Title: Sunrise Never Fails.
Other pairings/threesome: None.
Word Count: +/- 20K
Content/Warning(s): Angst. Bottom!Severus.
Beta: Special thanks should be given to PhoenixPixie who betaed this story for the benefit of us all. :D
Summary: Severus Snape has spent so long waiting for the sunrise that he's forgotten the fact that it never fails to arrive...
A/N1: The title of this story comes from the poem 'Sunrise Never Failed Us Yet'by Celia Thaxter.
A/N2: Dear recipient, you asked for a Post-War fic featuring a Bottom!Severus, a pining, protective!Harry and a concerned!Severus with a side dish of Harry in stockings. I must confess that this particular combination gave me a fair amount of trouble, but I sincerely hope that you enjoy the end result as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thank you for being a part of our wonderful ship. *Glomps you* :D
A/N3: Now you can download this story on PDF format at rue16
Sunrise Never Fails.
Daylight... I must wait for the sunrise.
I must think of a new life, and I mustn't give in...
When the dawn comes... tonight will be a memory too,
and a new day will begin...
- Memory Lyrics
Severus Snape twitched slightly as the first ray of sunlight painted the fragile skin on the inside of his eyelids with a glowing pink color. He shifted minutely, reluctant to abandon the peacefulness of his dreams, but the light kept disturbing him, trying to drag him away from his restful slumber. His mind began to lose the soothing grogginess of sleep and he blinked awake.
His dark eyes opened a little, focusing sluggishly on the dancing dust-devils that floated, like golden-coated fairy dust, on the single beam of bright sunshine just above his head. He smiled instinctively, lifting his long-fingered hand upwards in a futile attempt to take hold of that delicate beauty. His skin turned golden in the light and dust danced across his slightly curled fingers as he turned them around gently, trying to catch the warm sunlight with his hand.
"Good morning, Severus." That softly whispered greeting shattered his sleepy contentment and he jerked upwards into a sitting position. Reality intruded abruptly into his peaceful, sunlit world as he became aware of exactly where he was, and with whom.
It took the thoroughly unwelcome awareness that he was still stuck in the infirmary with his annoying DADA colleague less than a second to sour his mood completely, so by the time he grunted a distinctly unenthusiastic response to Potter's greeting, Severus was rigid like a board in his chair and frowning darkly at the thick, warm blanket that someone had dared to wrap around his body.
Looking around, he discovered that Poppy hadn't arrived yet and the deeply uncomfortable notion that he owed the small charity of that blanket to his Gryffindor counterpart made him flush bright red with shamed vulnerability. He fought his instinctive desire to jump away from the chair, on which he'd obviously fallen asleep, and proceeded to come to his feet with as much dignity as he could possibly muster in the circumstances.
His mind reeled with horrified discomfort as he stepped as far away from that chair and that blanket as he possibly could. Distancing himself from the confused professor who stood right beside it, in what must have been Potter's unnerving attempt to... spy... on him unnoticed.
Shivering with increasing agitation he walked over to the foot of the bed he'd been guarding all night long and looked thoughtfully at the sleeping face of the young boy who occupied it.
He'd been up all night trying to deal with the aggravating consequences of a clandestine magical duel between one of his seventh year students and a dratted Gryffindor bully. The fact that his Slytherin had not only lost the match, but also ended up forcing him to interact with the recently appointed Gryffindor Head of House, in an effort to sort out the aftermath of the situation, only increased Severus' displeasure with the ghastly ordeal.
He'd been brewing a countering potion for the rather unexpected effects of a seriously botched spell until half past three in the morning, and had come directly here to administer the results of his labors to his confined student.
He remembered dismissing Poppy's help with a brusque gesture, sending her straight to bed with the reassurance that he planned to stay around long enough to monitor the effects of the potion. He must have been so tired that he'd fallen asleep on the infirmary's chair, but that couldn't explain why on Earth he'd ended up waking to the infuriating indignity of being the focus of Potter's thoughtful scrutiny.
"What are you doing here, Potter? I refuse to allow you the chance of laying all the blame for this unfortunate situation at Mr. Wilson's door. I'll fight you, tooth and nail, if you even try it. We both know that your despicable Mr. Edgar has been adamantly picking on this student for well over three months already."
"Carl is claiming that he was the challenged party, Severus. I approached him again this morning in an effort to find out what happened, but he's sticking to his version of events. There's nothing else I can do at this point."
"He is lying. I won't rest until that brat gets expelled over this."
"You can't prove anything. He's accusing Josh of stealing one of his books. He told me that's the reason why he approached him in the first place. Heated words were exchanged, accusations flew around, and before he knew it he'd been challenged to a duel. It was a matter of pride, Severus. A Slytherin had challenged him and he couldn't let it go. It's not his fault that he's gifted in Defense."
Severus gritted his teeth. The conflict between these two students had been worrying him for some time now, but his every attempt to make Potter see reason always ended in frustration. He was ashamed of his own inability to find proof of his claims. He knew that there was something unpleasant going on here but, as long as Josh Wilson refused to confide in him and accuse his Gryffindor bully of direct wrong-doing, there was precious little anyone could do.
His mind flashed back to about a million and one memories of his own wretched adolescence between these very same walls, and he shivered with seething indignation. His inability to put an end to the intolerable situation riled him something fierce...
"So it's business as usual as far as you are concerned. Isn't it, Potter? You've come all this way to tell me that your precious lion is going to walk away scot-free once again. I hope you don't expect gratitude from me."
"This is not my fault, Severus." His heart hammered unpleasantly when Potter's warm hand attempted to curl reassuringly around his left shoulder and he shook off the touch with a hastily taken step backwards.
"Do not touch me!" He growled, peeved beyond reason by the sudden realization that he'd been so focused on his own bitter recollections that he hadn't heard the dratted man approach him.
Potter's face turned dead serious. Those green eyes flashed with the kind of stubborn resolution that annoyed him further as the Gryffindor lifted both hands, palm upwards, in the space between them. Exposing them to Severus' scrutiny in a clearly soothing motion that he found deeply offensive.
"I'm not doing anything to you. Look: I'm unarmed. I've got no intention of either harming you or causing you any more distress, Severus. Why can't you accept a simple offer of comfort?
"I get that I'm not helping you at all, but you've got to give me some credit. I'm aware that Carl Edgar isn't as innocent as he claims to be, but my hands are as tied as yours. Why can't you see that we aren't fighting this situation on opposing sides? We are both equally frustrated, equally eager to put an end to whatever the hell is going on between these two. We should be working together, instead of fighting constantly between us."
"I'm not listening to this!" He growled, turning around with the intention of leaving immediately, but was prevented from doing so by the return of Potter's offensive touch. Golden digits grabbed his elbow this time, tightening around his limb with enough strength to halt him in his tracks, forcing him to remain in the room against his will.
"Look, I know you still see me as an arrogant, little brat. I know that you want me to stay as far away from Hogwarts as physically possible, but I'm here now and we have to find a way of working together.
"Minerva is really worried about our inability to manage a civil conversation and the virulence of your personal dislike towards me is completely unprofessional. You're making everything harder than it has to be, for Merlin's sake!"
Severus glared at the bold fingers keeping hold of his person and his high cheekbones acquired the kind of temper-fueled color that turned his usually pale complexion into a frightening rendition of livid fury.
"I refuse to apologize for my opinion on the matter. You may be the adored Savior of the Wizarding World but you are far too young to teach wide-eyed children, and nothing will dissuade me to the contrary.
"The safety of a classroom full of magical students shouldn't be put in the hands of a thoughtless, bumbling youth. You shouldn't be here, Potter. You should be out there, finding out what the real world feels like, instead of hiding away from life between these walls. Teaching requires the kind of committed dedication that you are way too immature to understand properly."
Potter's grip on his elbow softened as the man began to rub up and down his arm in a seemingly unconscious offer of soothing comfort.
"I realize you don't want me here, but that's a battle you've already lost, Severus. Why can't you give me a bloody chance to show you how wrong you are about me?
"I'm willing to work with you, willing let the past go in order to be granted the opportunity of getting to know the real you better. Why is it so hard for you to give up this constant fighting? We aren't enemies any more. We never really were. I respect you very deeply and I'd welcome the first chance you give me to put our differences behind us. I want us to be friends."
Severus' mind whirled with the appalled realization of what the dratted brat was trying to do. It had been so long since the last time someone had even thought of buttering him up that he'd forgotten how... shamefully easy... it could be for a man who'd been as utterly devoid of genuine affection as he'd always been to fall for that kind of self-serving trickery.
"Friendship can't be bought with an unrequested blanket and a veritable myriad of unwanted little touches, Professor Potter. Friendship is a treasure that has to be first fought for and then fiercely protected in order for you to earn the slightest right to claim its warm comfort.
"I have no desire to invest my precious time on the futile endeavor of attempting to reach such connection with you. Keep both your hands and your pleas for attention to yourself, I beg you. I have neither the need nor the actual desire for our association to expand beyond the minimal requirements of our similar duties towards the students of Hogwarts."
Potter's hand froze on his arm and those green eyes that he'd tried to forget without much luck since he discovered the depths of his inappropriate... feelings... towards the other man flashed with inexplicable pain.
"What if I have the need to grow closer to you, Severus? What would you do if I told you that you are hurting me more than you probably realize with this intractable attitude? What would you say if I told you that I've been guarding your sleep for the last three hours? How would you react if I confessed that watching you sleep filled me with peaceful joy?"
Severus gasped, truly hurt by the unforgivable cruelty of that clearly manipulating lie, and took a single step backwards. His head jerked to the side lest he show the vulnerability of his own distressed emotions before his enemy. He didn't know how Potter had learned about his inappropriate crush, but he was loath to give the bloody bastard a chance to play sick games with him.
"Do not speak to me thus, Potter! Never, ever, dare to imply that I... that you... There is no link between us. There is nothing uniting us beyond professional courtesy. I will not be ridiculed by the likes of you."
Potter turned ghostly pale and his eyes became twin pools of emerald misery that Severus couldn't bear to look upon.
"Why? Why are you so harsh with me? Why should my care bring you ridicule? There is no shame in being adored, Severus."
He blinked in outraged disbelief and a veritable knot of wounded pride tightened around his churning gut, settling in the pit of his stomach like a dreadful rock of burning-cold ice. He couldn't believe the boy could be so cruel, couldn't understand what sort of twisted maliciousness could be driving the Gryffindor to torture him like this.
"There is shame in everything, Potter. There is shame in loving those who were never meant for us and there is also shame in being loved by the wrong person, for the wrong reasons. There is shame in choosing one's desires unwisely, therefore, opening one's soul to the hate-filled whims of one's old enemies. There is shame in wanting what we can never have and in daring to even dream we can posses it.
"Adoration may be a weakness of the heart, but it is also a terrible weapon. It is the perfect tool to destroy those who have never felt its blessing but would kill -and die- to have it touch their souls, and I will never let you use it to harm me."
After that ghastly encounter in the infirmary Severus' usual reluctance to interact with Potter tripled. He refused to be dragged into conversation with the man, no matter how hard the Gryffindor tried to force him to do so, and avoided eating his meals at the High Table.
He never imagined that anyone would bother to challenge him on the matter, until Minerva called him to her office for a cup of tea. He was not only shocked to find Potter sitting on one of the twin chairs that faced the Headmistress' desk, but also utterly distraught to find himself on the receiving end of a very disappointed rant about the worrying message that his constant absence from the teachers' table was supposedly sending out to the student body.
To his never-ending chagrin, he was asked, point-blank, if there was some sort of problem between himself and Potter that she should know about and was forced to sit there: staring, wide-eyed, directly into her stern gaze while a sickened sort of dread crushed his windpipe into ashamed silence.
"I..." He couldn't even begin to imagine what sort of tales Potter must have been telling her about him and, therefore, had no actual clue about what kind of explanation would serve him best to diffuse the situation. His head turned to glare at Potter with vicious venom and, finding himself on the receiving end of the boy's concerned look, ended up lowering his gaze towards the floor with unnerved confusion.
