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"Expecto Patronum!" Silver streamed around me as I urged Buckbeak forward and down, straight though my Patronus and into its white light, wand in one hand, the other reaching down to clutch the robes of the bound and kneeling man and haul him out of the reach of the scattering dementors. I levitated him onto the Hippogriff's neck, and we were turning and rising again even before my shining Patronus had begun to dim.

It was a splendid rescue, and for the moment I was too proud to care that I'd wasted it on Snape.

When we cleared the top of the lighthouse, I wheeled Buckbeak around to watch the flight of the dementors. Since having a wand in my hand again, I'd had few chances to put my Patronus to the test. For which I was glad. But it did me good to see them running, scared and powerless.

But not leaderless. They were falling into rows, parting before one robed figure that walked steadily on, unafraid of any charm I could perform.

Shit.

I kneed Buckbeak into a climb and severed Snape's bonds with a touch of my wand. "Hold on. Voldemort's still down there."

"Of course he's still down there, you dolt. Did you imagine he would simply Disapparate in the face of your rather ridiculous Patronus?"

I was too busy throwing curses behind me to answer, though I was tempted to spare one for Snape: Impedimentia, Petrificus, Jelly-legs, Furnunculus, Cruciatus, anything I could think of, praying that one of them would block the impending Avada Kedavra. I kicked Buckbeak's side and sent him veering off to the left. Could he outfly a curse? Dodge it? I could no longer see Voldemort, but I was certain I'd seen him raising his wand--

I don't know how many curses we escaped. Only one got through.

Snape suddenly clutched at his forearm and hissed. I sneaked a glance at him, not lowering my wand; his face was contorted with pain. "Cruciatus?" I asked. "How could he have missed me?"

"It's not--" He curled against Buckbeak's neck, wincing; speech was beyond him. I looked down; the lighthouse beacon had dwindled to a pinprick, and the field where the dementors had gathered was now invisible. I turned around and cautiously touched Snape's shoulder. "Snape, what happened? Do I need to Apparate you back?"

Snape shook his head, once, with obvious difficulty. Whatever Voldemort had hit him with looked as bad as any Cruciatus I had ever seen. I tried Finite Incantatum, to no effect. I cast a binding spell, securing him to Buckbeak's back-- at least he wouldn't fall. Away from Hogwarts and two thousand feet in the air, there was nothing else I could do except watch him suffer.

Though Snape and I had cursed each other at least weekly at Hogwarts, I had never dared try to Cruciate him, though if I'd learned the curse before sending him to the Shrieking Shack, I don't doubt I'd have been foolish enough to use it. But I'd thought about it a lot. Fantasized, even. Snape curled at my feet, screaming in histrionic agony, begging me to stop, while I idly spun my wand and smiled down at him.

Real pain is not nearly so melodramatic. Snape's shoulders were drawn up tight; his hands were clenched tightly in Buckbeak's feathers, and very white. He breathed through his teeth. He did not scream or writhe. He just suffered. I wanted to look away. I felt ashamed of having ever wished this on him.

It was long minutes before his breathing finally began to slow and deepen. He flexed his fingers experimentally, lifted his face out of the Hippogriff's feathers. He found the cords I'd conjured around his waist, but left them in place, obviously not trusting his balance. Finally he looked at me over his shoulder and spoke in a thin voice: "You are unaffected, Black, for the simple reason that the curse was targeted to me. Or rather, to this." He pulled up his sleeve; the Dark Mark was pulsing a livid green.

"Hamatus?" A nasty curse, that; it sticks in the flesh like a barb or a bee-sting, sometimes for months.

"An outgrowth of it, I suspect. Iaculum Hamatum. I've seen him use it before." Snape's breathing was still labored, and his face, in the light of the crescent moon, still a mask of tight-drawn muscles. He noticed me watching him. "The pain is fading. All he's done is throw open a... conduit... that has been there since I took the Mark. Sustaining whatever he chooses to send through that conduit requires an effort of will on his part. His attention will turn to other matters soon enough."

"Like what he'll do without a spy at Hogwarts?"

"Like that, yes."

We flew in silence for a while. I thought about what we would tell Dumbledore when we got back. Azkaban had been Voldemort's for months now, and it seemed he'd found a way to key the anti-Apparation wards to the Dark Mark; he and his Death Eaters could come and go freely. But dementors do not Apparate: hence the need for a secure beachhead on the mainland. Snape had managed to ensure that the lighthouse would be empty tonight. The Muggle village was another matter.

Snape was breathing normally now, though he was still leaning far forward against Buckbeak's neck. Though perhaps he was just trying to keep his distance from me; if he'd moved any further back, we'd have been pressed thigh-to-thigh and arse-to-groin. That was a thought I did not need; I pushed it away.

"Was that just random bad luck, back there, or a deliberate test?"

"Hmm. A bit of both, I suppose."

The dementors had been hungry, since the emptying of Azkaban. I know how sweet the village would have smelled to them, ripe and bursting with life. From my hiding place behind the crenellation of the lighthouse parapet, I had heard the Death Eaters arguing. Some for prudence. Some that it was time to make themselves known again, and feared: to loose the dementors and raise the Mark over the drained and gutted village.

I didn't hear what Snape said to Voldemort. Only watched, as the Dark Lord quietly chastised the more... imprudent... Death Eaters. And then walked, unafraid, through the throng of dementors, sending them away by Portkey. A few Death Eaters went with each group, until the field was almost empty: just Voldemort, and Snape, and forty dementors.

Voldemort had said nothing. Just backed away from Snape, and let the dementors close in, until I could see nothing but their black robes.

Three years ago, Snape had been ready to feed me to those creatures. He didn't know them, not then, not like I did. Do. There are very few fates I would risk my life to save Snape from, but I couldn't stand by and watch those monsters feed, not on any mortal life. I drew my wand, and mounted Buckbeak.

I was exposed now-- if Voldemort had turned, I'd have been seen-- but from my new vantage point I could see, too. Snape was still standing, wand drawn, the dementors so near most men would have been shaking, or screaming. Perhaps he trembled; I couldn't see. It wasn't until the first of them lowered his hood, and began to lean in, that Snape uttered the spell.

"If I'd known the form your Patronus was going to take, I'd have summoned mine earlier," I said. It wasn't really an apology. Just a statement of fact. The bastard should have warned me, after all; he'd known he'd be dealing with dementors that night.

"It would have been helpful; I could have talked my way out of just about anything else."

Voldemort had waited until Snape's Patronus had faded back into the night, before slowly walking to his side. I hadn't heard anything he had said. Snape had listened, had mouthed answers here and there. Voldemort had tipped his chin up with one long, skeletal finger, had searched his face. Had, at last, caressed Snape's cheek with one white hand. Taken Snape's wand with the other and snapped it in two. Bound Snape, and forced him to his knees with a hand on his shoulder. And then walked away, through the closing circle of the returning dementors.

"Not my fault you were too embarrassed to tell me your Patronus bears an uncanny resemblance to Albus Dumbledore."

Snape snorted. "I suppose, if I'd asked, you'd have told me yours was that ridiculous flying motorbike?"

"That was a 1949 Series "C" Vincent Black Shadow, and a nobler machine has never ridden earth or sky. And I would think you'd show some respect, considering that it just saved your life."

Snape didn't have the decency to look abashed. "That wasn't my question."

He's not an easy man to lie to. "I'd have told you to fuck off. But then I wasn't going into a situation where my Patronus could get me killed."

"It's getting light," was all Snape said.

It was; and the last hour of the journey was full of close calls. I would have cast a glamour over us, but any natural object, traveling against the wind at a Hippogriff's speed, would have drawn enough scrutiny to pierce any glamour I could have maintained. So we dodged in and out of clouds, swerved away from towns, crossed roads with no more protection than the hope of being overlooked, and by the time we set down on the Astronomy Tower, I was fairly humming with adrenaline, as high as I'd been when I'd come charging down from the lighthouse wrapped in my Patronus.

Dumbledore, Poppy and Remus were waiting for us on the tower. Moony took charge of Buckbeak, and Dumbledore led us down to his office. We didn't have much to tell him; the night's events were uncomplicated enough, reduced to essentials: the dementors had come ashore, the village had not been threatened, the Aurors who had been waiting on my summons to protect it could go to bed. Snape didn't describe the form of his Patronus, though from the look on Dumbledore's face, I thought he might have guessed. He didn't ask. His greatest concern, and Poppy's, was the Iaculum Hamatum curse that Snape had taken. But while the Dark Mark remained on his arm, there was no way to lift the curse, and in any case, Snape had clearly recovered.

"You will tell Poppy, or myself, should it give you any more pain," said Dumbledore.

Poppy tutted. "Of course it's going to give more pain. That's the whole point of the curse, that Voldemort can inflict on Severus whatever sensations he wants to."

"When he thinks of it," said Snape. "Which, now that I am no longer part of his plans or his circle, should be fairly infrequent. It won't be a problem."

Dumbledore looked skeptical. "I sincerely hope not." He looked between the two of us and smiled. "I do have more questions, for both of you, but they can wait until you've had a chance to rest. Off with you, then." We were at the bottom of the stairs almost before I'd noticed the door closing behind us.

We headed down the corridor and to a back staircase together; in the interest of keeping me out of sight as much as possible, Dumbledore had given me a room in a little-used part of the dungeons. Snape had not been pleased. "You haven't told Dumbledore, have you? About your Patronus?"

"You've been rather silent about yours. About the spectral version, at any rate; even Hagrid seems to be getting tired of the real one." I'd found the Vincent in a forgotten storage room at Hogwarts, the previous summer, and I'd been working to restore it ever since.

"Snape, if I start hearing biker jokes from the Slytherins--"

"--if you do, it won't be on my account. I'm too weary of that bloody machine to say another word about it, even to spread the highly amusing news that your soul's protector is currently sitting on blocks in a dungeon dripping oil all over Filch's floor."

That stung, probably more than it should have; I could hear the blood pounding in my ears. "You didn't answer my question, Snape. Does Dumbledore know?"

"I haven't told him. And neither will you."

"Oh?" I clattered down the stairs at his heels. Snape wheeled and glared up at me.

"No. You won't say a word about it. Not even to your precious godson and his friends."

"Why not? It's not like it can hurt you now." I grinned down at him, enjoying the advantage the stair gave me; I hadn't been able to loom over Snape since we were fourteen.

Snape smiled, unpleasantly, with his eyes narrowed. "Remember who brews the Wolfsbane potion for your friend, Black. You don't want to anger me."

I stepped down even with Snape and shoved his shoulder against the wall. "That's where you're wrong, Snape. I like getting you angry. It's great fun." I leaned in closer. "Especially when you try to bluff me with empty threats. You won't take risks with Remus's sanity and you certainly won't disobey Dumbledore. I'm doubly sure of that now." Snape's face was inches from mine; his black eyes were narrow, gleaming slits. "You don't scare me, Snape."

"But I do make you angry, don't I?" A low voice, barely above a whisper. "What do you want to do to me, Black? Hit me? Strangle me?" He flicked his eyes to my left hand, pressed to the stone next to his face, clenching and unclenching. To my right hand, digging fiercely into the hard muscle of his shoulder. A shudder went through him.

I don't know which of us moved first. I pulled his robes away from his neck, leaned down to lick and bite at the sweat-salty skin. And his hands parted my robes, and his own, released my half-hard cock, pressed it to his. He was fully erect, dripping. Two strokes of his hands and so was I. Two more, and the taste of his skin, blossoming into bruises beneath my teeth and tongue, and I was panting and shuddering. I bit down on his shoulder, hard. Snape stiffened, hissed, and came. And so did I, thrusting against him and stifling my cry in his robes.

We pulled apart. Snape drew his robes back together and looked at me with what might have been amusement. "Or something else altogether? I had wondered." He went down the last few stairs in his usual smooth glide and disappeared into the dungeon corridor. After a moment, I straightened my own clothing and went to my own rooms.

Where, despite everything on my mind, I slept almost at once, and did not wake until well after midday.

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Snape bought a new wand the next day, in Diagon Alley. Dumbledore sent Hagrid and Remus along with him, for protection, but they met no Death Eaters, and Snape resumed his teaching duties with surprisingly good cheer. The Slytherins went around looking rather shell-shocked for the next week, and I suspected Snape was taking advantage of the collapse of his cover to put the fear of God into them, or at least the fear of Snape.

In fact, Snape seemed to be in an unusually good humor; the strain of living a double life must have been great-- and I could sympathize, for though unofficially under Dumbledore's protection, I was still on the run, in hiding-- and doubtless Snape was glad not to have to play a part any longer.

But despite his unwonted cheer-- which, in Snape, meant that he was uncommonly creative in his insults and more blatant than ever in his favoritism, though Harry told me had stopped fawning over Draco Malfoy-- Snape looked haggard, even paler than usual. He taught all of his classes, but according to Harry he had had to leave the classroom in evident discomfort more than once, though he always returned after a few minutes. Voldemort, clearly, had not forgotten about Snape yet.

Nor had he forgotten Dumbledore. Twice in the next month, Muggles were found wandering witless in the Forbidden Forest: victims of the dementors, driven mad, plucked away just before the Kiss could be given, and dropped on Dumbledore's doorstep. Friendly reminders.

There were still some dementors on Azkaban, but now each of Voldemort's strongholds on the mainland-- Malfoy Manor, the Riddle house in Little Hangleton, and now the old lighthouse at Starfsey-- were swarming with the creatures. I didn't know how the Death Eaters stood it. Even in dog shape, I could feel their presence a quarter of a mile away, a distant chill, like standing at the mouth of a very long tunnel, and I would return to Hogwarts from my reconnaissance missions shaken and nauseous.

"By my best guess," I told the wizards and witches of the Order, "there are more dementors in Britain now than there ever were in Azkaban. Perhaps three times as many." Even Snape betrayed some emotion at that. "The other wards and traps and creatures guarding these places-- Death Eaters included-- could all be taken down, permanently, with the right magics, or by physical means. Nothing takes down a dementor except the Patronus charm, and that's only temporary. Send too small a force against Malfoy Manor or the Riddle House, and the Death Eaters won't even have to draw their wands: they can just watch while the dementors keep coming back, and our wizards drain their energy in Patronus charms."

Dumbledore let my words sink in for a moment before he spoke. "How many wizards, in your opinion, would we need to secure Malfoy Manor?"

"No fewer than sixty, if they were all Auror-trained. But to hope to take Voldemort, it would have to be a simultaneous assault, on all four fronts."

We couldn't muster two hundred and forty trained Aurors. Thanks to that quisling Fudge, barely a tenth of that number were at Dumbledore's disposal. Most of those were living in the increasingly crowded castle, training the sixth- and seventh-years in Defense.

"What it boils down to," I said, into the silence, "is this: we can't hope to strike at Voldemort without taking the dementors out first."

"How?" There was an edge of suppressed laughter in Snape's voice; the man must have felt as worn-out as he looked. "You said yourself, nothing stops a dementor but a Patronus, and then only for a short while."

"They might be hemmed in, with wards; driven back to Azkaban, even." This from Flitwick, chewing thoughtfully on a quill.

"Wards on that scale would require weeks of work, and be terribly exposed." Mundungus Fletcher shook his head. "It's not a matter of keeping them out, but of driving them out, away from their masters. Wards are not a practical offensive weapon."

"There is no good offense against a dementor," Snape spat. "Or so we've just heard from our resident expert on the subject." He turned to Remus. "You're very quiet, Lupin. Nothing to add? I seem to remember dementors being a specialty of yours, three years ago."

"Dementors seem to be a specialty of no one's," Remus said, mildly. Moony can shed Snape's venom like a duck sheds water. I don't understand how. "There's no agreement even on whether they should be called beasts or beings--" he gave Snape a calm look that somehow forestalled any comment-- "or even spirits, since they do not seem to be mortal in the usual sense of the word. But I have made something of a study of them in the last few years, and while I don't pretend to be an expert, a few patterns are beginning to emerge." He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together.

"Dementors are found nearly worldwide today, but all the historical evidence suggests they originated in the boreal forests of Europe; if anyone might have devised any way to fight them, other than the Patronus, it would be the wizards and other magical beings of that region."

Flitwick looked skeptical, but interested. "I've never heard of any other charm against dementors having ever existed, though I admit I am rather rusty in the Lappish charms."

"I haven't found any lost charm, I'm afraid." Remus smiled apologetically. "What I did find, when I began to sift through the histories, was a sudden shift in dementor range.

"We already knew that there had been a general movement of dementors inland, to the south and west, beginning around two thousand years ago. Scholars used to assume that dementor numbers had simply increased. But I think that they may have been pushed out, instead." There was a ripple of interest around the table. Flitwick bit through his quill.

