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“He’s done what?” Auror Potter stood and moved around his desk, quickly closing the distance between himself and the recruit at the door. The recruit, all of eighteen years old and unused to this type of reaction from Harry Potter, took a step backward.

“He claimed something called ‘Headmaster’s Prerogative,’” the boy explained, holding his hands up in front of him as if to ward off both his older colleague and his unusual behavior. “The team is checking the code now—frankly, he may have just made it up….”

“Of course he made it up! There’s no such thing as Headmaster’s Prerogative!” Harry strode out the door and into the hallway, the recruit following close on his heels. He was going to killSeverus. “We have the Amhurst boy, then? He’s been returned unharmed?”

“He’s been returned.” The recruit’s voice was hesitant. Harry whirled around and faced him.

“Unharmed?” He glanced at the badge on the young man’s robes and tried to lower his voice. “Caruthers.”

“He was roughed up a bit,” Caruthers answered, not looking directly at Harry’s eyes. “They must have used Incarcerous on him and he struggled quite a bit. His wrists and ankles were a mess. And they humiliated him—shaved his head. And gave him a Gryffindor tattoo.”

Harry stared at the boy. He’s only the messenger, he reminded himself. He took a deep breath.

“They tattooed him? He’s what—fourteen?”

“Thirteen,” answered Caruthers. He had to run to keep up with Harry as the Auror hurried down the corridor. “On his arm, sir. A lion.”

“A lion on a Slytherin?” Harry shook his head as he hurried into the staging room. Caruthers quickly slipped out a side door, apparently anxious to end his messenger duty, and Harry went directly into his boss’ office without knocking.

“They’ve got Snape! Have they made new demands?” he demanded, clearly agitated. Hazel Davis, head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, pointed to the only empty chair in front of her and Harry sank into it, nodding at Alicia Spinnet and Ron Weasley, the two Aurors occupying the other chairs. Neither of them seemed unduly upset about being tied to a critical case on Christmas Eve. They were seasoned Aurors. They’d learned that crime didn’t take a holiday.

“Caruthers has filled you in?” asked Davis. She looked at Harry expectantly.

“He told me that Snape’s traded himself for the Amhurst boy. Snape’s claiming some ridiculous precedent called ‘Headmaster’s Prerogative.’ The boy’s been recovered, roughed up and tattooed. Does that about cover it?”

Davis looked across at Alicia. “Does it?” she asked.

“Head shaved too,” she said with a frown. “The boy’s at St. Mungo’s now. We can interview him in an hour. They’re checking him over, regrowing his hair and seeing what they can do about the magical tattoo.”

“The kidnapper is a magical tattoo artist? That should narrow down our search,” said Harry. He sounded exasperated.

“We’ve already got a team digging into that,” said Ron, rubbing his shoulder through his robe sleeve where he himself had a magical tattoo. Harry happened to know the tattoo was of a rose with a date commemorating the birth of his friend’s first child. “There are eight tattoo parlors in Diagon Alley alone, plus four in Hogsmeade, a couple in Godric’s Hollow. I got mine in Aruba, on holiday….”

“Right,” Harry said, sighing and turning toward his boss. Hazel Davis had been head of the MLE for three years now, coming back to the Ministry after a magical law enforcement career in the States. “What the hell was he thinking?” he muttered. The others stared at him without answering, almost as if they were seeing Harry—well, this Harry anyway—for the first time. “No new ransom demands yet, then?” he asked, quickly looking from one to the next.

“Not yet. Snape apparently worked directly with the boy’s family to negotiate this trade with the kidnappers, and they did it on the sly—somehow neglected to mention it to us.”

“Maybe because we would have knocked some sense into his brain and at the very least handcuffed him to Hagrid to keep him where he belongs?” Harry gave a disgusted, frustrated sigh and fidgeted in his chair. Though his anger was still brewing close to the surface, now that he was past the initial shock his body and mind were screaming at him to do something.

“Listen, what he did may have been unconventional, but he did get the boy released….”

“Unconventional?” bellowed Harry. Alicia started and dropped the quill she was holding. “Did it occur to any of you that we might have a bigger problem now? The kidnappers have the Headmaster of Hogwarts!”

“Harry, calm down,” said Davis. She tossed him one of the stress balls she kept on her desk—this one a yellow ball with a big smiling face. He caught it automatically and rolled his eyes. “And yes, it occurred to us,” said Davis dryly. “You’re not the only Auror in the room.”

Harry hung his head, though he certainly didn’t feel contrite.

“Snape didn’t say anything to you, Harry? Anything at all?” Ron turned toward Harry, looking over Alicia’s head.

Harry frowned. He wasn’t on this case, and hadn’t known anything about it except for what everyone in the department knew. Five days ago, a Slytherin third-year from a prominent family had been kidnapped from King’s Cross Station at end of term, on his way home from Hogwarts for the Christmas holiday. An exorbitant ransom of two hundred and fifty thousand galleons had been demanded soon after, and the family had been frantically scrambling to gather the money while working closely with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Alicia Spinnett and Ron, who often worked together as a team, were the lead Aurors assigned to the case.

Three days ago, on December 21st, Harry had seen Snape at the Hog’s Head in Hogsmeade. Harry lived in Hogsmeade now, in a cottage on the far edge of town, and he’d taken up the habit in the last few months of slipping into the Hog’s Head on Friday evenings. Coincidentally—or at least it seemed so in the beginning—Severus Snape spent many of his Friday evenings there as well, and it wasn’t uncommon at all to find the two men at a table, sometimes accompanied by George Weasley or one or more of the Hogwarts professors, enjoying a pint while deep in conversation. Nearly ten years had passed since the Battle of Hogwarts, and in all those years, despite the epic events of that final day, Severus and Harry hadn’t progressed beyond a formal teacher-former student sort of relationship. They were pleasant enough to each other when their paths crossed, both having abandoned the adversarial behavior of their mutual Hogwarts years. Harry called Snape “Headmaster” while Snape attached “Mr.” to “Potter” and eventually switched to “Auror Potter.” They wouldn’t be anything more than acquaintances—wouldn’t start looking at each other as friends—until the day Hagrid’s dog died.

Now, standing before his boss and his colleagues discussing Snape, he didn’t want to think too hard about why this situation made him feel like he did—helpless, and desperately upset—or why he was masking those feelings with his obvious frustration.

“No.” Harry answered Ron’s question, shaking himself from his musing. He leaned back in his chair and pushed his hands up under his glasses, rubbed his eyes, then reseated the glasses on his nose. He was going to kill Severus if the kidnappers didn’t get around to it first. “We talked about the kidnapping—briefly.”

“Did anything seem off with him, Harry?” Alicia was skimming through a thick file in a purple MLE file folder.

“With Snape?” Harry frowned, thinking back. “He was angry about it. He thought the ransom demand was ridiculous, a near impossibility for the family. He grilled me for quite a while about security for the students at King’s Cross.” He shrugged, shook his head. “He was his usual self. Cross, demanding.” He looked at his boss. “Sarcastic, combative….” He didn’t add “loose-lipped and tipsy,” trailing off while those adjectives were still mere thoughts in his head and not words spoken from his mouth.

“Wait. He mentioned the ransom?” Alicia picked up the quill she had dropped. Ron stared at Harry over her head, eyes narrowed. Ron and Harry had entered the Aurors’ academy at the same time and, fast friends since their early days at Hogwarts, remained so today. However, at their own request, they were seldom assigned to the same cases, trying to keep their friendship and their professional lives as separate as possible.

“Yeah. What of it?” Harry glanced up at Davis then back at Alicia.

“He’d already been talking with the family then. The ransom demands were never made public. And we certainly didn’t tell the Headmaster.” Davis’ voice held a question.

A question that Harry understood.

“I didn’t tell him, if that’s what you’re thinking. He rattled on about how ridiculous that sum was, nearly a million pounds British, and after the family had lost so much already.” The boy’s older brother, a Ravenclaw, had been killed in the Battle of Hogwarts.

“The other son,” said Alicia, addressing both Ron and Harry. “He was in your year at Hogwarts?”

Harry shook his head. “He was a year behind us—in Ravenclaw. Miles Amhurst.” What he remembered most about Miles Amhurst was how much time he spent—of his own free will—in the Potions lab.

“Did Snape have a connection to the family?” asked Ron, leaning sideways to glance at the notes Alicia was holding.

Harry considered. “Miles Amhurst was targeted by the Carrows frequently that year—he was the first of his family not to be sorted into Slytherin House, and the Carrows considered that to be a personal failure on Miles’ part. The Amhursts made a trip to Hogwarts to talk to Severus about their son’s treatment.” Harry looked down at his hands. “He told them that he stood behind the actions of his professors. It about killed him, I think. He tried to look out for Miles after that…” He frowned. “Haven’t you already done this background work?” he asked crossly. “This is the Hogwarts Headmaster we’re talking about.” He fidgeted in his chair. He hated just sitting here.

“Potter, we got word of this hostage swap not much more than an hour ago. We’ve already sent a team over to Hogwarts to interview the professors that are staying over the holiday. You’re the closest known associate of Snape outside of that school. That’s why we had Caruthers haul you down here.”

Harry stared at Davis, the gears churning in his head. His eyes registered his surprise and quickly darkened as something dawned on him. Why did they…? How did they…? He found his voice.

“How do you know that, anyway?” he asked. “That I’m Snape’s closest associate?”

Davis rolled her eyes.

“Snape is the Headmaster of Hogwarts. The Headmaster is granted Ministry protection at all events outside the wards. And no, before you ask, we don’t have an undercover Auror at the Hog’s Head. But we gather intelligence on the places he frequents.” She leveled an appraising gaze at Harry, evidently surprised that any of this would come as a shock to him.

Harry looked appropriately chagrinned. He would not admit in front of this group that he was surprised to find that he was considered Snape’s closest associate outside of Hogwarts. He suddenly realized just how much time he’d been spending with the man lately. “Listen,” he said. “He acted like his normal self. I can’t really give you anything else. Nothing he did or said gave me any indication he was going to commit such a foolish, Gryffindor act of bravery….” He trailed off as Ron snorted. “Wait a minute….”

“What, Potter?” Davis looked at him curiously. “Harry?”

Harry’s brain was processing something Severus had said the last time they met. He gripped the armrests of his chair. “The bastard knew he was going to do it! And that was on Friday!”

*

”I am not going to be able to keep the dog, Harry.”

“What are you talking about? You love that dog! That dog loves you!” Harry held up his empty pint glass and waved it at the barmaid. “You talk about her all the time!”

“I do not talk about that dog all the time!”

“Right.” Harry grinned.

“She sheds. I find I am…allergic.”

Harry stared at Severus. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “You’re a Potions Master. Make some sort of potion for the symptoms.”

Severus shook his head. “That would simply mask the problem, not solve it.”

“You should try it anyway. She’s been with you for three months already. She’d be lost without you, Severus.”

Severus sighed, seemingly resigned to his fate. “Fine. I shall attempt the potion. However, if I find I cannot care for her any longer, will you take her?” He looked across at Harry, staring him down.

“Take her? As in to live with me?”

“Of course live with you. Did you think I wanted you to take her to dinner?” He shook his head and drained the rest of his ale.

“But I’m away from home so often on assignment. Who would…?”

“May I remind you that you have a house-elf?” Severus raised his eyebrows and lifted his empty glass toward the barmaid.

“Kreacher? But he’s old….”

“He’s perfectly capable of letting a dog out into the yard and tossing her a ball.”

“How big is this dog again?” asked Harry, giving in.

“She’s a Welsh Corgi, Potter.” Despite the fact that Severus had invited Harry to call him by his given name instead of “Professor Snape” or “Headmaster,” he had only gone so far himself to drop the “Auror” from Harry’s name. Harry preferred it, however, to the more formal “Mr. Potter” that Snape had used these last ten years.

“Right. The Queen’s dog. No legs.”

“Short legs.” He glared at Harry. “You’ll take her, then?”

Harry glared back at him. Severus won the staring match.

“Fine. I’ll take her,” Harry consented at last.

“Not if you have that attitude you won’t.”

Harry glared at Severus again. Severus gave him a triumphant, self-satisfied smile.


*

“He asked if I would take his dog. He claimed that he was allergic to it. I talked him into trying a potion for the allergies but agreed to take the dog if he needed me to.”

“Right. Snarky,” said Alicia, flipping through more pages of the file. Ron gave her an odd look.

“The dog. Snape calls it ‘Snarky,’” she explained.

“Our intelligence-gathering includes the name of his dog?” asked Harry.

“Are you an Auror or aren’t you?” asked Davis. “We know his shoe size and blood type too. Is that alright with you?” She exchanged a look with the other two Aurors. Ron rolled his eyes.

“So you think Snape knew he wouldn’t be around to care for the dog?” asked Alicia, trying to get the conversation back on track.

“He loves that dog,” said Harry. There was something in his voice, a wistfulness that the others didn’t miss.

“Anything else you can add, Potter?”

Harry shook his head. “Nothing I can think of. Are you putting me on this case?” He sounded vaguely hopeful.

“Yes—but not as a field Auror. You’re to provide intelligence only, Potter. No field work on this one. No negotiations with the kidnappers. No rescue attempts.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Harry.

“Not in the least.” Davis stood. She turned to Alicia and Ron. “Brief him, then get over to St. Mungo’s.”

}-{

When Alicia and Ron left for St. Mungo’s, Harry popped back to his cottage to ask Kreacher to prepare for the arrival of the dog.

He found, to his utter disbelief, that the dog was already there.

She was sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, watching Kreacher with head cocked to one side as the little elf prepared something on the stove that looked and smelled like beef stew. She let out a soft woof when she saw Harry but didn’t give ground, perking up her ears instead when Kreacher turned around to greet his master.

“Master Harry, sir.” He gave a perfunctory bow; gone were the days when he felt the need to prostrate himself on the floor when a witch or wizard entered the room. He glanced at the dog, seemingly pained to find that it was still there. “Headmaster Snape has delivered the dog.”

“Thank you, Kreacher. I can see that.” Harry crouched down and held out his hand to the animal, waiting while she sniffed his fingers, licked them approvingly, then turned her head back to watch Kreacher.

“What are you making, Kreacher?” he asked, looking sideways into the pot on the stove.

“Dog food,” answered Kreacher in a low, grumbly voice. “Headmaster Snape tells Kreacher to use lamb instead of beef and not too many potatoes.”

“Lamb stew for the dog?” He watched the resigned house elf store the pot. “When did the Headmaster drop her off, Kreacher?” He glanced at the clock over the table. It was almost four in the afternoon.

“Just after Master Harry left,” answered Kreacher. “Master Harry did not tell Kreacher you were getting a dog. Kreacher could have prepared, could have made a place for the dog to sleep. Could have purchased…dog food….”

“Didn’t Severus bring her supplies?” He spotted a box on the kitchen table and walked over to look inside.

“Headmaster Snape was in a hurry. He told Kreacher Master Harry would find her supplies in the box.”

