severus' breathing deepened to that of peaceful slumber.

His mind still whirling from what Severus had said, it was a long time before sleep claimed him.

*~*~*

Early May sunlight spilled through the windows in the Great Hall, creating a dazzling display of dancing dust motes while catching the highlights in everyone's hair and showcasing the grain of the highly polished oak tables. Spring had finally arrived. Everyone at Hogwarts had a touch of spring fever after the long, hard winter. This perfect, sunny Saturday was like a gift from the gods, following all the rain they'd had this week.

Harry smiled as he watched Severus finish off the last of his soup. This past month had done wonders for the man. While Severus would never be hefty, steady meals and rest had put back most of the flesh his ordeal had flensed from him. Looking at that strong-boned, sun-dappled face, he couldn't see a trace of the purple bags Severus had carried from January through April.

Hermione's voice interrupted his musings from his other side as she said, "Ron and I are going to Diagon Alley for dinner and a Muggle movie this afternoon. Would you two like to join us?"

Harry looked to Severus. He was surprised to see that Severus actually seemed to be considering the idea. After a moment, Severus gave a negative shake of his head and said in a voice that seemed genuinely disappointed, "Thank you for the invitation, but I have several potions brewing that will need supervision."

"Maybe next time, then," Hermione said. Looking over at her, Harry could see that she was as startled by Severus' reaction as he'd been. Seeing that she had his attention, she asked, "Harry?"

"Thanks, but I think I'll hang out here and get on Severus' nerves."

"He seems to have a natural propensity for it," Severus offered in the droll tone that Harry loved. For so long, it seemed Severus' depression had all but killed his sense of humour, but lately, that dry wit had been surfacing occasionally.

Once she'd stopped chuckling, Hermione said, "Well, we'll see you later then. Come on, Ron. We have to change."

Ron looked up from the cake he was finishing to give a glum, "We do?"

"Yes. Come along," Hermione ordered.

Harry watched as the Weasleys left, then turned to Severus to ask, "Do you really have potions brewing?"

He'd been with him all morning, and didn't remember Severus visiting the lab.

"I will by the time they get back."

Harry grinned at the very Slytherin response.

"Do you think I could persuade you to postpone the lab for a while?" Harry held his breath. Severus had been a lot better about socializing these last few weeks. They'd been to the Three Broomsticks a couple of times, but he could never be sure from one day to the next how Severus would respond to his overtures. Their interaction wasn't quite dating, but it was more than just two friends stopping in to a pub for a drink. What they'd been to each other was between them all the time. In deference to Severus, he'd tried to ignore it, tried to interact as platonically as possible, but he felt like iron filings trying to resist the pull of lodestone. There was something that drew him to this man. He couldn't tell if Severus felt it the same way. The whole thing was very confusing.

"What did you have in mind?" Severus asked.

"It's a beautiful day outside. I thought we might go for a walk, if you were up to it."

He knew Severus didn't care for bright sunshine at the best of times, so he was fairly sure he'd get a polite refusal. When they'd been sexually involved, Severus had often accompanied him out into the fresh air, but he knew that his lover had done so only to indulge him.

Severus' expression was the same as when he'd contemplated Hermione's invitation, so Harry was pretty sure he was going to get some version of the 'brewing potion' spiel.

To his complete surprise, Severus gave a nod and said, "All right."

"Brilliant!" Harry knew he sounded like a kid about to be let loose in Zonko's for the first time, but he couldn't hide his delight.

Side by side, they left the Great Hall.

The day was just as beautiful as the sunlight streaming through the windows had promised. Professor Dumbledore's rose garden was bursting with colour and scent as they passed through it. The grass was so green that the colour almost hurt the eyes, and, everywhere they looked was awash with wildflowers, bees, and butterflies as they made their way towards the Black Lake and Forbidden Forest.

There were students all over the place, some playing Muggle football, some soaring overhead on brooms, while many of the older ones were stretched out in the grass. The last group all separated with amusing speed as Professor Snape's dark figure came into sight. To Harry's relief, Severus didn't stop to hand out detentions, even though several of the couples they passed were so dishevelled that Harry himself would have felt compelled to say a thing or two about public snogging. But, since Severus refrained, he let it pass as well.

"It seems everyone had the same idea," Severus commented as yet another pair of guilty sixth years scurried up from under an oak tree, wild-eyed as startled rabbits.

Sensing that Severus wasn't enjoying the crowded grounds, Harry suggested, "Would you care to visit the section of the forest you charmed last fall? Do you think it's winter there now?"

"I don't know," Severus answered. "The charm was tied to the life cycle of the cicadas. I'm not sure what would have happened to the flora once the insects' cycle was complete. It would be interesting to see."

So, together, they headed for the woods.

Apparently, the dangers of the Forbidden Forest had scared off the students, for they finally seemed to have lost the noisy crowds of adolescents.

They were crossing the field behind Hagrid's hut, headed towards the trail that would bring them into the forest when Severus said in a low, careful tone, "I think we should discuss what's been happening at night lately."

Dread clenched Harry's stomach in a tight knot. He'd hoped that he'd have another week or two before Severus would tackle the subject, but, obviously, Severus was feeling much better these days. Taking a deep breath, he tried to answer in a normal tone as they strolled towards the woods, "I was wondering when you were going to bring it up."

"You haven't had to use your magic to stop my nightmares for nearly three weeks now, have you?" Severus questioned.

Harry gave a negative shake of his head as he softly answered, "No, you've been sleeping the night through on your own lately."

He knew he should be overjoyed about that. Severus was finally getting better. They should be celebrating the event. Instead, it made him feel as if he were living on borrowed time.

Severus' next words were, of course, the ones Harry had been fearing for weeks. "Perhaps it is time we dispensed with the monitoring?"

"I suppose you're right. You're doing much better." Harry tried to sound happy about it, but he could barely meet those dark eyes in his disappointment. If Severus were better, there would be no reason for him to stay down in the dungeons. They mightn't be having sex, but he didn't want to lose being so close to Severus.

"Thanks to you."

The softness in that deep voice brought Harry's gaze to that sun-bathed, strong-boned face. They had stopped at the edge of the woods. Severus was looking right at him. He couldn't help but wonder what Severus was reading in his face. Finding his voice, he offered the words he needed to say. They were true, if tinged with regret. "There's nothing to thank me for. It was my pleasure."

"I beg to differ. I have you to thank for my sanity. That was no small gift you gave me."

"I don't want your gratitude," Harry quickly denied, afraid of falling into the same category his dad had all those years ago when he'd saved Severus.

"I know," Severus surprised him by saying. "I just wanted you to know that your efforts are . . . appreciated."

Recognizing how hard it was for Severus to openly speak of his feelings, Harry quickly repeated, "Like I said, it was my pleasure." He knew what the logical progression of this discussion would be. Part of him wanted to avoid the issue entirely, make Severus address it if it were going to be dealt with, but . . . he knew how hard Severus was working to regain his mental and emotional stability. It wasn't fair to lay that burden on him now. Deciding to make it easy for Severus, he brought up the difficult topic himself, "I, er, guess you're going to want me to move back up to Gryffindor Tower now."

They'd reached the forest path and were now out of sight of the school and Hagrid's hut. The shade of the huge trees was obscuring most of the sunlight.

Harry's gaze dropped to the well-worn trail underfoot. He could see a line of black ants marching over last year's dried leaves beside his right trainer.

"Harry?"

There was a quality in Severus' voice that he'd rarely heard before. It was almost tender. His gaze drawn by that anomaly, he met those dark eyes. "Yes?"

"I didn't bring this subject up to throw you out," Severus said.

"You didn't?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. "No."

"Oh . . . ." Relief swamping through him, he muttered, "Er, thanks. I was afraid you'd want me to clear out as soon as you were better."

"You should. We both know that it would be better for you," Severus said, something very like guilt in his eyes.

Maybe it was the fact that they were outside in natural light for a change, but Harry truly felt he could read everything that had motivated those words in Severus' troubled gaze.

"Nothing could be better for me than being with you," Harry gently countered.

"You are a young man with a healthy sexual appetite. You are tying yourself to a virtual eunuch through our association," Severus said.

"You're not a eunuch," Harry swiftly corrected. "You've been horribly hurt, and it's taking a while to heal, but you're getting better every day."

"And you are once again viewing this situation through rose-coloured, Gryffindor glasses," Severus accused. "I am . . . damaged. There is every possibility that I'll never -"

Unable to bear hearing that bilge wash one more time, Harry took the kind of gamble that had left him sitting on his arse in the dirt more than once. He reached up, hooked his hand around the back of Severus' skull, pulled his head down, and covered those 'damaged' lips with his own.

He didn't know what to expect. Although he'd often kissed Severus' head, brow, or cheek when they were in bed together, he hadn't kissed his lips passionately like this since before Severus was abducted. His conscience was shrieking at him, warning him how selfish he was being here. He knew Severus was nowhere near ready for sex. This was . . . dangerous. He could set his lover back months with this grandstanding.

Only . . . Severus wasn't freaking. His mouth was frozen with palpable shock during those first few seconds of contact, but then all resistance seemed to crumble. For a moment, Severus kissed him back.

It was . . . perfect. Harry's entire being seemed to pulse with power and reach for Severus as he sampled his sweet flavour. So long, it had been so fucking long. His whole body ached to be closer, to surround Severus and show him how much he was loved.

Harry felt the instant Severus' mind caught up with what was going on. Every muscle in that long body seemed to turn to stone.

Before any true panic could set in, Harry pulled back. His own breathing terribly unsteady, he said, "You're not a eunuch and you're not damaged, at least not permanently so. Right now you're not ready for what we used to do, but the day will come when you will be. I'm going to be right here beside you when that happens."

Too tempted by the stunned expression on Severus' face, Harry started to quickly walk towards the part of the forest Severus had enchanted. His heart and conscience were at odds with what he'd just done. He knew Severus was still terribly fragile, but . . . Severus needed to know that what Burke had done to him hadn't destroyed him. He only hoped he hadn't been too rash with that kiss.

While he could see on a daily basis how uninterrupted rest was healing Severus physically, he really didn't know what Severus was going through emotionally. His lover had never been a talker at the best of times. Words had never really worked for them. Harry knew he could offer verbal reassurance until he was blue in the face and Severus still wouldn't believe that he'd ever get better, that they could ever go back to what they'd been. But the emotions that kiss had stirred, that was something Severus wasn't going to be able to ignore.

When Severus joined him a minute or so later, Harry took a surreptitious survey of his face. To his intense relief, Severus didn't appear to be undergoing any great trauma.

When those dark eyes caught him looking, Harry gave a sheepish smile and said, "I, er, probably shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry. Are you upset with me?"

"No," Severus answered.

"That's good. Thank you."

"For?" Severus sounded genuinely puzzled.

"Not running screaming in horror?" Harry suggested. "I really shouldn't have taken that kind of chance."

Severus was quiet a moment. When he spoke, he sounded as if he weren't sure he should. "No one in their right mind would run screaming in horror from your kiss. I know I'm not exactly in my right mind these days, but . . . ."

"You're getting there," Harry said, laying his hand on Severus' back as they walked through the forest. He felt like a teenager again, his heart buzzing at the compliment Severus had just paid him.

There was no path to Severus' out-of-season wonderland, but Harry was achingly familiar with the route. They'd been here dozens of times before January. He couldn't count how often they'd made love amidst the fragrant ferns on the damp forest floor. The woods were covered with them at the moment.

The entire forest looked like that charmed section now, green and bursting with life. As Harry walked through the sun-dappled shadows beneath the great trees, he breathed in the sweet scent of the pine needles and the crunchy carpet of dead leaves underfoot. The pines were massive here, as were the ancient oaks.

In a short time, they were at the section of forest Severus had enchanted.

"It looks no different from the rest of the woods," Harry commented, taking in the green oak leaves on a nearby tree.

"Yes, it's strange. The adult cicadas should have died some time in January. I'd expected the trees to still be leafless," Severus said.

"Maybe they lost their leaves in January and this is new growth," Harry suggested as he led the way to the fern-covered deadfall by the stream where they had first kissed. Though rife with bittersweet memories, it was still his favourite place.

Harry took a seat on the huge trunk of the dead pine nearest the stream, breathing the heady scent of the damp wood deep into his lungs.

Severus settled beside him on the log, his dark gaze on the nearly hypnotic movement of the stream a few yards in front of them.

When their eyes met, Harry thought he could see the same memories moving through Severus that were twisting him up inside with loss.

"This is where we started," Harry said. "We were standing right in front of this log when you kissed me."

"It feels very far away now, doesn't it?"

Part of him had expected Severus to take issue with his comment. After that impulsive kiss, he knew any reference to their former relationship was pushing things, but Severus sounded as sad as he felt.

"Not so far away," Harry gently countered. He took comfort from the fact that Severus didn't expound upon how damaged he was again. Thinking that this might finally be the right time to broach some of the issues they'd both been avoiding these last few weeks, he said, "We've never really talked about the future. I know you're still not feeling up to par, but I was wondering . . . well, I guess what I was wondering was if you wanted things to be the way they used to be between us? I mean, obviously, not now, but . . . in the future. I realize that just because my feelings for you haven't changed, the reverse isn't necessarily true."

Till now, Harry had been afraid to voice this question, mostly because he knew there was every possibility that Severus would dash his hopes out of spite or out of misplaced concern for his wellbeing.

Severus released a long breath.

Stealing a glance at his face, all Harry could see was uncertainty.

"We don't have to talk about this now, if you'd rather not," Harry quickly offered.

"No, after all I've put you through, you have the right to know," Severus answered. "I recognize that this . . . limbo we've been existing in these last few months hasn't been easy for you."

The Severus he'd dealt with in March wouldn't have been able to look outside himself like this. Cheered by this example of how much healthier Severus was, he softly denied, "You haven't put me through anything. Burke put us both through hell. He's responsible, not you, not me."

"Nevertheless, you have suffered greatly on my behalf -"

"We've both suffered," Harry corrected him. "You don't owe me anything because of what we've been through. I'm here with you because that's where I want to be. I'm being selfish here."

"Selfish?" Severus questioned, sounding as if he'd never heard the word before.

"Entirely." Feeling as if he were going to fall into the bottomless depths of those black eyes, Harry said, "So, don't feel compelled to do anything you're not up to."

"I think I'm up to conversation," Severus said with that urbane edge that got to Harry every time. After a pause, he continued with, "You asked if my feelings towards you had changed."

Harry's gut tightened with dread. As much as he loved the man, he still couldn't read him. Finding his voice, he said, "Yeah."

"They have."

Harry tried to be brave, but he felt as if his whole world were crumbling around him, which, of course, it was. "Oh . . . ."

That was all he could manage. His gaze dropped to the ferns growing out of last year's leaves underfoot. He couldn't even think what this would mean to his future, not that there would be any future worth having without Severus.

"They have deepened," Severus said into that horrible silence, his voice soft and perhaps a bit contrite.

Harry's chin jerked back up. "What?"

"Please understand. In my entire life, there was never anyone who . . . loved me, including my parents. I honestly did not believe that anyone could, but . . . your behaviour has forced me to accept that you . . . truly do. I don't understand it. I probably never will, but . . . it is the saving grace of my life."

Thunderstruck, Harry could only stare at Severus. He hadn't expected that.

Seeing the nervousness edge its way into Severus' features, he quickly said, "You're still my miracle."

The huff of breath Severus released expressed his reaction perfectly.

Harry grinned at the astonishment Severus was attempting to hide. When his smile had faded, he asked, "So, does that mean you want us to be the way we used to be?"

He knew he sounded like a halfwit, but he still wasn't able to ask directly if Severus thought he might want to have sex with him again in the future.

Fortunately, Severus was a bit quicker at interpreting him than he was at understanding Severus.

"I don't know when or even if I will be . . . ready, as you put it before. But . . . I would very much like to regain what was stolen from me," Severus said.

It was like the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders with those words. Reading how worried Severus seemed about his ability to recover, Harry assured, "We'll get there." He could see in Severus' eyes that his lover had no such faith. When Severus made no protest to his optimistic assurance, he questioned, "Can I ask you something?" Once he'd received a nod, he ploughed ahead with, "When I kissed you before, everything seemed okay for a moment or so, and then . . . ."

Something that looked like shame crossed Severus' face before it stilled into its normal bland expression. "My body just . . . froze. I knew it was you, and that there was absolutely no threat involved, but I still couldn't control . . . ."

Harry couldn't fathom how much it was taking for Severus to try to speak about these issues. "I took you by surprise. It's only natural that you'd react that way."

"There's nothing 'natural' about it," Severus denied. "I don't know . . . how to get past that reaction."

"Time will probably help," Harry said. "And maybe we can take baby steps to ease past it."

"Baby steps?" Severus echoed.

"Well, you seem okay when I . . . hold you before we fall asleep," Harry pointed out, hoping that his speaking about it wouldn't endanger the privilege. "I mean, you freeze up when I first touch you, but you seem to be okay after a few minutes."

Severus seemed to consider his words. "Your magic usually surrounds me at that point. It is very . . . comforting."

Harry nodded. "I don't think that enveloping you in my power every time I touch you is the way to go, though. Do you?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. His eyes looked bleak and lost.

"What if we agree that sex isn't on the program anytime in the immediate future? Do you think it would help if you know I'm not . . . after that?"

"I knew you weren't after that before," Severus said, seeming even more depressed.

That being the last thing he wanted, Harry quickly said, "Yes, but you weren't expecting me to kiss you like that. Of course, you were shocked. I was thinking if we took things really slow, with the understanding that nothing would come of it, that maybe you could get used to being physical with me again. If you don't think you're ready to try it yet, that's fine, too. There's no pressure here. It's just a suggestion."

Harry held his breath as Severus considered his idea. He wasn't a psychiatrist. He had no idea if this would help or hinder Severus' progress, but it seemed that the situation might never change if they didn't work on the problem

Severus seemed to come to the same conclusion, for he gave a quiet, "What did you have in mind?"

Trying to control the burst of euphoria that came from Severus' willingness to try, Harry said, "I thought that when we were alone like this, that maybe we could . . . . " Even now it was hard to ask for a cuddle. But that was what he was considering, so, finally, he managed, ". . . . sit close and hug?"

"Do you really think it will help?" Severus asked.

"I don't know. If it doesn't . . . exacerbate the problem, it probably won't hurt. Do you want to try?"

In answer, Severus rose to his feet and sat back down on the log, leaving next to no space between them.

The discrepancy in their heights made trying to lay his arm across Severus' shoulders a ludicrous proposition, so Harry slipped his right arm loosely around Severus' waist.

Even with an inch between them, he could feel how Severus' whole body seemed to stiffen with tension.

"Is that too much?" Harry checked. From his end, it felt incredible.