Lupin went on. Animation had smoothed out the lines in his face, and for a moment he looked like the Remus I remembered. "When I examined what few records of the northern wizarding world of that time have survived, I found something curious. Within a span of twenty years, all mention of dementors vanishes from the chronicles of some thirty wizarding lineages, scattered all along the Baltic coast from Sweden to Poland-- as though in quick succession they had all come into possession of some magic that repelled the creatures.

"And at the very beginning of this span, dementors appear, for the first time, in the records of the wizards of Pohjola."

It had been a very long time since I'd had History of Magic, and I didn't see the connection right away. But Dumbledore did. "It has been a long time since I heard even a rumor that any of its fragments might still survive," he said gravely. "But if even one could be found..."

"Even if some part of it could be found, the magics needed to use it have been lost for centuries," said Snape. "It's an absurd gamble."

"To use what-- Oh," I said, as it struck me. Pohjola. Of course.

"I have often found that looking for a thing dramatically increases one's chances of finding it," said Dumbledore. "Our chances of discovering both the magics and the thing itself may not be so slim as you believe, Severus." There was a light in his eye that had been all too often absent lately, and the rest of us were heartened by it.

With one exception.

"The sampo! Is Dumbledore insane?" I'd gone to Snape's workroom that evening to fetch Moony's potion, and found Snape still hovering over the cauldron. I couldn't say which of them was fuming more. "The sampo is a myth."

"Yes, well, so are Hippogriffs, if you ask a Muggle. One man's myth is another man's commonplace."

"Oh, very profound." He sprinkled in something gray and dusty and something else resinous, stirred the thickening concoction. "And I don't suppose it's occurred to you, or to Dumbledore, or to any of his mysterious contacts, that the one fact about the sampo on which the myths are in agreement is that it is lost? Irrevocably destroyed, long ago?" He damped the fire with a wave of his hand. "Carried off from Pohjola and lost at sea. End of story."

I shrugged. "If Dumbledore thinks it could let us strike at the dementors, then I'm behind him."

Snape snorted. "And I'm sure such unwavering and unquestioning support is a great comfort to him, but it doesn't get us any closer to defeating Voldemort."

"I didn't hear you offering any other plans for getting rid of his tame monsters." Snape looked up from ladling Wolfsbane into a goblet, and I immediately regretted my choice of words. "Oh, but I forgot, you don't offer ideas of your own. You'd rather snipe at the one constructive idea anybody's had for the last month, just because somebody else thought of it first. Because naturally, any plan you didn't think of can't possibly be any good."

Snape set down the goblet. His hand was steady, but there was a vein jumping at his temple. "You are all lucky that I am on your side. Without one voice of reason, I shudder to think what absurd chances you and the werewolf and even the Headmaster would be grasping at."

"Feeling underappreciated, Snape?" I leaned back against the counter and grinned at him. "Predictions of doom and gloom not quite so popular now that there is a chance, an absurd chance, to get some of our own back?" I reached up and twisted a fold of his robe around my fist, drawing his face down close to mine. "I'd find your anger a lot more convincing if I didn't know just how much you enjoy getting angry."

Something very dangerous glinted in Snape's eyes, and he closed his hand painfully over mine, forcing me to let go, and for a moment I thought I'd made a very bad mistake. But then Snape dropped to his knees and opened my robes, snorting when he found me already hard. He swallowed my prick to the root. I fell back against the counter, unable to do anything but grab hold of a handful of his hair, lank and damp with potion fumes. Snape was talented with his mouth. Very talented; I didn't last long. I opened my eyes to see him smirking up at me. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "And of course, you don't enjoy it in the slightest, do you?" He tucked me back into my trousers matter-of-factly and stood up. "Getting angry, that is." He handed me the cup of Wolfsbane. "I don't think you want to keep the werewolf waiting for that." He glided off into his office, extinguishing the torches with a wandless gesture.

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I couldn't deny it had always been part of our rivalry. The attraction. The need to get under the other's skin, make him lose control. None of our arguments at school had ever ended this way, but then if I'd confronted Snape more often without James at my back, they might well have.

Both rounds so far had been played to a draw. Or so I thought; Snape might have considered himself the winner. I was determined not to give him a clear victory. I never questioned whether there would be another round; now that this had finally come to the surface, it seemed inevitable that there would.

Weeks passed, in which Snape and I were distant and mostly civil to each other. I was often away, sniffing out the dementors' movements. When I did see Snape, he seemed tense and edgy, but not so pale and weary as he had been before; according to Harry, he hadn't had another bad turn in front of his class.

Remus was working closely with Dumbledore and Fabrice Skrimshaw, the Runes professor, and with Dumbledore's contacts on the continent. Though Snape still had nothing good to say about their plan, he had been seen in the staffroom reading a book entitled _Magically Precipitated Salts and Their Uses, With an Excursus on the History of Magical Millcraft_, which Remus assured me was Snape's way of saying we could count on him. I took his word for it. Certainly, the search seemed to be going well; there was an undercurrent of excitement among the staff that even the discovery, in the new moon, of a soulless and drained Muggle woman at the edge of the Forest could not entirely quench.

A month after Remus had proposed his idea to the Order, and after what I was thinking of as Round Two with Snape, Dumbledore summoned me, and Snape, to his office, and told us he was sending us to meet with a contact of his on Kollekaina, an Unplottable island in the Baltic where a wide range of magical beings find refuge.

Snape, for all that he loathes teaching, was nearly spitting at having to hand over his classes to a substitute. "Can't you send Lupin? This was his idea."

"I would," said Dumbledore, "were time not so crucial. Lupin will not able to travel until the moon wanes, and this cannot wait; I have heard that Death Eaters have been sighted in the forests of northern Finland, quite possibly searching for the very thing we seek." He fixed Snape with a severe stare. "Are you able to travel, Severus? The curse--"

"--the curse is not an issue. I can go wherever you need to me to go."

It was true, Snape had seemed his old self in the past weeks-- in public, at any rate. Perhaps Voldemort had forgotten him, or perhaps he'd simply learned to manage the pain. In any case, though Dumbledore raised his eyebrows at Snape's defensive tone, he accepted his answer.

"Very well then, Severus, Sirius. You will leave by Portkey, tonight."

That afternoon, I found Snape in his workroom, in his shirtsleeves, crushing scarabs in a mortar. A cauldron of something sweet-bitter and thick simmered on a ring next to him. Bundles of drying herbs and flowers hung from the ceiling: asphodel and aconite, the tiny leaves of rue and the dust-colored seedheads of poppies. A pair of white rats slept in a cage in a corner.

"What do you want, Black?" He dropped another scarab into the mortar. "Oh, wait, let me guess. You're here to try to provoke me into another pointless argument."

"Going in for mind-reading now, are you?"

He snorted. "Please. I don't suppose it occurred to you to try to exercise some subtlety, in what I suppose you have been imagining to be covert glances in my direction?" The motions of his pestle were becoming more and more suggestive. "I suppose I can only be grateful you are forced to haunt my dungeon; otherwise I'm sure the whole school would be aware of your--" a twist of the pestle-- "fascination."

I felt the rising heat in my face, and in my cock, but it was only partly anger this time, and not the largest part. "And suppose I don't want to argue with you, Snape?"

"No one's forcing you to." Grind, twist. Another carapace cracked under the slowly circling pestle; Snape was putting far more of his arm and shoulder muscles into it than he needed to. "Though I'm at a loss as to why you're still standing there if you don't."

I let him add another handful of beetles, and find a rhythm to his grinding, before I spoke. "Maybe I just want to bend you over your worktable and fuck you senseless."

The pestle never so much as paused. But the long fingers clutching it went white at the knuckles for a moment. "As I said--" Snape laid down the pestle and carefully set the mortar off to one side-- "I don't know why you're just standing there."

I was around the table in another instant, opening Snape's collar and attacking his throat with my mouth. The marks I'd left in the stairwell, almost two months before, had faded, of course, but I soon brought them back, with teeth and tongue. Snape's hands, encumbered by the white shirt that now hung from his wrists by the still-fastened cuffs, went to his fly buttons; I pulled them away. "I'll do that." I closed his fingers around the edge of the table, and Snape held on, leaning back, the whipcord muscles showing in his arms.

I unbuttoned Snape's trousers and shoved them down. Snape's cock was hot and hard and just too large to fit easily in my hand. I played with it, teasingly, ungently: tugging at the foreskin, squeezing the shaft, flicking the head with my thumb. Snape licked his lips, and I lifted my other hand to feed him my fingers. He sucked enthusiastically for a moment before turning his head to murmur an 'Accio.' A flask of oil flew off a shelf and into his hand; he handed it to me and resumed his grasp on the table.

"Was that a hint?" I said, drizzling my hand with oil.

"Do you need one?"

I found his hole with one oiled finger and pressed in. Snape hissed. I added another finger, searching for the gland; when I found it, I worked it mercilessly for a moment, and then stilled my hand, withdrawing a little. Snape bit off a curse and bore down on my hand, and then, when I still didn't move, lifted himself on his toes and thrust down. I stood still and watched. Snape fucking himself on my fingers was the sexiest thing I'd seen in-- well, ever: head thrown back to show the darkening bruises on his throat; arms showing the play of shifting muscles under a gleaming film of sweat; red, weeping prick bobbing and swaying against his belly.

My own prick was leaking and straining against my clothes now, so hard it hurt. I pulled my hand away and Snape swore. "Turn around." Snape did, freeing his hands from his shirt with a tug that sent cuff links flying and resting his head on his folded arms. I undid my trousers and slicked myself with oil, and then pushed inside him. Snape took my cock in greedily, spreading his legs wider, taking me in in one slow, unbroken stroke.

It was the last thing we did slowly; as soon as I was in him I pulled out and thrust in, hard, and we soon fell into a pounding rhythm, rough and fast. Impossible for it to last long. When I felt my balls begin to tighten I reached around and jerked Snape in time with my thrusts, and Snape's arse clenching around me as he spurted into my hand pulled my own orgasm from me. I caught myself on the tabletop before I could fall, stayed there, arms locked, sweat dripping from my forehead and down Snape's back, until I could trust my weight to my knees again.

I pulled away. Snape groped for his wand, spoke a cleaning spell, and we straightened our clothes in silence. With a potion still simmering, Snape couldn't simply glide away this time. I spent an awkward few seconds scrambling for a good exit line, but my brain was in no state for repartee, and in the end I just muttered, "I'll see you tonight." Snape simply nodded, once, and went back to his beetles, and I left, unsure of who had won this round. Another draw, I supposed. I couldn't say I was disappointed.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

There were giants in the clearing. Twelve of them, seated on stones and stumps, passing around a wineskin that seemed to have been made from the whole hide of a deer. Two were singing in a language I did not know, and a roar of laughter went up from the others. Some of the giants of the north were on our side, some pledged to Voldemort, other tribes still undecided. There was no way to tell which these were.

We ducked into the shadow of the trees, and I looked at Snape and shrugged. "Plan B?"

Dumbledore hadn't known who his contacts on Kollekaina were sending to meet us. He would be alone, Dumbledore had said, and he would greet us with the password 'Fizzing Whizbees.' We were to answer with 'A risk in every mouthful.' "Those are Bott's Beans," Snape had protested, and Dumbledore had beamed. "That is why it's such an excellent password!" he'd crowed; and then, more gravely, "Do not wait long at the Apparation point. If the messenger is delayed, or if anyone else is present, you should leave the clearing at once. There is a hermit's cell, a quarter of a mile to the north; it's set about with wards, through which your Portkey has been charmed to guide you, and will be quite safe. I would send you directly there, except that the wards repel entrance by Portkey or Apparation."

Snape tucked the tasseled wool cap-- our Portkey-- into his pockets and drew his wand. "Boreas Monstrare." The wand spun in his hand and pointed straight at the giants. Just our luck; we'd arrived on the southern edge of the clearing. Snape looked to either side, gestured to the right with his chin; there seemed to be a rough path through the trees. He set off, and I followed.

Halfway around the clearing, he stopped so suddenly I nearly trod on him, falling to his knees and clutching at his arm. Shit.

"I thought you said the curse wasn't a problem," I hissed, trying to haul him to his feet. Behind us, I heard branches snapping; a giant had left the clearing. "Here," I uncurled Snape's right arm and draped it over my shoulders. "Lean on me. Come on."

"Potion," Snape said, through clenched teeth. "Left pocket, outer robe." I reached around his waist with my left hand and groped in his pockets; the giant's footsteps were coming closer. I dragged Snape off the path and into the undergrowth, out of the moon's light; a moment later, something shook the ground with a force that rattled my teeth. I peered out through the bramble: where Snape had fallen, a giant stood, his back to us, his feet overhanging the path on both sides. He muttered something I couldn't understand.

Snape was shuddering, his left arm clutched in his right hand, both pressed tightly against his body. I searched his pockets-- he had far more than the lines of his robes suggested-- until I finally found a palm-sized glass vial. On the path the giant, with a noise like a waterfall, was pissing against an oak tree.

"This the one?" I whispered. Snape gave a shaky nod, took the flask-- it seemed to take a great effort to unclench his fingers-- and drank.

The effect was rapid and thorough; within a few heartbeats, Snape was breathing deeply, flexing his arms. I caught his left arm and pulled up the sleeve; the Mark was still glowing green.

With a pounding footfall, the giant plunged back through the wood toward the clearing. "Come," Snape said. "The path's clear." It wasn't, quite-- there was a spreading puddle of giant urine from which the hems of our robes did not escape-- but we made it to the hermit's cell without being seen.

"That's quite some potion," I said, as the last of the wards parted around us. The cell was a stone hut with an oak door, and two tiny windows set under the thatched eaves. "Alohomora."

Snape lit the torches with a spell and then, wrinkling his nose, cleaned our robes, but he said nothing else.

"I mean, you should be in agony now."

"So sorry to disappoint you, Black." There were no chairs, only a wide bench by the hearth. Snape sat.

I claimed the other end of the bench, keeping a good distance from Snape. "So what is it?"

Snape looked at me sharply for a moment; I couldn't tell what he was thinking. "It's a variant of the Vivificus Draught."

"Vivificus?" The Vivificus Draught has stronger healing powers than anything besides unicorn blood: it relieves pain rapidly and entirely, and aside from acting as a mild stimulant has no noticeable side effects, when taken in small doses over the short term. Large doses are fatal, and the effects are cumulative. "How long have you been taking it?"

"You'll notice I said 'a variant,' Black. I've formulated a version of the Draught to be safe for long-term use."

"How are you getting around the residual toxins in the Anguiferia root? They're all that renders the Lobalug venom safe."

Snape looked at me with evident surprise, and I bristled. "You don't need to look so shocked; my Potions N.E.W.T.s were right behind yours and James's."

Snape hesitated, seemingly torn between his desire to talk about his work to someone-- and I was certain he'd said nothing about this to Dumbledore or Pomfrey-- and his evident doubt that I would carry on a civil conversation with him without some ulterior motive. Pride in his work won out.

I could follow Snape's descriptions of his processes and ingredients well enough, but I'd lost the ability to put the potion together in my mind, to see how the magical and chemical properties of each part twined and interacted in the whole. The dementors had left me my book-knowledge-- and I'd recited Potions recipes to myself in Azkaban, to try to send myself to sleep, to crowd out the despair and the nightmares-- but I'd brewed no potions in sixteen years, and the knack had left me. I listened to what Snape was saying, and even asked questions, but a part of my mind had wandered to the time when Snape's words would have really meant something to me.

Though my friends and I had helped each other with schoolwork since our first week at Hogwarts, we didn't form the study group until third year, when the classes became advanced enough for our strengths and weaknesses to begin to show. The four of us-- five, once Lily joined us-- had determined to each master one subject, and tutor the others in it. Charms had been Lily's subject, of course; Remus's had been Defense. Peter's had been Arithmancy: he had always been clever in abstract subjects, though hopeless in anything hands-on. I had taken Transfiguration, and James had taken Potions. In our fifth year James and I had switched subjects, just to prove we could, though once we moved into N.E.W.T.-level work we had sense enough not to try the swap again.

The study group had held us together through rough times: after the night I tried to set Remus on Snape, I'm not sure that Remus would ever have spoken to me again, much less forgiven me, if he hadn't been depending on my tutoring in Transfiguration, if he hadn't promised me his help in Defense. But he had, and we had become friends again, though not as close as before, over our books, and we had each passed both subjects with top marks that year.
A typical Gryffindor team effort. I had been so unprepared to face Azkaban, or life afterwards, without that team at my back.

I tried to turn my thoughts back to the present. Snape was describing his novel use of salamander blood. I listened to the rest of his explanation, and there was a short silence while I tried to think of an appropriate response.

All I could come up with was "How's it been working?"