Harry looked up from the box. “Did the Headmaster say where he was going?”

Kreacher turned off the stove and climbed down from the chair on which he was standing. The dog sat up on its hind legs and begged. Kreacher sighed.

“Miss Snarky likes Kreacher’s cooking,” he said in a mournful voice. “Miss Snarky licks Kreacher.”

“Kreacher—Headmaster Snape. Where was he going?” He was shuffling around in the box now but found only dog items—leash, toys, brush. No note. No directions on how to care for the animal either.

“He did not say.” Kreacher looked at Harry curiously. “He only said ‘Tell Mr. Potter I may come back for her. Do not spoil her. Do not permit her to climb on the furniture. Do not permit her to sleep in his bed.’” Kreacher delivered the message in a curious sing-song cadence that was out of sorts with his gravelly voice.

Harry rummaged through the box one more time. His hand closed on something that rolled around on the bottom of the box. Something made of wood. He drew it out, expecting a stick.

It was a stick all right. A very specific stick.

Why the hell had Snape left his wand with Harry?

The worry in his gut increased together with the tightness in his chest. This wasn’t good. Not good at all.

}-{

“They want what?”

“You heard me.” Davis tossed the note onto the table and Harry leaned in to see it.

“Two hundred and fifty thousand galleons and the eradication of Slytherin House?”

“And the dismissal of five members of the Hogwarts Board of Governors—all of them pure-bloods. AND a lock of your hair.”

“Wonder what they need that for?” Harry nearly threw himself down in his chair. He was back in Davis’ office. It was six o’clock now, still Christmas Eve, and the expected ransom note had been delivered by a rented post owl directly to the Minister of Magic’s office. Harry picked up the note and read it again.

“Who do they think is going to pay this ransom?” he asked.

“The Ministry I assume,” answered Davis. “Considering the note was delivered directly to the Minister. The kidnappers couldn’t expect Snape himself to have that kind of money. And everyone knows he doesn’t have family. Frankly, the money is the easy part. It’s the other demands that worry me.”

“My hair?” said Harry, raising an eyebrow.

“I can’t imagine they were serious about that one. It’s so obvious,” commented Davis dryly. “You know what I meant Harry—Slytherin House.”

Harry frowned—he’d found himself doing that a lot since he first heard the news that Severus Snape had traded himself for his kidnapped student—and stood up. He walked up to the wizarding white board on his boss’ office wall and used his finger to begin drawing, his back to Davis. “Do you know much about how the school is structured?”

“A bit,” answered Davis. “But just the basics, really. I know there’s a Board of Governors.”

“Right,” said Harry. He turned back to the board. “Hogwarts is a Ministry school, obviously overseen by the Department of Magical Education.” He wrote the letters “DME” in all caps and circled it in the middle of the board. “The department head reports directly to the Minister of Magic.”

“The department head is Imogene Hatcher,” volunteered Davis. “I met her at a Ministry function several months ago.”

Harry wrote “Dept. Head—I.H.” just below “DME” and circled it with a different finger, changing the color. He used his thumb to write “MoM” at the top and connected all three text bubbles together with lines.

“That’s the easy part,” he said, standing back to study his diagram. “Beneath the department head is the governing body—that would be the Board of Governors.” He printed “BoG” beneath the circle for the Department Head. “And finally, the Headmaster.” He finished up the vertical piece of his chart with “HM—SS” then drew a box to the left of the chart, between the Board of Governors and the Headmaster.

“The Board of Governors directly oversees the affairs of Hogwarts, working with and through the Headmaster. They work from an old body of law—it’s essentially a list of requirements for Hogwarts graduates.” He frowned. “That hasn’t changed in fifty years, I’m told. Interspersed are tenets and objectives meant to keep education modern and standardized. The governors meet with the headmaster only four times a year. Most of the authority, and, of course, the responsibility, rests with the headmaster. He or she makes decisions on course materials and structure, hires new professors and staff, oversees discipline, effectively runs the school. Curriculum changes have to pass through the governors, however. You with me so far?”

Davis nodded. She was following Harry’s charting with obvious interest.

“None of this trumps the original Founders’ Manifesto—well, that’s what it’s generally called. It was written by the four founders themselves and describes their intent in creating the school. The four houses are strictly defined in the Manifesto, as are the O.W.L.s and the N.E.W.T.s, the sorting of new students, and so on.”

He scribbled in the box he had drawn to the side, adding the Manifesto and the various bodies of law and drawing lines connecting these to their creators or maintainers.

“There’s one more wrinkle in all of this,” he said. He used his finger to tap on the “MoM” bubble. “The Minister of Magic can issue Educational Decrees. Before my fifth year, there were twenty-two of these. Ever. At the end of that year, there were more than one hundred and thirty of them, most of them either frivolous or ridiculous. It shows you that the Minister can have quite a bit of influence at Hogwarts.”

“Hmm.” Davis studied the board a moment more. “I know the Board of Governors appoints the Headmaster. But who appoints the members of the Board of Governors?”

“The Governors are appointed for life. The original Governors were appointed by the four founders. Existing Governors nominate three candidates when there is a vacancy—by death or resignation—and the Department Head chooses from among those three.”

“So what you’re saying is that there’s no possible way to abolish Slytherin House,” said Davis,

“Right,” said Harry. “There’s no way to change the original Manifesto. At least no way provided in the current governing structure. No one’s ever tried. When a movement arose right after the war to abolish the house structure altogether, the Manifesto was used to prevent the restructuring.”

“But what about the demand to dismiss the Governors? Couldn’t the Minister do that?”

“Technically yes, through a decree,” said Harry. “Governors can also be voted off by a two-thirds vote of the entire Board. It almost never happens. They’re a tight lot.”

Davis nodded “How do you know so much about how the school is structured and governed anyway?” she asked, curious. She was staring right past him at the board, probably memorizing the schematic for future reference.

*

”He’s completely incompetent, Potter. He has no business being a governor. He’s 105 years old, looks 120 and acts 150!”

“Why don’t they just get rid of him then?” asked Harry innocently, watching Severus get more and more incensed about the Board of Governor’s refusal to raise the Headmaster’s salary, which apparently hadn’t been raised in twenty years.

“You can’t get rid of one,” sighed Severus. “They’re appointed for life.” He picked up his ale and drained it. “Sometimes I feel like I’m serving a life sentence too.”

“Can’t anyone get rid of a member of the Board of Governors then?” asked Harry. “What if they’re completely barmy? Or if one’s a criminal?”

“They can be voted off by a two-thirds majority of the other Governors,” said Severus. He sounded as if he’d been through this conversation too many times already. “Or the Minister can remove one with an Educational Decree. Unfortunately, Ignatius Greenfield is Lucius Malfoy’s godfather.”

“Oh.” Harry looked thoughtfully at his ale then back up at Severus. “Well, if you need more money, maybe you can sell potions on the side….”

*

“I’m a friend of the Headmaster,” quipped Harry dryly. Merlin’s balls—Severus had turned himself over to a kidnapper—a kidnapper who obviously didn’t have a soft spot for Slytherins or pure-bloods.

Davis picked up the ransom note again—actually, what they had was a copy; the forensic magic department was going over the original—and scanned it, frowning.

“Don’t you think it’s odd that they haven’t demanded Snape’s dismissal? They want to get rid of a third of the Board of Governors, all of them pure bloods, but seem to be alright with Snape continuing on as headmaster?”

“Snape’s not a pure blood,” put in Harry quickly. “And he’s been an excellent headmaster. He’s proven himself to be impartial and fair. He’s hired some excellent professors to staff the school and has convinced the Board of Governors to recognize some important curriculum additions—such as basic and advanced mathematics and fine arts. Do you know that the average number of O.W.L.s achieved by fifth years has increased by 25% since he’s been headmaster?”

Davis watched Harry as he gave his impromptu endorsement of Severus, her lips curving into a knowing smile. She seemed to relax back into her chair, her hands folded on her stomach.

“How long have you two been meeting up at the Hog’s Head?” she asked.

“Meeting,” said Harry, frowning at her. “Not meeting up. We both just happen to go there on Fridays.”

“How long?” she repeated.

“I don’t know—since September, I guess.” Harry shrugged. “We usually have plenty of company. It’s a popular pub in Hogsmeade.”

“Harry, humor me and answer a few questions. Don’t think about them. Just answer.”

Harry narrowed his gaze. “Who’s asking?” he said. “My boss or my mum’s friend and my pseudo-godmother?”

“Both,” answered Hazel Davis. The corner of her mouth quirked up again. She’s married an American a year after Hogwarts and had moved to the States with him. She hadn’t known Harry until, recently widowed and back in England, she’d found herself in the position of being his supervisor.

“Alright, go on,” he said guardedly.

“How old is Snape?”

“Forty-seven.”

“What color are his eyes?”

“Brown.”

Davis pulled a piece of parchment from the top of the file and studied it. “Our physical description says they’re black,” she said.

“That’s what I used to think,” said Harry. “But they’re really a very dark brown.”

“And his hair?

“Also a very dark brown. Almost black.” He scowled across at her, not enjoying the game. “This is silly. Anyone who looks at him knows that.”

“What side of his neck are his scars on?” continued Davis.

“Left side. As if anyone in the magical world wouldn’t know that.”

“His birthday?”

“January 9th.” He shrugged. “Same as my Uncle Vernon’s.”

“How many buttons are on the sleeve cuff of his Headmaster’s robes?”

“Six.”

Wait. How did he know that? His mind scrambled for an answer.

“Harry, if I asked you what Snape smelled like, would you know? Even if you couldn’t describe it in words?”

The smell washed over him immediately. A comforting mix of ink and parchment and old books and lightly starched robes.

Disquieted, he shook his head.

“I think you need to reexamine your ‘association’ with the man, Harry,” said Davis. She was clearly speaking to Harry as a friend now rather than his boss. “How long has it been since you’ve had a boyfriend anyway?”

“What? What’s that got to do with anything?”

“How long?”

Harry scowled. “As if I’ve got time to have a social life with the schedule you make me keep!”

Davis pulled out her wand and twirled it over her desk, conjuring a tea service in a way reminiscent of the former Headmaster of Hogwarts. With her very ordinary looks and unassuming manner, Harry sometimes forgot what a powerful witch his boss was.

“Your personal life is none of my business—you know that,” she said. She poured tea into a cup and passed it to him, pushing the tray a bit closer to him so he could prepare it to his taste. “Not until it interferes with your work, or with a specific case.”

Harry stared at his teacup a moment, his brain churning. The rational part of him was trying very hard to reconcile with the emotional side. Why did he know how many buttons were on Severus’ wrist cuff? Even more, why did he know exactly how Severus smelled? In these past few months of sitting across from the man at the Hog’s Head on Friday nights—and he knew he’d only missed a couple, all of those while on assignment—had he never stopped to think about the kind of friendship they had formed?

Damn it, he hated just sitting here!

“When are Alicia and Ron due back?” he asked, frustrated. His eyes traveled up to the clock on the wall behind Davis.

“Any time now,” she answered. “So, does Snape know you’re interested in him?”

“I’m not....” He paused, looking at Hazel’s amused face. She had just turned into Hazel again in his mind. He hated it when that happened. “I didn’t know I was interested in him! I’ve just been enjoying getting to know him is all. He has the driest sense of humor. He’s…interesting.”

“Oh, you don’t have to convince me,” she said with another small smile. “I went to school with him, remember? Friend of your mother from Gryffindor House?”

Harry gave a pained smile. He’d met several of his mother’s friends now since the war had ended and he’d left Hogwarts. Hazel, who had been in the States for twenty years, was one of the few who was able to look at him without his war hero reputation coloring her perception. She seemed genuinely interested in his happiness and had a penchant for saying exactly what was on her mind.

“We have to do something,” he said.

“How about checking out that wand he left you,” said Davis. “You do realize that a wizard doesn’t leave his wand with just anyone.”

“I know,” said Harry. The look on his face had gone from frustrated to deeply troubled. He had the wand in his hands now, examining it. He had seen the wand countless times, but until he found it in the box with the dog’s supplies, he had never had cause to examine it. It was a bit longer than his own, made of a dark wood, possibly alder or walnut. He had no idea what its core was and was suddenly very curious to know what it contained.

“I understand why he left it,” he continued. “If it wasn’t a condition of the exchange that he turn himself in without the wand, they would have just taken it from him and he might never have seen it again.” He didn’t add, except to himself, “If he survived.” He suppressed a shudder, remembering for a moment how it had felt all those years ago when his wand had been broken during the escape from Godric’s Hollow. How devastated he had been, how at a loss.

“But you’re wondering why he left it with you,” said his boss, holding out her hand for the wand. “He could have left it in his desk, or hidden somewhere in his quarters. He obviously trusts you implicitly.” She glanced at Harry, who was still holding the wand, and frowned. “Harry? May I?”

“Oh, of course.” He handed the wand to her, strangely reluctant to give it up, and, as expected, she removed her own wand and held the two tip to tip.

“Priori Incantatem,” she said softly and together they watched as Snape reset the password on the gargoyle guarding his office. Harry smiled as Severus’ cloak was summoned and leaned in to hear the hollow, echoed words as wards were placed on a desk drawer. Harry’s eyes went wide as Severus used his wand to extract a long, gossamer thread of memory, gray and smoky in this memory of a memory, and dropped it into a Pensieve that Harry recognized well.

“He left a memory,” he murmured, watching as the smoky memory faded away and the next spell memory started. The wand pushed out one last echo of a spell, a shaving charm. Hazel looked up and smiled at Harry.

“Wouldn’t want to go turn yourself over to kidnappers with a scruffy face, would you?”

Harry shook his head slowly. Why did that final spell, that simple shaving charm he’d learned as a teenager, settle on him so hard, like a kick in the gut?

“So, he shaved, sat at his desk, left the memory in the Pensieve, warded a drawer, summoned his cloak, and on the way out changed the password to his offices,” he said slowly after staring at the fading smoke from the living echo of the shaving charm as it dissipated. “Did the team you sent to Hogwarts get into Snape’s office?”

Davis’ mouth moved into an almost-amused smirk. “They weren’t able to get past the gargoyle,” she said. “Nor could the deputy headmistress.”

“We need that memory,” said Harry. “I’m going to have to go, you know.”

Davis handed the wand back to Harry, handle first.

“You do recall my stipulations when I assigned you to this case?” She looked serious and he nodded.

“I believe you said no field work, no negotiations and no rescue attempts.” Harry ticked the conditions off on his fingers, deliberately not smiling.

“Yet you’re proposing going to Hogwarts. How is that not field work?” Davis leaned back in her chair and folded her hands on her stomach again. Harry fidgeted in his seat. Davis seemed to be enjoying stringing him along like this. All this inaction was slowly making him insane.

“Who else are you going to call in to dismantle Snape’s wards?” he replied with a shrug. He tried to look innocent.