"No. It's just . . . ."

"Yes?" Harry encouraged, giving Severus a light squeeze.

"This must be incredibly tedious for you."

His heart almost breaking at those self-conscious words, he swiftly offered, "There's nothing tedious about it. Look at me." When those dark eyes settled hesitantly upon his face, Harry asked, "Do I look bored or put upon?"

Harry tried to make sure that everything he was feeling showed.

Slowly, the worry tightening Severus' features was replaced by something that looked like wonder.

Their gazes locked. Neither of them seemed able to look away. The pull towards Severus was nearly irresistible.

To his amazement, Harry saw Severus' face begin to lower towards him. He held his breath, waiting for reality to intrude and for Severus to halt the gesture. But Severus seemed as transfixed by his eyes as Harry was by his.

Severus' hands braced themselves on his shoulders, and then those thin, dry lips covered his own.

Harry liquefied. All resistance crumbled from his mouth as he kissed back for all he was worth. It was sheer heaven, even more wonderful than the kiss they'd shared at the edge of the woods.

His lips parted at the first swipe of Severus' tongue. That long-missed taste flooded him, filling his whole being. It was beyond wonderful. On a mental level, Harry knew it was just a kiss, that in the cosmic scheme of the universe, it was fairly insignificant, but it felt like it was transforming his whole world.

Instinct guiding him, he pressed closer to Severus, and felt the by now familiar freeze as their bodies crushed together. His better sense prevailing, Harry forced himself to pull back.

Severus' fingers clenched at his shoulders, holding him where he was, refusing to allow him to put any space between them. Severus' mouth wasn't moving against his with the same fervour it had moments ago, but he wasn't pulling away.

Harry's wrists were draped over Severus' shoulders, touching his neck. He could feel the panicked race of Severus' pulse where their skin touched. But Severus still seemed intent on not withdrawing.

Harry slipped his right hand around Severus and started rubbing his back in reassuring circles, hoping to ease him through whatever was going on.

Finally, Severus drew back, releasing a shaky-sounding breath.

Harry could sympathize. His own heart was racing like a hippogriff in flight and all the air seemed to have been sucked out of the Forbidden Forest.

Stunned by Severus' temerity, he could only stare at Severus' equally flustered-looking face. He could count on one hand the number of times Severus had initiated a kiss when they were lovers. For him to do so now was . . . earth-shaking.

"Like I said, still my miracle," Harry said when he could manage speech.

A totally engaging flush tinted Severus' cheeks. Those dark eyes shied away from his. Obviously, that kiss had been a bit more than Severus had intended.

Not entirely sure what he should do now, Harry slipped his arm around Severus' waist again and leaned a bit of his weight against him.

After a moment, Severus' arm settled across his shoulders.

Not saying anything, they just sat there with this newfound closeness thrumming between them, watching the creek water rush past. It might be a pale shadow of the passion they used to share, but right now, this simple contact was the sweetest gift Harry could imagine.

*~*~*

Severus woke with a start. Since Harry had stopped enveloping him in his magic at night, he'd often wake in something of a panic. The nightmares weren't troubling him like they had last month, but those moments between sleep and waking were often rife with anxiety as he tried to determine where he was and what was happening.

Breathing out a deep breath, he slowly opened his eyes. The green velvet canopy overhead instantly told him he was in his own room, safe in his own bed.

His bed wasn't icy cold as it had been since January.

Severus' gaze turned to take in the messy tangle of black hair on the pillow beside him. The lightning bolt scar was peeking out from between two locks of Harry's hair. Harry was still deep asleep, half on top of him.

The call of nature pressing upon him, Severus carefully slipped out from beneath Harry. He spared a glance at the bed as he left it, as ever, warmed by the sight of Harry lying there.

Quickly accomplishing his business in the cold dampness of a dungeon morning, he returned to bed.

Harry had moved while he was gone. He was now flat on his back in the middle of the bed.

Severus found himself captured by the sight before him. Harry was wearing a pair of Muggle pyjamas, a cool green that nearly matched the colour of his eyes. Those eyes were closed now, his face lax with sleep as he lay there in the centre of Severus' enormous bed, tangled in crisp white sheets and a brown blanket. Taking in those sleeping features, he was struck by Harry's beauty, moved in a way he hadn't been in months. Oh, he'd known Harry was handsome. The trim, athletic body, expressive face, and gentle eyes were hard to ignore. The man was extraordinarily attractive, in a strangely unassuming way. But since January, Severus had only recognized these facts on a mental level, if he noticed them at all. Lost in his misery, he'd rarely been aware of anything other than the hell he was enduring.

But now, after more than a month of the peaceful nights Harry's magic had granted him, that hell wasn't nearly as oppressive. He still had bad moments. The sound of dripping water was still enough to send him into a cold sweat and there were times when the sight of the pink-skinned flesh of his right hand stopped him cold with the knowledge of why its skin wasn't yellowed like his left hand, but, on the whole, he was doing better.

This was the first time that he'd looked at Harry and felt something stir inside him. It wasn't the same fierce longing that the sight of that attractive body used to inspire, but it was there, and it was real, and it was something Severus had feared he would never feel again.

He savoured the sweet tingling, allowing the fragile warmth to fill him. Seeing Harry laid out there, all warm and rumpled with sleep, with that achingly innocent expression on his face, made him long to return to that bed and . . . touch him.

The impulse frightened him as much as it excited him. This tentative desire made him feel as if he were made of glass, as if the slightest tremor would shatter him.

On a mental level, he knew he was in absolutely no danger from Harry. He'd never known that the type of tender care Harry had lavished upon him these last weeks was even possible. The unfaltering patience, the gentleness, the safe space Harry had created for him, all of these made Severus know that were he to follow through on the impulse to touch, it would go no further than he was ready for it to progress.

He knew that what Harry and he had shared had nothing to do with what Burke had done to him. In all the time he'd been with Harry, there hadn't been a single instance of force or violence. Even when Harry had been furious with him for altering his memories, the most violent gesture Harry had managed was pushing him up against a wall. For all that Harry had the power to take anything he wanted, it was not in his nature to do so. Severus knew this. He'd never had faith in anything the way he did in this man's character.

But, despite his utter certainty that Harry would never harm him, emotionally, he was absolutely terrified by the thought of moving to that bed and reaching out to touch his lover.

Lover. He hadn't thought of Harry that way in a long time. After the mistake he'd made on the quidditch pitch in February, Severus had been convinced that he'd never be this close to Harry again, but, against all odds and better sense, Harry had forgiven him. If he'd had three wishes granted to him, that would have been the first. The ability to make love with Harry again would be the next. More than anything, he wanted to somehow find the courage to overcome what had been done to him.

His conscience kept hounding him, reminding him how unfair this setup was to Harry.

Harry was young and virile. He deserved a lover who would burn for him, the way Severus used to. He remembered how Harry used to make him feel. There wasn't a night they were together that he hadn't wanted Harry inside him . . . but those memories seemed alien and strange now. The thought of getting naked with someone, even his gentle, loving Harry, of letting another man touch and enter him, made his whole body cringe with revulsion. The idea of penetration always brought him right back to that torture chamber and the horrible things he'd endured there. And, no amount of knowing that Harry would never partake of such actions could get him past the memory his body had of those rapes.

Severus bit his lower lip as he struggled to master his fear. He could almost feel that tender desire dying on him, leaving him nothing but cold and lifeless flesh. Harry deserved better than this. Staring at Harry's face, he clung to that fleeting yearning, stoking it with the memory of every tender kiss Harry had given him these past few weeks.

This man loved him. He didn't understand the emotion, much less how Harry could still feel these things for him, but not even his doubting mind could question Harry's feelings for him. That precious gift deserved something in return, something more than a hug and the occasional chaste kiss.

He was no coward. For Harry's sake, if not his own, he had to get past this.

Breathing deeply to still his shaking, Severus forced himself to return to the bed.

He'd worried that the jostling of the mattress would wake Harry, but Harry always slept deeply unless he was troubled by nightmares.

Severus slipped back under the covers on his side of the bed, which was dramatically smaller now that Harry had claimed the centre.

Turning on his side, Severus studied those familiar features. He remembered how he used to love to trace that lightning bolt with the tip of his tongue. He could almost taste the sweet flavour of Harry's peaches and cream skin. The thin eyebrows had a salty tinge to them, his ears an addictive bitterness, his mouth . . . .

Severus needn't look back far to recall that wonderful experience. Harry had gifted him with one of those soft, endless kisses right before they'd closed their eyes to sleep last night.

The tingle turned to a flutter as he remembered that kiss.

Giving his lips a nervous swipe, Severus leaned forward. A kiss. He could manage a kiss.

Breathing in Harry's sleepy, sweet scent, feeling the heat pouring off Harry's body the closer he got, Severus felt his jagged nerves start to relax. It was going to be okay. This was Harry. His body knew this was Harry, and Harry meant safety.

It felt almost natural to cover that sleeping mouth with his own. The initial, inevitable freeze happened, but as Harry was still dead asleep, Severus tried not to let it bother him. He just waited for his body to remember whom he was with. It took a while, but finally, the paralysing fear left his flesh.

Searching himself, he rediscovered that flicker of desire. Fanning that sputtering flame for all he was worth, Severus threw everything he felt for Harry into the kiss.

In his excitement, it was possible that he cut off Harry's air, for Harry gave a confused sounding "Hmmmm?" into the kiss a heartbeat before his eyelids snapped open.

Severus stilled as he read Harry's confusion, abruptly uncertain of the impulse that had brought him here.

But then Harry's eyes lit with a sleepy smile and the mouth beneath his own came to life and practically absorbed him. Still seeming more asleep than awake, Harry's hands found their way into his hair as the kiss deepened.

Severus was shocked to feel that tiny flicker of desire flare as Harry's strong morning flavour flooded his system. So good, Harry tasted so damn good.

Going with the flow, Severus let that kiss claim him. As that sweet feeling of rightness spread through him, he kissed back with everything he had.

The kiss was proceeding wonderfully. There was no terror, no icy withdrawal, nothing but Harry's irresistible flavour. Severus was just beginning to relax and believe that things were finally right with him, when everything changed in a heartbeat.

The fingers carded through his hair tightened. Still locked in the kiss, Harry rolled on top of him, the way he would the hundreds of times they'd made love in the past.

The minute Severus felt that warm weight crush down on him, his entire body turned to ice. He knew it was Harry. He knew he was in absolutely no danger. Yet the feel of the heavier body pressing him down sent the visceral memory of being held down and forcibly entered ripping through him.

Although he was still locked in the kiss with Harry, he was no longer an active participant. His mind was withdrawing, seeking out that sheltered place deep inside where he'd gone to hide when Burke had done his worst to him.

Most of the men he'd known in his younger days would neither have noticed nor cared about what was happening to him. They would have just continued doing what they wanted, regardless of his participation.

But mere seconds after that freeze claimed him, Harry pulled back from the kiss to stare down into his face with a confused sounding, "Severus?"

He couldn't answer. He could only squeeze his eyes shut and attempt to calm his breathing and his panicked heart as he struggled to master the instinctive terror that was gripping him.

A heartbeat later, the bulk crushing him rolled clear.

"Sorry . . . I'm sorry, so sorry . . . ." Harry was chanting in a panicked mutter. "Severus, please, look at me?"

Unable to ignore the raw fear in that familiar voice, he forced his eyes open and met Harry's frantic gaze.

Harry looked about as frazzled as he felt.

"Are you all right?" Harry questioned, still sounding uncharacteristically frightened.

Now that the oppressive weight had stopped crushing him, normality was gradually returning. Severus gave a slow, mortified nod, unable to believe how badly he'd mucked things up again.

The wall sconces all came to life around them as Harry sat up in the bed, muttering a soft, "Thank God."

Hating the scene he'd caused, Severus sat up as well, barely able to meet Harry's eyes in his embarrassment.

"I'm sorry, Severus," Harry was saying, his confusion palpable. "I . . . don't know what came over me. Did I . . . try to molest you in my sleep?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head and looked for his voice, finally managing, "No . . . I fear that the fault is mine."

"Huh?" Harry still looked completely befuddled, and guilty as hell.

"I must apologize. You were asleep and I . . . I kissed you," Severus tried to explain. He felt like the worst kind of tease.

"You kissed me?" To his astonishment, there was no anger in the question.

Severus gave a tight nod. Reading only confusion in Harry's face, and something gentler that eased the tension gripping his gut, he attempted to explain, "I was watching you sleep. You looked so . . .I thought I could, but I couldn't, and . . . I'm sorry. I shouldn't have . . . ."

"Of course, you should have," Harry gently corrected, reaching out to lay a tentative hand on his shoulder. "I think it's wonderful that you even wanted to try."

"But I couldn't . . . ." He felt too ashamed to continue.

"So, you couldn't this time. Maybe next time, you'll feel better. We're taking baby steps here, remember?" Harry asked in the light, near-joking tone that always made him feel at ease.

Seeing that there really wasn't any recrimination in those watching eyes, Severus took a deep breath and hesitantly confessed, "I . . . I hate this. You must hate it, too."

"No. Hate's the last thing I'm feeling right now. You wanted to kiss me. That's what I'm concentrating on here."

"But I couldn't follow through," Severus pointed out.

"So you couldn't follow through today. It's no big deal. A month ago, you wouldn't have wanted to kiss me at all. Maybe a month from now, you'll be able to follow through. Or the month after that. This is a real breakthrough."

Unable to stand that shining Gryffindor optimism, Severus averted his gaze and softly countered, "Then why does it feel like a failure?"

"Because you're too hard on yourself," Harry firmly stated, reaching out to lift his chin up and make him meet his gaze again. Once their eyes met, Harry continued with, "Do you know how happy it makes me that you even wanted to kiss me? That you felt that way about me?"

The emotion shining in Harry's face was unmistakable. Severus felt so unworthy of it at that moment that he could barely withstand Harry's gaze. No matter what Harry said, he knew what an utter failure he was.

But Harry wasn't treating him like the pathetic loser he felt. To the contrary, Harry was watching him with such a soft expression that it practically stole his breath.

"We'll get there, Severus. Just give it time," Harry assured and then leaned over to place a light kiss in the centre of his forehead.

His hands reached out of their own volition and settled on the soft, green cotton covering Harry's shoulders. The heat and scent of Harry seemed to fill him. With no conscious thought, he leaned towards Harry, drawn by a force he couldn't resist.

Strong arms settled firmly around his back and he was drawn into a hug.

Wishing with all his heart that he could be what he'd once been, Severus closed his eyes and buried his face in the crook of Harry's neck, willing to stay there forever.

*~*~*

"Hey, do you feel like going over to the Three Broomsticks for lunch?" Harry's voice interrupted Severus' moody contemplation of the dancing flames in the hearth.

Severus looked over to the other end of the couch where Harry was reading yet another Muggle thriller. He still wasn't sure what the designation 'thriller' meant.

"No," Severus answered. "It's raining again. I would rather not deal with the damp."

"You live in a dungeon. It's always damp," Harry pointed out in the light tone he used to jolly him into things.

"But the dungeon isn't dripping and muddy," Severus replied.

"You're not still upset about this morning, are you?"

Severus couldn't understand how Harry wasn't upset. To have someone wake you with kisses and then bail on you the instant you began to respond . . . that had to be more than frustrating. But there had been no trace of resentment in Harry's behaviour towards him all morning. If anything, Harry had seemed incredibly cheerful, as if it really had pleased him that he'd wanted to kiss him.

"No," he lied.

"Right," Harry answered in a completely unconvinced tone. "You're not upset. You've just spent the entire morning glaring into the hearth for no reason."

Severus turned that glare on his companion. "I'm cold."

"We could try talking about it," Harry offered, so gentle that it made him want to scream.

Severus ignored the suggestion. As much as he appreciated Harry's efforts to cheer him, right now he just wanted to be left alone. Two months ago, he would have snarled at Harry and driven him away, but these days he was doing his utmost to refrain from needlessly hurting Harry. Stars knew, the sexless life he was living here with him had to be hurtful enough.

"Severus?"

Taking a deep breath, he once again dared those concerned green eyes. Sometimes, he wished that Harry would just shout at him to get over himself.

"It really was a breakthrough, not a failure. I wish you wouldn't be so hard on yourself." When his words brought no reaction, Harry sighed. After another few minutes of silence, in which the only sounds in the room were their breathing and the crackling of the burning wood, Harry asked, "Would you like to play chess?"

Recognizing that Harry would probably spend the entire afternoon attempting to draw him out of his black funk, Severus rose to his feet. "I have papers I have to grade."

He could feel Harry's gaze upon him as he crossed to the mahogany desk in the corner, where he usually stored the homework that needed marking. The desk was depressingly empty.

"It seems that I have once again left them in the Potions classroom." He tried not to let his frustration show, but it was the third time this week he'd made the same kind of oversight. He was supposed to be getting better. Yet, it seemed that at every turn there was some gaping evidence that he still wasn't functioning normally.

"I do that all the time," Harry said in a soothing tone.

Staring at that depressingly neat desk, Severus said, "In the thirty years I've worked here, I never forgot to bring the homework home with me until recently. I'm not getting better. I'm getting worse."

On that cheery note, he turned and stalked to the door. He could feel Harry's eyes on him the entire way.

Harry's concerned "Severus?" was ringing through the room as the door slammed behind him.

Thankfully, the corridor was empty. It was a Hogsmeade weekend. Not even the miserable weather would keep the students here.

Grateful to be alone, he leaned against the wall outside his door, squeezing his eyes shut. Part of him knew that Harry was right, that the type of healing he needed was going to take time, but that was a very small part of him. Mostly, he felt like an utter failure.

He wanted so badly for things to be normal with Harry again . . . which was why he'd just stalked out on the man in a snit. It seemed he could do nothing right these days. As he started for the Potions lab, he glumly acknowledged that he was going to owe Potter yet another apology.

The moment he opened the door to the lab, he could see the homework stacked on the corner of his desk. It was nearly two inches high. He had no idea how he could possibly have overlooked it when he left after detentions last night.

Frustrated with himself, he crossed to the desk and retrieved the stack of papers. As he did so, a flash of white paper sticking out of the corner of his green blotter caught his eye.

It was the card Hermione had given him months ago when she'd come here that awful morning after Harry had regained his memories. The analyst's card.

As happened every time he noticed the card, his instincts rebelled at the idea. He'd been telling himself for months that he'd get through this on his own, that he didn't need help, but this morning's disaster had driven home how little true healing had taken place. Oh, he might be functioning better. He was sleeping straight through the night now. He might be teaching his classes without any emotional breakdowns. He might be able to converse with people and even go out for the occasional drink, but he couldn't kiss the man he loved without turning to stone. And, he didn't see that situation changing any time in the near future, for all Harry's assurances that it would improve.