"Well enough. I've had some difficulty fixing the ratio of leeches to hellebore. But I believe I'm on the right track."

Snape is not a modest man. For him to admit to 'having some difficulty' was surprising, and rather worrying. "How bad has it been? The curse, I mean."

Snape gave me a guarded look; I could tell that he was having second thoughts about confiding all this in me. Which should have seemed odd, considering that he'd been practically begging me to fuck him through the table just that afternoon, but didn't, somehow. His face was still shuttered when he spoke. "I seem to have underestimated Voldemort's vindictiveness."

"The attacks are getting worse?"

"Somewhat." He shifted on the hard bench. "And they've become more frequent of late."

I looked at my shoes. "I, ah. I should have got us out of there faster. At Starfsey, I mean."

Snape was silent. I looked back up; his eyebrows had climbed nearly to his hairline. "Did I just hear you apologize, Black?"

"Is that so hard to believe?"

"With no prompting from Albus? Yes, frankly. You weren't nearly this contrite about trying to feed me to a werewolf."

"I am sorry for that!" It had driven a wedge between Remus and me that we were only now starting to get around, and I'd blamed Snape for the estrangement from my friend. In every aspect of that sorry incident, I'd been unfair, thoughtless, and small-minded. And I did not like being reminded of it. "Look, I was sixteen. I was stupid."

Snape snorted. "And youthful stupidity is, of course, a perfectly valid justification for attempted murder?"

"It seemed to work well enough for you. Oh, but that wasn't just attempted, was it?"

There was a heavy silence. Snape closed his right hand over his forearm. From far off came a low throbbing, as much felt as heard: the giants were dancing. We stared at each other. I knew I had gone too far, and I was the first to look away. "I shouldn't have said that."

"You had every right to."

We sat there for quite a long while, each of us staring at a different corner of the room, listening to the giants' carousing. It occurred to me that Snape and I still hadn't had a completely civil conversation.

"What are you smirking about, Black?"

"We seem to have proved that we can have an argument without jumping each other. I don't know whether to call that progress or a setback."

Snape's mouth quirked in what looked like amusement. "I think this afternoon proved that the two are separable, to an extent."

"Well, that's good." I gave him a grin. "I'd hate to have to start another argument, just so I can suck you off."

Snape stared at me. "Are you mad?"

"Oh, undoubtedly." I stared right back.

"We are on an intelligence mission not a quarter of a mile from a giants' drinking-party; this is hardly the time or the place."

"I see we're having the argument anyway. It's all the same in the end, Snape; I'll win."

"You flatter yourself, Black." His voice betrayed nothing but scorn, but his eyes lingered just too long on my mouth. Ha.

"I'll win, because you want me to win."

"We are in a dangerous--"

"--and you don't get off on danger? Tell me another one, Snape." I went to my knees in front of him and parted his robes.

"Black--" His hand came down on my shoulder and held me there for a moment, not pushing me away, not letting me any closer. I started in on his trouser buttons: one, another, another--

There was a whisper of magic around us, and the air trembled, as though the stones were humming too low for us to hear. "Shit. The wards." Snape sprang to his feet and fastened his trousers. I went to the window.

"Can you see anything?" Snape drew his wand.

"Just shadows." Another tremor; whoever it was was getting closer. "I wish we knew who to expect. I know Dumbledore knows a Lapp shaman in these parts."

"And a circle of Finnish witches. And I believe he is in contact with a priest of Frey who comes here from Uppsala for his rituals."

The air, the ether, and the ground all trembled at a knock that nearly took the door off its hinges. From outside it, a heavily-accented voice boomed "Fizzing Whizbees!" I shot a glance at Snape; he moved to the side, wand raised. "A risk in every mouthful," I said, and unspelled the locks and opened the door.

I looked to left and right for our contact, confused, before I realized that the tree-trunk before me had not been there when we'd come in. And that tree-trunks, unlike trouser legs, do not generally have patches sewn in at the knee. I looked up.

The giant was easily eighteen feet tall, and muscle-bound, with arms as big around as my torso; his face, above his braided brown beard, might have been hewn from granite. His eyes were as black as Hagrid's, but they held none of Hagrid's kindliness. The giant stared down at me from under lowered brows. He frowned. "You come from Albus, yes?"

"Yes," I said.

Snape appeared behind me. "And whom, precisely, do you represent?"

The giant grinned. It was not a pleasant expression. "That is a good question, and a long answer. Come outside, friends of Albus, where I can talk to you."

Snape and I shared a look. Snape nodded and stepped outside, leaving the door open and his wand drawn. The giant sat down cross-legged on the bare ground before the cottage door, still inside the wards. We stood; his face was still three feet above ours.

"Now," said the giant, "if you are truly sent from Albus Dumbledore, tell me where Hagrid Half-giant keeps the broken pieces of his wizard's wand?"

"In a ridiculous pink umbrella," Snape replied.

The giant's face became somewhat less forbidding. "You speak as one who knows him. It is well; I will trust you." He spread his hands, showing them empty. "I am Ulfgar."

"Sirius Black," I said, repeating his gesture.

"Severus Snape. And you haven't answered my question. Are you connected with the giants drinking in the clearing?"

Ulfgar was unfazed by Snape's bluntness. "I was with them, earlier this night. I could not turn down their mead, not without insulting them. But they are not my clan, if that is what you mean."

"They're not your people, then?" Snape asked.

Ulfgar shook his massive head. "No. My clan is with Albus in this war. They--" he gestured toward the clearing, from which the sound of revelry still came-- "support no one, yet. In the past, their people and mine have fought, often. In the future-- who knows? Perhaps they will come to our side. For now, I drink with them when they offer, I fight them when they fight me, but I keep my mouth shut around them, except to pour mead into it." He looked at our faces and smiled. "Do not fear them tonight! They will drink and dance until the moon sets." I put away my wand; Snape kept his drawn, but laid it across his lap. "But I told you," the giant continued, "that who my people are is a long matter to speak of. And it is a matter not unconnected to the thing that Albus Dumbledore seeks."

My heart sank; I had hoped we could get through the evening without getting into genealogy.

"Dumbledore told us," said Snape, "that you would bring us news about that object."

"I bring you more than news, my friends." Ulfgar's black eyes glittered, and for the first time he did remind me of Hagrid, Hagrid with a surprise up his sleeve. I tensed slightly. Ulfgar reached into one voluminous pocket and drew out a leather-covered casket, and laid it on the ground before him.

Snape glanced at me and, wand in hand, knelt and opened it. Reflected moonlight lit his face, gone still and wide-eyed. I leaned over his shoulder to look into the casket.

Bright metal tarnished, jagged edges worn smooth, runes nearly erased with time. There was a smooth curve of metal, polished and abraded to eggshell thinness, irregular in outline but perfectly rounded, like a shard broken out of the dome of the sky; over it, runes and symbols were written thickly, interlocking and crowding each other. Beneath the inscribed cover, a shallow metal spout connected to a wheel, a welter of wheels, nesting and jostling in a way that defied the eye, the spaces between them seeming somehow more real than the circles of polished metal, as though it remembered missing pieces and outlined their shapes in the air.

"The sampo," Snape breathed.

"Only a part of it." Ulfgar looked down at it, sorrowfully. "Only a part of what my people lost, and that was only a part of what Ilmarinen forged."

"Your people?" I looked up in surprise, though my eyes fell back almost instantly to the bright thing in the box. "I hadn't heard that the giants were ever connected to the people of Pohjola."

Ulfgar shut the casket with a loud snap; Snape and I looked guiltily up. "No. My people, the Fenings, come into the story later."

The name meant nothing to me. Snape shook his head slightly. "I'm afraid I'm not familiar with your clan's history, Ulfgar Fening."

The giant sighed, like a gust of wind through a tower window. "Few are, Severus Snape. But for two thousand years, we have been the keepers of this fragment of the sampo, and the only ones to remember its secrets."

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

Ulfgar was right; it was a long tale to tell. Some of it I had heard before: how the sampo was forged by the smith Ilmarinen and kept by the mistress of Pohjola, how Ilmarinen and his brothers stole it back and were pursued across the sea, and how in the sea battle that followed the sampo was shattered, its fragments drifting to shores all around the Baltic. But some of it was new to me.

"Most of the fragments that came ashore were too small or too broken to hold more than a whisper of the power that the sampo had contained; or the local magic folk didn't know how to use that power to the full. They plowed the tiniest pieces into their fields, and the magic made them fruitful, and around their borders, that the dementors would not cross.

"This fragment came to shore in Sweden, in the days of the king Frothi. Him, perhaps, you know?" I remembered the name from History of Magic, but nothing more, and said as much.

Ulfgar frowned at me and continued his tale. "There was still an uneasy peace, and some commerce, between the dwarves and the giants of the North and men, even unmagical men, in those days, and the dwarf-smiths of king Frothi knew this thing for what it was: a part of a great magical mill, the greatest ever made.

"The dwarves found the shapes of the missing parts-- only some of them, and imperfectly, but enough-- and the giants hewed them out of stone, working on a massive scale, because King Frothi had in mind to replace the magical power lost in the breaking with brute strength and force of muscle. And he did: this fragment of the sampo became the heart of Frothi's Mill, and two giantesses, Fenja and Menja, went into Frothi's service to turn it. And with their bodies supplying the power, there was enough magic within this fragment to bespell the Mill, so that it worked as the sampo had, grinding out whatever the miller asked of it."

"I think I do remember this story now," I said. "Frothi ground out peace and prosperity for his kingdom; it was a golden age. But he wouldn't let the giantesses rest, not even for a moment."

"And so he sowed hatred between men and giants that has never dulled. For Fenja and Menja grew angry with Frothi. They stopped grinding fruitfulness; and without the magics of the Mill, the crops failed. They stopped grinding peace, and without the magics of the Mill restraining them, men fought among themselves, and the dwarves retreated behind their stone doors, and the Danes began to push at Frothi's borders. And still Frothi gave the sisters no rest, and so Fenja and Menja ground out all their hatred and their bloodlust, and Frothi was murdered in his hall and there was war and slaughter across his land; and the stones of the Mill broke and crumbled to dust."

"A lesson against overreliance on magic," Snape said, "that some of today's wizards might do well to take to heart."

Snape sounded as sincere as I've ever heard him, but it was clearly a calculated answer; Ulfgar beamed, happy that Snape had found a moral. "And a lesson to any who would bind the giants of the North in servitude. For the Danish army captured Fenja and Menja, and stole the sampo fragment from the dust of the Mill, to take back with them to Denmark. But the sisters were still able to grind a storm that sank their ship. Menja was drowned, but Fenja swam to shore with the cover of the sampo hooked over her finger. And from that day to this, her descendants have kept it, the greatest treasure of our people. And though much of its lore has been forgotten, much we still remember."

And much we learned, that night. The runes on the sampo's cover were all keys to the spells that controlled it. Some were illegible, and the meanings of others had been lost over the centuries, but it was still the work of hours to hear them, and repeat them back to Ulfgar until he was satisfied we had committed them to memory. Snape was faster to memorize the spells-- all but the most complex he needed to hear only once-- but I had been good with Runes, once, and I was quicker to grasp the meanings of the more intricate combinations of signs.

Snape stopped Ulfgar's recitation once during the night to take another draught of his potion, though he hadn't had another collapse. "Another attack?"

Snape didn't answer. I stared him down. "About half an hour ago." he said. "There is some lingering pain."

"I didn't notice anything." But now that he'd said so, I realized I had noticed it: he'd been seized by a sudden tension, as though he'd been about to jump up from where he sat on the ground, and I'd seen him shiver.

"I could handle it then. But the last dose is wearing off."

The moon had long since set and dawn was breaking by the time Ulfgar declared that he could teach us no more. "You know now all I am able to tell you of the Heart of the Mill, and I know all that any of my clan, even to the wisest of us, could tell." He looked at both of us before placing the cask in my hands. "Guard it well," he said grimly. "For Albus Dumbledore, and for the defeat of the Dark Lord, we will lend you this thing. But treat it ill, and the anger of the Fenings will follow you and your descendants for as long as there are still giants in the North." There was a tense silence, which was not entirely dispelled by Ulfgar's rising and shaking first Snape's hand, and then mine; his hands were twice the size of Beater's bats. "Go well, friends of Albus," he said, and went off into the forest without looking back; the wards thrummed as he passed.

Snape and I returned to Hogwarts, and spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon passing on to Dumbledore the history and lore we had heard from Ulfgar that night. Professor Skrimshaw joined us halfway through the morning, and after lunch Remus came in, his pale face lighting up with excitement when he saw what we had brought. It was nearly three o'clock before Dumbledore decided we could tell him no more, and sent us off to sleep.

I wasn't sleepy: too much tea, and Moony and Skrimshaw's contagious enthusiasm, had got me buzzing, though I knew that fairly soon I was going to crash. Snape, too, seemed wide awake-- enough to protest to Dumbledore that he should teach his last class of the day. Dumbledore would have none of it, and soon we were on our way to the dungeons. When we rounded the bend of the stairwell, Snape looked away from me, turning his head almost quickly enough to give him whiplash.

"What are you laughing at, Black?"

"You. Nervous about revisiting the scene of the crime?"

Snape shot me a glare over his shoulder as we came to the bottom of the stairs. "You must be projecting, Black; I have a clear conscience."

"Well, I don't."

We'd reached Snape's door; he stopped outside it and turned around, puzzled. "Oh?"

"I didn't finish something I started."

Snape looked briefly surprised, but didn't pretend not to know what I was talking about. His hand was very still against the door. I had never been inside Snape's private rooms; I wasn't at all sure that he would let me inside.

Snape was looking at me almost sadly. He gave a slight shake of his head. "I get off on danger, remember?"

And letting me into his bed, without a shield of adrenaline and anger, would be far riskier in Snape's eyes than anything we'd done. I smiled, leaning my arm against the doorframe. "And I'm not dangerous?"

Snape looked at me, face blank and unreadable, for so long I was nearly ready to slink away and leave him. But then he opened the door. He turned, frowned at me as I hesitated on the threshold. "Well, come in then."

Snape's bed was wide enough for two, though just barely. I pushed Snape's robes off his shoulders, started in on his shirt buttons, but when Snape saw that I wanted him naked he backed a step away and started undressing himself. I took off my shoes and robe and hesitated, unsure of precisely where we were going with this. "Well?" I looked up; Snape was naked, already half-hard. "Don't I get to see?"

I shrugged quickly out of the rest of my clothes. Snape turned back the bedclothes and lay down, watching me, his black eyes half-closed but focused and intent under their heavy lids. He watched, but made no move to touch, and I knelt on the bed between his parted knees and bent my head.

I had loved to do this, once. And I had been very good at it. And since my escape, I had been celibate until the morning in the stairwell two months ago; it had been sixteen years since I'd had a cock in my mouth.

In a way it was like riding a broomstick: I hadn't forgotten. I soon had him hard and red and leaking, his breath quick and shallow, his long fingers digging into my shoulder or knotting painfully in my hair. But in another way, I'd forgotten everything: the dementors had left me memories of this, left me most of my once-considerable prowess, but they'd stolen all the pleasure I'd taken in it. I was completely unprepared for the rush of mingled power and tenderness, for the satisfaction I took in making Snape lose his considerable control. For the burn of arousal I felt.

Each little pleasure was a new discovery: the scent of him, and the taste. The softness of the skin of his inner thigh, and the way the tender flesh reddened when I bit and sucked there. Snape's low murmur of encouraging words: yes and good and fuck and there and more. The weight of his cock against my tongue, strangely comforting. I had lost it all to the dementors, the joy I'd had in this with each of my lovers, and I felt absurdly grateful to Snape for letting me find it again.

Before long, I was as hard as Snape was, and there was no more chance of taking this slowly. I drew him into my mouth as far as I could-- it seemed it would take some practice to relearn how to relax my throat muscles-- fisting the base of his cock with one hand and stroking my own with the other. Neither of us lasted long.

Snape lay panting, flat on his back. I rested my head against his stomach. After a few moments Snape squirmed, and I started to sit up. Snape caught my arm. "Come here."

I lay down beside him, not quite touching. Snape reached for my hand, the first time he had touched me since Kollekaina. He brought it to his mouth and began to lick it clean. "Snape?"

"Mmm?" he said, around a mouthful of my fingers.

I let my head fall to the pillow. "Nothing. That feels so good." It felt wonderful, Snape's clever mouth alternately teasing and soothing, up and down my fingers and over the webbing of the thumb, lapping at my palm, nibbling and sucking at my fingertips. The play of lips and tongue and teeth continued long after my hand was clean, gradually becoming slower and slower. I fell into a doze, and woke with a start to a cold draft over my palm. I looked over at Snape; he was asleep, my hand lying loosely in his on the pillow between us. I almost didn't want to move, but by now the rest of me was cold, too, and I reached down to pull the duvet over us.