“I have an entire team of Aurors at my disposal,” answered Davis. “Among them at least half a dozen that could give you a run for the money on getting through wards.”

“How many of those know Severus Snape?” he asked.

“I’d say that most if not all of them have had some association with him. Most came out of Hogwarts, after all.”

Harry got to his feet. “Understood. Would you mind terribly if I went home until I’m needed, then? I’ve got to check on the dog.”

Hazel Davis leveled a gaze at him, shaking her head slowly. He understood her reaction. He was giving up too easily.

“That’s it, then? No arguments? Just accepting your peripheral involvement in this case and moving on? You’re fully aware of the consequences of insubordination?”

Harry bristled. “Insubordination? For going home to check on my dog?”

“No, not for going home to check on your dog. For telling me you’re going home to check on your dog and then moseying on over to Hogwarts instead and trying to get into the Headmaster’s office.”

“Moseying on over?” Harry grinned. “I don’t ‘mosey.’ I’ll Floo over, or walk from my cottage, as soon as you call me. As soon as your team of Aurors fails to get past that gargoyle.”

“No plans for Christmas Eve, then?” she said.

“Oh? Is it Christmas Eve?” he asked, too innocently. He smiled. “I’m dropping in on the Weasleys, but they know I’ll be late.” He shrugged, shook his head. “I’m always late.”

They stared at each other a few more moments. Finally, Davis looked away, hiding a smile.

“Go on. Stay by the Floo. We’ll call you if anything comes up.”

Harry saluted. “See you soon,” he said with a grin before disappearing into the corridor.

END PART 1 END PART 1 END PART 1 END PART 1 END PART 1 END PART 1 END PART 1 END PART 1

}-{

The dog was sleeping on his sofa when Harry returned to his cottage. It had burrowed into the red and green crocheted afghan that Molly Weasley had made for him last Christmas, creating a warm nest on Harry’s favorite sofa cushion. Harry dusted off his robes after the sooty trip through the Floo and stood in front of the sofa, hands on his hips, staring at the dog. The animal whimpered in its sleep as its stubby legs started moving in a dream chase as if pursuing gnomes in Hagrid’s garden. Harry shook his head, his eyes moving to the very cozy and comfortable dog bed on the floor between the couch and the chair beside it. The very empty dog bed.

“Snarky, you’re not supposed to be on the furniture,” he said as he settled down in the middle of the couch and ran a hand slowly over the dog’s thick fur. The dog let out a long, happy sigh, its legs slowing then stopping altogether. Harry continued to stroke the animal’s head. He’d never owned a dog and found it rather relaxing to pet the animal and talk out loud. It was almost as if the dog’s presence somehow excused his talking to himself. “What the hell was he thinking, Snarky? He’s really got himself in a mess now. There’s no way we’ll be able to meet those ridiculous demands. Would have been easier to just ransom the boy.” He sighed. “You’d think he could have just left me a note or something, instead of us having to do a Priori Incantatem on his wand. Well, they’ll be calling me before too long. If I know Severus, no one will be able to get into his office and quarters if he doesn’t want them to.” He chuckled. “Well, except me.” He stroked the dog again then said “Come on, Snarky. Off the couch.”

The dog opened a sleepy eye and promptly closed it again.

“Oh no, you don’t. Don’t play all cute and sleepy with me. You’ve got a bed on the floor Kreacher made for you and you’re going to get in it. Severus will have my hide if I start to spoil you.” As the dog still seemed disinclined to move, Harry reached for her collar and tugged. The animal, apparently accustomed to this routine, went limp and played dead. But Harry was suddenly not concerned with where the dog slept. When he’d tugged on the dog’s collar, he’d felt a piece of parchment wrapped around the leather band. The dog lay there, happy and complacent, while he removed the note and unfolded it carefully.

“Flobberworms. And get the dog off the couch.”

Harry Potter sat on the couch staring at that scrap of parchment for some time.

“Flobberworms,” he repeated. There it was. The password to get into the Headmaster’s office. Where he would find a warded drawer, and inside that drawer the Headmaster’s Pensieve. And inside that Pensive…a memory. He patted the dog idly, allowing her to stay on the couch despite Severus’ admonition. Spoiling her was the least of his worries now. Why had Severus made it so difficult to follow his tracks? It was almost as if he were trying to give the kidnappers time, a head-start, so to speak. But why? It could have been days before he found the password on the dog’s collar. Hell, it was possible he wouldn’t have even gone through that box of dog supplies for a day or two.

But no, Severus knew him too well. He knew that Harry would go through that box looking for a note, for directions on how to care for the dog, for a note that fully explained his motivations in turning himself over to kidnappers demanding a quarter million galleons in ransom. And he knew the dog well too. Knew that she wouldn’t comply with the standard of behavior he advocated, and that sooner, rather than later, Harry would tug on that collar to coax her into compliance.

He ran his hand down the dog’s side and scratched her stomach lightly. She stretched out her back legs into the caress and smiled. He could have sworn she smiled! But no, there was no way on Merlin’s green earth that Severus Snape would own a dog capable of smiling. He looked down at her as she stretched out again—were dogs always stretching like this?—and rested her head on his leg. Almost…almost in his lap. How had that happened? He glanced at the mantel clock. Eight o’clock. He needed to let Molly know just how late he might be. He walked to the Floo to deliver the message and his apologies. He backed away from the fireplace after accepting a Christmas cut-out biscuit from Molly and waving to the gaggle of Weasley children in the parlor. He should Floo call Davis and tell her the password. It would at least give the team a jump on starting to attack the wards on that desk drawer, which, of course, they could never break. They’d have to call him in eventually.

It could wait a few minutes more.

He dropped his head back and tried to relax, tried to think. Was he worried about Severus? Yes and no. Severus had thrown himself into an incredibly dangerous situation with kidnappers with questionable motivations, kidnappers who had roughed up a thirteen-year-old, shaved his head, given him a Gryffindor tattoo. If they could do that to a child, what would they be willing to do to a grown man?

He wanted to be worried about him. But he almost—almost—felt like he didn’t have the right to be, that he certainly shouldn’t be, and that niggling feeling was disquieting. They were both grown men. They had a past, that was certain, but they’d moved on from those early years of mutual loathing and one-sided protection, from those war years of misunderstanding and reluctant respect. They’d gone through nearly a decade of a near non-relationship, of polite greetings when they appeared at the same event or passed in the streets of Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, infrequent as those meetings were. And then—then Fang had died.

Fang had lived a life far longer than the average dog. Harry’s memory of the Boarhound went all the way back to his first year at Hogwarts, to the detention in the Forbidden Forest, to visits to Hagrid’s hut, to the mournful dog looking for Hagrid when Hagrid was off on the quest to visit the giants the summer after fourth year. He’d been a fixture at Hagrid’s side for all the years since, surviving the war with one eye blinded and his tail hair burned. The hair never did grow back properly after the Final Battle.

Hagrid had called him over that Friday evening in September, soon after start of term, to say his final goodbyes.

He hadn’t needed to say goodbye, not really. He liked the dog, could almost say he loved the old thing, but he went for Hagrid, trudging up the road from Hogsmeade instead of Apparating to the gates, taking his time. It had been raining and the night air had a fresh chill to it. The road was muddy. When he’d arrived, he’d been absolutely flabbergasted to find Severus Snape in Hagrid’s hut, sitting at the enormous round table with a bowl-like cup of tea between his hands.

*

”Headmaster….” Harry stopped in the door, glancing from Hagrid, his enormous bulk slumped on the floor beside Fang’s bed, to Severus, formally dressed in the deep green robes he’d taken to wearing in his past few years of Headmaster duties.

Severus nodded at him. “Mr. Potter.” He’d then looked pointedly over at Hagrid and Harry had gone over to his old friend, patted him fondly on his great, broad back before sinking to the floor beside him, stretching out his hand to move it over Fang’s head, scratching him behind his ear, just as he liked. The dog, barely able to move, rewarded him with a contented rumble.

“Won’t be long now,” said Hagrid, his voice filling the space even though it was no more than a whisper to a giant. “The Headmaster brought o’er som’thing t’ ease the pain.”

“Oh. Good. That’s good, Hagrid. He looks peaceful.” He glanced back over his shoulder at Severus but the Headmaster was staring out the small window beside the door.

It didn’t take long. He wasn’t sure what Severus had given Hagrid for the dog, but Fang seemed utterly at peace as his even breathing slowed and finally stopped, the rhythmic up and down of his chest frozen as his last breath escaped in a long, gentle sort of sigh. Harry’s hand was still on that great head when it was over, and he felt tears gliding down his cheeks. It had been a long time since he had experienced the loss of one of the true fixtures of his childhood.

After a time, Hagrid lifted the dog in his great arms and carried him outside to the grave beside the hut, close to where they had buried the giant spider Aragog. Severus followed Harry out. They stood together at the edge of the grave as Hagrid laid Fang to rest. Harry used his wand to levitate the freshly dug earth over the hole, covering the grave. They stood together, quietly observing the mound of fresh earth, until Hagrid turned to Severus and spoke in a choked voice.

“Would yeh be kind enou’ to say a few words, Headmaster?”

Harry bit back a smile. He’d stood here more than ten years ago, on the edge of Aragog’s grave, as Slughorn, three sheets to the wind, had eulogized the giant spider. Severus didn’t appear the least bit drunk. Surprisingly, he nodded to Hagrid and cleared his throat.

“We bid farewell tonight to Fang,” he began, pausing, as if to conjure the appropriate words for such an occasion. “He lived a long life, and a good one, and shall be missed. Most of all by Hagrid—“ here he nodded to the sobbing man—“but also by the generations of children who have passed through the halls of Hogwarts. He was a faithful friend, a brave protector and a joyful playmate. I am indeed grateful to have shared my home, Hogwarts, with him for so many years. Be at peace, friend, until someday we meet again.”

He said the words in such a heartfelt manner that Harry almost believed that he would indeed miss the dog, that the dog had been special to him. But heartfelt or not, it was enough for Hagrid. He wiped his eyes again with his towel-sized handkerchief and then blew his nose. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Severus flinch.

“Why don’t we all go into town for a drink?” Harry suggested, wondering as he did so why he was making such an offer to this odd little group. He was surprised that Hagrid turned him down while Severus…did not.

“No, I’ll stay here with Fang fer a bit,” said Hagrid. “But thanks, ‘arry. Thanks for comin’ out t’night and bein’ with me.” He enveloped Harry in a breath-stealing and awkward hug. “And thank you, Headmaster. It’s jus’ too bad Fang wan’t here to hear yer kind words.” He dabbed at his eyes with a different hanky, this one obviously a pillowcase, and ambled into his hut while Harry and Severus stood looking at each other.

“Well, come along then,” said Severus at last, after staring at Harry with a certain challenging look on his face. “Let’s go have that drink.”

*

Harry, sitting on the sofa in the front room of his cottage in Hogsmeade, watching the clock on the mantel get closer and closer to Christmas Day, and petting Severus’ dog, smiled now at the memory of that first evening at the Hog’s Head, that Friday in September. They’d toasted Fang, toasted Hagrid and left the pub something more than they had been before.

“You stay here, girl,” he said out loud to the dog. He gave her one last scratch behind her ears then stood up. The dog seemed intent on staying exactly where she was, hardly seeming to notice as he walked toward the Floo to give the password to his team.

She was still sleeping two hours later, at eleven o’clock, when Harry’s boss Floo called him and ordered him to get to Hogwarts, post haste.

}-{

Minerva McGonagall met him at the castle doors. Despite the late hour, she was wearing her usual teaching robes.

“What a perfectly dreadful way to spend Christmas Eve, Mr. Potter,” she said in greeting. “I’m sure you have other places to be.”

“This is more important,” he answered, shaking the snow off of his cape. “It’s good to see you, Professor. I wish the circumstances were different.”

Minerva McGonagall smiled wryly. “They’ve made a mess of his office, Mr. Potter,” she said, her voice disapproving. “They even tried a blasting curse on his desk. Knocked two of them out cold when it rebounded. Had to be transported to St. Mungo’s, both of them.”

“And…?” Harry smiled as he got in step beside Minerva and headed up the marble stairway toward the second floor.

“You do realize that they spent more than an hour trying to dismantle the wards on his desk first, don’t you?” asked Minerva. She stopped near the top of the staircase and faced her former student.

“Of course,” said Harry. “So what did they try after the blasting spell?”

“They tried to burn it,” she said, her voice giving away exactly what she thought of the Aurors’ attempts. “Singed the frame of Albus’ portrait. He was quite put out.”

“I imagine he was,” said Harry with a fond smile. He hurried to follow her as she moved ahead.

“Professor McGonagall, I know you’ve been interviewed already….”

“I was interrogated,” she sniffed as she walked.

“…but I’ve not seen the interview transcripts yet. Why would Severus negotiate this hostage trade? Does he have a connection to the family? To the boy?”

“Headmaster’s Prerogative,” she responded dryly. “That’s what his note said, at least. I turned it over to the Aurors, or course.”

“But you kept a copy,” Harry suggested.

She looked at him shrewdly. “Naturally. But the note reveals nothing regarding his motivations. I can only guess. The boy’s brother, the one killed during the Final Battle—Severus harbored quite a bit of guilt over that death in particular. The Carrows singled him out frequently, called him worthless—he was the first in his family not to be sorted into Slytherin, I believe.”

“There must have been others that they called out,” said Harry. He knew that Neville had been a favorite target.

“Oh, there were,” answered Minerva. “But there was something else. Miles Amhurst was a Potions prodigy. Severus had been mentoring him since his first year. He had hoped to sponsor him for his Mastery.” She smiled sadly at Harry then. “He and the boy’s father—Linus Amhurst—were in Slytherin House together, though Linus was several years older than Severus.”

“So this is about guilt,” mused Harry. Guilt he understood. Severus was making reparations.

“He once told me,” said Minerva, “that Miles Amhurst would not have died had he been sorted into Slytherin.” She gazed at Harry, making no other explanation, but he understood.

“He wouldn’t have fought so he wouldn’t have died,” he said quietly. “The Slytherins were evacuated along with the younger students.”

“Come, let’s get you to that office before they tear it to shreds,” she said. “I assume you can dismantle the wards?”

Harry nodded and followed her down the hallway.

}-{

The first thing he requested was that everyone leave the office, except for Ron and Alicia.

Then he requested the Headmaster’s wand.

While he waited for Ron to retrieve it from the Ministry, Harry sat at Severus’ desk, on Severus’ chair, and surveyed the office.

He’d not been in this office for ten years, not since the night of the Final Battle when, after all the fighting and dying and killing were done, after Severus had been retrieved from the Shrieking Shack and transported, barely clinging to life, to St. Mungo’s, he’d returned to the office to speak to Dumbledore’s portrait and to repair his wand.

The office hadn’t changed much.