Harry had been very patient with him this morning. He knew how lucky he was that Harry was still around, still willing to try. But how long could even the most patient man's forbearance stand this morning's kind of disappointment? Harry was a healthy and virile man. When they'd been together, they'd made love every single night. For all that he never complained or acted unhappy, Harry had to be missing the sex. It had been nearly five months now and Severus was no closer to functioning in bed than he'd been the night Harry rescued him. Sooner or later, Harry was going to get tired of this situation. And then he'd leave.

Barely able to credit the panic that rushed through him at the thought of Harry leaving him, he took a deep breath and tried to calm himself.

He knew he was overreacting. He knew Harry loved him. Only . . . how long could even Harry's love withstand the kind of frustrating scene they'd endured this morning?

Harry deserved better than that. Severus had wanted so much to please him, to make him happy this morning, and all he'd managed to do was create another crisis.

He had to get better. That was all there was to it.

Only, clearly, he wasn't managing it very well on his own.

Perhaps it was time to consider extreme measures? Hermione had said that this analyst friend of hers helped wizards through 'difficult periods'. Severus had never endured a more difficult period than the last five months. Although everything inside him rebelled at the idea of bringing his personal problems to a stranger, he didn't think he could take another failure like this morning's. For his own sake, as much as Harry's, he had to get past this.

His stomach knotted with dread at the very scope of what he was considering. If he went to this analyst person, he was going to have to tell him about what happened with Burke. He never even discussed that with Harry. Hell, he was going to have to tell him about Harry and everything else for the situation to make any sense to an outsider. He didn't know if he were up to that.

The one thing he did know was that he wasn't up to a repeat performance of what happened this morning. No matter what it took, he needed to fix what was broken inside him, and if that meant talking to a stranger, then it meant talking to a stranger. His faults were legion, but until quite recently, cowardice had never been among them.

Taking a deep breath, he picked up the innocuous little card.

The inscription was refreshingly simple. The man's name, his title, and contact information. Severus knew what the Muggle word 'psychiatrist' meant, but he didn't understand the line of letters following Penbroke's name. Still, the card stated that he was on both the floo and owl networks. That, he did understand.

It took him nearly an hour to craft his introduction letter to his liking. When he thought he could live with the missive, he folded the parchment in half, sealed it with candle wax and the signet ring he kept in his pocket for such instances.

Knowing that once he sent this message, he was committed to the course, he stood up from his desk and headed up to the Owlry. It was only as he was approaching the door to his quarters after owling the note that he realized that he'd once again left his papers in the classroom.

*~*~*

"Welcome, Professor Snape. It's an honour to meet you," an insufferably cheerful voice greeted Severus as he attempted to keep his feet after being ejected from the floo.

Dusting soot off his robes, Severus studied the man before him. He still wasn't certain that this was a wise idea, or if he could go through with it at all.

The stranger standing before him looked completely benign. Penbroke was a medium sized, slightly chubby man with sandy hair, an affable face, and brown eyes that seemed very warm. He was dressed in black Muggle jeans and a grey jumper. The sitting room behind him looked as comfortable as Penbroke himself, all cushiony furniture, bookshelves, and colourful paintings.

"Dr. Penbroke, I presume?"

"Yes." Penbroke's smile transformed into a grin. "Please, come in. Make yourself comfortable."

Once he was sure he'd shaken the worst of the ash off himself, Severus cautiously approached the brown leather couch, which was the nearest piece of furniture. He perched on the end of the sofa, prepared to apparate away at an instant's notice.

His reaction was clearly not lost on the man before him.

"Sometimes first visits can be very nerve-wracking," Penbroke said. "Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable? Tea, perhaps?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. "Thank you, no. I . . . believe I may have made an error in coming here. If you'll excuse me -"

"I'd be more than willing to excuse you, but do you think apparating away is really going to solve whatever problem was severe enough to bring you to my doorstep in the first place?" Penbroke asked, catching and holding his eyes.

Faced with the grim truth, Severus held the man's gaze and said, "I fear the problem is insurmountable by its very nature."

"But you still want it to go away?" Penbroke questioned.

Severus nodded.

"I can help you with that. I can't promise that seeing me will transform your life, but I think you will find that it might give you some perspective on whatever it is you're experiencing."

"I don't need perspective," Severus snapped. "I need . . . ."

"Yes?" Penbroke asked as he took a seat in a matching leather armchair slightly to Severus' left.

"A miracle, I fear." Overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, Severus turned his gaze to the fire crackling in the hearth. He didn't even know where to begin to address what he needed. How he'd thought this Squib could help was beyond him.

"Perhaps if you told me a little about yourself that might help break the ice, as it were?" Penbroke suggested. "Of course, I know that you teach Potions at Hogwarts and have been the head of Slytherin House for the last twenty years."

"I'm sure you're also acquainted with my history as a Death Eater?" Severus asked in a voice that was unintentionally harsh.

Penbroke nodded. "No one with any contact with the Wizarding World could be unaware of those facts. It was my understanding that you were spying on You Know Who for Professor Dumbledore for most of your career with the Death Eaters."

"That isn't a fact most people readily acknowledge," Severus said, warming to the man, in spite of himself. Most times when his past with the Death Eaters came up, strangers could barely conceal their disgust.

"I'm not most people," Penbroke said. "I'm here to help you handle whatever this problem is that you feel is so insurmountable. I must warn you; I've heard people claim that a problem is too huge to be fixed before, and in almost all cases, my clients have found a way to overcome the issues that were weighing them down. I won't kid you that the process is easy or in any way enjoyable, but it is effective."

Severus didn't want to hope. That particular emotion had betrayed him every time he'd given it reign over him. However, he couldn't help but experience a flutter of something like encouragement at Penbroke's matter of fact statement.

Deciding that maybe he would give the Squib doctor a chance, Severus cautiously asked, "What type of process are we talking about here?"

"Basically, I'm going to talk you to death," Penbroke joked. "I'm going to ask you hundreds of annoying questions that will help me determine the basis of what it is that is bothering you. Then I will do what I can to guide you through the problems. It can take some time for the benefits of this process to make themselves known. Depending on the severity of the issue, I might need to see you several times a week initially. So, if you're looking for an instant cure, this isn't it. Our progress will depend wholly upon your honesty and how open you are to making the necessary alterations in behaviour to achieve your goals."

Severus supposed it was too much to hope that the cure would be quick. But at least Penbroke seemed optimistic. He was highly aware of the fact that there were many people in the Wizarding World who wouldn't deal with him at all, once they knew who he was.

Severus decided to test the waters with something he knew would have ended most interviews in the Wizarding World. "Before we begin, you should know that I'm a homosexual."

Penbroke nodded as if he'd just announced he was a man. There was no trace of contempt or distaste in those serious, round features. "Before we begin, you, in turn, should know that anything you say to me will be held in the strictest of confidences. And, by the way, many of my clients prefer their own gender. I realize that such preferences can be a problem in the Wizarding World. Is that what brings you to me today?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head. "No. I . . . ." Everything inside him rebelled at revealing these facts, but he knew there was no way Penbroke could assist him without an understanding of what had broken him. Drawing on every ounce of courage he possessed, he hesitantly offered, "Several months ago, I was abducted by a dark wizard. While in captivity, I was tortured and . . . ." he swallowed hard and just said it, ". . . raped."

Severus expected some degree of shock, but although Penbroke's pleasant face turned serious at his confession, there was no extreme reaction. He didn't look like anything Severus had just said was too radical for him to deal with.

"And now you are experiencing emotional difficulties that tie into what was done to you?" Penbroke questioned in a voice that was comforting and understanding.

A little shocked, Severus realized it was the same tone Harry often took with him.

Severus nodded. After a moment's silence, he offered in a rough voice, "I must confess that I am close to my wits' end."

"That's understandable. But you made the correct decision in seeing me. This isn't insurmountable. The fact that you were able to find the courage to come here shows that you are ready to overcome these problems."

It might have been sheer pabulum to ease his overstressed mind, but the confident statement did wonders for Severus' nerves.

"How are you going to help me with this?" Severus asked.

"Actually, I'm going to teach you how to help yourself. But first I think I need to know a little more about you, so I'm going to ask you for some background information. You said you were a homosexual. Are you involved with anyone right now?"

Severus gave a cautious nod.

"What kind of relationship do you have?"

"What do you mean – what kind of relationship? I just admitted that we were involved."

Penbroke did not appear uncomfortable with his crankiness.

"There are many degrees of involvement," Penbroke patiently explained. "Some people say they are involved with someone when they meet only for casual sex. Other people consider involvement to pertain to some level of emotional commitment. I need to form a picture of who you are before I can help you. It would help me to know what type of situation you're in. Why don't you tell me a little about your friend? Don't worry about shocking me. There isn't anything you could possibly say that I haven't heard a hundred times before."

Severus could think of a thing or two this gentle Squib mightn't have encountered before, but decided to stick to the subject at hand. "My . . . lover is twenty-two years younger than me and was my student."

"How long have you been involved?" Remarkably enough, there was no censure in the question.

Severus couldn't help but wonder if Penbroke had seen the October Prophet article in which he was accused of molesting his students. "Seven months, although we have not had sexual relations for the last five months."

"How would you define your relationship – casual, committed, exclusive, open?" Penbroke asked.

"I don't know that I ever thought about it," Severus said.

"Well, let's think about it now. Do you both date other people?"

Severus gave another negative shake of his head. "No. Given my present situation, I told him he should see other men, but he refuses to consider the idea."

"It sounds like he cares very deeply about you."

"He says he loves me," Severus explained, even his own ears could hear the mystification in his tone.

Penbroke obviously picked up on it. "And you doubt that he means it?"

Severus couldn't hold back a snort. "We haven't had sex in more than five months and he is still there. That seems to indicate that his regard is genuine."

"Yet you still sound uncertain," Penbroke commented.

"Let's just say it's a novel experience."

"What is?" Penbroke asked.

"Someone claiming to love me," Severus explained, wondering why the man looked so confused.

"Surely, you exaggerate."

"I assure you, it is the truth. He is the first person to claim such feelings towards me," Severus softly admitted.

"There are other types of love beyond the romantic. There is the love a parent and child share, the love between siblings, the love of a friend. They might not be as dramatic as a romantic love, but they can be equally as deep."

"I wouldn't know," Severus said.

"Are you seriously telling me that no one has loved you in your entire life?" Penbroke obviously didn't believe his claim.

"It is the truth," Severus said.

"What about your parents?"

"Isn't it something of a cliché for a psychiatrist to ask someone to talk about his mother?" Severus questioned. He didn't know a lot about Muggle society, but he'd heard the Muggle-born students make enough jokes over the years to know that psychiatrists usually asked people about their relationship with their mother. "I mightn't know much of Muggle society, but I do remember some things."

"Humour me," Penbroke said. "You mentioned your mother. Tell me about her."

"I don't see what relevance my mother could possibly have to my present situation," Severus snapped.

"Everything has relevance in my line of work. You were about to tell me of your mother?"

"If you must know, she was a witch from a pureblood family. When she finished school, she took up with a Muggle tradesman and eventually married him, to her family's disgrace. I think it was the only true act of defiance she ever performed."

"Was it a happy marriage?" Penbroke asked.

"My father was . . . a difficult man. To be perfectly honest, he was a brute. She was his principal victim. She could have vanished him with a flick of her wand, but she allowed him to bully her for more than fifteen years."

"It doesn't sound like you had much respect for her," Penbroke said.

"There was very little to respect. She didn't stand up for herself or for me. Perhaps if she had ever shown me any form of affection, things might have been different, but she didn't have what one might call a nurturing personality."

"Perhaps she was in too much pain to show her feelings for you," Penbroke suggested.

"Perhaps you are right. It can hardly matter now."

"You said she bore your father's abuse for fifteen years. What happened after the fifteen years?"

Severus wasn't sure what type of emotion was expected when one was relating these types of facts. Deciding not to worry about what was expected, he answered as he would to Harry, giving the cold facts, "She died."

Penbroke seemed to digest this for a few minutes before asking, "You must have had some reaction to her passing."

"Relief, perhaps," Severus said, still unsure what any of this had to do with his present problem.

"Relief?"

"Once she died, my father disappeared into the Muggle world. I didn't have to go home to them during summer breaks anymore. The headmaster allowed me to stay at Hogwarts those last two summers. I think they were the only summers I ever truly enjoyed," he added so that the man wouldn't think there had been no joy at all in his life, even though it felt like that most days.

"And you haven't seen your father since her death?"

Severus gave another negative shake of his head.

"You must have been very angry with him," Penbroke said, obviously fishing.

Severus shrugged and matter-of-factly offered, "I hated him for as long as I knew him. His leaving was no great loss."

"Many people would think that never having known a father or a mother's love would be a very great loss, indeed," Penbroke commented.

"Perhaps, but one can hardly miss what one has never known," Severus countered.

"It must have been difficult in school when you saw examples of how other children's parents loved them," Penbroke said.

"I was sorted into Slytherin House. We're not exactly known for emotional demonstrativeness."

"I beg to differ. My family has been sorted exclusively into Slytherin House for the last six centuries. Hiding behind Slytherin's bad press will get you nowhere with me. I know the strengths and weaknesses of that great house."

"What would you have me say? That I burned with envy and hate every time my classmates received gifts from home and I didn't get so much as a letter?" Severus sneered.

"Is that the truth?" Penbroke asked, back to that mild tone.

Annoyed at having been tricked, Severus snapped, "Yes. But I don't see what any of this has to do with why I came to you."

"Why don't you let me judge what's relevant to the issue," Penbroke suggested. "Tell me about your school years. It can't have been easy for a half-blood student to have been sorted into Slytherin."

When Severus didn't answer immediately, Penbroke prodded, "I can't help you if you won't level with me. I'm not here to judge you; I'm here to help. I can't do that if you won't work with me."

"I don't understand why you need to hear all this," Severus confessed after a long, stubborn silence.

"If someone came to you for a potion to cure a physical malady, wouldn't you need to have all the details of their problem before you could brew them the cure they needed?" Penbroke challenged. "Would you brew a potion for, let's say, heart palpitations without first checking to ensure that the person wasn't taking some type of drug that might have caused the problem?"

"No, I suppose not."

"Then how can you expect me to operate blindly here? I don't know a thing about you, except what you tell me. I don't have a magic wand to cure what ails you. The only way I can do that is by helping you examine your life and help you discover a means to work around the problems that are keeping you from achieving your goals."

"My goals?" Severus croaked.

"Well, it sounds like your immediate goal is to work through whatever traumas were caused by your captivity. Does that sound right?"

"But we're not talking about those subjects," Severus protested.

"We'll get there. First I need to know who you were before the incident that changed your life."

Tiring of the probing, Severus' temper got the better of him. "I was a social leper before what you call 'the incident that changed my life'. In the forty-eight years I have been alive, I have had only one wholly good thing happen to me – the young man who shares my life now. Because of what was done to me in January, I am in danger of losing him. That is what has brought me here. I – I haven't been able to have sex with him since my recovery. I came to you because I was told you could assist me with this type of problem -"

Severus felt ashamed and horrified to be admitting these things to a stranger. But, after having screwed up his courage to come here, he didn't know what he would do if this man couldn't help him.

"And I will assist you. I promise. But you have to work with me," Penbroke interrupted. "Tell me, how did you expect me to help you?"

"I – I don't know. I've never been to a Muggle psychiatrist before."

"And yet, you knew enough about us to make that crack about the stereotypical questions we ask." At his no doubt blank expression, Penbroke reminded him, "The comment you made about psychiatrists asking their patients about their relationships with their mothers."

"I suppose I overheard Muggle-born students making jokes about it over the years."

"Well, the jokes weren't all wrong. We have to ask a lot of questions to get the information we need to help our patients. For example, just a moment ago, you claimed to be a social leper. Was that an exaggeration?"

Recognizing that, although the man might be a Squib, Penbroke certainly displayed every indication of the tenacity that had no doubt placed his family members in Slytherin for the last few centuries. Stifling a sigh, Severus answered, "No. If you must know, I was loathed and tormented by most of my fellow students throughout my school years. Very little has changed over the years, except that there is no open ridicule these days."

"You said 'most of your fellow students'. Not all of them?"

Severus debated the wisdom of answering honestly. After some consideration, he met those waiting brown eyes and decided to try to shock him with the truth. "There were several older boys in Slytherin who did not tease me. They . . . well, in retrospect, it seems that they preyed upon me sexually."

"I see," Penbroke said into the heavy silence that followed his disclosure.

Severus felt a childish burst of victory. He often employed that expression himself when he was at a loss for words.

"You said 'in retrospect'," Penbroke said after a moment's consideration. "What did you think at the time?"

Severus thought back to those early years at school. James Potter and his mob had made his life a living hell, but the time he'd spent with Lucius and his cronies had made up for the endless taunting.

"That they were my friends," Severus said. "That illusion was shattered in sixth year when I overheard them discussing me and realized that they thought little more of me than a prostitute."

"That must have been very painful, Severus. May I call you Severus?"

He gave a tight nod.

"How do you feel about those young men now?"

"What?" Severus was nearly startled by the question.

"You believed they were your friends. You must have been very hurt to discover their intentions weren't honourable."

"It was over thirty years ago. What can it matter now?" Severus snapped, thinking that he shouldn't have brought up the subject at all.

"It always matters," Penbroke said.

"I'd really rather not discuss this right now," Severus said.

"All right. What would you like to discuss instead?"

"Whatever it is I need to do to get better," Severus replied.

"As I mentioned before, you need to talk to me. Would you like to tell me about your young man?"

"Why?" Severus asked, not entirely able to conceal his suspicions.

"You said he was the only good thing that happened to you in your life. I'd like to hear about him."

Severus considered the risks of being honest on this topic. He knew that the scandal sheets would pay even a Malfoy's idea of a fortune for insights into the Boy Who Lived's love life. While he'd seen nothing in Penbroke's attitude to make him suspect the man had nefarious intentions, he couldn't risk opening Harry to such scrutiny.

After a long pause, he carefully offered, "He is young and handsome, strong and kind. He is all that is good and wonderful in this world."

"It sounds like you care very deeply for him," Penbroke said.

He'd already told the man that Harry was the reason he was here. There could be no harm in admitting he cared. "I . . . do."

"You can call him by his name if that would make it easier to talk. You can even make up one, if you're not comfortable disclosing his real name," Penbroke suggested.

Severus considered the option of giving Harry a false name, but then realized how difficult it would be to keep up the pretext. Deciding that there were enough Harrys in Britain to risk using his lover's first name, he offered, "His name is Harry."

"I imagine what you've been going through hasn't been easy on Harry, either," Penbroke said, the words an opening.

Severus gave another negative shake of his head. "I've been very difficult to live with."