"Harry swears that there is nothing wrong between the two of you, Severus. But my own eyes tell me that he is trying to protect you. I don't understand the reasons behind your pointed dislike of a man who regularly goes out of his way to treat you with respect and, frankly, I'm starting to fear that allowing you the time and privacy you need to sort out this situation has been a mistake on my part."
"I won't have your personal vendetta against Harry create even more problems between the Gryffindors and Slytherins in this school, Severus. Your recent confinement to your chambers may have aided you in ignoring what is happening, but the truth is that the tension between your two houses is currently at an all-time high.
"A worryingly high number of incidents have been reported directly to me in the last few weeks and only the founders know what else is going on behind our backs. The animosity between Gryffindors and Slytherins is starting to become dangerous and I blame the current deterioration of their former... truce... on the fact that the children have started to perceive your damaging dislike of one another."
Severus gaped at her, utterly flummoxed by the ridiculous nature of her claims.
"That is... preposterous, Minerva. The rivalry between Slytherins and Gryffindors dates all the way back to the Founders. You can't possibly accuse me of starting it without sounding... deranged."
"I'm not accusing you of anything, Severus. I'm telling you that your snakes and Harry's lions are taking sides in your little personal feud. Their usual clashes have become more vicious recently and this worrisome shift in their behavior happens to have coincided with the last major clash between the two of you.
"I know you were unhappy with my ruling on the Wilson-Edgar situation. But I'm far more responsible for that than Harry ever was. He tried to convince me to at least place Mr. Edgar on probation. It's not his fault that you weren't able to prove your claims of bullying."
"I have heard all that already, Minerva. I'm certain that the speech you gave me at the time regarding Mr. Potter's tireless attempts to act with saintly fairness hasn't changed all that much since I endured it last."
"I'm perfectly willing to treat you like a child if you continue to behave like one, Severus Snape!" Minerva snapped, glaring at him disapprovingly through the small lenses of her spectacles. "I'm done with all this nonsense. I demand you sort out whatever on Earth is wrong between the two of you, or I shall suspend you both from your duties until further notice."
He looked at her with perfectly appalled disbelief.
"Minerva, you can't..."
"Don't you dare to 'Minerva' me, young man! I'm desperately holding onto my last shred of patience. I don't want to force your hand, Severus, but this has honestly gone far enough. Harry doesn't deserve your hatred any more than you deserve the indignity of having the students label you the bad guy in all of your disputes. Your dislike of one another is unprofessional. It's both heartbreaking to see and thoroughly unfounded. Neither of you should have to endure a single second of it, for Merlin's sake!"
"You can't force me to like Potter, Minerva, just as you can't force him to accept me."
"His acceptance of you isn't the issue here. Harry accepted you ages ago, Severus. You are just too blind to see it. I know this is none of my business, but a few months ago something happened to you, my friend. Something that forced Harry to make a decision I strongly disapproved of at the time...
"He brought your unconscious body to the infirmary one Sunday morning, just after dawn, and refused to let Poppy undo something that you should have never done to yourself."
Severus frowned, utterly lost by the unexpected turn the conversation had taken.
"I haven't been in the infirmary since the war, Headmistress. You know perfectly well that I prefer to tend to my own health whenever possible."
"This happened the morning after the anniversary of Albus' death. You had been drinking heavily and ended up knocking yourself out with a self-inflicted spell, and before you dare to accuse Harry of having attacked you, himself, let me tell you that I've got actual proof of what happened. I cast Priori Incantatem on your wand, Severus, and I'm willing to show you that particular memory."
Severus ignored her offer for the moment, too busy attempting to bring his hazy recollection of that morning into focus and panicking at his inexplicable inability to do so. He frowned with agitation, wondering why he couldn't recall anything that happened between the moment he retired to his chambers after dinner that night and lunch-time the next day...
"What spell did I cast? Why can't I remember any of this?"
Potter gasped rather noisily and shifted abruptly forwards in his chair, interrupting the headmistress so rudely that Severus gritted his teeth and had to count all the way to sixty three in order to stop himself from throttling the little miscreant.
"Don't! I'll do everything you want, Minerva. Anything. Just... don't tell him what happened, please. I'm begging you..."
Her stern gaze visibly softened, but she smiled ruefully at her pet lion and shook her head in denial of whatever favor the man was so shamelessly requesting.
"I'm sorry, Harry. I know you disagree with me on this matter and I understand that this shouldn't be my decision, but it's been months already. Things will never get better unless you bring this out into the open once and for all."
"Don't! Just... don't, please. You have no idea of how distressed he was... This is going to hurt him very deeply, Minerva."
Severus was becoming more bewildered by the second.
"What on Earth are you two talking about? I demand to be informed of whatever happened to me at once! This involves my health. I can't believe you've contrived to hide something that was serious enough to put me in the infirmary."
Clearly panicked green eyes turned towards him.
"Don't do this! You don't really want to know what happened, Severus. You've got to trust me right now, please..."
"But I don't, Potter. I don't trust you and you've just admitted that you've been lying to my face for months. Why did I end up in the infirmary? What spell did I cast? Why were you the first person to come across me, if it happened the morning after the anniversary of Albus' death? I remember enough of that night to recall that I spent the entire evening alone in my rooms, drowning my guilt in Firewhiskey."
"You spent the evening alone, Severus, but not the night."
He was so startled by that perfectly ridiculous claim that he turned a pair of utterly bewildered dark eyes on her.
"That is an abominable falsehood. I never left the castle. I was in no state to leave. I must have drank..."
"An entire crate of Firewhiskey by the time Harry arrived or so he explained to us. Poppy double-checked your blood for alcohol poisoning at the time and came to the conclusion that you had been exposed to a dangerous amount of alcohol."
His heart froze and his breath halted at the awful implications of her words. He remembered feeling maudlin and utterly crushed by guilt for his role in Albus' death all through that day. He remembered dismissing the couple of Gryffindor dunderheads he had for detention early that evening, in order to return to the privacy of his rooms and... mope... in peace. He remembered the awful sense of desolation that had led him to unearth that old crate of the fine Firewhiskey that Draco had sent over a few years ago. He also remembered his plan of drinking himself to sleep, but he could not remember anything after that.
"Are you implying that I had some sort of drunken brawl with Potter? What did I do? Seek him out in alcohol-induced rage and challenge him to a duel? Did I cast my own offensive spell on myself by accident?" He looked straight at Potter's deadly pale face, trying to imagine the ghastly scene as it unfolded. But all he could see were those pleading emerald eyes looking back at him with something so close to... pity... that he couldn't bear the sight of it. "This is so humiliating..."
Potter tried to say something, but Minerva spoke firmly above his shaking voice.
"You may have been blind drunk at the time, Severus, but you were still yourself. You do not make mistakes while dueling, my friend. You've never cast a hex over anyone or anything in error. You meant to cast what you did, precisely what you did. We are all pretty certain about that."
His mind tried to come to terms with this truly worrying concept. He couldn't believe that he had turned his wand upon himself on purpose, and in front of Potter, no less. It was unthinkable. Shameful. Utterly cowardly.
"What spell did I cast?"
"Please, don't do this, Minerva..."
Potter's shout was half order, half desperate plea. Those green eyes had brightened with unshed tears that were making their owner's lovely face look beyond distressed. He was trembling like a leaf. He was wide-eyed and clearly agitated. He looked like the very picture of emotional devastation come to life and Severus couldn't bear the idea of never finding out what could possibly frighten the bravest of all lions so much.
"What. Spell. Did. I. Cast, Mr. Potter?"
"Obliviate. You turned your wand on yourself so fast that I couldn't reach you in time, Severus. You... you Obliviated yourself because you couldn't cope with the idea that we..." Potter's wavering explanation came to a jarring halt at that point, allowing the most awful silence to fill the room with a heavy and unbearable tension.
The Gryffindor looked wounded beyond words. His eyes shone brighter than jewels and a single, forlorn tear began to roll down the delicate skin of a slowly blushing cheek. Severus' chest clenched with flustered discomfort. He couldn't cope with Potter's obvious distress for much longer and he knew himself well enough to realize that, now that he was aware of the fact that something he couldn't remember had happened to him, he wouldn't be able to walk away from this room without knowing the full story.
"We what, Potter? What could we have possibly been doing that would lead me to act in such a way? Self-Obliviation is dangerous. It is the single, most foolish decision that anyone can make and I sincerely doubt that I have ever been crazy enough to contemplate it. This ridiculous story makes no sense whatsoever."
"We slept together, Severus."
Those four words nailed him to the spot. They drowned every single one of his senses under a thick layer of icy shame that he was utterly unable to shatter. His eyes widened for a fraction of a second before narrowing dangerously. He became rigid and distant in a single heartbeat, becoming as motionless as stone while his every thought focused on a single, awful notion:
He. Had. Slept. With. Potter.
They had been physically intimate. That beautiful emerald gaze had seen him bare. Potter had seen him. All of him. Naked... He had exposed his intolerable ugliness to the eyes of the man he...
"No! I would have never done such thing. You must be lying."
"You'll calm yourself down this instant, Severus! I won't let you accuse Harry of deception after I saw the state you were in when you arrived at the hospital wing that morning. It was obvious to both, Poppy and myself, that you had been indulging yourself in a night of physical excess.
"I'm not trying to judge neither you nor your actions, my friend. But I honestly believe that whatever feelings of... shame... led you to cast that Obliviate upon your person also managed to strengthen the scope of your spell, allowing it to leave behind some sort of instinctive recollection of that debacle with Harry.
"You may now be unable to remember what happened between the two of you, but your dislike for him became decidedly worse immediately after that night. Your mind may have been forced to forget, but you didn't. You've been unconsciously striving to keep Harry at arms' length ever since, Severus."
He looked at her in horrified shock, mind abuzz with the awful knowledge that she'd been there. She had heard the ghastly tale of what he'd done with Potter. She had seen what he'd done to himself and had kept it from him, lied to his face about it for months on end. And Poppy... She had been in on this, too.
He felt suddenly vulnerable, unpleasantly exposed and painfully betrayed. He felt humiliated and savaged in equal parts. He was beyond surprised, beyond horrified. He felt totally and mercilessly... corralled.
"Why?... Why did you agree to keep this shameful secret only to throw it in my face like this? What have I ever done to you, Minerva, to deserve such cruel lack of pity?"
Her brown eyes filled with intolerable sorrow and he pushed himself out of his chair, unable to bear the false care of that look. He walked blindly towards the huge fireplace, allowing his deeply ingrained instinct to seek privacy when wounded to lead his steps towards the fastest exit.
"You can't ignore what your own heart, your every instinct, has been trying to tell you ever since that night, Severus. There is something unresolved between you and Harry. Something that is too powerful to be denied, even by you.
"This ridiculous feud that you've started isn't solving anything... Your constant fighting is hurting both of you equally, bringing unnecessary stress into your professional interactions and encouraging the children to believe that your respective houses are justified in their blind hatred of one another. Your attitude is affecting the students, Severus, and I can't allow this situation to continue in good conscience. The school is..."
"The school?" He scorned, turning such a virulent look towards her that her words faltered as she became utterly immobile. "Be careful, Minerva. You are starting to sound just like Albus."
"I'm sorry, Severus, but this had to be done."
His fingertips pinched a smidgen of Floo Powder, even as he forced his throat to un-knot long enough for him to emit a single bark of mirthless laughter.
"Of course it had to be done, Headmistress. We all know that I have never been allowed to forget a single one of my mistakes. Least of all if they were committed against -or in front of- a merry band of Gryffindors.
"Congratulations to you both. You have now managed to out-do your predecessors in the art of humiliating me completely. Albus would have been so proud of you, Minerva, while James Potter must be laughing uproariously in hell, gleefully celebrating my misfortune with his despicable friends..."
He couldn't cope with the mortifying idea that he'd been Potter's. The knowledge pierced his brain like a lethally poisoned dart, settling in the pit of his stomach like unmovable stone and constricting his throat with unpleasant embarrassment every time he was unfortunate enough to find himself in the presence of the Gryffindor.