I began to edge toward the other side of the bed, but I stopped and looked at Snape again. He seemed to be deeply asleep. I nestled up close to him. He didn't wake. Well enough. The dementors had taken this from me, too, this feeling of sleeping close-twined with another person, and I wanted it back. No matter that it was Snape who lay beside me: he was warm, his skin smooth where it touched mine, his breath steady and comforting against my neck.

 

It was half-past-four in the morning when I woke up, but I'd slept long and was wide awake. I was alone in the bed, but there were lights burning in the other room. I got up and dressed, stuck my head out the door.

Snape sat at his desk, reading from one long scroll and making notes on another. There was a teacup at his elbow, and a tray with a steaming teapot and an empty cup sat on a stack of books behind his chair. I went over and picked up the teapot. "May I?"

Snape didn't look up from his reading. "No, the second cup is purely for decoration."

I poured myself a cup of tea and leaned against Snape's desk to drink it. His eyes were still fixed on the scroll, but he wasn't writing. "Is this going to happen again?"

"Given recent trends, I'm not going to say it won't. I dislike being proved wrong."

I hadn't meant the sex, and I knew Snape knew it. I'd meant being in Snape's bed; trying, however unsuccessfully, to take our time; sleeping together afterwards. But I knew Snape's answer was the closest I'd get to acknowledgement or to an invitation, and so all I said was, "No, do you? Could have fooled me."

Snape did look up, finally. "Do you have a reason for blessing me with the famous Gryffindor wit this morning, Black, or are you simply standing there because you have no one else to pester at this hour?"

I grinned down at him. "Something tells me you're not a morning person, Snape."

I could have sworn Snape growled.

"All right, I'm leaving." I drained the teacup and set it down. "I'll take my sunny presence elsewhere until you're feeling sociable."

"I very much doubt you'll wait as long as that, Black." Snape said it in an undertone, but I was clearly meant to hear.

"Oh, I don't know, I think Hell might be freezing over," I said, on my way out the door. After all, I had just had a nearly civil conversation with Snape.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

Snape, rather to my surprise, continued to be almost civil. We didn't stop arguing, in the days and weeks that followed: rather, we expanded our repertoire-- arguing, bickering, bantering, disputing, quarrelling, even some genuine fights. I recognized, and I believe Snape did too, that each of us needed someone we could lose our temper with and not fear hurting; that we were using each other for the quarrels as much as for the sex.

And for the comfort. There were other nights in Snape's bed: nights when I wasn't skulking about Malfoy Manor in dog-shape or keeping Remus company in his transformations, or sitting by Harry's bedside in the infirmary after another Quidditch fall or run-in with Death Eaters; nights when Snape wasn't burning the midnight oil in his laboratory or planning strategy with Dumbledore; or when we weren't both closeted with the Order or too exhausted to do more than stumble to our separate beds. We never slept together except after sex.

I might have asked to, if my pride had let me, and if I had thought Snape would allow it. Instead, I would try to keep awake, so that I could hold him without his knowing. I was disgusted with myself for being so needy of touch that even Snape, prickly Snape with all his angles and hard bones, could feel so good in my arms, but I couldn't let go. Romping under the full moon in Padfoot's skin didn't give me this, nor holding Harry's hand in the infirmary. Holding Snape while he slept may have been only a farce of intimacy, but it soothed my skin-hungry body as nothing else could, and warded off the nightmares that could still slip in, even through a few inches of empty space around me.

Sometimes, Snape would stir, and I would draw away. Once he woke, eyes opening with a start, and I leaned in to stroke and lick, turning my trespass into the one presumption I knew he would allow. Snape pulled away with a good-humored grunt. "You might be insatiable, Black, but eventually I do reach a point where I need to sleep." And if he noticed that I wasn't hard, he said nothing.

And neither of us ever said a word about why were sleeping together. There was no need to; we both knew. It was a ragged, harried time, and we needed comfort and release where we could find it. Two weeks after the trip to Kollekaina, dementors descended upon a Muggle household outside of Edinburgh: still on Dumbledore's doorstep, metaphorically if not literally. It was the first attack that Voldemort revealed to the Muggle world, though not the last, and Hogwarts took on the feel of a war zone.

After the Edinburgh attack, Dumbledore redoubled his surveillance of Voldemort's bases. I spent five days nosing around Malfoy Manor, mapping the wards in minute detail, and Dumbledore had other spies at Starfsey and Little Hangleton. The sources of his information about Azkaban I have never learned.

Snape caught my eye at the Order meeting my first day back and looked an invitation at me, and late that evening I found him in his workroom. Two cauldrons were on the boil: one, with the same sweet-bitter smell I remembered from the time we fucked on his worktable, I now recognized as Vivificus, though the smell seemed off, different. The other, an unpleasantly glutinous concoction of no real scent or color, Snape was stirring and frowning at; it didn't seem to be finished yet. He didn't tell me to leave, though, so I knew it couldn't be far from ready.

"So." I leaned against the counter on my elbows. The cage in the corner held only one rat now, and it looked unhealthily thin. At least Snape wasn't experimenting directly on himself. Still I pitied his laboratory animals.

Snape was watching me watch the rat. I looked away and cast about for another topic of conversation. "Why is Flitwick working on weather charms?" Snape looked up and gave me his you're-an-idiot stare, and I rolled my eyes. "I've been living as a dog all week; I'm out of the loop."

Snape, unusually for him, refrained from comment about my Animagus form. "Do you know the folk legends surrounding the sampo, and Frothi's mill? The Muggle legends?"

"No; only what I learned in History of Magic."

"Both artifacts were said in legend to have turned the sea salt, by continuing to grind out salt after sinking to the ocean floor. Legend," he said, bringing up the flame under the cauldron with a gesture, "but legend with some basis in fact. Grinding out salt, of a kind, is the default to which an unattended magical mill reverts.

"Ilmarinen and Frothi designed their mills to produce whatever the miller desired-- the power with which they were imbued could be channeled into conjuring material substances, such as gold, or into shaping ambient magics: wards, fertility charms, pacifying charms, or the sort of ambient Patronus that repels the dementors. The mills responded to the magical commands encoded in the runes on the sampo's cover, or, far less efficiently, to whatever was foremost in the mind of the miller.

"When left to turn unattended, the mill would be less efficient still, but it ground out its most interesting product: a sort of crystalline precipitate of the ambient magics around it."

"Salt?"

"Easily mistaken for it by the magically unskilled." Without looking up from the cauldron, Snape summoned a small jar along the counter. "Essentially, it's magic fixed into a tangible form: in kind, not really different from any other bespelled object, but much more amenable to most magical and physical transformative processes."

I picked up the jar, tipped a few of the gray-white lumps into my hand. It looked just like coarse sea salt. "And a better potion ingredient."

"Precisely."

"And the weather charms?"

"It seems-- and I believe we owe this scrap of knowledge to your godson-- that the Muggles have developed a technique they call 'cloud-seeding.' They scatter fine particles of silver iodide into a good-sized cloud to induce rain." Snape added something dusty and red to the cauldron, frowned at the results. "Any good weather-worker can charm rain from a clear sky. But sowing a rain cloud with the sampo's salts--

"--would solve the dispersal problem." I frowned as a thought struck me. "Just how strong are these salts, anyway? That seeding would dilute them tremendously."

Snape hesitated noticeably. "Not strong enough." I got the impression he was as much relieved not to have to explain the problem to me as he was reluctant to admit there was one. "Even with the strongest protection spells and Patronus charms we can muster surrounding and feeding the sampo fragment."

"Can you condense it at all?"

"Again, not quite enough, but I am working to integrate it into a Protection Potion; that should bolster the effects sufficiently. The greatest stumbling block is creating a potion that can be recrystallized." He lifted his ladle; the potion dripped from it in thick blobs. Snape let out a small sigh. "The failures still have their uses. This, for example, ought to be an effective ward enhancer, smeared around doorframes." He put out the fire. "And as another negative example, if nothing else."

Snape's progress with what Flitwick had dubbed Precipitate of Patronus was steady and surprisingly rapid; while he continued to experiment and to make small changes, he soon had a formula that he pronounced adequate. His cauldrons simmered all day, fusing the salts with other ingredients: wreaking chemical changes that would bring forth rain from the clouds, magical changes that would make the charmed rain potent against other Dark creatures as well. And in a guarded and warded room on the third floor, the sampo turned endlessly, wizards there round the clock to sustain the magics it fed on.

But the sampo could only grind so fast, and there were still weeks to wait-- weeks to wonder where the dementors would turn up next-- before we could hope to seed four storm clouds at once. Before we could attack. Or before Hogwarts could attack: the Ministry was still issuing blanket denials, and whether Fudge was a traitor or a coward or merely blind no longer mattered. This was Dumbledore's war now; if, indeed, it had ever been anything else.

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Another potion was always on the boil in Snape's workrooms as well. But his results with the modified Vivificus were, in his words, only a qualified success. One rat was still alive, after a ten-week regime, but it was thin and nervous. So was Snape, but then so were we all.

Still, Snape's physical health seemed no worse than mine. His personality was unaltered, howevermuch a few side effects might have improved it. Certainly his libido was normal enough. He slept no more than a few hours a night-- the potion made him wakeful, but without it he was at the mercy of the pain, and of Voldemort's whim-- but no one could sleep long in those weeks: work kept us from our beds, and nightmares plagued even the soundest sleepers. Harry, for fear of missing a premonition, refused to take a Dreamless Sleep potion until Dumbledore insisted.

For me, just having a warm bed was as effective as a potion. I found myself saying so to Snape one night, in a moment of post-coital muzzy-headedness. He was quiet for a long time, so long I thought he was pretending not to have heard my admission.

"I wake up, in the night." He spoke into his pillow, head turned away from me. "When I'm alone."

"You do that anyway." He would always wake when the last dose of Vivificus began to wear off. Sometimes he would wake to pain, the Mark glowing and pulsing, and I would pour out the potion for him and hold him as it took effect: the only time I ever did so while he was awake. Other mornings I would wake at dawn and find him in his study, candles burnt low.

"Not like that." Another silence, even longer. "I sometimes have the sensation of falling."

"I've had that," I said. "Where you're just drifting off to sleep, and your body feels weightless and heavy at the same time, like you'd just drift away except you're tied down to a thousand anchors, and then it's as if the cords are cut and you're falling, fast, and then you just stop and you're wide awake with your heart pounding?"

Snape's hand tightened, grasping the pillow beside his head. "Like that, yes." He stretched his fingers, slowly and deliberately, the tension visibly dissipating, then stretched his whole body, making a small noise of contentment. "I think you've fucked me so far into the mattress I couldn't fall any further tonight." And either he fell asleep then, or he wanted me to think he had. Either way, I said nothing.

But that night I slept poorly. I couldn't deny any longer that I would miss Snape if he were gone. That I was growing fond of him. And that I might well be mourning him, soon.

I was awake when Snape woke and reached for the potion flask on the night table. He drank down a dose and sat up, then looked over and saw that my eyes were open. "Black?"

"Can't sleep."

"Mmm." Snape lay back down beside me. "Neither can I." He bent his head, tongue darting out toward my collarbone, but I caught his chin, tilted his head up. Slowly brought my mouth down onto his.

We had not kissed before. It was the one line that, by mutual unspoken agreement, we did not cross. I ran my tongue over Snape's closed lips, knowing that this might well be the boundary he would not let me past.

Snape held very still, not pulling away, but not returning the kiss. The thought struck me that Snape's mouth was probably the one part of his body my tongue still had no acquaintance with. I nearly laughed, stifling it against his lips with a last, almost desperate press of my mouth, before I pulled away.

Snape was breathing fast. He searched my face with black eyes that revealed nothing.

"If I've gone too far," I said, "then tell me."

"I don't know where you're going." His voice was very low. "You tell me."

"I didn't want to regret not ever doing that, if you. If I don't have the chance again." I carded my hand through his hair. "I think there's more we could have. More that I would very much regret not at least trying for."

"More to lose." His face still betrayed nothing.

"I know." I drew in a breath. "Am I wrong? Can we do more than use each other?"

Snape gave a brief, one-sided smile. "Four months ago I wouldn't have thought we could do even that."

"You haven't answered my question."

There was a moment's hesitation. Then Snape leaned in and kissed me. It was neither passionate nor chaste, nor especially tender: I parted my lips under his, and he darted his tongue between them, snakelike, before worrying my lower lip with his teeth and drawing away. "Can any two people do more than use each other?"

"Fucking Slytherin existentialist." I cupped his face in my hands. "Let me rephrase that." I smoothed one thumb over the sharp line of his cheekbone. "Will you let me kiss you, and make love to you, and hold you afterwards? Or do we go through what might well be our last days on this earth each trying to keep our distance from the other, and never mind that we're screwing like mink and staving off the nightmares from this bed?"

There was a long moment in which neither of us moved or breathed. Then Snape kissed me again, hard. "For now," he said. "Just for now."

I murmured assent against his lips. "No promises." I opened my mouth under his, sucking his tongue in, savoring the feel of it. Snape caught the back of my skull in one hand and held me in place, and plundered my mouth. The kiss went on, each of us in turn surfacing for quick, gasping catch-breaths and coming back, finding a rhythm with our mouths that our bodies caught: a too-fast, headlong rhythm, desperate and rough. It was less a kiss than a tongue-fuck, and when we broke it we were thrusting against each other, my legs wrapped tightly around Snape's waist.

"Forget about the making love," I panted. "I just need you to fuck me."

Snape held my head down, placed a line of small, sharp bites along my jaw, up to my earlobe, making me writhe. "They're not. Mutually. Exclusive. You know."

"No but now," I panted, "I want you to fuck my arse the way you were just fucking my mouth."

Snape looked up, raising his eyebrows. "If you insist." And he slithered down my body and traced my cleft with his tongue.

I had done this to Snape. I'd teased his prick with my tongue until he was incapable of protesting, and then I'd moved back. And teased him again, with my mouth, and then with words: when he'd been almost about to come, I'd stopped. "I bet you fantasized about this, didn't you, Snape?" A swipe of my tongue all down his cleft. "Sirius Black, kissing your arse?" I'd circled the trembling hole with my tongue. "Did you imagine that you'd be making those incredible sexy noises?" I'd raised my head to look down at him. "That you would be spread out like sex on a plate? So utterly wanton?" And he had been: flushed, sweating, his whole body writhing at the slightest touch of my fingertip to that sensitized circle of flesh, moaning and whimpering. Snape, whimpering. "Did you imagine you'd be begging?" That had got through-- Snape's eyebrows lowered. "Because I'm not doing anything more until you beg me to." That had been a lie; I had touched him, ever so lightly, drawing patterns around his arsehole in my own spit. And Snape had writhed, and moaned, and whimpered, and finally, in a flurry of curses and, given his state of mind, some surprisingly creative imprecations, he had begged me. I'd rewarded him with what must have been the best orgasm of his life, and though he'd continued to curse me afterward, it had been without rancor.

Snape had never done this to me.

He circled my hole with his tongue, very slowly, over and over, until I was thrusting my pelvis up to meet his mouth, feet planted flat on the mattress. He began to lick his way inwards. I reached for my aching cock and he grabbed my wrists and held them down against the bed, one in each hand. The slow strokes of his tongue grew firmer. I heard a thin keening sound, realized that it was coming from my own throat. His tongue was pressing into me now, I could feel my greedy flesh closing around it, trying to devour it. My cock was leaking over my belly, painfully hard. I cried out-- there might have been words in it.

Snape raised his head and looked at me for what seemed like aeons. He gave a small smile. And bent his head again.

He sealed his lips over my tender flesh and sucked-- my cock twitched and spurted pre-come. He fucked me with his tongue, then, hard and wet and filthy. He had closed his hands over my hips now, holding me down, but I couldn't control my own body even enough to lift my fisted hands from the sheets and touch myself. I had been reduced to nothing but the trembling skin under Snape's mouth and an aching, twitching cock, and a hard knot of warmth and pleasure somewhere behind them.

Snape twisted his tongue inside me and I came, hard, crying out, my prick untouched. Snape sat between my knees and looked down at me: I was panting and shuddering and I could feel sweat and come mingling and trickling over my chest. Snape's eyes were as black and unreadable as ever, but his lips were parted.

"This is what I fantasized about," he said at last, voice very low and even. "You, in my bed, well-fucked and wanting more, and knowing I had made you scream and I could do it again."

I found my voice again. "And does the reality live up to the fantasy?"