"Have you been quarrelling?"

"No, he has been the soul of patience," Severus answered.

"But you said that you were in danger of losing him," Penbroke reminded.

"He isn't even thirty years old. How long can a man that young remain trapped in a sexless relationship?" Severus voiced the fear that had been chilling his soul these last few weeks.

"I imagine the answer to that question would depend upon how much he loves you. Do you feel pressured to do things you're not ready to handle yet?"

"No, we're . . . taking baby steps," he felt a little ridiculous using Harry's terminology with a stranger. But Penbroke didn't feel like a stranger. There was something about the mild-mannered Squib that invited confidences. Thinking back on the things he'd openly revealed in this brief interview, Severus couldn't help but wonder if there weren't some kind of magic at work here. He simply couldn't believe the things he'd told Penbroke about his parents and the unsavoury associations of his schooldays.

"Baby steps?"

"I . . . react badly to being touched. Harry thought if we proceeded very slowly, increasing the contact in incremental steps, that it would help ease me through the problem."

"It sounds like a very wise approach. Is it working?"

"It's helping, but . . . ." Severus found his nerve failing him.

"But?" Penbroke gently prodded.

Taking a deep breath, he voiced the heart of his problem, "But when things reach a certain level of . . . intimacy, I consistently freeze up. I . . . haven't been able to get past that."

"Many rape victims experience that same problem," Penbroke offered.

The information was, of course, no help. What he was looking for was the way around it.

His disappointment must have shown on his face, for Penbroke continued with, "Coming here is the first step towards healing. Let's look at the problem for a moment and try to determine if there is anything in specific that triggers your reaction."

"You mean aside from the fact that I am engaged in sexual activities?"

His sarcasm didn't ruffle Penbroke at all. The man simply smiled and said, "Aside from that. Is there any action in particular that makes you react that way?"

"Are you asking for details of my sex life?" Severus was scandalized.

"I'm asking you to consider what is happening at the time you react that way. Sometimes, there is a specific trigger involved. It can be so simple as a kiss or being touched in a certain area. Is there any common element that occurs when you experience this freeze, or is it just the prospect of having sex itself that causes it?"

Finally seeing where Penbroke was headed, Severus considered the questions. "Initially, it was the prospect of . . . being penetrated."

"Do you commonly engage in activities that lead to being penetrated?"

Feeling the heat in his face, Severus gave a tight nod. He knew what the Wizarding World thought of men who allowed themselves to be taken.

"Prior to being raped, did you enjoy those activities?"

The bluntness startled him, enough so that he actually met the other man's eyes. Once again, search as he would, he could find no trace of judgment in Penbroke's open features. "Harry prefers to be on top, and I . . . have always preferred the other role. Our needs have always complemented each other."

"And how do you feel about being taken now?" Penbroke asked.

Severus swallowed hard. He didn't know what he'd expected their initial interview to be like, but it wasn't this. Remembering that Penbroke had said his cure would depend on his ability to be honest, he was determined to do his best to answer whatever questions the man put to him. "I want things to be the way they were. I want to be able to give Harry what I used to give him."

"That's a noble sentiment, but you didn't answer my question. How do you feel about being taken now?"

"I . . . the idea . . . ." Severus didn't think that he'd ever openly admitted to something frightening him. Staring at that icy coldness inside, he finally answered, ". . . is difficult."

"Have you discussed this with Harry?"

Another negative shake of his head and reluctant, "No."

"Why not?"

"Because I have to get over it. I want things to return to normal."

"I'm not saying this will happen, but what if you find you can never enjoy your former role again?" Penbroke asked.

Severus gulped at hearing his worst fear given voice. "Then I will lose him."

"Is that a foregone conclusion?"

"What man would stay in a situation where he will never achieve sexual satisfaction?" Severus snapped.

"There are other means of satisfaction beyond the single action you mentioned earlier," Penbroke said. Severus had the feeling he was voicing his suggestion so discretely in deference to his own sensibilities.

"Yes, and we used to engage in them as well. But that was our . . . preferred method of lovemaking."

"And you believe your lover will leave you if you are unable to engage in this activity for any length of time?"

Severus could only nod.

"Yet, you said it's been five months since you had sex at all, and he is still there. That seems to indicate that his feelings for you are more important to him than mere sexual gratification. Is it possible that you might be selling your Harry short?"

"What do you mean?"

"You've told me he has admitted that he loves you. He has stayed with you through circumstances that would have destroyed many a relationship. I don't know him personally, but from what little you've said about him, he doesn't strike me as the type of man who bails when situations become difficult."

"No . . . he is extremely loyal, but . . . how long can even a paragon endure such . . . deprivation?"

"Perhaps he doesn't see it as a deprivation?" Penbroke suggested.

"That's what he says."

"And you don't believe him? Why?"

As ever, Severus wondered how someone could look at him and ask that kind of question. Penbroke was a Squib, not a Muggle. He was familiar enough with the Wizarding World to have heard all the gossip and rumours. Yet, he still seemed genuinely confused and was obviously sitting there awaiting some kind of answer.

Severus finally found something that was true that he could say without completely humiliating himself. "Because no one else has ever stayed when I was no longer able or willing to accommodate their sexual needs. This is . . . completely outside my experience."

"Sometimes the things outside our experience are the things that have the power to reshape our entire world, if we're open to their influence," Penbroke said.

Thinking that Harry had done just that, he considered the words.

"I think we've made a good start today, Severus," Penbroke said. "Are you up to meeting again this week?"

Severus didn't know if he were relieved or disappointed that their time was up. Considering the man's question, he answered, "Yes."

"Good, very good. Will the same time, the day after tomorrow work for you?"

That would be a school night, right in the middle of detentions. Normally, he would never consider accepting any appointment during that period, but . . . this was important. "I will be here."

"You're a teacher. You'll appreciate this. I'm going to give you some homework to do over the next few days," Penbroke said.

"Homework?" he echoed uncertainly.

"During our sessions, we will be exploring many of the topics we brushed upon today. But tonight and tomorrow, I want you to remember those times you froze up when trying to be intimate. Try to determine if there is any one common factor responsible for your adverse response when you're close to Harry. Do you think you can do that?"

"Yes."

"Good. I'll see you Tuesday evening, then."

Feeling more than a little shell-shocked, Severus rose from the couch and crossed to the floo. He was shaking the ashes off himself in his thankfully empty sitting room when he realized that he'd forgotten to pay the man.

*~*~*

The Three Broomsticks was its usual Friday night blend of noise, music, and laughter as Severus stepped out of the floo. The loudness of the crowd hit him like a physical blow. The fact that the conversations closest to the hearth broke off when the nearby patrons recognized him played along his already tense nerves.

"Are you all right?" Harry Potter's soft voice said from behind him, a familiar hand settling on his arm to steady him.

Taking a deep breath, Severus gave a tight nod and turned to meet Harry's gaze.

The lights were flickering off those round spectacles. Even so, Severus could still read the concern in the wide green eyes behind the clear lenses.

"If you'd rather go back home, we can leave now," Harry suggested, stepping in closer.

Severus considered the offer. More than anything, he wanted to retreat to the peace and silence of his dungeons, but . . . he'd spent the last five months hiding out there. Harry hadn't been out with his friends on a Friday or Saturday night once since he'd started helping Severus through his nightmares. The wistful expression in Harry's eyes this morning as he'd asked him if he were up to an evening at their local pub had told him how much Harry wanted to socialize. His suggestion that Harry leave him behind hadn't gone over well at all. Harry had offered to stay home with him, but Severus knew how unfair that was. They hadn't done anything Harry enjoyed in months. So . . . here he was.

"No," Severus denied. "It will be fine."

The relieved smile Harry gave him told him he'd made the right decision.

"Harry, Severus," Hermione's voice rang through the din around them. "We're over here."

Harry's hand gripped his arm as he turned to lead the way to the far corner where the Weasleys had appropriated the only table that still had several empty chairs at it.

Severus gratefully sank down in a chair in the corner, Harry sitting beside him.

"Wow, it's crowded tonight," Harry said.

"Yes," Hermione answered, "the fair weather seems to have brought everyone out."

Harry's gaze turned to the remaining empty chairs, "Where are Fleur and Bill?"

"Georgie's got an upset stomach, so they're not coming," Ron said.

"Ah, too bad," Harry said. "I think Severus wanted a shot at talking little Fred into Slytherin."

"Fred's only two," Ron protested.

Trying to relax, Severus concentrated on his four companions and offered an urbane, "It's always wise to start indoctrination as early as possible."

Harry's chuckle seemed to envelop him. Suddenly, the stares of all those strangers didn't seem as bothersome.

"Hermione?" a woman's musical voice called from the bar.

They all turned to see a gorgeous blonde woman approaching them.

Hermione jumped to her feet to embrace the woman.

The breath froze in Severus' lungs as he recognized the woman hugging Hermione, and, more importantly, the heavyset man in her party. The woman was Lydia Forrester. There was an unfamiliar man, whom Severus guessed to be Lydia's husband, between her and her brother, John Penbroke, who was only too familiar.

His analyst's steps seemed to falter as their eyes met. Severus watched Penbroke's brown gaze take in their group, pausing for a moment on Harry, who was sitting closer to Severus than even the crowded pub warranted.

Ron and Harry rose their feet to shake both Penbroke and the stranger's hands. Clearly, everyone was acquainted. The excited chatter made Severus feel extremely excluded.

He'd barely had time to acknowledge that childish feeling when Harry turned to him with a warm smile. "Severus, I think you already know Lydia."

Meeting her pale blue eyes, Severus gave a nod, "Miss Penbroke."

"It's Mrs. Forrester now," Lydia corrected. "This is my husband, Terrence Forrester," she waved towards the handsome dark haired man at her side, and then gestured towards Penbroke, "And this is my brother, John. It's so good to see you again, Professor!" Once the resulting handshakes were finished, her bright eyes took them all in. "Are these chairs taken? There's none to be had for love or money."

"No, please join us," Hermione quickly offered. "I'm afraid we're still a chair short."

"Hold on a second," Harry said. "I'll take care of that."

"You know Rosmerta doesn't like us transfiguring her stuff," Hermione scolded as Harry withdrew his wand and waved it at a saltshaker he'd taken from the table.

Once again, Severus was impressed by how careful Harry was in public. He transformed the chair using his wand and a spell like most wizards would.

"Thanks, Harry," Terrence Forrester said, as the new arrivals took their seats.

Lydia and her husband ended up in the two empty chairs next to Ron, while Penbroke sat down in the one Harry had transfigured, which was right beside Severus.

Hermione and Lydia were obviously fairly close, for no sooner had the Forresters sat down, then the two women began eagerly discussing what sounded like a dozen topics that Severus couldn't even follow.

As Severus' gaze touched the dark haired man at Lydia's side, the man smiled and said, "Lydia speaks quite highly of you, Professor Snape."

"Does she?" Severus said, for want of a wittier response. Penbroke's presence here had thrown him completely.

"Yes," Forrester replied.

Deciding to try to make conversation, Severus commented, "I don't remember you from Hogwarts."

"No, sir, you wouldn't. I went to Grimstaff," Forrester said.

Severus was somewhat surprised Forrester would admit to that. He couldn't count the number of times someone would claim to have gone to Durmstrang or Beauxbaton, rather than claim such lowly origins. Only wizards of the oldest families or the most powerful of the Muggleborn wizard children received invitation letters to Hogwarts. Grimstaff had open admission and wasn't generally considered prestigious.

"What do you do now?" Severus asked.

"I'm a prosecutor. Ron and I often work on cases together," Forrester said.

Ron apparently overheard that, for he looked over at them and said, "He's the best there is. Are you part of that Covington mess?"

"I've heard that name," Harry said. "What's the story behind it?"

As Ron and Forrester explained the details to Harry, Severus sat back and sipped his drink.

While everyone's attention was on their conversations, Penbroke leaned over and softly said to him, "I'm sorry to have intruded on your night out. I didn't see you until Lydia had dragged us over. Would you be more comfortable if I left?"

He would, but it would hardly be polite to say so. Normally, Severus didn't hold much with social convention, but the work he'd been doing with Penbroke these last three weeks had made him more conscious of how his actions affected others. "Although I'm tempted, the explanations would be awkward in the extreme."

"I could claim a headache," Penbroke offered.

"No, I . . . you simply took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting to see you here," Severus confessed.

"Me, too," Penbroke said with a smile. Still talking in that low tone that would carry no further than where Severus was sitting, Penbroke said, "I didn't know you were close friends with Hermione and Ron."

Severus nodded. The muscles in his entire body tensed as he awaited the next, inevitable observation about Potter being his 'Harry'.

"Do you come here often?" Penbroke shocked him by making small talk, instead of questioning him about Harry.

"We used to, before January," Severus said. Once again, Penbroke refrained from questioning the 'we'.

"It's a fun place, one of the few places I feel comfortable in the Wizarding World," Penbroke admitted.

"I imagine it is quite frustrating dealing with our world without magic," Severus said.

Penbroke nodded. "It can be. It's not the lack of magic as much as the attitudes of those who have it that make it difficult."

Severus nodded. He'd seen some of the cruelties Squib children endured in the Wizarding World. "People can be quite cruel."

"It's easier now that I'm a grown man. Adults are so much more . . . polite. When I was younger . . . . ." Penbroke's voice trailed off.

Severus realized that, for all that he'd told this man things he wouldn't share with even Harry, whom he trusted above all others, he knew nothing about Penbroke's life outside of that comfortable sitting room where they held their sessions.

"It must have been difficult," Severus said.

Penbroke nodded. "Nothing empowers some people more than having a defenceless victim."

"Yes," Severus agreed.

Severus could almost see Penbroke remembering some of the things they'd discussed.

The smile he received was very warm as Penbroke commented, "Yes, I suppose you would understand what that's like. Fortunately, my parents and sister were more . . . enlightened than most of Wizarding Society. They didn't spend their time tossing me out windows and the like to try to force my magic to manifest. Once it became clear that I was a Squib, they did everything in their power to keep me safe."

"You were most fortunate," Severus said.

"I know how lucky I was, am. The papers are full of tragedies where children have died at their own families' hands when their parents tried to force them to use their magic."

"Did Mr. Forrester know that Lydia had a Squib brother before they married?" Severus questioned, genuinely curious. A Squib in the immediate family was often grounds for breaking engagements in Wizarding society. Most families had a tendency to hide such facts.

Penbroke chuckled. "Terry met me before he met Lydia, in circumstances that could leave him in no doubt that I was a Squib."

"Oh?" Severus encouraged.

"Do you really want to hear about that?" Penbroke asked.

Still speaking in that low voice that would carry no further than the man next to him, Severus said, "I know nothing about you, but you know my every secret."

"Not your every secret," Penbroke chuckled. "There's a mighty huge one sitting at the table with us."

Severus felt the corners of his mouth twitch. He'd wondered if Penbroke would address this issue. "Everyone must retain some mystery. You were about to tell me how you met your brother-in-law."

"Was I?" Penbroke laughed.

Severus was surprised to realize that he was actually enjoying himself. Normally, the things he discussed with this man left him a wreck. "Yes, you were."

"Very well," Penbroke agreed. "I was thirteen and at my first Quidditch World Cup game when Terry and I met. I was going through a difficult stage then. I was trying to establish my independence from my parents, as most adolescents do at that age. Only, it wasn't exactly safe for me to do so. I insisted on going to the refreshment stand alone during halftime. Predictably enough, I ended up being tossed about by a couple of bullies. Terry petrified the buggers and brought me back to my family. He and Lydia took one look at each other, and that was all she wrote."

"He sounds quite Gryffindor," Severus remarked.

"Hardly," Penbroke denied. "We both know that no sixteen year old Gryffindor would have looked twice at a Slytherin girl, no matter how lovely she might be."

"Gryffindor and Slytherin can occasionally rise above their house differences," Severus mildly protested.

"So I see," Penbroke said, casting a meaningful glance Harry's way.

Severus felt his cheeks warm. He was spared having to respond when the object of their conversation turned to look at him.

"Sorry, I got caught up in the conversation," Harry said. "How are you doing?"

Reading the genuine concern in Harry's eyes, Severus found a small smile and assured, "I am fine. Mr. Penbroke was just relating how he and his brother-in-law met."

"You're not telling that tale again; are you, John?" Forrester questioned from Harry's other side, looking ill at ease,

"Like all true heroes, he hates to be reminded of his good deeds," Penbroke joked. His voice carried to Ron and the women, and everyone joined in on the laughter.

Harry's arm slid casually across Severus' chair, resting against his back.

Severus leaned into the contact, pleased and surprised as ever that Harry would make such gestures in public.

"You must have a rare charm, John," Harry said. "Severus never engages strangers in small talk."

Panic gripped Severus' gut at the curiosity in Harry's observation. It hadn't occurred to him that it would be unusual that he would talk to Penbroke, but Harry was right. He hardly ever relaxed enough with strangers to have a decent conversation. He had no idea how to explain his connection with Penbroke. He had no wish to announce to the entire table that he was in therapy. Yet, he wasn't prepared to lie to Harry about that fact, either.

Severus was spared the necessity of answering when Penbroke smoothly offered, with perfect Slytherin aplomb and sincerity, "Professor Snape is hardly a stranger to the Penbroke family. He was Lydia's head of house for seven years and a schoolmate of my father's. Though, I think Dad was several years behind you, wasn't he?"

Almost limp with relief, Severus corrected, "Four ahead."

"Oh, yes, of course. I forgot that Lydia was in Slytherin," Harry said.

"A fact that puts you, Hermione, and Ron leagues above your housemates," Lydia Forrester commented. "Would you believe that I saw Sharon Marshall at Mrs. Milliken's dress shop the other afternoon and she actually pretended she didn't know who I was?"

"Who's Sharon Marshall?" Harry, Hermione, and Ron chimed as one, causing everyone to laugh again.

Once the merriment calmed, Severus answered, "Miss Marshall was prefect in Gryffindor House the year before you came to Hogwarts."

"We didn't have houses in Grimstaff," Forrester said. "I'm not sure I understand their function. They seem to be very divisive."

"I've always thought so," Hermione said. "Nearly the first thing I heard when I arrived at Hogwarts was that all the Dark Wizards were in Slytherin."

Severus held his breath, waiting for Ron to make some sort of comment about that being true. Though it irked him, Severus knew Voldemort had drawn nearly his entire following from Slytherin House. There was historical precedence to support the claim as well. Throughout the ages, the members of his house were always among the first to break most rules in the pursuit of power.

To Severus' shock, Harry derailed the discussion he was dreading by softly saying, "I never told anyone, but the Sorting Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin. I talked it into letting me go to Gryffindor."

Six shocked voices chorused, "What?" Severus' was perhaps the loudest among them.