Delicate instruments still stood on the shelves and tables. The former headmasters’ and headmistresses’ portraits still covered the walls. Very modest Christmas decorations—a sprig or two of holly, a pine-needle garland—hung on the walls over the doors. Two chairs, comfortable, upholstered in green velveteen, sat facing the desk. The only obvious additions to the office, which Harry was absolutely certain had not been there in Dumbledore’s days, stood where Fawkes’ perch had once been. The first was something he’d seen in the Muggle world, but never in the magical one. A flight cage, chest-high, built on short legs, full of colorful birds - finches, he thought. Softly glowing now, though Harry suspected it would be well lit during the daytime hours, and filled with leafy branches that seemed to grow directly out of the sides of the cage. Harry peeked into the nest boxes, using a soft Lumos from his own wand, to determine exactly what it was that Severus kept in this cage. He may have been expecting bats but was somehow not surprised at all to find the small, colorful birds.

He grinned at the idea of Severus Snape relaxing by watching small birds flit about a cage, building nests and chirping in a decidedly cheerful way.

The second addition was on the floor beside the bird cage. A round, padded cushion, green and blue, with a stuffed squirrel resting beside it, tail chewed down to a stump, stuffing dribbling out of the half-attached head.

Alicia sat in one of the green chairs in front of the desk.

“I swear this chair is unbalanced,” she said. “I almost feel like I’m tipping forward out of it.”

Harry grinned. “Old professional’s trick,” he said. “I’m betting the front legs are slightly shorter than the back legs. It makes you lean forward a bit. You feel slightly awkward, uncomfortable. It gives the person sitting comfortably behind the desk a certain advantage.”

“As if Snape needs help to make anyone feel awkward and uncomfortable,” she said, leaning to the side and turning her head to check out the chair’s legs.

Ron hurried into the office then, staring at Alicia as she leaned over looking under her chair. He held out a familiar wand to Harry. Harry took it as Ron collapsed in the empty chair in front of the desk, groaning. “How did I get to be your lackey?”

Harry raised his eyebrows and Ron shook his head.

“Step back,” said Harry. What he planned to do was actually quite anticlimactic, but one never knew….

“I just sat down!” said Ron, standing with effort.

Alicia stood too and backed up toward the door, Ron at her side. Both drew their wands, any number of defensive and protective spells on their lips as they apprehensively waited and watched Harry.

Harry held the wand as he would hold his own, though it fit differently in his hand, pointed it at the locked and warded drawer and said, quietly but with conviction, “Finite Incantatem.”

Although nothing appeared to happen, he reached out and pulled on the drawer. It slid open easily. “Ta da!” he said, looking at Alicia and Ron and grinning.

“That’s it?” exclaimed Ron, moving forward quickly to stare at the open drawer. “Finite Incantatem? That was the first thing they tried!”

“But not with Snape’s own wand,” said Harry as he reached into the drawer that was too narrow and not deep enough to hold the Pensieve that he extracted and placed on the desk.

“You could have told us that!” said Alicia. Harry could tell she was more amused than angry.

“What? And missed my chance to see this memory? And the look on Ron’s face? Are you having me on? Besides, I didn’t know the Finite would work.” Harry stirred the odd gaseous liquid in the Pensieve with Snape’s wand. A mist-like substance rose out of it and formed the image of a man with long brown hair bound back in a tail, frameless glasses and a moustache that curled at the ends.

“That’s Linus Amhurst,” said Ron, stepping closer.

“Of course it is,” said Harry. He looked up at his colleagues. “If I’m right, Snape is pointing us toward the kidnappers. But for some reason, he wanted to slow us down a bit. I’m guessing he wanted to make the swap look clean—prove to the kidnapper’s he’d met their terms and not involved us.” He scooted the bowl into the middle of the desk and leaned forward. “Are you joining me?” he asked when his colleagues didn’t move.

Alicia and Ron exchanged glances. Technically, they should view the memory first—without Harry. But Harry had been called in. And it was Christmas Eve—giving in would mean they’d get home faster.

Harry’s nose was already nearly touching the surface of the Pensieve’s contents and they bent forward to join him, free-falling together into Snape’s parting memory.

*

They were in the formal sitting room of a comfortable and well-appointed home, a wizarding home by the looks of it, old-fashioned and ornate. The man they had seen in the Pensieve, Linus Armhurst, was standing in front of a small Queen Anne style sofa. Severus Snape sat on the sofa, elbows on his knees, hands clasped under this chin, listening to the man who paced before him.

“I don’t have this kind of money! What in the Founder’s names are they thinking? I don’t even know who to ask, Severus!”

“You are convinced this is all about money? There were other children on the platform, children from wealthier families.”

“Hell, I don’t know!” The man’s voice belied the anguish he undoubtedly felt. “Maybe he was just after a Slytherin--any Slytherin, and Philip was the first one he could snag.”

“Not all the Slytherins are wealthy,” said Severus. “Besides, the report you showed me said the Parkinson boy was not ten feet away.”

“If I understood their motivations you would not be here today, Severus.”

“I do not have the money, you know that, Linus,” said Severus. “But I am willing to meet the terms they have proposed to you. I will offer myself in exchange for the boy.”

Harry inhaled sharply. How had his team allowed this to happen? Private communication between the kidnapped boy’s family and the kidnappers after the Aurors were on the case?

The other man stopped pacing. “You would do that? I…I only wanted you to know what they have countered. I did not expect you….”

Snape stood.

“If it is only galleons that they are after, they have more chance of getting it with the Headmaster of Hogwarts in their hands than with your son.”

If it is only galleons? They have made no other demands, Severus.”

“Give me the instructions, Linus. I have preparations to make.”

The other man reached into his robe pocket and extracted a roll of parchment which he glanced at before handing it to Severus. Severus sat back down on the sofa and unrolled the scroll, scanning it quickly and then going back to read it more carefully.

“They are requiring proof of an unbreakable vow between us,” he said. “A memory, delivered prior to the exchange.”

“So that if you do not turn yourself over when they release Phillip….”

“The language is deliberately neutral. It becomes more blatantly aggressive only when it speaks of the consequences if you do not either deliver the ransom or… me.”

Armhurst’s face paled. “Severus…I cannot lose another son. Sylvia could not bear it. I could not bear it.”

“You realize, don’t you, that this is likely exactly what they were after the entire time? That they deliberately kidnapped the child of a family that could not possibly pay the ransom? A child of a family to which I owed a debt?””

“But, whether true or not, Severus, that is not a well-known fact. And why not just kidnap you directly?”

Severus stared at Armhurst. His eyes were deep, piercing. “Perhaps I would not prove so easy to capture,” he said evenly. “I have a certain…history.”

“Ah.” Armhurst paled.

“And since it is not a well-known fact that I feel beholden to your family, responsible, as Headmaster that last year, for the treatment your son received, you may want to ask yourself, Linus—who does know?”

But Linus Amhurst stared back at Severus and countered. “Perhaps, Headmaster, you should ask yourself that same question.”

*

The memory faded then, the room and its occupants dissolving in a grayish white mist. Harry found himself staring across the desk at Ron and Alicia. No one said anything for a moment, then they all began to talk at once.

“They went around us!”

“They were after Snape the whole time!”

“We’ve got to question Amhurst again!”

Harry picked up the Pensieve and began to place it back into the desk. As he glanced down, he saw something in the bottom of the drawer that had been underneath the Pensieve. He carefully put the heavy basin back down on the desk and reached into the drawer, pulling out a piece of parchment that had been flattened out beneath the stone. Once glance told him what it was.

“The note,” he said softly. Ron and Alicia moved behind him to read over his shoulder.

“Get Amhurst into the office,” he said a minute later, standing and pocketing the note. “I’m going to seal everything up here. I’ll meet you back there as soon as I can.”

“Harry, it’s Christmas Eve.” Alicia glanced at the clock on the mantel. “Almost Christmas morning, in fact. He’ll be home with his family….”

“Why should he get to enjoy Christmas when Severus isn’t?” returned Harry.

“When we aren’t?” added Ron.

Alicia nodded. “You’re right. We’ll bring him in.”

The two Aurors left through the office door, heading to the Great Hall to leave through the open Floo there. Harry replaced the Pensieve, warded the drawer and looked around the office. “What do you know, Severus?” he asked himself. Neither the walls nor the portraits nor the cage of birds answered. He stood and left quietly, not disturbing the sleeping portraits behind him.

}-{

“From Snape? What?”

Harry had only slept a few hours, unaccustomed to having a dog in bed with him, especially a dog that whimpered in excitement as it chased garden gnomes in its sleep. He was sitting in the briefing room with Davis, Ron and Alicia, drinking his second cup of strong American coffee. He had a headache working behind his temples. He hoped the coffee would take away its threatening bite.

He glanced over at Ron. Ron looked worse than he did, but, of course, he’d had virtually no sleep at all, having rushed home after they’d brought Amhurst in to catch a few hours of sleep, then getting up at the crack of dawn with two-year-old Rose to see what Father Christmas had brought.

They’d been called in because the kidnappers had chosen Christmas morning to communicate with the Department of Magical Education. And this time, the note appeared to be from Severus himself.

Davis checked her watch. “Let’s get up to the DME,” she said.

Harry brought his coffee with him as they hurried out the hall and toward the elevators. He managed to get a few sips in while they stood in the otherwise deserted elevator. They seemed to be the only ones working on Christmas morning. There weren’t even any annoying message memos fluttering above their heads.

“We sent out an official response to the kidnapper’s demands late last evening,” Davis explained as they hurried down another hallway toward the DME. “After you returned from Hogwarts with the additional information.” She frowned as she spoke, her disapproval of the events of the previous evening evident.

“And?” Harry nearly ran into his bosses’ back when she stopped outside the door leading to the Department of Magical Education and turned to face her Aurors.

“We agreed to pay the two hundred and fifty thousand galleons provided Snape was released within twenty-four hours. We cited the Founders’ Manifesto as the reason Slytherin House could not be disbanded and agreed to dismiss the Governors.”

“What do you mean you agreed to dismiss the Governors? You can’t do that!” Harry looked at Davis in disbelief.

“The Board of Governors met in special session last night—yes, on Christmas Eve,” Davis replied. “Which should say something about the regard they have for Headmaster Snape. They voted off the five in question. They plan, of course, to reinstate them when this is resolved.” She sighed. “The kidnappers are making ridiculous demands. There is no virtually no way for them to assure that the changes they request, once made, cannot be later undone.”

“What about my hair?” asked Harry as Davis pushed upon the door and led the way inside.

“We ignored that demand completely,” she said.

“Are you sure that was wise?” he asked, trotting along behind her.

“You don’t think they were serious, do you?” she asked. She had stopped at another door and this time knocked before opening it.

They followed her into a small conference room. The Head of the Department of Magical Education, Imogene Hatcher, sat at the end of the conference table, an elderly gentleman Harry did not recognize beside her. They both stood as the team entered the room and Davis began the introductions.

When all were properly introduced to Hatcher and the Presiding Chair of the Board of Governors, Hampton Carmichael, Hatcher opened an old-fashioned heavy manila folder on the table in front of her and extracted a folded piece of Muggle notebook paper.

“That’s been torn from a notebook,” said Harry, eyes on the paper which had “Imogene Hatcher, DME” written on the outside in blue ink. “And written with a Muggle pen.”

“This was delivered to my home by post owl this morning, while I was in the middle of my Christmas breakfast,” she said. Her voice was low-pitched and pleasant. She shook her head. “I didn’t recognize it for what it was and didn’t treat it any differently than I treat any other mail. Frankly, I thought it was a Happy Christmas greeting from my secretary. He has a non-magical child attending school in London and has taken to using some Muggle conveniences.” She glanced at the note. “He has similar handwriting.”

Harry nodded. He noted her use of the term “non-magical,” which was becoming more commonplace and slowly replacing “Squib.”

Davis nodded. “Completely understandable.” She held out her hand. “May we?”

Harry was seated to the left of his boss, and he leaned in slightly as she unfolded the paper and smoothed it flat against the table.

The handwriting was clearly Severus‘.He’d known that from the name written on the outside of the folded paper. He’d seen it countless times on the chalkboards at Hogwarts and on his returned homework assignments and essays. But something about seeing it now, like this, on a note in someone else’s hands, under these circumstances, made his gut clench uncomfortably.

“What does he mean ‘We’ are in receipt of your response?” asked Harry almost immediately, noting the impersonal nature of the note. “Makes it sound like he’s in cahoots with the kidnappers.”

“Read, Potter,” said Davis as Alicia read from the other side and Ron, on his feet now, leaned over her shoulder from behind.

“He’s out of his mind,” said Alicia when she reached the end of the note. “Or they are.”

“No, he’s perfectly sane. They’re out of their minds,” muttered Harry, frowning. He glanced over at Davis. “There’s a lot between the lines here. Listen to this part: ‘While the founders each established a house in his or her name, and while these houses are described and detailed in the Founders’ Manifesto, and while there is no way provided to amend said Manifesto, students can effectively be prohibited from being sorted into Slytherin House by changing the manner in which sorting is executed. To that end, the Sorting Hat is to be turned over to my captors, before the other demands are met, so its authenticity may be verified.’”

“We can’t turn over the Sorting Hat!” Hampton Carmichael had risen to his feet, face red. “It’s a relic! It belonged to Godric Gryffindor himself!”

“The Sorting Hat has, on more than one occasion, delivered critical help at just the right moment,” countered Harry.

“To Gryffindors!” protested Carmichael.

Harry shook his head, keeping his cool. “Not necessarily. You’re just remembering a recent incident…or two…that involved Gryffindors. Sev…the Headmaster wouldn’t suggest that they request the Sorting Hat unless…well, frankly, unless there was something in it for him.” Harry looked up and frowned. “And note they’re asking for it before they release him, even before we turn over the money. Why else would he put that idea in their head? He’s hoping to use the Hat to escape. So he’s convinced them that if they kidnap the Hat, the new method of sorting can simply ignore the fact that there is a Slytherin House.”

“The profilers worked most of last night,” put in Davis, adding “after our team returned from Hogwarts and saw that memory. They’ll need to analyze this letter, but the consensus is that we’re dealing with someone who lost someone significant during the war and who blames either Slytherins or Purebloods or both.”

Harry rolled his eyes but refrained from comment.

“But not someone who necessarily blames Snape,” she continued. “Because they have him now, and they’re still making demands—not just killing him off.”

“They may do that after their demands are met,” muttered Ron, glancing at Harry.

“I say we turn over the hat,” said Harry, holding up his hand as Carmichael started to stand again, a protest ready on his lips. “First of all, it will buy us more time. Secondly, it may give Snape a way to get out of there on his own.”

“They want to meet at King’s Cross Station tomorrow at five o’clock....”

“Five o’clock on Boxing Day? They’ll be swarms of people there,” protested Ron.

“Right. I think that’s the point,” said Davis. “Our courier is to place the hat on his or her head at precisely five o’clock in front of the big board and they’ll appear and take it. They’ll be virtually nothing we can do when packed in by hundreds of Muggle shoppers on Boxing Day.”