Snape let his gaze rake over my body, and met my eyes. "It surpasses it." He ran his hand down my chest, rolling his fingers in my come, coating them, and then pressed two slick fingers into me. He bent his head again and, stroking my prostate the whole time, sucked me back to hardness. Even as aroused as I still was, it took time, and Snape took full advantage, doing things with his wicked mouth that would have made me come instantly if I'd been able, but that now I could only lie back and enjoy. My whole body was awake, thrilling, every part of me responding to every touch: if I had ever felt anything like this before, I had lost it to the dementors. It felt new. I felt new.

When I was hard again, at last, Snape summoned the lube and slicked himself-- my chest and stomach were sticky now with dried semen, but I was past caring-- and drew my legs over his shoulders and drove his cock home, all the way inside in one quick thrust. I pushed back against him, eager to feel him filling me. There was no more teasing; he fucked me with steady strokes, and I dug my fingers into his shoulders and pressed my cock up against his belly on each thrust. I could feel my orgasm building in my belly, could feel it behind my nipples and above the arches of my feet, in the palms of my hands and twining down my spine and along the tendons of my legs. Could feel it-- feel Snape-- in every part of my body. Almost every part. My mouth was empty, and it felt wrong, alone.

"Let me feel your tongue in my mouth again." I twisted my hands in Snape's hair and pulled his head down. "Let me feel you everywhere." Something passed over Snape's face-- he shut his eyes for a moment-- and then he fit his mouth over mine. There are almost as many nerve endings in the mouth as in the hands; I read that somewhere, once. I believed it now, feeling the surprising softness of his lips against mine, the heat of his mouth, the long slide of our tongues together, the rhythm that our mouths caught and carried and quickened. For the third time that night, I came: a long, slow-seeming climax, each pulse of my cock and wave of pleasure distinct, building from my skin inward, traversing my entire body before spilling into Snape's hand. I didn't release Snape's mouth until it was over.

Snape pulled away just long enough to catch a deep and gasping breath, before sealing his lips over mine again and pounding into me, hard. I sucked at his tongue and ravished his mouth while he ravished my body, feeling aftershocks ripple along my spine, relishing the way my sensitized body caught and magnified every sensation: the sheets rucking up behind my shoulder blades were a pleasure, Snape's fingernails below my hipbone, my come still warm on my belly, the jolts to my prostate that made my empty balls tighten as though they still had something to give, the feel of Snape moaning into my mouth as he stiffened against me and came.

His mouth stayed with mine through his climax, until we had to pull apart to breathe. He collapsed against my chest. We lay there like that for a moment, until my thigh muscles began to protest. "Severus? Mind letting me move my legs?"

He pulled away, his softened cock slipping out of me. I stretched my whole body, like a cat, closing my eyes, savoring the feeling of being in this relaxed and well-pleased body. When my arms remained empty I opened my eyes: Snape was sitting back on his heels, watching me. "First name basis?"

I shrugged; even that was a delicious sensation. "We've had our tongues up each other's arseholes, Snape. I think we can call each other whatever we like at this point."

Snape raised an eyebrow. "License to call Sirius Black whatever I like. That, I admit, is a very longstanding fantasy."

I snorted, a Snape-like snort. "Like you ever refrained from calling me anything. I still remember some of the choicer epithets. You were very creative."

"Were?" Snape gave me a look that was probably meant to be affronted, though it was closer to smugly satisfied.

"Snape, if you think I have nothing better to do than lie here and compliment you on your prowess--"

"I see we've abandoned the first-name basis."

"Severus, you are a total prat, you know that?"

He smiled. "I ought to, as often as you've reminded me." He reached for his wand and muttered a cleaning spell over us both. He hovered, as though about to get up.

I looked past him to the clock. "There's still a good hour until dawn." I moved over, making room for him next to me.

Snape hesitated, for a moment, then put his wand down and lay down, tentatively, beside me. He spread his hand over my chest, and when I didn't protest, smoothed it over my shoulder and neck, and settled closer, draping his arm over me. I put an arm around his shoulder, gently pressed against him. Then, his head resting on my shoulder. Then, my other hand closing over the arch of his hipbone. Then, one of his legs between mine. And so we twined ourselves together, slowly, more careful with each other in this simple embrace than we had ever been in more intimate acts.

No. There had been no more intimate acts between us than this, this undemanding closeness. I lay there, feeling him relax against me, feeling my breath match his. After a while I began to stroke his back; after a while he began to stroke my hair. Sometime after the single window high in the wall had caught the sun, but before the light had fallen across the bed, I leaned in and kissed his shoulder. He turned his head under my lips, letting me drop kisses along his neck and all along his jaw, up to his mouth. And we lay in bed and kissed, slowly and lightly, holding each other: kisses not meant to arouse-- sated as we were, that would have been impossible-- but to simply be as they were, simple and whole and replete.

Snape's alarm clock chimed, finally; it was the first time I'd ever heard it and not been alone in the bed. "Off," Snape told it, the word muffled in my hair. We pulled apart. Snape lay his hand along my cheek and held me still, looking at me with eyebrows drawn together. "For now," he said, just above a whisper-- speaking as much to himself as to me. "No promises."

"No promises," I echoed.

Snape trailed his thumb over my lips, and nodded. He rolled out of bed and padded into the outer room, snagging his dressing gown from its hook on the door as he went; I found my clothes and dressed, and followed. We shared a pot of tea in silence.

"Will I see you tonight?" I set down my empty teacup.

"I have to supervise a detention. Your godson hexed Draco Malfoy."

"That was a mutual hexing; if Harry were going to dye his hair he certainly wouldn't choose Slytherin green."

"Mr. Potter's lamentable tonsorial taste is not a subject I care to debate this early in the morning." Snape stared into his teacup, as intently as any diviner. "I shall be free after ten o'clock."

"Then I'll see you at ten-fifteen." I checked the state of my clothing-- rumpled, but adequate for a short walk down a deserted corridor-- and went to the door.

"I'll be waiting." Snape looked up from his tea. "Sirius."

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

We saw each other well before ten-fifteen that night, on the search party for Draco Malfoy. The boy wasn't there for his detention, and by midnight it was clear he wasn't at the school. Whether he had joined his father by choice, or had fled the school to avoid choosing, or had been taken unwillingly by the Death Eaters, by force or coercion, we couldn't know; Snape's interrogation of the Slytherins yielded nothing.

Draco's disappearance, whether desertion, flight, or abduction, was a blow to Snape. He felt he had failed the boy, and Dumbledore's attempts at reassurance had no effect. I didn't repeat any of Dumbledore's words, after he sent Snape from his office with orders to rest-- however true they were, Snape clearly was in no mood to listen. I followed him to his rooms and let him talk himself out, pacing in front of his fireplace, and when his well of self-recrimination finally began to run dry, I came up behind him and laid my hands on his shoulders. He didn't shrug them off. "You did what you could. For all of them."

"He's gone to his father."

"You don't know--"

"Yes, I do. I know my Slytherins; I know where they stand. He has chosen his side."

I kneaded the thin shoulders, feeling the knots of tension.

"Then you still did everything you could. You can't prevent someone from making a mistake they're determined to make, Severus. You of all people should know that." He said nothing. Beneath my fingers, his muscles were unyielding, refusing to give up their pain. I stopped kneading. "Do you want me to leave?"

He reached up and laid a hand over mine. "No."

I took him to bed. He flinched from gentleness, so I was ungentle, biting to bruise, twisting his nipples, fisting his cock roughly, fucking him hard. After he finally gave himself up to orgasm, I held him, and he allowed it.

"I will have to kill his father, one day soon." Snape spoke evenly, but so quietly I could barely hear. "I don't want Draco to stand between us."

In response, I tightened my arms around him; there was nothing I could say to that. But I made up my mind that when the day came, if anyone had to kill Draco Malfoy, I would do it myself. Better I should do it than Harry, or Dumbledore. Or Severus.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

That day came soon. Ten days after Draco's disappearance, Snape had amassed enough of the pale blue-gray salts to seed four massive storm clouds. Dumbledore, not trusting the word to owls, sent messengers by Apparation to our allies: a few tribes of giants, a few schools of merfolk. A network of Hogwarts alumni across Britain. Foreign wizards: some Beauxbatons-trained weather-workers and ward-breakers; handfuls of Weasley-recruited wizards from America, Egypt, Romania; Aurors from the few governments that had not accepted Fudge's denials: Finland, Burkina Faso, Croatia, Mongolia. And a few of the sixth- and seventh-year students that Dumbledore's resident Aurors had recommended.

It was still a very small force to take on an entrenched Dark Wizard, on his own turf, on four fronts at once.

I was to head the cloud-seeding team on the Malfoy Manor assault. With me were Harry and Ron Weasley-- the only current students on the airborne teams, though others were going in on the ground-- and a former Ravenclaw player called Davies, now working as a copy-editor at Obscurus, but still a fine flier. Current and former Quidditchers filled the other teams as well: Madam Hooch was to lead the seeding team at Little Hangleton, with two former Gryffindors called Bell and Spinnet and the Chang girl that Harry had been sweet on. Charlie Weasley was assigned to Starfsey, with his twin brothers and the new Puddlemere Keeper, Oliver Wood. At Azkaban, with its complex wards, Minerva McGonagall was leading a team of two old students-- MacMillan and Johnson-- and Viktor Krum, who had arrived at the school as a volunteer six days before. Our brooms were fitted out with baskets on either side, and we were issued Auror-style wand holsters: our task involved wand-work as well as flying, to spread the salts and to cast the spells that would activate all the magics they contained.

On the ground, teams of weather-workers would brew up and maintain the storms: Professor Flitwick would be with us at Malfoy Manor, supported by Hermione Granger and two French wizards whose names I never managed to learn. Professor Sinistra and a French witch called Delacour were in charge of the skies over Little Hangleton and Starfsey. Dumbledore himself was to raise a storm over Azkaban. On each front, a team of wizards would hang back to deal with the wards: breaking them to let the Aurors in, and if possible, raising them again to keep the dementors from fleeing once the rain that would paralyze them began: Bill Weasley was in charge of the Manor's wards, with a team of Egyptian wizards; Arabella Figg, Talia Vector, and Mundungus Fletcher were his counterparts.

And lastly, there were the Auror teams: the ground troops. There were Hogwarts post-OWL students on the ward- and weather-teams; none with the actual attack forces. There were giants in each group, though, and trained Aurors, and skilled Defenders without formal Auror training. Alastor Moody was to lead the amphibious assault on Azkaban, with merfolk behind him. The rest of the Merfolk were to follow Hagrid at Starfsey. Remus was leading the charge at Little Hangleton. Malfoy Manor was Snape's.

Hogwarts would be nearly stripped of its staff: the maintenance of its wards was largely in the hands of the remaining sixth- and seventh-years, under Professors Sprout and Skrimshaw. Madame Pomfrey was preparing the infirmary for casualties: the fifth-year class had been trained in first aid and pressed into her service. Mediwizards from St. Mungo's were on call, ready to Portkey in as soon as they were needed.

The preparations were made in a hundred secret face-to-face meetings. Despite his best efforts, Snape knew there were spies among the students, children of Death Eater parents, left in the school for their safety and not yet pressed to take the Mark, but reporting back to their families. And so the medical training and the instruction in ward maintenance had been simply an addition to the year's curriculum, not explained, and those students recruited for the assault on Voldemort had been recruited and trained in secret. And in secret they left the castle, by twos and threes, to gather in a clearing outside the wards where Dumbledore drew up his forces, in the dark before dawn.

I left Snape's bed early-- we had not slept or talked that night, but touched with a kind of desperation-- to walk down to the clearing with Remus and Harry and Ron and Hermione. We talked, at a whisper, of inconsequential things-- what little experience Remus and I had at this sort of thing, we'd already discussed with the three of them, during several long evenings in Remus's rooms. Harry walked between his two friends, and Remus and I walked together, behind them. After a while Harry fell back, into step with Remus and me.

"Sirius, can I ask you something?" He looked older than he should have; older than James had looked at his age.

"Of course."

"It's kind of personal." He shifted his broom on his shoulder; behind us, six baskets of pale salt levitated, following.

Remus made as if to leave us alone; I caught his arm and squeezed it. "What's your question, Harry?"

"Are you sleeping with Snape?"

Remus looked sharply at Harry, I think to avoid looking at me. "That's a very personal question," I said. "And yes, I am, not that it's any business of yours."

Remus did look at me then. "I had wondered."

"I should have told you," I said. "I would have, if you'd asked." Harry was looking slightly shell-shocked. "And you shouldn't have asked if you couldn't stomach the answer, Harry."

"I'm okay with it," Harry said, a little too quickly. Remus and I both raised our eyebrows at that. "Well, mostly." He gave a tentative smile. "It's just going to take a little getting used to, is all."

I smiled back. "I can understand that. I'm still trying to get used to it myself."

Remus looked at me levelly. "And Severus?"

I laughed. "Still flabbergasted, I think." I reached out and put my free arm over my godson's shoulder, my broom arm over my best friend's. "But then I'm just full of surprises." And so, arm in arm, we came into the clearing.

We were some of the first to arrive, but the Hogwarts wizards trickled in steadily over the next two hours, the Hogsmeade contingent walked up over the hill, and the British and European wizards began to Apparate-- the wizards from other continents had arrived in Britain by twos and threes in the last week, and settled in to wait in Hogsmeade or with others of Dumbledore's recruits. Severus came with the last group from Hogwarts, arriving as the rest of us were beginning to separate into our four divisions.

No one wanted to say a good-bye that might be permanent. "Good luck," we said, instead, as Moony shook hands with Ron and Hermione, shook Harry's hand and then, after a hesitation, pulled him into his arms. "Good luck" as Moony and I hugged each other fiercely. I pulled back from the embrace and saw Severus, hovering at the edge of the group; Remus followed my gaze. He offered Snape his hand. "Good luck, Severus."

Snape took the proffered hand and, to my surprise and Moony's, clasped it in both of his. "Good luck, Remus." And Remus, with a final nod to all of us, crossed the clearing to where Hooch and Sinistra stood with Cho Chang and Arabella Figg. His shoulders were squared, and he didn't look back.

Severus exchanged handshakes and good-luck wishes with his students; a little stiffly, but with evident goodwill. And then we waited, Severus and I standing shoulder to shoulder, Harry and his friends leaning their heads together. Our brooms were laden and hovering, our wands holstered and at the ready. And then, with a sound like corn popping in an iron skillet, the giants began to Apparate.

When they were all assembled, Dumbledore looked at the sky. "It is time." He stepped forward from the Azkaban group, cast his blue gaze over the army he had raised. "You all know what is at stake this morning." He spoke barely above a whisper, but even in the open air his voice carried to all of us. "And I know you are all prepared to do what you must." He looked both very formidable, and very old. "I wish that none of you had ever had to become soldiers. I hope that you shall never have to be again, after this day is passed. But soldiers you are today, and I have every confidence that you will acquit yourselves as well in war as you have in the arts of peace. Go well, and go with my confidence, and my pride."

He stepped back, nodded at McGonagall, who mounted her broom. The rest of the airborne teams mounted, but did not take off. Dumbledore murmured something that didn't carry. McGonagall Disapparated with an audible pop, and before the sound had died out, so did I.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

I knew the grove from my reconnaissance missions as Padfoot: a small copse of trees, outside the gates and wards of Malfoy Manor. I looked around, counting: we were all here, all twelve of us. Snape would be waiting on our signal, to come in once the dementors were taken care of. Bill Weasley led the ward team off around the perimeter; Flitwick lifted his wand. I looked up; the sky was already gray. The four weather-masters had begun ordering the winds into place hours before; now the skies were prepared, like an artist's palette, and they began to mix the storm.

I called my fliers together and we rose and hovered, high up and some distance from the wards, watching the storm take shape in the cold light before dawn. The winds spiraled together, twisting into a column of cloud, compacting, flattening and spreading at the top, making an anvil shape.

Motion caught my eye: "Fliers!" Broom-mounted figures rose from the Manor lawns and disappeared from our sight behind the cloud. I waved the others to follow, and we flew to the edge of the storm, skirting the trailing banners of mist, coming to a stop just under the gray floor of the cloud, where until the sun rose we would be well hidden. The three fliers were still rising, gaining altitude fast. They were all robed and masked.

"Malfoy." Harry pointed at the fastest, a small figure with a Seeker's build. "Good with curses and a good flier, but you can distract him."

Davies nodded. "And Flint. Knows a lot a of dirty tricks if you let him close, but from a distance we can take him with hexes."

No one mentioned the third and largest flier: obviously Crabbe or Goyle, it didn't much matter which one.

Above and around us, the cloud was roiling; a Sickle-sized drop of rain struck my forehead. "Ron, Davies, get to the cloud-top, begin sowing. Harry and I will take care of these three."