At first, Severus thought he was joking, but the nervousness on his face as Harry looked at them all told him it was true.

"You never said anything about that," Hermione finally commented, reaching out to lay her hand on Harry's where it rested on the table.

"I, er, was afraid to when I was in school," Harry admitted.

It was a testament to Slytherin's reputation that no one asked Harry why.

Severus couldn't help but wonder how things might have been different if Harry Potter had been sorted into his house. Even now, he could recall the sense of anticipation that had filled the Great Hall when the Boy Who Lived had been called up to put the Sorting Hat on his head. Every one of Hogwarts' heads of houses had been hoping that the most famous boy in the Wizarding World would be sorted into their house. Severus couldn't deny that he'd hoped the same himself. Not because he'd had any particular desire to have James Potter's brat made his responsibility, but the excitement it would have caused had the Boy Who Lived been sorted into Slytherin would have been most amusing. But that wasn't how that momentous night played out. With boring predictability, Harry Potter had been sorted into Gryffindor, and the die had been cast, guaranteeing that he and James' son would be enemies for the next decade or more.

"Don't look so shocked, Ron," Lydia Forrester said. "Harry was right to keep his secret. He'd probably have lost every friend he'd made if he'd admitted the hat wanted to put him in Slytherin."

"No, he wouldn't," Ron insisted.

"Yes, he would have," Lydia corrected him. "It happened to me."

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked.

"I'd made friends with three girls on the Hogwarts Express that first year. We'd spent the entire train ride together, laughing and getting to know each other. Once that hat sorted me into Slytherin, not a single one of those girls would so much as talk to me."

"They went to Gryffindor?" Hermione guessed.

Lydia nodded.

The silence that followed was uncomfortable, made even more so by the laughter of the crowded pub around them.

Finally, Lydia Forrester broke the awkward quiet with, "Not everyone who is sorted into Slytherin is evil. Anymore than everyone sorted into Gryffindor is heroic."

Severus remembered how impressive Lydia's self-control had been in school. She'd never once allowed herself to be dragged into the petty house rivalries that were the earmark of Slytherin – Gryffindor relations.

"That's true enough. Look at Peter Pettigrew. His family was in Gryffindor nearly as long as mine," amazingly, it was Ron who voiced that observation. Weasley further astounded Severus by turning to Harry to say, "Maybe you were right to keep that Sorting Hat business to yourself. I'd like to say that it wouldn't have made a difference, that we would have been friends no matter what, but . . . ."

"Yeah," Harry answered, adding a nervous, "You're not angry that I didn't tell you before this, are you?"

Ron gave a negative shake of his head. "Of course not, you idiot."

Severus noted that Harry didn't seem to feel compelled to ask Hermione the same question.

"Ron forgave you for quitting the Cannons," Penbroke added in a joking tone. "If he forgave you that, Slytherin's nothing in comparison."

"Isn't that the truth?" Forrester laughed. "Did you see the mess they made of that game on Sunday? Marcus was beside himself."

It took Severus a moment to recall that Marcus was the name of the Forresters' only child.

"How's Marcus doing?" Hermione questioned. "He'll be coming to Hogwarts this fall, won't he?"

Severus abruptly remembered Hermione telling him how she'd met Lydia years ago when her child was ill.

As the women's conversation turned to the Forresters' son, and the men's to quidditch, Harry leaned in close to Severus to speak quietly into his ear. "I, er, probably should ask you the same question I asked Ron. Are you upset with me for not telling you about the Sorting Hat sooner? I'd honestly forgotten about it until the subject came up tonight."

Turning to face Harry, Severus could see the truth of that in his eyes. He could also see how worried he was. "I suppose I was shocked more than anything. The idea had never occurred to me." Seeing that Harry still seemed uneasy, Severus added, "You have always been the embodiment of all things Gryffindor."

As he'd hoped, his words seemed to bolster Harry. His lover might have matured to the point where he understood that Slytherin didn't automatically equate to evil, but Harry still took great pride in being Gryffindor.

After a quiet pause in which they seemed to just study each other's eyes, Harry asked in that same low tone, "How different do you think it would have been for us if I'd let the Hat put me in Slytherin?"

Severus took a quick glance around the table. Hermione and Lydia still had their heads pressed close together as they talked. Ron, Forrester, and Penbroke were engaged in a lively discussion of the candidates for the next World Cup. No one else was within listening range.

Keeping his voice low, he gave Harry the truth, "For starters, we would never have become sexually involved had you been sorted into Slytherin."

Severus could see that threw Harry. Harry's, "What?" was nearly a yelp. As if realizing how loud he'd been, Harry whispered, "What do you mean?"

Another survey of the table showed everyone still absorbed. Severus quietly explained, "As head of house, I stand in for a student's parents. I have never been able to look at my former Slytherin students as potential sexual partners."

"So, if I'd been Slytherin, you probably would have been nicer to me, but we could never have become . . . ."

"Exactly," Severus replied.

"Wow, guess I was luckier than I knew that day," Harry chuckled. "You really wouldn't have . . . ?"

Severus gave a firm, negative shake of his head. "I don't think that this could have happened with any of my former students other than you."

"How's that?" Harry asked. "Not to shatter any illusions you might have, but the students of the other houses don't exactly view you as a parental figure."

The heavy irony in Harry's subdued tone brought a smile to his lips. "Perhaps not, but they were still children under my care. Even once they're fully grown, I can't really see them in that light."

"But you could see me that way?" Harry seemed curious, rather than alarmed or disgusted.

Resisting the impulse to squirm, Severus gave a hesitant nod. "We never had a typical student-teacher relationship. You stood up to me from the very first and never feared me the way the others did. And . . . ."

"And?" Harry encouraged.

"When you were thirteen years old, you tossed me, a former Death Eater on his guard, across the Shrieking Shack that night Pettigrew's treachery was unearthed. No student should have been able to do that. But you did it, like it was nothing."

"You were there to rescue me. Your guard was down. You weren't expecting me to do that," Harry protested, as if that excused what had happened.

"I was in a room with a man who'd tried to murder me when I was fifteen. I was prepared. You were just faster and stronger – at thirteen. Although I didn't view you in an inappropriate manner afterwards, I couldn't put you in the same category as the other students. You were, even then, a formidable adversary."

Severus had been concerned that Harry wouldn't understand what he was trying to say. He was relieved to see the gentleness in Harry's eyes as he softly said, "Thank you. But I think I'd rather we'd been friends."

"Ah-hum," the sound of someone clearing his throat shattered their moment.

Harry and he both turned startled glances on their companions, who were now all staring at them with varying degrees of confusion or amusement. Ron had been the one who'd cleared his throat.

Severus realized that he and Harry had been speaking so closely into each other's ears that, from the way they were positioned, it might have appeared that they were kissing. He felt his face warm in reaction.

Harry won his unending admiration by asking in a perfectly normal tone, "What's up?"

Penbroke seemed to be holding in his laughter as he answered, "We were wondering what your take was on Puddlemere United's defences?"

Harry shot Severus an apologetic look as he answered the question and was dragged into the heated debate.

Severus, who'd never cared much for professional quidditch, was content to listen as Harry gave a professional's evaluation of the topics. It wasn't until that moment that it occurred to him that the man he was involved with was equally as famous for his skills on the quidditch pitch as he was for defeating Voldemort.

The remainder of the evening passed without incident. Severus was surprised by how quickly the time seemed to fly. The few occasions he'd gone out in the past with Albus' friends or a group of Slytherins, he'd found these types of evenings interminable. But he actually enjoyed both the company and the conversation tonight.

"Goodnight, Professor Snape. It was wonderful to see you again," Lydia Forrester said as they all rose to leave.

There was handshaking all around as the women hugged goodbye.

"I hope we see each other again soon," Hermione said as she drew back from Lydia.

"Oh, that reminds me," Lydia said. "We're going to be spending July at my parents' villa in San Tropez. We'd love to have you all come visit."

Ron's voice broke the startled silence with a painfully forced, casual, "That's in the French Riviera, isn't it?"

"Yes, Ron, it is," Lydia answered with perfect grace.

Everyone from Hogwarts broke into laughter at Ron's shocked expression. Even Severus found himself giving a soft chuckle.

"I'll owl you to confirm the details," Lydia said to Hermione. Her blue eyes passed over the Weasleys to where he and Harry were standing. "You and Harry are invited, as well, Professor. I hope you'll have time to join us."

Stunned by her generous offer, Severus managed to answer, "Thank you. I'll consider it."

"We'll see you then," Lydia said as she, her husband, and brother made their way through the crowd to the Three Broomsticks' floo.

Clearly, Severus wasn't the only one in their party who'd been surprised by the invitation. Hermione, Ron, and Harry were all looking somewhat shocked.

It was Ron who broke the stasis by asking, "Do you think she was serious?"

Hermione gave a thoughtful nod. "Yes. Entirely. She's very worried about Marcus. He was sick so very long. They're a tight knit family. I don't think Lydia has ever spent an entire night away from Marcus. She's concerned about how he'll handle boarding at Hogwarts. I think she'd feel better if he knew several of his teachers before going."

"You think that's why she asked us?" Harry questioned.

"Well, I know for a fact they've gone to San Tropez every summer. This is the first time she's asked us to join them," Hermione said.

"It was a very Slytherin gesture," Severus agreed, drawing all eyes his way.

"How so?" Ron questioned.

"By hosting us in such luxurious surroundings, she hopes to gain our gratitude. It will also give her son the opportunity to ingratiate himself into two of his Gryffindor teachers and his head of house's good graces before we meet any of the other first years. It will give her son a marked advantage over his classmates," Severus explained.

"Do you think that's why she did it?" Ron looked as if he didn't know if he should be insulted or amused.

"Yes," Severus, Hermione, and Harry all answered as one, causing everyone to chuckle.

"No matter the motivation, it's still a generous offer," Hermione pointed out.

"So are we going to go?" Ron asked.

"Do you want to?" Harry asked Ron.

"Not all of us got to tour the world first class with a quidditch team," Ron groused. "It'd be nice to have a taste of how the other half lives."

"Really, Ron. You make it sound like we're living in a hovel," Hermione chided.

"We normally rent a cottage in Cornwall for a couple of weeks and then split the rest of the summer visiting your parents and mine. I'd hardly call it luxury," Ron said.

Realizing that it would only be a few weeks before summer break began, Severus turned to Harry to ask the question he hadn't ever thought about, but which was now of pressing consequence. Living day to day, expecting it to end any moment, he'd never thought they'd have been together long enough for the issue to come up. But now the summer break was looming threateningly close, and he had no idea how to handle it. He and Hagrid were usually the only two professors who remained at Hogwarts over the summer. Historically, Potter and the Weasleys cleared out a few hours after the students departed. Until this moment, he hadn't realized that his life was about to be upended in a couple of weeks. Almost dreading the answer, he asked Harry, "Er . . . what do you normally do over the summer break?"

"I usually go with Ron and Hermione to the cottage and then spend a few days at the Burrow. Then I travel alone the rest of the summer," Harry said. Those green eyes seemed entirely too knowing as Harry offered, "That's what I used to do. I already told Hermione and Ron that I'd be staying with you at Hogwarts if you didn't want to join us."

"You did?" Severus asked. Quite stupidly, he realized as soon as the words were out.

Though he couldn't recall a single instance in which Harry had lied to him, his lover's words seemed too timely. Harry had just confessed tonight that the Hat had wanted to sort him into Slytherin. Those smooth, reassuring words were so Slytherin Severus couldn't accept them.

But it was Hermione who answered his question with a matter-of-fact, "Yes, he did. Last month. That's not really the issue now. What are we going to do about Lydia's invitation?"

"Why don't we just think about it for a while?" Harry suggested. "If Severus were willing to go, I wouldn't mind spending a few weeks on the Riviera."

"You don't think there's a conflict of interest in accepting?" Hermione asked, smoothing her grey robes around her.

"It's not like she's asking us to give Marcus perfect grades or something, is it?" Harry asked.

"Isn't it?" Severus chimed in, because he couldn't stop himself from challenging Harry's often irksome faith.

Harry shot him a sour expression. "Stop winding people up just because you can." He turned to Hermione. "You know that's not what Lydia's after. She just wants to make sure that her only child will have some friends in his corner while he's away from home. We're already all fond of Marcus. I don't see how spending some time with them will make that big a difference."

"I, for one, have never met the young man," Severus reminded them.

"He's going to be sorted into Slytherin," Harry said. "You'll love him."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that, Harry," Hermione warned.

"What? The Penbrokes have been in Slytherin for centuries," Harry argued.

"But the Forresters haven't," Hermione countered. "If you had to go by personality traits alone, where would you put Terry?"

"Gryffindor," Ron answered, no doubt in his tone.

Harry broke into sudden laughter. "Poor Lydia."

"Well, I guess you're right. We should consider the offer," Hermione said. "Let's discuss it at breakfast, all right?"

As a group, they headed for the floo. The four of them made much better time through the crowd than Harry and he had upon arriving. After a quick exchange of goodnights, they flooed to their respective quarters.

Harry stepped out of the floo a mere moment after Severus cleared out of the space directly in front of the hearth.

Laughing, Harry said, "Sorry. We nearly splinched."

"Collided, more like," Severus absently corrected. "We'd already materialized."

"Did I ever tell you how sexy you are when you're snarky?"

The dubious look he cast Harry's way set off his lover's laughter again. The sound seemed to fill the sitting room. It had been a long time since the room had rung with laughter like this.

"Thank you for coming tonight," Harry said once he calmed. "I had a great time."

"The conversation was surprisingly interesting."

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Harry asked, seeming genuinely concerned.

"More than I expected to. The Forresters were most entertaining," Severus said.

"Yes, they're something special. You seemed to get on well with John. Hermione thinks the world of him."

Now was the time to come clean with Harry, he recognized. Yet, there was something in him that wouldn't allow him to admit that he'd sought help. So, instead of easing Harry's mind, he gave a typically Slytherin evasion, "He seemed very agreeable."

"He's apparently something of a wizard in his field," Harry remarked in a tentative, nervous tone.

"Are you going to suggest I consult him?" Severus challenged. He'd been waiting for Harry to voice this suggestion for months, but so far he hadn't made so much as a whisper about him seeking professional aid.

Harry shook his head. "No. Hermione told me she gave you his card. I know you won't . . . that you don't like to ask for help. It's just something to think about, that's all. Are you upset with me for bringing it up?"

Severus gave a negative shake of his head, still trying to find the words to tell Harry the truth.

"Good," Harry said. Leaning forward, his palm cupped the back of Severus' head and drew him down into a soft kiss. When they parted several breathless minutes later, Harry smiled at him and said, "I'm going to hit the loo. I'll meet you in bed."

When Severus finished his own turn in the lavatory, he found the wall sconces and hearth fire lit in the bedroom. Cheerful as those were, it was the sight of Harry in his sky blue pyjamas lounging on the bed that warmed him the most. He stood there in his grey flannel nightshirt in the bathroom doorway simply admiring Harry's sensual sprawl. Coming back here after a night out where they'd laughed and joked, it felt almost like old times. Before January, Severus would have climbed eagerly into that bed and they would have been all over each other. Now . . . well, he was happy not to feel any fear at the sight of Harry waiting there for him.

It was pathetic, he knew, but it was definitely an improvement over last month.

They hadn't attempted to make love since that disastrous morning three weeks ago. Severus knew it was his fault they weren't progressing. He was so afraid of another failure. The hours he'd spent dissecting his fears with Penbroke had helped him sort through some of the crippling panic, but he was still terrified to try, and Harry hadn't pushed him.

"Hey, there," Harry greeted, seeming to notice him in the doorway.

Realizing that he'd been caught staring, Severus swallowed hard and forced out a normal sounding, "Hello, yourself."

Harry's eyes seemed to heat his skin as Severus made his way to the bed. He climbed in on his side.

As soon as Severus was settled beneath the heavy duvet, Harry extinguished the wall sconces with a thought. The flickering flames from the hearth danced through the room as they did every night.

It took Severus a moment or two to realize that his companion hadn't lain down in the bed. Harry was still sitting up with his back resting against a bunch of pillows propped against the headboard. He was startled to find Harry still watching him.

"Are you all right?" Severus questioned, because Harry was rarely so motionless.

Harry nodded. "Tonight was great. I wanted to thank you again for agreeing to go."

Severus couldn't quite master the guilt that shot through him. He knew a few kisses were not how Harry used to prefer to end his evenings. The familiar weight of the basic unfairness of this situation settled over him. Holding that open gaze, he softly said, "I wish that I could be what I once was to you."

"You're exactly what you were to me," Harry corrected. "Do you hear me complaining?"

"No, but -"

"There are no 'buts' to it. I'm happy we had a good night out. Let's not ruin it. Please?"

Severus looked away, lest Harry read what he was feeling in his eyes.

"I wish you'd stop worrying about it," Harry said.

"I just . . . I don't know if I'm ever going to improve," Severus whispered his deepest fear.

This was where any normal person would bring up the idea of consulting a counsellor, Severus realized. But Harry made no such suggestion. Rather, Harry said in that same cheerful voice, "You were very much like your old self tonight. It was wonderful to see. I mightn't be any kind of expert, but I'd say that was a hell of an improvement."

"But we're still not . . . ." Severus' voice trailed off as he recognized that all his efforts would accomplish would be to shatter Harry's good mood.

Once again, Harry didn't make the predictable response. Instead of offering him empty platitudes of reassurance, Harry gave a soft, strangely enigmatic, "The night's still young."

Severus was so caught up in his depression that it took him over a minute to realize that Harry wasn't consoling him. Startled, he looked up from the pillow to where Harry was staring down at him from his sitting position. "What did you say?"

Harry gave him an oddly shy smile, but otherwise didn't reply. He just sat there, staring down into his eyes.

It took Severus a moment to notice that something was going on. The very air between them seemed to be vibrating with magic. He immediately recognized the intense, raw power as Harry's.

"What . . . what are you doing?" Severus questioned, shivering as the magic flowed over and around him. Harry didn't seem to be directing the magic with any set purpose. He was just radiating his power, the way the sun gave off light and heat. And, like a plant starved too long in the dark, Severus' entire being gravitated towards that brightness.

Severus gasped as the power increased. Every inch of his skin was tingling. "Harry?"

"It occurred to me the other day that we might be going about this all wrong," Harry said in the soft, sultry voice he used when making love.

"Wrong?" Severus croaked. The intensity of the power had upped its level dramatically. Severus wasn't sure if it was his imagination, but Harry's skin actually seemed to have a golden glow about it.

"Yeah. We've been trying to push you into doing things you're scared of. I just thought, maybe we should try working with something you like. Do you . . . are you okay with the magic?" Harry asked, the worry in his tone belying the calm set of his features.