“Nothing but get a look at whoever comes for it,” said Ron.

“They might be Polyjuiced. Or they could send someone not otherwise involved.”

“I assume we’re going to just let them take the hat—the real hat?” asked Alicia.

Carmichael and Hatcher exchanged a worried glance.

“I think it’s the only way,” Davis said quietly. “If this is truly Snape’s idea, he’s counting on the hat helping him out—recognizing him as Headmaster—and the kidnappers not realizing that the hat is useful for anything other than sorting new students.”

“And singing,” quipped Ron with an exaggerated shudder. “And doing a piss-poor job of it too.”

“It’s going to be you, Weasley,” said Davis. “You’re tall, recognizable and you’ll stand out. They’ll have no trouble spotting you.” She turned to the Department Head and Chair of the Board of Governors. “I know this goes against your instincts and all that you would do to protect the relics of the Founders. However….” She paused and looked around the room, taking in the expression on the faces of her crack team of Aurors, “…we are in agreement that this is the best course of action. We’ll put a full team at the station—they’ll all be trained on Weasley. Someone is bound to get a good look at whoever takes the hat from him, and we can examine the memories as soon as they Apparate back.”

“Hasn’t your other analysis turned up anything?” Carmichael’s face was flushed and it was obvious he was trying—but not quite succeeding—to keep the frustration out of his voice.

“The handwriting on the ransom notes—both of them—doesn’t match anyone who attended Hogwarts this century or the last.” Alicia had the ubiquitous purple file folder open again. “We have a list of everyone killed or badly injured in the Battle of Hogwarts—” she placed several pieces of parchment in a pile just to the left of the folder—“a second list of deaths and major injuries in the three years on either side of the battle, and a list of the people on either list that meet the general profile of the kidnapper’s family.” It was this last list that she held now and Harry could see that it was a single page, but a long list of names nonetheless.

“If I may ask,” said Hatcher, looking with interest at the pared down list, “what is this general profile?”

Davis reached out her hand and Alicia handed her the parchment. She placed it on the table in front of her, face down.

“Someone who lost someone or something significant in the war. Someone with Muggle connections—perhaps the person lost was a Muggle-born or halfblood witch or wizard. Someone who has been recently reminded of that loss, somehow….”

“The ten-year anniversary celebration is coming up,” said Harry. “There’s been loads of publicity, the memorial planning, remembrances in the Prophet….”

“And someone interested in more than money, though financial gain seems to have importance too.”

“Someone clever enough to have come up with this scheme to get Snape,” added Ron.

“And don’t forget the magical tattoo,” added Harry. “The Amhurst boy was given a Gryffindor Lion tattoo—a magical one.”

“We need to get moving,” said Davis. She stood and her Aurors immediately rose to their feet as well. She reached down and picked up the list and the letter from Snape. “We’ll get back to you as soon as we know anything more.”

Harry, when he nodded his goodbyes to Hatcher and Carmichael, noted that both of them studiously avoided looking at his scar.

END PART 2 END PART 2 END PART 2 END PART 2 END PART 2 END PART 2 END PART 2 END PART 2

}-{

Harry spent the afternoon with Teddy and Andromeda and had dinner with Ron and Hermione and little Rose. Hermione, eight months pregnant, let Ron do the cooking and instead insisted that Harry explore his feelings for Severus. Out loud. With her. He couldn’t believe he had slipped and talked about the case so long that she had picked up on something in his voice, in his eyes. Hermione, once cued in, was ruthless. Harry felt drained and on edge by the time he got home, more worried about Severus than he had been before his visit.

“Really, Harry, he seems perfect for you,” she had said. “He’s part of Hogwarts, part of what you love most. He’s dark—and you must like that type because every guy you’ve dated has had dark hair and eyes. He obviously likes and trusts you or you wouldn’t have ended up with the dog and his wand. And don’t forget your obsession with him back in sixth year.”

“I didn’t know he was the Half-Blood Prince,” Harry reminded her. He took a long drink of eggnog and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Oh Harry, just give it a try.” Hermione smiled as she picked up Rose, who was standing at her knee, arms upraised, and settled her on her knees in front of her little-brother-to-be. “It’s about time you settled down, don’t you think?”

He went into work early on Boxing Day, though most of the Ministry was closed down. He studied Alicia’s list but had no success at narrowing down the names of forty families to any one. None of them had any connection to any known magical tattoo parlor. It would take forever to wade through all the relatives and friends of all of the names on this list.

Before heading back to his cottage at the end of the day, Harry joined Ron and Alicia in the Ready Room with the other three Aurors who would be accompanying them to King’s Cross. Even though it was practically killing him, he’d be sitting this one out of course, but he was part of the team nonetheless and so sat across from Alicia staring at the Sorting Hat, which she had placed in the middle of the table.

“So it’s still going to be Ron, then?” he asked.

“Yeah. Figure they can’t miss me,” replied Ron. He was standing at the whiteboard, arms folded across his chest and staring at a diagram of King’s Cross station, obviously memorizing the layout and the location of the exits.

“Do you really think the Sorting Hat will help the Headmaster?” asked Alicia.

Harry, who was staring at the old felt hat, thought the hat perked up at her words. He shook his head. The hat was magical but it wasn’t alive. He must be getting tired.

“I do. It comes to the aid of true Gryffindors, but it’s also a relic of the Founders, which makes it a relic of Hogwarts itself. I think it would do everything possible to get the Headmaster of Hogwarts out of trouble.”

Did the tip of the hat actually quiver?

“Well, I can’t imagine a time he’d need help more than now,” said Ron, turning toward them. “You didn’t see the kid, Harry. They must have kept him tied up the entire time—his ankles and wrists were a mess. He had a broken nose too—said he didn’t remember how that happened, though. Bruising on his midsection like they’d kicked him around....”

Harry rubbed his eyes under his glasses. He was fairly certain the Sorting Hat was looking at him now. But no, it didn’t have eyes. He reached out and took hold of it, scooting it across the table as the others continued to discuss Snape’s dire predicament.

A moment later, without even realizing he was doing it, he’d picked up the hat and had put it on his head.

The hat seemed to grow in size, sliding down over his ears as it had the first time he’d put it on all those years ago during his own sorting. And just like that first time, it immediately began speaking into his ear.

”Well, if it isn’t Mr. Harry Potter himself. Took you long enough. You’re just exactly what the Headmaster needs. Well, we’ll get you to him then, won’t we?”

And at the same time the hat uttered that last sentence into Harry’s ear, he felt a tug at the hat. Alicia was trying to pull it off.

“Harry! What are you doing?”

The hat dug in. Apparently, it wasn’t going anywhere. Shit! Harry waited. Another big tug. The brim of the hat seemed to tighten on his forehead.

“Let go!” muttered Harry to the hat. “Get it off me, Alicia!”

“I’m trying!”

“Why’d you put it on, Harry?” Ron had that tone in his voice, the “we’re in deep shit” sort of tone. He was tugging at the hat now too, trying to force his fingers under the brim and into Harry’s hair.

“Oh, no,” said the hat’s voice into his ear. “None of that. The Headmaster of Hogwarts is in need, you see.”

“I know that!” yelled Harry. “We’re sending you to him. Now get off my head! Ron’s got to get to King’s Cross with you!”

“I’m not going without you,” the hat said in an irritating sing-song voice.

A third tug by Alicia and that was that. The hat apparently had had enough. It seemed to grow then, slipping down over Harry’s head, encompassing his broad shoulders, either expanding to the size of a tent or—Merlin, it couldn’t be?—shrinking him! The sound of the Alicia shouting was muffled now and seemed to be coming from over his head. He struggled in vain against the smothering felt, briefly thinking how ridiculous he must look being swallowed up by a hat. But all deliberate thought left him as the hat started to spin and his feet left the ground.

It wasn’t like Portkeying. There was no burst of psychedelic color (though he wondered if he’d have noticed with the hat over his eyes) nor the telling yank behind his navel. It wasn’t like Apparition. No squeezing sensation, and instead of blackness what he saw was more like greyness. The spinning sensation reminded him of Flooing, but he wasn’t disoriented and dizzy as he always was when he Flooed.

He landed hard and his Auror’s reflexes, the absolute necessity of knowing where he was at any moment, immediately kicked in. The hat slipped off his head as he rolled over onto his back and he grabbed it quickly, stuffing it into his robe pocket. He found himself staring up at a very old dimly lit beamed ceiling. He glanced around and took in the very solid stone walls and a heavy wooden door. Cautiously, he pulled himself to his feet.

Severus Snape was sitting on the floor against the wall to his left. He was staring at Harry. Harry had never before realized, not really, how intense Severus’ eyes could be, what feeling they conveyed without any words at all. But eventually, after they stared at each other longer than they should have, Severus spoke.

“I must say you were the very last thing I imagined I’d pull out of the Sorting Hat,” he said quietly.

Harry was on his knees in front of Severus in a heartbeat, wand in his hand. It was immediately obvious to him that Severus was not himself. Harry did not mistake his resigned attempt at humor for his customary snark.

“Alohomora,” he muttered, wand tip at the heavy steel Muggle handcuffs that were fastened tightly around Severus’ wrists. The lock clicked open and Harry quickly slid the cuffs open and off. He dropped them to the floor.

“Shit, Severus.” The man’s wrists were raw and bleeding under the cuffs.

“Nate likes playing with ropes,” said Severus, holding up his wrists to examine them.

“Nate?” Harry was working now on the shackles around Severus’ ankles that effectively chained him to the wall.

“One of the kidnappers. The Squib, I think. Doesn’t trust his brother’s Incarcerous and insisted on tightening the ropes himself.”

“Ropes?” Harry glanced at the handcuffs on the floor and the mental ankle shackles he was working on.

“They switched to those this morning.”

“They put these things on over your bare skin,” said Harry, his voice tense and edgy, stating the obvious just to have something to say while he worked. “Your feet are freezing.”

“My arse is freezing too,” commented Severus. He was rubbing his wrists now and he tensed as Harry succeeded in removing the first shackle and cursed at the bruised flesh beneath it. When the second one fell away, Harry quickly stood and held out his hand to Severus.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

Severus held his hand out and allowed Harry to pull him to his feet. He leaned against the wall, breathing shallowly, still steadied by Harry’s hand. He stomped and shook his feet to warm them, wincing at the impact, then immediately dashed Harry’s plans for a quick escape.

“There are anti-Apparition wards. They Apparated in with me outside the grounds then did some complex unwarding and brought me in on foot through the gates and up the drive to the house.”

“Where is this place?” asked Harry. He had glanced around the empty room, searching for something to transfigure into footwear for Severus, and finally pointed his wand at the shackles and transfigured them into a pair of warm woolen socks. He knelt and pulled the socks onto Severus’ feet one at a time as the other man continued to support himself against the wall.

“I’ve no idea where, except by all appearances we’re still in Britain. It’s an old country estate. There seemed to be a road leading up the gates and heavy woods on at least one side of the grounds. The house is quite old—not a mansion, but certainly a stately old manor house.”

“Yeah, this is stately all right,” Harry said sarcastically, glancing around the room again.

“This is secure,” said Severus. “The rest of the home is stately.”

“We have to get out of here,” said Harry. “They’ll go to King’s Cross as planned and won’t get the hat. They’ll think we set them up and may try to make good on their threat to kill you.”

“I don’t think so.” Severus kept his voice low and quiet, much like Harry’s. Both seemed to be automatically operating in stealth mode. He reached out and placed his hand on Harry’s arm to still its nervous twitching. Harry stared at the hand holding his arm, at the six small black buttons on the cuff of the black robe sleeve. “They’re an odd lot. I’ve seen four of them—a wizard, a witch, two Muggles. Probably a father, a mother and their sons—both sons a bit older than you. This is definitely a wizarding home by the looks of things upstairs. They’re brutal, I’ll give you that, though I don’t think they have it in them to kill.”

“Brutal? What have they done?” Harry looked closely at Severus. He did look slightly pale, and certainly tired, but had no obvious injuries other than the abrasions on his wrists and ankles. The only other noticeable thing was that he seemed to be having some trouble breathing.

Severus straightened marginally. “Nothing, really. Nothing that cannot eventually be undone, anyway.”

Harry suddenly understood. “Wait. They gave the Amhurst boy a magical tattoo—a Gryffindor lion….”

Severus didn’t seem surprised. He shook his head slightly, not looking at Harry. He rubbed his upper arm unconsciously. “Not a lion.”

“What?” demanded Harry, reaching out and grabbing Severus’ arm. “Show me.”

“Showing you would require that I remove my robes, my waistcoat and my shirt. I’d rather use the time that would take to devise a plan.”

Harry looked at the row of black buttons that closed Severus’ robes from feet to collar. He swallowed and looked away quickly.

“I’d say we get out of here. How’s that for a plan?” said Harry. He approached the door and leaned against it, pressing his ear and one hand against the cool wood. Severus’ quiet voice interrupted him.

“You have a wand you know.”

“I know,” he answered just as quietly. He kept his ear against the door a moment more then stepped to the side and lifted his wand, casting a standard detection spell to reveal the presence of humans. The misty shadows of five forms appeared. Three dissipated almost immediately while the other two, more substantial than the others, lingered a few moments more.

“Three more besides us,” said Harry. “Not close.” He glanced at Severus. “You need shoes. It’s freezing outside.”

Severus looked down at his feet, now covered with the thick dark green socks. “I’m fine.” Severus nodded at the door. “Is the door warded?”

The door was plain, very solid and had no apparent handle or hinges. It obviously opened outward and Harry pushed against it, moving his hands and pressing around the door’s edge.

“Drop bar, I think,” he said softly. “I can’t detect any magic.” He lifted his wand, concentrating on the heavy bar on the other side of the door. He’d learned to extend his awareness in his years as an Auror, to levitate and move things he could sense but not see. To touch everything with a practiced, patient virtual hand, wrapped in a shroud of silence.

It took nearly five minutes but in the end he had it, manipulating the latch and the bar in a complicated series of movements until it slid noiselessly out of its closure and back away from the door. Severus had moved to stand at his shoulder, just to the left of the door. Harry could hear his breathing, short breaths, too shallow. He seemed tense and quiet.

“Can you make it?” asked Harry, wand pointing at the door.

Severus didn’t answer immediately and Harry turned his head to look at him. He was leaning against the wall. “I’d prefer knowing where we were going and what we were up against,” Severus answered at last.

“The profilers believe the kidnappers lost someone in the war,” said Harry, his voice just above a whisper.

“The war was quite some time ago,” mused Severus. “Why now?”

“The ten-year anniversary coming up?” suggested Harry. “All the uproar over the memorial?” He turned his head again to look at Severus and found his face only inches from the other man’s. Unaccountably, he blushed. He turned quickly back toward the door.

“Brown,” whispered Severus suddenly. “Kelly Brown. One of the two younger men—the wizard. The name just came to me. He was at Hogwarts some years ahead of you. His sister….”