He could neither remember their encounter nor any of the circumstances that had lead directly to it, and that horrifying absence of... details... was driving him insane. He wasn't a heavy drinker and, whenever he indulged in the despised habit, he tended to do so in the privacy of his rooms. Therefore he had no actual knowledge of exactly what type of drunk he became. He couldn't tell if he was the "chatty" kind or not but, bearing in mind his natural reticence when sober, the possibility that his intoxicated self would tend towards having a 'lose tongue' seemed so highly likely that he became literally suffocated with shame every time he imagined how many of his precious secrets he may have unwittingly exposed to Potter's derision.
He spent the days immediately following that horrible scene in Minerva's office tormenting himself with the unbearable thought that he could have confessed the true nature of his inappropriate feelings to the Gryffindor. Knowing Potter's particular inability to withstand a sob story with any sort of equanimity it was entirely possible that such confession may have led Harry to bed him out of pity. For what else could have logically compelled the heroic Savior of the Wizarding World to fall into bed with an ugly thing like himself when he could have anyone he wanted?
Sheer discomfort led him to become even more snappy with everyone around him, but he dared not dismiss Minerva's direct orders to appear more often at the Great Hall table. So he had breakfast, lunch and dinner there every single day, and endured the horror of knowing himself to be the focus of Potter's increasingly agitated attention as best as he could.
Contrary to what he'd both imagined and desired, the Gryffindor Head of House insisted on occupying the seat directly to his left, as had been his custom for the last few months. The man's almost challenging obstinacy in attempting to bridge a chasm that Severus himself had no wish to have bridged drove him absolutely mad with the kind of frustration that he couldn't afford to show.
Minerva kept looking at him so sternly that he knew she wouldn't tolerate an outright fight between himself and Potter. So he was forced to grit his teeth and endure Potter's increasingly desperate attempts to drag him into conversation with grim rigidity. He ate every blasted meal with the kind of forced relaxation that invariably caused him acid later on and fled the Great Hall as soon as his own sense of decorum allowed him the liberty.
It was madness. All of it. Things could not remain like this for any length of time and he knew it, but his deeply embedded survival instincts told him that he didn't want to tackle this situation in any shape or form.
He needed to keep this particular dragon trapped in slumber for the rest of eternity, if he could manage the feat. He needed to... forget... that he'd ever learned this awful truth. He needed to bury this mistake somewhere unreachable, hide it so deeply inside his mind that the mere knowledge of it wouldn't be able to affect him thus any longer. He needed to move forward with his life, attempt to regain the dignity that he'd so recklessly sacrificed in his drunken shortsightedness and never, ever, give Potter the chance to make a fool of him again.
The passage of time doesn't affect Gryffindors the same way it affects everybody else. They are unable to understand the idea of giving up. They don't let things go. They insist on... badgering... against obviously closing doors. Ramming themselves relentlessly against the most impregnable defenses in such a way that they turn every hour, every day, every week that passes into an excruciatingly painful weapon that they invariably use to weaken their weary opponents.
Severus wanted... no, needed, to forget, but the blasted Savior wasn't respecting his wishes in the slightest. He wasn't keeping his distance. Wasn't growing discouraged. Wasn't desisting at all.
Every single day the damned man managed to find him in every possible corridor or patch of grass he visited, no matter how out of the way it may have been or at what ungodly hour Severus had decided to traverse it.
The situation became so ridiculous that he ended up convinced he was being most doggedly tracked by means of Lupin's old school map. Potter tried to talk to him, attempting to explain himself again, and again, and again. Until all Severus wanted to do was scream himself hoarse voicing out his categorical refusal to listen to whatever the hell the brat was so determined to say.
The man tried to engage him in ridiculous small talk and, when each and every attempt was met with frosty silence, he resorted to the childish technique of simply standing in the middle of Severus' path, blocking off his exit for minutes on end with infuriating stubbornness while he stared directly into his eyes with that soulful green gaze...
Severus was so used by now to encountering the irksome creature wherever he went that he didn't even bat an eye when he saw him lounging lazily against the wall of the seventh floor corridor one night.
He sighed with the exhausted frustration of a man who'd been genuinely looking forwards to the end of his patrolling duties and attempted to bypass the idiot without so much as acknowledging his presence.
"I would like a word with you, Severus." Potter whispered calmly, forcing him to halt reluctantly in order to at least give the appearance of "listening" to the man. He refused point-blank to give the brat an excuse to accuse him of openly disrespecting him in front of Minerva, so he took pains to always "listen" to Potter. She couldn't possibly fault him for his inability to find a single thing to say in reply, could she?
"My only regret is that you weren't sober when it happened. I know I told you before that I allowed myself the foolishness of believing that everything would be all right when you woke up, but I lied to you, Severus. I've been lying to you all along.
"I knew you were going to freak out in the morning. I knew you'd have never let me touch you if you'd been in your right mind, but I have been dreaming about you for so long that I decided to ignore the warnings of my conscience.
"I'm in love with you and I... I've desired you so deeply, so... hopelessly... for so many years that I took the only chance you've ever given me and hoped to Godric that our physical intimacy would help me break down some of the walls you keep building between us."
Severus felt those words hammer him with the kind of strength that nothing the other man had said to him thus far had possessed. Love... Potter had never used that word before. His mind whirled as he attempted to reject the pitiful sense of... hope... that the single mention of that four letter word had just brought him. He felt breathless and on edge. He could not honestly believe that it was true. How could it be? He was nobody, while Potter... Potter was everything.
Silence settled around them like a suffocating blanket while Severus stood there, rooted to the spot like a mesmerized rabbit. He was unable to move, unable to think, unable to even breathe while one second slowly merged into the next and the Gryffindor waited for an answer that he honestly couldn't bring himself to give him.
He could not force his lips to denounce the very words that described his most cherished dreams as a lie. He couldn't openly refuse them, scorn them or reject them in any way. He couldn't bring himself to... deny... them, because doing such a thing would have killed him as certainly as if he'd poisoned himself.
"Severus? Won't you at least grant me the courtesy of looking me in the eye while I bare my heart to you? I'm giving you the kind of weapon that my detractors would kill to possess. I'm allowing you to realize how easily you could crush me right now, if you wanted. You could trample each and every one of my most precious dreams under your booted heel until you turn them to dust."
Severus' head turned sharply around. His cheeks were flushed with the deep crimson of turbulent emotions and his black eyes flashed with the kind of uncontrolled rage that would have brought old Greyback to his knees, had he been there.
"Don't you dare repeat that claim out loud ever again." He hissed, pinning that earnest green gaze with a look so full of scorn that Harry flinched visibly before he squared his shoulders and fixed a wavering smile upon his lips.
"The first words you speak to me in almost two months and they are nothing short of challenge. Do you think your fury frightens me, Severus? You know me better than that. You know I won't be cowered into silence and I refuse to let you hide from the truth a single second longer:
"I. Am. In. Love. With. You.
"There! I've said it, and I'll say it again. I'll say it until my voice is hoarse from shouting it out loud and you've managed to drain the very last drop of hope from my heart."
"Do you seriously believe you're more stubborn than me? I've grown up fighting against insurmountable odds, my love. I know how to win a war and also how to end one. I'm not willing to give up on you, do you understand me? You deserve better than the indignity of being allowed to become a vague, unwanted memory.
"You are a lot more than a dream that was never meant to be. I won't let you become a shameful little mistake. You deserve to be fiercely fought for, Severus, and I'm here to tell you that I'm planning to do exactly that. You can ignore me all you want, but I'll remain right here, because leaving you behind is simply... unthinkable."
Severus saw red. He turned fully around to face the annoyingly stubborn Gryffindor and sneered for all he was worth:
"What could you possibly gain from such doomed course of action, Potter? I refuse to engage in another petty battle with you, so if you're trying to push me into hexing you into next week to get me in trouble with Minerva you can just forget it."
"This has nothing to do with the school. I'm in love with you, you, dimwitted bastard!"
"Don't make me laugh, please. How stupid do you think I am? You've seen me at my very worst. You've been witness to the most heinous acts I have ever committed. There is no way you could have fallen in love with the man you know me to be."
"You left me to die alone in that dusty old shack and then had the actual gall of... rescuing me... from a thoroughly deserved sentence in Azkaban, by the excruciatingly humiliating method of exposing every single vulnerability of my idiotic teenage self to the scorn of wizarding society. Those are not the actions of a man in love."
"Yes, they are! I was trying to save you. I wanted the entire world to know the kind of wonderful man that you keep trying to deny you are. There is nothing humiliating in loving as completely as you do, Severus. You shouldn't have been forced to stand trial in the first place and I wanted..."
"You wanted to destroy me. You tried to ruin my hard-earned reputation by turning me into a pitiful Hufflepuffish... teddy bear... that everyone could mock. Then, not happy enough with all of that, you dared to follow me here, to the one place in all the world where I actually feel safe, and proceeded to use your very presence in this institution to drive me away from it!"
"That's not true. I don't want you to leave Hogwarts. I..."
"You used your knowledge of my past, of my deeply held regrets, to approach me at a time when you knew I'd be vulnerable. You could see that I was not in my right mind that night and still dared to take what, by your own admission, you knew I would have never given you under normal circumstances.
"Your actions in this instance have been nothing but despicable, Potter. You've known that for months and now I know it, too. There is nothing to fight for here. Nothing that can be saved. Nothing else for you to gain, no matter how hard you try. You can't possibly humiliate me any further, I assure you. There is no way on Earth that you can ever bring me lower than you've already brought me..."
Something vital broke inside Potter after that midnight encounter and, although they were still supposedly on speaking terms, tension surrounded their every interaction like a dark and poisonous cloud, making them so clearly uncomfortable in each others' company that Minerva kept giving them the evil eye whenever they exchanged more than two words past a polite greeting.
Despite the growing discomfort that their constant closeness brought them, the Gryffindor still refused to move chairs at the High Table and Severus, locked as he was into his own placement by his position as Minerva's deputy, could do nothing but resent the other man's bloody-mindedness in stony silence.
At least Potter seemed to have finally backed off. Severus stopped finding him everywhere he went and the man's constant attempts to engage him in conversation became a thing of the past, unless there was something in particular they needed to discuss for professional reasons.
Despite their dwindling interaction Potter did not retreat altogether. He still hovered in the background like a forlorn little shadow. Patiently orbiting somewhere around Severus' general vicinity and looking at him constantly with those dejected green eyes that never failed to make him feel uncomfortably guilty.
He invariably placed himself in Severus' line of sight. Always present, but respectfully out of reach, like a loving pet or a watchful bodyguard. Like a man who could not bear the very idea of denying himself the small comfort of being constantly... there.
It was twelve minutes past two on an unremarkable Wednesday afternoon when Severus' entire world finally came crashing down around his ears. He still remembers precisely where he was when Minerva's cat Patronus interrupted his lesson, causing him to halt mid-word and stare at it in thunderstruck horror at its unexpected presence in his classroom.
A veritable myriad of unwelcome memories flashed across his mind before her voice broke the stunned silence, freeing him from dark recollections of a war he hadn't yet managed to forget. Memories of fighting so hard and hiding so much. Memories of loosing so many dear friends. Memories of Albus...
"Severus! There has been an accident in the defense classroom and Harry has been hit by a botched hex. I'm sending his class to you. Please make sure they end the day appropriately and take over my duties until further notice. I'm heading to the infirmary right now."
He felt cold from head to toes. His throat constricted so much that he could barely breathe properly and there was an unpleasant fire churning in his stomach, making him feel fiercely ill.
He dared not blink too fast, lest the burning in his eyes had the audacity of betraying the pitiful reality of his disconsolate reaction to the knowledge that Harry, his precious, beloved Harry, had been harmed to the point where he needed medical assistance and so he stood, rooted to the same spot where he'd been when the Patronus had first manifested, looking as lifeless and unfeeling as a statue made of heartless wax. Appearing for all intent and purposes callously unmoved by the ghastly news he'd just received.
Whispers rose around the classroom as the children surrounding him began to react to the situation with the freedom that he, himself, could not afford to show and he let the loud, surprised gasps rise for once, feeling a strange comfort in hearing them break the eerie silence to speak the words that he dared not say himself.