Any sane wizard would have been terrified of the power building steadily beside him. This was the kind of power that parted seas and worked truly legendary spells. But Severus had never been sane, not when it came to this level of magic.

That power was the magical equivalent of a siren's call. It bypassed his brain, slithered around his inhibitions, and grabbed him where he lived, as Harry had obviously known it would.

His heart was pounding so hard that Severus could barely think. His breathing was fast and there didn't seem to be enough air in the room. Yesterday, it would have been fear causing his heart to race and his lungs to falter like this. Tonight, it was something he'd believed he'd never experience again. Severus gasped as his body went hard, his erection pulsing to the same beat as the magic pounding through the room.

It wasn't like when they made love and Harry's power flowed into him and manipulated his system. This was just his body's natural reaction to this level of power, his greatest weakness.

Harry's magic was dancing over him like an electric current, seducing, enticing, overwhelming him. It felt like every cell in his body was crying to be touched. And, still, Harry just sat there, watching him, as his power spiralled to terrifying levels.

Finding his voice, Severus grated out, "What are you going to do with it?"

"Not a thing," Harry replied smoothly. "I thought I'd just sit here."

"Sit there?" Severus had never thought cruelty to be part of Harry's character.

Harry's voice was gentle and understanding as he pointed out, "That doesn't mean you can't move."

"I . . . oh . . . ." It took a moment for the meaning to penetrate; Severus was so lost in sensation.

Harry upped the power output to a truly amazing level. There was a time that magic would have entered Severus' system and had its way with him, but tonight it just pulsed over him in ever increasing waves.

Feeling utterly bewitched, Severus pushed the bedclothes aside and staggered up to his knees, panting as he met Harry's gaze.

True to his word, Harry simply sat there watching him. Well, not just watching him, the power levels spiked again.

Severus wasn't even conscious of moving. One minute, he was kneeling there, frozen in place. The next, he was straddling Harry's knees, his hands clutching Harry's arms like talons as he covered that willing mouth, pressing Harry back into the pillows and the headboard.

Severus couldn't remember ever devouring someone the way he was kissing Harry tonight. It was like that powerhouse of magic pulsing around him had awoken a matching level of desire inside him. Primal and wild, he kissed and kissed, until kissing wasn't enough.

A breathy scramble followed in which Severus tugged his own nightshirt up and fumbled Harry's pyjama jacket and pants open and far enough off him that bare flesh could press against bare flesh. There was some more shifting, before they were flat on the bed. Harry was beneath him. Those strong hands were stroking everywhere they could reach on Severus' back and flanks, while Severus lost himself in the sweet depths of that mouth and pressed their hungry erections together.

The magic vibrating through the room felt powerful enough to shake the castle foundations, but it didn't. All it shook was Severus' world.

His hips found a rhythm. Harry matched him, thrust for frantic thrust. Severus' mind had checked out of the proceedings, taking his terror with it. His body remembered how much it loved this man. As had happened every single time they were intimate before Burke destroyed their happiness, their bodies moved as one. There was no inhibition, no shame, only blessed delight.

Severus pumped his hips down, Harry humped up, and between them, they discovered the true meaning of ecstasy.

Harry came with a sharp and piercing cry, his magic peaking to unbearable potential around them. The power melted Severus. He exploded, adding his own sticky offering to the mess between their bellies as his consciousness shattered into a million pieces of condensed joy.

When reality reformed around him, Severus found himself shuddering, sobbing uncontrollably into the hollow between Harry's neck and shoulder.

"Severus? Severus? Please, I'm sorry. Severus?" Harry sounded frantic.

With just cause, Severus realized as he took stock of himself. Raising his head, he stared through tear-blurred eyes at Harry's anxious, guilt-ridden face.

That last was unacceptable. He fumbled his hand free from beneath Harry and gently cupped his cheek. "That was . . . I'm – I'm not dead."

Though hardly coherent, his stumbling words seemed to reassure Harry. A slow smile spilled across Harry's face as he replied, "Not even broken."

"I didn't think I could," Severus said, his voice still embarrassingly hoarse and raspy.

Harry's wasn't quite steady either as he murmured, "I know."

"How did you know how to . . . ?"

Uneasiness passed through Harry's eyes. "I didn't. Not for sure. I just thought . . . well, you've always liked my power. It was the one thing we hadn't tried."

"It was me, wasn't it?" Severus questioned, sudden doubt eating through him. "You didn't . . . .?"

"It was all you, love. All I did was grab your attention. You're not angry with me, are you?"

"For?" Severus couldn't even comprehend the question.

"Well, I didn't tell you what I intended. Didn't really give you the chance to say no. I just -"

"Put my shattered soul back together?" Severus softly suggested.

He heard Harry gulp, before giving a nervous, "I don't think it's a complete cure, Severus."

"I know, but . . . it's a start, isn't it?" Severus was shocked by the burst of optimism that shot through him.

"It's a hell of a lot more than a start," Harry said, all the tension leaving his face. "God, it felt wonderful, didn't it?"

"I didn't think I'd ever feel like that again. It was . . . sublime." His unusual declaration was followed by a jaw-cracking yawn.

Harry chuckled. "Yeah, you sure were." Harry shifted them around until they were both beneath the duvet.

Severus wanted to answer, but the steady rise and fall of the chest beneath his cheek had put him under a sleeping spell. His eyes sank shut and refused to open before he could respond to Harry's absurd claim.

*~*~*

It was amazing the difference a few days could make, Harry Potter thought as he descended the endless sets of stairs from Gryffindor Tower down to the Slytherin dungeons after an evening of paper grading and chatting with Hermione and Ron. He still felt like he was walking on clouds.

He and Severus had made love four nights in a row now. They weren't doing anything other than some lovely frottage, but the fact that they were doing anything at all felt miraculous.

The effect that lovemaking had had on him was amazing. Harry felt as if his entire world had turned around overnight on Friday. It must be showing all over him, he realized, his cheeks warming as he remembered some of the teasing comments Ron had made over the last few days. Even Hermione had had something to say about the light in his eyes. His only hope was that his students hadn't sussed the cause of his good mood. That would be too embarrassing for words.

There were certainly enough of them on the stairs, Harry thought as he paused to answer yet another greeting. Didn't Hogwarts have curfews anymore?

Harry chuckled to himself as he realized that it was barely eight, earning an odd glance from a group of Hufflepuffs heading up the stairs. The smile dropped from his lips as he realized it would be at least another half hour before Severus finished overseeing detentions. It had felt much later when he'd left the Weasleys'.

"Hi, Professor Potter," Maggie Adair greeted him as she passed by him with two of her friends, who chorused her words.

"Good evening, girls," Harry was about to continue on his way, when he realized something was off. "Maggie?"

The small-boned brunette stopped on the stairs beside him. Looking at her, Harry could see that she had grass scattered over her robes, as did her two giggling friends. He could never understand why the young girls giggled so much in his presence. But it was the grass that had caught his attention. Maggie Adair and Adam Viers had received a year's detention from Severus last October. She should still be down in the Potion lab, not running about outside with her friends.

"Yes?"

"Aren't you supposed to be serving detention right now?" Harry asked. There was a time those words would have come out hesitantly, but four years of teaching had given him an authoritative streak that even Severus would be proud of.

Maggie's friends were no longer giggling.

"Professor Snape excused Adam and me for the rest of term last month," Maggie said.

"Last month?" Harry stupidly parroted. Severus hadn't returned to their quarters until after eight-thirty once in all the time he'd been living down there with him. His lover had certainly not mentioned releasing the students to whom he'd given long-term detentions. In fact, he was certain that Severus had mentioned having to wait until after detention when Harry had asked him to go out to the Three Broomsticks last Tuesday for drinks.

"Yes. He, er, didn't say why. We didn't ask; we just left," Maggie quickly explained.

"Of course," Harry said, trying to hide his confusion. "Sorry to have questioned you."

"It's okay. See you tomorrow, Professor," Maggie said, hurrying away up the stairs with her friends.

Harry's bubble of happiness abruptly shattered. If Severus wasn't administering detentions anymore, then what the hell was he doing every night after dinner for almost two hours?

Harry hated the doubt and fear that shot through him. But he couldn't help it. He'd been down this road once or twice before, and he knew the signs when someone was cheating.

But . . . it made absolutely no sense. How could Severus be cheating on him when the man had been incapable of making love until last Friday?

Telling himself that there had to be another explanation, Harry hurried down the stairs to Slytherin territory, barely acknowledging any further greetings.

It was possible that Severus might be working on something in the lab, Harry realized. He knew how their relationship had impacted Severus' research time. Perhaps Severus had cancelled the detentions to get more time in the lab, and hadn't wanted to tell him for fear of hurting his feelings. Yes, that had to be it. He just couldn't see Severus cheating on him, but, then, he hadn't seen it the two other times it had happened in those admittedly short-lived relationships.

Calmed a bit by the explanation, Harry hurried to Severus' private lab. The wards were up. Muttering the password, Harry hurriedly entered. The place was pitch black. There wasn't even a flame under the cauldron on the centre worktable.

That still didn't mean anything, Harry told himself as he closed the door and erected the wards behind him. Perhaps Severus had simply excused Maggie and Adam, but still had other students serving detention.

Clinging to that hope, Harry quickly moved down the hall to the Potions classroom and silently eased open the door. The classroom was just as dark and deserted as Severus' private lab.

A huge maw opening in the pit of his stomach as that hope was dashed, Harry turned towards Severus' quarters, the only place left.

He supposed it was possible that Severus had simply wanted some time to himself, but that didn't feel right. Why would Severus have lied about detentions last Tuesday if he were just sitting alone in his quarters? Which Severus hadn't been, Harry reminded himself, remembering how he himself had returned to Severus' empty quarters to grade some tests before they'd gone out.

The sitting room was depressingly dark and empty when Harry entered. He lit the hearth fire and wall sconces with a thought.

Everything in him was screaming that Severus wouldn't cheat on him. Even if Burke had never happened, Severus just wasn't the cheating type.

Or so Harry believed. Well, hoped. He honestly couldn't come up with another reason why Severus would have lied to him about his whereabouts if it were something innocent.

His whole world crumbling around him, Harry took a seat on the couch and settled in to wait.

*~*~*

"Every relationship comes a point where honesty comes into play," John Penbroke spoke into the dreadful silence that followed Severus' disclosure of some of the things he'd been a part of during his days with Voldemort. "If you cannot trust Harry to know who you truly are, can you ever really be certain of the relationship?"

As with almost every discussion they had, this one came back to trust. Penbroke harped on about it so often that Severus was beginning to hate the very word. Taking a deep breath, he shifted his position on the noisy leather couch and offered in as calm a voice as he could, "If Harry knew, he would be gone."

"You can't know that," Penbroke insisted.

"The man is the epitome of all things good and noble. Do you think he'd want to be with someone who'd done the things we just discussed?" Severus hated how shaky his voice sounded.

"What makes you think he doesn't already know?" Penbroke questioned.

"What?" Severus snapped.

"Your status as a former Death Eater is common knowledge. Do you truly believe that Harry Potter doesn't know what that means? Remember, he was Voldemort's guest on more than one occasion. I've known him for nearly six years now. Harry is many things, but oblivious is not one of them."

"Perhaps you're right. Perhaps he does suspect the truth, but . . . suspecting is quite a different thing from hearing these depravities from your lover's mouth. Our current status affords me the illusion of ignorance, without it . . . . "

"You would know for a fact that he loves you for who and what you are now. Your past would be where it belongs, in the past. As things stand, you are perpetually anticipating abandonment. Is that how you want to live the rest of your life?" Penbroke challenged.

"It's the only chance I have of keeping him," Severus answered. "If he knew half of what I've done, he'd leave . . . ."

"I think you're wrong about that," Penbroke insisted. "I think you owe it to yourself and Harry to let him prove that to you. You need to be honest with him; that's the only way you're ever going to work through this."

"Work through it? How do you work through having been an accomplice to torture and murder?" Severus demanded. Horrified, he realized he was shaking, and that the humiliating tears he'd thought he'd kept at bay were streaming down his cheeks as they did almost every time he talked to this man.

"You repent those acts, which I believe you have already done to a sufficient degree to satisfy even a Gryffindor like Harry."

"Acts such as those . . . they don't ever go away," Severus said, doing his best to keep his voice level.

"Maybe not, but time does help. Sometimes it heals. Was what you told me the truth?" Penbroke asked.

Severus nodded.

"From your description of the events, it didn't seem as if you had any choice but to comply with the Death Eaters' demands. The moment you were able to, you contacted Professor Dumbledore and offered him your allegiance."

"Not soon enough. People still died," Severus reminded him.

"But more lived because of your decision. I think Harry will understand that," Penbroke said.

"And if you're wrong?" Severus didn't understand why his emotions were always so close to the surface when he talked with Penbroke.

"Then at least you will no longer be living in fear. One way or another, you'll know."

"I already know," Severus protested.

"No, you fear the worst, and that is different than knowing. Give Harry the chance to prove you wrong."

Heavy silence fell over the room. After a time, Penbroke gently asked, "Are you all right?"

John Penbroke's soft voice intruded into Severus' mind, which was lost in a place so dark he never allowed himself to revisit it. His days with the Death Eaters were the stuff of nightmares, but, then, so much of his life had been like that. He couldn't imagine sharing this type of depravity with Harry.

Biting his lower lip between his teeth, Severus gave a tight nod, turned his face away from the other man, and surreptitiously wiped his sleeve over his cheeks. As ever, the tears surprised him. He could count on one hand and still have a few fingers left, the number of times he'd actually cried in his forty-eight years of life. But it didn't seem he could get through a single session with this man without being left a sobbing wreck. It was embarrassing. He'd always thought he was made of stronger stuff than this. Though, Penbroke didn't seem to find his breakdowns the least bit embarrassing, thank Merlin. It was hard enough discussing some of these issues without having to worry about what someone else was thinking about him.

"I think we're done for tonight," Penbroke said. He always seemed to know when Severus had reached his limits.

Severus gave another nod. Once he'd assured himself that his cheeks were dry, he turned back to Penbroke.

"I know it probably doesn't feel like it from where you're sitting, Severus, but you really are making incredible progress."

"You call this progress?" Severus couldn't quite cover his incredulity.

"Well, you don't seem to be burying your feelings so deeply these days. You do seem to be much more in touch with them," Penbroke pointed out.

"If I were any more in touch with them, I would be a sobbing wreck all day, every day," Severus responded in his normal urbane tone, which seemed to tickle his analyst as much as it did Harry, were Penbroke's laughter any indication.

"Not all day, every day," Penbroke countered. "From what you told me, Friday night did have its high points."

Reminded of that victory, Severus felt a small smile touch his lips. "I suppose I should thank you for that."

Penbroke's laughter filled the room again. "Doesn't seem like I had anything to do with it."

"Perhaps not, but . . . when I first came here, I didn't think this would be of any use. I don't understand how it works, when I end up in tears most days, but . . . somehow, it is making a difference," Severus said.

"You've had a difficult life," Penbroke said. "I think you learned to survive by refusing to acknowledge the pain, but that didn't make it go away. Tears are the body's way of releasing that pain."

"I do seem to have an inordinate amount of them, don't I?" Severus tried to joke.

"Not in light of some of the things you've experienced."

Severus nodded. "Perhaps. I should return to the school. We've run over our time again."

"It's no matter," Penbroke dismissed his concern. "You don't think I have anyone coming in later than this, do you? To be honest, you're my only wizard patient at the moment."

"I am?"

Penbroke gave a snort. "Most wizards don't have your courage. They want a spell or a potion to cure what ails them, even if what ails them is their mind."

"A potion would be convenient, wouldn't it?" Severus asked, intrigued by the idea.

"Are you planning on putting me out of business here?" Penbroke laughed. "Go on. Go home to Harry before you come up with an idea to make me redundant."

"Somehow, I can't see that happening. At least, not while I still require daily sessions."

Chuckling, Penbroke rose to his feet. "Good night, Severus. I'll see you tomorrow."

With a polite 'good night' Severus apparated to Hogwarts' gates.

Although the sun had set some time ago, the air was still warm. His robes felt very heavy as he followed the path up to the castle. Reminding himself that it was nearly June, Severus made his way across the shadowy grounds. He appreciated the time it took to reach the castle doors; it was usually sufficient to collect himself enough to hide whatever ghosts his session with Penbroke had raised.

His Slytherins seemed to have some way of sensing when he was in the halls, for, even though he knew for a fact that the majority of the upper class students were never in their common room before curfew, he never caught them in the corridors. The portraits were the only things that tried to make conversation with him tonight as he hurried back to his rooms, and he'd had decades of experience at ignoring them.

The wall sconces were lit and Harry was sitting there before a roaring fire waiting for him, just as usual. Even so, the second he stepped into the room, Severus couldn't help but sense that something was off. When he returned home at night, he usually found Harry grading papers, reading, or sometimes napping on the couch. Harry was just sitting there on the end of the sofa, staring into the hearth with an empty expression on his face. Harry didn't even turn to greet him when he entered.

"Hello," Severus said, wondering what he'd interrupted.

Harry finally turned to look at him. There was something strange in his eyes that Severus couldn't place as he said, "Hello."

"Are you all right?" Severus questioned, not understanding the tension he could feel growing in the room.

"Fine," Harry answered in a clipped tone that sounded anything but fine. "What could be wrong?"

"Harry?" Severus questioned.

"How did detentions go tonight?" Harry asked, an unfamiliar hardness tightening his features.

The tension that always gripped him whenever Harry asked that particular question settled over him as Severus gave his customary reply of, "Much the same as usual."

"Really?" Harry's voice practically dripped sarcasm. "The strangest thing happened on my way down here tonight. I passed Maggie Adair on the stairs. She said that you'd excused the students from detention last month. You can imagine how surprised I was, since that's where you've been claiming to have spent your evenings. And, before you even suggest it, I checked both the Potions classroom and lab. You weren't there."

Thinking fast, because he could feel Harry's anger building in the room as a physical, magical presence, Severus softly admitted, "No, I wasn't."

"Would you mind telling me where you were, then?" For all that the man seemed a breath away from exploding, Harry's words were softly voiced, which made them all the more chilling.

The wall sconces and hearth fire were beginning to flicker as Harry's magic moved restlessly through the room.

Taking a deep breath, Severus came clean with, "I was seeing John Penbroke."

"You're seeing another man?"

Severus couldn't understand the despair and anger that seemed to colour Harry's question. He'd known that Harry wouldn't be happy that he'd kept the fact that he'd sought treatment a secret, but he couldn't quite correlate the degree of distress Harry seemed to be experiencing with the wrong he'd committed. The man looked like his world was falling apart around him. Completely confused about what was going on, Severus hesitantly asked, "I realize that you must be disappointed in me. I should have been honest with you from the start."