“Lavender.”

Lavender Brown. Ron’s first girlfriend. Killed in the Final Battle by Fenrir Greyback. Harry turned again, blush gone. He met Severus’ eyes. “She was killed by Greyback. I’m fairly certain her father was a Muggle.”

“So we know who it is,” said Severus. “And perhaps why they are taking action now. Revenge?” He seemed to consider that a moment but shook his head. “No, it’s more than revenge,” he said, contradicting his earlier statement. “The desire to change the makeup of the Board of Governors, to eliminate Slytherin House—”

“A lock of my hair?”

Severus looked at Harry sharply. “They did not discuss that particular demand with me,” he muttered, frowning. “My impression is that they are divided—not of one mind. That each one has his or her own agenda. The general intent seemed at first to be about galleons. The galleons satisfy the greed of at least one of the kidnappers. But there is also, as you note, revenge. And these other demands indicate a desire for change—what someone believes to be real, constructive change. The hair, however….” He paused, his face taking on a thoughtful, worried look. He glanced over at Harry. “The hair could indicate a desire for power. Or it could be—and I hesitate to suggest this but I must, considering—a fetish.”

“Considering what?”

“The woman. Listen, we don’t have time for chatting.”

“They’re not getting my hair, Severus,” Harry said. He looked back at the door, leaving behind the subject of exactly what Lavender’s mother would do with someone Polyjuiced to look like himself. “It was after four o’clock when the hat brought me here,” he said instead. “We should wait a little while longer—at least until dark. But we’ve got to at least get out of this room before they come back from King’s Cross. It will be getting dark right about the time they’re supposed to be there.” He cast the detection charm again. Four misty shadows appeared this time, two of them faint. He exchanged a look with Severus then cast a quick Tempus. It was four forty.

Without another word, Harry pushed the door open a crack. It scraped a bit against the floor. Cool, musty air blew in through the crack.

“Disillusionment charm?” he asked quietly.

“Go ahead.” Severus looked like the last thing in the world he wanted was a disillusionment charm. Nevertheless, Harry tapped his wand on Severus’ head, then cast the same charm on himself and slipped quietly out the door.

He found himself in a large room, full of shadows, lit only by the dim light coming into it from the room they had just left. They stood very still for several minutes, listening to the deafening silence, until Harry, with a non-verbal Lumos, finally lit his wand with a dim glow. He closed the door carefully then quietly moved the drop bar back into place.

In the distance, a dog barked.

They’d have a dog to deal with when they got upstairs, at least on the grounds if not in the manor itself.

Severus and Harry exchanged a glance. It was disconcerting to see Severus, under the disillusionment charm, blending in with the stone wall behind him. The irregular seams where each stone joined the next seemed to show through his face, making it appear older and careworn.

“I don’t recall a dog,” whispered Severus. “They had me upstairs twice.” He rubbed his bicep again and Harry immediately frowned and looked away.

*

”Hagrid got a pair of them, just last week, from a farmer he knows on the other side of Hogsmeade.” For some reason, Severus looked apologetic. “She’s nearly grown already but still quite a handful. How he convinced me I needed a dog….”

“I’d guess it was that impromptu eulogy for Fang,” said Harry.

Severus raised an eyebrow.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Harry smirked down into his pint glass.

“Have you named her?”

“Believe it or not, she came with an appropriate name.” Severus’ lips twitched.

“Go on.” Harry lifted his glass and took a long drink.

“Snarky.”

The ale Harry spit out with his sudden bark of laughter landed on the table between them. A few drops flecked Severus’ sleeve. He looked down at them disapprovingly.

“I am working on training her,” said Severus, dabbing at his sleeve with a serviette. “With those short legs, you would think she would be content with lying on the hearth rug and not clambering up onto my leather sofa.”

Harry smiled and held up his pint glass.

“To Snarky.”

Severus raised his own glass, the look on his face halfway between a grin and a grimace.

*

Using the dim light from Harry’s wand, they found a door leading out of the room and carefully made their way around the wall to it. It, too, was protected by a drop bar on the other side barring their progress forward. The mechanism on this one was more complex than the last and Harry spent an additional fifteen minutes working on it before it finally gave way. Behind him, Severus stepped up and down in place, still working on getting his blood moving in his frozen feet. Harry moved backward suddenly, accidentally elbowing Severus. Severus winced. Harry muttered “sorry” but continued to work on the lock. Severus was obviously more injured than he let on but there was no time now to attend to him.

He cast another Tempus.

“Five o’clock,” he said. “We’ve got to hurry.”

The door, when he pushed on it slowly, opened onto a long narrow passage that ended in a stairway. Another detection spell revealed four humans again. The shapes representing the kidnappers were more substantial than they had been earlier and lingered longer.

The stairs were narrow, steep and though sturdy, were extremely old and creaky. Harry cast a wide area Silencio around them as they edged up the stairs. He felt strangely vulnerable with Severus, wandless, at his back. He thought Severus himself must feel particularly dependent on him and realized then how much that feeling must be gnawing at the man. He was acutely aware of the heat of Severus’ body behind him, only one step below him, leaning forward with him as he stopped at the door at the top of the stairs.

Harry listened first, standing perfectly still, hearing Severus’ very quiet, shallow breaths behind him and beyond the door—nothing. A simple sound amplification charm picked up distant voices, a man and a woman, but the words were indistinct. He tested the door carefully. Not locked, but blocked again with the same drop-bar type of closure.

“Paranoid,” whispered Harry, getting to work again on the bar after casting another general silencing charm, aware this time that the movement of the bar on the other side of the door could be detected by anyone who happened to walk by. “What’s on the other side of this door anyway?”

“I was blindfolded when they brought me up and down,” murmured Severus. “All I can tell you is that this door seemed to be some distance from the room where they gather. That room is on this level, near the front of the house I would guess.”

It took another five minutes for Harry work open the drop bar. His next detection spell fortunately yielded the same results and they stepped carefully out into a short corridor, hugging the wall. The floors beneath their feet were polished hardwood and both the doors leading off the corridor as well as the ornate woodwork were painted white. The corridor was shadowy and appeared to end in another passageway that seemed better illuminated.

Harry inched forward along the wall, passing several closed doors. He stopped near the end of the corridor and listened a moment before peeping around the corner.

To the left, the front entry parlor with its wide, curving stairway, its great chandelier and, most important its double doors leading outside was twenty feet away. To the right, the corridor ended in a closed door. The balustrade of the great stairway was wrapped with pine garland and decorated with red bows.

“There will be another way out,” whispered Severus, pointing to the left, “likely through that door.”

The voices they had heard previously through the amplification spell were apparent now with no magical enhancements. Still, they were muted and difficult to discern. There were rooms on either side of the entryway, rooms with closed doors. He could see halfway up the stairs. This way felt…well, not exactly safe, but safer than the other unknown.

“No—the front doors,” whispered Harry calmly. “I can unlock them from here, then we take a runner.”

“Do it then,” said Severus. He was beginning to sound agitated.

Almost without thinking, Harry reached back and grasped Severus’ hand, squeezed it, let it go. It seemed unusually warm.

“Stick close. You don’t have a wand.”

“I’m well aware of that,” answered Severus dryly. He peeked over Harry’s head toward the entryway then pulled back and waited.

From their hiding place, Harry cast Alohomora on the door and it swung inward, creaking a bit as it opened. Though the light outside was already fading, he could see a small landing and stone stairs leading down from it directly outside the door and an expanse of green out beyond.

“Go!” he hissed.

They reached the door seconds later and were down the stairs and on the lawn seconds after that. There was no cover in front of them so Harry moved to the left and flung himself at the base of a landscaped garden, crawling on his elbows to force himself through the living wall of bushes and ground cover. He could feel Severus struggling beside him as he righted himself, turned around and peered back through the foliage toward the house.

There was no one in sight. The manor doors, however, were wide open.

He raised his wand and quickly closed the doors with a spell, then turned to peer down the lane that ran up the lawn to the manor, looking for the gates.

Fuck. The dog.

It was a collie of some sort, long-haired, running right at them, low to the ground.

It wasn’t barking so Harry waited until it was just in front of them to cast a Sominus.. The dog plopped to the ground.

Beside him, Severus was crouched down low, breathing hard and holding his ribs.

“That was incredibly anticlimactic,” he said, frowning at the dog.

“The dog and the escape,” said Harry, still peering out through the bushes they were crouched behind. “Two of the kidnappers probably went to King’s Cross to get the hat. They’ll know soon. I expect they’ll go right to you when they get back. We need to be long gone by then.”

He had barely finished his statement when he saw movement along the lane.

“Shhh. Someone’s coming,” he whispered.

“Nate and Kelly,” said Severus. He was peering out beside Harry, eyes narrowed. “And Weasley.”

“What?” Harry pushed branches away trying to get a better look.

“Shhh!” warned Severus. He grabbed one of Harry’s wrists and pulled it down. “Stop moving the foliage,” he hissed. “Be still!”

Harry struggled against Severus in protest, and Severus tightened his hold momentarily then released it, falling back and sitting while Harry dropped to his knees and found a better spot to spy from. Ron was very clearly being led up to the manor, hands held behind his back as if tied. Both of his captors held wands—one of them pointed at Ron’s head—and one of the men was carrying what looked like an old hat.

“They’ve got his wand,” said Harry. “How the hell did they get that? He’s an Auror for Merlin’s sake! A damn good Auror!”

“And how did they get the Sorting Hat if it’s in your pocket?” asked Severus.

Harry reached into his deep robe pocket and indeed, the Sorting Hat was still there.

“Obviously a fake,” muttered Harry. “Do they know it? Is that why they took Ron?” He pulled back slightly and stilled as the men approached. The bushes they were in were no more than twenty feet off the drive. The men were talking and their voices finally reached Harry and Severus’ hiding place.

“Da will want him roughed up a bit,” said one.

“Let him do it then,” said the other. He appeared put out with the whole situation. He shivered and pulled his coat more tightly around himself.

“Can you believe they were stupid enough to send Lav’s old boyfriend?” said the first. “What a bonus. Da will have a party with this one, with the way he treated her. Broke her heart, he did.”

“Fuck,” muttered Harry.

“Indeed,” said Severus. “I’d somehow forgotten that short-lived liaison, amorous though it was. Even the faculty were making fun of ‘Won-Won.’” He shook his head. “This isn’t good.”

“We’ve got to get help,” said Harry. He looked around, over at the high stone wall that surrounded the property far to their left, circling down and obviously leading to the manor gates. “Let’s get through these wards and call in reinforcements. They’ll know you’re gone any time now.”

Severus didn’t argue. Harry took the lead, crouching low to stay behind the bushes, hugging the edge of the foliage to stay hidden.

They were nearly to the gates—could, in fact see them from their current hiding spot in a grove of young trees—when they heard the first muted shouts from the house.

“Damn. I need to get closer to feel the wards.” Harry checked back with Severus, silently looking for his approval. Severus was sitting on the ground, leaning back against a tree, hand folded over his stomach. He seemed to be concentrating on his breathing.

“You alright?” Harry, who was crouched low but was still on his feet with knees bent, pivoted to face Severus. Disillusioned, Severus now vaguely resembled the tree he was leaning against. Narrow, willowy, skin on his face like smooth bark. Harry’s eyes rested on Severus’ hand on his stomach and he frowned again. He’s been so anxious to get Severus out of that place that he’d pushed aside his concern for his physical condition. “What did they do to you, Severus?”

Severus ignored the question. An annoyed look crossed his face, a look Harry was beginning to realize was feigned. “Proceed,” he said, waving a hand toward the gates. “And be quick about it.”

He heard more shouting, but still far off, as he stepped out of the small grove and, still disillusioned himself, crept up to within a few feet of the wall beside the gate. He reached out with one hand, approaching the gate tentatively and slowly, waiting for the telltale sign of protective wards. His hand tingled almost immediately, prickled as it got closer, then stung, then burned. He pulled it back and regarded it, noting the redness of a real burn, not just the unpleasant sensation of one, then held it out again, stopping when the tingle became a prickle, stretching, feeling.

The wards were old, and specific. Anti-apparition, as Severus had warned and Harry had expected. A strong barrier ward, probably extending in a bubble over the entire property. Muggle repelling—that was interesting, especially considering that Muggles regularly used the manor and were, in fact, in there now. An alert ward, to warn the occupants when the wards were breached.

He puzzled over that one a moment. Would a dismantled alert ward react as if breached? Better to ignore it, go right for the barrier ward, dismantle it and get outside so he could send for help.

It took very little time, really. No longer than it had to remove the easiest of the drop bars on the doors leading to the cellar prison. He burned his hand again, getting too close, and the palm blistered badly. He was one of the best in his division with wards, frequently running into them in his line of work, but he didn’t enjoy the art of undoing others’ constructive protections as much as he should, thinking of it instead as a necessary evil to get to the desired end. He was good because he didn’t depend on his wand to identify the magic. He used his hands, getting closer to the conduits. Thus…the burns.

When the barrier ward fell, he was already moving back toward Severus. Severus had gotten to his feet and had his eyes trained on Harry. Harry pointed his wand at the gate, did a quick and hopeful Alohomora, and when the gates remained closed, shot the strongest blasting spell he could conjure at their lowest point.

Severus started to move toward the gate—holding his side, moving too slowly.

“Go!” he called out when Harry stopped to wait for him, vacillating. “Go!”

Harry moved toward the demolished gate, looking back over his shoulder too often to check on Severus’ progress, wand out and pointed up the lane, which unfortunately curved hard to the right just before the gate.

He was at the gate now, back to it, and Severus was still twenty feet away when the first stunner shot past Harry’s left ear.

He reacted immediately, returning a stunner at the hedges that lined the curve of the drive, the hedges where he thought the spell had originated. He knew he was a difficult target with the chameleon charm still at work, but Severus, moving, was an easier hit, even in the near dark. He dropped back against the gate quickly, willing Severus to move, dodging another spell that hit the ground at his side, kicking up gravel and spraying it around so hard that it hit his face and bounced off his glasses.

A third spell came from the same location at the same time that a man stepped out onto the lane, a shotgun on his shoulder.

Harry chose quickly.

He shot a stunner directly at the Muggle with the gun, taking him out just after the weapon fired.

Just after Severus crash-landed at his feet, grasping his arm, sliding in the gravel.

Just after pain exploded in his leg.

Remarkably, he remained standing, clutching the gate with his left hand, leaning on it as he leveled his wand and tracked the moving branches of the hedge, ignoring the pain as best he could as Severus rolled out of the way behind him, soldier- crawling off the lane into the grass, grunting and gasping. He blasted the hedge away and followed it immediately with a stunner, but saw only the back of the fleeing man as he made it around the corner.

He shot several more stunners anyway.

“Shit!”

He managed to limp heavily toward Severus. They’d both have to be on their feet to Apparate. He’d have to get reinforcements to help Ron. His stomach dropped. He hated to leave him.