They went. "Lapsus hex, over all of them, with me." Harry went slightly pale, but nodded. I raised my wand; we cast the hex in unison. Malfoy and Flint spun on their brooms, barely righting themselves; Goyle-or-Crabbe fell.

Malfoy, still struggling to find his footbar, cast a spell over his shoulder; Crabbe-or-Goyle's broom turned and zoomed after its rider. Good thinking, but too late; I could see that the broom wouldn't make it.

One down.

The tail of Malfoy's broom burst into flames. I opened my mouth to berate Harry for not attacking the rider-- brooms are spelled to stay aloft; people aren't-- but before I could speak Harry had followed his Incendius with a well-aimed Lapsus, hitting Malfoy squarely between the shoulders as the boy turned to douse the fire and knocking him off the broom. He caught what was left of the tail and held on; but with half the twigs burned away the broom began to lose altitude, and it began to drift to the ground, the young Death Eater hanging on for dear life.

Two down.

And two up; I could see two more shapes rising from the ground. Another heavy droplet struck me, and another; the storm was rising quickly. Flitwick would be working to hold off the rain now; we didn't dare let the cloud rain itself out before we'd seeded it.

"Get to the top of the cloud." Harry rose, and I followed, through the gray mist, around tendrils of bluish light: the magics of the sampo, unwinding and spreading through the cloud. We followed them upwards, emerging into the light. Ron and Davies were skimming over the top of the thunderhead, broadcasting the pale salt with long arcs of their wands and muttered spells. "Three fliers coming up. Keep on your guard."

Harry and I flew to opposite ends of the cloud and began to sow. Where the salt and the spells dissolved into the cloud, blue sparks crackled, and tiny globes of ball-lightening began to leap up and roll over the cloud-top. The wind was rising, buffeting me this way and that; I was glad for the weight of the baskets.

I flew along the edge of the cloud and looked down: there were no fliers in sight. I darted back from the edge. "They're inside the cloud. Watch your feet."

I cast another wave of salt below me and immediately veered to the side; the others followed suit. Just in time; where Ron had been a moment before, the clouds roiled as a hex came up. Davies threw a counter-curse, but the Death Eaters hidden below us knew how to dodge too. We kept sowing, veering and dodging wildly, and below us the cloud boiled with hexes and charmed lightening and brewing rain.

I dodged too slowly and caught an Incendius. My sleeve caught fire, and by the time I had put it out I could feel burns all down my wand arm. I averted my eyes from the injury, not wanting to know how bad it was.

Davies veered from an arc of blue sparks he'd raised and into the path of a curse: with a howl, he fell from his broom and disappeared into the cloud. Harry dived after him. I summoned Davies' broom, with its precious cargo, and detached the baskets. "Here." Pain lancing down my arm, I tossed one to Ron, who was staring down at where Harry had gone. He caught it with a blank look. "You can't help him! We have a job to do!" I redoubled my efforts, scattering salt right and left. My face was streaming with brine, and I felt a coldness seeping into me, surrounding me. Only after long moments did I recognize the feeling and fly to the edge of the cloud.

The ground was covered with dementors. Hundreds of them. I could feel their pull, drawing me down. With an effort, I flew back to where Ron was angrily scattering salt. "We need to start this storm, now!" I unfastened the baskets from my broom and levitated them in front of me. "This is less effective," I called over the rising wind, "but we need speed now." I pointed my wand at one basket and gave the spell to loose the magics bound in the salt: it burst, scattering hard crystals like fine hail and striking blue sparks off the cloud. I did the same to the other two baskets, and behind me Ron did the same with his. Now our unladen brooms were at the mercy of the wind that rose and howled around us; I rolled over twice before I could right myself. I pointed my wand down into the cloud. "On three," I called. Ron swung his broom up next to mine, facing away, and pointed his own wand. "One, two," I counted; and then in unison: "Impluvio!"

There was a tremendous clap of thunder and a flash, and I was thrown clear out of the cloud. Looking behind me, as I struggled to bring my broom under control, I could see Ron zooming away in the opposite direction, and two other fliers falling from the cloud, under the sudden barrage of rain. On the ground, dementors scattered from the edges of the storm: many more were unmoving, trapped by the rain and paralyzed. I saw a flash from the grove as the wards fell, saw giants charge out of the trees and across the lawns, taking no notice of the dementors. The attack had begun.

My wounded arm was throbbing. I looked down at it and wished I hadn't.

I flew down, below the level of the cloud, so I could see the ground action more clearly; the rain, cold and crisp, soaked through my clothes almost instantly. Beneath me, the dementors were unmoving. Further away, at the edges of the storm...

Dementors, at the very edge of the Manor grounds, outside the storm's radius. I swooped down after them. "Expecto Patronum!" The dementors fell back, hovering between the gray curtain of rain and the silver outline of a Vincent Black Shadow. My Patronus began to fade, and they pressed forward again: I hovered just above the ground and summoned it again. This time it pressed them back into the falling rain, and they went still, seeming to dwindle beneath their robes.

I brought the broom down and dismounted. I was soaked to the skin, and though the enchanted rain had a wholesome feel, it could do little to wash away my sick grief for Harry. I stood under the rain, at the edge of the grove, surrounded by paralyzed or dying dementors. Below the rumble of the rain I could feel the even lower tramp of giant feet over the wet earth.

I felt a sudden cold gust of wind; and an even colder feeling along my spine. A dementor's robe twitched. It raised its head, turned to me-- I remounted the broom and hovered, looking down. It still moved, and it wasn't alone. The dementors were all waking-- and the rain was stopping. No. Moving. The storm was blowing away from the Manor.

I rose quickly and turned my face into this new wind, scanning the ground for its source. There, in a hay field, across a ditch from the Manor grounds: a robed wizard. I landed behind him, silently.

I had raised my wand to strike him when the wind blew his cloak to the side and exposed his wand hand. It was silver.

Pettigrew.

A more prudent man than I might have cast a body-bind on him from behind, taken his wand, and left him for the Aurors.

Where Wormtail was concerned, I'd been beyond prudence for sixteen years. "Peter!"

He turned, leveling his wand at me. "Sirius." He bit his lip. "Have you come to kill me?"

"Well." I held my own wand tightly, ignoring the shaking of my injured arm. "That's a good question." I came closer, circling around him. "I spent twelve years planning to do exactly that."

Peter's grip on his own wand, with his silver hand, was much steadier than mine, but his lower lip quivered. "Ha- Harry didn't want you to be a murderer, Sirius."

"Harry is dead." The words were past my lips before I could stop them. They made it real somehow. Peter flinched at my words, and I hated him for it. "Harry dived into the middle of that storm and didn't come out." I was so close our wands were nearly touching, now, and I could see Peter's eyes, shifting in every direction to avoid mine. "Look at me, damn you!"

He did, with scared eyes.

"Shouldn't you be happy, Pettigrew? Your master got what he wanted. The Boy Who Lived is dead. Why aren't you smiling, Peter?"

"Sirius, I-- you know I never wanted to kill anyone--"

I knocked him onto his back without even speaking a spell. "Then why the hell did you become a Death Eater, Wormtail?" I stood over him, wand inches from his face. "I've wanted to kill you for a very long time. But now I think I might just spare your life."

He breathed out; there were words in it. I didn't listen to them.

"I think I might just let you rot in Azkaban instead. Or maybe, thanks to you, there's still a dementor left that I can feed you to."

Peter turned pale, and transformed.

I couldn't find a rat in a hay field. But Padfoot could. In a few bounds, I was on him. I seized him by the neck and worried him, and felt his spine snap.

I stood up on two human legs again, and transfigured the rat's carcass back into human shape. I felt I owed him that at least, to be buried as a man.

The wind was still blowing. I turned.

A maskless Death Eater, slender and silver-blond, was sending a gust of wind against the storm cloud. "You'll notice I didn't kill you while your back was turned." He looked over his shoulder at me. "I do hope you'll show me the same courtesy."

"Draco Malfoy. I see you made it safely to the ground." I kept my wand trained on him, but did not attack him: injured and weary as I was, I wasn't sure I could have incapacitated him with the first spell, and I knew I'd have no second chance.

"No thanks to Potter, yes. And before you say anything, I never wished him dead, Black. He chose to fight, he chose his side."

I circled the boy, coming to a halt next to his shoulder. "So he did. And I suppose you did too." I raised my own wand to the sky. "You gave your Head of House a pretty nasty shock, running off like that." Draco's wind was powerful, but he was trying to push the storm back by force alone; I could see the eddies and swirls of cloud where the winds met and battled.

"Nothing like the shock he gave us by taking you to bed."

"Does everyone know about that?" I sent an experimental counter-spell of my own. Tired and drained as I was, it was weak, but I had seen how the storm was put together, and I knew where to push; the cloud's motion slowed noticeably.

"Well, I can't speak for the other Houses." Wind gusted at our backs. "Or the staff. But we Slytherins spy on each other as a matter of course." He shot me a sidelong glance. "And of course I kept a close eye on him after his treason came to light."

I gave the storm-cloud a little spin that sent it back over the Manor. "Close enough to see the suffering your master put him through?"

"No less than he deserved." Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him blanch, just slightly.

I had the cloud where I wanted it, and I had the measure of Malfoy's skill; I countered his next mage-wind easily. "So that's it."

"What?"

"You saw first-hand what Voldemort does to those who cross him, and you decided you'd better make your allegiance crystal-clear."

He bristled. "And if I did?" Our winds blew themselves out against each other; the storm didn't move.

I shrugged. "Your choice." I was keeping the storm in place, but it was taking all of my energy; I felt like I might collapse any moment. I wished for an Auror or a giant. "It's a pretty cowardly choice, though."

Draco narrowed his eyes. "Are you calling me a coward?" I felt his push at the storm weaken.

"I'm saying your motives don't seem to be much different than Wormtail's were." That stung him. The winds seemed to gather around the boy as his concentration shifted.

"You have no right to judge me." I could see him shifting, his wand twitching toward me, seemingly of its own volition.

I had a dozen taunts poised on my tongue, ready to make the boy attack me, to get in one curse against him while he let his anger distract him. But it didn't come to that. Before I could speak, there was a burst of green light from the Manor, and Draco fell to the ground clutching his arm.

The light lanced up through the clouds, arcing and jumping like lightening. And then it began to fade, slowly at first, and then more quickly, until there was nothing in the skies but gray clouds and sunlight. I stood there, I don't know for how long, watching the rain fall.

Then I looked down at the teenaged Death Eater, lying dazed, clasping his arm in obvious pain. "You're right, I can't judge you." I raised my wand and bound him and left him for the Aurors. And somewhere between the field and the Manor, I passed out.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

I woke to quick echoing footfalls and a low rumble of voices. The ceiling above me was stone, high and vaulted. Hogwarts. The hospital wing. I could hear sobbing from somewhere nearby.

Slowly, I lifted my head from the pillow. My right arm was heavily bandaged, and it hurt, but I could move it, barely. Moving at all seemed to take a tremendous effort. I looked around me: there was a Weasley in the bed to my right, and beyond him a long line of beds, all full. Wizards in St. Mungo's robes. Student stretcher-bearers and errand-runners. Poppy Pomfrey, walking down the line of ambulatory wounded along the far wall, sending some away with students with first aid kits, some with the St. Mungo's wizards into beds conjured wherever there was space: triage. Evidently I was worse off than many. Better than some.

The effort making my head ache, I turned and looked to my left. Snape lay in the bed next to me. He was shivering, his hands twisting restlessly in the sheets. One leg was splinted and elevated.

It took a few tries to find my voice. "Snape."

He turned. "Black." His face was very pale.

"What--?" I looked at his leg; speech was harder than I'd thought it would be.

"Falling masonry. There's not much left of Malfoy Manor."

The green light, I remembered, fading into the sky. "Voldemort?"

"Gone. For good this time."

Gone. Voldemort, dead. I knew it would take a long time for that to really sink in.

"And who--" I stopped, swallowed, knowing I wasn't going to like what I would hear next but having to ask. "Who did we lose?"

Snape closed his eyes. "Albus." I looked away at the pain in his face, giving him some privacy in his grief. Through the exhaustion and the painkillers, the news only gave me a sort of numbness, but I knew that my own grief for the man would come when I was able to feel it.

"Who else?"

Snape opened his eyes and looked up at the ceiling. "I don't know the full casualty list. That I do know of: Celeste Sinistra. Filius Flitwick. Alastor Moody. Arabella Figg. Olympe Maxime. Victor Krum." He took a deep breath. "Percy Weasley. George Weasley. Roger Davies. Cho Chang. Seamus Finnigan." He turned to me. "I don't know about Lupin. I haven't heard."

There was a chance, then. I tried to nod but it hurt my head too much. "Harry's dead."

Snape blinked. "Dead?"

"He went after Davies when he fell."

"Well, he obviously made a safe landing; he was with me at the final assault."

I couldn't quite take it in. "Harry's alive?"

Snape's face went grave. "He was brought in unconscious. They don't know... Harry and Albus together cast the spell that killed Voldemort. It killed Albus as well."

It didn't occur to me to wonder why Dumbledore had been at the Manor when he'd been with the Azkaban group. "But he's alive now." Snape nodded.

I closed my eyes, and that was the thought I took with me as I fell back into sleep. Harry was alive.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

When I woke again, my head was mercifully clear; I still felt exhausted, but I could feel my strength and power returning. My arm had been rebandaged, and the skin beneath it felt cool and numb, but below that there was a dull, hot pain that seemed to go straight to the bone; still, I could tell it was healing.

A familiar voice cut through the murmur of noise: "...convalesce as well in my own rooms as I can here." I turned and saw Snape arguing with Pomfrey.

"I agree that the leg is healing, but you are clearly not well, Severus." She was right; Snape looked terrible. Even from twelve feet away, I could see he was shaking; his skin looked clammy, and there was sweat beading on his forehead.

"I just need--" He took in a breath and started over, half an octave lower and much more quietly. "I just need rest. In my own rooms, away from this bedlam."

'Bedlam' was an overstatement, but the long room was full of hurrying mediwizards, low and intense conversations, the clink of glassware and the rustle of cloth. Poppy frowned; the infirmary was overfull and any other ambulatory patient she would probably have discharged on the spot, but Snape's ability to look after himself was clearly, in her eyes, extremely dubious.

"All right," she said finally. "But by 'rest', you had better mean rest. In bed, lying down. I'll be sending someone to check up on you."

"I'll be good. I promise." I could see one of his hands twisting and trembling at his side.

"You had better." Snape left; Poppy turned in my direction. "Ah, I see you're awake again." She began unwrapping the dressings on my arm.

"How's Harry?"

"His injuries are healing well. But he's still unconscious, Sirius." She bared my arm to the air.

I sneaked a glance down. It wasn't nearly as bad as I'd been expecting; the skin had been regrown, and though it was very red and tender-looking, it was at least whole.

"What about Remus?"

"He's at St. Mungo's." She clearly wanted to say no more; I stared her down. "He was badly injured, Sirius. His wand exploded in his hand; he's likely to lose it. But he's going to live."

Remus, maimed. No. I shut my eyes. He was alive. He would live. He was luckier than some.

Poppy made me wiggle my fingers, flex and extend my arm. "How's the pain?"

Dull. Warm. Bone-deep. Aching. "Bearable."

She frowned at me. "I'll give you a potion for it, and a salve for the skin." She summoned the salve and rebandaged my arm. "You'll need to come in and have the dressings changed every morning for the next few days, but I think you're well enough to leave the hospital wing now."

"I want to stay with Harry."

She gave a small sigh. "I thought you'd probably say that."

For the next six days, I only left the hospital wing long enough to bathe and change my clothes. I took my meals there; I slept on the floor next to Harry's bed.

I wasn't the only one watching over him, of course. Hermione Granger came and sat with him every day. The Weasleys divided their time between Harry's bed and Fred's, who was awake but unresponding.

The second day of my vigil, Remus returned from St. Mungo's and was installed in the bed next to Harry's. His right arm ended in a bandaged stump at the wrist. After Sinistra had been killed, the Death Eaters at Little Hangleton had seized control of the rainstorm there and turned it against the attackers. Remus had deflected a bolt of charmed lightening from the remaining weather-workers-- a Finnish witch and two students called Finch-Fletchley and Brocklehurst-- letting them take back the storm and killing the Death Eaters who had hijacked it. But the effort had shattered his wand and the hand that held it.

I cried when I saw him: the tears were for more than Remus, they had been building in me, waiting for something to jar them loose. And so Remus was the one to comfort me. "I'm lucky to be alive," was all he said of his injury.