A few minutes later, Mr. Davies, the seventh year prefect, knocked on the door, heralding the arrival of Harry's class. He granted the students entrance with his usual sharp tone, eyeing them menacingly one by one as they filed in quietly past him. Only the fact that he had no proof and no actual idea of what had happened prevented him from hexing that loathsome Mr. Edgar on the spot as soon as he set eyes on the brat's ashen face.
He knew the dammed kid was the strongest student in Defense. His skills in the subject were rumored to be responsible for the visit that the head of the auror's recruiting team had paid him, just last week. If Harry had fallen victim of a botched hex, then it couldn't have come from the boy, that was for sure. Carl Edgar was too good to make that kind of mistake and he, literally, worshiped the ground the DADA professor walked on.
Severus closed his eyes and sighed, reminding himself sternly that he couldn't allow his undeniable dislike of the Gryffindor student to force him into giving the brat the detention that his tongue was itching to deliver. Then he noticed how the rest of the classroom shied pointedly away from their adored little leader, analyzed the peculiar way in which his seven year Slytherins were clustered around the slight figure of Josh Wilson and came to a truly awful conclusion. His right eye twitched. His dark gaze narrowed and a single vein began to throb on his temple as he took a single step towards the odious Gryffindor bully.
"Are you in any way responsible for Professor Potter's unfortunate accident, Mr Edgar?" He questioned with dangerous calm.
The boy quivered where he stood, but looked him in the eye with his usual disrespect.
"It was an accident, Sir. The professor thought I mispronounced the hex I was casting. He attempted to cast a shield over my intended target, but was too close for the spell to take properly and ended up stepping into the path of the curse, instead."
Severus' gut twisted with the unpleasant premonition that he already knew the answer to his next question, but he couldn't stop himself from asking it, anyway:
"Was Mr. Wilson the intended target of your hex?"
The answer was uttered with the kind of challenging bravado that only managed to rile Severus' infamous temper further. He forced himself to clasp both hands behind his back, channeling the dangerous fury rising within him into the cold-voiced demand that abandoned his lips like the lash of a whip.
"I'm afraid that I could not hear you properly, Mr. Edgar. Did you just admit to having knowingly cast a botched hex on Mr. Wilson? The same hex that has put Professor Potter in the infirmary? I require your answer to be both concise and very clear. A simple yes or no will suffice."
"It wasn't a botched hex, Sir. It was an improvement of my own invention." The Gryffindor answered once more. Pronouncing precisely the sort of the self-condemning statement that Severus most wanted to hear and he sighed upon listening to it, feeling utterly wretched.
That particular confession would have brought him untold pleasure under any other circumstances, but he couldn't feel any elation whatsoever right now. He finally had this loathsome little bug right where he wanted him, but the fact that Harry was injured, cursed by something cast on purpose by a boy who had not only meant to cause harm, but also possessed the necessary skills to achieve his intended goal, soured his triumph with a sickening dread that he couldn't push aside.
He'd taken a barely controlled step towards the Gryffindor troublemaker when the unexpected pop of a frantic looking castle elf froze him to the spot.
"Vinky is sorry, professor Snape, Sir, but Headmistress McGonagall is wanting this class interrupted right away. Vinky must remove Deputy Headmaster Snape, Sir, from this room, posthaste."
"What sort of nonsense is th..?" He became the unwilling focus of unfamiliar elf magic before he could finish his sentence and only his instant recognition of the castle's infirmary saved the elf from an absolutely incensed tongue-lashing.
"I'm sorry I had you removed from your classroom so hastily, Severus, but Harry needs you right now. Pomona will take care of the students, so don't worry about them."
He relaxed at once, reacting to Minerva's apology, with a curt nod of his head.
"I'd be happy to assist Mr. Potter, Headmistress, but I'll need to examine his symptoms if you want me to come up with a countering potion for an unknown hex." He explained distractedly, turning around with the intention of walking towards the closed off area that he assumed contained Harry's bed, only to find himself forcefully restrained by the firm hand she placed on his shoulder.
"I wasn't implying that Harry's need of you relates only to your potions skills, Severus. I'm trying to tell you that he needs your support and understanding in a way that I sincerely hope you'll be able to bring yourself to provide.
"This isn't the time to continue the petty little games that you've been so fond of playing lately. Do you understand me? Harry has been hit with a modified Firebrand Hex and the nature of the changes that have been added to the curse are making it impossible for us to put him into the magical sleep that most healers use to prevent a victim's mind from being negatively affected by the constant pain associated with this curse."
"The Punishment Hex..." Severus gasped "I can't believe Mr. Edgar was reckless enough to hurl such a thing at Josh Wilson."
"It's not a simple Punishment Hex anymore, Severus. It has been combined with a strong Compelling Charm to create a cause-and-effect curse. Filius believes that Mr. Edgar was trying to force the unpleasant effects of the Firebrand to become only apparent when certain requirements weren't met. That god-dammed brat was trying to create a... training... curse, my friend. One that was designed to force his victim to behave within predetermined parameters of behavior until the antidote could be brewed."
Minerva's horrifying explanation reached him as if through a fog and he shrugged off the trembling fingertips that she had curled around his shoulder in order to take the smallest step towards Harry's bed, surrendering to the unbearable need that drove him to be closer to his love. To do whatever was required of him to help put an end to the terrible, whimpering sounds that reached him despite the drawn curtains that surrounded the Gryffindor's bed.
"Poppy has done all she can to tone down the amount of pain brought on by the Firebrand Hex, but she hasn't been able to contain it completely, Severus. We believe the regular antidote will work for this modified version of the curse, but it is so highly specialized and so resistant to long term storage that we don't have it readily available and neither does St. Mungo's. You'll have to brew it from scratch."
"Merlin... What was that brat thinking? The Firebrand's antidote takes six weeks to brew, Minerva. If Mr. Edgar designed his hex in such a way that only the actions he wanted to reward could prevent the curse's associated pain from ransacking his victim's body, then he wanted to have absolute control over Josh Wilson for at least a month and a half..."
"I believe that was his goal, Severus. He wanted to force your student into a certain pattern of behavior for as long as possible and he devised a truly ingenious way to have his cake and eat it, too.
"It is unlikely that he'll go to Azkaban for this, since the Punishment Hex is ultimately harmless when treated, even though everybody knows that it is excruciatingly painful while active and its effects tend to grow worse with every passing hour, until it becomes necessary to either deliver the antidote or induce the victim into a magical sleep while it brews. Nobody has ever died from this curse, though, so chances are that this attack won't be considered intentionally lethal."
"But you just said that you can't put Potter to sleep. The increasing pain could make him lose his mind while we wait for the antidote. Six weeks is a very long time to spend in constant agony, Minerva. He will have to adopt whatever behavior Mr. Edgar was trying to enforce in order to avoid unnecessary suffering."
"That is correct. Carl's design has turned the Punishment Hex into a training tool, thus disabling the loophole that usually allows healers to induce magical sleep. This is a cause and effect hex, Severus. Only the spell's sanctioned behavior will soothe the unbearable pain that Harry has been cursed to feel until he drinks the antidote."
"That is why I'm here, isn't it? Edgar hates Wilson with visceral spite. He must have desired to force his victim to grovel at his feet for six weeks while he laughed with his cronies at whatever indignities he planned to force him to suffer in order to avoid bringing upon himself the terrible consequences of "displeasing" his "trainer"."
Minerva's mouth compressed into a thin line of outraged disapproval and her hazel brown eyes acquired the quality of river pebbles when she grasped his shoulder once again, bringing his attention back to her.
"Mr. Edgar will be most severely punished for this, I assure you. But you are wrong about the nature of his intentions towards Mr. Wilson. It appears that he doesn't hate his peer as much as everyone thought. He doesn't hate him at all, in fact. Carl Edgar was trying to create a love bond, Severus. His "training" requests consisted on absolute sincerity and physical closeness to the person his victim loves the most. We believe he was attempting to force Josh Wilson into admitting that he has feelings towards him, too."
Severus felt all color drain away from his face. His stomach dropped all the way down to his feet and he wouldn't have been able to move a single muscle had his life depended on it. He felt paralyzed and wounded. Shocked right into despair. Utterly and painfully shattered.
He could not imagine any fate worse than having to endure the torture of watching the man he loved to distraction seek physical comfort in the arms of whoever he happened to love the most, no matter how magically induced that comfort-seeking may be. The next six weeks of his life promised to be torture of the cruelest kind...
"Oh!" He croaked out loud, feeling literally faint with distressed sorrow. "Do you need me to seek out Potter's... beloved... and bring him here before starting on the antidote, Minerva? Is that why you sent for me?"
Her lips trembled and her old eyes filled with a thick film of bright tears. Her head shook from left to right and she looked at him sharply, shacking his bony shoulder so hard that the motion rattled his teeth.
"Don't you dare harm that boy, Severus Snape! Do you understand me? I don't care how much you hate him, but... by Merlin! You are going to grit your teeth and help us get Harry through this or I'll bloody Imperio you to do it!"
Her words hit him like a punch to the stomach and he gasped in horrified reaction to her lack of trust in him when it came to Harry's well being. He attempted to recoil away from her touch, but she held onto him with a grip as hard as iron.
"I'd never hurt the brat when he's this vulnerable, Headmistress. I didn't waste an entire decade of my life looking after his sorry hide, just to let him suffer through the effects of a hex cast by a ridiculously talented teenager in the throes of a wild crush. I will start brewing Potter's antidote as soon as you let me go. He has nothing to fear on that score, I assure you."
"He needs more than that from you, Severus. He needs you. He tried his best to convince me to leave you out of this altogether, but we are unable to mute the effects of the "punishments" he's enduring and Dreamless Sleep doesn't work."
"He's right about it, then, Minerva. He doesn't need me. If the Dreamless Sleep is ineffective then nothing save the antidote itself will help. He must fulfill the conditions of his "training" to the best of his ability. Delivering sincerity and remaining in physical closeness to whoever he loves the most should be a piece of cake for a man like Harry Potter. You just have to make sure that whoever he cares for so deeply has access to him."
Minerva's disheartened chuckle made him break into a cold sweat with the terrible suspicion that whoever Potter had given his heart to may not have been all that enthusiastic about helping their wounded Savior.
"Harry said you didn't believe him when he confessed his feelings to you, but I hoped he was exaggerating. Now I see that he was telling the truth all along... How can you stand there, urging me to find Harry's paramour as if that has nothing whatsoever to do with you, when anyone with eyes to see could tell you the name of Harry's beloved within half hour of seeing the two of you together, Severus?
"He is in love with you, you, insufferably stubborn idiot! He's been bound "in training" to you for the next six weeks of his life because he, literally, worships the ground you walk on, and now the depth his emotions and the fact that he must be sincere at all times in your presence have left him in such a vulnerable position when it comes to that ugly feud you've been so doggedly foisting on him that I shall never forgive you if you dare to use this opportunity to harm him any further."
Potter's naturally golden skin looked deathly pale against the crisp whiteness of the infirmary's pillowcases and there were circles under his eyes that Severus hadn't noticed while they'd been open and directing that intent, all seeing gaze at him over the last few weeks.
The brat looked so fragile and small, as he slept under a towering heap of fluffy blankets, that Severus couldn't help the awful thought that the smallest breeze would be able to lift him up in the air and carry him far away from this room and the relative safety of his own presence. Taking him too far to be reached. Helped. Held tightly onto...
Potter... no. Harry was in love with him. He loved him with the kind of genuine passion that had forced the warped magic of Edgar's curse to recognize him as the man in charge of Potter's "training." No matter how incredible it sounded, the brat's heart had chosen him above all others, turning him into the man Harry Potter had to be sincere to. The one he had to stay physically close to during the next six weeks of his life, if he wanted to avoid the torture that the Firebrand Hex could deliver...
The thought rattled in Severus' head like a disturbingly loud buzz and he flinched in reaction to the knowledge that, although Harry had gathered enough courage to confess his feelings to his face, he hadn't been willing to believe a word of it. He had dared to scorn, to... deny... the Savior's love, branding it a cruel lie in his infinite stupidity.