“No!” Severus managed to pant out as Harry tried to pull him upright, fueled by adrenaline alone. Severus struggled against him and managed to stay prone on the ground.

Harry immediately turned his thoughts inward, pulling up the memory of that moment nearly ten years ago when he’d gone back to the Shrieking Shack with Hermione and Professor McGonagall, Hermione there for him, Professor McGonagall to bring back the body, and found Severus Snape exactly where they had left him—yet still alive.

He remembered that feeling, that catch in his heart, that feeling of hope welling up, bringing tears to his eyes. He caught it now and conjured his Patronus, sending it off to base with a call for reinforcements.

Prongs galloped off in a flash of blinding light and Harry tugged at Severus again, trying to get him to stand.

“We’ve got to get out of here, Severus!” He realized he sounded desperate but he knew the wizard who had fled would soon be back with reinforcements too, possibly before his own got there.

“Broken ribs,” Severus managed to gasp out.

“Fuck!” Harry grabbed Severus under his arms, his leg burning and aching from the pellets that had spattered into it from the Muggle’s shotgun. The compression on one’s body from Apparating with broken ribs could easily puncture a lung. He’d have to get Severus into the woods and under cover, just another twenty feet or so….

Severus hissed as Harry lifted him, but stood with help, leaning against him heavily as they stumbled together toward the edge of the wood, finally collapsing at the base of a great tree just far enough inside the woods to be reasonably well hidden. The ground was cold and damp beneath them from snow only recently melted, and in the almost-dark, their shadowy surroundings were even more ominous.

“What hit you?” asked Harry quietly, parting the shredded robe at Severus’ shoulder, examining the torn flesh beneath it with his dimly lit wand. Fuck. “Damn it, Severus, that’s bad. I thought it was a slicing hex but it’s ragged, not clean.” Something caught his eyes, then, a flash of blue and white slightly lower, across Severus’ bicep. That looked like….

“Dumbledore! What the hell did they do to you?”

“They seemed to think it fitting that I have a constant reminder of the sins of my past,” stated Severus, hissing slightly as he spoke when the cold, damp air hit his torn flesh.

Harry cursed again. “Bastards.” He laughed grimly as he cast a quick wound-closing spell and pulled the fabric tighter around Severus’ injured arm. “Well, he’s lost his nose and chin now and a good part of his beard.”

“He wouldn’t like that much,” said Severus in a weak voice.

Harry agreed. Dumbledore wouldn’t.

He positioned himself against the tree, sitting tightly against it, using one of the knobby roots as partial cover as he maneuvered himself to face the manor gates. His leg was on fire and he wondered what it looked like underneath his trousers. Someone was going to have a field day pulling all that metal out of it if he made it out of here alive. He was, for the first time now, vaguely concerned about that. A Patronus could be followed back by another Patronus, and the witch or wizard would then Apparate to his or her Patronus’ location. It shouldn’t take too much longer.

Severus slumped back against the tree beside him, shifting to find a more comfortable position.

“How did your ribs get broken?” hissed Harry, continuing to survey the lane and the broken gates in front of them. He glanced at Severus, saw the waning disillusionment charm. “Finite,” he said, extending his wand and tapping Severus’ head, then his own.

“Nate and his father like to kick,” Severus answered curtly. “They said it was my Christmas present.”

“Christ, you spent Christmas in that cellar,” said Harry. He reached out with his left arm and pulled Severus closer. “You’re freezing, Severus.” He rested his hand on Severus’ forehead. “And clammy too. Do you want me to try to heal your ribs so we can Apparate?”

“Have you ever done that before?” answered Severus.

“No.” Harry tensed. Had that been a footstep? A scuffle of gravel in the lane?

“Then you will not experiment on me,” whispered Severus softly. “I will wait.”

“I could make a Portkey,” Harry suggested.

Severus scrowled. “In an emergency, yes. The effects on the body would be similar to Apparition.”

“Well, the landing anyway,” muttered Harry. He stiffened suddenly. Definitely scuffling on the gravel lane. His left arm tightened around Severus, drawing him closer, easing up from his shoulder to cradle the side of his head, pulling it back against his chest without thought, raising his wand, sighting down its familiar length.

Against him, Severus was still and stiff.

“Relax,” breathed Harry, his voice barely audible. “I’ve got you.”

Severus exhaled. He appeared to relax, marginally.

Somewhere close by, a branch snapped.

“What the…?” Harry’s wand moved, trained away from the gate now, toward the lane to their right. Steady as his arm was, he knew he was shaking slightly. Severus’ hand moved up, grasping Harry’s left arm.

“Steady,” Severus whispered.

The blasting curse that flashed by to their left, hitting a tree meters away, nearly deafened them. Harry held onto Severus even more fiercely as he returned fire, unaccountably relieved that whoever was in the lane returned fire too, targeting on the source of the blasting curse. Multiple stunning blasts, followed by a full-on charge. In less than a minute, it was over.

“Three down!” called out a voice Harry recognized—Alicia. He knew one was the Muggle with the shotgun he’d taken out earlier. Lifting his wand, he shot out his signal sparks—the color and pattern identifying him as Harry Potter—and collapsed back against the tree, eyes closing, pain in his leg now suddenly very real and very present. The hand that had been clutching Severus to him fell to his side, resting on Severus’ leg.

“I wondered when the adrenaline would run out,” muttered Severus as two Aurors, lit wands wielded like torches, came at them through the trees.

The Aurors reached them and within seconds the signal went up for medical help. Severus was pulled away from him immediately and Harry was forced down on the soggy dirt, flat on his back. His favorite boots were pulled off and discarded and his trousers cut from his leg while he briefed the team on what he knew of the inside of the manor, and where Ron was likely locked up. He could hear an occasional phrase from Severus. He was increasingly worried at the total absence of snark, the way Severus seemed to be quietly complying with requests.

Hanover—the Auror that had been debriefing him—left to join the raid, giving the medic room to work.

“Well, Mr. Potter,” she said quietly. “Run in with a Muggle, I take it?” A bubble of light was hovering over his leg and she examined it quickly, then called quietly over to the other medic.

“Mungo’s for Potter.”

“Wait! I need to see about Ron,” he protested.

Having dealt with a wounded Harry Potter before, they were prepared. With an extremely powerful sleeping spell. The last thing he heard, or thought he heard, was Severus’ voice.

“Minerva McGonagall, I suppose. And am I really that badly off that you need a ‘next of kin’?”

END PART 3 END PART 3 END PART 3 END PART 3 END PART 3 END PART 3 END PART 3 END PART 3

}-{

Harry leaned against the thick acrylic panel separating him from his attacker. Kelly Brown sat shackled on a cot in the holding cell, dressed in Ministry-issued grey robes. Harry shifted, putting more of his weight on his good leg. Hermione would kill him if she knew he’d come here just after being released from St. Mungo’s. She’d instructed him to go straight home, prop himself up on the sofa with a good book and tuck a blanket around his legs. Fortunately, she was too busy with her brand new son and recovering husband to check up on his whereabouts.

Kelly was staring at him. He hadn’t spoken yet. The acrylic was charmed so that sound passed through easily. Harry pressed his hands against the clear wall, studying the man sitting on the cot and finally Lavender’s older brother looked up at him.

“Nate thought he killed you,” Kelly said at last.

“Nate thought wrong,” answered Harry. “Fortunately—for us and for you—no one was killed.”

Kelly scowled. “You mean no one else was killed.”

Harry gazed back at the man, understanding.

“Kelly, a lot of people were killed in the Final Battle. Both good people and evil.”

“You survived.”

Harry schooled his face so as not to react to the statement. He’d heard it enough times, hadn’t he? He didn’t ask Kelly which camp he fell in.

“I did.”

“And Snape.” Kelly said the name with obvious distaste, as if it brought a particularly sour taste to his mouth. “Snape survived.”

“He did. I had nothing to do with that, however.”

“But you saved that other Slytherin—Draco Malfoy.” Brown’s voice was accusing.

Harry sighed. He knew exactly where this was going.

“I was in the right place at the right time to help Malfoy,” he said quietly

“But not my sister.” The man’s voice was cold. He stared at Harry, challenging him.

“No, not Lavender,” said Harry. He did not apologize. He’d learned long ago that apologies were useless when it came to matters such as these.

“Well, a Slytherin for every Gryffindor then,” said Kelly.

Harry removed his hands from the clear wall and straightened his shoulders. His leg protested the extra weight but he ignored it as best he could.

“I learned a long time ago that life isn’t fair,” he said, meeting Kelly’s eyes. He bristled inwardly at the thought that had this man had his way, Severus would have been sacrificed to even up the score. He made himself keep looking at Kelly Brown’s hard and unforgiving face. “Enough people have died,” he said. “You were actually on the right track with your ideas about changing the system from within. Decide what you want and fight for it—through legitimate channels. No more blood, Kelly. Lavender wouldn’t have wanted that.”

There was no cosmic balance. Good and evil existed, period. Attempting to measure them, apportion them, was futile.

He turned away and left, hearing Kelly Brown’s tirade as he walked away but ignoring it. You don’t know what she would have wanted, Potter! You weren’t her friend!

Harry kept walking. He had someone to visit. Someone he wanted. Someone worth fighting for.

}-{

“Professor McGonagall said I would find you here.”

Severus looked up from the documents spread out on the desk in front of him. His eyes met Harry’s and he stood up, nodding at the chairs in front of his desk and waiting for Harry to take a seat. Harry moved slowly still, limping slightly.

“They finally released you, I see,” commented Severus as he sat back down.

Harry grimaced. “Five days. It was ridiculous. They’re pretty inexperienced with injuries from firearms there. I swear I had sixteen different healers come in and prod me.”

“You’re not the best patient,” said Severus sagely.

“Oh? And how would you know this?” Harry smiled, not denying the statement.

“The mediwitches talk,” answered Severus dryly. “I could hear them in the corridor outside my room. I think they were drugging your tea to keep you complacent.”

There was a fluttering sound from the other side of the room and Severus’ eyes moved over to the finch cage.

“They’re beautiful,” said Harry, glancing at the cage. “I could watch them for hours.”

“I do watch them for hours,” responded Severus. “They breed regularly. I could gift you with a pair or two if you’d like.”

“Start off with birds instead of a dog? That’s probably a good idea.” Harry smiled. “I’d like that. Thank you.”

“And where is my well-trained canine?” asked Severus, glancing down at the empty dog bed and partially decapitated squirrel toy still on the floor beside the flight cage.

“Your well-trained canine? I thought you were allergic?” quipped Harry. He shifted in his seat then waved his wand at the chair next to him, transfiguring it into a much more comfortable wingback and moved over to it without comment.

Severus raised an eyebrow. “I trust she didn’t give you much trouble?”

“Snarky? Of course not. I was only in the house with her a day or two. Kreacher, however, will be glad to see her go, though he’s almost perfected his recipe for canine lamb stew.”

A moment of silence, not uncomfortable, passed between them.

“How is Mr. Weasley?”

Harry smiled. “He was roughed up a bit but they got to him in time. Which was fortunate, because Hermione had the baby two days ago—nearly a month early. The little scrapper is fine, thankfully. They named him Hugo.”

“Hugo?” A smile flitted over Severus’ face.

“For Hermione’s grandfather. But the baby’s all Weasley.”

“Pity,” muttered Severus.

“Hey! I like the Weasleys,” said Harry, grinning.

Severus touched a stack of newspapers on the corner of his desk.

“The kidnappers have certainly had their fifteen minutes of fame.”

“I haven’t even begun to get it all straight,” said Harry. He pulled the top paper off the stack and turned it over. “Paisley Brown Admits Wanting to Shag Boy Who Lived,” screamed out the headline.

“It seems Kelly was the brains behind the operation—if brains there were,” said Severus, smirking at today’s headline. By the look on Harry’s face it was obvious this was the first time he’d seen it. “He was the one pushing for change. His agenda was to rid the magical world of any chance of another Blood Purity movement.”

“Paisley Brown works in the Department of Records at the Ministry with Sylvia Amhurst’s sister, Elmira Perkins. Perkins babbles a lot and Brown found out about the debt you supposedly owed the Amhursts. She knew Kelly was hung up on changing the way things worked at Hogwarts—he was so obsessed that he’d quit his job and spent his days researching and plotting. They came up with the plan to grab the Amhurst boy from the platform, make a demand that the family couldn’t meet and then suggest a swap. Kelly thought he’d be able to change quite a bit with you in their hands.”

“An odd family,” said Severus. He thumbed through the stack of newspapers and pulled out another one. “This article profiles the Muggle father, who wanted money, and the other brother, who was out for revenge.”

“He was closer to his sister,” said Harry, looking at the picture of Nathan Brown scowling at the camera. “Probably a bit envious that he hadn’t turned out to be a wizard too. He wanted to punish someone for what happened to his sister.”

“And the mother?” asked Severus. “Did she want anything except a shag with the Boy Who Lived?” He said it offhandedly, but his hand twitched a bit and Harry hid a smile.

“You mean a shag with someone who looked like the Boy Who Lived?” he asked. “Considering that the Boy Who Lived himself has no inclination to shag one of his classmate’s mothers?”

Severus shrugged. “Whichever.”

“She planned to have you do the deed,” said Harry, more seriously now. “She’s quite the twisted thing. They’ve got her in a secure mind-healing ward now, though I expect she’ll eventually have to stand trial.”

“I wondered,” commented Severus, not seeming too surprised. “She sat there and watched, fascinated, while Nathan gave me that tattoo and Kelly animated it. It was bad enough as a Muggle tattoo—really, though, that young man is quite the artist.” He stopped, considering, gazing out a window toward the Forbidden Forest. “She was like a child, really. She kept petting my other arm, whispering into my ear.” He looked vaguely disturbed.

“The teamwork between the two brothers prevented us from identifying Kelly as the tattoo artist,” said Harry. “However, it also makes removing the tattoos that much more difficult—the animation can be undone, but the tattoo itself is done in Muggle ink….” He paused, eyes moving down from Severus’ face to his upper arm.

“There is a bleaching process I will try,” said Severus. “I need to brew the potion, of course. Or I could opt for a treatment the Muggles use—with lasers.”

“I’d try the potion first,” said Harry, smiling slightly. He looked around the room again, then back at Severus. “I think I know why you slowed us down at the beginning,” said Harry. “You wanted to make sure that it appeared that you’d fulfilled the terms of the exchange.”

“One less debt to repay,” mused Severus. “And a big one at that. Miles Amhurst would have been a brilliant Potions Master.” He smiled sadly.

“You couldn’t have prevented his death, Severus. He would have fought, Carrows or no Carrows, when it came down to it.”

“I could have made his last months more bearable,” said Severus with such conviction that Harry did not argue the point.

“I missed our date Friday night,” said Harry after a significant pause which Severus marked by watching the birds and Harry by watching Severus.

“Our date?” Severus swiveled his head around to look at Harry, the expression on his face just on this side of amused. “Is that what you are calling it now?”