Specialists came from St. Mungo's and further away to look at the worst cases: Remus, Harry, Fred Weasley, the Croatian witch who had been blinded and the Mongolian wizard who had gone mad. With the stream of visitors, stories trickled in: there was a huge shake-up at the Ministry, and Fudge had resigned; Amos Diggory seemed likely to become the next Minister. Twenty-two dementors had survived the attacks, and Azkaban, what was left of it, had been given over to them and heavily warded from the outside; the Ministry was to build a new and more humane prison. Forty Death Eaters had been taken alive, and were to stand trial for a long list of crimes. Snape had been to visit Draco Malfoy, who had repudiated Voldemort and was, as an orphan, likely to be treated clemently.

I was to be granted a full pardon. So was Buckbeak.

On the third day, Snape came in, briefly; he seemed fully recovered, his hands perfectly steady. His eyes were bleak, with dark circles under them, but in that he looked no different from anyone else. He asked after Harry with grave concern, and his grief for Remus's hand, though stiffly expressed, was quite genuine. He was stiff and formal with me as well, but I took little notice; unless we had something to argue about, we were always distant to each other in public.

After four days of unconsciousness, Harry awoke. Only very briefly: long enough to recognize me and Remus; to ask after Ron and Hermione, who had not been with him when he fell, and Dumbledore and Snape, who had; and to ask whether Voldemort was truly gone. But the sleep he fell into then was a simple, normal sleep, and Poppy assured us he would wake again once he'd slept himself out. I stayed at his bedside for the next two days, until Poppy pronounced him ready to leave, and I heard Harry's own story.

"I couldn't catch Roger," he said. "Flint caught my broom by the tail. I hexed him, and he let me go, but he hexed me back, and--" He stopped, shaking his head. "It was so strange. We dueled there, inside the cloud. I could barely see him. I would just feel a hex coming, through the mist, and dodge, and throw another curse." He looked at the ceiling. "And then I couldn't feel any more hexes coming. And I waited there with my wand out; I thought it might have been a trap. But then something came out of the mist right next to me, and I caught at it. It was Flint's broom. So I suppose I must have. Unseated him. I killed him." He bit his lip. "I used to play Quidditch against him; he was the Slytherin captain."

I held his hand. "He was doing his best to kill you, Harry."

"I know." He squeezed my hand but didn't look at me. "His last hex must have got my broom, though; I couldn't control it. I had to land. I sowed all of the salt I could, on the way down, until I was out of the cloud. And then I managed to bring my broom in right above the Manor, and I cast the unbinding spell over everything I had left. It went everywhere, I could see those blue sparks crackling all over the walls and the roof, and then suddenly dementors began running outside, they couldn't stay in the house any longer."

"I landed on the roof; I was there when the Auror team Apparated in. So I joined them." About what he had done in the attack on the Manor, Harry would say next to nothing. I didn't press him, yet. About others he was a little more forthcoming. Percy Weasley had taken down the wards on the Malfoys' menagerie, sending the captive wolves and trolls and even rarer beasts of prey straight into the Death Eaters' ranks; his throat had been ripped out by a sabertooth. Snape had killed Lucius Malfoy.

About Voldemort, Harry would say nothing at all. He didn't begin to talk about his own part in the battle for some weeks, until after the funerals were over. By that time I'd learned the outline of the story from Minerva McGonagall and from the Aurors under Snape: Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Moody had found Voldemort at Azkaban. And after they had laid waste to the island's defenses, drawing on the magics in the rain to unweave the spells Voldemort had erected there to preserve him from death, Voldemort had fled. To the Riddle House, where he met Minerva again; what Remus had started, she had finished, and Voldemort's preservation spells were undone. To Starfsey, to find its new defenses already fallen even before Moody's arrival from Azkaban. Lastly to Malfoy Manor, thanks to Snape no longer any refuge.

His body had still been heavily warded, changed, built and maintained by powerful magics. And he had still had defenders. Snape and his people had held off the surviving Death Eaters-- hardly, and with many losses-- leaving Dumbledore and Harry to fight Voldemort together.

And win. I had to keep reminding myself that we had won.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

I'd been out of bed for a week before I went to talk to Snape. Harry was still withdrawn and pensive, but all he needed now was time. Remus had gone home; he had a new wand, and was learning to use it with his left hand. Fred Weasley had woken up screaming and not stopped for hours, but then he had started talking again, and his family had taken him home to mourn and to recover.

The school was mostly empty. It was June, still three weeks before the term was supposed to end, but McGonagall had postponed the N.E.W.T.s and O.W.L.s until August and cancelled all other exams, and sent the students home early. With three professors and a student dead and everyone in the school mourning for someone, there was really nothing else to do.

Snape's workroom was empty, but I knew he wasn't far away: there was a cauldron on the boil. Sweet-bitter smell, and scarabs in the mortar; he was still tinkering with the Vivificus, then. I leafed through a book on his desk; a thick Muggle pharmacology text, most of it incomprehensible.

"Black."

I turned; Snape was standing in the door, his arms folded across his chest. "Snape. Poppy's let Harry out of the hospital wing; he's going to stay with the Weasleys for a while. Until the funerals."

"Is that what you came here to tell me?" Snape's face was stony, unreadable.

"I came here to talk to you. I haven't seen much of you since-- well. Since."

Snape crossed the room and took the book from my hands. "I have had work to do. I still do." He set the heavy text down with a thump, a very final sound. "So if you've nothing more pressing to say, Black--"

I leaned back against his desk and smiled. "You know, I'm starting to get the impression you want to get rid of me."

Snape didn't so much as raise an eyebrow. He just stared at me, completely expressionless.

I'd given him a perfect set-up line, and he let it lie. There was a horribly uncomfortable silence while I waited for the reply that didn't come.

And didn't come. I felt like shouting at him, like seizing him by the collar and shaking him and demanding to know what he meant by this-- blankness-- but when I finally spoke my voice came out even and low. "Do you want to get rid of me, Snape? Then for God's sake say so."

"Very well." He stepped back, leaving a clear path between me and the door. "This conversation is over. Leave."

I stood up straight. "Just this conversation? Or is this your way of saying everything's over?"

"Everything is over. Leave. Now." Snape wasn't getting angry. He wasn't getting anything, except colder, in his voice and his face, and my own anger found nothing to feed on in that coldness.

"Fine. Have it your way. We said no promises." I stopped inside the door and turned back; Snape still stood like a statue. "For what it's worth-- and I never expected this-- I had thought we'd become something like friends."

If anything, he went even stiller, but said nothing.

"We were good together. I never expected that, either." Still no reaction. "What we had was-- well, it was--"

"What we had," he said, "served its purpose."

My ears rang with his words; I think I swayed on my feet. "Well. Fuck you, too, Snape."

I left the dungeon and the castle. I didn't come back until dusk, until I'd walked off all my anger, burned it down into a sort of emptiness. I had forgotten how terrible it could be, to be alone with anger.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

I left Hogwarts that night. I was a free man now; I didn't need the castle's protection. I had no reason to stay. I took my leave of Minerva McGonagall, collected the Vincent from the dungeons, and Apparated to Remus's cottage.

I stayed there for the next six weeks-- sleeping on his couch, working on the Vincent, doing all the housework that he couldn't manage one-handed, going with him to his appointments at St. Mungo's, where specialists were designing a prosthetic hand for him: he was the first lycanthrope in living memory to need a prosthesis, and the necessary transfigurations were proving a great challenge.

Remus didn't ask what had happened between me and Snape, for which I was grateful. I didn't want to talk about him, especially not after an owl arrived bearing a month's supply of Wolfsbane. Remus hadn't been expecting Snape to keep brewing it for him after he left the castle, and the brief note enclosed with the potion gave no explanation, nor any indication that Snape knew I was there.

After the full moon the funerals began: a month of funerals, sometimes several a day. I attended nearly all of them, with Remus. So did Snape, alone. He didn't speak to me, rarely spoke to anyone. There were lines around his eyes that had not been there before.

One funeral, Snape did not attend: early in July, Remus and I buried Peter. The Ministry hadn't quite known what to do about his other grave, with its marble obelisk and bronze wreath, the Order of Merlin motto, charmed to be invisible to Muggle eyes, across it. In the end, they had left it untouched, and Peter was interred in another plot in the same graveyard, far at the edge, under a willow tree. Remus and I bought the stone: no charms on this one, simply his name and dates. And if some Muggle some day were to wonder how it was that two Peter Pettigrews, born on the same day, were buried there seventeen years apart, one under marble and garlands and inscribed verses, and one under plain and unadorned granite-- well, let them wonder. They wouldn't be far wrong; there were two Peter Pettigrews there. It was the one I'd lost seventeen years ago who was foremost in my mind when we left the cemetery.

Remus came and found me in the shed, hours after we returned. I had stopped actually working on the Vincent when the daylight had begun to fade; I was just sitting in the twilight, remembering the night I had first charmed it to fly.

I was sixteen. It was summer. James and Peter and Remus were there. The moon was at the half. The night of the Shrieking Shack was still months away. I had been working on the flying charm all summer, planning the shape of it while I'd rebuilt the machine. Every bolt I tightened, every piece of chrome I polished, every part I touched and cleaned and repaired and restored, I had imbued with magic, willing it to hold the charm, to take to the skies at my command. Three days before the start of term, I had felt it thrum under my touch, straining to leave the ground, and I had cast the final spell.

"Is she ready to fly?" James's words, in my memory. But the voice was Moony's. I looked up; Remus stood in the open doorway.

"Soon." I stroked the smooth curve of steel over the front wheel. "I've got all the rust off her, but she still needs painting."

"She looks good." Remus tilted his head and looked at me. "You, on the other hand--"

"What? How do I look?"

"Sad. Pensive."

From somewhere, I found a smile for him. "Well, that's all right. For a moment I thought you were going to say 'old.'"

"Never." Remus came and sat next to me on the dirt floor. "What are you thinking about?"

I patted the Shadow's tire. "Do you remember the first time she flew?"

He nodded. "Just before sixth year. You'd spent the entire summer doing nothing else. James could barely even tear you away for Quidditch."

"I thought you were going to have a heart attack, watching James and me the first time we took her up." James, standing on the pillion holding tight to my cloak, leaning back into the wind, whooping and waving. We'd been laughing when we landed, almost too hard to speak; all I'd been able to gasp out was "Try and do that on a broom!"

Remus smiled. "You know, I always expected James to be an eagle. Prongs was quite a surprise." He shook his head. "I've never seen anyone else fly like that, like they owned the sky."

"Harry."

"Harry flies like a kestrel. He can blend into an empty sky if he doesn't want you to see him."

There was a long, companionable silence.

"You seemed happier on the Shadow than you ever did on a broom," I said at last.

"I don't know that I'd say happier. Just wilder." I looked a question at him; he couldn't have seen my face in the fading light, but he answered all the same. "Brooms... brooms are silent. They don't inspire me to break that silence. When I'm on a broom, I just want to be still and feel the air."

And that, I thought, was the difference between me and Remus in a nutshell. "Well, it made me happy. Hearing you whoop and howl and shout like that."

I could just barely see his nod. "Me too." Remus muttered a 'Lumos' and the garden shed took shape around us, the doors, their chains hanging loosely, open to the night.

There was another long silence; I knew we were both remembering the same summer night. I had taken James up on the Shadow first. Then Remus. And then--

"Peter--"

"Peter was terrified." I traced a groove in the floor with my fingers: claw marks. "But he was more afraid of looking like a coward." And such an example we all set: not courage so much as recklessness, rash daring for no reason but the thrill of it. "I should have let him stay on the ground. It just never occurred to me that we were all asking too much of him. That we made courage look like something too-- too big for him. Too wild and reckless." I scored my own fingernails through the floor, following and deepening the gouges. "I mean, he was in Gryffindor. I wonder, whether we--"

"Sirius." Moony was stern. "Don't second-guess yourself. Peter made his own choices. Give him that, at least." He reached awkwardly across his body with his left hand to lift my hand from the dirt. "Let it go. Let him go. You're a free man now."

I laughed; it came out bitter and almost wild. "It's like Through the bloody Looking Glass, isn't it?" Remus looked at me quizzically. "First the punishment, then the crime. And then it's supposed to have never happened."

Remus stood up, pulling me to my feet. "You are determined to feel guilty about him, aren't you?" He spoke almost fiercely. "Don't. I won't let you. It was better that he died at your hands than at some stranger's, or some Death Eater's, or under the Dementor's Kiss."

"Moony--"

"Let it go, Sirius. You've done what you needed to do. You need--" he let his head fall, taking in a deep breath and letting it out again. "We all need to find something else to live for."

I thought about Moony's words a lot in the next few days. Most often in regard to Snape. I tried not to think about him, but it was nearly impossible; I couldn't open the Daily Prophet without seeing his name or his face. Snape, testifying at the Death Eater trials. Snape, heading the Ministry's new Dark Magic Advisory Committee. Snape, quickly becoming indispensable to the reconstruction effort.

If that was what Snape was living for now, it didn't seem to be a happy life. In photographs, he moved almost as he had during the last weeks of the war, with a contained energy, but it was a soulless and mechanical energy: a spring too tightly wound, not a cat ready to leap. There were dark shadows under his eyes in every picture.

I was still angry at Snape, but seeing him so obviously unhappy did nothing to satisfy that anger. It only made me want to kick myself for still caring.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

The last funeral was Dumbledore's. He was buried on the Hogwarts grounds beneath a simple marble slab, on a brilliant July afternoon. The whole of the wizarding world was there, or at least it seemed so. I have little memory of who spoke, or of what was said. I do remember Harry folding and refolding the scrap of parchment that held his brief eulogy, then crumpling it and letting it fall; when his turn to speak had come he had stepped forward and said only, "I miss him." And I remember Snape, stalking away from the crowd halfway through McGonagall's remarks. As we were leaving I saw him return to the graveside. His eyes were red.

Moony found me with the Vincent again that night. I had recast the flying charm, and she was ready for the sky: newly painted, every inch of chrome polished, gleaming and perfect. And so silver under the starlight I expected her to fade away, like her spectral counterpart.

I don't know how long Moony stood there with me, silently, before I spoke to him. "Remus. What's your Patronus like?"

"My Patronus?" He was quiet for a moment, thinking. "I don't really know what it would look like to anyone else; probably no more than smoke, or light."

"But to you?"

"Dawn. Driving away the moonlight."

I nodded at the Shadow. "She's mine. A bit silly, I suppose."

"It's not silly." I gave him a skeptical look. "Well, maybe a little bit," he allowed. "But appropriate, somehow." He smiled, until I had to smile back. "Harry's is a stag."

I hadn't known that. I felt I should have. "Snape's--" The name was past my lips before I remembered I didn't want to talk about him. Remus waited, calmly. "Dumbledore was Snape's Patronus," I said. "That's how he lost his cover. Voldemort let the dementors close in right around him..."

"Good thing you were there," Moony said, sounding somewhat tentative.

"When we got back to Hogwarts I teased him about it. He said something about it being amusing that my soul's protector was up on blocks in a dungeon." I shut my eyes; the perfect silver lines were still there. "And now she's whole and shining again and ready to fly." I turned to Moony. "She's alive again."

He took my arm and leaned in close for a moment. "Think how happy Dumbledore would have been to see her fly again." He pulled back and gave me a push. "Take her up. It's a fine night for flying."

It was; clear and starry and warm. "You're right," I said, and caught Moony's arm. He didn't follow. "Come on, Moony, we're going for a ride."

He pulled away. "Sirius, no."

I blinked at him. "You used to love to fly."

He looked at the ground. "Sirius. I can't hold on."

Oh, Moony. "You don't have to." I took his right arm, held the stump of his wrist. "I'll charm you to the pillion, I won't let you fall. I promise." Remus looked up, finally. "Trust me?"

"Of course I trust you." He let out a short breath. "Yes. All right."

I grinned and pulled him into a bear hug. "That's more like it." I drew my wand and brought the Shadow's engine roaring to life.

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

After Dumbledore's funeral, Harry was a frequent visitor, dividing his time between Remus's cottage and The Burrow. He began, at last, to talk about the battle. I listened; it was all I could do. Harry had had to grow up too fast; the battle had been only the latest of many burdens he had been asked to shoulder far too early. But Harry was realizing now what I had seen weeks ago: that the childhood he had barely had was out of his reach now, for good.

I did not ask, what are you going to do now? I couldn't answer that question myself-- the whole wizarding world was at loose ends now. But Harry did have an answer, or at least more of one than I did, and he didn't wait for me to ask.

"Ron and I are going to go stay with Hermione for a couple of weeks, to get ready for the N.E.W.T.s in August. And after those are over, I'm going to go to Romania, work at the Dragon Sanctuary. For the autumn, at least. I'll come home for Christmas."