"You look rattled, Severus. I'm sorry that you've been forced to come to my rescue once again."
Harry's soft voice brought him out of his thoughts and he turned guilty eyes towards the pale-faced man on the bed. Their hands had been entwined since Minerva pushed them together when she first forced him to sit on the chair he's still occupying and he hadn't been able to bring himself to unclasp them, despite the fact that Harry's distressed whimpering had eased within seconds of that first initial contact.
"You've got nothing to apologize for, Po-...Harry. How are you?"
"I've been better, that's for sure. At least, I'm no longer burning from the inside out with the effect of the Firebrand, thanks to you. I know you don't want me this close, but I'm grateful for your willingness to help me, Severus."
Harry's hand pressed meaningfully against his trapped fingertips and Severus curled them instinctively upwards in silent repose to that infinitesimal pressure. Their gazes clashed in a tangle of unvoiced dismay and hesitant gratitude and he suddenly found his throat too dry to voice a single word out loud.
His mind was distressingly empty of logical or even properly apologetic sentences. He had been rendered unable to express himself in any way, shape or form. He had turned into a mass of both increasingly bubbling elation and guilty remorse, becoming a veritable tangle of overwhelmed affection, wary disbelief and awed bewilderment at the idea that this man, who he so profoundly adores, has been harboring those very same emotions towards him for months on end.
"I'm sorry for failing to believe you when you told me about your feelings, Harry. I..."
"It's OK, Severus. Don't beat yourself up about that, please. It's all water under the bridge now, anyway."
The Gryffindor's face crumpled into a mask of shocked pain as soon as he uttered that sentence and Severus realized that it must have been a barefaced lie. Worry brought him out of his chair in the next second, driving him to disengage his still trapped hand from Harry's clenching fingers in order to pull his wand out of its holder and cast a simple Numbing Charm over the writhing body of the Gryffindor Head of House.
"Please refrain from lying to me until the antidote is brewed, no matter how tempted you feel to spare my feelings, Harry. I'm fully aware of how despicably cruel my recent behavior towards you has been and..."
"Severus, please, don't do this..."
"Listen to me, Harry. Your annoying Mr. Edgar was remarkably thorough when he plotted out this curse. It is designed to allow nothing but sincerity between trainee and trainer, forcing the victim to expose whatever emotions he feels instinctively inclined to hide in order to bring about the kind of manufactured closeness that they boys must have failed to develop naturally. It is monstrous and manipulative, but wickedly clever and it requires..."
"I know perfectly well what it requires. I'm grateful that you didn't abandon me to deal with this on my own, but... I don't want your pity. I know that you don't return my feelings. You've gone to extreme lengths to make your opinion of me abundantly clear and I'd really appreciate it if you could avoid giving me false hope now that I'm being forced to... expose... the vulnerability of my emotions so completely. This is hard enough as it is, Severus."
Severus ran a trembling hand through his disheveled hair, utterly dismayed upon realizing just how deeply Harry had been hurt by his refusal to listen.
"I don't pity you at all, Potter!" He growled, vexed with frustration, and only realized how badly he'd expressed himself when the man in the bed flinched as if he'd been slapped and turned his suddenly ashen face towards the wall.
Utter sorrow oozed from the Gryffindor's hunched form like a poisonous vapor and Severus' eyes burned with the disheartening awareness of how woefully unprepared he really was to deal with his love's heartbreaking fragility.
He sighed out loud with self-deprecating frustration, biting his lower lip in a gesture that betrayed his inner turmoil before he dared to sit on the edge of the mattress, bringing himself as close to Harry's trembling figure as he possibly could in a bumbling attempt to offer the kind of comfort that he desired to deliver, but had absolutely no idea of how to express.
"I'm sorry, Harry. I... That didn't come out the way I meant it at all. I'm terrible at this sort of thing. Your mother used to say that I don't know how to deal with my own emotions, let alone anyone else's..."
"Please, Severus, please... Don't mention my mother to me right now, I beg of you. I realize that you loved her very dearly and that this request probably sounds illogical to you, but I can't cope with the idea of having to talk about that bloody mess while this curse is messing with my head."
Severus' stomach started churning in earnest as he came to the unwelcome realization that nothing he had said or done since the Gryffindor's return to consciousness had managed to ease the man's emotional distress. He'd kept hurting Harry more and more with every word he'd uttered, and the sheer desolation that his arrival at that unavoidable conclusion brought him was enough to make him choke out a hopelessly wobbly vow:
"It's all right, Harry. I'll be as quiet as the grave, I promise... Why don't you go back to sleep, then? Poppy says you need to rest."
Although many things remained the same in many ways when it came to their interaction with one another, everything had changed so fundamentally that Severus felt well and truly uprooted. He was unsettled, out of his depth and agonizingly incapable of coping with the emotional upheaval that his new awareness of Harry's feelings had created within him. His orderly life had been thrown into utter chaos and the soothing familiarity of his usual pattern of behavior towards his Gryffindor counterpart was no longer... appropriate.
Harry's need to be physically in his presence forced them to interact more often than they had ever done before. They ended up having to re-locate to an abandoned 'family' suite because the brat couldn't manage the stress of being out of his sight for longer than a couple of hours at a time and Severus failed to adapt to their temporary cohabitation with the quiet grace he'd been determined to show.
They had their own bedrooms and bathrooms; sharing only the small kitchen, office space and sitting room, but Harry's need to be in his direct line of sight while awake made it impossible for Severus to seek refuge inside the privacy of his own bedroom when things became too much for him to bear.
For a man who prided himself in his unparalleled vocabulary and sharp communication skills, he was pitifully unable to make Harry understand how very sorry he was about their past interactions. He was simply incapable of delivering the soothing comfort that he tried to offer more than once and ended up feeling both uncharacteristically clumsy and embarrassingly tongue-tied whenever he came in close contact with the Gryffindor.
His crystal clear discomfort soon turned their forced co-habitation into the kind of deeply awkward affair that left him invariably disappointed and so utterly dismayed at his inability to... connect... with Harry that he couldn't eat properly. Couldn't sleep any more. Couldn't just... relax.
Harry loved him. Wanted him. Adored him... They had been together in a sexual way already and the nature of the brat's curse made it impossible for him to lie to his face. Severus knew that he shouldn't be wasting their precious time wallowing in irrational insecurity. He knew that he should be using this golden opportunity to bring them finally closer and make Harry understand that their current relationship could change. That his affection wasn't the hopeless disaster that he feared it to be. Severus loved him too. He'd have done anything to prove himself worthy of the gift of having Harry in his life and yet... he was squandering his chance.
He knew that he had stumbled upon the perfect situation to open up and let the Gryffindor realize the true nature of the impossible dreams that he'd been harboring for so long, but he couldn't find a way to show any of that to the man. No matter how many times he told himself to take a deep breath and admit how very stupid he now found his past behavior, he'd been unable to... beg... his increasingly bitter lion for the second chance that he was now absolutely certain he didn't deserve.
It hadn't helped at all that the cat had been publicly pulled right out of its bag with regards to the shifting nature of their relationship. Mr Edgar's harsh punishment and the reasons behind it had made the front page of the Prophet the day after Harry was cursed. The nature of the hex and the training 'conditions' associated with it had been leaked to the press, alongside his own name as Harry Potter's 'trainer,' thus allowing not only Hogwarts' students but also the general wizarding public to become uncomfortably aware of the depths of Harry's feelings towards him.
The wounded lion had read the initial article detailing his current situation with a crushing despair shadowing his eyes while showing the kind of unsettling sobriety that had twisted Severus' stomach into a most unpleasant tangle of churning knots.
Nothing could compare to the bitter hopelessness that grew steadily on that green gaze with every passing day, though. The papers continued to capitalize on the ghastly nature of Harry's curse via utterly offensive humorous strips that depicted their 'possible' interactions with the kind of gleeful maliciousness that forced Severus to grit his teeth, reducing him to plotting precisely how to extract a proper Slytherin retribution from those who'd dared to harm his Harry thus for the purpose of selling one more paper.
There had been two such strips decorating the front page of the Prophet that morning and, although he'd managed to hide the paper from Harry during breakfast at the Great Hall, the brat must have ordered a castle elf to find him a copy, because he was holding a slightly crumpled morning edition by the time Severus joined him in their shared living room after his morning shower.
"They are having great fun at my expense. Wouldn't you say? I don't know who drew the cartoon that has me jumping at your command like an eager puppy, but the one where I'm wearing the throat choker, the green-colored tights and the silver thong with the dangling snake charm for your pleasure has all the hallmarks of being a Dean Thomas original."
"Don't, Severus. Please."
"I thought Thomas was your friend and, even if he isn't, taking cheap shots at a fellow Gryffindor when he's down is despicable."
"He isn't saying anything that the rest of the world hasn't thought about already and at least his art is classy, if you are into that sort of thing."
Severus looked at the enticing drawing that he'd so fiercely wanked to in the shower and struggled something fierce with his own conscience. He felt so absolutely terrible that he didn't realize how disgusted his voice sounded when he finally spoke:
"You've got nothing to fear on that score, Harry. I swear. I'd never take advantage of you in such degrading way."
The distressed bubble of hysterical laughter that Harry offered in response cut short Severus' flustered attempt to deliver soothing comfort, forcing him to retreat back into confused silence despite his almost visceral need to do something about this. To grab hold of the slightly trembling Gryffindor and find a way to make him feel less hurt, less hopeless. Less... vulnerable and wounded.
"Of course you'll never take sexual advantage of me. You're far too honorable for that." Awful bitterness turned that simple statement from a reassuring expression of trust into the kind of growled accusation that made Severus stiffen like a statue carved in marble.
"You don't sound all that happy about it. How can you fail to find relief in my desire to spare you sexual humiliation? You can't possibly want to wear this sort of attire for my benefit and it'd be monstrous of me to even consider asking you to do it. I'm uncomfortably aware of how much power I hold over you right now. It frightens me, Harry."
Harry's emerald gaze settled over his features with unbearable heartbreak and his voice was a mere whisper when he finally voiced his simple, but devastating answer out loud:
"I'd gladly wear that particular outfit for you, if it pleased you, Severus. I don't find the idea of having sex with you humiliating in the slightest. I. Love. You, remember? I would give up a hell of a lot to be granted the chance of exploring my sexuality with you, but that's neither here nor there, is it?
"You Obliviated yourself after we sleep together. You risked your very sanity by performing a highly inadvisable spell on your own mind, in order to forget that you had ever touched me in that way. Trust me when I tell you that I'm perfectly aware of how... abhorrent... you find the idea of having sex with me."
Those words shattered Severus' composure to such degree that he couldn't keep his indifferent mask in place for a single second longer. His already pale visage lost the last remnants of color it possessed as his body became a graceless mass of shaking bones and muscle. His hands began trembling so much that he had to curl them into twin fists on his lap and his eyes burned with such shamed regret that he was forced to close them before whispering his rough-toned reply:
"Has it ever occurred to you that I may have assumed your interest in me to be false? Can you not realize that I've been mocked for my physical shortcomings so often and so... thoroughly... that I've spent my entire adulthood shying away from all sexual entanglements?"
Harry's attention became immediately riveted on him. His hands abandoned the paper on the side table and he clasped them together, resting his forearms on his knees in a motion that curled his entire body forwards in his chair and brought him as close as possible to Severus' rigid form. The position made him look nothing short of devoted to the task of hearing him better, of blocking out anything and everything that may distract his senses from his focused study of both Severus' halting words and flustered body language.
"I know you've been wounded sexually, Severus. Your reactions that night were... enlightening... to say the least. You behaved like a man who has rarely found pleasure in the act. You tried your best to hide your body from my sight. You kept shying away from the light and attempted to force me to come down your throat in a bid to prevent me from moving past your sitting-room altogether.
"You assumed that I'd leave you hanging if you gave me pleasure. That I'd pat you on the head and walk away, like everyone else must have done before me. You dared to believe that I'd abandon you to your drunken loneliness without a second thought for your own needs if you knelt at my feet and allowed me to use you like a... toy, or a doll. Like a lifeless thing devoid of... feelings."