Harry ignored the question. He rushed ahead just enough to show his nervousness. “I was wondering if you’d like to come over to the cottage tonight and pick up Snarky—and have a drink. Make up for missing Friday night.”

“It’s New Year’s Eve,” said Severus.

Harry’s hopeful smile fell.

“It is. You’re right.” He stood and forced the smile back on his face. “Another night, then? Or I can bring Snarky by tomorrow and we’ll just save that drink for Friday at the Hog’s Head.”

“Oh for Merlin’s sake sit down,” said Severus. He waited until Harry had retaken his seat, looking uncomfortable. “I did not say no. I merely pointed out to you that it is a December 31st—an evening usually spent in the company of one’s friends or family, celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next.”

Harry smiled, slightly reassured. “I expect the friends and family who usually see me on New Year’s can do without me this year, considering that I just got out of the hospital a few hours ago.” He stretched his leg out in front of him. “In fact, I’ve already told Ron to give my apologies to his family. The party is at the Burrow this year.” He looked up at Severus, meeting his eyes. “So you’ll come, then?”

Severus stared at him a long moment then looked down, straightening the stack of parchment in front of him.

“Half eight?” he asked, picking up his quill and dipping it into the open ink bottle to his right.

“Half eight,” agreed Harry, standing up. He limped over to the door and turned back toward Severus. “You know which house is mine?”

Severus paused. Harry understood the pause. Severus had never been to his cottage. It was at the far edge of town. It was not a house one casually passed on the way to Honeyduke’s or The Three Broomsticks.

Snape nodded, then looked down at his paperwork.

“Yes. I know.”

}~{

By ten o’clock, well into a decent bottle of Scotch, Severus was calling him Harry.

By eleven, they were well into a lively argument over the Battle of Hogwarts ten-year memorial being planned by the Ministry. The initial awkwardness of meeting in Harry’s home instead of on opposite sides of a table at the Hog’s Head had worn off quickly, and they were bantering as usual, though sharing more intimate space than they did at the pub.

Severus was sitting on one end of the sofa, comfortable in front of the blazing fire, while Harry sat on the other end, shoes kicked off, knees bent, feet up on the sofa. The bottle of scotch sat on the low table in front of them along with the remains of the sandwiches they’d recently finished.

“No, I do not think the Memorial is a good idea, no matter what the Minister of Magic and the Hogwarts Board of Governors believe. The matter of blood purity is irrelevant. A life is a life.” Severus sipped his scotch and stretched his feet out a bit more. They were resting on an ottoman that was pulled up beside the low table. His boots sat on the floor at the end of the couch, lined up neatly side by side, leaving him in warm black woolen socks.

“A student’s life and a Death Eater’s life?” asked Harry, trying to sort it out in his head as he voiced the question. He’d have done better before the scotch, and they still had the bottle of champagne left to go for midnight.

“Ultimately, that is not ours to decide,” answered Severus with a sigh. “Besides, we are speaking of the planned memorial at Hogwarts. Listing the fallen by house, race or blood purity has no relevance. Dead is dead. Sacrifice is sacrifice. Is that annoying child with the camera—the Creevey Boy—worth less than Lavender Brown because she happened to have one magical parent and he none?”

Harry gave Severus a crooked smile. He was feeling rather pleasant and very relaxed now, getting closer and closer to acting on his budding desire to shut Severus up with a kiss. He realized, with some small part of his mind, that the more Severus rattled on, the more he wanted to shut him up.

“Lavender Brown had nice breasts,” he said, deliberately slipping into dangerous territory.

Severus sputtered around the glass he had raised to his lips and stared at Harry.

“Did you just say that Lavender Brown had nice breasts?” he asked.

“I did,” replied Harry. “Large and shapely. If you’re into breasts, of course,” he added.

“Of course,” said Severus slowly, still looking at Harry. “Are you?”

“Am I what?” asked Harry, deliberately obtuse.

“Into breasts, you imbecile!” said Severus. “Because I thought you were irreversibly queer.”

“Can’t I admire the human form?” teased Harry, giving Severus’ human form a very thorough up and down examination. “Besides, back then I may not have been irreversibly queer.”

“Oh, you were,” said Severus. He crossed his feet on the ottoman, stretched out his toes and smirked.

“Right. Like you noticed,” said Harry, feeling strangely happy that Severus had.

“We professor types notice things,” said Severus smugly.

“And you queer professor types notice queer things,” added Harry. He dropped his hand down to pet Snarky, who had laid her head on the couch near his hip and was staring at him, then at the plate of sandwiches, eternally hopeful.

Severus turned his head away from the fire and looked at Harry. “Noticing, Harry, is not the same thing as wanting.”

“I was young,” said Harry, shrugging. “I didn’t even know what I wanted back then.”

It was an opening. A rather obvious one.

Severus raised an eyebrow. Harry smiled as he took the bait.

“But you do now?”

“Yeah. I think so.” Harry drained his glass and set it on the table. “I know I’m irreversibly queer, as you put it. So it’s got to be a man. I like older men, intelligent ones. Men who challenge me, who don’t fall for that ‘Boy who Lived’ drivel. Interesting men who have a bit of a past but who’ve put their past behind them and are willing to settle down a bit....”

“Settle down a bit?” Harry thought Severus’ expression was almost speculative now.

“You know—put their days of clubbing behind them. Are content to come home after work and settle down to have a nice dinner together. Perhaps go to the pub and have a few drinks with the crowd on Friday night, be willing to go on holiday together—maybe to the Himalayas to collect Potions ingredients or to Romania to see the wild dragons.”

“Potions ingredients?” asked Severus, voice low. Harry stretched out his feet a bit and pressed one against Severus’ hip. “And what will the two of you do with potions ingredients, may I ask?”

“Make potions,” said Harry, eyes locked with Severus’ now. “Maybe Polyjuice. We could Polyjuice into each other and have a nice shag. I could see what topping feels like for a change.” He smiled slowly at the expression that crossed Severus’ face as he processed that bit of information. “Or experiment with some libido-enhancing potions—I’ve read about them in Witch Weekly…

“I will not even ask why you read Witch Weekly,” commented Severus dryly. He shook his head slowly. “Polyjuice takes a month to brew and does not require a trip to the Himalayas.” He looked like he was trying to suppress a smile and reached down to take hold of the foot Harry had pressed against his hip. “You are starting down a serious path, Harry. Do not tread lightly.”

Harry held Severus’ eyes. He pressed his toes into Severus’ hand and Severus squeezed them. He felt freer, less inhibited than he had been in quite some time, and he could not attribute it all to the alcohol. After all, he and Severus had passed many a Friday evening with empty pint glasses between them and he hadn’t ever felt inclined to play footsies with the man then. “Your eyes are brown, not black. Your birthday is January 9th. You smell like ink and parchment and old books and starched robes. You have six buttons on the cuff of your robe sleeve.”

He watched Severus’ face as the man processed his words. Watched the half smile lift a corner of his mouth. “Indeed. And did you only now discover these things?” Severus wrapped his hand around the bottom of Harry’s foot and began massaging his instep with intent. Harry thought he was deliberately not looking at him.

“No,” said Harry carefully, reaching out with his other foot and pressing it against Severus’ thigh. “I suppose I’ve always known most of them. It’s just that I only recently realized that I knew I knew them.”

“It’s not really a fair test of how well we know each other,” said Severus, maneuvering the foot he was working on until it was in his lap. “I’ve known the color of your eyes since before I ever saw you. And the entire wizarding world knows your birthday—it’s practically a National Holiday after all.”

“It is not,” protested Harry, pressing the toes of his right foot hard into Severus’ surprisingly muscular thigh.

“While I might smell like an old library, you smell like sheets drying on the clothesline in the sun. As for the buttons on the cuff of your robes—I wouldn’t know. You wear those ridiculous robes the youth are all about these days, with your shirt sleeves the only thing covering your forearms. Quite risqué if you ask me.”

“You know, if I’d known you were going to criticize my fashion sense, I might not have saved you.”

Severus gave Harry’s left foot one last squeeze and started in on the right.

“You would have. I’ve been told you have a ‘Saving People’ thing,” he said.

Harry almost asked who had told Severus that but ultimately shrugged it off. “Actually, I was going to sit this one out,” he said. “I was put on the case for ‘intelligence’ purposes only. In fact, my boss gave me very explicit orders. No field work. No negotiations with the kidnappers and no rescue attempts.”

“Well, you didn’t negotiate with the kidnappers, did you?” asked Severus, rolling his eyes.

“And I wouldn’t have been involved in the rescue if it weren’t for the Sorting Hat,” insisted Harry.

“So you’re still sticking by the story that the Sorting Hat was actually listening to your conversation and somehow compelled you to put it on your head so it could transport you to me?”

“Do you have a better explanation?” asked Harry. He dropped his head back as Severus pressed this thumbs into his instep again, suppressing a moan. “Merlin that feels good.”

“Anything for my personal Savior,” quipped Severus.

Harry lifted his head.

“Anything?”

They stared at each other a long moment until Severus looked away to glance at the clock on the mantel.

“Half eleven,” he said. “I expect we could ring in the New Year with…anything.”

And time seemed to stand still.

It was the longest thirty minutes Harry had ever experienced in his life. Longer, he thought, than the ride on the thestrals to London. Longer than the walk into the Forbidden Forest to give himself over to Voldemort. Longer than those hours spent pacing at St. Mungo’s waiting for baby Rose to arrive.

At ten ‘til midnight, he went into the kitchen with Snarky on his heels to open the champagne and pour it in two flutes borrowed from Hermione and Ron - wedding presents, old and delicate. At five ‘til, he sat back down on the couch and placed the long-stemmed crystal on the table in front of them. Severus pulled his feet down off the ottoman and beckoned the dog over to him, petting her head as they watched the clock tick down the final minutes.

When the minute hand reached the hour hand, Harry picked up the two glasses and handed one to Severus. They clicked glasses as if they’d been toasting each other all of their lives.

“To a healthy and prosperous 2008,” said Harry.

They tipped the flutes and tasted the liquid inside. Severus hummed contentedly. Harry smiled through the bubbles floating up his nose.

They were still looking at each other as they each placed their glasses down on the table. Still regarding each other silently as Harry stood up, directly in front of Severus, then knelt on the sofa cushions, knees on the outside of Severus’ thighs, straddling his lap. He reached out with both hands to loosen Severus’ severe collar, unbuttoning the two top buttons of his robe before Severus’ arms came up around his back, pulling him forward toward him.

As first kisses go, it was better than most. A press of lips, a touch of tongue, a bit of awkward angling to sort out noses. Not quite chaste, but not yet the kiss of lovers.

“You don’t taste like old parchment,” said Harry, whispering the words into Severus’ mouth as he kissed the corner and traced the line of his jaw with his fingers.

Severus answered by laughing—laughing!—tightening his hold on Harry, pulling him in closer still, turning the tentative, experimental kiss into a raw, needy thing. Harry opened his mouth readily to the demanding tongue, groaning as he lowered his arse to sit on Severus’ legs, framing Severus’ face with his hands, digging his fingers into the surprisingly soft hair. Pressing forward. God he couldn’t get enough. Not enough tongue, not enough teeth, not enough breath nor air.

Severus had moved his hands down around Harry’s arse, cupping it and pulling him forward still. His mouth left Harry’s, working over high cheekbones to his ear, biting the lobe lightly, pressing kisses to the skin of his neck until Harry dropped his head back, hands on Severus’ shoulders.

Severus gave a rather possessive kiss to the hollow at the base of Harry’s neck. “I don’t believe I’ve started a New Year so well in many years,” he breathed. His hands skimmed around Harry’s hips, kneading his thighs. His thumbs moved inward, toward the vee of Harry’s groin, skirting over his obvious arousal before wrapping around Harry’s back again and pulling him in for another kiss.

A kiss that was slower, deeper, softer. Severus’ lips moving over Harry’s as Harry’s moved over his, Harry moving his head slowly from side to side, teasing Severus, then pressing against him again.

Harry had seldom found a lover who had such an exquisite taste, who took such care with kissing, who took his time, who got to know his mouth so thoroughly before moving on, moving south, seeking gratification.

He should have expected this from Severus.

It didn’t feel like they were going too quickly when they moved from the sofa down the short passage into Harry’s bedroom. They’d begun this waltz months ago. Harry didn’t think he’d known any of his previous lovers as well as he knew Severus. Had he known their birthdays? Their favorite colors? The fine details of the flecks in their irises? Later perhaps, but not when they first kissed, when they first fell into bed together.

He let Severus undress him first, make short work of robes and shirt and trousers and pants. But then it was his turn to undo those buttons, from the collar to where the fabric flowed out below his waist. Six buttons at each wrist, a pair of kisses pressed to the delicate pulse points, a fall of deep green as the robes peeled off. Wiry arms, sparsely haired, a body anointed with scars, not marred by them. The Dark Mark only a shadowy memory now, gone with the soul of its maker. The tattoo of Albus Dumbledore left by the kidnappers with a diagonal slash through it an unnecessary reminder of their recent trials.

“It’s like a Muggle no smoking sign,” said Harry, pressing his lips to the top of the long, pale scar. He traced it then with his fingers. “Funny, the scar runs right through his mouth. Keeps him from talking, I guess.” He narrowed his eyes. He could have sworn Dumbledore’s eyes had twinkled at him. And had those eyebrows waggled?

“Good. We wouldn’t want a running commentary from him as we do what we’re about to do,” said Severus, pressing his weight down on Harry as Harry forgot about the tattoo and molded himself into the quilts and pillows and brought his legs up to wrap around Severus’ middle.

“He’d do that?” asked Harry, liking the hard press of Severus’ cock against his own, rolling his hips for even more contact as Severus dipped his head to his chest and ran his tongue lightly across a nipple before biting down on it gently, working it until Harry nearly arched off the bed.

“He was a meddling old fool,” said Severus with a sigh, resting his head now on the center of Harry’s chest, listening to the comforting thrum of the beating heart beneath.

“But you miss him,” said Harry, wrapping one arm around Severus, hand in his hair, caressing his scalp, guessing what was going through Severus’ head.

Severus pushed up on his hands again and smiled enigmatically down at Harry.

“Is now the appropriate time to discuss my love-hate relationship with Albus Dumbledore?”

Severus lowered himself down, hands gripping now Harry’s hips, now his thighs, mouth slipping down over the head of his straining cock, erasing all cognizant thought from Harry’s brain, replacing it with need, with desire, with overwhelming, filling, soaring sensation. The fingers of one hand worked through Severus’ hair while the other gripped his upper arm. He bent his knees, pulled them further apart, groaning, thrusting upward in perfect, wordless communication.

“I thought not,” murmured Severus.

Harry’s hand moved fractionally on Severus’ arm, gripping it tightly, effectively blocking the magical tattoo. All of it except a sliver of face which, in light of the current activities, very quickly, and rather modestly, closed its eyes.