I approved, and said so. It was high time Harry saw something of the world outside Hogwarts, and with a Weasley to look after him, he'd be sure to come home in one piece.

Remus had a new job and a prosthetic hand. The hand, carved of cherry wood with brass joints, was an impressive work of magical craftsmanship. It was charmed to transform into a perfectly jointed paw, complete with claws, at the full moon; I'd designed many of the transfigurations myself, after losing my patience with the fool St. Mungo's had working on them, and I was quite proud of the results. It would take Remus time to learn to use it, but already he could hold a quill and, slowly, print block letters. For wand work he continued to use his left hand, with which he had already developed a fine control.

The job was not so new to him. Minerva McGonagall had asked him to take up the Defense professorship at Hogwarts again, Arabella Figg having fallen at Little Hangleton. Remus had been reluctant to accept it, but Harry and I had insisted, and McGonagall had accepted no excuses. Even Snape had extended what passed for an olive branch; enclosed with the second month's batch of Wolfsbane was a note: 'Lupin. Do let me know whether I will be preparing this potion next year, so that I may lay in an adequate supply of A. Vulparia. S.S.' Remus, seeing that he had little choice in the matter, had accepted the position, and he seemed happy at the prospect of teaching again.

One morning in late July, not long after Dumbledore's funeral, three owls came to the cottage. Two were from the Ministry. Remus and I were both to be awarded the Order of Merlin, First Class. I skimmed the list of honorees: so was Harry. So was Snape. There was to be a presentation ceremony in August, after the N.E.W.T.s were over.

The third owl was from Hogwarts. I sent it across the room to Remus. "Sirius, this one's yours. From Minerva." I took the letter and opened it. Remus was watching my face with interest when I put it down. "Good news, I hope?"

"Well. Unexpected, certainly." I rummaged in Remus's desk for a quill. "She wants me to come see her today. About a job. She wants me to teach Transfiguration."

"You'd be good at it." Remus spoke quietly, but with conviction.

I looked up from my reply. "You think so?"

"I do."

McGonagall said much the same thing. "I need someone who knows what they're doing in that position, Sirius. I saw the work you did on Remus's hand. I couldn't have done better myself."

"Headmistress..." I set down my teacup. "I won't deny that I would like very much to just accept this job. I don't have any other prospects at the moment, and the idea of being at Hogwarts again, among friends, appeals to me very strongly. But--" I cast about for a diplomatic turn of phrase.

"But?"

"But it seems to me that you're carrying on Albus Dumbledore's tradition of hiring hopeless cases. I have no teaching experience whatsoever, I've spent the last seventeen years either in prison or on the run, and you're proposing to make me a teacher? And the Head of Gryffindor?"

"Yes, Mister Black, that is exactly what I am proposing." McGonagall calmly sipped her tea.

"And you're not going to take no for an answer."

"Not graciously, no." Her eyes twinkled in a way that reminded me very much of Dumbledore, then went serious again. "Particularly not if your real objection is over, shall we say, a potential conflict of personalities."

Ah. "Meaning, I'll work with Snape and like it if you say I will?"

She smiled, and the twinkle was back, but with a fierceness all her own behind it. "Precisely."

I stood up and walked to the window. "Where is Snape, anyway?" I had, cursing myself the entire time, gone down to his workroom before coming up to the Headmistress's office, only to find his entire section of the dungeon locked and dark.

McGonagall regarded me over the tops of her glasses. "Kollekaina, actually."

"I thought the sampo went back to the giants weeks ago?"

"It did. Severus is on holiday."

I gaped at her. "Holiday? On Kollekaina?" I shook my head. "How on earth did you manage that?"

"I wish I knew." McGonagall lifted the teapot in inquiry, and I held out my empty cup. "I'd been telling him for weeks to go somewhere and enjoy himself--" we both rolled our eyes at that-- "and he promised he would as soon as the Ministry were finished with him, and of course I didn't believe him for a moment. And then as soon as Macnair's trial was over he announced he was going away for three weeks. And actually taking my advice and going somewhere without a laboratory."

Tea sloshed in my cup. "That's... not like him." But it made sense...

"No, it isn't." She sighed. "Poor Severus; I think these last weeks have been very hard on him. I don't know when he sleeps; he's been rattling around that workroom of his at all hours."

Of course he had. Things were coming together in my mind: Snape, in the hospital wing, hours-- a full day at least-- after going into battle, shivering, then trembling and sweating and cold. Snape, a week after the Dark Mark and the curse it held had vanished, fully recovered, yet still tinkering with the Vivificus. Snape, in the photographs, still full of unnatural energy. Still sleepless. Snape reading up on Muggle pharmacology.

I looked up to find McGonagall watching me intently. I set down the cup, splashing tea over my hand. "I'll take the job. On one condition."

She sat back, raising her eyebrows. "Dare I ask what?"

"I need to see Snape. Immediately."

+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~+

Half an hour later, Portkey in hand, I was making my way through the wards of the hermit's cell where we had met Ulfgar. In a knapsack I carried three flagons of Vivificus and a stack of books abstracted from Snape's workroom. I'd broken Snape's security spells and the locks they'd been charmed to; McGonagall had been so reluctant to give me the Portkey that I hadn't wanted to push my luck by asking her for entry to the dungeons. I'd nicked some food from the kitchens and some basic medical equipment from the hospital wing as well. Five years on the run had left me with a fairly cavalier attitude toward theft.

According to McGonagall, Snape had left Hogwarts only a day and a half ago; he would not yet be in extremis. I wasn't sure whether that was good or bad.

I whispered my Alohomora before knocking on the door, and I didn't wait for an answer before flinging it open.

"Black. How the hell did you get here?" Snape lay on a narrow bed that had replaced the straw pallet I remembered from before, holding his wand in a shaking hand. His eyes were red, and his hair lank with sweat. A violent tremor passed through him.

"Portkey." I shut the door and opened my knapsack. Snape had a makeshift lab set up on the hearth: collapsible cauldron, mortar, retorts, scales, flasks and jars of this and that: from the lid of Snape's empty apothecary's trunk, his owl glared at me. I recognized the ingredients of Calming Draught and some mild painkillers, but neither Vivificus nor its components.

He was doing this cold turkey, then.

I set the flagons on the bench where he could see them. "According to those Muggle pharmacology texts of yours, gradual weaning is supposed to be just as effective in most cases, and a lot more humane."

Snape glared at me, as levelly as he could through his shuddering. "Black, go away."

"No? Thought you'd say that. Well, it's there if you need it." I transfigured the knapsack into a straight-backed chair and pulled it up to his bedside. "Now, do we wait until later for the conversation about what a total bastard you are, or do we get that out of the way now?"

Snape closed his eyes and lay back. "Black, I don't need this."

"You couldn't, for example, have simply told me?"

"Told you what?" Snape's voice was flat, in sharp contrast to the shudders that wracked his thin body. "'Oh, by the way, Black, in a fit of staggering incompetence I've created a highly addictive narcotic and become totally dependent upon it, expect my mind and body to go to pieces any day now, just a friendly warning?'" He winced and curled up on his side.

"That would have done nicely." I pulled a handkerchief out of the air and dabbed at his streaming eyes; he turned his head away. "What the hell were you thinking? That I'd just let it slip in the Great Hall at breakfast?" Snape flinched at that. Good. "That I'd go and tell McGonagall, the Ministry, and the Daily Prophet? That I'd leave a sick man to go through a painful and potentially dangerous withdrawal on his own?"

Snape was silent. I crumpled the handkerchief. "Hell, Snape, I wouldn't have done that to you a year ago." Snape still wouldn't look at me. I sat there for a moment, watching him shiver. "Those Muggle books of yours mentioned a lot of different symptoms for different drugs. Do you have any idea what to expect?"

Snape curled in on himself as another spasm passed over him, clutching at his abdomen, then, with a sigh, rolled onto his back and looked up at the ceiling. "I think I can expect some intensification of my current symptoms. Beyond that..." he shook his head. "This is the longest I've gone without the Draught since February."

I leaned back in my chair. "Snape, I always knew you had untapped reserves of idiocy, but this is more than even I suspected. You've read those books-- they talk about grand mal seizures, heart failure, psychoses--"

"Only in rare cases. Only with--" he bit his lip-- "certain drugs."

"And of course you know that Vivificus a la Snape isn't one of those drugs, since you knew exactly what all the effects of your tinkering would be." A low blow, but it finally got Snape to look at me, with a toxic glare.

"Black, I don't need your insults. Or your company."

"Sorry, you've got both until I decide otherwise. Leaving you alone, much as it might improve both our tempers, isn't medically advisable just now."

"Whereas mockery and abuse are--" Snape broke off, holding his stomach again.

Are perhaps contraindicated, I thought, as Snape leaned over the edge of the bed and vomited all over my shoes.

We didn't talk any more that evening or night. At least, there was no conversation; I said things like 'drink this' and 'here's a towel' and 'are you cold?', and Snape gave one-syllable replies and swore. He vomited until his stomach was empty and then kept dry-heaving for hours after. I gave him potions to settle his stomach; he brought them up again; he couldn't even keep water down. I gave up on potions and resorted to a Hydratus spell and a hot water bottle.

Around dawn, the abdominal cramping finally passed, and he was able to drink a little broth. But he was still feverish, and the fever rose steadily over the next two days. I tried to keep him talking, to distract him from the chills, the leg cramps, the nausea. At first he was sullen, refusing to speak to me except in monosyllables. So I talked potions with him: I brewed new batches of willow tincture and Calming Draught and had him walk me through the process, step by step. By the time I took the cauldron off the fire, fever and pain and a flagon of Calming Draught had relaxed Snape's guard on his tongue; and as the hours passed, and he became less lucid, our conversations grew stranger.

As on the evening of the second day, when Snape told me Voldemort hadn't killed Dumbledore.

I didn't know what to say to that. Snape seemed dissociated, not entirely in the present, but I hadn't thought he was quite delirious yet. "What do you mean?"

"He knew he was leaving us. I knew it, the last time he spoke to me."

I thought back to my own conversation with Dumbledore; it had been full of the not-quite-farewells we had all been saying in those days. "We all knew, Severus. Any of could have--"

"No." He turned restlessly, sweat-damp hair falling into his eyes. "This was his choice. Voldemort didn't kill him. He followed Voldemort."

"Followed?" I pushed his hair back from his face.

"To keep him from finding another bolthole. Another escape." He looked at me, seeming to actually see me there for the first time in hours. "To make sure he stayed dead this time."

As time wore on, Snape became less aware of his surroundings; he would look through me, but not at me, and if he still heard my words, he heard them coming from someone else.

"Send it back." This, at dawn on day three.

"The owl?" I had gone to the window to admit Snape's owl, returned from carrying a message to Remus: Gone to Kollekaina, Minerva knows where. Snape is an idiot and so am I, but everything's under control. Sirius. Remus's reply was a simple Take care of yourself.

"They're doing us no favors by offering it, Minerva. Send it back."

"Offering what, Severus?" I sat down again at his bedside.

"We'd just keep turning it, turning all the time. Grinding us down to nothing." He looked up and seized my arm. "It wasn't really the Danes that killed him, you know. The stones were already crumbling."

I tried to put all of this together. "Did the giants offer us the sampo?"

"I knew better. I wouldn't let her take it." Snape smiled; on his pale and sunken face it was a skull's rictus. "I won't make that mistake twice."

It took me hours more of listening to him rant in his delirium to realize what he had meant: that the sampo and its magics were an addiction, too, and a deadly one. By that time, he was completely unaware of my presence, of anything except his fevered imaginings and memories. Sometimes, I could tell what he was seeing, as when he relived the flight down the tunnel from the Shrieking Shack, a monologue that left me almost as white and shaking as Snape, and utterly ashamed of myself. More often, I was lost, left with vague impressions of Death Eaters in some unspeakable rite or of guilt suffered alone in a dungeon.

On the afternoon of the third day, not long before his fever broke, he said my name.

"Snape? I'm here." He didn't seem to hear; no doubt he'd spoken to a memory of me.

"Hate for you to see me so weak." His voice was almost gone, hoarse and breaking; I'd resorted to Hydratus spells again hours before, when he could no longer sit up to drink. "Hate needing you."

Though that sounded like the here-and-now. "It'll be over soon, Severus."

He nodded, or tried to. "And you'll leave."

"I'm not going anywhere, Snape. I'm right here."

He let out what might have been a laugh. "Until the war's over."

"Snape, the war is over. We won." I picked up his hand from the rumpled sheets; it felt hot in mine.

"But until then, I'll pretend," he rasped. "Pretend that--" his breath caught-- "care." He shut his eyes, shivering violently.

Pretend that you care? Or pretend that I care? I found a damp towel and bathed his forehead. Or did it even matter, I wondered.

Soon after that, the fever broke; Snape's color began to improve, and the shivering halted. Though he still did not sleep, he was able to rest quietly while I spoke cleaning spells over his body and the sweat-soaked sheets. Then, setting wards over him to alert me if anything in his condition changed, I lay down on the floor and slept.

I awoke once to the twinge of magic that let me know Snape had fallen asleep. When I woke again, it was to see Snape looking at me, black eyes weary but lucid.

"Black."

"Snape. Back among the living, I see." I brought him water; though he barely had the strength, he insisted on holding the cup himself. "How do you feel?"

"Wretched, weak, and utterly worthless."

"Sounds like your recovery is proceeding apace, then."

Snape snorted; it was good to hear it. "And I suppose you are going to afflict me with your presence until you are certain of that?" His voice betrayed nothing but testiness, but there was a plea in his eyes.

"Got it in one." I pulled the chair back to his bedside and straddled it, folding my arms over its back. "And after that..."

"After that?" Snape prompted.

"I'm afraid you're going to be afflicted with my presence for the foreseeable future, Snape. I'm the new Transfiguration professor."

Snape's eyes narrowed. "Minerva must have gone mad."

I grinned. "Undoubtedly. I think it's a job requirement. But mad or not, she offered me the position and I took it. We're going to be colleagues, Snape." I let the smile fall from my face. "Are we going to be anything more than that?

Snape's eyes shifted away from mine. "I did tell you--"

"--to go fuck myself, yes. I remember that very clearly." I didn't even try to keep the anger from my voice. "And I think, over these last three days--" Snape started to hear how much time had passed-- "that I've worked out why. You were going to give me up cold turkey too, weren't you?" No response. "Or give up human contact? Comfort? Friendship? All of the above?"

I took Snape's silence for assent.

I sighed. "Severus, I'm all in favor of self-reliance, but you take it farther than any sane person ought to."

Snape gave a short, bitter laugh. "My last six months have not been a stunning example of self-reliance."

I stood up so fast I knocked the chair over. "Snape, it is not the same thing! I am not some fucking potion!" I righted the chair but didn't sit. "Merlin's balls." I paced the floor until I'd regained some control over my anger. "Only you, Snape, could think that a taste for human companionship is some kind of fucking addiction."

Snape was silent, watching me pace. When I finally came to a halt he looked up at me and spoke, very quietly. "Just tell me what you want, Black."

"I'll tell you what I don't want. I don't want you to decide that it's over and that you're going back into your shell, and then for us to jump each other in a stairwell the first time we have an argument." I sat down again by the side of the bed. "Can you say that wouldn't happen, if we're going to work together?"

"No." Snape shut his eyes and seemed to shut his face with them; I couldn't tell what he was thinking. There was a long silence. "It was easier," he said at last, "when either of us could have been killed any day."

In other words, when he had the war to justify any lapses in his self-discipline. "We still could be. Life is uncertain, Severus. If you need some sort of excuse to seize the moment--" I shook my head, fighting an urge to laugh. "Mortality, Snape. There's an excuse. It's the only one most people need."

Another silence. This time, I could see pain in Snape's features. "Have I..." He broke off, took in a breath, turned and looked at me. "I did mean to drive you away. For good."

I met his gaze. "You still can."

He searched my face. "But I haven't." He didn't say it as a question, but there was a note of uncertainty in his voice that he didn't even try to disguise.

I knew what that slight admission of weakness must have cost. "No, you haven't." Under my breath, but loud enough for him to hear, I added, "The more fool I."

Snape let out a breath I hadn't known he'd been holding. "I think I have the greater claim to that title."

I stared at him. "Did I just hear you apologize? To me?"

He stared back. "No. You didn't."

"Good to know some things never change."

So quietly I could barely hear him, Snape said, "Some things do."

I reached out, and after a moment's hesitation let my hand rest on Snape's shoulder. I could feel the bones in it; he was far too thin. "They do. For the better, even."

Snape simply nodded; I could see that the conversation had exhausted him. I squeezed his shoulder, and felt him relax into the bed. I sat with him long after he had fallen asleep again, and listened to him breathe. There was more to say, but it would wait until he woke.