Severus cringed at the depth of Harry's knowledge of him, at the unwelcome realization of how much he'd revealed of himself with his actions and reactions that night. With his determination to treat the man he loved exactly like he'd treated everyone who had come before him. Men who had never truly desired him and had only ever bothered with him in order to play dangerous power games that they had never, ultimately, won.
"You don't have to... pity... me for my tendency to fall to my knees and pleasure those who care to seek me out, Harry. Men who look like me can't afford to be all that picky about things like sexual positions or even physical attraction.
"I... I may have looked like a lifeless doll to you, but I have learned over the years that the man on his knees controls most sexual encounters. I win every time I put myself in the position of delivering the pleasure. I decide when it all ends and how. I can drag out the moment or be done with it in minutes... I'm not the one who loses all awareness of where he is, and with whom, in order to enjoy the fleeting pleasure of orgasm. Sex is a weapon that I've learned to turn against those who have tried to use it against me."
Hot tears spilled from Harry's green eyes, painting twin rivers of sorrow down his golden cheeks before dripping down onto his bare forearms with soft plopping sounds that broke the unbearable quiet.
"Sex is also a gift, Severus. It's an expression of desire so powerful that it can heal all your hurts and soothe your every fear, if only you allow yourself to view the act as something other than a battlefield. I had no intention of hurting you at all. I never wanted to control you, or humiliate you, or whatever the hell it is that whoever had you before me attempted to gain from the experience.
"I never stopped to think about how you'd view my desire to bring you comfort that night, and for that I have only myself to blame. I should have known that something wasn't right, but I didn't pay proper attention. All I cared about was that you were drunk and you were hurting. You clung to me seeking... oblivion, I think, and it didn't occur to me to question why you'd open up like that to someone you dislike so much, instead of going to Minerva or Poppy for more... conventional... support."
Those words caught him off guard, crushing his pounding heart with the awareness of how much beauty he'd relinquished with his thoughtless actions. Of how much love and adoration he'd rejected with his terrible decision to Obliviate himself. Of how badly he'd hurt Harry with his subsequent intractable behavior. Of how much time and happiness he'd stolen from them both. Time and happiness that had been lost forever, that would now never return. Could never be enjoyed or re-claimed in any way, shape or form...
He inhaled disconsolately, forcing himself to remain as calm as possible even though his very last hope was bleeding to death inside the aching prison of his chest. Anger, fear and absolute terror clogged his throat to the point that he felt literally incapable of uttering a single word further. An entire minute passed before he found the strength to look directly into Harry's steadily darkening eyes and finally managed to gasp out the truth, unvarnished:
"I may have reacted better if I'd disliked you as much as I claimed, Harry. I'm fully aware that I've never treated you with kindness and I understand why you are so convinced that I despise you, but... nothing could be further from the truth.
"I'm the kind of man who only ever bothers harming what threatens him the most and nothing on this Earth has ever threatened me more than affection. I... I love you too, Harry. I love you probably as much, if not more, as you love me. That is why I couldn't cope with the idea that I may have allowed myself to become yours so carelessly. I could not bear the thought that you've seen me as I truly am: an ugly, damaged creature that will never possess enough charm to even dare to entertain the hope of catching your eye someday."
"Oh, Severus... How could you think such a thing? How could you have been so blind? There is nothing but beauty within you. It's hidden under a wounded, tangled mess of sharp-witted resentment and frosty defensiveness, I'll grant you that, but it's there nevertheless."
His pale throat contracted nervously when Harry pushed himself off his chair, falling gracelessly onto his knees in the space that separated their seats before shuffling towards him.
"Get up, Harry, please. I don't like watching you crawl on your knees in front of me."
"I don't like watching you fall to your knees, either. But I let you show me that side of yourself when you needed me to. I want to sit at your feet right now and gaze up at you like a humble beggar, Severus. I want to gift you the power that no one else has ever offered you and let you know that I desire the ugly, damaged man you believe yourself to be with every fiber of my being.
"I. Want. You. Limitlessly, my love.
"I want you totally. I want you constantly. I want you genuinely. Hopelessly... I want everything that you have ever been, everything that you are right now and everything you have the potential to ever become."
"Listen to me: I want your clever mind and your sharp wit. I want your terrible temper and your immeasurable loyalty. I want your emotional strength and your bloody-minded determination to do the right thing. I want you awake and asleep. Sick and healthy. I want you angry, nervous, happy, tired, frustrated, elated and worried. I want you in every way you care to present yourself to me and I find you beautiful in every single one of those forms. You. Are. Everything. To. Me, Severus Snape."
"That is too much, Harry... You are too generous. I messed everything up. I hurt you so badly... I don't deserve your forgiveness at all." Severus forced himself to choke out the unbearable truth as his composure crumbled like a castle built on dust and prayers that could no longer withstand the pressure of Harry's persistence.
His hands rose of their own volition to cradle the Gryffindor's tear-stained face like a priceless treasure. Harry sighed and smiled up at him with the kind of trust that burrowed under his skin and traveled through his veins towards his pounding heart, nesting inside it without bothering to ask for permission or even hesitate in the act of making itself at home.
"I hurt you, too, Severus. I shouldn't have tried to keep what you did to yourself away from you. I was trying to protect you. Give you the oblivion that you so obviously wanted when you cast that Obliviate, but I couldn't keep away...
"I convinced myself that you had allowed yourself to seek comfort with me because you cared for me, deep down, and my constant presence around you when you couldn't remember what happened made you more paranoid than usual about my inexplicable desire to get closer. We both messed up and it's frightening to imagine what would have happened to us if Carl Edgar hadn't decided to cast this stupid spell in the middle of my classroom..."
"Don't even joke about it, Harry, please... I think I'd have murdered that brat if Minerva's messenger hadn't arrived when it did."
"Let's forget poor, doomed Carl. He's been suitably punished for his actions and, unlike me, has lost whatever pitiful chances he ever had of securing his beloved's heart." Harry's words ghosted across his palms and he shivered in instinctive response to them. His arm twitched when the lion kneeling before him pressed his soft cheek more firmly into the cradle of his hands and his breath froze in his lungs when his senses became suddenly snared by the open desire that had begun to flash in the emerald depths of Harry's gorgeous eyes.
"I want you, Severus. Please... Oh, please... let me have you once again. I'm begging you, my love..."
Sweet temptation rose through his veins like a powerful tide and he shook before it like a bobbing cork or a flimsy boat in the face of unconquerable power. Desire swept through him, urging him to surrender to the need that was stomping all over his body like a bumbling giant. He wanted to bend down and pull Harry into his lap, grasp him tightly and cradle his love against his scrawny chest while he still had the chance...
But then his heart brought back the voice of reason. Reminding him that Harry's kneeling position may had been freely adopted, but that he still was a man under the influence of a training bond that would relish his submission. He'd been cursed with a spell that actually sought to make him yield and, although the bond may have never been able to force him to offer himself thus without desire, it was still curtailing both his freedom of choice and his ability to walk away, if he wanted to do so.
Harry could not tell him a lie. Could not remain aloof. Could not... choose... whether he really wanted to be here or not, despite the affection they both held for one another. Love in and of itself isn't the only consideration to be taken into account when choosing one's life partner, after all...
Sorrow and hope tainted Severus' voice in equal measure when he forced his long fingers to let go of the youth that had so earnestly offered himself to him. His dark eyes sought Harry's own and he fervently hoped that this would be the last time he'd be ever forced to put that terrible hurt in his lion's gaze.
He swallowed thickly and took a single deep breath before daring to place the most delicate of kisses upon Harry's down-turned mouth, whispering his heartbroken answer as softly as he possibly could into the oppressive silence:
"I will let you have me when you are truly free, Harry. I will give myself to you when you can speak to me without having your choice of words restricted by the demands of this terrible curse. I will surrender myself to your touch like I've never done before, as soon as you stop being tied to my presence in order to remain... unharmed. I will have you when you are able to walk away from me, should you wish to do so. I will accept you when you can choose me, truly, genuinely choose me, and not a single second before that, my love..."
Living in a half-relationship with Harry Potter wasn't everything he wanted, but it turned out to be a lot more than he'd ever hoped to receive. The weeks following their Prophet-induced heart to heart were among the happiest of Severus' existence and although there were a lot of things he longed to change, like his own resistance to go past heavy snogging when it came to their physical interactions, his days had been filled to bursting with sheer joy and his nights had become a literal haze of increasingly sensual dreams and ever-growing hope.
Harry's mood abandoned its worrisome dejection altogether. He'd learned to deal with the Prophet's incessant ribbing with the kind of grace that Severus thoroughly admired. He'd refused to continue hiding inside their rooms and, although he couldn't teach his classes any more because they coincided with Severus' own and they couldn't be apart the entire day without him being 'punished' for their physical distance, he managed to convince Minerva to allow Severus to go back to teaching with the stipulation that he sit through every class without exception.
The students initially mocked his presence and delighted in elbowing one another while exchanging offensively lewd remarks about Severus' pretty 'pet', driving the Slytherin head of house to extract such cruel retribution in the form of house-point loss, grade reductions and absolutely terrifying tasks to be performed during detentions that such nonsense had not only dwindled satisfyingly fast, but disappeared altogether within two days of his return to teaching.
Some nights Severus woke in the small hours of the morning bathed in cold sweat and shivered at the realization of how very close he'd been to throwing his current happiness away. He couldn't get the idea out of his head as he brewed the antidote that would end Harry's training, promising to return the Gryffindor's former freedom to them while hopefully allowing them to retain the new trust and understanding that the accidental bond between them had created.
He'd been an absolute idiot. A ridiculous, terrified fool who'd been unable to see the devotion so generously showered over him by the man his heart had chosen. They could have been kissing and flirting and dreaming about their future together for far longer than they had, if only he had dared to open his eyes and... see.
They could have already made love a thousand times over. He could have kept the beautiful recollection of their first time together safe inside his mind for all eternity, but he'd squandered that memory in the name of fear and now that same enemy was beginning to taint the last few days of their shared cohabitation with the dark specter of his natural emotional insecurity.
The closer Harry's antidote came to optimum strength the more he allowed his unfounded fears to overpower his fragile confidence. He feared what Harry would do once he regained the ability to leave him and wrestled with his instincts' growing determination to overrule his heart's desire to believe in his love blindly. He wanted to hold onto hope, surrender himself to faith for the first time in his life and allow Harry Potter to prove that faith well placed...
Harry drank the antidote with a wariness that worried him to the core. His lion did not smile in relief as Severus presented him with the small, aqua-colored vial that he'd been slaving over for the last six weeks of his life. He didn't thank him for his labor and failed to kiss him in the loving manner with which he usually welcomed him back to Earth whenever he lost himself in his passion for brewing.
Harry didn't look like a man on the brink of freedom should have looked. He looked sick, nervous and so perfectly unhappy that Severus' already churning gut tangled even more as he watched his perfectly brewed antidote disappear down that utterly beloved throat. Time stood still as neither of them moved for what seemed like a veritable eternity.
"Harry? How are you feeling?" Severus forced himself to ask at last, daring to take a step closer in order to better asses the strange paleness that was spreading through his love's distraught features. "I don't understand why you look so dejected. The potion is supposed to work right away. You should be free by now..."
Terrified green orbs settled desperately over him, blinking hurriedly to prevent the small tear drops that clung to the tips of Harry's eyelashes from spilling down his cheeks.
"I don't want to be free. I don't want to walk away and I'm terrified that you'll ask me to leave now that you no longer feel compelled to look after me."
Relief flooded every inch of Severus' lanky body upon hearing those words, leaving him weak at the knees with the kind of joy that he'd seldom experienced. He tried to get even closer to Harry, but ended up stumbling so clumsily that he would have fallen to the ground if his lion hadn't gathered him close at that point.
Careful arms curled under his own, keeping him upright and pulling him tightly against Harry's heaving chest. He was held with such delicate care, with such disarming tenderness, that his dark eyes closed in overwhelmed reaction to the sheer devotion that seemed to be wafting off Harry like a vapor or an aura. Like an unstoppable force. Like the fabled love of legend that this man had used once before to defeat the darkest wizard their world had ever known.