"How long?" Harry seemed to force the words out.

"What?"

"How long have you been seeing him?" Harry snapped.

Holding that furious gaze, Severus softly confessed, "A month."

"A month!" The emphasis Harry put on that word was totally lost on him. "You haven't been able to let me touch you for forever, but you've been seeing another man for a month?"

At first, Harry's words were a complete non sequitur. But then the meaning of Harry's anger finally became clear and Severus' brain seemed to give an almost audible click as he figured out what was going on. Harry seriously thought he was having an affair with another man? Nearly shocked beyond words by what Harry was suggesting, Severus quickly stated, "Not romantically."

"What?" Harry demanded, as if he hadn't understood.

"I have been seeing John Penbroke in his professional capacity as an analyst for the last month," Severus explained. He wasn't sure that he'd even be believed. He knew that deception only bred distrust and he hadn't been particularly honest with Harry.

"You . . . ." Harry searched his face and then gave an oddly inflected, "Oh."

Harry's expression was an endearing mix of relief and embarrassment.

Severus' own mind still reeling from the misunderstanding, he hesitantly asked, "You seriously believed that I was sexually involved with someone else?"

Harry now appeared totally embarrassed. "It didn't make any sense. I mean, I know you. I know that even if you were completely healed again, you wouldn't just . . . but I couldn't figure out why else you would have lied about where you were. I'm sorry I doubted you." After a pause, he asked, "Why didn't you tell me?"

With a weary sigh, Severus sank down onto the couch beside Harry.

"Because I'm an idiot?" Severus suggested, and then confessed in a more serious tone, "I . . . was ashamed. Apparently, I am extremely . . . damaged." It was the only word he could offer that was both honest and something he would be able to voice. "I've had daily sessions for nearly a month now. As I understand it, that is somewhat unusual."

"After what you went through in January -" Harry began.

"What Burke did to me was horrific, but it isn't the source of most of my problems," Severus corrected, realizing that it was time to stop dissembling with this man who had given him back his soul and sanity.

"It isn't?" Harry hesitantly repeated.

"Well, obviously, it's the cause of the sexual problems I've been experiencing lately, but . . . you, of all people, know that I have never been what anyone would call normal." Severus was trying to remain his normal, unaffected self, but despite his best efforts at control, he found himself wrapping his arms around his chest.

"Who is?" Harry countered, the gentleness that was the earmark of his character back. To Severus' shock, Harry reached out to lay a hand on his arm. "You suit me fine."

Warmed by those words more than he could credit, Severus held those concerned eyes and said, "And, yet, I hurt you on a regular basis."

"What are you talking about?" The confusion in Harry's attitude was reassuring. Perhaps he hadn't mucked things up as horribly as he'd feared.

"You are the one person in this world who has ever truly . . . loved me," Severus forced himself to answer. "You have lavished affection and kindness on me -"

"It hasn't been exactly a one way deal," Harry interrupted. "You've done the same for me."

That Harry believed those words was obvious. Humbled, Severus softly offered, "I have tried. I am . . . relieved that I haven't failed you entirely. It has often felt that way."

"What are you talking about?" Harry questioned, moving closer. His hand didn't leave Severus' arm. "You've never failed me once."

"I beg to differ. Every time you have told me that you love me, I have been unable to offer you similar assurances. Even though you are the saving grace of my life, I haven't once told you that I love you."

"That's not true," Harry denied, his fingers tightening around Severus' wrist. "You did tell me."

Thrown, because Severus could see Harry wasn't lying, despite his own certainty to the contrary, he hesitantly asked, "When? Every memory I have of you offering me that gift, shows that I failed to reciprocate. I have given you so little assurance of my . . . feelings for you that you seriously believed I was cheating on you."

"That was me, not you," Harry protested. "It was my insecurity. I knew you wouldn't, and I should have had faith in you. But, all that aside, you did tell me you love me, in circumstances that wouldn't allow any doubt."

"I have no idea what you're referring to. Every time you have said those words, I have acted the coward's part and failed to reciprocate," Severus said. His discussions with Penbroke over the last few weeks had made him recognize how deeply his failure to reciprocate must have hurt Harry.

"You have never acted the coward's part," Harry insisted. "Just because you didn't say something out loud, doesn't mean you didn't tell me with your actions every single day that you loved me. And you did tell me with words. That night on the quidditch pitch in February when you erased my memories, you told me that if there were one thing in this world you loved, it was me."

Once again, Harry seemed to be telling him the truth.

Severus thought back to that awful night. Rack his mind as he would, he had no idea what Harry was talking about. "I . . . my memories of that night are vague. I think I truly was insane."

"Insane or not, you said it, and you meant it," Harry argued.

"And then I erased you memories."

To his complete incomprehension, Harry actually chuckled in response to his reminder. "Yeah, well, I guess that was the insane portion of the proceedings. If it's any comfort to you, I don't think I would have won any stability awards myself that night."

"How can you make light of something like that?" Severus asked.

"It's ancient history now. You said you were sorry. It's over."

"But . . . ."

"There are no 'buts' here, Severus. It's over. Let it go," Harry urged. His hand left Severus' wrist to gently touch his cheek. "And no more kicking yourself over all this other stuff."

"One must take responsibility for one's actions," Severus insisted. He mightn't have a clue how this Muggle therapy was supposed to help him, but that much had become clear very early in his sessions with Penbroke.

Harry reached out to brush the hair back from his face, his expression very soft as he said, "You've had the weight of the world on your shoulders your whole life. You couldn't be more responsible if you tried."

Harry's hands settled on his arms, urging him closer.

Severus' mind still felt as if he were at war with himself as he rested his cheek on Harry's shoulder and accepted the comfort on offer. John Penbroke had spent the last month trying to get him to accept that he was worthy of Harry's affections, but even now, he felt utterly unclean. He couldn't help but feel that by touching him, Harry tainted himself. Perhaps it was simply that today's session was still too close. Penbroke had forced him to examine actions that he normally spent his days struggling to forget. The man who'd done those things had no right to touch Harry Potter.

"I wish there were something I could do to make this easier for you," Harry whispered as his hand rubbed over his back in reassuring circles. That luscious mouth settled in the oily hair at the crown of his head to murmur, "Just know how proud I am of you."

It was too much. Severus pulled out of the embrace, his entire body trembling.

"What's wrong?" Harry questioned.

"You wouldn't be," Severus managed to stammer out.

"What?" Harry sounded completely bewildered.

"Proud. If you knew what I was – the things I've done – you wouldn't be proud. You wouldn't be here," Severus forced his deepest fear out. He couldn't go on pretending like this. Every single day he spent dredging up his past with Penbroke showed him how completely inappropriate it was for him to be with this bright and beautiful young man. Harry was the embodiment of all that was good and noble. While he . . . .

Harry seemed to study him for a long moment before cautiously answering, "That isn't the first time you've said something like that."

"No, it isn't. It is, however, the truth."

"What is it you think I don't know?" Harry questioned. "I know you were a Death Eater. I know what that means. I also know you chose to turn your back on that and did whatever you had to in order to make amends for your mistakes."

"You can't make amends for some actions," Severus voiced what had to be the one abiding truth he'd ever learned.

"Says who?" Harry demanded, visibly upset. "You've been in hell your entire life. Whatever you did; whatever you think you did; you've more than paid for it."

"You don't know what you're talking about," Severus insisted.

"So, tell me . . . or show me. You keep insisting that I wouldn't be with you if I knew, but you never give me the chance to prove you wrong. Give me that chance," Harry pleaded, unknowingly echoing Penbroke's words from earlier tonight.

"You . . . don't know what you're asking," Severus said, for once not balking at the prospect. Maybe it was a month's worth of wrestling with these demons, while trying to figure out how Harry fit into the kind of life he'd led, that gave him the fortitude to actually consider the idea. So far, the one thing he'd realized was that Harry didn't fit in with any of that darker stuff. Clearly, Harry didn't belong with him, but . . . he needed Harry, more than he'd ever needed anything.

"I'm asking you to give me the chance to prove that I love you," Harry said. "I can't tell you that whatever you went through won't matter to me. It's hurt you so bad that you can't even share it with me, so, it's bound to be something awful. But, for both our sakes, you need to know that I'm still going to be here, despite it."

Harry was glowing with Gryffindor certainty; Severus could almost hate him for that faith.

Garnering his courage, Severus answered, "It isn't 'something awful'. It's forty some odd years of awful."

"Okay, it's forty years of it. Tell me."

"And if you find that this darkness is too much to accept?"

The expression in Harry's eyes showed that he was just as frightened of that possibility as Severus was himself. But Harry rallied his courage, as he had at every other challenge in his life and said, "Then at least we'll know. That's worth something, isn't it?"

"It's not worth losing you over," Severus retorted.

"I don't think that's going to happen," Harry said.

"Then you haven't a clue as to what we're discussing, because, I assure you, there is every possibility that you will not be able to look at me again once you know certain facts. Are you willing to take that chance?"

He heard the shaky breath Harry drew before answering, "Are you willing to let me? I'm telling you that there's nothing you could have done in your past that will change the way I feel about you. I know that for a fact. I think we've come to the point where you need to know it for a fact, too."

"And if you're wrong?" Severus challenged. He was shaking all over. Everything he knew about this man was telling him that Harry wasn't simply going to let the matter drop again. Either Severus was going to have to refuse him, which could be as damaging to their relationship as indulging him, or he was going to have to concede and let Harry see the sort of man he'd been bedding these last eight months.

"Then we'll just have to work it out," Harry said.

"You could be so wrong that you will be unable to be in the same room with me afterwards," Severus warned.

"No, I couldn't. I know you don't believe this, but I know the man I love. I know what you will and won't do. I'm betting you weren't that different when young."

"You'll lose that bet, Harry."

"No, I won't. Tell me," Harry urged.

There would be no backing out this time, Severus recognized. Staring at that waiting face, he tried to find the words that would incorporate a lifetime of mistakes, words that would let Harry see who and what he'd been. Only, the telling of it would take years, and he'd already talked himself raw with Penbroke.

His gut turned to ice as he considered the only alternative, the means that would let Harry know it all in a reasonable period of time.

His mouth running dry, Severus hesitantly suggested, "We both know this isn't something that can be told."

"I'm not asking that of you," Harry quickly protested.

"I know," Severus said, somehow keeping his voice steady as he continued, "I'm offering it. As you pointed out, at least we'll know, then."

"I already know. This is so you can be sure, too."

Harry sounded so certain.

Forcing himself to stay the course and hold Harry's gaze, Severus ordered, "Go ahead.".

"Are you sure?"

"Just do it." Severus hadn't meant to snap the words out like that.

His asperity didn't seem to upset Harry. Harry reached out to touch his cheek again, the gesture gentle and cherishing.

Severus felt as if he were falling into Harry's eyes. Those green pools were as bottomless as the Black Lake outside. Down and down he fell, closer and closer to Harry's soul, or, in this case, Harry's mind.

Visibly bracing himself, Harry withdrew his hand and leaned back against the couch. As had happened the first time Harry entered his mind in October, Harry did so without voicing the spell any other wizard would have needed to initiate contact. His magic was so powerful, so instantaneous, that Harry was there inside Severus' mind with a mere thought.

Severus gasped as Harry entered his mind. In its own way, the act was as shattering as when he'd enter his body. Harry's power was incredible, but the touch of his mind was as gentle as his hands were in bed.

Harry took a moment in which he seemed to be absorbing Severus' emotional and mental state.

Severus did his best to keep from panicking, but . . . this was quite possibly the most frightening thing he'd ever endured. To be so open, so known . . . there would be no place to hide when Harry was done and no possibility of pretence.

Severus was shocked to feel a similar nervousness seeping out of the mind visiting his own. His surprise must have been palpable, for Harry chuckled and asked, "What? You're the only one allowed to be nervous here?" When the chuckle faded, Harry said, "We're going to be all right. Just show me whatever you need to."

Momentarily at a loss as to where to start, Severus realized that it would have to be at the beginning. Harry had already inadvertently witnessed some of this back in his fifth year when Severus had attempted to teach him to defend against mental attacks and discovered that the Potter brat had a natural ability for Legilimency that was as frightening as his other precocious talents.

Trying to distance himself from what he was remembering, Severus let Harry see the loveless home he'd grown up in. His father's bullying and sadism, his mother's pathetic surrender to that brutality, his own childish attempts to stand up against the abuse, he let Harry see it all.

Harry's response was exactly what he anticipated of his gentle-hearted lover. Harry ached for him. But this wasn't the part he'd had any worries about. Potter had come from a similar, abusive background. He'd known he'd have Harry's sympathies here.

Bracing himself as best he could, Severus moved on to his first ride on the Hogwarts Express. He didn't try to edit anything, since the purpose of this exercise was honesty. He let Harry see how his own vicious tongue had alienated him from James Potter and his goons before the Sorting Hat had ever touched any of their heads. His schooldays had been a downward spiral from there on in.

Though it took every bit of courage he had, Severus held nothing back. He let Harry see how Lucius had seduced him his second week at school.

Although Harry had been forewarned by Burke's words, Severus could tell how upsetting this part was to him. Knowing something on a mental level was quite different from seeing it enacted before your eyes, and there wasn't anything noble or wholesome about the whole sorry mess. He'd used the word 'catamite' when describing these incidents to Hermione. The word was well chosen, but he could just as easily have said 'whore' for what these incidents made him out to be.

Something in Harry seemed to rebel when Severus reached the part where Lucius had asked his three friends to join their 'study group' in second year.

"Do you want to stop?" Severus rasped out. His voice was grating in his own ears as it rocked the history he was projecting on a mental level.

Harry drew a shuddery breath. "If they weren't already dead, I'd bury them now."

"I was a willing participant," Severus reminded him.

"You were twelve," Harry spat the word out like the obscenity it was. Severus felt Harry make a conscious effort to get a hold on his anger before saying, "Go on."

"It doesn't get any better," Severus warned.

To his unending shock, Harry protested, "Yes, it does. You end up with me. Go on."

Severus had been certain that this noble Gryffindor wouldn't be able to tolerate the depravity he'd shown him, but he could feel from Harry's mind that any anger he had wasn't directed at him. He knew that sympathy wouldn't last, but he was grateful for it.

The years after Lucius left Hogwarts were a parade of similar sexual indiscretions with older Slytherins, but Harry only seemed to react to the pain the incidents had caused him, rather than the horrible crudity of those last years at school.

Severus' heart was pounding against his chest, as if trying to escape, when he reached the summer after he'd left Hogwarts and that momentous night he'd allowed Lucius to talk him into joining Voldemort's group. He let Harry see it all: how tickled his vanity had been that he, a half-blood, had been deemed worthy to join Voldemort's inner circle; how greedy he'd been for the amazing Potions lab Voldemort had set him up in; his conscience's tribulations over the questionable, and totally inimical potions he'd created to pay Voldemort back for that lab; the way he used to pretend not to hear his fellow Death Eaters' boasts about the atrocities they'd committed upon defenceless Muggles. He let Harry see how his greed and avarice had blinded him, how he'd willingly consorted with blood-drunk beasts, how he'd allowed his potions to be used for evil for years while he hid his head in the proverbial sand of his fancy lab.

That whole filthy business with Burke played out in his mind's eye. Once again, he edited nothing. He let Harry see his pathetic attraction to Burke's power. Those were perhaps the days he was most ashamed of, when his own powers hadn't fully matured yet, and he'd allowed his body to be put to humiliating uses simply to touch the kind of magic he'd dreamed of all his life. Burke hadn't exaggerated when he'd told Harry that the stronger wizards in Voldemort's following used to pass him around like a pack of Muggle cigarettes.

Those . . . perversions were fully as disturbing to Harry as he'd feared they'd be. As he'd warned his lover, no decent man could witness such depravity and remain unaffected. He could feel how upset Harry was, and how hard Harry was attempting to hide his reaction, but there could be no lies on this level.

But even that sordid period came to its inevitable end. His betrayal of Burke's plan had earned him Voldemort's highest regard.

It was at this point in his life that the most radical of changes took place. There was nothing like becoming a monster's best friend to open one's eyes to the true nature of the beast. Once again, Severus held nothing back. He let Harry see how his closer contact with Voldemort had slowly brought him to the conclusion that the man they were following was utterly insane. And, even then, he'd tried to ignore that fact, tried to carry on as if nothing were wrong. He might have continued on like that for another five or ten years if Voldemort hadn't insisted that his most loyal follower leave his lab to accompany his fellow Death Eaters on an assignment.

The first night he'd gone out with Lucius and three other Death Eaters, they'd entered the home of a Squib writer on the Prophet who'd been very outspoken against the Ministry's ineffectual response to Voldemort's bid for power. The Squib had had a Muggle wife and three children. Lucius and his friends had slaughtered them in their beds as if they were killing bugs.

The twenty year old Severus had been too shocked by the brutality and how fast it all had happened for him to even think about stopping it. They were in the house, and within minutes, five people were lying in pools of blood. While Severus stood in the doorway and watched the knives move.

As he replayed that grisly night, he let Harry see how shock had frozen him on the threshold to the master bedroom, too stunned to stop the murdering beasts before him. As Harry reeled under the grotesque savagery, Severus replayed some of the boasts he'd heard his colleagues make over the years, letting Harry see that none of these events should have come as a surprise to him. But, as he'd pointed out to Harry earlier, there was a difference between seeing something in the flesh, and just hearing about it. All those years he'd been making his questionable potions, Severus had been able to keep his hands clean. But there was no way to keep your hands clean when you were standing in the same room while a three year old had her throat sliced open.

He let Harry see how he'd broken down once they'd returned to Voldemort's headquarters. Alone, in his fancy Potions lab, he'd sunk to the floor behind the closed door and cried his heart out.

The door had nearly broken his shoulder when Lucius came to find him hours later.

"What the devil are you doing down there?" Lucius had snapped as Severus pulled himself up to his feet, rubbing his bruised shoulder.

"Nothing," Severus denied, turning his back to wipe his cheeks with his sleeve.

"What's got into you? What happened to you tonight? You were like a statue in that doorway."

Severus supposed it was too much to hope that his failure to act would go unnoticed.

"I . . . ."

"You what? They were our master's enemies. You heard his order to dispatch them."

"They were a Squib and a Muggle woman. Three of them were children," Severus said, still unable to believe what he'd witnessed. There was no blood on Lucius now, but Severus quite clearly remembered the spray of that three year old's blood splattering the handsome face that he'd adored for years. Severus had thought he'd known this man, thought he loved him, but looking at those perfect, pale features now, he realized that he'd never known Lucius at all.

"They were Voldmort's enemies. That's all that matters. All that should matter to you. You took an oath to support our lord in all he does."

"I know, but -"

"But?" Lucius interrupted. "There are no buts here. Only obedience."