"Don't send me away, please... Don't ever ask me to leave you, Severus. I'm pretty sure I don't have the strength to survive that kind of blow."
Severus swallowed with overwhelmed emotion and allowed his trembling hands to settle atop Harry's quivering back. His senses reeled with the wonder of hearing his love choose him once more, now that there was no magical force compelling him to remain by his side.
Sheer elation bubbled in his veins and he allowed himself the liberty of letting his hands glide along the tense line of his beloved's spine in the kind of clumsily soothing motion that he'd never permitted himself to bestow upon another human being.
"I don't want you to leave, either, Harry. I... I'd love to keep you forever, if you can manage that. Or for however long you're willing to put up with me, if you think you're too young to settle for that sort of... permanence."
Harry's whoop of joy brought him welcome relief, forcing him out of his self-conscious rigidity as soon as that ecstatic pair of emerald eyes settled over his face, gazing so adoringly up at him that he felt undeniably beautiful for the first time in his memory.
"Permanence is fine by me, sweetheart. Spending the rest of my life loving you is the closest thing to perfection I can imagine..."
Dinner at the Great Hall had been a cheerful, lively affair that taxed Severus' ability to withstand the uncalled-for knowing winks of his colleagues and the inane giggling emanating every so often from the students' tables.
For all the insupportable glee that everyone had showed at Harry's refusal to even let go of his hand, Severus was convinced that the meal hadn't been nearly long enough. Their snail-paced descent into his beloved dungeons hadn't been dragged as long as he'd needed it to and he hadn't taken nearly enough time in the bathroom, changing out of his comfortingly familiar teaching robes and into his longest, thickest nightshirt, before coming back out into his bedroom and forcing himself to... confront... the sheer adoration plastered all over Harry Potter's face.
"There is no need to look so nervous, Severus. I have no intention of hurting you and, although you don't remember our first night together, it taught me enough of your likes and dislikes to guarantee that I'll give you plenty of pleasure."
Severus blushed to the tips of his ears, directing a wide-eyed look at Harry's bare chest and feeling literally weak at the knees when the man finally approached him, extending eager hands towards him with the kind of longing to hold him that no other lover had ever showed him before.
"Come here, sweetheart. Let me take a good look at you."
"I... maybe we should cast Nox. The fire dancing in the hearth should give off enough light to..."
Calloused fingertips cradled his sharp cheekbones with loving tenderness and a firmly determined thumb pressed against his lips, silencing his flustered request with gentle resolution.
"I won't let you hide in your beloved shadows tonight. I. Love. You, Severus. You can bare your body before me without fearing ridicule. You've got no reason to retreat behind your masks anymore..."
Severus' heartbeat hammered his pulse points with relentless insistence, making him feel anxious and on edge. His eyes closed against the onslaught of Harry's possessive gaze and he stuttered out his agreement in agitated nervousness, unable to bring himself to deny his lover the right to see him, but finding himself absolutely terrified to confront the look of disappointment that he was certain would flash across Harry's gorgeous eyes as soon as they settled upon the undeniable ugliness of his scarred body.
Warm palms slid down his neck, running along the stiff lines of his shoulders and kneading them ever so slightly in a reassuring pattern before coming down his arms and forearms, tracing a single line of fire that burned him all the way to the bone even through the flimsy layer of his long-sleeved nightshirt. Steady fingers tangled with his own, uniting them palm to palm in so unexpected a gesture that Severus startled slightly backwards and opened his eyes once again.
"Harry, what are you doing? Why aren't you unbuttoning my collar?"
"We have all the time in the world. I don't need to rip off your clothes like some sex-crazed barbarian. I can give you the time you need to relax into my arms. To surrender yourself to my care. To understand that this, us, will be nothing like the experiences of your past.
"I want to find pleasure tonight, but I also want to see you unravel before me. I want to hear you gasp my name with needy delight while I bring you to orgasm with my touch. I want to have the part of you that no one else has ever wanted, Severus. I don't want your tactical surrender. I want your genuine passion. Your raw desire. Your hunger. Your need. I want you, just you, unmasked..."
Severus' trembling hands were lifted then towards the rosy lips that spoke so sweetly of love and a reverent row of tender little kisses was deposited over his knuckles, like breath-warmed benedictions. The caress shattered something inside him. Something fearful and reluctant that he hadn't realized had been shining like a beacon in his eyes.
He came closer to Harry of his own volition, seeking refuge in the heat of the Gryffindor's strong arms and finding it freely offered when they curled around his hipbones and brought him even closer, plastering him all over the gorgeously athletic chest that had starred in so many of his nightly fantasies.
"Harry..." He whispered weakly, finding the courage to bend his neck low enough to bring his lips within kissing distance of his lion's. He hesitated at the very last second, though, hoovering uncertainly a mere breath away from the mouth he was so desperate to worship and ended up sighing with grateful relief when his partner chuckled fondly and bridged the small distance between them, kissing him firmly and with feeling.
Despite having been the one to initiate the contact Harry relinquished control of the caress as soon as Severus attempted to re-gain it, opening himself up to the invasion of his tongue, his teeth, his kiss. Welcoming him so wholeheartedly into the hot cavern of his mouth that the Slytherin could do nothing but surrender to the overwhelming need for more that was rising through every line and sinew of his body like an unstoppable tide.
His hands rose shakily upwards, grabbing huge fistfuls of Harry's soft hair and forcing that scorching mouth away from his swelling lips in a desperate bid to preserve some of his sanity. His breath became labored and his pulse fairly galloped against his temples and wrists. He felt strangely energized and heavy-limbed at the same time. Breathless, woolly-headed and itchy with the kind of need that he could neither control nor deny.
"Harry... Harry... I..."
"Sshhh... Everything is all right, my love. I'm right here..." Harry soothed him lovingly, carding gentle fingertips through his tangled hair before peppering a small row of open-mouthed kisses on the underside of his jaw. Against the shell of his ear and down the tensing line of his neck. All the way across his snow-white clavicle towards his cotton-covered shoulder.
His Adam's apple began to bob with agitation under the onslaught of Harry's voracious kisses. He hissed in startled reaction to the soft nip he received when he groaned aloud for the very first time, driving his companion absolutely insane with desire.
Questing fingertips grabbed the tightly closed lapels of his nightshirt and tugged insistently on it, forcing his buttons apart with a sound of ripping of cloth that left him not only utterly shocked at the unrestrained need it betrayed, but also exposed for the very first time in his memory to Harry's hungry gaze.
"Merlin... I can't believe you're letting me look at you like this again while you are wide awake and sober. I will do everything in my power to make sure you never regret this choice, Severus."
Severus' breath hitched and he closed his eyes to better savor the incredible joy that such heartfelt promise brought to him. A ferocious kiss was pressed against the scarred skin that covered his frantically beating heart and he felt his senses burn as if he'd been plunged directly into a river of scorching lava when his lion's teeth scrapped against the nub of his nipple, worrying it mercilessly before sucking on it soothingly. Only to repeat that maddeningly arousing pattern again and again, with the kind of single mindedness that reduced him to a writhing mass of muscle and bone that could do nothing but hang from Harry's strong arms as he was lovingly extricated from the ruined remnants of his nightshirt and tipped backwards into his soft bed.
Harry played his body like the greatest of musicians. He knew exactly were to touch to make him groan and gasp and sigh so roughly that Severus could no longer recognize the sound of his own voice.
His lion kissed every inch of him with exquisite attention to detail: nipping, nibbling, sucking and adoring every bit of pale skin he came across. Harry worshiped his every scar and mole. Adoring every mark, burn and imperfection of his ugly body with such ruthless determination that Severus had no other option but to accept the depth and breadth to which he was desired.
Wide, capable hands pressed him into the mattress and a soft, breathless sigh of unashamed appreciation ghosted across the sensitive skin of his painfully hard cock in the next second, bringing his reeling senses to the crystal-clear awareness that he lay pinned under Harry Potter while the man held him immobile via the clawed fingertips that he'd curled around Severus' jutting hipbones, exposing him to the covetous hunger that darkened the gorgeous emerald gaze of his own, personal Savior.
A single, lustful groan broke past Harry's kiss-swollen lips before the mouth that had spent the last six weeks promising him unbridled passion descended on his cock and swallowed him whole, turning his every thought into mush and his nerve-endings into a tangled mass of reeling senses that could feel nothing but fire and fullness and tension and... bliss.
Heat enfolded his manhood, cradling it delicately. Laving it from root to tip in a devastating ebb and flow of pleasurable demand for him to give more of himself to the Gryffindor seemingly intent on drinking him dry, on swallowing him whole, on devouring him like a ravenous beast, like an elegant gent, like a devoted worshiper, like the lover he must have known once before but had, so stupidly, condemned himself to forget...
"Harry, Harry... please stop. I will spill myself in your mouth if you carry on like this..." He ended up pleading with strangled desperation, pulling on his lion's head with the insistence of a man who was utterly unwilling to allow himself the empty gratification of such one-sided relief.
He wanted, no, needed to be one with this creature who had waited so patiently for him. Who had dragged him, kicking and screaming, to this place where he knew nothing but pleasure. To this landscape were his senses knew no disappointment and his mind had no hope on Earth of formulating a single logical thought. To this one instant when he was nothing but feeling and instinct. Trust and desire. Joy, hope and unimaginable bliss.
"I want more, Harry. I need more. I want to know how it feels to have you buried to the hilt inside of me..."
Harry stared right into his eyes, looking literally unhinged with desire. He let go off his cock with a soft 'pop' and arched upwards like a satisfied cat, rubbing his sweat-slicked body against Severus' writhing form in a move designed to crush their erections together, trapping them alongside each other in a contact that stomped all over the Slytherin's over-stimulated senses, leaving him literally weak with the kind of mindless lust that should, by rights, had addled his brain altogether.
"I'll give you everything you want, my love. I'll give you everything you need. Then I'll wrestle it back from your exhausted body and pour it all over your senses again. And again. And again..."
Severus groaned directly into the playful lips so busily peppering breathless, little kisses all over his trembling mouth. He cried out in shocked surrender when Harry's sudden thrust downwards brought their groins into explosive alignment, allowing the clearly experienced Gryffindor to rut against him with such passionate ferocity that he felt the pleasure of it blast decades worth of memories depicting lukewarm sexual encounters and awkward solitary fumblings away from his mind.
"Harry!..." His mouth opened in a gasp of dazed incredulity at the amazingly fierce passion that was wrecking havoc with his crumbling defenses. His eyes widened and he stared directly into a swirling sea of bright emerald desire. His mouth exhaled a single, broken groan and he tried to beg for mercy but his pleas were cut off abruptly when his lips were suddenly taken, bitten with possessive insistence and claimed beyond all doubt or denial by the desperate hunger that fueled his lover's caress.
Harry kissed him as if he had no hope for tomorrow, as if there would be no next second, or next minute, or next hour. No next... anything. His flanks were soothed with a downward motion that ended when his lion curled strong hands around his thighs and pulled his legs upwards, kneeling over him like a conquering warrior and creating a small space between his suddenly trembling legs that allowed Harry to... nestle... in the little hollow created by the slow and self-conscious parting of his bonny knees.
"You are so beautiful like this, my love... all dark eyes and flushed skin and such obvious need to be pleasured..." Those incredible words exploded in the suddenly tense silence like the harsh lash of a whip, making Severus ache to trust in the strength of Harry's reverence.
"I'm nothing of the kind. I'm... scarred... and too thin." He gasped, pushing the painful truth out into the open and praying with all his might for his lover to look at him without rose-tinted spectacles. To see him, as unlovely and heartbreakingly ugly as he really was, and still find a way to want him, despite his failings.
Harry smiled into his eyes, caressing the length of his thighs in a gently descending motion that eventually allowed him to cradle Severus' scrawny rear in the palms of his hands, squeezing it rather playfully.
"You could do with a bit more meat on your bones, but there's no lack of charm in this handful. You are the perfect size, I promise you."