"I swore I'd fight Voldemort's enemies, and I will," Severus quickly answered, "but . . . that wasn't fighting, Lucius. No one had a wand in their hand. We just . . . murdered them."

"They were Lord Voldmort's enemies and we dispatched them. That's all that should matter to you."

"Lucius, I . . . I'll duel with anyone you want me to. You know I'm no coward, but . . . I can't slaughter defenceless people like that -"

"Do you know how hopelessly Gryffindor that sounds?" Lucius sneered.

For the first time in his life, Severus began to understand that not all Gryffindor traits were weaknesses. Squeezing his eyes shut, he gave a hopeless nod.

"Do you know what our master will do to you if he hears you spout this kind of drivel?" Lucius questioned, something like worry in his eyes. "Don't be a fool, Severus. What does it matter if they have a wand in their hand or not? The minute Lord Voldemort orders their deaths; they are as good as gone. Are you going to sacrifice yourself for a Squib and a pack of filthy blooded Muggles? They're nothing but vermin. Killing them isn't the same as killing one of our own. It's like . . . using an extermination spell on the rats in your home."

Severus had heard that sentiment voiced hundreds of times by Voldemort's followers. When he thought of his Muggle father, he had no objection to that monster being exterminated like vermin. But that little girl tonight . . . she'd never beaten or mistreated a soul in her entire short life. She hadn't looked any different than any of the wizard children he saw in Diagon Alley. The white teddy bear in her bed was the same one Severus had seen in baby Draco's crib when he'd visited last week. Only, Draco's bear hadn't ended up soaked in blood before the night was over.

Just thinking about the splattered blood brought the bile up again. Swallowing it down, Severus stiffly denied, "I can't do it. Not like that."

"I can't protect you," Lucius warned.

"I'm not asking you to," Severus denied.

"You know what an absolute fool you're being? He'll kill you, Severus. You've seen how he deals with disloyalty."

"Then I suppose he'll kill me," Severus acknowledged. "Are you going to give me up to him?"

For a moment, Lucius stared at him as though he were some creature from another planet. Then, his oldest friend turned on his heel and stormed out of the Potions lab without another word.

Severus had spent the night curled up on that freezing floor, waiting for the other Death Eaters to come and finish him. But they hadn't come. In the nerve-wracking days that followed, it became clear that Lucius hadn't mentioned their discussion to anyone.

For a few weeks after that, things returned nearly to normal. Voldemort allowed Lucius to pick who would join him in the raids that would eliminate the Dark Lord's enemies, and Lucius consistently chose others to accompany him. Severus did his best to be in his lab when they returned victorious.

But he couldn't hide in his lab forever. Nor could he pretend ignorance any longer. There wasn't a potion he could brew in his fancy lab that was ever going to be able to remove the stain that night had left on his soul.

While Lucius never again asked him to join the raids, the bragging he heard from his fellow Death Eaters over the next few months showed Severus that slicing a three year old's throat was a clean death. Clean, when compared to the torture and rape his companions graduated to, as their lust for blood grew exponentially. Every attack seemed to grow in viciousness. The Death Eaters vanished their victims' bodies, so no one ever knew what truly happened to the people who disappeared, but Severus knew, and . . . it became increasingly impossible to live with that knowledge.

Sleep became a thing of the past. Severus let Harry experience his disgust at what his comrades were doing, and the utter helplessness he felt in his inability to stop it. He knew he might be able to take out Lucius in a duel. But it wouldn't be just Lucius. The other Death Eaters would be involved, and even if they weren't . . . he wouldn't last a minute against Voldemort. That kind of power knew no match.

He went from depression to despair. Suicide was often on his mind. The surest way to commit it was to try to stop his comrades. He'd grown so disgusted that he might even have tried standing up against them, if he hadn't seen how their opponents, well, victims, died. No matter how much he might long for death, he didn't want to go that way.

It seemed to Severus that he might have continued on in that state of helpless complicity forever, but, finally, Voldemort once again ordered his Potions master to accompany Lucius on an especially important assignment. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Letting everything go, Severus showed Harry the incident that every curious nosy body had badgered him about for twenty-five years. Albus Dumbledore was the only other person Severus had shared this nightmare with. He hadn't even told Penbroke about this incident in his therapy sessions.

As hellish as the facts of the Death Eater raid he'd shared with Harry had been, there had still been a certain . . . anonymity to it. The Muggles, Squibs, and even the wizards the Death Eaters had attacked had all been strangers. But the playing field shifted dramatically the night they visited the Longbottoms.

Severus had sat in the same classroom with Alice for seven years. Though two years his senior, her husband, Frank, had pulled the Marauders off him half a dozen times when Longbottom had been the Gryffindor prefect. They weren't strangers.

Severus hadn't known where they were going that night. Had he known beforehand, he would have given warning, no matter the personal consequences, but he hadn't known. When they'd broken into the Longbottoms' sitting room and surprised the couple, Severus had been just as shocked as their victims.

Severus had barely seen the Longbottoms' faces when Lucius ordered, "Severus, go guard the front door."

In spite of his claim to the contrary, Lucius was clearly trying to protect him.

To this day, he was haunted by the mistake he made at this point. He should have taken his chances and confronted his comrades. Frank Longbottom was an Auror. He might have managed some wandless magic, but . . . but Severus had followed Lucius' order.

As horrible as what he'd seen in that raid on the Squib and his family had been, it wasn't until Lucius and Bellatrix cast the Cruciatus on Frank and Alice that Severus had realized what kind of people he'd pledged himself to. These weren't some faceless strangers who'd committed Merlin knew what offense against their master. These were people Severus knew. People who'd shown him the occasional kindness.

Severus could feel Harry's fury at what he was showing him. He made no attempt to hide his own cowardice. He let Harry see how he'd stood in vestibule, trying to block out Alice and Frank's screams while his comrades slowly tortured them insane.

When Lucius barked his name out, it had been all Severus could do to enter the blood splattered sitting room. Frank seemed to have lost consciousness where he lay by the hearth. Alice's black and blue bruised eyes were still open as she twitched by the couch.

Severus had thought her too far gone to understand anything, but when Lucius yelled at Severus, "Go find the brat," Alice had started screaming again.

"No, Severus, please . . . not my baby. Don't hurt my baby . . . ahhhhhhhh!"

Her shrieks followed him as he'd hurried upstairs to the bedrooms.

The master bedroom was empty. The door next to it revealed a nauseatingly pleasant nursery.

Severus entered the moonlit room to stare down at the sleeping baby in the crib, one of the two children who fit the damned prophesy that had sent the Death Eaters on this unholy errand tonight. The boy was perhaps six months old. He was chubby with ruddy cheeks, and a face that was the picture of innocence.

Severus needed no imagination to know what would happen to that innocence should he bring the child downstairs.

The boy's mother was still pleading with her murderers to spare her baby. How the child could sleep through that, he didn't know.

At that moment, Severus became reacquainted with both his conscience and courage. He knew he couldn't save either Frank or Alice. But this child . . . if this were the child who would slay Voldemort, he would do everything in his power to protect it.

Thinking fast, Severus summoned a sleeping draught. He opened the sleeping baby's mouth and drained half the bottle down its throat. It was probably enough to kill the baby, but given the alternative, Severus thought it was a chance worth taking.

Once he was sure the baby was unconscious, he picked him up out of his crib and quickly left the room. Opening a cupboard at the end of the hall, near the loo, he moved a few buckets aside with one hand and laid the child on the floor, replacing the pails. He cast a glamour over the floor, the strongest he'd created, one that showed a closet filled with only cleaning supplies.

Shaking at the chance he was taking, Severus closed the door behind him and raced down the stairs to tell Lucius that the Longbottom baby wasn't in the house.

Alice met his eyes as Severus' companions were distracted by his information. The naked gratitude in her bleeding brown gaze was unbearable. At that instant, Severus had fully understood that his soul was forfeit, that there was nothing he could ever do to erase the evil he'd been part of. But he knew at that instant that he had to try, even if he had to die the same way Alice was.

Alice seemed to surrender to her fate without a fight after that, as if the only thing that had mattered to her was that she knew her baby was safe. She didn't die that night, but Severus always regretted that he hadn't granted her that kindness.

Because he could feel Harry's curiosity, he followed the memory through, letting Harry see how he'd crept back into the Longbottom house before daybreak, passed through the sitting room where Alice and Frank lay drooling in their blood-drenched, urine-soaked clothes, how he'd taken the still-sleeping baby out of the cupboard, and cradled the child in his arms as he'd stepped over the baby's mindless parents and flooed to Albus Dumbledore's private chambers at Hogwarts.

Even as he'd stepped out of the hearth, he hadn't known what to expect. Were it anyone else, Severus knew that the crimes he was about to confess would bring him straight to the Ministry, but Albus Dumbledore had never played by anyone's rules. If there were anyone who could keep the child in the prophesy safe, it was Dumbledore.

Forcibly pulling himself out of the past, Severus drew a shuddery breath and said, "You're familiar with the rest of the story."

It felt as if a spell had broken as his words recalled them to the present. Harry withdrew from his mind as gently as he'd entered it.

Alone with his memories, Severus could only wonder how much tonight had cost him. He felt like he did after one of his sessions with Penbroke, like every nerve he owned had been exposed and jolted with electricity. This went beyond feeling naked.

Harry's face looked pretty much the way he'd expected it to, like he'd bitten off more than he could chew. In fact, he looked as if he might actually be sick to his stomach.

To his shock, Harry met his eyes. Venting a shaky breath, he said, "Well, we knew it wouldn't be pretty."

"You have a flair for understatement," Severus forced himself to respond. The Hat might have wanted to put Harry into Slytherin, but the Harry he knew was all Gryffindor, and Gryffindors were judgmental. He knew what had to be coming.

"If you don't start breathing, you're going to pass out," Harry said, watching him with an indecipherable expression.

Realizing that he was, in fact, holding his breath, Severus released it. Once he'd taken in a few gulps of cool air, he felt less jittery, but no less frightened. He forced himself to meet Harry's eyes. For one of the first times ever, he couldn't decipher what Harry was feeling.

That observation felt like it went on for centuries.

Finally, Harry reached out with his right hand to touch Severus' shoulder. "I wish there were something I could do to make all of that easier for you to bear."

"W-what?" Severus managed to rasp out.

"You never had a chance, did you?" Harry's eyes looked almost haunted.

"What do you mean?" Severus's mind didn't seem able to comprehend what Harry was saying.

"Pain is all you've known, your whole life," Harry said.

"That doesn't excuse -"

"Severus, you were barely twenty when those Death Eater events occurred," Harry said in a firm voice.

"Nevertheless -"

"That night at the Squib's house, if you'd challenged Malfoy and the others, could you have taken them out?" Harry demanded.

Severus gave a negative shake of his head, embarrassed. He might have known more spells than a fourth year when he started school. His talents had always been precocious. But however gifted he'd been, he'd never had the darkness inside him, that cruel streak that had been the earmark of Lucius and his cronies.

"So, you would have ended up dead had you made a stand?"

"That isn't the point. For months, I'd heard my companions bragging. What happened shouldn't have come as a shock -"

"Maybe it shouldn't have, but it did. You were young, scared, and didn't think there was a way out of the situation you'd gotten yourself into. Wanting to live isn't a crime."

"But being party to torture and murder is. I was there. I made no move to stop them -"

"Because you couldn't. The same as when Voldermort killed Cedric before my eyes, I couldn't kill the bastard and his followers, much as I wanted to, much as I will always regret never being able to. All I could do was try to stay alive long enough to escape. Severus, you were up against the strongest, vilest dark wizard the world had ever known. You weren't even twenty, and half of the people you would have to stand against were the only friends you'd ever known."

"Nevertheless, I should have -"

Harry cut his ragged protest off with, "Should have what? Forfeited your life for a principle? That's what you would have been doing if you'd made a move against them in that Squib's house. What good would throwing your life away like that have done anyone? Severus, you made the only decision you could."

"And those people died," Severus reminded him.

"Not by your hand or your orders," Harry said in a steely tone Severus didn't think he'd ever heard before. "Voldemort is responsible for their deaths, not you. As soon as you were able to, you did the right thing. You've spent over two decades trying to make up for a mistake you made before you were even twenty years old. It's time you forgave yourself."

"I . . . ." Severus' words faltered. His entire body was shaking. He felt a familiar burning at his eyes.

Strong hands gripped his shoulders and before Severus knew what was happening, Harry drew him into his arms. He tentatively rested his face against Harry's tee-shirt covered shoulder, still expecting disaster to strike. But the only thing that happened was Harry's hand settled on his back and began to rub.

"You did the best you could in a horrible situation. And you did everything in your power afterwards to set things right. I know how much you risked every time you followed Dumbledore's request and returned to Voldemort to spy on him," Harry said, still rubbing his back, still hugging him. "You are the bravest man I've ever met and I'm honoured to call you my lover."

That did it. Severus squeezed his eyes tightly shut, attempting to keep in those treacherous tears, but, as with Penbroke's sessions, there was no holding them back. How long he stayed there with his face buried in the crook of Harry's shoulder as emotion stormed through him, Severus didn't know. The shoulder of Harry's light blue tee-shirt had an eight inch wet spot on it when Severus finally lifted his face what felt like hours later.

It took every bit of strength he possessed to meet Harry's eyes.

Severus had expected his confession to have made some change in Harry's gaze. He didn't understand how someone as honourable and good as Harry would want to continue to associate with him after seeing his sordid past, but, if anything, those green eyes seemed even warmer as they regarded him.

"You . . . ." Words were beyond him.

Harry took mercy on him and gently encouraged, "I, what?"

"You're not leaving," Severus said, hearing the disbelief in his own voice.

Harry's voice sounded a little rough as he replied, "Never. I'm afraid you're stuck with me for good."

Those words overwhelmed Severus' brain and heart. Both organs melted, or maybe they fused. All Severus knew was that for the first time ever, his worst fears weren't manifesting. His beautiful Harry was still sitting beside him, still . . . loving him, even after seeing the kind of life he'd lived, the kind of man he'd been.

It was more than Severus could process. But not more than he could handle. He wasn't even aware of moving. The next thing he knew, he was covering Harry's mouth with his and doing his best to drown in that luscious kiss.

Harry's hands gripped his shoulders, guiding him down, and he found himself snuggled on top of Harry.

This had become a familiar position in the last four nights. Normally, Harry's power was pulsing around him, inciting Severus to new heights. As there was no magic flowing around him tonight, Severus half-expected that awful freeze up to happen again, only . . . only Harry knew what he was and still wanted to kiss him. That was a miracle beyond his wildest dreams, and, as with all miracles, there was no explaining or questioning it.

The dreaded freeze didn't happen. Severus kept kissing, and, before he knew it, their clothes vanished. Naked skin touched naked skin as their needy erections settled carefully together.

His hips began to rock. The kiss deepened even further as they did everything in their power to meld into one being. Harry felt so perfect.

There seemed to be some kind of energy pulsing around them. At first, Severus thought it was Harry's power. Only slowly did he come to realize that the energy was coming as much from him as from his partner. It wasn't magic, per se; although it had been called that in its time. It took Severus' understandably abstracted mind a while to classify what he was experiencing. He'd had glimpses of it since October, rare flashes that had rocked his entire world. But only now could he put a name to the energy, and claim it as his own.

What he was feeling, this was love.

His ever doubtful mind hadn't been able to believe in love until it was proven, but if Harry's wanting him after everything he'd seen wasn't love, than Severus didn't know what love was.

No, that was incorrect. He did know what love was. Love was Harry Potter.

His beleaguered being fixed on that one certainty as the delight burning through him crested to immolating proportions, and he exploded.

Their mouths broke apart to suck in much needed air and release the sounds the pleasure destroying them demanded they vent. Their groans shook them both, the sounds seeming to shatter the very reality around them as they climaxed almost simultaneously and Severus was lost in a warm, golden nowhere land of suspended pleasure.

He seemed to float there for an eternity before the scattered portions of his wits sluggishly recollected.

The first awareness Severus experienced was that of Harry depositing soft, loving kisses all over his face. His next awareness was of the warm, sticky mess between their tight pressed bellies. The sublime crashing with the profane, Severus found himself inexplicably laughing.

"Hey, what's so funny?" Harry asked in a sleepy, sexy voice.

"I . . . ." His laughter faded under that loving gaze. Gulping, Severus decided to finish what tonight's confession had started. "I love you."

All levity vanished from Harry's expression. Severus could tell that he'd deeply surprised the man.

After a moment, Harry rallied with, "Works out sort of neat, that does, because, I'm crazy in love with you myself."

For the first time ever, when Harry said those words, Severus didn't find himself consumed with doubt and guilt. Harry had seen everything he was, and was still here . . . would always be here, Severus realized as he recalled Harry's earlier comment about never leaving.

When he thought he had the emotions resulting from his acceptance of Harry's continued presence in check, Severus softly commented, "You didn't have to use your magic for us to . . . make love tonight."

"I'd noticed," Harry said, reaching up to push Severus' dangling hair clear of his face. The fingers remained in his hair, stroking its none-too-clean length. "Told you that you weren't broken."

"You've become amazingly wise over the years," Severus said, the stress of the last hour beginning to catch up as his limbs turned heavy with exhaustion.

"Not wise, just lucky in love," Harry answered in an equally tired tone.

"I think exhaustion is making us both a little . . . ."

"Sappy?" Harry supplied with a smile. "I think we've earned a little sap. Don't worry, it'll wear off by morning." Severus wondered if Harry were still monitoring his thoughts, for, no sooner had the concern sparked through his mind, than Harry was explaining, "Only the sap will wear off by morning, not the love. That's yours for good."

"Thank you," Severus gruffly acknowledged, "for everything."

"Hey, I'm the winner here. There's nothing to thank me for," Harry countered. As if he, too, sensed how hopelessly sentimental the scene might become if allowed to progress unchecked, Harry brightly suggested, "Why don't we move into the bedroom and see if we can mess up the bed as badly as we have the couch?"

"You are a hopeless Gryffindor optimist if you think either of us is up to anything more tonight."

Harry met his eye and challenged, "I know my Slytherin sex god. I'll beat you to the bedroom."

With that, Harry somehow wriggled out from beneath him and left Severus perched precariously between the couch and nearby coffee table. Laughing so hard that he nearly collapsed to the floor, Severus found his feet and gave chase.

As he sank down into his huge bed with a madly giggling Harry, Severus wondered if this would be what the rest of his life would be like, love and laughter with Harry Potter. He was realist enough to know that his problems weren't cured by a long shot, but, right now, with Harry they felt very far away. And, who knew? Maybe his hopeless, Gryffindor optimist was right about everything, and love would cure all wounds? It certainly felt that way as Severus settled down into another kiss.

Finis

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