Severus laughed, despite himself, and attempted to squirm away with a mildly shocked: "Potter!" That earned him another playful grope and a kiss that literally stole the breath from his lungs before the brat pressed himself forwards ever so slightly and growled against the shell of his ear:
"I'm going to make you mine, my love. I'm going to show you pleasure like you've never known before. I'm going to coat my fingertips in conjured lube and push them into your body like a seeking probe. I'm going to open you up like a flower before fucking you -oh-so-very-slowly- with my fingers, and I'm not planning to stop until you've forgotten your own name and there is nothing you wouldn't give to have me buried to the hilt inside your body."
Severus' heartbeat sped up in reaction to the sensual assault that those words both delivered and prophesied. Harry followed them to the letter, dismantling what was left of his sanity layer by layer, making him dance to the tune set forth by the incredible sensations that sunk his frame in what felt like a warm river of molasses. Forcing him to surrender himself completely to the passionate adoration that shone down from Harry's eyes, covering him in a bright glow that could have rivaled summer sunshine itself.
"Harry, Harry, Harry..." He chanted roughly, thoroughly incapable of remembering any other word in the English language. Unable to withstand the exquisite fire that was burning him from the inside out any longer.
His senses reeled with the wonder of feeling himself possessed by Harry's probing fingertips. He delighted in the beauty of having this man pander to his every needy gasp and shattered groan of desire, wrenching indescribable ecstasy from his body when he curled his fingers ever so slightly to the left and found the one spot that made Severus soar towards the heavens like a crimson plumed phoenix.
"Don't stop! Don't stop... please... don't ever stop..."
"I won't, I swear. I will never, ever, stop loving you, sweetheart." Harry promised him fiercely, looking at him with possessive satisfaction before bringing their mouths back together to place such soft kiss on his lips that Severus felt it turn his very bones to mush as he lay there: spread open and utterly vulnerable under Harry Potter's strong body. Allowing himself the freedom of acting on the emotions that had been weighing his heart down for far too long with the unbearable burden of unrequited love. Daring to believe in the unimaginable miracle that this man, who he so adored, happened to adore him in return.
"I love you too, Harry Potter." He whispered the truth against a reddened ear as soon as his mouth was set free and reveled in the exquisite smile that blossomed across Harry's lips as he pulled his skilled fingers off him and grabbed Severus' hands in a tight grip that sought to ground and reassure the small fluttering of anxiety that had begun to darken his jittery gaze as soon as he realized that the Gryffindor was now aligning the leaking tip of his hard cock with his carefully loosened hole.
"Harry..." He whispered that one name without knowing whether he intended to beg the man to stop or to continue. Realizing only that he wanted it to flow, unbidden, from his lips, in order to fill the suddenly tense silence with the familiar sound because he'd known that it would anchor him to this instant and this choice. To this one moment in life when he'd decided to have faith and reach out for more than he deserved, for more than he'd ever dared to imagine he'll receive...
Harry's hard flesh pushed inside him with a gentleness that broke him and he arched against the mattress, gritting his teeth in reaction to the burn that accompanied his lover's relentless invasion. Brief pain made him gasp out loud despite himself, but the feeling didn't last because Harry kissed him then, diving into his mouth so profoundly that he had no other choice but to focus every fiber of his being on that demanding kiss.
Playful teeth raked the trembling line of his neck and jaw, bringing his reeling senses into a spinning spiral of sheer need and groaning surrender that only deepened when the man within him decided to pull almost all the way out of his body only to push back in, setting a tortuously slow rhythm that speared him atop a pinnacle of lust that he couldn't fight against.
Pleasure conquered him like a dark enemy, forcing him to open up further than he'd ever dared before and bare himself all the way down to the impossible dreams, terrible fears and crazy hopes that feed his often wounded soul.
His eyes closed as he gave up on resistance altogether and allowed himself the utter freedom to just... be. He became a slave to his own senses, a puppet brought to life for Harry's pleasure, a man who could not bear the awful knowledge that he had lived the first forty five years of his life without ever knowing the beauty of having someone make love to him like this, exactly like this: touching him as if there was nothing in the universe more precious or more fragile. More important. More... beloved.
His pleasure crested so suddenly that he didn't have the time to do more than open ebony-black eyes to stare directly into a world of emerald colored reverence. A shocked gasp of incredulous bliss broke out of his lips just as Harry's callused hand settled around him, wanking him firmly once, twice, before his balls contracted, his chest froze and his senses blanked out in the throes of the most intense orgasm he'd ever experienced.
His head shook from left to right as Harry rode him trough the storm laying waste to his mind and body, to his pounding heart. The hard cock within him kept him grounded to the world as he spurted creamy fire all over his own concave belly. His eyes widened with exhausted arousal when the brat had the audacity to swirl a bold fingertip in the shallow dip of his belly button, coating it lightly with a small dollop of warm come before placing it in his mouth and savoring it like the most magnificent treat he'd ever tasted.
"Harry..." He groaned, between shock and satisfaction, marveling at the incredibly arousing sight of the man who was still so fiercely embedded inside him, feeding himself his cooling come even as he pounded him into the mattress one more time. Two. Three... before his powerful back arched upwards and he shouted out his completion with a toe-curling sigh of lust that preceded the incredible sensation of his lover's liquid passion coating his insides with wet warmth.
Satisfied lassitude settled in the pit of his stomach as Harry's boneless form slumped forwards, settling above him like a living blanket. Ragged breathing puffed against the pale skin of his collarbone, keeping his overwrought nerve-endings on edge and making his flesh break out in goose bumps.
Messy tufts of silky dark hair tickled the underside of his jaw and he buried his long fingers in it, luxuriating in the wonderful certainty that he had a right to touch it just like this. That his caress was both welcome and desired. That he could give himself up to the need to seek post-coital comfort without fearing the kind of scorn that had always been directed his way, whenever he'd attempted to deliver it before.
The wild pounding of his heart began to slow down as one second turned into two and then three in the kind of contented silence that spoke of peace and... joy. His fingertips continued to rake little burrows in Harry's hair and he delighted in the soft purring sounds that floated up to his ears.
Eventually, though, Harry moved carefully away, shifting backwards between his legs in a motion that allowed the spent cock still buried inside him to slip out with a soft gurgle. Glowing green eyes met his own for the first time since their climax and there was such hope filling their depths to capacity that Severus had difficulty swallowing down the huge lump that the sight of so much... love... brought to his throat.
Harry waved his hand lazily over them, casting a mild Scourgify that erased every trace of their recent lovemaking, leaving nothing behind save the memories that were slowly sinking into his mind. The bed-covers were carefully pulled over his bare body and his lover placed a playful little kiss on the tip of his nose before curling into his side and placing his messy head in the crook of his shoulder, proceeding to take a gigantic gulp of air before issuing a single, wobbly plea:
"Don't ever regret this, please, Severus. Don't let me live through the horror of having to wake once again to the heartbreak of seeing you deny this beauty by ripping it away from your mind. Don't let yourself surrender to the terror that once led you to reject the future that we can, so easily, have. Fight for us, for this, my love... Hold onto the courage that will allow you to face the new day with the determination to embrace the glorious memory of this night, instead of turning your back on it. I'm begging you..."
Severus' dark eyes burned with the deep shame of regret and he tightened his hold around Harry's suddenly trembling shoulders, burying his pale face in his beloved's nest of wild black hair before planting a promise of forever in the shape of a brief, heartfelt kiss atop the crown of his lion's head.
"I will remember this when the dawn comes, Harry. I will remember every single touch, every kiss and every promise we both made. Everything will be different this time around. I will never again curse myself to forget you. I promise."
Severus twitched slightly as the first ray of sunlight tainted the fragile skin on the inside of his eyelids with a glowing pink color. He shifted minutely, reluctant to abandon the peacefulness of his dreams, but the light kept disturbing him, trying to drag him away from his restful slumber. His mind began to lose the soothing grogginess of sleep and he blinked awake.
His dark eyes opened a little, focusing sluggishly on the dancing dust-devils that floated, like golden-coated fairy dust, on the single beam of bright sunlight just above his head. He smiled instinctively, lifting his long-fingered hand upwards in a futile attempt to take hold of that delicate beauty. His skin turned golden in the light and dust danced across his slightly curled fingers as he turned them around gently, trying to catch the warm sunlight with his hand.
"You do that every single time you wake up." That softly whispered sentence shattered his sleepy contentment. Intruding into his peaceful, sunlit world and making him frown with thunderous confusion. He jerked in his bed and turned swiftly towards the voice only to find himself staring in bewildered confusion at the naked man next to him.
"Potter! What on Earth...?"
Utterly terrified emerald eyes raked his blank features with disappointed heartbreak. A small silence grew while Severus tried to shake off the sluggishness of sleep. The Gryffindor closed his expressive eyes for a second and took a deep breath before looking back at him with crystal-clear determination. Potter lifted a visibly shaking hand towards his own, wrapping calloused fingertips around his still extended digits in such a simple gesture of clumsy reassurance that it brought a hundred small memories of touches just like this one to his sleep-addled brain.
"I've seen you wake up like this twice before, my love. I thought it was beautiful the first time I witnessed it and it brought a lump to my throat when you did it again in the infirmary a few months ago. Now I'm hoping that our third time will end better than the first two. Please, Severus, please... take a good look at me and try to remember... us."
That anxious little plea sank into his consciousness like a golden dagger, ripping apart the thick veil of sleepy fog that had momentarily confused him and bringing back the memory of the dazzling beauty they had shared the night before.
"You stayed with me after taking the antidote..." He whispered into the increasingly tense silence and was rewarded with such a gorgeous smile that he blinked in response to its mesmerizing brightness. His lips curved into a small smile of his own and he untangled his fingers from Harry's. Abandoning his previous, futile attempts to catch the elusive sunlight in order to press his potion-tainted fingertips against the welcome solidity of his lion's lovely face, grinning from ear to ear at the small gasp his actions elicited.
"It's you, Harry. It has always been you... I have spent all my life trying to catch the elusive light of sunrise in the palm of my hands and I've failed at it every single day. I thought I was fated to darkness, but kept on reaching out stubbornly, trying to find a way towards the sunshine. Trying to find a way towards... you."
A single tear formed at the corner of Harry's eye. It trembled there for a second before falling onto his cheek, rolling down towards the pillow in a silent trail that painted his lion's face with overwhelmed emotion.
"I've been trying to reach you too, my love, and now I'm here."
"Yes. You are. And you will stay, won't you? I need you to stay. I want to add more memories to the ones we've already created. I want... more, Harry."
"Thank Merlin!" Harry exclaimed and flopped back on to the mattress to stare up towards the ceiling with a goofy grin that became relieved mirth with his next breath. Severus lifted himself upwards and propped his bony form onto his forearm, curling his lanky frame around his softly laughing companion.
"I like waking up to your laughter, Harry." He whispered before placing a firm hand at the nape of his lion's warm neck in order to lift it just so, bringing that chuckling mouth within touching distance of his own and kissing it with the kind of carefree passion that he'd never bestowed on a lover before.
Their first, ever, morning kiss tasted slightly sour with morning breath and smelled like unwashed bed sheets and post-coital sweat. It was tainted by the barely-there saltiness left behind by Harry's single emotional tear and fueled by the kind of desperate longing that had darkened their lives in the last few months, but it dragged a soft groan from both of them, despite it all.
They smiled into their partner's mouth as their tongues clashed and tangled, adding such blissful happiness to their souls that the touch became the embodiment of sheer sweetness. Sheer hope. Sheer love finally fulfilled. It was a kiss that changed their lives and shaped their future, bringing them to the unvoiced realization that there was nothing left to hide between them. There was nothing to regret. Nothing for them to either abandon or attempt to forget ever again.
Night had come and stayed far too long in their lives, forcing them to fight tooth and nail in order to earn the right of being left finally alone, standing side by side before the sunrise. Twin smiles curved their lips as they rolled playfully on the mattress, kissing each other breathless and basking in the warm sunshine that filtered in through the open window, painting them in golden beauty as the sun rose steadily on the horizon.
They laughed like the children, feeling elated, excited, innocent and carefree. Relishing the joy of being finally able to look not back, but forwards, towards the future they planned to spend together and the happiness that awaited them in this new day that had only just begun...